The U.S. Government’s LSD Experiments

LSD Experiment
It was not until the 1950s that the U.S. government became interested in LSD as a mind control drug. The potential use of LSD in this manner led to some unethical and downright sleazy measures that we will examine in this episode of The Infographics Show,

How were the LSD Experiments Conducted?

LSD stands for lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and is a derivative of the fungus ergot, which grows on rye and other cereal grasses. A Swiss scientist named Albert Hofmann created LSD in 1938 and actually tested it on himself in 1943. He recalled in his book, LSD: My Problem Child, the hallucinogenic properties that the drug became famous for. He described how “kaleidoscopic, fantastic images surged in me, alternating, variegated, opening and then closing themselves in circles and spirals, exploding in colored fountains, rearranging and hybridizing themselves in constant flux.” He also noted how “every sound generated a vividly changing image, with its own consistent form and color.” It was not until the 1950s that the U.S. government became interested in LSD as a mind control drug. The potential use of LSD in this manner led it to take some unethical and downright sleazy measures that we will examine in this episode of The Infographics Show, “The U.S. Government’s LSD Mind Experiments.”

LSD and communism

The 1950s was a time of the Korean War and the Cold War. Stopping the spread of communism was a top priority for the United States, so the U.S. government became concerned that many soldiers returning home from the Korean War “were found mindlessly parroting the communist propaganda they had been sent to Korea to fight” according to one source. Investigations led to two discoveries. First, the communist countries of China, Russia, and North Korea were using “mental torture and brainwashing” techniques. Second, the “Russians in particular were interested in using LSD to manipulate minds.”

Fueled by Cold War paranoia, U.S. government officials were compelled to take countermeasures to prevent what one article calls a “larger scale drug attack.” They began two testing programs to find out if LSD and other drugs could be used to subdue and control the enemy mentally. One of these programs was run by the U.S. Army, and the other one was run by the CIA.

Edgewood Military Arsenal Human Experiments

LSD Mind experiment

About 7,000 soldiers participated in the U.S. Army’s secret testing program. Although the official name of this program is the Medical Research Volunteer Program (MRVP), this testing is often referred to as the Edgewood Arsenal Human Experiments because many of the tests were conducted at a united states military facility called Edgewood Arsenal located in Maryland. Some soldiers were exposed to various chemical agents, including nerve agents such as sarin, nerve agent antidotes such as atropine, and riot control agents such as tear gas. Other soldiers were used to test things like protective clothing, vaccines, and drugs such as LSD.

LSD was one of several drugs studied at Edgewood Arsenal for possible use in psychochemical warfare. While the MRVP began in 1948, a New Yorker article states that psychochemical research at Edgewood Arsenal did not begin until 1956. According to footage included in a New Yorker article, the purpose of this testing was to “identify a chemical with the right balance of properties: one that causes no physical harm but also triggers mental disruptions so profound that they can incapacitate enemy soldiers.”

What did the LSD mind experiments reveal?

Test subjects were usually filmed so that the effects of LSD on the soldiers would be documented. Soldiers had widely varying responses to the drug. In one 1958 film  called “Effects of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD) on Troops Marching,” you can see how a group of well-trained soldiers dosed with LSD were reduced to a bunch of giggling, disoriented men unable to follow simple commands. In another film called “Manufacturing Madness,” soldiers who took LSD were unable to make simple subtraction calculations. One soldier seemed  to be in too much pain to concentrate and even says he is “incapacitated,” while another one complained, “Everything’s moving.”

The New Yorker reports that “LSD experiments continued at Edgewood until 1967,” but the Army eventually lost interest in it as a psychochemical agent before that time. Raffi Khatchadourian, a journalist who published an article about these tests in the New Yorker, explains why these experiments were abandoned in a Fresh Air interview:

“ . . . LSD’s effect was just really unpredictable. You could give LSD to one person, and it would have one effect. And you could give it to another person and it might have a completely different effect. . . . So as a weapon, anything that would be that unpredictable is something you would want to shy away from, just because it would be tactically ineffective.”

LSD hallucinations

Longstanding effects

However, the story of LSD experimentation at Edgewood Arsenal did not end after the experiments did. Like others who participated in the Edgewood Arsenal Human Experiments, some soldiers dosed with LSD felt misled by Army researchers and suffered long-term health problems from these experiments, such as this soldier interviewed by the Baltimore Sun:

“They told me it would be like taking aspirin,” said Gary, who went by only his first name in a 1979 story that ran in The Sun. But he reported being depressed and even suicidal in the years since undergoing testing at Edgewood.

The treatment group showed issues of long-term health problems and questionable informed consent practices associated with the Edgewood Arsenal Human Experiments led to a Congressional investigation of the MRVP in the mid-1970s, and a Medium.com article reports that “Edgewood shut down the MVRP in 1975.” The same article states that the Army conducted its own series of studies of the MVRP and, perhaps unsurprisingly, “concluded none of the individuals who participated in the LSD and other tests were suffering any significant lasting health impacts.” However, some problems with consent practices were discovered, including what one source calls using “possible coercion” to persuade soldiers to volunteer.

Project MKUltra

During the Cold War, the Army was not the only government organization interested in the use of LSD as a psychochemical agent. According to History.com, the director of the CIA during the 1950s, Allen Dulles, spoke of “brain warfare” and “how sinister the battle for men’s minds has become in Soviet hands.” In 1953, he began the top-secret Project MKUltra “to assess the potential use of LSD and other drugs for mind control, information gathering and psychological torture.”

