ON APRIL 10, 1953, ALLEN DULLES, THE NEWLY APPOINTED DIRECTOR OF THE CIA, delivered a speech to a gathering of Princeton alumni. Though the event was mundane, global tensions were running high. The Korean War was coming to an end, and earlier that week, The New York Times had published a startling story asserting that American POWs returning from the country may have been “converted” by “Communist brain-washers.”
Some GI’s were confessing to war crimes, like carrying out germ warfare against the Communists–a charge the U.S. categorically denied. Others were reportedly so brainwashed that they had refused to return to the United States at all. As if that weren’t enough, the U.S. was weeks away from secretly sponsoring the overthrow of a democratically elected leader in Iran.
Dulles had just become the first civilian director of an agency growing more powerful by the day, and the speech provided an early glimpse into his priorities for the CIA. “In the past few years we have become accustomed to hearing much about the battle for men’s minds–the war of ideologies,” he told the attendees. “I wonder, however, whether we clearly perceive the magnitude of the problem, whether we realize how sinister the battle for men’s minds has become in Soviet hands,” he continued. “We might call it, in its new form, ‘brain warfare.’”
Dulles proceeded to describe the “Soviet brain perversion techniques” as effective, but “abhorrent” and “nefarious.” He gestured to the American POWs returning from Korea, shells of the men they once were, parroting the Communist propaganda they had heard cycled for weeks on end. He expressed fears and uncertainty–were they using chemical agents? Hypnosis? Something else entirely? “We in the West,” the CIA Director conceded, “are somewhat handicapped in brain warfare.” This sort of non-consensual experiment, even on one’s enemies, was antithetical to American values, Dulles insisted, as well as antithetical to what should be human values.
Fear of brainwashing and a new breed of “brain warfare” terrified and fascinated the American public throughout the 1950s, spurred both by the words of the CIA and the stories of “brainwashed” G.I.’s returning from China, Korea, and the Soviet Union. Newspaper headlines like “New Evils Seen in Brainwashing” and “Brainwashing vs. Western Psychiatry” offered sensational accounts of new mind-control techniques and technologies that no man could fully resist. The paranoia began to drift into American culture, with books like The Manchurian Candidate and The Naked Lunch playing on themes of unhinged scientists and vast political conspiracies.
The idea of brainwashing also provided many Americans with a compelling, almost comforting, explanation for communism’s swift rise–that Soviets used the tools of brainwashing not just on enemy combatants, but on their own people. Why else would so many countries be embracing such an obviously backward ideology? American freedom of the mind versus Soviet “mind control” became a dividing line as stark as the Iron Curtain.
Three days after his speech decrying Soviet tactics, Dulles approved the beginning of MK-Ultra, a top-secret CIA program for “covert use of biological and chemical materials.” “American values” made for good rhetoric, but Dulles had far grander plans for the agency’s Cold War agenda.
MK-Ultra’s “mind control” experiments generally centered around behavior modification via electro-shock therapy, hypnosis, polygraphs, radiation, and a variety of drugs, toxins, and chemicals. These experiments relied on a range of test subjects: some who freely volunteered, some who volunteered under coercion, and some who had absolutely no idea they were involved in a sweeping defense research program. From mentally-impaired boys at a state school, to American soldiers, to “sexual psychopaths” at a state hospital, MK-Ultra’s programs often preyed on the most vulnerable members of society. The CIA considered prisoners especially good subjects, as they were willing to give consent in exchange for extra recreation time or commuted sentences.
Whitey Bulger, a former organized crime boss, wrote of his experience as an inmate test subject in MK-Ultra. “Eight convicts in a panic and paranoid state,” Bulger said of the 1957 tests at the Atlanta penitentiary where he was serving time. “Total loss of appetite. Hallucinating. The room would change shape. Hours of paranoia and feeling violent. We experienced horrible periods of living nightmares and even blood coming out of the walls. Guys turning to skeletons in front of me. I saw a camera change into the head of a dog. I felt like I was going insane.”
Bulger claimed he had been injected with LSD. Lysergic acid diethylamide, or acid, had become one of the CIA’s key interests for its “brain warfare” program, as the agency theorized it could be useful in interrogations. In the late 1940s, the CIA received reports that the Soviet Union had engaged in “intensive efforts to produce LSD,” and that the Soviets had attempted to purchase the world’s supply of the chemical. One CIA officer described the agency as “literally terrified” of the Soviets’ LSD program, largely because of the lack of knowledge about the drug in the United States. “[This] was the one material that we had ever been able to locate that really had potential fantastic possibilities if used wrongly,” the officer testified.
With the advent of MK-Ultra, the government’s interest in LSD shifted from a defensive to an offensive orientation. Agency officials noted that LSD could be potentially useful in “[gaining] control of bodies whether they were willing or not.” The CIA envisioned applications that ranged from removing people from Europe in the case of a Soviet attack to enabling assassinations of enemy leaders. On November 18, 1953, a group of ten scientists met at a cabin located deep in the forests of Maryland. After extended discussions, the participants agreed that to truly understand the value of the drug, “an unwitting experiment would be desirable.”
The CIA remained keenly aware of how the public would react to any discovery of MK-Ultra; even if they believed these programs to be essential to national security, they must remain a tightly guarded secret. How would the CIA possibly explain dosing unassuming Americans with LSD? “Precautions must be taken not only to protect operations from exposure to enemy forces but also to conceal these activities from the American public in general,” wrote the CIA’s Inspector General in 1957. “The knowledge that the Agency is engaging in unethical and illicit activities would have serious repercussions in political and diplomatic circles and would be detrimental to the accomplishment of its mission.”
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