THE CIA, LSD AND THE 60S REBELLION by Beatrice Devereaux The Fessenden Review
THE CIA, LSD AND THE 60S REBELLION
by Beatrice Devereaux
The Fessenden Review
A review of the book "Acid Dreams" by Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain,
publisher, Grove Press.
"I fear I owe you an apology, I have been reading a succession of
pieces about the CIA involvement in the dope trade in Southeast Asia
and I remember when you first suggested I look into this I thought
you were full of beans. Indeed you were right."
-- C.L. Sulzberger, editor The New York Times, in a letter to Allen
It is more or less common knowledge that the Central Intelligence Agency
and the Army experimented with lysergic acid diethylamide starting in the late
40s, and continued to toy with it for more than two decades. However no one
has documented those experiments to the extent that Martin Lee and Bruce
Shlain have in their book "Acid Dreams."
One of the characters in the book is Dr. Paul Hoch.
Hoch, who later become New York State Commissioner for Mental Hygiene ...
gave LSD to psychiatric patients and then lobotomized them in order to compare
the effects of acid before and after psychosurgery.
"It is possible that certain amount of brain damage is of therapeutic
value," Hoch once commented. In one experiment a hallucinogen was
administered along with a local anesthetic and the subject was told to
describe his visual experiences as surgeons removed chunks of his cerebral
YEEOOWW! Get me out of here I wanna go back to Dr. Mengele.
To our knowledge, a more thorough history of the dispersal of LSD (and
other psychedelic drugs) into our society has not been published. Much of
"Acid Dreams" is based on information acquired from the government through the
Freedom of Information Act and so, we assume, is of some truth. If half of
what's in this book is true, it makes one nostalgic for the gentle compassion
of Idi Amin and Pol Pot.
Despite a few flaws, not the least of which is Lee and Shlain's anti-
establishment bias, this is a remarkable book -- if for no other reason than
the sheer magnitude of research it must have taken to compile it. The two
authors have done their homework and the narrative is well structured and
impressively assembled. Like any cultural history documenting an explosive
period there are a wealth of colorful characters. In the later chapters the
now familiar, perhaps too familiar, gang of yahoos appear: Allen Ginsberg, Dr.
Timothy Leary, Dr. Richard Alpert (aka Ram Dass), Dr. Ralph Metzner, Ken
Kesey, Augustus Owsley Stanley III -- the list goes one.
But in the early chapters -- Holy Guacamole! Meet Richard "this stuff is
dynamite" Helms (CIA director from 1967 to 1973) and Major General William
"war without death" Creasy, chief officer of the US Army's Chemical Corps in
the 1950s who, during Congressional testimony, called for the testing of
hallucinogenic gases on subways in American cities and Captain Alfred M.
Hubbard, the spy who become the Johnny Appleseed of LSD. "If you don't think
this stuff is amazing," said Hubbard, "just go ahead and try it." And, the
man who started it all, the kindly Swiss doctor, Albert Hoffman.
A favorite plan, during Helms' administration at the CIA, involved
slipping "P-1" (the code name for LSD when used operationally) to socialist or
left-leaning politicians in foreign countries so that they would babble
incoherently and discredit themselves in public.
General Creasy, "Acid Dreams" tells us, promoted the psychochemical cause
with eccentric and visionary zeal. The General was opposed to artillery
though he knew that dislodging enemy soldiers was a potentiality that had to
be anticipated. "Suppose ... you found a way to spike the city's water supply
or to release a hallucinogen in aerosol form. For twelve to twenty-four hours
all the people in the vicinity would be hopelessly giddy, vertiginous...
Victory would be a foregone conclusion, as smooth and effortless as the French
army in 'The King of Hearts' strolling into a town inhabited solely by asylum
In a 1959 interview with "This Week" magazine General Creasy said, "I do
not contend that driving people crazy -- even for a few hours -- is a pleasant
prospect, but warfare is never pleasant. And to those who feel that any kind
of chemical weapon is more horrible than conventional weapons, I put this
question: Would you rather be temporarily deranged, blinded, or paralyzed by a
chemical agent, or burned alive by a conventional fire bomb?"