Between 1953 and 1964, the CIA conducted most of its over 150 MKUltra experiments in the U.S. and Canada. Poor recordkeeping and a cover-up that led to the destruction of many MKUltra documents at the official end of the program in 1973 make it difficult to know about all of the LSD experiments that took place. What we do know about these tests is mainly from the firsthand accounts of the people who participated in them. Some of these people testified at Congressional hearings that took place in 1977, while others told their stories to the press. Unlike the Edgewood Arsenal Human Experiments, Project MKUltra experiments were not limited to military personnel. People from all walks of life were involved in the following experiments:

1. Volunteer Studies

The CIA found willing test subjects in various institutions. For instance, History.com states that the CIA reached out to universities and colleges, offering them funding to study the effects of LSD. This meant college students ended up “tripping on acid” for MKUltra research. One well-known college student turned MKUltra test subject is Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. According to one source, Kesey was a graduate student at Stanford University when he learned about a “study” from a neighbor who was a psychologist. Like some of the Edgewood Arsenal test subjects, he was kept in the dark about the true purpose of the experiments he participated in. He recalls, “[The testing] wasn’t being done to try to cure insane people, which is what we thought. It was being done to try to make people insane—to weaken people, and to be able to put them under the control of interrogators.”

Kesey was not rendered insane by his participation in these tests, but he could not stop taking drugs. While he was a testing volunteer for the CIA, he tried to work at the place where the tests took place to get his hands on other experimental drugs. Even after the tests ended, he and his friends along with others were making and taking “homemade” LSD that Kesey said “never was anywhere as good as that government stuff.” History.com reports that “Kesey later went on to promote the drug, hosting LSD-fueled parties that he called ‘Acid Tests.’” These parties helped to launch the hippie movement and the psychedelic drug scene of the 1960s.

LSD drug

Another good source of volunteer test patients were prisons. According to History.com, prisoners were eager to consent to these tests “in exchange for extra recreation time or commuted sentences.” One well-known prison volunteer was a gangster named Whitey Bulger. One source states that Bulger underwent 18 months of LSD testing while in prison in order to receive a lighter sentence. In contrast to Kesey, Bulger loathed his testing experience. He went on one bad acid trip after another, which “were followed by thoughts of suicide and deep depression.” He wrote of nightmarish hallucinations such as “blood coming out of the walls” and “guys turning to skeletons in front of me.”

2. CIA Agents Experimenting on Each Other

Some of these experiments were voluntary, but some were not. According to one news site, LSD testing for Project MKUltra first began with CIA agents giving themselves LSD and tracking its effects. Soon these agents were dosing each other with LSD without warning, and even CIA agents who never took LSD were eventually targeted by these sneaky agents. These “anytime and anywhere” acid trips became so common that a security memo went out in December 1954 telling agents that office party punch bowls were off limits and not to be “spiked.” It’s strange to think CIA agents lived in fear of stealth drugging from their own colleagues, but that’s what happened in the 1950s.

One tragedy arising from these experiments was the death of CIA scientist Frank Olson in 1953. According to History.com, Olson “drank a cocktail that had been secretly spiked with LSD” and ended up falling out of a hotel room window in New York City a short time later. Olson’s death was initially thought to be a suicide, but a second autopsy done in 1994 revealed “injuries on the body that had likely occurred before the fall.” These injuries raised suspicion that “Olson might have been assassinated by the CIA.” His family eventually received a settlement of $750,000 and a “personal apology from President Gerald Ford and then-CIA Director William Colby.”

3. Experiments on Involuntary Test Groups

After mastering stealth LSD drugging on people within their own agency, CIA agents moved on to the unethical practice of drugging unsuspecting members of the public with LSD and following them around to observe its effects. They knew what they were doing was wrong, but did it anyway. “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.”

It is hard to know exactly how many Americans and Canadians were dosed with LSD without their knowledge and consent. One case that came out during the Congressional hearings on MKUltra in 1977 was that of a singer and waitress named Ruth Kelley. An MKUltra project leader named George White wanted to recruit her for another LSD testing program that we will discuss in a moment.  However, when she did not show interest in participating in this program, White or someone working for him chose to drug her with LSD right before her performance one night. Kelley managed to get through her act but ended up going to the hospital right away afterward.

4. Operation Midnight Climax

Just when you thought the CIA could not get any lower in terms of morally reprehensible behavior, it thought up another shady LSD testing program with the sexually suggestive name of Operation Midnight Climax. This operation was implemented in both the US and Canada. A History.com article describes this operation. At safe houses turned into whorehouses in San Francisco, the CIA actually paid prostitutes to drug their customers with LSD while the previously mentioned George White and other CIA agents looked on through two-way mirrors to observe LSD’s effects and so much more. White reveled in his duties as a professional voyeur. He said, “I toiled wholeheartedly in the vineyards because it was fun, fun, fun.” According to one article, these sexual encounters were also filmed for “potential blackmail material.” In Canada, some Canadian women claimed they were underage at the time they were filmed having sex with government officials, so you could say the CIA was engaged in filming child pornography too.

What happened to Project MKUltra? 

After decades of research that obviously went astray from its original purpose, Project MKUltra researchers reached the same conclusion that emerged from the Edgewood Arsenal Human Experiments – LSD was not an effective mind control agent because its effects were too unpredictable. And, like the Edgewood Arsenal Human Experiments, Project MKUltra ended amidst a growing scandal in the 1970s. After the publication of a shocking New York Times article about the CIA’s activities in 1974, the CIA was soon investigated by the Rockefeller Commission and the Church Committee. However, the testing may not be over. According to a Thought Catalog article, “many experts in the workings of the CIA and government intelligence agencies insist that the government continues performing exactly the same sort of mind-control experiments—and possibly worse—using different code names.”

Would you volunteer for experiments like these if given the opportunity? Why or why not? Let us know in the comments!