Grunden on Kinzer, 'Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control'

Stephen Kinzer
Walter E. Grunden

Stephen Kinzer. Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2019. 368 pp. $30.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-250-14043-2.

Reviewed by Walter E. Grunden (Bowling Green State University) Published on H-Diplo (April, 2020) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Printable Version: 

Frank Olson was dead. His broken body lay sprawled on a Seventh Avenue sidewalk after apparently “falling” out of a window on the tenth floor of the Statler Hotel in Manhattan. Passersby paused to observe in horror and sorrow in the early hours of that cold November morning. Denizens of New York City were not unaccustomed to such scenes, even in 1953, as newspaper headlines occasionally reported such seemingly random suicides. But this was no random event, maybe not a suicide either, and Frank Olson was no ordinary man. Olson was a scientist employed by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and deeply involved in one of the most secretive and controversial programs ever devised by that organization: MK-ULTRA, the CIA’s effort to perfect mind control through hypnosis and hallucinogenic drugs. Olson’s death now threatened to expose MK-ULTRA and its chief scientist, Sidney Gottlieb.

While the case of Frank Olson’s death—whether a suicide or murder—remains unsolved, the story is not new. Revelations about the CIA’s foray into mind control research began to emerge in the mid-1970s, as Olson’s family searched for answers and journalists and lawyers took up their cause. Prominent journalists such as Seymour Hersh helped to publicize the mystery surrounding Olson’s death, which inspired others to file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests that ultimately revealed the existence of MK-ULTRA. In 1979, author John Marks published The Search for the “Manchurian Candidate”: The CIA and Mind Control, the first book-length study of the subject based upon documents obtained through numerous FOIA requests.[1] Since then, many others have attempted to flesh out more details or to explore other aspects of the CIA program not extensively covered by Marks.[2] This has been a tall order, as the CIA destroyed most of the documentation concerning MK-ULTRA and its related programs. Consequently, adding anything new to the story depends upon the discovery of previously unknown documents, or finding a new angle.

In Poisoner in Chief, Stephen Kinzer approaches the MK-ULTRA story through Sidney Gottlieb, the lead chemist and director of the program. Kinzer, an award-winning foreign correspondent and former New York Times bureau chief who presently holds a senior fellow post at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, is well qualified to take on this subject matter. An expert in foreign affairs and author of nine other books, including the critically acclaimed The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War, Kinzer brings his vast knowledge of United States foreign relations and Cold War history to bear on this controversial subject.[3]

Through sixteen chapters, Kinzer recapitulates much of the established narrative concerning MK-ULTRA, from its inception in 1950 as Project “Bluebird” to its expansion and evolution as Project “Artichoke” to the establishment of the MK-ULTRA program in 1953 to its ultimate termination in 1973 and its public exposure during the Church Committee Hearings held in 1975. Kinzer’s overview of the CIA’s foray into mind control experiments incorporates the now familiar accounts of how the US government employed former Nazi researchers obtained through “Operation Paperclip”—the Allied effort to round up the most prestigious scientists of the Third Reich and deliver them to the United States—in the formative stages of the program. Next came expansion to “black sites” abroad where spies and foreign operatives were used as human guinea pigs in the early drug experiments, beginning with marijuana, then cocaine, heroin, mescaline, and lastly, lysergic acid diethylamide, more commonly known as LSD or “acid.” Finally, the program expanded to include the “dosing” of unwitting subjects in safe houses set up in the United States in such cities as San Francisco and New York.

Initially, US intelligence agencies were interested in discovering a “truth serum” that would facilitate extracting information from captured enemy assets without having to resort to force and ultimately, torture. They were also interested in discovering nonlethal weapons that could incapacitate enemy combatants without necessarily wounding or killing. The US Chemical Corps became interested in the potential of LSD in 1949 and considered its application as a weapon to incite panic or weaken the enemy’s will to fight. For its part, the CIA was “looking for drugs that could be used to loosen tongues, weaken human resistance, open the mind to outside control, or kill people” (pp. 36-37). In 1950, the CIA assigned the study of LSD and other drugs for this purpose to its Technical Services Staff, which initiated Project MK-NAOMI, the objective of which was to produce “a whole arsenal of toxic substances for CIA use” (p. 37).

