The Search for the Manchurian Candidate
Mushrooms to Counterculture
The MKULTRA scientists reaped little but disaster, mischief, and
disappointment from their efforts to use LSD as a miracle weapon
against the minds of their opponents. Nevertheless, their insatiable
need to try every possibility led them to test hundreds of other
substances, including all the drugs that would later be called
psychedelic. These drugs were known to have great potency. They
were derived from natural botanical products, and the men from
MKULTRA believed from the beginning that rare organic materials
might somehow have the greatest effect on the human mind. The
most amazing of the psychedelics came from odd corners of the
natural world. A1bert Hofmann created LSD largely out of ergot,
a fungus that grows on rye; mescaline is nothing more than the
synthetic essence of peyote cactus. Psilocybin, the drug that
Timothy Leary preferred to LSD for his Harvard experiments, was
synthesized from exotic Mexican mushrooms that occupy a special
place in CIA history.
When the MKULTRA team first embarked on its mind-control explorations,
the "magic mushroom" was only a rumor or fable in the
linear history of the Western world. On nothing more than the
possibility that the legend was based on fact, the Agency's scientists
tracked the mushroom to the most remote parts of Mexico and then
spent lavishly to test and develop its mind-altering properties.
The results, like the LSD legacy, were as startling as they were
Among the botanicals that mankind has always turned to for intoxicants
and poisons, mushrooms stand out. There is something enchantingly
odd about the damp little buttons that can thrill a gourmet or
kill one, depending on the subtle differences among the countless
varieties. These fungi have a long record in unorthodox warfare.
Two thousand years before the CIA looked to unleash powerful mushrooms
in covert operations, the Roman Empress Agrippina eliminated her
husband Claudius with a dish of poisonous mushrooms. According
to Roman history, Agrippina wanted the emperor dead so that her
son Nero could take the throne. She planned to take advantage
of Claudius' love for the delicious Amanita caesarea mushroom,
but she had to choose carefully among its deadly look-alikes.
The poison could not be "sudden and instantaneous in its
operation, lest the desperate achievement should be discovered,"
wrote Gordon and Valentina Wasson in their monumental and definitive
work, Mushrooms, Russia and History. The Empress settled
on the lethal Amanita phalloides, a fungus the Wassons
considered well suited to the crime: "The victim would not
give away the game by abnormal indispositions at the meal, but
when the seizure came he would be so severely stricken that thereafter
he would no longer be in command of his own affairs." Agrippina
knew her mushrooms, and Nero became Emperor.
CIA mind-control specialists sought to emulate and surpass that
kind of sophistication, as it might apply to any conceivable drug.
Their fixation on the "magic mushroom" grew indirectly
out of a meeting between drug experts and Morse Allen, head of
the Agency's ARTICHOKE program, in October 1952. One expert told
Allen about a shrub called piule, whose seeds had long been used
as an intoxicant by Mexican Indians at religious ceremonies. Allen,
who wanted to know about anything that distorted reality, immediately
arranged for a young CIA scientist to take a Mexican field trip
and gather samples of piule as well as other plants of "high
narcotic and toxic value of interest to ARTICHOKE."
That young scientist arrived in Mexico City early in 1953. He
could not advertise the true purpose of his trip because of ARTICHOKE's
extreme secrecy, so he assumed cover as a researcher interested
in finding native plants which were anesthetics. Fluent in Spanish
and familiar with Mexico, he had no trouble moving around the
country, meeting with leading experts on botanicals. Then he was
off into the mountains south of the capital with his own field-testing
equipment, gathering specimens and testing them crudely on the
spot. By February, he had collected sacks full of material, including
10 pounds of piule. Before leaving Mexico to look for more samples
around the Caribbean, the young scientist heard amazing tales
about special mushrooms that grew only in the hot and rainy summer
months. Such stories had circulated among Europeans in Mexico
since Cortez had conquered the country early in the sixteenth
century. Spanish friars had reported that the Aztecs used strange
mushrooms in their religious ceremonies, which these converters
of the heathens described as "demonic holy communions."
Aztec priests called the special mushrooms teonanactl,
"God's flesh." But Cortez's plunderers soon lost track
of the rite, as did the traders and anthropologists who followed
in their wake. Only the legend survived.
Back in Washington, the young scientist's samples went straight
to the labs, and Agency officials scoured the historical record
for accounts of the strange mushrooms. Morse Allen himself, though
responsible in ARTICHOKE research for everything from the polygraph
to hypnosis, took the trouble to go through the Indian lore. "Very
early accounts of the ceremonies of some tribes of Mexican Indians
show that mushrooms are used to produce hallucinations and to
create intoxication in connection with religious festivals,"
he wrote. "In addition, this literature shows that witch
doctors or 'divinators' used some types of mushrooms to produce
confessions or to locate stolen objects or to predict the future."
