Cloak and Dropper—The Twisted History of the CIA and LSD - Page 4

By Ryan Boysen 09/18/15

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

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The La Honda parties were quickly followed by the Acid Tests, mind-bending spectacles put on by the Pranksters at venues in and around San Francisco. Armed with all manner of strobes, blacklights and dayglo, the Pranksters more-or-less invented the modern idea of the "light show" at these events, which also served as the springboards that launched the careers of psychedelic acts like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. Taking acid wasn’t mandatory, but it might as well have been. 

Around this time—late '65 or early '66—buoyed by the Pranksters’ wild parties and Acid Tests on the West Coast and Leary’s headline-grabbing acid endorsements on the East, acid finally went mainstream. And it was in San Francisco’s ramshackle Haight-Ashbury district that the iconic hippies of the '60s, the true LSD devotees, lived in their psychedelic bubble and reflected back upon square society whatever it chose to see there. 

Two events catapulted the newly-gelled hippie lifestyle into the mainstream, simultaneously establishing it as a siren song for the nation’s misunderstood youth and a cautionary tale for the old guard of the "silent majority."

The first, in January 1967, was the Human Be-In. A massive open-air event held in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, the Human Be-In attracted somewhere between 20 and 30,000 hippies and their fellow travelers. The participants celebrated their place at the forefront of the counterculture by smoking weed, dropping acid and listening to speakers like Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary and others address topics like the mysteries of LSD, ecological stewardship and communal living. The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and other groups performed, and the press had a field day. 

Outwardly, the Be-In looked like a very public repudiation of all the values the CIA held dear and sought to uphold: secrecy, power, control, the protection of the established order, you name it. But behind the scenes there was a definite, if ambiguous, line of breadcrumbs that led directly back to the Agency. As the authors of Acid Dreams note, the Be-In was the brainchild of John Starr Cooke, a “mysterious guru-type figure” who was also “a man of wealth and influential family connections,” and “no stranger to high-level CIA personnel.” 

One of Cooke’s in-laws through his sister was Sherman Kent, an extremely powerful figure at the CIA who served as longtime CIA Director Allen Dulles’ right-hand man for much of his tenure at the Agency. Through Kent, Cooke was said to have known several other higher-ups in the CIA quite well. Which was a bit strange, given Cooke’s lifestyle. As an early follower of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, Cooke was the first Scientologist in America to attain the rank of "clear," before becoming disillusioned with the budding religion and settling down as the guru of a sufi sect in North Africa for a time.

Cooke subsequently relocated to California in the early '60s, where he developed a gluttonous appetite for LSD, reportedly taking it every day for two years straight at one point. He then settled in Mexico and attracted a following of devotees, the Psychedelic Rangers, who in turn sought to turn on reporters, public figures and countercultural icons through massive-dose LSD sessions. The hope with these initiates was that “they might see the Clear Light, as it were, and present a more favorable picture of LSD in the press,” write the authors of Acid Dreams. One of Cooke’s Psychedelic Rangers was Michael Bowen, a key figure behind San Francisco’s leading underground counterculture publication and the man who ultimately did most of the legwork in arranging the Human Be-In, at Cooke’s behest of course. 

The motivations for Cooke, Bowen and the other hippies who helped plan the Be-In was many-fold. First, they wanted to “bring together cultural and political rebels who did not always see eye-to-eye on strategies for liberation,” write the authors of Acid Dreams. “In effect the goal was to psychedelicize the radical left.” Their other goal was to shine a massive spotlight on the counterculture movement and its values, in the hopes that this would generate the critical mass of awareness needed to move the needle even further towards revolution and liberation.

With the subsequent Summer of Love, they would succeed beyond their wildest dreams. A half-planned, half-random phenomenon that occurred when as many as 100,000 prospective hippies poured into San Francisco during the summer of 1967; the Summer of Love marked the high point of the hippie project, even as it led to its undoing. A similar process played out in New York at the same time, and contemporary accounts paint those months as an endless bacchanal of concerts, performance art, personal exploration, drug usage and hardscrabble living. “If you can remember the '60s,” the saying goes, “You weren’t really there.” This was the Summer of Love in a nutshell. 

When all was said and done, most of the young people who’d flooded America’s two pre-eminent countercultural bastions returned to wherever they’d come from, taking what they’d learned with them. In October, a performance art group in San Francisco staged a mock funeral for “The Hippie,” distributing flyers that read as follows: “Funeral Notice - HIPPIE - In the Haight Ashbury District of this city, Hippie, devoted son of Mass Media.”