The mission changed somewhat following the cease-fire and armistice in Korea in July 1953, when North Korea released film footage of captured American pilots and bomber crews falsely confessing that they had engaged in biological warfare during the Korean conflict. US military officials and the CIA began to worry that China and North Korea had succeeded in developing a form of mind control. Had these prisoners of war actually been “brainwashed”? How, they wondered, had the Communists succeeded in turning these POWs against their own country and forcing them into making such false confessions?

Enter Sidney Gottlieb. Gottlieb began working for the CIA in July 1951 and soon after was promoted to chief of the Chemical Division of the Technical Services Staff. Gottlieb, who had already been testing the efficacy of LSD as a truth serum and behavior modifier, now turned his attention more fully to researching whether LSD and other hallucinogens could be used to erase a person’s memories and if they could be reprogrammed with new ones. While all this may sound like the work of a mad scientist, in most ways Gottlieb hardly fit such a stereotypical profile.

Born to parents who were “Orthodox Jews of Hungarian extraction,” this religious and ethnic identity would set Gottlieb apart from many of those with whom he would later work in the upper echelons of the US intelligence community (p. 5). Gottlieb was also “born with deformed feet,” which required a series of corrective surgeries but still “left him with a lifelong limp” (p. 5). Moreover, he spoke with a noticeable stutter, which he only overcame with intensive speech therapy in the latter years of his life. Always bright and studious, and undeterred by such disabilities, Gottlieb completed a doctorate in biochemistry at the California Institute of Technology in June 1943. He subsequently attempted to enlist to serve in World War II, but the Selective Service rejected him because of his limp. This, according to Kinzer, was a “formative event” in Gottlieb’s life as it instilled in him a sense to serve his country in some other capacity (p. 8). The trauma of this rejection also “left him with a store of pent-up patriotic fervor” (p. 50). He would find an outlet for that fervor as a chemist in the employ of the CIA.

Kinzer’s account is not so much a biography of Gottlieb per se as it is a history of MK-ULTRA with a focus on the role that Gottlieb played in it. This is a fresh and welcome perspective, as most previous studies have centered largely on the Frank Olson story and that of his son, Eric, to uncover the truth of his father’s death.[4]

While Kinzer should be recognized for having unearthed some new details about Gottlieb and MK-ULTRA through interviews and explorations of lesser-known archives and collections, such as the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia, for example, overall, he arguably leans a bit too much on a handful of secondary sources, not all of which are footnoted well, and some not at all.[5] Most of his sources are works by journalists, popular historians, or other types of “professional” writers, and comparatively few entries in the bibliography are actually peer-reviewed monographs by professional historians.[6] Kinzer’s use of some of the less well-documented sources may be somewhat unavoidable, however, as very few professional historians seem interested in the subject and have mostly ignored it.[7]

Unfortunately, the problem of questionable sources does not end there. On more than one occasion Kinzer cites ostensible “academic studies” that upon further scrutiny turn out to be senior thesis papers written by undergraduates (p. 28). Not that undergraduates are not capable of excellent research—many are, but a comparative lack of experience and the time constraints imposed by having to complete such a project in a single semester usually do not result in the production of what most professionals would consider a substantive “academic study” worth citing in such a book. (And one of them cited here, not incidentally, is simply incorrect in its conclusion.) Worse still, Kinzer finds it necessary to cite one Nick Redfern, an avowed “journalist, cryptozoologist, ufologist, and conspiracy theorist”[8] who is perhaps best known for his appearances on the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens series (p. 301). One has to question the decision to rely upon these “studies” when, on these particular occasions, more substantive and reliable sources actually do exist.[9]

In his acknowledgments at the end of the book, Kinzer states, “Everything in this book is true, but not everything that’s true is in this book” (p. 337). While the latter part of that statement is a given for any historical narrative, the former must be taken with a grain of salt. This reviewer has identified more than a few errors of historical fact, as well as some statements that cannot, or at least, as yet have not been substantiated with evidence, and possibly never will be. Among the more consequential is the allegation that the United States engaged in biological warfare during the Korean conflict. This charge remains unproven and, although Kinzer admits as much, stating, “there is circumstantial evidence but no proof,” much of the discussion of that subject seems to proceed on the apparent assumption that it did happen, even though recent scholarship indicates that the whole affair was actually a deliberate propaganda campaign concocted by the Chinese government (p. 116).[10]