Here was a possible truth drug, Morse Allen reasoned. "Since
it had been determined that no area of human knowledge is to be
left unexplored in connection with the ARTICHOKE program, it was
therefore regarded as essential that the peculiar qualities of
the mushroom be explored...." Allen declared. "Full
consideration," he concluded, should be given to sending
an Agency man back to Mexico during the summer. The CIA had begun
its quest for "God's flesh."
Characteristically, Morse Allen was planning ahead in case the
CIA's searchers came up with a mushroom worth having in large
quantities. He knew that the supply from the tropics varied by
season, and, anyway, it would be impractical to go to Mexico for
fungi each time an operational need popped up. So Allen decided
to see if it were possible to grow the mushrooms at home, either
outdoors or in hothouses. On June 24, 1953, he and an associate
drove from Washington to Toughkenamon, Pennsylvania, in the heart
of "the largest mushroom-growing area in the world."
At a three-hour session with the captains of the mushroom industry,
Allen explained the government's interest in poisonous and narcotic
fungi. Allen reported that the meeting "was primarily designed
to obtain a 'foothold' in the center of the mushroom-growing industry
where, if requirements for mushroom growing were demanded, it
would be done by professionals in the trade." The mushroom
executives were quite reluctant to grow toxic products because
they knew that any accidental publicity would scare their customers.
In the end, however, their patriotism won out, and they agreed
to grow any kind of fungus the government desired. Allen considered
the trip a great success.
As useful as this commitment might be, an element of chance remained
as long as the CIA had to depend on the natural process. But if
the Agency could find synthetic equivalents for the active ingredients,
it could manufacture rather than grow its own supply. Toward this
goal of bypassing nature, Morse Allen had little choice but to
turn for help to the man who the following year would wrest most
of the ARTICHOKE functions from his grasp: Sid Gottlieb. Gottlieb,
himself a Ph.D. in chemistry, had scientists working for him who
knew what to do on the level of test tubes and beakers. Allen
ran ARTICHOKE out of the Office of Security, which was not equipped
for work on the frontiers of science.
Gottlieb and his colleagues moved quickly into the mysteries of
the Mexican hallucinogens. They went to work on the chemical structures
of the piule and other plants that Morse Allen's emissary brought
back from his field trip, but they neglected to report their findings
to the bureaucratically outflanked Allen. Gottlieb and the MKULTRA
crew soon got caught up in the search for the magic mushroom.
While TSS had its own limited laboratory facilities, it depended
on secret contractors for most research and development. Working
with an associate, a cadaverously thin chemistry Ph.D. named Henry
Bortner, Gottlieb passed the tropical plants to a string of corporate
and academic researchers. One of them, Dr. James Moore, a 29-yearold
chemist at Parke, Davis & Company in Detroit, was destined
to be the first man in the CIA camp to taste the magic mushroom.
Moore's career was typical of the specialists in the CIA's vast
network of private contractors. His path to the mushroom led through
several jobs and offbeat assignments, always with Agency funds
and direction behind him. A precise, meticulous man of scientific
habits, Moore was hardly the sort one would expect to find chasing
psychedelic drugs. Such pursuits began for him in March 1953,
when he had returned to his lab at Parke, Davis after a year of
postdoctoral research at the University of Basel. His supervisor
had called him in with an intriguing proposal: How would he like
to work inside the company on a CIA contract? "Those were
not particularly prosperous times, and the company was glad to
get someone else to pay my salary [$8,000 a year]," notes
Moore 25 years later. "If I had thought I was participating
in a scheme run by a small band of mad individuals, I would have
He accepted the job.
The Agency contracted with Parke, Davis, as it did with numerous
other drug companies, universities, and government agencies to
develop behavioral products and poisons from botanicals. CIA-funded
chemists extracted deadly substances like the arrow-poison curare
from natural products, while others worked on ways to deliver
these poisons most effectively, like the "nondiscernible
microbioinoculator" (or dart gun) that the Army Chemical
Corps invented. CIA-connected botanists collectedand then chemists
analyzedbotanicals from all over the tropics: a leaf that killed
cattle, several plants deadly to fish, another leaf that caused
hair to fall out, sap that caused temporary blindness, and a host
of other natural products that could alter moods, dull or stimulate
nerves, or generally disorient people. Among the plants Moore
investigated was Jamaica dogwood, a plant used by Caribbean natives
to stun fish so they could be easily captured for food. This work
resulted in the isolation of several new substances, one of which
Moore named "lisetin," in honor of his daughter.
Moore had no trouble adjusting to the secrecy demanded by his
CIA sponsors, having worked on the Manhattan Project as a graduate
student. He dealt only with his own case officer, Henry Bortner,
and two or three other CIA men in TSS. Once Moore completed his
chemical work on a particular substance, he turned the results
over to Bortner and apparently never learned of the follow-up.
