It was the 1950s, a time of doo-wop, sock hops and Bobby Rydell, when Americans dusted off the remnants of WWII and looked toward a more optimistic society. Or so it's often thought. But the '50s were often less Happy Days and more The Day the Earth Stood Still, as fears of a Cold War and mistrust of the government were just beginning to bloom. Since those fears couldn't always be talked about, they came through in films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with themes of technology run riot and the loss of free will.
These "delusional fears" were actually rooted in reality, as the government was taking steps toward turning American soldiers into unthinking, unfeeling machines with help from brainwashing and LSD. The CIA, while learning how to bring down Communists, was also learning from them — specifically how they used mind control on Korean War prisoners. Could this mind control also create a zombie-like US soldier, one who would follow orders no matter how grisly, or withstand any amount of torture if captured?
The combination of hypnosis, shock therapy and drugs like LSD and Ketamine made this seem a possibility, and were investigated in a mind control research program called MK-ULTRA. MK-ULTRA was funded by millions of U.S. dollars and led by a scientist named Sidney Gottlieb. In his book The Very Best Men, Evan Thomas describes Gottlieb as "born with a club foot and a stutter, he compensated by becoming an expert folk dancer and obtaining a Ph.D. from Cal Tech … he drank only goat's milk and grew Christmas trees, which he sold at a roadside stand." That is, when he wasn't drugging research subjects.
The goals of MK-ULTRA included investigating the following:
- Materials which will render the induction of hypnosis easier or otherwise enhance its usefulness.
- Substances which will enhance the ability of individuals to withstand privation, torture and coercion during interrogation and so-called "brain-washing".
- Materials and physical methods which will produce amnesia for events preceding and during their use.
- Physical methods of producing shock and confusion over extended periods of time and capable of surreptitious use.
- A knockout pill which could surreptitiously be administered in drinks, food, cigarettes, as an aerosol, etc., which will be safe to use, provide a maximum of amnesia, and be suitable for use by agent types on an ad hoc basis.
But once LSD was ruled out as being too unpredictable, other drugs were tested; participants had barbiturates injected on one arm and amphetamines in the other — the net result being incoherent babble. Other drugs, including heroin, alcohol and sodium pentothal were tried, but ultimately none were the "dream drug" the government hungered for. The project was eventually scrapped and the "Manchurian Candidate" never came to be. In 1973 most of the MK-ULTRA files were destroyed, and Sidney Gottlieb died in 1999.
But there are repercussions from the program, even today. In January 2007, a class action suit was filed against the Canadian government, which also took part in MK-ULTRA research, by former psychiatric patients who claim they were used as guinea pigs. Experiments included forced isolation, drug-induced comas and electro-shock therapy. One of the plaintiffs, a great-grandmother named Janine Huard, said, "They demolished me … they gave me terrible drugs, electroshocks, and made me stay in a bed with a mask over my face listening to recordings for hours a day. I was afraid."
It may be a hard case to prove, as the government is notoriously closed-mouthed about MK-ULTRA. As one CIA reviewer wrote: "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. The knowledge that the agency is engaging in unethical and illicit activities would have serious repercussions in political and diplomatic circles."
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