Vindication for Tin Foil Hats: An Analysis of Unethical Cold War Experiments and Their Enduring Consequences

By Michael D. Opheim
2021, Vol. 13 No. 11 | pg. 1/1


While the Cold War is popularly regarded as a war of ideological conflict, to consider it solely as such does the long-winded tension a great disservice. In actuality, the Cold War manifested itself in numerous areas of life, including the various scientific fields of the Contemporary Era. Accordingly, scientific research became nothing more than a competition to both the United States and Soviet governments, influencing both to hastily expend their resources on progressing their respective understandings of science. In their hasty pursuit of scientific superiority, however, recent investigations and federal archive declassifications have since revealed that the governments of both countries knowingly and willingly violated a number of ethical standards. Specifically, both nations disobeyed the scientific standards of protocols such as the Nuremberg Code, ignoring the accepted principles of research, or, in some cases, committing unethical and dangerous experiments upon their unaware populations. Thus, as a result of these perpetrated actions, the Cold War and its numerous consequences can still be perceived within the twenty-first century, leaving many who experienced unethical experimentation with lasting traumas, and general perceptions surrounding the relationship between governments and their citizens permanently altered.


In the spring of 1995, a package arrived at the office of the president of the California Forestry Association. Inside that package laid a bomb, which subsequently exploded and killed its recipient. The culprit of the bombing and fifteen others prior was Ted Kaczynski, a man widely recognized in popular culture as “the Unabomber” (Capps et al., 1995). One year later, he was arrested and regarded as insane by his attorneys. However, Kaczynski’s forensic psychiatrist, Sally Johnson, believed that the insanity was not congenital; she believed, instead, that Kaczynski’s years at Harvard are when the alter ego of the Unabomber emerged. At Harvard, Kaczynski began to conceive fantasies of himself as “an agitator, rousing mobs of frenzies to revolutionary violence” (Alston, 2000), but, there was one event in particular that is speculated to have born the Unabomber: his participation an unethical, psychological experiment led by psychology professor Henry Murray during the era of the Cold War.

In Murray’s experiment, unsuspecting participants were exposed to “what Murray himself called ‘vehement, sweeping, and personally abusive’ attacks, assaulting his subjects’ egos and most-cherished ideals and beliefs” (Alston, 2000) in order to measure individual emotional responses to mock interrogations. Although, some, including Kaczynski’s brother, David, believe that Ted may have been involved in the much broader project of MK Ultra, a CIA-funded mind-control experiment that used unassuming American citizens as test subjects (2010). Likewise, one may be surprised to learn that these kinds of unethical experiments were replicated extensively throughout the Cold War by both the United States and Soviet Union (albeit in different ways). Thanks to the investigative journalism and the considerable declassification of federal documents, one can now begin to understand how the governments of the United States and Soviet Union neglected the universal standards of scientific ethics and research methodology during the Cold War. Furthermore, through the testimonies of participants and experimenters, one can recognize how both nations still feel the lasting effects of their war-time apathy to this very day.

A Brief History of Scientific Ethics and their Neglect

To discern how the two superpowers turned their backs on the standards of scientific ethics, one must first be knowledgeable of the accepted standards during that period of history. One of the most widely regarded guides of such standards, and prominent guarantees of experimental ethics during said period, took the form of the 1947 Nuremberg Code. Even though the “rules regarding human experimentation were already understood and adopted by medical researchers in America and, indeed, all over the world [at the time],” the Nuremberg Code itself necessitated the “the consent of subjects and the absence of coercion in any form” when experimenting on humans (Lederer and Moreno, 1996). Additionally, it states that “the experiment should be such as to yield fruitful results for the good of society, unprocurable by other methods or means of study, and not random and unnecessary in nature” (Hornblum and Rutter xi). Nearly twenty years later, the world witnessed the publication of the strikingly similar 1964 Declaration of Helsinki. “Having its roots in the Nuremberg Code,” the initial draft of the Declaration of Helsinki provided ten markers for ethical research, which required that human subjects be voluntary participants and that “the investigator or the investigating team should discontinue the research if in his or their judgement it may, if continued, be harmful to the individual” (Carlson et al., 2004).

The publication dates of both of these declared guidelines allude to the idea that scientific ethical standards were already well established before or during the primitive phases of the Cold War. In fact, Ross argues this exact point in his article titled, “Ethics of CIA and Military Contracting by Psychiatrists and Psychologists.” In it, he refers, specifically, to the mind control experiments conducted and supports the notion that they were unethical, because they “violated the Hippocratic Oath, the Nuremberg Code, and the Helsinki [Declarations], among other ethical codes and statements” (2007). According to him, “the basic rules and procedures of scientific experimentation on human subjects were well established by 1950,” which would undermine the sentiment that the experiments were “conducted during… an era with different ethical and scientific standards.”

