January 11, 1994, New York Times, Letter, Human Guinea Pigs Are American as Apple Pie, by Samuel Chavkin, author of "The Mind Stealers" (Boston, 1978).
To the Editor:
My plaudits for your reports on the harrowing nuclear experiments on Americans carried out in Government laboratories and medical research centers. Subjecting people to experiments, in most instances without knowledge of the risks involved and without their consent, has been a continuing practice by Government agencies. A Jan. 5 news article discusses the difficulty the Central Intelligence Agency is having finding records of the experiments.
However, at a Senate hearing on Aug. 3, 1977, Adm. Stansfield Turner, former C.I.A. director, disclosed that the agency had been conducting brainwashing experiments on countless Americans -- prisoners, mentally ill patients, cancer patients and even unwitting patrons at bars in New York, San Francisco and other cities. Some were drugged with LSD and other psychotropic agents.
This was the cold war period, when the focus was on spying and counterspying. Thus, the main objective of this mammoth C.I.A. effort, which cost the taxpayers at least $25 million, was to program the experimental subject to do the programmer's bidding, even if it would lead to the subject's destruction. As you reported Aug. 2, 1977, a C.I.A. memorandum of Jan. 25, 1952, asked "whether it was possible to get control of an individual to the point where he will do our bidding against his will and even against such fundamental laws of nature as self-preservation."
Mind control and behavior modification experiments in this period also became the underpinnings for a "medical" approach to stem the rise of social disquiet following the murder of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Hundreds of thousands of Dr. King's followers were out in the streets throughout the United States demanding that their civil rights be recognized and that Dr. King's assassins be brought to justice. Many protests led to violent confrontations with the police.
Two physicians from Harvard, Dr. Frank E. Ervin, a neuropsychiatrist, and Dr. Vernon H. Mark, a neurosurgeon, in a letter to the journal of the American Medical Association, proposed a surgical strategy to resolve such conflicts. In their view protesters who violently resisted police control were suffering from "brain dysfunction," a condition, they said, that could be remedied by psychosurgery.
They proposed implantation of very thin electrodes in the amygdala region of the brain where "bad" brain cells, presumed to be associated with violent behavior, would be burned out with an electrical charge.
Despite an angry outcry from many physicians who charged that this was in effect a return to the discredited lobotomy operations used on shell-shocked soldiers following World War II, law enforcement authorities welcomed the approach. Especially impressed with psychosurgery was Ronald Reagan, then Governor of California, who was ready to allocate $1 million to set up a "violence-reduction" center.
Without much further ado, psychosurgery got under way in the Vacaville penitentiary in California; at Atmoree State Prison in Birmingham, Ala., where 50 such operations were performed, and in other prisons. The Veterans Administration used psychosurgery in its hospitals in Durham, N.C.; Long Beach, Calif., Minneapolis and Syracuse. As a result, many prisoner guinea pigs entered into a semi-vegetable state of mind.
Psychosurgeries were finally halted when civil libertarians and the Congressional Black Caucus denounced them as racist, since most of the prison population was made up of African-Americans and other minorities.
New York, Jan. 5, 1994 The writer is the author of "The Mind Stealers" (Boston, 1978).