The Culture Wars

Acid Dreams: the CIA and the Lost Eden of the Counterculture


It doesn’t take much expertise in American pop culture to conclude that the psychedelic revolution of the 1960s left an enduring legacy. But how would we define it? A spate of recent music, films, books and websites tell us that the legend of the Golden Sixties is still very much with us. At least part of the Sixties fascination remains rooted in that prevailing popular belief that the psychedelic experience available through LSD, marijuana and other hallucinogenic drugs could provide a soul-changing force in the lives of ordinary people. It was this transformation that made the mud and grime of Woodstock into stardust, made bearded homeless hipsters see themselves as sons of god, with magical visions of love and peace that somehow could change bombers into butterflies.

But what if someone came along and said that a secret program of the Central Intelligence Agency deserved the credit for helping to start the Age of Aquarius?

Of course today we are more familiar with what we might call the downside of the drug culture— the bad trips, the suicides, the turf wars and murders, the crack houses, child pushers, the pathos of addiction, the lives shattered, families and careers destroyed, and the ultimate horror of drug induced insanity. It seems that since the 1960s the drug culture has meant many things to millions of people. But the image of the 1960s certainly has suffered as a result of it. The conservative version of the “culture wars” since the 1980s has suggested that the growth and popularization of the drug culture has threatened the decline and fall of traditional America. Such questions and assertions should remind us that we need to know more about this compelling era. 

And why are we drawn with such fascination to the 1960s? On this subject, the range of sources available to consider is truly amazing. MTV today regularly provides those bending notes, dreamy lyrics, and images of throbbing, oozing color that many will yet recognize as directly inspired by the music of Jimmy Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and the Beatles, or even the preachments of Timothy Leary.

“The Psychedelic Sixties,” a contemporary website hosted by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia provides a history of the psychedelic movement colorfully illustrated with poster art, book covers, photographs and excerpts from specific works. (Visit it at Historical vignettes treat the topics that range from Timothy Leary’s imprisonment, to the music of Bob Dylan and Moby Grape, to the poetry of Alan Ginsberg, the San Francisco Be-In of 1967, Woodstock, the Black Panthers and more. 

All of this is the stuff that legends are made of.  And this website is but one of many devoted to the history, culture, and experience of the 1960s. 

A recent film, entitled Acid Dreams, released in August, promises also to push back the boundaries of our visual perception of sanity and space. Brilliant color and moody dreamscapes here lead directly to absorption in sexuality—on a level most viewers will regard as simply pornographic. But there’s more at work here than ectoplasm glowing with the primal pulse. The storyline is that the CIA has established this house of paradise for the purposes of testing drugs, using prostitutes in a bizarre game of cloak and dagger tryst. Too far out to take seriously, right? Is all of this just another conspiracy theory?

The fact is, this movie draws on a well documented work of history written more than a decade ago by Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain—a far more ambitious work of culture and perspective than the film. Acid Dreams, The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, The Sixties and Beyond—is one of the more controversial studies to emerge on the frontier of recent cultural history. This weighty piece of serious work reminds us that the subject is one for thoughtful people in search of answers. And the search for answers about the Sixties is today a part of our ongoing national experience.

For those who came of age in this decade of liberal activism and reform, many questions yet linger. The search for that defining ambience, the vision of the Sixties, is like an introspective glance back into coming-of-age—that moment when childhood gives way to youth, and youth to maturity. And so it should not be surprising that this decade of romance should yet glow in the chrism of Arcadia for all whose hearts still yearn for the days of their youth. And so we should not be surprised to find also that the role of the CIA in all of this is like the serpent in the garden—for a golden trip turned into a nightmare.

The psychedelic experience described by Leary and immortalized in the music of the Beatles, may after all, be part of our most basic longing for meaning and identity— the very stuff that civilization is made of. I am thinking of Gilgamesh, the legendary Mesopotamian king, whose epic story is perhaps the oldest surviving book ever written—dating to the second millennium before Christ at least. Gilgamesh goes on a journey in search of an elixir of immortality, and of course, finds it— but loses it, while along the way finding friendship and love. The Roman philosopher, Cicero, whose writings and speeches inspired the founding fathers, wrote a treatise in which he described his youthful journey to Athens where he experienced the Eleusinian Mysteries, conceived his own immortality and understood the true relation between religion and philosophy. And then there was Mark Twain, notoriously hostile to the Garden of Eden, who nevertheless went back to the small town of Hannibal, walking the streets of this village already immortalized by his writings, looking for the people he had known there as a child.

So much the better for those who want to know the truth.  We want to know what happened to this vanished Arcadia, the realm of bliss and sunshine we once knew, the America of King and JFK. And was this lost Eden of the 1960s the real Eden, or was it only a phony, modern Eden—one profoundly diminished in the great cacophony of our world?

The book by Lee and Shlain provides more than an understanding of the psychedelic vision. The Acid Dream of the Sixties had many antecedents and was rooted in American culture. Twentieth century figures who could make some legitimate claim as intellectuals, such as Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, Alan Watts, Alan Ginsberg, Ken Kesey, Tom Wolfe and more, helped to legitimize the drug culture by writing about the psychedelic experience. Some joined other pop figures to become the drug gurus of the decade. 

