Gottlieb played a seminal role in shaping the agency in the 1950s and 1960s. He was also an outlier. Gottlieb, who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in the Bronx, didn’t fit into the Georgetown set that dominated the C.I.A. in those years. But he was valued and protected, particularly by Allen Dulles, the director of central intelligence, who believed deeply in mind-control experiments. Gottlieb was someone who could do the agency’s dirty work. And dirty it was.
Sharon Weinberger in the New York Times reviews the book: “POISONER IN CHIEF: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control, By Stephen Kinzer”. He writes: In 1955, R. Gordon Wasson set off for southern Mexico to experience a sacred Indian ceremony rumored to provide a “pathway to the divine.” Wasson later extolled the mystical effects of what he called the “magic mushroom,” the Mexican plant used in the ceremony, in a 1957 photo-essay for Life magazine.
Wasson’s article, read by millions, helped set the stage for an eventual cultural revolution that peaked with Timothy Leary, the former Harvard professor who proselytized for LSD and called on Americans to “turn on, tune in, drop out.” The seminal role Wasson’s trip played in promoting mind-bending drugs and the accompanying cultural revolution has been described before, including in Michael Pollan’s recent book, “How to Change Your Mind,” but a new biography by Stephen Kinzer, a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times, adds a key detail to this fascinating history.
“Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control” describes how, unbeknown to Wasson, the spy agency was funding his travel. In fact, Wasson’s trip “would electrify mind control experimenters in Washington whose ambitions were vastly different from his own.” Kinzer’s book traces the life and career of Gottlieb, the man standing in the shadows of this trip. Gottlieb was also the brains behind the eventual C.I.A. program it helped spawn, MK-ULTRA, the notorious research endeavor that employed mind-altering drugs, including LSD.
The broad outlines of MK-ULTRA are fairly well established even if many of the details are lost to the C.I.A.’s document destruction. Beginning in 1950, the agency, fearful of reported Communist brainwashing, began a top-secret project initially known as Bluebird, to explore ways to influence the human psyche. The program expanded dramatically with the entry of Gottlieb, a chemist with a deep-seated interest in mysticism. Kinzer describes him as “the first person the United States government ever hired to find ways to control human minds.”