Moore worked in his own little isolated compartment, and he soon
recognized that the Agency preferred contractors who did not ask
questions about what was going on in the next box.
In 1955 Moore left private industry for academia, moving from
Detroit to the relatively placid setting of the University of
Delaware in Newark. The school made him an assistant professor,
and he moved into a lab in the Georgian red-brick building that
housed the chemistry department. Along with his family, Moore
brought his CIA contractthen worth $16,000 a year, of which
he received $650 per month, with the rest going to pay research
assistants and overhead. Although the Agency allowed a few top
university officials to be briefed on his secret connection, Moore
appeared to his colleagues and students to be a normal professor
who had a healthy research grant from the Geschickter Fund for
Medical Research in Washington.
In the world of natural productsparticularly mushroomsthe
CIA soon made Moore a full-service agent. With some help from
his CIA friends, he made contact with the leading lights in mycology
(the study of mushrooms), attended professional meetings, and
arranged for others to send him samples. From the CIA's point
of view, he could not have had better cover. As Sid Gottlieb wrote,
Moore "maintains the fiction that the botanical specimens
he collects are for his own use since his field interest is natural-product
chemistry." Under this pretext, Moore had a perfect excuse
to make and purchase for the CIA chemicals that the Agency did
not want traced. Over the years, Moore billed the Agency for hundreds
of purchases, including 50 cents for an unidentified pamphlet,
$433.13 for a particular shipment of mescaline, $1147.60 for a
large quantity of mushrooms, and $12,000 for a quarter-ton of
fluothane, an inhalation anesthetic. He shipped his purchases
on as Bortner directed.
Moore eventually became a kind of short-order cook for what CIA
documents call "offensive CW, BW" weapons at "very
low cost and in a few days' time . . ." If there were an
operational need, Bortner had only to call in the order, and Moore
would whip up a batch of a "reputed depilatory" or hallucinogens
like DMT or the incredibly potent BZ. On one occasion in 1963,
Moore prepared a small dose of a very lethal carbamate poisonthe
same substance that OSS used two decades earlier to try to kill
Adolf Hitler. Moore charged the Agency his regular consulting
fee, $100, for this service.
"Did I ever consider what would have happened if this stuff
were given to unwitting people?" Moore asks, reflecting on
his CIA days. "No. Particularly no. Had I been given that
information, I think I would have been prepared to accept that.
If I had been knee-jerk about testing on unwitting subjects, I
wouldn't have been the type of person they would have used. There
was nothing that I did that struck me as being so sinister and
deadly.... It was all investigative."
James Moore was only one of many CIA specialists on the lookout
for the magic mushroom. For three years after Morse Allen's man
returned from Mexico with his tales of wonder, Moore and the others
in the Agency's network pushed their lines of inquiry among contacts
and travelers into Mexican villages so remote that Spanish had
barely penetrated. Yet they found no magic mushrooms. Given their
efforts, it was ironic that the man who beat them to "God's
flesh" was neither a spy nor a scientist, but a banker. It
was R. Gordon Wasson, vice-president of J. P. Morgan & Company,
amateur mycologist, and co-author with his wife Valentina of Mushrooms,
Russia and History. Nearly 30 years earlier, Wasson and his
Russian-born wife had become fascinated by the different ways
that societies deal with the mushroom, and they followed their
lifelong obsession with these fungi, in all their glory, all over
the globe. They found
whole nationalities, such as the Russians and the Catalans, were
mycophiles, while others like the Spaniards and the Anglo-Saxons
were not. They learned that in ancient Greece and Rome there was
a belief that certain kinds of mushrooms were brought into being
by lightning bolts. They discovered that widely scattered peoples,
including desert Arabs, Siberians, Chinese, and Maoris of New
Zealand, have shared the idea that mushrooms have supernatural
connections. Their book appeared in limited edition, selling new
in 1957 for $125. It contains facts and legends, lovingly told,
as well as beautiful photographs of nearly every known species
Inevitably, the Wassons heard tell of "God's flesh,"
and in 1953 they started spending their vacations pursuing it.
They took their first unsuccessful trek to Mexico about the time
James Moore got connected to the CIA and Morse Allen met with
the Pennsylvania mushroom executives. They had no luck until their
third expedition, when Gordon Wasson and his traveling companion,
Allan Richardson, found their holy grail high in the mountains
above Oaxaca. On June 29, 1955, they entered the town hall in
a village called Huautla de Jimenez. There, they found a young
Indian about 35, sitting by a large table in an upstairs room.