But by the mid-1960s the psychedelic experience had emerged in America’s mass culture, reflected in popular groups such as the Merry Pranksters, the Diggers of San Francisco, New York’s Living Theater, and Europe’s Provos. Between 1967 and 1969 the psychedelic movement reached its peak in popular locations such as New York’s East Village and San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury. The January 1967 Be-In made the Haight into a national symbol, and the communal shamanism of the hippie movement that stressed LSD and marijuana as everyman’s shortcut to nirvana spread rapidly throughout the U.S.A. thereafter.

By the time of New York’s famous Rock Festival at Woodstock, in 1969, the psychedelic music of Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendrix and the Beatles had revolutionized the phenomenon of Rock and Roll.

But perhaps as fate would have it, it was at this same time that the movement in opposition to the war in Vietnam also achieved popularity. Smoldering conditions within America’s ghettos over poor housing, high unemployment and friction with law enforcement meanwhile burst suddenly into flames as rioting spread across the nation. For every golden trip through paradise there seemed to be another one through hell. 

So, the lost Eden of the 1960s may be as real or illusory as we want to make it. But if the Acid Dreams are what they purport to be, it may still mean that within the Sixties drug culture there was always another dimension, one hidden in the crazy laughter, the throbbing colors and the romance. Lee and Shlain assert that from the beginning the CIA, along with a variety of other agencies, such as the U.S. Army, ran special programs that played a significant interactive role in the ferment that shaped the decade.

Early CIA programs that began soon after World War II involved the testing and use of LSD, marijuana and a broad range of other drugs. In the context of Cold War fears of an international communist conspiracy and the danger of war with the Soviet Union, CIA interest in LSD ranged from programs in mind control, use of the drug as a “truth serum” in interrogations, to the ultimate use of acid as a weapon to conquer and control subject peoples. By the late 1950s these programs had given way to the testing of LSD and other drugs on U.S. citizens in a variety of settings, particularly through brothels in San Francisco and New York. Drugs such as LSD, STP, PCP, and various others—that had been tested on unwitting Americans heedless of these programs—later showed up on the streets of America’s cities as mass distributions, made freely available to young hippies caught up in the romance of the psychedelic experience.

According to Lee and Shlain, the CIA monitored the Haight-Ashbury scene as a part of a “human guinea pig farm” in the 1960s with the aid of organized crime.  And as acid laced with strychnine gave way to more destructive substances such as STP, PCP and methamphetamines, the bad trips and the blown minds led to street crime, rapes, and even murder.  Drug gurus saw the “good acid” of the early days give way to the “bad acid” that accompanied the decline of the Haight as a setting of cultural enrichment.

But it was in the New Left groups that gained popularity in response to the growing U.S. military involvement in Vietnam that the revolutionary ethos of the psychedelic movement seemed to reach its climax. Yippies, radical Students for a Democratic Society, extremist Weathermen, the Black Panthers, and other groups like them, assimilated the drug experience as an expression of their revolutionary élan. Where acid gurus saw LSD as an instrument of personal enlightenment, revolutionary “heads” such as Abbe Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Eldridge Cleaver, and others like them, saw acid as an instrument of societal transformation. The prescriptive cure for the madness that had launched the nation on a pointless war, wasting the lives of millions, while costing trillions of dollars in American treasure, was to forge a counterculture as hostile to war as it was devoted to the psychedelic dance of love, peace, ecstasy, mystery, magic, and beauty.

Unlike so many who became heedlessly caught up the Sixties drug experience, and unlike the millions of Americans who never grasped the role their government played in the process that made the psychedelic revolution, Lee and Schlain show how by the 1970s all of this had backfired in a mass drug culture that was fed by organized crime, having produced a popular image much at odds with the romantic yearnings of Leary and the drug gurus. The majority of Americans reacted in the electoral proceedings of 1968, 1970, and 1972— the silent majority that expressed its contempt for a “revolution” lacking in substance and vision. Soon, the Sixties came to be regarded as that time when feckless militants, bra burning fems, and wacko hippies took to the streets in a spree of “total revolution”— of rebellion for its own sake— one that somehow never connected with the real issues such as war in Vietnam, racial discrimination, and conservative politicians out of touch with reality.

So if you’re one of those who came of age in the Sixties, or even if you belong to a later generation, you may have wondered— what happened to the America of the Kennedys and King? What happened to the golden vision? Relying on the film version, the Acid Dream may strike you as no more than mere pornography— for a decade of “free love” and revolutionary hype. While historical writings have their limitations, Lee and Schlain have brought us closer to the illusive Sixties. But even they do not inform us how the programs of the CIA were or were not related to the other range of counterintelligence operations both of the FBI and the CIA that were designed to stifle opposition to the Vietnam War. 

Sad as it may seem to us, the real truth about the Sixties may remain illusive for most Americans through the years to come. And for the golden vision, it may be fair enough to say that mere history simply can’t suffice. But to be sure, the search for the lost Eden will not end— for this generation or for the next. It is too deeply rooted in the soul of humanity to be dislodged by war or by secret programs. While for those of us who came of age in the psychedelic decade, for whom Kennedy and King were part of the very beginning of our political understanding of America, the look back will always be linked to that Arcadian image of innocence and youth that define our understanding. Perhaps this is much as it should be.


John L. Godwin is the author of Black Wilmington and the North Carolina Way: Portrait of a Community in the Era of Civil Rights Protest, (Lanham, MD.: University Press of America, 2000).





From The People’s Civic Record

Vol. 3, No 12, December 2003


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