Cloak and Dropper—The Twisted History of the CIA and LSD

Cloak and Dropper—The Twisted History of the CIA and LSD - Page 3

By Ryan Boysen 09/18/15

“The LSD movement was started by the CIA." Timothy Leary, 1977.

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After the horrors of World War II, the vast majority of America was content to curl up in front of the TV and take comfort in the newfound national prosperity of the post-war years. While the ever-present Red Menace lurked perpetually in the back of the mind, the cars, refrigerators and brand new tract homes of the late '40s and '50s brought, on the surface at least, a calm to U.S. daily life that had been sorely lacking in the preceding years of total war and economic depression. 

There were some, notably the famous writers and poets of the Beat Generation, that challenged this new normal of conspicuous consumerism and anti-Communist hysteria. At the time, their cries fell mostly on deaf—if not outright hostile—ears. In hindsight however, the literary broadsides of the Beats served as the opening shots of the culture war that lay just over the horizon. The opening lines of Allen Ginsberg’s landmark Howl, written in 1955, might as well have been a prophecy:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.

Just 10 short years or so after Howl’s publication, those opening lines would hold up an eerily prescient mirror to the dark side of San Francisco’s acid craze. At the time however, Ginsberg had no idea of the psychedelic tsunami that lay ahead, or the central role he’d play in it. As the Baby Boomers came of age and realized they wanted more from their lives and their country than what their parents had been willing to accept, the dormant discontent of the post-war years that Ginsberg was writing about soon swelled into a cultural powder keg. 

More than anything else. besides Civil Rights and the war in Vietnam, it was the slow-burning fuse of the '50s psychedelic research scene that would ultimately ignite that simmering discontent in a blaze of radical dissension and self-discovery. Ironically, that process would unfold in a decidedly top-down fashion, even as the wave of countercultural protest it unleashed would seek to reform American politics from the bottom up. 

***

Of all the psychedelic evangelists who emerged from the early psychedelic research scene, Dr. Timothy Leary is by far the most well known. In 1960, Leary was an up-and-coming lecturer in psychology at Harvard. Having just been offered tenure, Leary was a man who’d checked all the boxes necessary for admittance to the high society of the time, but he was falling apart on the inside. Depressed and desperate for a change of pace, Leary took a trip to Mexico that summer in search of psilocybin mushrooms.

The idea hadn’t come to Leary out of the blue, however. He’d first become interested in magic mushrooms after reading about them two years earlier in a landmark article in Time magazine by Gordon Wasson, a vice president at J.P. Morgan and his wife, an amateur mycologist. Wasson’s article, Seeking the Magic Mushroom, depicted his journey to a rural Mexican village in search of Teo-nanacatl—God’s Flesh—and his subsequent trip after consuming the holy fungus. 

The groundbreaking article provided the first known depiction of an outsider’s experience with Teo-nanacatl, which indigenous peoples had utilized in religious ceremonies for over a thousand years. While Wasson’s feat was impressive, he’d had help. The expedition was funded by a $2,000 grant from the Geschickter Fund—a CIA front. Throughout the '50s and '60s, the Agency remained just as interested in the pursuit of new psychotropic substances as it was in the testing of those already known to it. 

Leary, meanwhile, found it relatively easy to get his hands on God’s Flesh after arriving in Mexico, thanks to Wasson’s trailblazing. His first psychedelic experience was a formative one, to say the least. “It was above all and without question the deepest religious experience of my life,” he later wrote. 

Electrified by his first taste of psychedelics, Leary rushed to establish a psilocybin research program upon his return to Harvard, a campus “where for years students and professors had served as subjects for CIA- and military-funded LSD experiments,” writes John Marks in The Search for the Manchurian Candidate. 

Over the next few years, Leary introduced a number of high-profile figures to psilocybin and LSD, including Allen Ginsberg and Mary Pinchot, one of President Kennedy’s many girlfriends. In 1963, he was fired from Harvard, but he took the collapse of his professional life in stride. Bank-rolled by socialite day tripper Billy Hitchcock Mellon, heir to the massive Mellon fortune, Leary abandoned his efforts to play by the rules and began appealing directly to the masses. The disillusioned youth of the early '60s welcomed him with open arms and open minds. 