Unlike most people in the village, he spoke Spanish. "He
had a friendly manner," Wasson later wrote, "and I took
a chance. Leaning over the table, I asked him earnestly and in
a low voice if I could speak to him in confidence. Instantly curious,
he encouraged me. 'Will you,' I went on, 'help me learn the secrets
of the divine mushroom?' and I used the Indian name nti sheeto,
correctly pronouncing it with glottal stop and tonal differentiation
of the syllables. When [he] recovered from his surprise he said
warmly that nothing could be easier."
Shortly thereafter, the Indian led Wasson and Richardson down
into a deep ravine where mushrooms were growing in abundance.
The white men snapped picture after picture of the fungi and picked
a cardboard box-full. Then, in the heavy humid heat of the afternoon,
the Indian led them up the mountain to a woman who performed the
ancient mushroom rite. Her name was Maria Sabina. She was not
only a curandera, or shaman, of "the highest quality,"
wrote Wasson, but a "seņora sin mancha, a woman
without stain." Wasson described her as middle-aged and short,
"with a spirituality in her expression that struck us at
once. She had a presence. We showed our mushrooms to the woman
and her daughter. They cried out in rapture over the firmness,
the fresh beauty and abundance of our young specimens. Through
the interpreter we asked if they would serve us that night. They
That night, Wasson, Richardson, and about 20 Indians gathered
in one of the village's adobe houses. The natives wore their best
clothes and were friendly to the white strangers. The host provided
chocolate drinks, which evoked for Wasson accounts of similar
beverages being served early Spanish writers. Maria Sabina sat
on a mat before a simple altar table that was adorned with the
images of the Child Jesus and the Baptism in Jordan. After cleaning
the mushrooms, she handed them out to all the adults present,
keeping 26 for herself and giving Wasson and Richardson 12 each.
Maria Sabina put out the last candle about midnight, and she chanted
haunting, tightly measured melodies. The Indian celebrants responded
with deep feeling. Both Wasson and Richardson began to experience
intense hallucinations that did not diminish until about 4:00
A.M. "We were never more wide awake, and the visions came
whether our eyes were open or closed," Wasson wrote:
They emerged from the center of the field of our vision, opening
up as they came, now rushing, now slowly at the pace that our
will chose. They were vivid in color, always harmonious. They
began with art motifs, such as might decorate carpets or textiles
or wallpaper or the drawing board of an architect. Then they evolved
into palaces with courts, arcades, gardensresplendent palaces
with semiprecious stones.... Could the miraculous mobility that
I was now enjoying be the explanation for the flying witches that
played some important part in the folklore and fairy tales of
northern Europe? These reflections passed through my mind at the
very time that I was seeing the vision, for the effect of the
mushrooms is to bring about a fission of the spirit, a split in
the person, a kind of schizophrenia, with the rational side continuing
to reason and to observe the sensations that the other side is
enjoying. The mind is attached by an elastic cord to the vagrant
Thus Gordon Wasson described the first known mushroom trip by
"outsiders" in recorded history. The CIA's men missed
the event, but they quickly learned of it, even though Wasson's
visit was a private noninstitutional one to a place where material
civilization had not reached. Such swiftness was assured by the
breadth of the Agency's informant network, which included formal
liaison arrangements with agencies like the Agriculture Department
and the FDA and informal contacts all over the world. A botanist
in Mexico City sent the report that reached both CIA headquarters
and then James Moore. In the best bureaucratic form, the CIA description
of Wasson's visions stated sparsely that the New York banker thought
he saw "a multitude of architectural forms." Still,
"God's flesh" had been located, and the MKULTRA leaders
snatched up information that Wasson planned to return the following
summer and bring back some mushrooms.
During the intervening winter, James Moore wrote Wasson"out
of the blue," as Wasson recallsand expressed a desire
to look into the chemical properties of Mexican fungi. Moore eventually
suggested that he would like to accompany Wasson's party, and,
to sweeten the proposition, he mentioned that he knew a foundation
that might be willing to help underwrite the expedition. Sure
enough, the CIA's conduit, the Geschickter Fund, made a $2,000
grant. Inside the MKULTRA program, the quest for the divine mushroom
became Subproject 58.
Joining Moore and Wasson on the 1956 trip were the world-renowned
French mycologist Roger Heim and a colleague from the Sorbonne.
The party made the final leg of the trip, one at a time, in a
tiny Cessna, but when it was Moore's turn, the load proved too
much for the plane. The pilot suddenly took a dramatic right angle
turn through a narrow canyon and made an unscheduled stop on the
side of a hill. Immediately on landing, an Indian girl ran out
and slid blocks under the wheels, so the plane would not roll
back into a ravine. The pilot decided to lighten the load by leaving
Moore among the local Indians, who spoke neither English nor Spanish.
Later in the day, the plane returned and picked up the shaken
Finally in Huautla, sleeping on a dirt floor and eating local
food, everyone reveled in the primitiveness of the adventure except
Moore, who suffered. In addition to diarrhea, he recalls, "I
had a terribly bad cold, we damned near starved to death, and
I itched all over." Beyond his physical woes, Moore became
more and more alienated from the others, who got on famously.