The media attention that had begun gaining steam even before the Be-In, and had accelerated dramatically over 1967, was a double-edged sword for the hippies. One of the most immediate effects was the demonization of acid in the popular press, even as the appeal of the hippie lifestyle and its values continued to grow in the eyes of the nation’s youth. 

Much of the mainstream coverage focused on outlandish episodes and predictions with little basis in reality. Headlines like “Girl Eats LSD and Goes Wild,” “A Monster in Our Midst—A Drug Called LSD,” “The Newly Discovered Dangers of LSD,” “Thrill Drugs Warps Minds, Kills,” were all typical during this time. In addition to portraying acid as a drug that would destroy your mind, the media also claimed it would destroy your genes—many news outlets ran stories claiming LSD could cause permanent damage to chromosomes, supposedly leading to the birth of octopus babies and other unspeakable outcomes. Despite the fact that CIA and military scientists had long ago debunked the vast majority of these claims, both remained conspicuously silent as the increasingly ridiculous rumors continued to fly. 

In the spring of 1966, almost exactly a year before the Summer of Love, Congress held a hearing on what to do about the insidious substance. Impassioned testimony from well-known acid priests like Tim Leary and Allen Ginsberg fell on deaf ears, and LSD was outlawed that same year in California, and would become illegal at the federal level in 1970. By the time that happened the legitimate LSD research scene had been all but stamped out, driving the drug and its proponents even further underground.  

In his testimony at the same hearing, Dr. Stanley Yolles, a former director of the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH), predicted the likely results of LSD prohibition with an eery clarity. “I have a strong feeling,” he said, “That if we make the possession of LSD illegal, it will drive it further underground and make what perhaps is the beginning of a flaunting of authority… a more pathological process and a more strongly accented act of rebellion.”

***

At the same time as the acid craze and the rise of the hippies was playing out, the straighter side of the counterculture had also been gaining in popularity and visibility. The Johnson Administration had been steadily ramping up the Vietnam War throughout the '60s, and by ‘67 there were nearly half a million American servicemen killing for peace in the country. 

Added to this was the growing momentum of the Civil Rights Movement, with the infamous Selma to Montgomery marches taking place in 1965. A series of nationwide race riots in 1967 was a painful reminder that, despite the movement’s many successes, its broader goals were still far from being realized. While the hippies and anti-war activists were largely white and middle class, the growing momentum of the Civil Rights Movement nonetheless added fuel to their fire, even if the out-and-out overlap between the two movements was often minimal.

Taken together, the cultural currents of the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-War Movement, alongside the acid craze and the hippies’ more general sense of disillusionment with the government, were the main drivers behind the catch-all phenomena described by the media as "the counterculture." 

The hippies and acid freaks were often at odds with the ends and means of groups like the Berkeley Free Speech Movement (FSM) and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a nationwide student activist group and the tip of the spear for the 60s’ New Left. While groups like the FSM and SDS organized marches and tried to effect change from within the political process, many of the more devout acidheads preferred to turn their backs on politics altogether. Timothy Leary neatly summarized the latter point of view: “People should not be allowed to talk politics except on all fours.”

Nevertheless, there was significant overlap between both sides of the spectrum, and in the eyes of the federal government the use of drugs like LSD and marijuana was considered synonymous with dissension and political protest. Unsurprisingly, the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies devoted significant resources to infiltrating and undermining all manner of dissident groups during the '60s, a job that often required undercover operatives to drop acid and smoke joints alongside idealistic students that considered these substances inherently revolutionary. 

“Needless to say,” write the authors of Acid Dreams, “These young romantics had no idea that the CIA’s ‘enlightened’ operatives had been dropping acid since the early 1950s without being moved to trade in their blow darts, shellfish toxin and extreme prejudices for flowers, love beads and peace signs.”

While it would later become apparent that acid itself has no allegiance either to the forces of revolution or to the status quo, if you were young and active in the counterculture during the heady days of the mid-to-late '60s it wasn’t hard to see why you might’ve thought acid, and the universe in general, had your back. As the Johnson Administration continued ramping up the war in Vietnam, student activists escalated the scale of their protests and other actions to match. 

