Cold War film shows experiments with LSD and other chemical weapons
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
“In laboratory experiments, a normal cat displays the normal hunter instinct toward a mouse,” a narrator explains in a droning monotone. Donned in a stereotypical white lab coat, the scientist locks the feline in a box and sprays it with lysergic acid diethylamide.
A hallucinogenic drug better known as LSD.
“After 45 seconds, the effects of the psychochemical become apparent,” the narrator adds, as the animal hisses and jumps in terror at two mice.
This isn’t the beginning of some cheap horror movie. It’s the opening scene from a five-minute U.S. Army film entitled Mental Incapacitators — Psychochemicals.
In May 2016, the U.S. National Library of Medicine in Maryland posted a copy of the footage online as part of a larger collection. Though the Army’s Chemical Corps produced the shorts in 1959, the U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery donated this particular copy to the medical archive. At least one different version of the full compilation of the clips, with a visibly different film quality, already existed on YouTube.
The clip provides an almost painfully clinical look at the ground combat branch’s attempts to turn LSD and other chemical compounds into useful weapons. These days, the Army would probably prefer people forgot about these programs altogether.
While poisons and dangerous chemicals have played roles in battle since ancient times, chemical weapons became emblematic of modern warfare during World War I. But after seeing the devastating and highly visible after effects, the victors banded together to try and regulate deadly gasses and diseases on the battlefield.
In 1925, more than three dozen countries agreed to the Geneva Protocol banning the use of deadly gasses and bacteria in future wars. However, not all the signatories put the deal into practice immediately or without significant reservations. In the interwar period, countries such as Italy, Japan and Spain sporadically deployed chemical weapons, often in conflicts far removed from widespread scrutiny or criticism of any kind.
The United States signed the treaty in 1925, but American legislators didn’t put it into force for another 50 years. Even then, the U.S. military initially reserved the right to use chemical and biological weaponry against anyone who broke the deal.
So, throughout World War II and into the Cold War, the Pentagon went right ahead developing all sorts of new compounds and diseases and plans to use them in combat. The Pentagon put the Chemical Corps in charge of cooking up new agents.
The ground combat branch’s scientists quickly became interested in substances that could stop enemy troops or sow chaos in the enemy ranks without necessarily killing anyone. In 1951, the ground combat branch hired the New York State Psychiatric Institute to help study the effects of the psychedelic drug mescaline.
“Non-lethal chemicals have an astonishing capacity to cause abnormal behavior in man and animals,” the narrator of the 1959 film notes. “It is not difficult to imagine the habit that could be created among weapons crews and command headquarters in time of war.”
Four years later, the Chemical Corps created a formal program and dubbed these “psychochemical” substances “K agents.” The Pentagon uses code names made up of one or two letters to describe hazardous chemical and biological substances.
Army major general William Creasy, then in charge of the Chemical Corps, was particularly taken with LSD. “Creasy persuaded Congress that LSD could quickly disable an enemy force, yet not destroy lives, describing a floating cloud … that could disable everyone in the area for several hours without serious aftereffects,” according to the ground combat branch’s textbook Medical Aspects of Chemical Warfare.
In 1958, Army scientists at the Edgewood Arsenal tested LSD on volunteers, who had at least broadly consented to the experiment. The Army’s film includes footage of the results.
“They have ceased to be alert, but have become relaxed and care-free,” the narrator intones. “They cannot control the impulse to laugh.”
Unable to follow their drill sergeant’s instructions, the troops stumble and wander the parade ground. The smile uncontrollably and sometimes salute the wrong people.
Two years later, the Chemical Corps conducted a second test at Edgewood. In 1964, a number of British Royal Marines went through a similar experiment —depicted in another popular video above — with predictable results.
While the ground combat branch kept testing LSD until 1966, the Pentagon was becoming increasingly concerned about what it might really do to enemy soldiers. “Testing showed LSD’s effects to be disturbingly unpredictable,” Army researchers wrote in Medical Aspects of Chemical Warfare.
The Chemical Corps looked into everything from sedatives to antipsychotic drugs as possible alternatives. Contrary to the “reefer madness” stereotype, the Army briefly toyed around with the idea that weaponized marijuana might put enemy forces to sleep or otherwise make them too sluggish to fight.
The Army considered going in the other direction and looked at causing exhaustion from hyperactivity. High doses of caffeine, cocaine and nicotine could wear out opposing troops.
In addition to LSD, the 1959 clip describes work on a compound known as CS-4640. In the film, two dogs are knocked out with the substance and then apparently safely revived. Unfortunately, the chemical turned out to fatal in primates, according to the October 1980 edition of the International Primate Protection League’s newsletter. We don’t know whether anyone ever tested it on humans.
Ultimately, the Pentagon settled on a substance code-named BZ. Not related to LSD, in theory, the weapon would make hostile soldiers drowsy and irritable.
But as with other hallucinogenics, the chemical did not produce regular symptoms. “The various characteristics of … agent BZ cannot be categorized as being either advantages or disadvantages, because an advantage in one situation may, in fact be a distinct disadvantage in another situation,” an official training circular stated.
The experiments with LSD and other “psychochemicals” turned into a scandal. In 1977, American lawmakers uncovered secret Central Intelligence Agency experiments into whether the substance would make a good truth serum or weapon.
Unlike the Army, the CIA had run the project — known as MKULTRA — without telling all of the subjects what was going on. The spooks might have exposed some of those individuals under duress.
After these efforts became public knowledge, the CIA and the Army programs quickly spawned numerous conspiracy theories. The agency did itself no favors when it destroyed many of the records on MKULTRA in 1973.
In the end, the Pentagon never used BZ in combat. By 1990, the ground combat branch had destroyed the last of its stockpile of BZ-filled weapons.
Edgewood shut down the Medical Research Volunteer Program in 1975. In 1985, after a series of studies, the Army concluded none of the individuals who participated in the LSD and other tests were suffering any significant lasting health impacts.
But none of this is likely to put a stop to the search for any new information that might still be hiding in government archives — or the conspiracy theorists.