***

On the other side of the spectrum in this psychedelic trickle-down process was Captain Alfred M. Hubbard, otherwise known as the “Johnny Appleseed of LSD.” Hubbard grew up dirt poor in rural Kentucky and went on to make a fortune in the uranium business, in addition to holding several senior positions at the OSS, the CIA’s wartime predecessor. 

While Hubbard would harbor a life-long grudge against the CIA for a dispute over backpay the Agency apparently refused to pay him after he left the OSS, Hubbard remained plugged into the highest levels of espionage circles after the war. That, presumably, is how he first got his hands on a vial of LSD in 1951, after being introduced to the drug by a British scientist. His mind blown after the first trip, Hubbard would go on to disseminate the powerful drug amongst the movers and shakers of the Western world for the rest of his days. 

“It was the deepest mystical thing I’ve ever seen,” he told the authors of Acid Dreams. “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.”

Hubbard was eager to share this experience with others, and he was well-prepared to do so. His great personal wealth kept him stocked with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of acid at all times, while his connections in the business and intelligence worlds meant his rolodex was filled with the names of some of the most influential people on the planet during the '50s and '60s. During this time, Hubbard reportedly introduced his newfound friend Lucy to “a prime minister, assistants to heads of state, UN representatives, and members of the British parliament,” among many others, writes the authors of Acid Dreams. 

A close associate of Captain Hubbard’s stressed to the same authors that these sessions “affected the thinking of the political leadership of North America,” and presumably Western Europe as well. In addition to blowing the one percent’s mind, Hubbard also widely distributed acid to doctors and researchers, and worked with a group of turned-on psychiatrists to establish several LSD therapy centers. 

It was a young scientist and an old novelist, however, that would prove to be Hubbard’s most influential partners on his life-long quest of psychedelic proselytization. 

***

In the early '50s Dr. Humphry Osmond was one of the many scientists exploring the new field of psychedelic research. Dr. Osmond was one of the earliest proponents of the theory that psychedelic drugs produced a state of temporary insanity, meaning they could be used to familiarize doctors and nurses with the jangled thought patterns bumping around in the minds of their psychotic or schizophrenic patients. This is why, at the time, the word "psychedelic" had yet to be coined and the term “psychotomimetic”—madness mimicking—was being used in its place. 

Osmond’s pioneering work in this field attracted the attention of famed author Aldous Huxley, as well as Capt. Hubbard and, of course, the CIA. It was after receiving mescaline from Dr. Osmond that Huxley would go on to write the seminal, The Doors of Perception. This extended essay discussed Huxley’s experiences on mescaline, but then gave way to what would prove to be a hugely influential hypothesis on mind-altering drugs in general: By bringing the gears of the mind’s restrictive survival processes to a temporary, grinding halt, Huxley argued, psychotropic substances allowed the human brain to experience a taste of The Infinite. 

Drugs like mescaline weren’t producing an artificial insanity, as the scientists of the time claimed. In Huxley’s narrative, these substances merely allowed one to bypass the “reducing valve” of the conscious mind and experience new states of reality. 

Published in 1954, The Doors of Perception was a literary bombshell that served as a sort of North Star for many of the Beats and hippies that followed, pointing the way towards the transcendent experiences possible via experimentation with drugs Middle America considered verboten. The wildly influential counterculture band The Doors, for example, would later take their name from Huxley’s essay. The impact of Huxley’s hypothesis, backed every step of the way by Captain Hubbard, didn’t stop there however. His good friend, Dr. Osmond, was one of the first scientists to take the notion seriously. Wrestling with the problem of how to rebrand these drugs given the new outlook promoted by Huxley and Hubbard, Osmond coined the term "psychedelic" in a letter to Huxley:

