Mind Control: MKUltra and the Red Scare

By Fiona McMahon (’22)

How was the CIA able to execute an American mind-altering project involving hallucinogenic drugs, administered to U.S. citizens, that affected human psychological and social behavior under a cloak of secrecy for decades? The American people discovered information regarding the CIA’s mind-control program titled MKUltra two decades after its execution. Followed by the release of confidential information by a Freedom of Information Act request, the American people were told the semi-truth about a project exposed as “un-American and medically unethical” and in which over 80 institutions were involved (4). Some of these same Americans were unknowing participants in the project. By examining newspaper articles and nationwide coverage of information on MKUltra to its American audience in the late 1970’s, this paper argues that the CIA was exploiting unwitting Americans through a drug-related campaign as a direct result of Cold War paranoia. This campaign introduced LSD to vulnerable American citizens. In its attempt to rid society of evidence of the program, the CIA was able to keep the active project a secret for over twenty-five years. When documentation and reports were released in the mid 1970s, the scope of the project was characterized as a combative research campaign to counter communist and Soviet brainwashing techniques. The CIA claimed the campaign was necessary as an American tool in the Cold War era, despite its experimentation and observation being carried out on American soil. The CIA framed this project as a valuable protection plan against Communism, but by implementing the experiments on American citizens, the U.S. abandoned its democratic values and gave into the communist ideology they heavily feared. This Cold War paranoia coupled with American anxieties on communist rule made U.S. citizens vulnerable to the CIA’s projects.  

Most of the evidence surrounding MKUltra had been destroyed at the end of the project in 1965 as ordered by CIA Director Richard Helms (in office 1966-1973), making it difficult for the true weight and severity of the project to come to light. In 1975, Helms was quoted saying that Dr. Sidney Gottlieb approached him to destroy the files, hoping to avoid embarrassment if anybody who assisted in the past was subject to follow-up questions (7).  The destruction of these files left very little for the public to examine for information on the project. For years, the lack of evidence and documentation on the execution of this campaign made it impossible for the Congressional Select Committee to locate and provide assistance to subjects of the program, as well as understanding the full scope of the experiments at hand. However, some agents were able to recover financial paperwork that left clues surrounding the projects. Most of the documentation included proposals to advance funds, vouchers, and accounting, but in piecing these seemingly irrelevant files together, the Select Committee got more information. According to the hearing report, MKUltra included,  

17 subprojects probably not involving human testing; 14 subprojects definitely involving tests on human volunteers; 19 subprojects probably including tests on human volunteers; 6 subprojects involving tests on unwitting subjects (7).  

This discovery was critical evidence in better understanding the scale of the project as well as the intended participants and resources acquired. The addition of clarifying tests done on both “volunteers” and “unwitting subjects” demonstrates how dangerous the experiments could have been—so much so that it was important to note that some of the subjects were unaware of their participation. The extent that the CIA went to in order to implement this project and then cover it up stresses the agents’ willingness, especially Richard Helms’, to withhold pertinent information on the American people from the American people. 

As financial documentation was released to the public, local coverage of the project was introduced everywhere, allowing Americans to learn more about the project. The Springfield Union released an article in 1976 that referred to the project as the “Russian drug scare” and defended its intention by claiming “[the] program grew out of CIA concern that the Soviet Union had developed drugs and other mind-altering techniques which could be used against soldiers or intelligence agents” (5). This allowed the general public to place purpose on the CIA’s campaign, encouraging the perception that the experiments were done to protect their country. In the same year, the Dallas Morning News and Seattle Daily Times released articles on the U.S. Select Committee hearings, as well. They disclosed, respectively, that the experiments began as a means of combating the “brainwashing” techniques used by the Soviets, North Koreans and Chinese on dissident nationals (2) while noting that the reports did not say how the experiments were carried out (4). These statements professed that the experiments’ purpose was to combat the spread of communism, but there was secrecy in its execution. As Americans are hearing more about how the CIA carried out a mind-altering campaign, they are reminded of its purpose to promote democratic ideals during the Cold War. 

As Americans started asking questions on the scope of the MKUltra project, the people were continuously reminded that it was intended to protect their state from communism. The next year, in 1977, the Augusta Chronicle released that the experiments included “attempts at alteration of sex patterns and drug-tests on college students” (1). The article explained that the program began in the early Cold War years with the intention of counteracting brainwashing techniques (1). This story revealed that more information was coming to light, as the American people began to pinpoint potential victims of this project. “College students” could refer to millions of people, but they were essentially deemed patriots for being a part of combating the Soviet threat in the 1960’s (1). In other words, these articles implied that there were unwitting Americans that participated in a mind-altering experiment, but it was deemed acceptable because it was all for the greater good of stopping the spread of Communism and protecting our American values of freedom and democracy. 

