Project MKUltra And The CIA Plot To Defeat The Soviets With Mind Control

Published October 31, 2017
Updated July 1, 2020
Published October 31, 2017
Updated July 1, 2020

From LSD to hypnosis to self-deprivation tanks, the real events of Project MKUltra were wilder than any movie or TV show could ever depict.

Project MKUltra Mind Control Experiments File

Wikimedia Commons In April 1953, the CIA launched a series of covert mind control experiments known as Project MKUltra. It lasted for over a decade.

The CIA maintains that Project MKUltra had been generated simply to research, observe, and ultimately find a way to gain a military advantage over the Soviet Union. But it was much more nefarious than this.

Convinced that the Soviet Union had created a drug to control minds, the CIA tried to do the same. What followed was an expansive program undertaken across 80 institutions, universities, and hospitals. Each was engaged in a series of torturous experiments, including but not limited to the administration of LSD in ridiculous quantities, electrocution, as well as verbal and sexual abuse.

Perhaps worse yet, these were practiced on unwitting subjects who were left with permanent psychological damage.

The project was treated with such secrecy that it was given multiple code names and most of the records pertaining to it were destroyed by the director of the CIA himself — that is, all but a small misfiled cache.

The public now has access to 20,000 documents around Project MKUltra’s mind control experiments, but even this provides only a trivial glance into what is arguably one of the largest and most heinous government cover-ups of all time.

Before MKUltra, There Was Operation Paperclip

MKUltra Redacted Document

Wikimedia CommonsA redacted MKUltra document.

It’s unlikely that Project MKUltra’s mind control experiments would have been possible without the groundwork laid by Operation Paperclip.

In the the fall out of World War II, American and British operatives scoured German intelligence for technological development research and found a gigantic list of Third Reich scientists.

The newly-formed Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency (JIOA) and a predecessor to the CIA known as the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), consequently launched Operation Paperclip to recruit 1,600 of these scientists to work on and expand America’s weapons program in order to gain an advantage over the Soviet Union in the impending Cold War.

Members Of Operation Paperclip

Getty ImagesMembers of Operation Paperclip discuss the possibility of launching a rocket to Saturn in 1961.

However, President Truman was adamant that no Nazis or Nazi sympathizers would be employed by the program, but the intelligence officials running the project determined that recruiting such minds was necessary in order to outpace the Soviets.

The officials simply expunged the records of Nazi scientists and war criminals to make them viable candidates and onboarded them anyway.

Though some were assigned to more disturbing projects, the researchers who came to the U.S. through Operation Paperclip were, for the most part, respected members of the scientific community. Several received awards for their work from NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense, and two are recognized by the International Space Hall of Fame.

But the intelligence community’s most pressing concerns at this time were interrogation techniques as the U.S. government feared it was already falling behind the Soviet Union in this arena.

Which is why, on April 13, 1953, Allen Welsh Dulles, then-director of the CIA, sanctioned a new controversial and highly secretive project: MKUltra.

The Birth Of The CIA’s Mind Control Project

Project MKUltra mind control experiments proposal

Wikimedia Commons The program also operated under the cryptonyms MKNAOMI and MKDELTA. The “MK” indicated that the project was sponsored by the Technical Services Staff of the CIA, and “Ultra” was a nod to the codename that had been used for classified documents during World War II.

Though the program was launched by the director of the CIA, which had officially formed just six years prior, it was headed by chemist and poison expert Sidney Gottlieb, who was known in covert circles as the “Black Sorcerer.”

As the head of MKUltra, Gottlieb’s original goal was to create a truth serum that could be used against Soviet spies and prisoners of war to gain intelligence on their actions. The CIA was particularly anxious about MKUltra’s mind control experiments because there had been rumors that the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea were all developing their own mind control techniques.

These rumors later turned out to be just that.