Moore was a "complainer," according to Wasson. "He
had no empathy for what was going on," recalls Wasson. "He
was like a landlubber at sea. He got sick to his stomach and hated
it all." Moore states, "Our relationship deteriorated
during the course of the trip."
Wasson returned to the same Maria Sabina who had led him to the
high ground the year before. Again the ritual started well after
dark and, for everyone but Moore, it was an enchanted evening.
Sings Wasson: "I had the most superb feelinga feeling
of ecstasy. You're raised to a height where you have not been
in everyday lifenot ever." Moore, on the other hand, never
left the lowlands. His description: "There was all this chanting
in the dialect. Then they passed the mushrooms around, and we
chewed them up. I did feel the hallucinogenic effect, although
'disoriented' would be a better word to describe my reaction."
Soon thereafter, Moore returned to Delaware with a bag of mushroomsjust
in time to take his pregnant wife to the hospital for delivery.
After dropping her off with the obstetrician, he continued down
the hall to another doctor about his digestion. Already a thin
man, Moore had lost 15 pounds. Over the next week, he slowly nursed
himself back to health. He reported in to Bortner and started
preliminary work in his lab to isolate the active ingredient in
the mushrooms. Bortner urged him on; the men from MKULTRA were
excited at the prospect that they might be able to create "a
completely new chemical agent." They wanted their own private
supply of "God's flesh." Sid Gottlieb wrote that if
Moore succeeded, it was "quite possible" that the new
drugs could "remain an Agency secret."
Gottlieb's dream of a CIA monopoly on the divine mushroom vanished
quickly under the influence of unwanted competitors, and indeed,
the Agency soon faced a control problem of burgeoning proportions.
While Moore toiled in his lab, Roger Heim in Paris unexpectedly
pulled off the remarkable feat of growing the mushrooms in artificial
culture from spore prints he had made in Mexico. Heim then sent
samples to none other than Albert Hofmann, the discoverer of LSD,
who quickly isolated and chemically reproduced the active chemical
ingredient. He named it psilocybin.
The dignified Swiss chemist had beaten out the CIA,
and the men from MKULTRA found themselves trying to obtain formulas
and supplies from overseas. Instead of locking up the world's
supply of the drug in a safe somewhere, they had to keep track
of disbursements from Sandoz, as they were doing with LSD. Defeated
by the old master, Moore laid his own work aside and sent away
to Sandoz for a supply of psilocybin.
This lapse in control still did not quash the hopes of Agency
officials that the mushroom might become a powerful weapon in
covert operations. Agency scientists rushed it into the experimental
stage. Within three summers of the first trip with James Moore,
the CIA's queasy professor from America, the mushroom had journeyed
through laboratories on two continents, and its chemical essence
had worked its way back to Agency conduits and a contractor who
would test it. In Kentucky, Dr. Harris Isbell ordered psilocybin
injected into nine black inmates at the narcotics prison. His
staff laid the subjects out on beds as the drug took hold and
measured physical symptoms every hour: blood pressure, knee-jerk
reflexes, rectal temperature, precise diameter of eye pupils,
and so on. In addition, they recorded the inmates' various subjective
After 30 minutes, anxiety became quite definite and was expressed
as consisting of fear that something evil was going to happen,
fear of insanity, or of death.... At times patients had the sensation
that they could see the blood and bones in their own body or in
that of another person. They reported many fantasies or dreamlike
states in which they seemed to be elsewhere. Fantastic experiences,
such as trips to the moon or living in gorgeous castles were occasionally
reported.... Two of the 9 patients . . . felt their experiences
were caused by the experimenters controlling their minds....
Experimental data piled up, with operational testing to follow.
But the magic mushroom never became a good spy weapon. It made
people behave strangely but no one could predict where their trips
would take them. Agency officials craved certainty.
On the other hand, Gordon Wasson found revelation. After a lifetime
of exploring and adoring mushrooms, he had discovered the greatest
wonder of all in that remote Indian village. His experience inspired
him to write an account of his journey for the "Great Adventures"
series in Life magazine. The story, spread across 17 pages
of text and color photographs, was called "Seeking the Magic
Mushroom: A New York banker goes to Mexico's mountains to participate
in the age-old rituals of Indians who chew strange growths that
produce visions." In 1957, before the Russian sputnik
shook America later that year, Life introduced its millions
of readers to the mysteries of hallucinogens, with a tone of glowing
but dignified respect. Wasson wrote movingly of his long search
for mushroom lore, and he became positively rhapsodic in reflecting
on his Mexican "trip":
In man's evolutionary past, as he groped his way out from his
lowly past, there must have come a moment in time when he discovered
the secret of the hallucinatory mushrooms. Their effect on him,
as I see it, could only have been profound, a detonator to new
ideas. For the mushrooms revealed to him worlds beyond the horizons
known to him, in space and time, even worlds on a different plane
of being, a heaven and perhaps a hell. For the credulous, primitive
mind, the mushrooms must have reinforced mightily the idea of
the miraculous. Many emotions are shared by men with the animal
kingdom, but awe and reverence and the fear of God are peculiar
to men. When we bear in mind the beatific sense of awe and ecstasy
and caritas engendered by the divine mushrooms, one is
emboldened to the point of asking whether they may not have planted
in primitive man the very idea of God.