Let's see now, may we hear the choices once more General? You won't object
if we consult our physician, Dr. Hoch, before making a decision?
Compared to these last two, Captain Hubbard is a breath of fresh air. A
spy by profession, he lived a life of intrigue and adventure befitting his
chosen career. Born dirt poor in Kentucky, he served with the OSS (precursor
to the CIA) during the Second World War and went on to make a fortune as a
The blustery rum-drinking Hubbard is widely credited with being the first
person to emphasize LSD's potential as a visionary or transcendental drug.
"Most people are walking in their sleep," he said. "Turn them around, start
them in the opposite direction and they wouldn't even know the difference."
As a high-level OSS officer, the Captain directed an extremely sensitive
covert operation that involved smuggling weapons and war material to Great
Britain prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. In pitch darkness he sailed
ships without lights up the coast to Vancouver, where they were refitted and
used as destroyers by the British Navy. All of this, of course, was highly
illegal, and President Truman later issued a special pardon with kudos to the
Captain and his men.
During his first acid trip in 1951, he claimed to have witnessed his own
conception. "It was the deepest mystical thing I've ever seen," the Captain
recounted. "I saw myself as a tiny mite in a big swamp with a spark of
intelligence. I saw my mother and father having intercourse. It was all
The coarse, uneducated Captain lacked elegance and restraint -- "I'm just
a poor son of a bitch!" he'd bellow. Nonetheless he teamed up with a tall,
slender novelist who epitomized the genteel qualities of the British
intellectuals by the name of Aldous Huxley. In 1955 Huxley wrote to a mutual
friend "Your nice Captain tried a new experiment -- group mescalinization."
Captain Hubbard had provided Huxley with mescaline, a semi-synthetic extract
of the peyote cactus.
Though Huxley waxes poetic about his experiences with mescaline, his
poetry is tempered by the authors' introduction of the subject in "Acid
Dreams." The drug, they tell us, was used "in mind control experiments
carried out by Nazi doctors at the Dachau concentration camp during World War
II... the Nazis concluded that it was 'impossible to impose one's will on
another person as in hypnosis even when the strongest does of mescaline had
"The mescaline experiments at Dachau were described in a lengthy report by
the U.S. Naval Technical Mission, which swept across Europe in search of every
scrap of industrial material and scientific data that could be garnered from
the fallen Reich.
"It was without question the most extraordinary and significant experience
this side of the Beatific Vision. ...it opens up a host of philosophical
problems, throws intense light and raises all manner of questions in the field
of aesthetics, religion, theory of knowledge," Huxley said of his mescaline
experience in a letter to a friend. Going on to praise Hubbard he wrote "What
Babes in the Woods we literary gents and professional men are! The great
World occasionally requires your services, is mildly amused by mine; but its
full attention and deference are paid to Uranium and Big Business. So what
extraordinary luck that this representative of both these High Powers should
(a) have become so passionately interested in mescaline and (b) be such a nice
Said Hubbard of his proselytizing escapades, "Cost me a couple of hundred
thousand dollars. ...I had six thousand bottles to begin with."
Hubbard promoted his cause with indefatigable zeal, crisscrossing North
America and Europe, giving LSD to anyone who would stand still. "People heard
about it, and they wanted to try it," he explained. During the 1950s and
early 1960s he turned on thousands of people from all walks of life --
policemen, statesmen, captains of industry, church figures, scientists. "They
all thought it was the most marvelous thing" he stated "And I never saw a
psychosis in any one of these cases."
Hubbard had such remarkable credentials that he received special
permission from Rome to administer LSD within the context of the Catholic
faith. "He had kind of an incredible way getting that sort of thing," said a
close associate who claimed to have seen papers from the Vatican.
Even though Hubbard took a lot of acid and was a maverick among his peers,
he remained a staunch law-and-order man throughout his life. The crew-cut
Captain was the quintessdential turned on patriot, a seasoned spy veteran who
admired the likes of J. Edgar Hoover. Above all Hubbard didn't like weirdos -
- especially longhaired radical weirdos who abused his beloved LSD. Thus he
was eager to apply his espionage talents to a secret study of the student
movement and acid subculture... And so on though a psychedelic topological
maze alternating cloak-and-dagger with enlightenment.
