The CIA, LSD, and The 60's Rebellion
by Beatrice Devereaux
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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 Ginsberg.
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 cortex.
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 inmates."
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
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 uranium
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 clear."
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 been given...
"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 man."
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
Dr. Hoffman's experience as typical judging from the
accounts of those who became familiar with his compound two
"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
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
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
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.
The Fessenden Review is published by The Reginald A. Fessenden
Educational Fund, 1259 El Camino Real, Suite 108, Menlo Park, CA.
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