To fathom hell or soar angelic

Just try a pinch of psychedelic

In 1957, Osmond formally introduced it to the psychiatric establishment, which fought the new term—and the new outlook on mind-altering drugs it represented—tooth and nail for many years. In the end, however, Huxley and Osmond’s understanding of psychedelics as drugs with far greater potential than simply inducing a state of faux madness won out. Even as that fight played out in scientific circles, the rise of the hippies would ensure that the psychedelic hypothesis was put to the test on a far grander scale. To those in the know during the '60s, the psychedelic conception of acid and related drugs seemed like a given. To the reactionaries on the Right however, the psychotomimetic framework seemed to square perfectly with what they saw on the TV of the bizarre clothing, rejection of societal norms and disturbing music associated with the much-maligned hippies.

In this unlikely way, Captain Hubbard, the spook-turned-Johnny Acidseed, found himself on the bleeding edge of the movement to transform the conception of psychedelic drugs—indeed, he made it his life’s work. All the while Dr. Osmond was receiving grant money from CIA-front companies who were funding his research, whether he knew it or not. Osmond, Hubbard and Huxley however were firmly in favor of keeping acid’s revolutionary potential restricted to polite society. The one percent, they thought, had the good breeding and mental capacities to make the best use of the drug. Best not to tempt fate by letting the unwashed masses use Hubbard’s holy sacrament without supervision though. Who knows what they’d do with it.

Hubbard had actually known and liked Timothy Leary during his early psilocybin research days at Harvard, but broke with him over a disagreement on this point. When Leary began preaching his psychedelic gospel to the masses, Hubbard turned his back on him. Hubbard would go on to bust underground acid labs for the FDA later in the '60s, but by then it was too late. Word had gotten out.

***

In late 1962, the nation sat glued to their television screens as the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded, bringing America—and the world—closer to nuclear armageddon than at any time before or since. By the same time the following year, John F. Kennedy was dead, the victim of an assassination plot that remains shrouded in mystery. America’s youth were coming of age during a violent and terrifying chapter in American history, but this only strengthened their deeply held convictions that a better world lay just over the horizon.

When Timothy Leary was fired from Harvard in 1963, the substances being studied by the vast psychedelic research scene had already begun percolating down into hip enclaves like the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco and Greenwich Village in New York. LSD would still be legal for a few more years, and it wasn’t too hard to get if you knew the right people. Volunteers, like Ken Kesey, in CIA-funded psychedelic experiments were spreading the acid gospel, as were dropouts from the research scene itself, like Timothy Leary. As awareness of the mind-opening drug continued to spread over the next few years, acid would soon go from a strange high pursued by a few trendsetters to an integral part of the larger countercultural movement the '60s are best remembered for. 

Leary and a group of close friends formed the Eastern pole of the coming acid revolution. Holed up in the palatial Millbrook estate of Billy Hitchcock, Leary’s benefactor, the East Coast acid prophets promoted LSD as the key that would unlock the mysteries of the universe, alongside meditation and other Eastern religious practices. This strand of relatively serious, methodical acid experimentation would certainly have an outsized influence on the hippies. But it was in the West, however, that the real crucible of acid culture was taking shape. 

***

While Leary was getting the boot from Harvard in 1963, Ken Kesey was writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, based loosely on Kesey’s experiences working as a janitor in the same mental hospital where he’d first been paid to do acid. It was published in 1962 and made Kesey an overnight literary sensation. Immediately after that, he’d begun researching and writing his second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, which he was just wrapping up as 1963 came to an end.

Kesey was writing at his home in La Honda, a rural area just outside of San Francisco. Kesey owned a few acres of redwood forest he’d streaked with DayGlo paint and rigged up with an insane assemblage of massive speakers and recording devices, the ultimate playground for acid freaks and gear heads like him and his friends, the Merry Pranksters. Around this time, Kesey and company were doing a lot of acid and starting to really dig deep into the new states of consciousness the drug made possible. Sometimes several pranksters would climb into the trees and communicate with those back at home base via the recording devices just for kicks. Other times they’d sit around for hours, rapping about whatever popped into their heads and probing the limits of the synchronous hivemind effect brought on by group LSD sessions. 

