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Cold War Science

In case you missed it, the New Yorker published a great, but terrifying look into science’s sordid past this last December. Operation Delirium and High Anxiety: LSD in the Cold War detail the US army’s experiments in mind control and chemical warfare during the cold war, centered around Edgewood Arsenal, in Maryland.

The efforts were led by Colonel James S. Ketchum, who wanted to develop a more humane approach to war: the enemy was not to be killed, only incapacitated using various chemical agents. Never mind that those agents might well be nerve gas, and the mechanism of incapacitation extreme mental or physiological stress. His best bet for such an incapacitating agent was BZ, an anticholinergic drug like scopolamine or atropine which causes delirium. (These drugs work by blocking the transmission of the important neurotransmitter acetylcholine.) At one point Ketchum’s team resorted to building “an entire Hollywood-style set in the form of a makeshift communications outpost.” Soldiers were placed on the outpost and dosed with either placebo or varying doses of BZ. Then Ketchum set about trying to fuck with their heads in any way he could think of:

Two hundred phony tactical messages, warnings of chemical attacks, and intelligence were fed to the men in the room. At one point, Ketchum and the others ran out of script. “In an urgent brainstorming session, we put our heads together and came up with an agonizingly improvised scenario,” he recalled in his memoir. “We told the military communicators to start sending new intelligence to the group inside the room—in a simple code. The messages informed the men that enemy forces were planning to move a train loaded with chemical weapons along a certain route.” Eventually, Ketchum and the technicians resorted to gibberish, using poker terms, referring to “the dealer” and a “full house,” as the BZ-addled soldiers struggled to interpret their code.

Ketchum was flanked by Dr. Van Murray Sim, who founded the Edgewood program on psychochemicals in 1956. Sim’s grand idea was the use of LSD-25 to loosen the tongue of what might today be euphemistically called “enemy combatants,” or if that didn’t work, make them so mad that they’d tell any secrets they had just to escape the torture. Maybe it was cruel, but surely, the logic went, the Communists were doing the same, and the US could not afford compassion. Besides, Sim figured, if he was willing to test the chemicals on himself first and he was fine, surely he could test them on others.

One chilling story is that of Private James Thornwell. Throwing informed consent to the wind, Sim theorized that expectations about a drug’s effect would influence the intoxication, and so it was vital that the subjects did not know what they were given, or even that they were given anything. When word got around about the kind of experiments going on at Edgewood, Sim was forced to relocate his experiments to Europe and, eventually, to Asia. James Thornwell was the only African-American working at an American military-communications station in France. After a falling out with his superior, Thornwell was accused of stealing classified documents. After three months of torturous interrogations, Thornwell insisting on his innocence, he was released—not to freedom, but into the hands of Sim’s special investigators, who repeatedly dosed an already half-mad man with LSD without his knowledge. Thornwell never recovered. The experiment was deemed a success.

It wasn’t only the military who were carelessly experimenting on humans. Under the innocuous-sounding title Effect of some Indolealkylines in Man, a 1959 medical paper details some rather cruel experiments. Ostensibly, the scientists set out to study the effects of a psychedelic snuff used across Central and South America. Failing to achieve any effect from the snuff, they isolated two pure chemical compounds for further study. They were n,n-DMT, a powerful psychedelic also found in the traditional brew ayahuasca, and bufotenine, a chemical cousin of the neurotransmitter serotonin. These chemicals were injected intravenously into schizophrenic patients.

Here is a description of one of the experiments:

In several subjects who had more than 10 mg of bufotenine injected quickly, there was intense salivation. The present subject could easily have drowned in her own saliva, and she had to be turned on her side. (…) Responsiveness returned at about 23 minutes, at which time the patient was entirely lucid and, in response to a query related to a preinjection question, spoke of a long-repressed memory from the age of three years, when she came into the bathroom and saw her mother die of a uterine hemorrhage.

But this revelation “had no therapeutic consequence.”

In further experiments, we read, three patients—as if they were patients undergoing treatment, not guinea pigs for mad scientists—were injected bufotenine after receiving reserpine or chlorpromazine (both antipsychotic drugs). “Each of these injections almost proved fatal in small amounts.” After one subject almost died, they repeated the experiment two more times just to make sure. It’s the same absurd logic which prompted Sim’s LSD researchers to respond to adverse reactions by doubling the dose in the next trial.

The LSD trials were suspended in 1963, but the Edgewood experiments continued into the 1970s.