Cloak and Dropper—The Twisted History of the CIA and LSD
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A mind is a terrible thing to waste. Unless, of course, the CIA is paying you to do it.
Just ask George Hunter White. A hard-drinking, hard-charging veteran of the U.S. Bureau of Narcotics, White “made headlines breaking up opium and heroin rings in Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and the U.S.” during the '40s and '50s, SFWeekly’s Troy Hooper writes.
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That was his day job.
As the sun set and the moon began to trace its path across the night sky however, a change came over White. Instead of busting degenerate drug-pushers and their ilk, his thoughts turned to sex, violence and the brutal administration of mind-altering substances to those wholly unprepared for them, an effort aided by a harem of drug-addicted whores who reported directly to White. This was all in the name of national security, of course. It was 1957 and the Cold War was in full swing; desperate times called for desperate measures.
White’s home base was San Francisco’s upscale Telegraph Hill neighborhood. Here he would sit atop a portable toilet given to him by a friend, guzzling martinis and scribbling notes as he watched, through a two-way mirror, the unspeakable acts committed in the next room over at his behest.
White was under contract with the CIA to study the effects of LSD and other drugs on the drunks, drifters and other human flotsam on the margins of San Francisco society. It wasn’t entirely necessary that his test subjects be drawn from the dregs of the City by the Bay, but it was easier that way. Fewer questions when things inevitably went wrong. What was essential was that they have no prior experience of the drugs they were about to be dosed with, no preexisting mental defenses to protect them from the imminent breakdown White would be gleefully observing on his side of the two-way mirror.
On the other side of the reflective coating, the walls were covered in posters depicting women in various acts of bondage and other dark fantasies. It was here that White’s whores would bring their unsuspecting Johns, generally drunks from the rowdy North Beach bar scene. Their mission was simple: seduce the Johns, bring them back to the pad, dose their drinks with whatever substance White had selected for that evening, go to work and let come what may.
If they didn’t remember what had happened the next morning, that was no problem. White would. After all, that’s what the CIA was paying him for. And damned if he wasn’t loving every minute of it.
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“I was a very minor missionary, actually a heretic, but I toiled wholeheartedly in the vineyards because it was fun, fun, fun,” White wrote, in a letter to his at-the-time boss, Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, the éminence grise behind the CIA’s MKULTRA program. “Where else could a red-blooded boy lie, kill, cheat, steal, rape and pillage with the sanction and blessing of the All-Highest? Pretty Good Stuff, Brudder!”
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.”
In 1959, Ken Kesey was a graduate student studying creative writing at Stanford, just an hour’s drive south of San Francisco. While there were glimmers of the countercultural icon Kesey would soon become—an anti-authoritarian streak and a critical gaze locked firmly onto the peculiar hierarchies of American society, to name a few—at this point in his life, he was anything but.
Growing up in rural Oregon, the powerfully built Kesey got into the University of Oregon on a football scholarship and was also a champion wrestler, nearly qualifying for a spot in the Olympics before a shoulder injury put an end to his days as a star athlete. His early life was as all-American as it gets, full of muscle cars, comic books and drive-in movies. While at college, he eloped with his high school sweetheart, and they remained married until the day he died.
When he first arrived at Stanford he’d never even had a sip of beer.
That all changed rather quickly however, when a friend told him about a program at a nearby VA hospital where doctors paid volunteers $75 a day to eat research chemicals and report on their experiences. Kesey’s interest was piqued. He volunteered.
As he sat on the edge of a hospital bed, Kesey swallowed a pill given to him by a white-smocked doctor and stared idly out the window. What he saw next sparked a life-long journey of discovery that would profoundly influence the coming psychedelic movement which, at that very moment, was just beginning to claw its way out of the stodgy off-white shell of '50s America.
“...The first thing he knew about it was a squirrel dropped an acorn from a tree outside, only it was tremendously loud and sounded like it was not outside but right in the room with him and not actually a sound, either, but a great suffusing presence, visual, almost tactile, a great impacting of… blue… all around him and suddenly he was in a realm of consciousness he had never dreamed of before and it was not a dream or a delirium but part of his awareness,” writes Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. “...And yes, that little capsule sliding blissly down the gullet was LSD.”