Regardless, Frank Olson apparently believed it to be true, and Kinzer claims “Olson would have known” (p. 116). Maybe, but maybe not. Elsewhere Kinzer quotes Gottlieb describing a level of compartmentalization that was common practice in the CIA’s technical divisions, stating, “Little or nothing was reduced to writing, except essential reports. The right hand never knew what the left was doing, unless we wanted it otherwise” (p. 61). Olson may have been involved in developing biological weapons, but he was unlikely to have been involved in their mass dissemination over Korea. Many accounts have focused on this aspect of the story because Olson was allegedly so racked with guilt over it that it may have been one of the primary issues that ultimately drove him to the brink and resulted in his death. Did he kill himself out of guilt over it all, or was he murdered for fear that he would go public with what he knew? That remains the mystery.

Readers should bear in mind that this book is not intended to be an academic monograph. There is no overarching thesis or theoretical premise to develop here. Kinzer has instead written a compelling story for a popular audience, but an arguably informed audience at that. The book serves as an excellent introduction to the MK-ULTRA program and the Olson affair in general, but it also offers some new biographical information about Gottlieb, who was at the center of it all. Although the book has its flaws, on the whole, it is engaging and in places is as gripping as a spy novel. For its focus on Gottlieb and his relationship to Olson, it is a worthy addition to the growing list of books about MK-ULTRA and the CIA’s abuse of power more broadly.

Walter E. Grunden is a professor in the Department of History at Bowling Green State University. He has published widely on nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare. His current research examines the origins of North Korea’s nuclear weapons development program. He is the author of Secret Weapons & World War II: Japan in the Shadow of Big Science (University Press of Kansas, 2005).


[1]. John Marks, The Search for the “Manchurian Candidate”: The CIA and Mind Control (New York: Times Books, 1979).

[2]. See, for example: Don Gillmor, I Swear by Apollo: Dr. Ewen Cameron and the CIA-Brainwashing Experiments (Montreal: Eden Press, 1987); Gordon Thomas, Journey into Madness: Medical Torture and the Mind Controllers (New York: Bantam, 1988); Alex Constantine, Virtual Government: CIA Mind Control Experiments in America (Venice, CA: Feral House, 1997); Judith Nagib, MK-ULTRA: A Tale of One Family, the CIA and the War on Drugs (Bloomington, IN: XLibris, 2000); and H. P. Albarelli Jr., A Terrible Mistake: The Murder of Frank Olson and the CIA’s Secret Cold War Experiments (Walterville, OR: Trine Day, 2009), to name a few.

[3]. Stephen Kinzer, The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World War (New York: Times Books, 2013).

[4]. See, for example, the aforementioned works, especially, Albarelli, A Terrible Mistake. The Netflix docudrama series Wormwood (2017) also focuses on the Olson story and features in-depth interviews with son Eric.

[5]. For a representative example, see Gordon Thomas, Secrets and Lies: A History of CIA Mind Control and Germ Warfare (Old Saybrook, CT: Konecky and Konecky, 2007), which includes a short bibliography but provides no citations in the text itself.

[6]. In addition to the aforementioned works, Kinzer cites frequently from the following as well: Egmont R. Koch and Michael Wech, Deckname Artischocke: Die Geheimen Menschenversuche der CIA (Munich: Bertelsmann, 2002); Annie Jacobsen, Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America (New York: Back Bay, 2014); and Colin Ross, Bluebird: Deliberate Creation of Multiple Personality by Psychiatrists (Richardson, TX: Manitou, 2000).

[7]. A notable exception is Jonathan D. Moreno, professor of medical ethics and the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania. See, Jonathan D. Moreno, Undue Risk: Secret State Experiments on Humans (New York: W. H. Freeman, 1999).

[8]. “Nick Redfern,” Wikipedia, last modified December 16, 2019,

[9]. In this particular instance, Kinzer references both Redfern and a primary source, but it is not clear what information was taken from which source, though it may be that the document Kinzer referenced was reprinted in Redfern’s book.

[10]. See Walter E. Grunden, “The ‘Paranoid Style’ in the Pacific Theater: Government Cover-Ups, Conspiracy Theory, and War with Japan and Korea,” Journal for the Liberal Arts and Sciences 20 (Spring 2016): 27-64.

Citation: Walter E. Grunden. Review of Kinzer, Stephen, Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. April, 2020. URL:

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