The article caused a sensation in the United States, where people
had already been awakened to ideas like these by Aldous Huxley's
The Doors of Perception. It lured waves of respectable
adultsprecursors of later hippie travelersto Mexico in search
of their own curanderas. (Wasson came to have mixed feelings
about the response to his story, after several tiny Mexican villages
were all but trampled by American tourists on the prowl for divinity.)
One person whose curiosity was stimulated by the article was a
young psychology professor named Timothy Leary. In 1959, in Mexico
on vacation, he ate his first mushrooms. He recalls he "had
no idea it was going to change my life." Leary had just been
promised tenure at Harvard, but his life of conventional prestige
lost appeal for him within five hours of swallowing the mushroom:
"The revelation had come. The veil had been pulled back....
The prophetic call. The works. God had spoken."
Having responded to a Life article about an expedition
that was partially funded by the CIA, Leary returned to a Harvard
campus where students and professors had for years served as subjects
for CIA- and military-funded LSD experiments. His career as a
drug prophet lay before him. Soon he would be quoting in his own
Kamasutra from the CIA's contractor Harold Abramson and
others, brought together for scholarly drug conferences by the
sometime Agency conduit, the Macy Foundation.
With LSD, as with mushrooms, the men from MKULTRA remained oblivious,
for the most part, to the rebellious effect of the drug culture
in the United States. "I don't think we were paying any attention
to it," recalls a TSS official. The CIA's scientists looked
at drugs from a different perspective and went on trying to fashion
their spy arsenal. Through the entire 1960s and into the 1970s,
the Agency would scour Latin America for poisonous and narcotic
plants. Earlier, TSS
officials and contractors actually kept spreading the magic touch
of drugs by forever pressing new university researchers into the
field. Boston Psychopathic's Max Rinkel stirred up the interest
of Rochester's Harold Hodge and told him how to get a grant from
the Agency conduit, the Geschickter Fund. Hodge's group found
a way to put a radioactive marker into LSD, and the MKULTRA crew
made sure that the specially treated substance found its way to
still more scientists. When a contractor like Harold Abramson
spoke highly of the drug at a new conference or seminar, tens
or hundreds of scientists, health professionals, and subjectsusually
studentswould wind up trying LSD.
One day in 1954, Ralph Blum, a senior at Harvard on his way to
a career as a successful author, heard from a friend that doctors
at Boston Psychopathic would pay $25 to anyone willing to spend
a day as a happy schizophrenic. Blum could not resist. He applied,
passed the screening process, took a whole battery of Wechsler
psychological tests, and was told to report back on a given morning.
That day, he was shown into a room with five other Harvard students.
Project director Bob Hyde joined them and struck Blum as a reassuring
father figure. Someone brought in a tray with six little glasses
full of water and LSD. The students drank up. For Blum, the drug
did not take hold for about an hour and a halfsomewhat longer
than the average. While Hyde was in the process of interviewing
him, Blum felt his mind shift gears. "I looked at the clock
on the wall and thought how well behaved it was. It didn't pay
attention to itself. It just stayed on the wall and told time."
Blum felt that he was looking at everything around him from a
new perspective. "It was a very subtle thing," he says.
"My ego filter had been pretty much removed. I turned into
a very accessible state accessible to myself. I knew when someone
was lying to me, and the richness of the experience was such that
I didn't want to suffer fools gladly." Twenty-four years
later, Blum concludes: "It was undeniably a very important
experience for me. It made a difference in my life. It began to
move the log jam of my old consciousness. You can't do it with
just one blast. It was the beginning of realizing it was safe
to love again. Although I wouldn't use them until much later,
it gave me a new set of optics. It let me know there was something
Many student subjects like Blum thought LSD transformed the quality
of their lives. Others had no positive feelings, and some would
later use the negative memories of their trips to invalidate the
whole drug culture and stoned thinking process of the 1960s. In
a university city like Boston where both the CIA and the Army
were carrying on large testing programs at hospitals connected
to Harvard, volunteering for an LSD trip became quite popular
in academic circles. Similar reactions, although probably not
as pronounced, occurred in other intellectual centers. The intelligence
agencies turned to America's finest universities and hospitals
to try LSD, which meant that the cream of the country's students
and graduate assistants became the test subjects.