During the Cold War, there was a proclaimed urge to preserve American democratic values. This paranoia, that communism would spread to the Western world and prevent freedom from prevailing, resulted in many conspiracies about the Soviets throughout the U.S. government. In Stephen Kinzer’s book The Brothers, there is an emphasis on the CIA’s direct mission with defeating communism around the world, as playing into the paranoia. President Eisenhower and Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, promoted the Soviet conspiracy paranoia by stressing that Americans must do everything they can to prevent Soviet ideals from scattering across the globe. Kinzer writes, “[Foster] believed that portraying the Soviets as unrelentingly evil was a way of sharpening people’s fear and thereby promoting readiness and national unity” (3). This was a major focus of the American government to portray the Soviets as the enemy while simultaneously promoting American values of freedom and goodness. Foster Dulles’s brother, Allen Dulles, the director of the CIA from 1953-1961, assigned Dr. Sidney Gottlieb as the chemist on the MKUltra Project (3). The relationship between Eisenhower and the Dulles brothers represents the direct correlation between the government, the CIA, and the Red Scare during the Cold War. Together, they show us the influence that their respective branches of government had on the American people, as well as how large a Soviet conspiracy theory can influence their decisions.

So, as the Select Committee continued on with its release of official information, the topic of Communist threat was continuously used as the defense for the project. The paranoia was prominent, and it led to some horrific executions of CIA plans. To add to the horrors of the experimentation, the Committee revealed that the test subjects of one of the first studies were “volunteer” prisoners at an addiction research center who were administered hallucinogenic drugs. It continued on, “[as] a reward for participation in the program, the addicts were provided with the drug of their addiction” (7). Testing these programs and drugs on vulnerable Americans and labeling them as “volunteers” knowing their mental state is a direct contradiction of protecting the liberty and freedom of our state. These nonconsensual test subjects were given the substance that abused their physical and mental state as a reward. It is not a “reward” if their altered perception of the substance is something that they think they need. In this case, the CIA did not provide a fair choice for their test subjects. Yet, the CIA agents justified these and many other horrible actions as a combative approach to Communist drug initiatives across the world, deeming it appropriate in order to protect our democracy. 

Additionally, as the Select Committee proceeds with their hearings, the CIA may have had alternative motives other than preventing the spread of Communist ideas on American soil. In the hearings, Senator Huddleston of Kentucky asks if there was any evidence or indication of other motives within the Agency, such as debilitating or killing another person as part of the experimentation. Admiral Stansfield Turner–Director of the CIA from 1977 to 1981, at the time of the hearings–confirmed this inkling of ulterior motives stating that the project turned quickly from defensive measures against communism to offensive attacks on its own people. To this, Senator Huddleston followed up, “The project continued for some time after it was learned that, in fact, foreign powers did not have such a drug as was at first feared, didn’t it?” Admiral Turner responded, “That is my understanding. Yes, sir” (7). This dialogue demonstrates the misguided thinking within the CIA, so focused on combating communism that it went too far in the experimentation and research. The Soviet conspiracy and paranoia got to its leaders’ heads. A project that initially started out as a combative approach against supposed Soviet brainwashing grew into something much larger, something harmful to its own American citizens. In their efforts to disband communism in the United States, the CIA figuratively drugged themselves with a race for ultimate power. 

To emphasize American exceptionalism, the CIA kept its power a secret from the people: a true antithesis of democratic ideals. The CIA determined that the American people were as dangerous as the communist threat, just as the CIA could not disclose information to powers abroad. The CIA’s Inspector General wrote in 1957, 

Precautions must be taken to conceal these activities from the American public in general. The knowledge that the Agency is engaging in unethical and illicit activities would have serious repercussions in political and diplomatic circles and would be detrimental to the accomplishment of its mission (7).

To the American public, this statement indicated that information was withheld in order to protect the reputation and success of the CIA’s efforts. However, in any project that involves American test subjects, transparency should be mandated. Perhaps the project started off innocently as a protection plan for U.S. citizens and agents abroad, but as experimentation took off, the CIA’s intentions faltered. So much so that the protection for democracy became a threat against American people, as they were treated as test subjects in an inhumane campaign. 