It would be decades before this fact came to light, but Kesey’s acid was from the same place White’s was: the CIA.
The Agency had been busy at work unlocking the mysteries of acid for several years before Kesey took his first hit in ‘59. Efforts to weaponize psychoactive substances went back even further, all the way to the birth of the modern U.S. intelligence establishment in 1943. This was when the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s wartime predecessor, first embarked upon a top secret initiative to systematically catalogue every single mind-altering substance or technique they could get their hands on, and evaluate their potential usefulness for clandestine operations and interrogations.
Throughout the war, the OSS tested the obvious candidates (marijuana, alcohol, caffeine) and the less obvious (peyote, barbiturates), eventually settling on a super-pure THC extract known as T.D.—truth drug—as their, well, truth drug of choice. When the OSS became the CIA in 1947, its officers continued their exhaustive drug and behavioral conditioning research, further experimenting with T.D. and a variety of psychedelics, uppers, downers and hypnosis techniques—sometimes all in the same session.
By 1951, the CIA was comfortable enough with these experimental techniques that they authorized their use in the field. “There will be many a failure,” writes a CIA scientist in a formerly-classified memo obtained by the authors of Acid Dreams, but “every success will be pure gravy.”
The Agency didn’t know the half of it.
That same year the CIA finally stumbled upon LSD, which had first been synthesized by Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann in 1938. The initial experiments were promising: interrogators were often able to pry secrets easily from test subjects, and some of these experienced amnesia after the fact, a supremely useful quality in any potential truth serum. LSD produced these effects when administered in extremely small amounts, and was also tasteless, odorless and colorless. Gravy indeed.
“We had thought at first that this was the secret that was going to unlock the universe,” a CIA officer told the authors of Acid Dreams.
Things got very weird at the CIA for the next couple of years, at least in the Technical Services Staff division, which ran MKULTRA. Soon, getting zonked on acid became both a cherished pastime and an occupational hazard for TSS agents. It was not uncommon to show up at work and, after a few sips of your morning coffee, have a colleague tap you on the shoulder and suggest taking the day off, because he had dosed it. Heavily.
Shortly after their introduction to Lucy, the Agency began doubling down on research into psychedelics and other stranger things. Seances were infiltrated. Funding was secured for ESP research. By 1953, the CIA had contracted with George White to set up a clandestine LSD whorehouse in Greenwich Village, the precursor to his later experiments during “Operation Midnight Climax” in San Francisco.
Soon however, the Agency realized LSD was more complicated than they’d thought. Sometimes test subjects became outgoing and loquacious, other times pensive and withdrawn. Sometimes they spoke the truth, sometimes they babbled nonsense. Acid was clearly much more than just a simple truth serum.
While disappointed, the Agency was nonetheless determined to get to the bottom of acid and its fellow psychedelics. By the early '50s the CIA was clandestinely underwriting a massive campaign of clinical research into psychedelics, funneling money through shell companies to a wide array of (mostly) unsuspecting scientists and secretly keeping tabs on the results of their experiments. What followed was a golden era of psychedelic research, in which prominent scientists and academics of every stripe engaged in wide-ranging experiments to pin down the uses and effects of psychedelic drugs. It wasn’t always pretty, as Dr. Hoch and his acid lobotomies can attest to, but the sheer volume of work done on psychedelics during this time was nonetheless humbling—and often very productive.
The CIA was by no means solely responsible for this post-war psychedelic research boom, but the Agency effectively became the puppet master at the heart of this exciting new field of study. Whether scientists were actively collaborating with the Agency or wholly unaware of its involvement, the CIA was ultimately pulling the strings. For the next decade or so “it was impossible for an LSD researcher not to rub shoulders with the espionage establishment,” write the authors of Acid Dreams, “For the CIA was monitoring the entire scene.”
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.”
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.