In 1969 the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs published
a fascinating little study designed to curb illegal LSD use. The
authors wrote that the drug's "early use was among small
groups of intellectuals at large Eastern and West Coast universities.
It spread to undergraduate students, then to other campuses. Most
often, users have been introduced to the drug by persons of higher
status. Teachers have influenced students; upperclassmen have
influenced lower-classmen." Calling this a "trickle-down
phenomenon," the authors seem to have correctly analyzed
how LSD got around the country. They left out only one vital element,
which they had no way of knowing: That somebody had to influence
the teachers and that up there at the top of the LSD distribution
system could be found the men of MKULTRA.
Harold Abramson apparently got a great kick out of getting his
learned friends high on LSD. He first turned on Frank Fremont-Smith,
head of the Macy Foundation which passed CIA money to Abramson.
In this cozy little world where everyone knew everybody, Fremont-Smith
organized the conferences that spread the word about LSD to the
academic hinterlands. Abramson also gave Gregory Bateson, Margaret
Mead's former husband, his first LSD. In 1959 Bateson, in turn,
helped arrange for a beat poet friend of his named Allen Ginsberg
to take the drug at a research program located of f the Stanford
campus. No stranger to the hallucinogenic effects of peyote, Ginsberg
reacted badly to what he describes as "the closed little
doctor's room full of instruments," where he took the drug.
Although he was allowed to listen to records of his choice (he
chose a Gertrude Stein reading, a Tibetan mandala, and Wagner),
Ginsberg felt he "was being connected to Big Brother's brain."
He says that the experience resulted in "a slight paranoia
that hung on all my acid experiences through the mid-1960s until
I learned from meditation how to disperse that."
Anthropologist and philosopher Gregory Bateson then worked at
the Veterans Administration Hospital in Palo Alto. From 1959 on,
Dr. Leo Hollister was testing LSD at that same hospital. Hollister
says he entered the hallucinogenic field reluctantly because of
the "unscientific" work of the early LSD researchers.
He refers specifically to most of the people who attended Macy
conferences. Thus, hoping to improve on CIA and military-funded
work, Hollister tried drugs out on student volunteers, including
a certain Ken Kesey, in 1960. Kesey said he was a jock who had
only been drunk once before, but on three successive Tuesdays,
he tried different psychedelics. "Six weeks later I'd bought
my first ounce of grass," Kesey later wrote, adding, "Six
months later I had a job at that hospital as a psychiatric aide."
Out of that experience, using drugs while he wrote, Kesey turned
out One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. He went on to become
the counterculture's second most famous LSD visionary, spreading
the creed throughout the land, as Tom Wolfe would chronicle in
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
CIA officials never meant that the likes of Leary, Kesey, and
Ginsberg should be turned on. Yet these men were, and they, along
with many of the lesser-known experimental subjects, like Harvard's
Ralph Blum, created the climate whereby LSD escaped the government's
control and became available by the early sixties on the black
market. No one at the Agency apparently foresaw that young Americans
would voluntarily take the drugwhether for consciousness expansion
or recreational purposes. The MKULTRA experts were mainly on a
control trip, and they proved incapable of gaining insight from
their own LSD experiences of how others less fixated on making
people do their bidding would react to the drug.
It would be an exaggeration to put all the blame onor give
all the credit tothe CIA for the spread of LSD. One cannot
forget the nature of the times, the Vietnam War, the breakdown
in authority, and the wide availability of other drugs, especially
marijuana. But the fact remains that LSD was one of the catalysts
of the traumatic upheavals of the 1960s. No one could enter the
world of psychedelics without first passing, unawares, through
doors opened by the Agency. It would become a supreme irony that
the CIA's enormous search for weapons among drugsfueled by
the hope that spies could, like Dr. Frankenstein, control life
with genius and machineswould wind up helping to create the
wandering, uncontrollable minds of the counterculture.
R. Gordon and Valentina Wasson's mammoth work, Mushrooms, Russia
and History, (New York: Pantheon, 1957), was the source for
the account of the Empress Agrippina's murderous use of mushrooms.
Wasson told the story of his various journeys to Mexico in a series
of interviews and in a May 27, 1957 Life magazine article,
"Seeking the Magic Mushroom."
Morse Allen learned of piule in a sequence described in document
#A/B,I,33/7, 14 November 1952, Subject: Piule. The sending of
the young CIA scientist to Mexico was outlined in #A/B, I,33/3,5
December 1952. Morse Allen commented on mushroom history and covert
possibilities in #A/B, I, 34/4, 26 June 1953, Subject: MushroomsNarcotic and Poisonous Varieties. His trip to the American mushroom-growing
capital was described in Document Number illegible], 25 June 1953,
Subject: Trip to Toughkenamon, Pennsylvania. The failure of TSS
to tell Morse Allen about the results of the botanical lab work
is outlined in #A/B, I, 39/5, 10 August 1954 Subject: Reports;
Request for from TSS [deleted].
