By Mariam Khan
Created in 1650 BC by the Ancient Egyptians, the Book of the Dead intended to help the deceased navigate the afterlife. The book includes poetic references for the living as well, showing them how to prepare for the day they pass on: “In the Land of the Dark, the Ship of the Sun Is Driven By The Grateful Dead.” 5000 years later, this particular quote from the Egyptian funerary text would inspire the name of one of the most influential American rock bands in history known as The Grateful Dead. Rather than driving the “ship of the sun”, though, this band steered the psychedelic revolution of the 1960s. But unbeknownst to many, their involvement with lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) inadvertently stems back to the CIA and their experimentation with mind control.
In 1965, the first ‘Acid Test’ took place in San Jose California. William Craddock’s personal memoir, Be Not Content: A Subterranean Journal, talks about growing up as a part of the psychedelic counterculture movement. The acid tests of the 60s were a series of parties that piloted the use of LSD—colloquially known as acid or battery acid—amongst the public. The people who attended these parties were “ecstatic, painted, long-haired, bearded, beaded, mad-eyed, strangely-dressed, obvious acid-eaters” who vowed “‘to witness the end of the straight-world’” (187). Bright lights, vociferous electric rock music performed by The Grateful Dead, and magic mushrooms made the parties especially appealing to young hippies looking for fulfillment. People like Craddock craved a bit of idiosyncrasy beyond the shackles of society; they objected to the materialistic post-war culture, the monotony of suburbs, and the nuclear family.
In an attempt to galvanize nonconformists, Ken Kesey, best known as author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, carefully crafted a rather successful campaign. His mission was to encourage the use of LSD to promote liberation of all socio-political kinds. He organized the acid test parties, which became milestones for psychedelic hippie subculture. Soon after, the drug began to proliferate amongst swaths of youth. The advances of several monumental cultural advances stemmed from LSD. Music genres such as psychedelic rock became hits for their unwillingness to align with the rigidity of live music. Ecstasy even seeped into the albums of The Beatles and Bob Dylan, and psychedelic-style art impacted art and vinyl covers across all genres.
But aside from the drug’s social impacts, acid-use created a new political awakening that encouraged young people to speak out against oppressive institutions. For example, Vietnam War protests were composed of thousands of hippies across the country who were political radicals, anarchists, and more. LSD encouraged a spiritual revival that went far beyond the confines of traditional societal structures and government. In short, the drug was a pivotal political and social instrument that shaped the mid-20th century. This begs the question: what was the CIA’s role in creating a movement that would go on to oppose their very existence?
April 13th, 1953 marked the beginning of a foreboding era of experimentation. The CIA and its compatriots were given the green light to begin “the use of biological and chemical materials in altering human behavior”, in a mission coined Operation Bluebird. Through extremely secretive operations, the CIA attempted to “enhance the ability of individuals to withstand privation, torture and coercion” in order to compete with the USSR, who allegedly possessed these capabilities. Once the goal was approved, the CIA created a continent-wide campaign named “MK-Ultra” to non-consensually test drugs such as LSD on subjects. By the end of the experiment, there were around 80 institutions and 185 researchers indirectly funded and used for data collection by the government. Colleges, hospitals, prisons, and mental hospitals were all acceptable contractors, according to the Supreme Court in Fitzgibbon v. CIA. In the words of Sidney Gottlieb, the head of the experiment, the subjects were “people who could not fight back”: marginalized communities such as prisoners and sex workers. At one point in the experiment, Gottlieb even tested out LSD on a MK-Ultra scientist himself, Frank Olson, eventually leading to his death.
Unfortunately, anticipating public outrage, the CIA destroyed thousands of records relating to the experiment at the direction of Director Richard Helms. Thus, little testimonies are known from the victims themselves. One woman, Esther Schrier, recounts her experiences at the Montreal’s Allan Memorial Institute where she was administered “four or five barbiturates and amphetamines at a time” coupled with electroshock therapy, in order to test the effect on her brain. Evidently, this was highly excessive treatment for someone struggling with postpartum depression. Schrier was never officially recognized as a victim of illicit governmental experimentation.
Aside from unwitting test subjects who made up the vast majority of research, certain individuals did volunteer to be a part of experiments, in search of monetary or spiritual benefits. The lyricist for The Grateful Dead, Robert Hunter, was a willing subject. In the case of author Ken Kesey, a research hospital near Stanford—where Kesey completed his undergraduate studies—was offering $75 for subjects willing to undergo experimentation. Of course, this hospital was also covertly funded by the CIA. The day that Kesey walked through the doors of this research hospital would prove momentous for the psychedelic revolution. The doctors summoned subjects into a spotless and airless observation room, fed them a white substance they didn’t know, and took notes. In the words of Kesey himself, the first acid trip he experienced alongside other subjects was surreal: “We were alive and life was us”.
Inspired by his first trip, Kesey got a job as a night-attendant in the hospital where he could steal the drug and bring it home for his peers at Stanford. It was during this time that he wrote the renowned novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a work which served as a magnet for rebels in and of itself. From there, the rest is history: the Acid Tests began, and with help from The Grateful Dead, the psychedelic movement officially emerged. Later, the Grateful Dead went on tour and left a trail of acid in their wake.
Simultaneously, the CIA began to fear that it was losing control of LSD as it seeped beyond the fences of psychiatric wards and into the walls of concert halls and parties. Fearful of legal concerns, in 1973, the agency conducted a purge of all materials relating to MK-Ultra and Operation Bluebird. But the damage had been done, with LSD use already prevalent in America, youth culture completely altered, and public outrage about the CIA’s unethical experimentation.
Despite the lack of documentation about the experiment, MK-Ultra’s legacy ought not be understated. After all, it was a multi-million dollar, systemic campaign that served to target the outcasts of society in order to achieve a far-off political goal: mind control. In the process, the CIA inadvertently reinvented the culture of the mid-20th century and led to rampant drug abuse.
Despite a 1975 Senate Intelligence hearing concluding that the CIA “demonstrate[d] a fundamental disregard for the value of human life”, little was done to combat future abuses within the agency. The CIA even failed to denounce the illegal actions of Sidney Gottlieb, who himself did not face any consequences until well into his retirement when he merely faced lawsuits. The minimal accountability stemming from the CIA’s mass psychiatric experiment underscores a greater governmental problem in which bureaucracy has the potential to grossly abuse power. When citizens' rights are impeded upon without their knowledge—or even the knowledge of the rest of the government—this paves the way for a plethora of problems.
In the last few decades, mistrust in the government has reached concerning highs. Americans feel that their government is corrupt, ineffective, or wasteful. From the Watergate Scandal to the CIA’s intelligence failure regarding WMDs in Iraq, citizens certainly feel weary, exploited and under informed.
At the same time, an excessive amount of problems still await solutions: climate change, poverty, racism. But a prerequisite to solving these problems is governmental transparency and accountability to regain public trust. Why did so many Americans refuse to wear masks during the COVID-19 pandemic? Systemic distrust in the government is certainly one of the causes. If people don’t trust the system, it’s reasonable to expect that they will try to circumvent it. The CIA can continue to unleash Operation Bluebird, Hummingbird, and Mockingbird, but these birds have the potential to become vultures if left unchecked. If the foundations of American government were not decomposed by mistrust and lack of accountability, the plight of these issues would be far more resolvable.