Book Review: ‘Poisoner in Chief’

“What is there left to do with the CIA and MKUltra?” This is the question which needs to be asked when engaging with Stephen Kinzer’s Poisoner in Chief: Sidney Gottlieb and the CIA Search for Mind Control. Anyone familiar with the topic is unlikely to be offered new material concerning the infamous program. Instead, the reader is provided with a brisk and engaging primer on the history of the CIA’s mind control program and a larger focus on the biography of the titular “poisoner in chief.” Kinzer’s line of thought slowly peels back the assurance many have with the subject; presenting a new perspective where revelations become diversions. This perspective is what makes Stephen Kinzer’s new book worthwhile.

The Soviet Defense

The most common argument for the CIA’s research, as detailed by the book, was keeping pace with the Communists. The standard arguments against this are present; Patrice Lumumba was not really a Communist, Manchurian Candidates were unfounded, and so-on. There are two larger issues with this argument though. First, defining it as a matter of Cold War fears serves to isolate the acts of the CIA in time and protect modern incarnations from meaningful scrutiny. Second, this argument leads readers to underestimate the influence of Communism at the time.

Yes, Patrice Lumumba’s connection to the Soviet Union was based on financial aid first and foremost. But this view ignores key historical points, like how the Eastern Bloc’s attempts to spread Leftism used foreign aid as a medium. Many countries that the CIA interfered in the elections of were run by genuine socialists, such as Chile, and only considering the non-socialists to make a point hides many of the CIA’s worst acts. On the other hand, leaders who survived the CIA’s intervention did so by being significantly less Democratic, such as Robert Mugabe and Kwame Nkrumah. Americans still benefit from the CIA’s political domination during that period, and that continuity needs to be retained in criticism.

MKUltra Absurdism

A great deal of the book discusses how popular the topic of MKUltra is in movies and television since its declassification in 2001. MKUltra is likely a recognizable aesthetic to Americans who aren’t even aware of the program. One would assume that these revelations would be the catalyst for major reforms in the intelligence community, but that has yet to happen. Not even are the perpetrators themselves truly demonized. The people involved in the program have had their images rehabilitated by in obituaries. Kinzer’s book, for instance, includes multiple post-mortems on what a great person Gottlieb was. These writers expect the public to forgive Gottlieb and his colleagues for testing drugs on American citizens because his intention was to protect American citizens from the dangerous effects of those very drugs. They also argue that Gottlieb should be remembered for his humanitarian work, with no mind given to his professional life that helped him finance his humanitarian work. Many of the obituaries discuss how he was a family man, but some of Kinzer’s best material is his exposing how knowledgeable about the work his family was.

‘Poisoner in Chief’ by Stephen Kinzer. 368 pp. Henry Holt and Co.

Many American officials implicated in war crimes still operate today. Some have been rightfully forced from office but many were not. John Bolton and Elliott Abrams, both involved in Reagan era war crimes, are still being employed to oversee diplomatic arrangements in nations with adversarial leaders. Were a Patrice Lumumba to exist today, it’s unlikely the situation would have turned out any different for them. What does it take for this information to make a difference?

The Netflix series Wormwood is referenced throughout the book. The Errol Morris documentary is almost a complimentary work to Kinzer’s book. Wormwood focuses on the infamous death of Frank Olson. The army scientist’s fall from a hotel window was called a suicide, but others have called it a murder. The most interesting thing about the film’s narrative though is how it concludes that the government wanted to cover up their use of chemical weapons in Korea by claiming Olson’s death was caused by MKUltra. This is theory is espoused by Kinzer as well. MKUltra has become a distraction for the worst crimes committed by the CIA (provided the Korean War theory is confirmed true).

I argue this is the harsher truth contained in a close reading of Poisoner in Chief. The attention Gottlieb and the MKUltra programs received might have become a release valve for the worst acts of the American government. What to many is the apogee of the CIA’s criminality in the Cold War, is now just another way to confuse and distract those who wish to hold them accountable. Reading Kinzer’s book, I came to the conclusion that the CIA isn’t being taken down in spite of people knowing about the MK-Ultra program because we’ve grown comfortable with its absurd reality.

To the average person now, MKUltra isn’t just a grim reminder of the lengths the government went to in the war on Communism. It is merely a joke– a sideshow serving as a historical novelty for Americans who like to think of the 1960s as its own funny little era. In Penn & Teller’s Bullshit, they discuss MKUltra. The hosts being Libertarians, the assumption is that they would bring up how horrifying it is the government acted in such a way. Instead, they reference MKUltra, in the episode “Talking to the Dead,” in order to mock the Starlight program as a waste of taxpayer money. Mind control research is changed from threatening into amusing. This mindset persists, think of how many critiques of the War on Terror focus on Bush’s “blunder” and not implications of its impact.

The book’s conclusion contains a similar revelation about Gottlieb himself. In a court hearing, Gottlieb makes the point that every perpetrator’s name was redacted sans his. He felt that the case was meant to single him out as the scapegoat for MKUltra. Gottlieb may be right, he became the personification of MKUltra. Kinzer’s book makes a good argument for how Gottlieb was more aggressive than his colleagues in pushing LSD research ahead. Regardless, he was only one figure in a massive, multiple decade, government program. The names of his co-conspirators were there in many of the cited documents, simply redacted.