James Moore told much about himself in a long interview and in
an exchange of correspondence. MKULTRA Subproject 51 dealt with
Moore's consulting relationship with the Agency and Subproject
52 with his ties as a procurer of chemicals. See especially Document
51-46, 8 April 1963, Subject: MKULTRA Subproject 51; 51-24, 27
August 1956, Subject: MKULTRA Subproject 51-B; 52-94, 20 February
1963, Subject: (BB) Chemical and Physical Manipulants; 52-19,
20 December 1962; 52-17, 1 March 1963; 52-23, 6 December 1962;
52-64, 24 August 1959.
The CIA's arrangements with the Department of Agriculture are
detailed in #A/B, I, 34/4, 26 June, 1953, Subject: MushroomsNarcotic
and Poisonous varieties and Document [number illegible], 13 April
1953, Subject: Interview with Cleared Contacts.
Dr. Harris Isbell's work with psilocybin is detailed in Isbell
document # 155, "Comparison of the Reaction Induced by Psilocybin
and LSD-25 in Man."
Information on the counterculture and its interface with CIA drug-testing
came from interviews with Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsburg, Humphrey
Osmond, John Lilly, Sidney Cohen, Ralph Blum, Herbert Kelman,
Leo Hollister, Herbert DeShon, and numerous others. Ken Kesey
described his first trip in Garage Sale (New York: Viking
Press, 1973). Timothy Leary's Kamasutra was actually a
book hand-produced in four copies and called Psychedelic Theory:
Working Papers from the Harvard IFlF Psychedelic Research Project,
1960-1963. Susan Berns Wolf Rothchild kindly made her copy
available. The material about Harold Abramson's turning on Frank
Fremont-Smith and Gregory Bateson came from the proceedings of
a conference on LSD sponsored by the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation
on April 22, 23, and 24, 1959, pp. 8-22.
1. On their honeymoon, in the summer of 1927,
the Wassons were strolling along a mountain path when suddenly
Valentina abandoned Gordon's side. "She had spied wild mushrooms
in the forest," wrote Wasson, "and racing over the carpet
of dried leaves in the woods, she knelt in poses of adoration
before one cluster and then another of these growths. In ecstasy
she called each kind by an endearing Russian name. Like all good
Anglo-Saxons, I knew nothing about the fungal world and felt the
less I knew about these putrid, treacherous excrescences the better.
For her they were things of grace infinitely inviting to the perceptive
mind." In spite of his protests, Valentina gathered up the
mushrooms and brought them back to the lodge were she cooked them
for dinner. She ate them allalone. Wasson wanted no part of
the fungi. While she mocked his horror, he predicted in the face
of her laughter he would wake up a widower the next morning. When
Valentina survived, the couple decided to find an explanation
for "the strange cultural cleavage" that had caused
them to react so differently to mushrooms. From then on, they
were hooked, and the world became the richer. (back)
2. Within two years, Albert Hofmann would
scoop the CIA once again, with some help from Gordon Wasson. In
1960 Hofmann broke down and chemically recreated the active ingredient
in hallucinatory ololiuqui seeds sent him by Wasson before the
Agency's contractor, William Boyd Cook of Montana State University,
could do the job. Hofmann's and Wasson's professional relationship
soon grew into friendship, and in 1962 they traveled together
on horseback to Huautla de Jimenez to visit Maria Sabina. Hofmann
presented the curandera with some genuine Sandoz psilocybin.
Wasson recalls: "Of course, Albert Hofmann is so conservative
he always gives too little a dose, and it didn't have any effect."
The crestfallen Hofmann believed he had duplicated "God's
flesh," and he doubled the dose. Then Maria Sabina had her
customary visions, and she reported, according to Wasson, the
drug was the "same" as the mushroom. States Wasson,
whose prejudice for real mushrooms over chemicals is unmistakable,
"I don't think she said it with very much enthusiasm."
3. See Chapter 12. (back)
4. Lincoln Clark, a psychiatrist who tested
LSD for the Army at Massachusetts General Hospital, reflects a
fairly common view among LSD researchers when he belittles drug-induced
thinking of the sort described by Blum. "Everybody who takes
LSD has an incredible experience that you can look at as having
positive characteristics. I view it as pseudo-insight. This is
part of the usual response of intellectually pretentious people."
On the other hand, psychiatrist Sidney Cohen, who has written
an important book on LSD, noted that to experience a visionary
trip, "the devotee must have faith in, or at least be open
to the possibility of the 'other state.' . . . He must 'let go,'
not offer too much resistance to losing his personal identity.
The ability to surrender oneself is probably the most important
operation of all." (back)
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