POISONER IN CHIEF by Stephen Kinzer


Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control
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An accomplished journalist digs into the elusive and deeply troubling story behind the U.S. government’s postwar search for the perfect mind-control drug.

In this intriguing study, Kinzer (The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire, 2017, etc.) shows how U.S. officials drew on the findings of Nazi experiments on human “specimens” during World War II, which were exposed in the Nuremberg Trials, as well as notorious Japanese military trials that injected bacteria into and conducted lab tests on “expendable” humans. The U.S. enlisted many of these perpetrators to beef up postwar intelligence work. With the enemy now the Soviet Union and Red China, the U.S. needed to develop drugs that could be used as weapons of covert action. The 1947 National Security Act created the National Security Council and the CIA, and the new program to study chemical and biological agents was called Bluebird—supposedly to “make prisoners ‘sing like a bird.’ ” In the early 1950s, the program was taken over by Sidney Gottlieb, a Bronx-born scholar of agricultural biology who had been studying pharmaceuticals and agricultural chemicals at the Department of Agriculture when his academic mentors—e.g., Allen Dulles—lured him to the work of what Kinzer characterizes as “medical torture.” This meant dosing unwilling patients with potent drugs like LSD and mescaline in an attempt to find some kind of “truth serum.” Eventually renamed MK-ULTRA, the program was run strictly by Gottlieb, “America’s mind control czar.” The author engagingly examines various facets of this bizarre program, which led to LSD experimentation within the scientists’ social circles, resulting in instances of overdose and even suicide. After a decade of research into mind control, Gottlieb and his colleagues were forced to “face their cosmic failure.” Ultimately, readers will feel Kinzer’s frustration that Gottlieb, after a late-life conversion and being hauled back to Washington, D.C., for two rounds of Senate hearings, maintained his “victimization” and never truly had to answer for the crime of “laying waste to other people’s minds and bodies.”

A valiantly researched study that resurrects a troubling episode in American history.

Pub Date: Sept. 10th, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-250-14043-2
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Henry Holt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 2019


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