Nonetheless, the U.S. intelligence community was so confident in MKUltra’s potential that they even seriously drew up several schemes to drug Fidel Castro, including one plot that involved poisoning his milkshake.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, generating a truth serum proved elusive. Instead, researchers believed that a kind of mind control could be achieved by placing the subject in a heavily altered mental state — typically with the help of wildly experimental drugs.

According to journalist Stephen Kinzer, Gottlieb realized that in order to control the mind, he’d have to wipe it first. “Second, you had to find a way to insert a new mind into that resulting void,” Kinzer explained.

“We didn’t get too far on number two, but he did a lot of work on number one.”

In Gottlieb’s own words, the program researched extensively how drugs could “enhance the ability of individuals to withstand privation, torture and coercion,” as well as “produce amnesia, shock and confusion.”

A declassified document from 1955 added that MKUltra sought to observe “materials which will cause the victim to age faster/slower in maturity” and “substances which will promote illogical thinking and impulsiveness to the point where the recipient would be discredited in public.”

So, under the aegis of the CIA, the MKUltra scientists began conducting mind altering experiments — to disastrous results.

What Did Project MKUltra’s Mind Control Experiments Do?

Project MKUltra mind control experiments LSD

Getty Images A doctor administers a dose of LSD to a volunteer.

MKUltra’s mind control experiments were conducted in the utmost secrecy in part because the CIA was well aware of the shady ethics involved in their studies. For secrecy’s sake, the total 162 experiments were spread out across multiple cities, college campuses, prisons, and hospitals.

In total, 185 researchers were involved — and many of them didn’t even know that their work was meant for the CIA.

Subjects were dosed with LSD, opioids, THC, and the synthetic, government-created super hallucinogen BZ, as well as widely available stimulants such as alcohol.

Researchers would often administer two drugs with opposite effects (such as a barbiturate and an amphetamine) simultaneously and observe their subjects’ reactions, or give subjects already under the influence of alcohol a dose of a drug like LSD.

Hypnosis was also performed, often in an effort to create fears in subjects that could then be exploited to gain information. Researchers went on to investigate the effects of hypnosis on the results of polygraph tests and its implications for memory loss.

Donald E. Cameron

Wikimedia Commons Donald E. Cameron was present at the Nuremberg Trials as a psychiatric evaluator for Rudolf Hess.

John C. Lilly, a noted animal behaviorist, was also involved in the experiments. For his research in human communication with dolphins, during which a 23-year-old volunteer named Margaret Howe Lovatt lived with a dolphin, Lilly had created the first sensory deprivation tank.

The tank was commissioned by the MKUltra scientists to create a sensory-free environment for their subjects to experience their acid trips without the stimuli of the outside world.

MKUltra participants were also subjected experimentation involving electroconvulsive therapy, aural stimulation, and paralytic drugs.

Among the notable experimenters was Donald Ewen Cameron, the first chairman of the World Psychiatric Association and the president of the American and Canadian psychiatric associations.

Cameron drugged patients and repeatedly played tapes of noises or suggestions while they were comatose for long periods of time, hoping to correct schizophrenia by erasing memories and reprogramming their minds.

In reality, these tests left his subjects comatose for months at a time and permanently suffering from incontinence and amnesia.

Who Were The Subjects Of MKUltra?

Project MKUltra mind control experiments

Wikimedia CommonsAn electroconvulsion machine used during the experiments.

Due to the classified nature of the program, many of the test subjects were unaware of their involvement and Gottlieb admitted that his team targeted “people who could not fight back.” These included drug-addicted prisoners, marginalized sex workers, mental and terminal cancer patients.

Some of the subjects of MKUltra were volunteers or paid students. Others were addicts who were bribed with the promise of more drugs if they participated.

Though many of MKUltra’s records have been destroyed, there are a few notable documented subjects, including: Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; Robert Hunter, a lyricist for the Grateful Dead; and James “Whitey” Bulger, a notorious Boston mob boss.

Other participants have been voluntarily vocal about their involvement.

Kesey was an early volunteer and joined the project while he was a student at Stanford University to be observed while taking LSD and other psychedelic drugs.

