In 1949, when most Americans wanted nothing more than to "go to the movies and drink Coke," as W. Averell Harriman once put it, the Soviets exploded a nuclear bomb. The onset of the cold war came as a cruel surprise. The United States had just won World War II. Was World War III around the corner? By 1951, when the CIA received an intelligence tip that seemed to indicate that the Russians were about to corner the world market in LSD, anxiety about communism had become paranoia. The CIA was particularly obsessed with mind control. At show trials in the East bloc, innocents with glazed eyes were confessing to impossible crimes, while American POWs in the Korean War were reportedly being "brainwashed" by the Chinese. Had the communists developed some new mind-bending drug that could be used as a mass weapon against the West?
The LSD scare, like many intelligence tips in that era, turned out to be bogus. But that didn't stop the CIA from taking steps to develop its own mind-control program, code-named MKUltra. The technique that most intrigued the agency was LSD, a new psychoactive drug that could induce hallucinations. Unfazed when one of the agency's own researchers jumped out a window after experimenting with LSD in 1953, the CIA hired prostitutes in Greenwich Village, N.Y., and San Francisco to slip LSD doses to unsuspecting johns. CIA researchers dutifully recorded the results from behind two-way mirrors. Dozens of unwitting lowlifes went on wild trips, but the agency never did learn how to control anyone's mind. The experiment was finally abandoned in 1963.
The nuclear experiments that are now coming to light are just some of the examples of how far America went in the cause of combating global communism. In another phase of operation MKUltra, the CIA--seeking the perfect assassin--tried to create "guided animals." In one experiment, the agency wired up a cat (its tail was the antenna) that had a habit of wandering off the job and was eventually run over by a taxi. For years the Pentagon and the Atomic Energy Commission were conducting all manner of secret tests--from releasing clouds of radiation into the atmosphere in a determined attempt to build bigger and better bombs, to irradiating the testicles of prison inmates in order to find out how much would cause sterility.
As it turned out, almost all the reports of Russian superiority in the cold war were hyped. When the development of the U-2 spy plane allowed overflights in the mid- to late 1950s, it was discovered that the "bomber gap" and the "missile gap" were phony. The only gap was the other way around: in 1961, the Pentagon had 98 missiles aimed at the Soviet Union, the Kremlin no more than 35 aimed at the United States.
For all its cold-war glamour, the CIA was not a very effective espionage agency in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Though it had reasonable success overthrowing left-leaning governments in the Third World, the agency utterly failed to penetrate the Kremlin (admittedly a difficult task against a police state). Still, it did not serve top leaders to admit this to the public.
In order to persuade lawmakers to pay for worthy causes like the Marshall Plan, it was sometimes necessary to make things "clearer than the truth," said Dean Acheson, President Truman's secretary of state. If that meant scaring people, so be it. Certainly, the people were ready to be scared: families built fallout shelters, while children learned how to duck under their desks.
Washington officials lied in part because they could get away with it. The press was cozier with policymakers in the 1950s, and lawmakers didn't really want to know what the CIA was up to, as long as the cause was battling the Red Menace. Hungry for higher budgets, the Pentagon inflated the threat it faced. And over time, even the most cynical politicians began to believe their own rhetoric. In the 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy was still warning about the missile gap. When his defense secretary, Robert McNamara, publicly admitted that none existed, Kennedy privately chastised him for telling the truth. McNamara apologized--and promptly ordered a massive buildup of America's nuclear arsenal.