Melançon Enterprises  Maurice Institute Library > Book Reviews > Acid Dreams

Acid Dreams

The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond

Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain


The Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in 1942 began looking for a substance that could break down the psychological defenses of enemy spies and prisoners of war.

The CIA supported research in LSD and other drugs.

The CIA and then, by the early 1960s, the military used LSD as an interrogation weapon on an operational basis.

Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD)
(N, N-Diethyllysergamide)
[CIA seal]
CIA/SI 101-54
5 August 1954
Central Intelligence Agency
Office of Scientific Intelligence

Captain Alfred M. Hubbard

LSD research was made illegitimate by the government withdrawing support and the elite of the scientific or academic establishment drumming out Leary.  Leary consciously becomes the drugs public relations expert.  Decides to use the Tibetan Book of the Dead as the guide to LSD trips, this doesn't work- when people try to program LSD trips they work less well, if they were trying to do something specific bad trips were more likely; also, it seemed with the CIA's experiments that when people did not know when the trip was coming, if they were not prepared for it even if they had taken LSD before, they were more likely to freak out.  One CIA employee whom other CIA employees had gotten high jumped out a hotel window.

Psychologists can no longer give LSD and assist in the trip (much less take it themselves at the same time).  There are now private experimenters all over the country.

Ken Kesey “was first turned onto acid through a federally funded research program” at a Veterans Hospital near Stanford where he was paid to be test subjects in a study of ‘psychotomimetic drugs.’  Working at the ‘psycho ward’ Kesey felt he came to understand the patients after he took LSD; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was his first novel.

With money from the book he established a permanent LSD party at his California country home, this formed the base of their the Merry Pranksters in a 1939 International Harvester school bus hand-painted in psychadelic swirls to create the first psychadelic motor transport, driven by beat avatar Neal Cassady, out of prison from a two-year term for possession of a single joint of marijuana. The stated goal of the Merry Pranksters was to discover the conditioned responses of people and prank them, to stop them from being robots. The idea for themselves was to take risks and to explore the unknown.

Finally in New York City, Cassady secured an apartment for a meeting between the original white hipsters and the new crew, “The environment was typical for the Pranksters, with tapes echoing and lights flashing off mirrors.  An American flag covered the sofa. […]  Kerouac walked over to the sofa, carefully folded the flag, and asked the Pranksters if they were Communists.” (p 123)

Kesey and his group decided to visit the only other psychedelic commune they knew of, but they got a cool reception and Leary was supposedly on a serious LSD trip and could not meet with Kesey.  “The Millbrook group was essentially made up of behavioral scientists who kept records of their mental states, wrote papers, and put out a journal.” (p 124)

Kesey believed it only worked if you brought other people into it.  The Pranksters staged large-scale public initiations.  Kesey threw a party for the Hell’s Angels, the community was scared and the police gathered, but the bikers were rather docile on LSD and dug Allen Ginsberg, a gay New York poet chanting Hare Krishna and dancing with his finger cymbals.

“That pot was not the big bugaboo that it had been cracked up to be was irrefutable evidence that the authorities either did not tell the truth or did not know what they were talking about.  Its continued illegality was proof that lying and/or stupidity were a cournerstone of government policy.” (P 129)

LSD was not illegal until 1966.

The Diggers are awesome: FREE.  They provided food, shelter, medical care not as charity but as an alternative to the corrupt regular world and the money game.  Abbie Hoffman would draw heavily on their philosophy for his Steal This Book.