MKUltra continues to stand as a major critical juncture of distrust between the people and the Agency. In 1999, following the passing of lead MKUltra chemist, Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, the New York Times published an article detailing his role on the mind-altering project. In recalling Gottlieb’s life, it says that he will always be remembered as the government chemist who dosed Americans with psychedelics “in the name of national security.” It continues, saying that Gottlieb was “the man who brought LSD to the CIA and that many of the human guinea pigs were mental patients, prisoners, drug addicts and prostitutes – ‘people who could not fight back’” (8). Gottlieb, assigned by Allen Dulles, introduced LSD and other mind-altering drugs to vulnerable U.S. citizens. The “human Guinea pigs” were purposefully chosen because of their marginalized roles in society that made them appear lesser to the Agency. 

Looking back on the campaign and its alleged intentions, most government officials took communist threat as the utmost concern for American security, disregarding human life. The Times article continues that Gottlieb never did what he did for inhumane reasons, but that he thought he was doing exactly what was needed in the context of the time (8). Indeed, in the context of the Cold War, who would have been the one to prioritize international domination above domestic protection of our own citizens? According to Gottlieb and other CIA constituents, they were supposedly fighting for democracy. Their fight, however, included disregarding American lives to further their anti-communist agendas, calling into question who and what they were really fighting for: protection of democracy. 

Now, in the twenty-first century, many questions surrounding MKUltra, as well as the mischievous agents running the program, still remain. While the true intentions of MKUltra are a mystery, the ethics of the project cannot be debated. Which, then, matters more? In a country where the citizens value their freedom and liberty, retrospectively learning about MKUltra felt like a betrayal. In the Select Committee Hearings, Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts calls the report “enormously distressing” as he continues on about the injustices of activity that involves unwitting Americans and their research (7). Kennedy explains the long-lasting effects of the MKUltra campaign, that could have impacted vulnerable and unknowing American citizens long past the end of the experimentations. The CIA agents were convinced, and the American people perceived, that MKUltra was valuable in preventing the spread of communism. However, it was more so the paranoia that communism would take over the world that resulted in an abundance of microprojects. MKUltra was one of them. This project did not stop the spread of communism, but rather introduced authoritarian ideals onto American soil by pitting American citizens against their own values of freedom. The Soviet conspiracy, or the Red Scare, dominated the minds of all Americans during the Cold War. Government officials—including Eisenhower, the Dulles brothers, Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, and all CIA agents—fell victim to the paranoia that came with it. The truthfulness of the American democratic state was misplaced in order to gain power against Soviet threats. However, at what cost to our democracy and freedom comes with gaining international power? The Agents involved in MKUltra went too far in exploring the limits of their own power that they threatened our most prized values of freedom and liberty in order to beat their own paranoia. 

Fiona McMahon is an American Studies, Business Economics, and Innovation & Entrepreneurship major. Her essay was originally written for Professor Perin Gürel’s American Studies course ‘American Conspiracies.’


  1. Augusta Chronicle, 3 Aug. 1977, p. 2. Readex: America’s Historical Newspapers, Accessed 16 Mar. 2021.
  1. Dallas Morning News, “Officials Censured CIA Drug Use, Records Show.”  Final Edition ed., 5 Aug. 1976, p. 15. Readex: America’s Historical Newspapers, Accessed 12 Mar. 2021.
  1. Kinzer, Stephen. The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War. St. Martins’ Griffin, 2014. 
  1. Seattle Daily Times, Night Sports Final ed., 4 Aug. 1976, p. 25. Readex: America’s Historical Newspapers. Accessed 16 Mar. 2021.
  1. Springfield Union, 21 July 1977, p. 5. Readex: America’s Historical Newspapers, Accessed 14 Mar. 2021.
  1. Szalavitz, Maia. “The Legacy of the CIA’s Secret LSD Experiments on America.” Time, Time, 23 Mar. 2012, healthland.time.com/2012/03/23/the-legacy-of-the-cias-secret-lsd-experiments-on-america/. 
  1. United States. Congress. Senate. Select Committee on Intelligence. (1978). “Project MKULTRA”, United States Senate, Ninety-fifth Congress, first session, August 3, 1977. U.S. Govt. Print. Off. Accessed 16 Mar. 2021
  1. Weiner, Tim. “Sidney Gottlieb, 80, Dies; Took LSD to C.I.A.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 10 Mar. 1999,  http://www.nytimes.com/1999/03/10/us/sidney-gottlieb-80-dies-took-lsd-to-cia.html?searchResultPosition=1. 

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