Dr. Madison W. Presnell, the medical director of Intl. Fed. for Internal Freedom, administering LSD-25, to volunteers. (Photo by John Loengard/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
Massive amounts of Americans were unwittingly dosed with LSD. Covert tests took place across 86 institutions from prisons to universities to hospitals.
The CIA has a well-established track record of seemingly brilliant ideas that backfire so hard they change the course of history. Most of those blunders fall on the more tragic side of embarrassment, but occasionally, they produce a mistake which makes the world a better place. Among those happy accidents is the story of how the CIA helped to create the hippie counterculture of the 1960s by seriously misunderstanding the power of LSD.
By piecing together documents approved for release by the CIA and transcripts of Congressional testimonies, the masterminds of a program, known as MK-ULTRA, reluctantly reveal the story of the Agency’s experimentation with psychedelics to achieve mind control. A notion which is laughable to anyone who’s experienced a psychedelic trip and totally debunked by US Army video records which show soldiers giggling, stumbling and visibly deciding to say, “fuck it” when asked to perform routine marching drills.
At the helm of the program was Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, widely credited for introducing the CIA to LSD. Though his own memory of these events seems deliberately foggy, in his 1977 testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee Gottlieb claims that over a 13-year period only 20 to 40 people were administered the substance unwittingly.
Yet while most of the records were destroyed in 1973 on the order of CIA Director Richard Helms, the evidence that remains suggests far more Americans were dosed. Enough to start a cultural revolution that would sweep across the country and define a generation.
Financial records that survived the purge show over 200 checks made out to the Agency’s man in San Francisco, Morgan Hall; many of which were signed with the memo STORMY (the code he used for LSD).
Confessions from those involved show that unsuspecting citizens were lured into a bugged apartment at 225 Chestnut Street where they would be dosed with LSD and observed through a two-way mirror. On the other side, Hall would sit on a what he listed in financial records as a, “portable toilet for an observation post,” sipping on martinis as he watched his victims trip.
The wider program was far less bizarre and took advantage of researchers and doctors who had no idea they were working for the CIA. Tests took place across 86 institutions including prisons, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, and universities.
This suggests that Hall was not alone and that the number of people dosed was far more than Gottlieb liked to admit.
The testimony of CIA director Stansfield Turner, who took that post when MK-Ultra was uncovered, reveals that there were at least two other CIA operatives involved in the administration of LSD.
One of them is believed to be Alfred Hubbard, who FOIA requests show was in contact with George Hunter White (Hall’s alias) and Dr. Gottlieb. Hubbard had been connected with the CIA since its birth as the Office of Strategic Services during the Second World War, and eventually became known as the “Johnny Appleseed of LSD”.
A 1999 mini-bio on Hubbard by writer Todd Brendan Fahey revealed that he was able to dose more than 6,000 people before LSD was effectively banned in 1966. Among those influenced by his supply include, counter-culture icons like Timothy Leary, Aldous Huxley and Stanley Kubrick.
But it only took one subject of the MK-ULTRA tests to launch a countercultural revolution. As the 60’s struggled to find its way out of boring black and white into technicolor the man to push it over the edge was undoubtedly Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters. Together they rode across the country in a painted bus called Further introducing America to tie-dye, free-love and the “Electric Kool-aid Acid-Tests” which Kesey would become legendary for. From his home in La Honda, California Kesey would inspire a band known as the Warlocks to become the psychedelic icons The Grateful Dead while partying with the likes of Hunter S. Thompson.
“People didn’t think we were hippies or drug freaks,” Says Merry Prankster Gretchen Fetchin in the documentary Magic Trip, “that wouldn’t have occurred to them because it wasn’t in the news yet.”
Yet without the CIA, Kesey might never have dropped into the trippy world of acid. In 1959 he volunteered for what he thought was a US Army experiment at Stanford University. The initial tests were so minded opening they set him out to work at Menlo Park Veterans’ Hospital, where he found the inspiration for his novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and also a stash of LSD he took home for his own experimentation.
“I found that my key opened a lot of the doors to these doctor’s offices,” He told Gross, “where these drugs were being kept.”
But Kesey didn’t know that he had been spurred on to his psychedelic lifestyle by the CIA, despite Allen Ginsburg’s repeated suggestions that that was the case. Kesey brushed those theories off as paranoid until the program was finally declassified in 1973.
“I didn’t believe it for a long time,” Kesey told NPR’s Terry Gross in 1989, “It was being done to try to make people insane – to weaken people and to try to put them under the control of interrogators.”
Instead, it opened Kesey’s mind to the values of the counterculture; to questioning authority and set the stage for one of the most iconic protest movements in US history. Not exactly what the Agency had in mind.