“The local press was having a field day, with reporters from the Chronicle and the Examiner engaged in a running contest to see who could come up with the most lurid details about the human zoo on Haight Street.  They took a complex social phenomenon, reduced it to a few sensationalistic elements, and repeated the same tripe over and over again.  In every edition there were stories dwelling on dope, promiscuity, long hair, filth, and bizarre behavior—themes that reflected the prurient interests and prejudices of straight journalists locked into the usual middle-class stereotypes about bohemia.  The sensational press coverage was tantamount to a full-scale advertising campaign—albeit of a twisted sort—and the neighborhood became a magnet for people who were into just what the media reported: sex, drugs, dirt, weirdness, all the seamiest aspects of the hippie trip.  A different crowd filtered into the acid ghetto, and although it passed unnoticed at first, the original community began to disintegrate.” (P 175)

The whole scene is commercialized - love beads, bandannas - and the Diggers staged a funeral for 'the death of the hippie, devoted son of the mass media' in 1967.  The CIA chooses to monitor the declining Haight-Ashbury - the Mafia is taking over the drug distribution - and the hippie population in general as a continuation of their more controlled experiments with mind-altering drugs.

There is something of a split between political activists, many of whom were taking LSD etc., and those who used the drug to turn ever farther inward, to drop out of society but not oppose it in any way.  Many in the New Left worry that acid ‘depoliticized’ those who turned on.

“A common mistake with respect to LSD was to attribute the personal effects of an acid trip to something inherent in the drug itself; as a result of this subtle transference, acid acquired the qualities of a particular mind-set or milieu, depending on who was experimenting with it.  The love-and-peace vibrations thought to be intrinsic to the psychedelic high were largely an amplified reflection of the unique spirit that animated the mid-1960s, just as the CIA's obsession with LSD-induced anxiety and terror mirrored the Cold War paranoia of the espionage establishment.” (P 200)

“Peggy Hitchcock (the sister of William Mellon Hitchcock, owner of the Millbrook estate) gave Michael Bowen and friends money to purchase two hundred pounds of daisies [to air-drop over the pentagon], but the plan never got off the ground because of a dirty trick by the FBI.  J. Edgar Hoover’s men answered an ad for a pilot in the East Village Other but never showed up at the airport.  Bowen was stuck with more flowers than he knew what to do with, so he turned around and drove back to the demonstration.  Distributed among the crowd, the flowers were subsequently photographed by the world press protruding from the muzzles of rifles held by the soldiers guarding the Pentagon.” “By sundown most of the press had left.  The police moved in with tear gas and arrested people—over eight hundred in all—and many were brutally beaten.  But these tactics did not dampen the spirits of the demonstrators.”(P 205)

The Yippies used the media, consciously emulating Timothy Leary.  They had no mass base, no organization, just ‘leaders’ who dreamed up stunts that the television ate up.  They declared that the acid-head lifestyle was the revolution, but even this message was trivialized in the game of keeping media attention; as Abbie Hoffman said, if he had given a speech on the history of Vietnam the cameras would have turned off.

The government did all it could to penetrate the New Left: use of informants and provocateurs was part of a massive campaign to subvert the forces of dissent in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD), the National Security Agency (NSA), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA), the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), the intelligence divisions of all the military forces, and numerous local police forces put over a quarter million Americans under active surveillance with dossiers kept on millions more.  “Those affiliated with black militant, antiwar, and New Left groups were prime targets of dirty tricks and other underhanded tactics designed to stir up factionalism and ‘neutralize’ political activists.”(P 224)

Drug laws were used to arrest activists, including new ‘no-knock’ laws allowing police to break into the homes of suspected drug users.  “in 1969 John Sinclair, leader of the White Panther party in Michigan, was sentenced to nine and a half years in prison for giving two marijuana joints to an undercover officer; Lee Otis Johnson, a black militant and antiwar organizer at Texas Southern University, was given a thirty-year jail term after sharing a joint with a narc; Mark Rudd, an SDS militant who played a prominent role in the uprising at Columbia University, was fingered for drugs by an informant; and police in Buffalo, New York, planted dope in a bookstore run by Martin Sostre, a black anarchist who served six years in prison before Amnesty International successfully interceded on his behalf.”(P 225-226)


Acid Dreams is not a fawning account of Timothy Leary and a daring band of bold experimenters with a completely wonderful mind-expanding substance.

The authors seem to assume that you have tried LSD.

These people are all so rich.

The East Coast versus West Coast stuff (p 124) is silly.