Their efforts reached a stunning crescendo just months after the Summer of Love, during the March on the Pentagon in October of 1967. Roughly a 100,000 activists encircled the nexus of the American war effort and, half-jokingly, attempted to levitate the structure and exorcise it of its evil vibes. As protesters got close enough to the line of soldiers guarding the Pentagon to place flowers in the barrels of their guns, the art-protest band The Fugs delivered the rites of the ceremony to the surging crowd over a massive speaker system:

“...We call upon the powers of the cosmos to protect our ceremonies. In the name of Zeus, in the name of Anubis god of the dead, in the name of all those killed for causes they do not comprehend, in the name of the lives of the dead soldiers in Vietnam who were killed because of a bad karma… We call upon the spirits to raise the Pentagon from its destiny… Out demons out, out demons out, out demons out…”

The rush of participation in the nationwide countercultural movement and the frequent use of drugs like acid and marijuana was a powerful combination. “Caught up in their own inflated rhetoric, almost everyone associated with the New Left began to lose track of what was politically feasible,” write the authors of Acid Dreams. “Radicals blithely spoke of revolution as if it were just around the corner, a historical certainty as imminent as tomorrow’s sunrise. And why not? The flamboyant images of revolt were everywhere—in the daily papers, in the underground press, on the TV news. In a society thoroughly bombarded by media images, who could tell what was real?”

***

In the end however, the golden age of the hippies and the anti-war movement was over almost as soon as it had begun. In April 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered, setting off a wave of nationwide riots and throwing the Civil Rights Movement into disarray. Just a few months later, in the summer of 1968, the hippies and anti-war activists were also struck by the reactionary hammer. A protest in Chicago that coincided with the Democratic National Convention was met with such brutal force that it was later described as a “police riot,” with undercover officers inciting protesters to violence and uniformed policemen sweeping in to crack the skulls and ribs of all the long-hairs in their path. 

At around the same time, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the primary organizational body of the anti-war movement, began to splinter and crack under the weight of internal divisions, ultimately falling apart by 1970. As the decade came to a close, the most radical anti-war activists, like the Weather Underground, turned their backs on peaceful protest and descended into domestic terrorism. Meanwhile, those less inclined to political causes drifted away from protest and sought refuge in drugs and the burgeoning golden age of Rock ‘n’ Roll. 

Although opposition to the war continued to simmer and protests were still being held, by the early '70s the thrill had gone, and the prospect of total revolution no longer seemed to be in the cards. In one of the most famous passages of his 1971 novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson reflects on what the hippies had lost in just a few short years:

“There was madness in any direction, at any hour… You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning… And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or militaristic sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…

“So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

Luckily for Dr. Thompson, and any other lost soul still coping with the hangover of those golden days, the late '60s and early '70s were swimming in cheap, high-quality acid. The vast majority of this was distributed by the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, a sort of “Hippie Mafia” dedicated to carrying on the revolution-via-consciousness-expansion project of hardcore hippies like Timothy Leary. Although they operated out of Orange County, most of their famous Orange Sunshine acid—in total, roughly a kilogram, or 10 million hits—was produced in France, by a mysterious figure named Ronald Hadley Stark. 

As one of the biggest clandestine drug producers in the world at the time, Stark unsurprisingly led an extraordinary and secretive life, and it’s likely most of the details will never be completely pinned down. But it’s clear Stark had one thing that separated him from many other drug kingpins— extensive ties to the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies. Stark’s involvement in the acid trade was yet another sign of just how long the Agency’s reach into this world really was throughout the '60s and early '70s. 

In 1975, Stark was arrested in Italy and began infiltrating some of the country’s domestic terrorist groups—and turning some of their leaders on to acid—from inside prison. The reasons behind his activity in Italy were never fully understood, but an Italian magistrate had apparently seen enough to conclude that Stark was “an agent of the American secret services.” That magistrate was killed in a car accident a few weeks later. 

From the available evidence, it’s impossible to determine the extent to which he was taking orders from the Agency, or just working with them when it served their mutual interests. “Perhaps the best explanation,” write the authors of Acid Dreams, “is that certain CIA officials were willing to condone Stark’s exploits in the drug trade as long as he functioned as an informant.”

From the CIA’s role as clandestine midwife to the psychedelic research scene to its tenuous involvement in the underground acid trade that came later and everything in between, it still remains unclear the extent to which the Agency was knowingly directing events or simply struggling to keep up with them. It’s highly improbable the CIA was powerful or knowledgeable enough to purposefully set in motion everything that happened during the '60s with acid, but it’s nonetheless clear the Agency was involved, in some way or another, in almost every step of the acid age from start to finish. 

Timothy Leary, speaking at a conference on LSD held at the University of California Santa Cruz in 1977, likely had his tongue planted firmly in cheek when he asserted that “The LSD movement was started by the CIA. I wouldn’t be here now without the foresight of the CIA scientists… It was no accident. It was all planned and scripted by Central Intelligence, and I’m all in favor of Central Intelligence.”

It was Hunter S. Thompson however, again in Fear and Loathing, who probably came a bit closer to the nut. 

“History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of ‘history’ it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what really happened.”

Ryan Boysen is a freelance journalist based in New York. He previously co-wrote about Santa Cruz making war on homeless addicts.

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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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