The CIA’s experiments on human subjects who have ingested LSD are widely known. But the Army conducted their own tests on thousands of American servicemen between the years 1953 and 1965 in the hopes of finding a “psychochemical incapacitant” that could be delivered in aerosol form.
At NPR Rich Remsberg showcases an old archival film from one of the tests, titled, “Effects of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD) on Troops Marching.” Watch the whole thing; the end of the video itself looks to be torn from some kind of hallucination. Remsberg writes that “[a]pparently, President Eisenhower was enthusiastic about the program and its possibilities.”
In the end, LSD proved to be problematic — it was too expensive, it was unstable once airborne, and there were patent complications — but the program did lead to Agent BZ, which was weaponized but never used in combat.
The Pont Saint-Esprit Incident.
Even if LSD never found its way into the military’s arsenal, it may help explain what happened to a town in southern France, Pont-Saint-Esprit, one day sixty years ago. On August 15, 1951, an outbreak of poisoning caused about 250 people in the town to become psychotic. Fifty people were interned in asylums and seven people died. Time magazine wrote at the time that, "Among the stricken, delirium rose: patients thrashed wildly on their beds, screaming that red flowers were blossoming from their bodies, that their heads had turned to molten lead. Pont-Saint-Esprit's hospital reported four attempts at suicide." A French reporter also described the disturbing scene:
"It is neither Shakespeare nor Edgar Poe. It is, alas, the sad reality all around Pont-St.-Esprit and its environs, where terrifying scenes of hallucinations are taking place. They are scenes straight out of the Middle Ages, scenes of horror and pathos, full of sinister shadows."
The culprit has long been thought to have been ergot, a poisonous fungus that may have somehow affected the town’s bread. But a recent investigative BBC report describe a trove of evidence to the contrary, including a White House document referencing the Army biochemist Frank Olson (who apparently killed himself after unwittingly ingesting LSD), with instructions to “bury” information related to Pont Saint-Esprit.
Additionally, BBC tells us, an 87 year old woman who lived through the experience said that she and a town doctor believed that ergot could not have been responsible for the hysteria that took over the town. That, combined with the fact that the company synthesizing LSD for the US was based in nearby Switzerland, makes us just a little bit paranoid.