The self-effacing, bicycle-riding Dr. Hoffman who, by virtue of inventing
the stuff, is to blame for much of this nonsense, firs synthesized LSD in 1938
while investigating the chemical and pharmacological properties of ergot, a
rye fungus rich in medicinal alkaloids, for Sandoz Laboratories in Basel,
Switzerland. The good doctor was searching for an analeptic compound (a
circulatory stimulant) by concocting various ergot derivatives and apparently
took a wrong turn. However, preliminary studies on laboratory animals did not
For the next five years the vial of LSD gathered dust on the shelf, until
the afternoon of April 16, 1943. "I had a strange feeling that it would be
worthwhile to carry out more profound studies with this compound," Hoffman
later recalled. In the course of preparing a fresh batch of LSD he
accidentally absorbed a small dose through his fingertips, and soon he was
overcome by "a remarkable but not unpleasant state of intoxication...
characterized by an intense stimulation of the imagination and an altered
state of awareness of the world. As I lay in a dazed condition with eyes
closed there surged up from mea succession of fantastic, rapidly changing
imagery of a striking reality and depth, alternating with a vivid,
kaleidoscopic play of colors..."
Dr. Hoffman's experience as typical judging from the accounts of those who
became familiar with his compound two decades later.
"Acid Dreams" is an odd history, to say the least, and one must conclude
an unfortunate one. The societal whirl of the 1960s spurred the government
into a clamp-down on psychedelic drugs that has made it all but impossible to
use those substances in legitimate medical research. What research has been
done has shown that drugs such a lysergic acid diethylamide and mescaline to
be of value alleviating and treating the psychic burdens (as well as some of
the physical pain in terminal cancer patients, those suffering severe neurosis
and psychosis, and even habitual criminals.
The "sixties rebellion," as it is referred to in "Acid Dreams," with its
embrace and massive consumption of psychedelic drugs, sensationalized the
substances to the degree that their mere mention invites controversy. What
advantages the drugs offer to those suffering from mental and physical ills
may never be determined. Whether or not the drugs put one in touch with some
higher order, provide a religious experience will, likewise be left to
conjecture. The authors of "Acid Dreams" have done a reasonable job
cataloging a tempestuous and turbulent period and yet, at the same time, have
cashed in on its sensational associations.
From "Acid Dreams" we learn that psychedelic drugs have been used and
misused by groups and individuals of every stripe. And that the Central
Intelligence Agency fooled around with psychochemicals without really knowing
what they were doing --just like a good portion of the general population
during the 1960s; give some of the other hijinx the CIA had indulged in --the
Bay of Pigs, the overthrow of the Allende government --dabbling in mind
control and metaphysics almost seem like small potatoes.
Lee and Shlain finally conclude, after nearly 300 pages of implying
otherwise, that "The CIA is not an omniscient, monolithic organization, and
there's no hard evidence that it engineered a great LSD conspiracy. (As in
most conspiracy theories, such a scenario vastly overestimates the
sophistication of the alleged perpetrator.)"
What we can deduce from "Acid Dreams" is that everyone seems to agree, no
matter who they may line up behind, that psychedelic drugs pack a considerable
wallop and, for dramatic splendor, cannot be matched.
Here, for example, is an account that came across our desk recently of
young man's experience during the 1960s with a semi-synthetic version of the
so-called "magic mushroom."
"On a beach one night, under a nearly full moon on a double dose of
psilocybin I walked across the pebbles near the water's edge and as I looked
at them, they turned into smooth round rubies and emeralds and the water was
molten gold. I looked back to where my friends were and my footprints were
filled with lapis-lazuli blue eyes, blinking at me. I looked at the sandstone
cliff behind me and the entire cliff was made up of a full-maned lions and
when they roared -- that was the wind..."
Extracting anything like the truth from the storm of controversy
surrounding psychochemicals is rather unlikely, but the above account, in its
profound, dreamlike beauty, causes one to wonder if these substances may
possess more value than the medical and academic community have been willing
to credit them.
Governments may come and governments may go, as will public opinion,
religious bias, legislation, but it would be naive to think that the lions of
the mind will stop roaring.
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