MKULTRA was the codename given to the CIA’s wide-ranging series of drug and mind control experiments. Active from the early '50s until it was officially halted in 1973, MKULTRA was an ominous umbrella program that cast its shadow over everything from the sickeningly bizarre to the relatively mundane. Decidedly unscientific outfits like White’s coexisted alongside other experiments conducted in sterile, fluorescent-bathed operating rooms by otherwise well-respected doctors and scientists.
In one such experiment on a mentally handicapped individual, “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,” write the authors of Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond.
Dr. Paul Hoch, who oversaw that particular operation, was once quoted as saying “It is possible that a certain amount of brain damage is of therapeutic value.” He was later appointed New York State Commissioner for Mental Hygiene. Go figure.
The sprawling MKULTRA program was much more than the sum of its deeply weird parts however. On one hand, the program demonstrated the extraordinary depths the CIA was prepared to sink to in order to combat the Red Menace, the Agency’s raison d'être during the long, strange years of the Cold War. At the same time, MKULTRA would go on to become the unwitting midwife of the '60s acid craze, providing the drive shaft for the youth counterculture movement that represented the very antithesis of everything the agency stood for.
As the '60s wore on, acid would bring out the best and worst in both the agency and the hippies, even as both sought the same ultimate goal, neatly summed up by the Bible verse still chiseled into the lobby of the CIA’s headquarters:
“And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”