No one is quite sure where the Pranksters got the idea to drive a giant school bus out to New York for the release of Kesey’s Notion, but it fit the vibes of the time perfectly. In the summer of ‘64 Kesey bought a massive bus with some of the money from Cuckoo’s Nest and, with the help of a dozen or so Pranksters, painted it in swirling neon patterns. A few weeks later they were gone, preaching the gospel of LSD along the way and laying the foundations for the hippie subculture they left gestating back in San Francisco. 

“So the Hieronymus Bosch bus headed out of Kesey’s place with the destination sign in front reading ‘Furthur’ and a sign in the back saying ‘Caution: Weird Load.’ It was weird, all right, but it was euphoria on board, barreling through all that warm California sun in July, on the road, and everything they had been working on at Kesey’s was on board and heading on Furthur,” Tom Wolfe writes in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. “...The fact that they were all high on speed or grass [or acid], or so many combinations thereof that they couldn’t keep track, made it seem like a great secret life. It was a great secret life. The befuddled citizens could only see the outward manifestations of the incredible stuff going on inside their skulls. They were all characters in their own movies or the Big Movie. They took on new names and used them.”

Over their next few months on the road, the pranksters pushed the limits of the acid experience and subjected squares across the country to brazen displays of youthful exuberance. Dressed in tie dye shirts and costumes cut from the American flag, they played music from atop the bus, shouted bizarre slogans at passers-by, waded into blacks-only swimming holes and otherwise offended the sensibilities of post-war society. When they arrived in New York, they attempted to meet with Leary and his clique at Millbrook, only to be informed that he was in the midst of a multi-day acid experiment of self-exploration and was not to be disturbed. The cold, clinical vibes of the acid scene at Millbrook, with its studious academic drop-outs quietly reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead against a backdrop of Buddha statues and expensive eastern rugs, was quickly deemed a bummer by the pranksters. They dubbed it “the Crypt Trip” and headed on their way. 

Throughout the trip there were ups and downs. The Pranksters had the time of their lives, but many also succumbed to physical and mental exhaustion. Nevertheless, by the time Furthur rolled back into Kesey’s hippie paradise at La Honda in the fall of ‘64, none could deny that something very special had just taken place. Good and bad, they were eager to share what they’d learned with San Francisco’s radical subculture. 

Over the next few months, Kesey and the Pranksters began throwing wild, open-invitation parties at his La Honda hideout, which formed the nucleus of San Francisco’s burgeoning acid scene. Professors, dropouts,  and even public figures like Ginsberg—were all welcome, and all partook of the LSD sacrament offered here. In the late summer of ‘65, the parties began to take on an even more bizarre character when the Hell’s Angels, introduced to Kesey through Hunter S. Thompson while he was writing a book on the motorcycle gang, began attending as well. In the book, Thompson recalls his fond memories of those deeply weird parties, and their fundamental break from the clinical approach that had nearly monopolized the LSD experience until just a year or two earlier. 

“My own acid-eating experience is limited in terms of total consumption, but widely varied as to company and circumstances…” Thompson writes in Hell’s Angels, the Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. “And if I had a choice of repeating any one of the half-dozen bouts I recall, I would choose one of those Hell’s Angels parties in La Honda, complete with all the mad lighting, cops on the road, a Ron Boise sculpture looming out of the woods, and all the big speakers vibrating with Bob Dylan’s ‘Mr. Tambourine Man.’ It was a very electric atmosphere. If the Angels lent a feeling of menace, they also made it more interesting… and far more alive than anything likely to come out of a controlled experiment or a politely brittle gathering of well-educated truth-seekers looking for wisdom in a capsule.”

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Ryan Boysen is a freelance journalist based in New York. He previously co-wrote about Santa Cruz making war on homeless addicts. You can follow Ryan on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.

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