His experience was, according to him, a positive one and he went on to publicly promote the drug. His book was also, in part, inspired by his experiences.

Project MKUltra's Mind Control Experiments

Getty Images Ken Kesey’s experience with MKUltra in part inspired the writing of his seminal work, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

Other participants did not have such positive experiences.

The Undocumented And Damaged Participants

In one experiment, an unwitting mental patient in Kentucky was given a dose of LSD every day for 174 consecutive days. Whitey Bulger, who was convicted on murder charges in 2013, told a juror that he would be dosed with LSD, monitored by a physician, and repeatedly asked leading questions like: “Would you ever kill anyone?”

He suggested that his consequent violent spree was brought on by his participation in MKUltra’s mind control experiments.

Kaczynski Behind Glass In Prison

Internet ArchiveTed Kaczynski in a supermax prison. 1999.

Unabomber Ted Kaczynski may also have been involved as a subject in a series of MKUltra’s experiments held at Harvard in 1947.

Another undocumented but suspected participant was ’60s serial killer Charles Manson, whose spree of celebrity-directed slayings in part ended the 1969 summer of love.

According to author Tom O’Neill in Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties, Manson not only had people in his circle later connected to the CIA, but the way in which he ran his cult, by doping his followers with a constant flow of LSD, was oddly similar to the kinds of experiments carried out by MKUltra.

The unsuspecting participants weren’t all civilians, though; some of them were CIA operatives themselves. Gottlieb claimed that he wanted to study the effects of LSD in “normal” settings — and so he began to administer LSD to CIA officials without warning.

Charles Manson Mugshot 1968

Wikimedia CommonsCharles Manson’s 1968 mugshot.

The experiments continued for over a decade even after an Army scientist, Dr. Frank Olson, began to suffer from drug-induced depression and jumped out a 13th-story window.

The side effects incurred by the subjects, both volunteers and the unaware, were significant. People reported depression, anterograde and retrograde amnesia, paralysis, withdrawal, confusion, disorientation, pain, insomnia, and schizophrenic-like mental states as a result of the experiments.

The effects and repercussions were never treated nor reported to authorities.

How Project MKUltra’s Mind Control Experiments Finally Came To Light

Richard Helms

Bettmann/Contributor/Getty ImagesCIA Director Richard Helms.

In early 1973, in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, CIA director Richard Helms ordered all MKUltra files destroyed. He feared that all government agencies would be investigated and he would not risk a breach of information on such a controversial topic.

In 1975, President Gerald R. Ford commissioned an investigation into CIA activities, hoping to eradicate conspiracies within the organization. Two committees spawned from the investigation: the Church Committee of the U.S. Congress, and the Rockefeller Commission.

The overall investigation revealed that Helms had destroyed most of the evidence, but that same year, a collection of 8,000 documents were discovered in a financial records building and later released under a Freedom of Information Act request in 1977.

When the remaining 20,000 documents were made available to the public, the senate launched a collection of hearings on the ethics of the project later that year.

Survivors filed lawsuits against the CIA and the federal government regarding informed consent laws, but not many received any sort of settlement.

Since the documents were revealed, countless shows and movies have been inspired by Project MKUltra’s mind control experiments, most notably The Men Who Stare at Goats, the Jason Bourne series, and Stranger Things.

The government does not deny that the MKUltra experiments took place — but most of what transpired remains a mystery.

Most of the discussion surrounding the experiments today comes from conspiracy theorists. The CIA is adamant that the experiments ceased in 1963 and that all related experiments were abandoned.

Due to the destruction of records, the secrecy surrounding the project, and its various, ever-changing code names, conspiracy theorists aren’t so sure.

Some of them even believe that the experiments are still taking place today. There is, of course, no way to be sure.

After learning about Project MKUltra, check out the 10 most fascinating fringe science experiments. Then, read about other terrifying science experiments that someone, somehow, okayed.

Katie Serena
Katie Serena is a New York City-based writer and a staff writer at All That's Interesting.