October 2019

Poisoner in Chief

By Stephen Kinzer
Review by
Share this Article:

Sidney Gottlieb was an odd fit for the CIA in 1951. Among the Company’s aristocratic Ivy Leaguers, he was a left-wing scientist and the Bronx-born son of Jewish immigrants. But he and CIA chief Allen Dulles had at least one thing in common: Each had been born with deformed feet, though Dulles’ condition was less serious. Did that shared remembrance of early physical struggle form a bond? Whatever the reason, Dulles hired Gottlieb, and so began his astonishing career of killing, torture and lies.

The outlines of Gottlieb’s CIA tenure, as head of the MK-ULTRA mind-control research project and director of the spy-tools department, are well known. But renowned journalist Stephen Kinzer’s new biography of Gottlieb, Poisoner in Chief, is still shocking in its vivid detail.

Throughout the 1950s, under Gottlieb’s imaginative leadership, MK-ULTRA experimented with LSD and other dangerous drugs on unwitting or coerced subjects—mental patients, prisoners and just plain old everyday folks. Many were left mentally disabled for life; some were even killed. One fellow CIA scientist was likely thrown out of a window when he was deemed unreliable. And it was all done in a completely fruitless search for the ability to “brainwash” human minds. Nothing worked—ever.

In this masterful book, Kinzer demonstrates that the “research” done by Gottlieb’s team was as horrifically unethical as anything done by Nazi doctors later tried for war crimes. And yet, as Kinzer carefully documents, Gottlieb was a “nice guy” who loved his family and lived a proto-hippie lifestyle in rural Virginia. He spent his post-CIA years quietly, as a speech therapist who treated children—when he wasn’t destroying documents or stonewalling congressional committees.

During the years of investigations and lawsuits that began in the 1970s, Gottlieb never publicly repented; indeed, he believed himself to be a true patriot who had fought a justified war against communism. Kinzer’s chilling book reveals what can happen when morality is jettisoned in the name of national security—then and now.

Trending Reviews

Get the Book

Poisoner in Chief

Poisoner in Chief

By Stephen Kinzer
ISBN 9781250140432

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our newsletter to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.