In the case of MK Ultra, Ross notes that the purposes of those experiments were unethical in themselves. He states that “the purpose was to improve methods of brainwashing, interrogation, and control of behavior and memory by the CIA and the military. There was no possibility of medical benefit to the subjects or future patients.” Through these experiments, they hoped to create a “true ‘Manchurian Candidate,’” a type of “assassin or spy that could be activated when needed” (Swancer et al., 2018), which is a clear violation of the Nuremberg Code (as these intentions would not lead to “fruitful results for the good of society”). Likewise, they violated methodological standards of informed and voluntary consent. For example, Ross explains that:

“Under MKULTRA, CIA officer George White constructed safe houses in New York and San Francisco that were decorated like brothels. CIA officers watched through one-way mirrors while prostitutes the CIA had hired had sex with men they had picked up at bars. The prostitutes gave the johns LSD without their knowledge. The purpose of the experiments was to determine the effects of LSD on unwitting subjects in a natural setting.” (Ross, 2007)

Finally, and most shockingly, Ross describes cases where “psychiatrists gave LSD and mescaline to children in massive doses in the 1950s and 1960s.” Many of these experiments involving LSD were funded by either the CIA, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the Office of Naval Research, or the Department of the Army, and a large number of them were published in academic journals.

In a separate project under the MK Ultra designation, Subproject 119 also studied potential means for mind control using different instruments. Compared to the aforementioned studies that employed LSD to control the subject’s mind, Subproject 119 “uniquely focused on the electromagnetic means” (Miyamoto, 2018). The researchers in these experiments “had articulated several research goals when subsidized as the MKULTRA Subproject, one of which was an activation of human organism by remote electronic means” (more specifically, through the electromagnetic manipulation of brainwaves). While both experiments differed in their means, their purpose was the same: to use science to achieve military advantages over the Soviet Union by way of clandestine, insidious experimentation on U.S. citizens.

The Diversity of the United States’ Ethical Violations

Whereas MK Ultra is one of the more well-known unethical experiments performed/funded covertly by the CIA it was not the only one. One project titled “MKOFTEN” is speculated to have “branched out into the world of black magic, witchcraft, and the occult,” pursuing “magical rituals for possible military use” (Swancer et al., 2018). Other experiments, like Operation LAC (Large Area Coverage), unethically tested biochemical weapons upon unassuming citizens by dropping chemical agents from “aircraft, tall rooftops, and moving vehicles” (Mangold and Goldberg 37). In these experiments, a multitude of powdery stimulants “were tested in various window conditions to determine the distance and direction they would cover” (37). While no one developed maladies from these investigations in particular, that was not always the case nor intention. In Holmesburg Prison, Pennsylvania, more treacherous chemical experiments occurred. Here, the U.S. Army paid prison inmates to test chemical agents in eye drops, face creams and deodorants. Unbeknownst to them, the chemicals were incredibly harmful to humans, and many developed permanent scars and skin burns as a result (Hornblum and Rutter 10).

Aside from their unethical intentions, most of these experiments only have one thing in common: they all remain largely unaddressed by the United States government in the public sphere. As mentioned previously, most of the present information available has only been discovered through the declassification of highly censored CIA documents and investigative journalism, which cannot reveal the full story. However, there has been one notable case in United States history where the federal government has openly acknowledged willful wrongdoing in the field of science. During the presidency of Bill Clinton, an executive order authorized the formation of the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments in order to “identify the ethical and legal standards for evaluating experiments conducted at the height of the Cold War” (Lederer and Moreno, 1996). With this, the committee was assigned to the unprecedented task of reconstructing and reviewing past standards to “evaluate them in light of current ones.” However, as the name of the committee implies, their ethical examinations primarily focused upon the United States’ contentious Human Radiation Experiments.

These experiments (conducted from 1944 and 1974) consisted of tests that studied the biological responses to radiation exposure (Buchanan, 1996). In one example “under the auspices of the U.S government,” many children at the Fernald School in the 1940s and 1950s were deceived into being exposed to radioisotopes. As Buchanan states:

“With the complicity of the school’s highest administrator, physicians tricked the parents of retarded children at the school into giving permission for their children to participate in a ‘science club.’ In fact the ‘science club’ was a cover for an experiment in which the children were fed radioisotopes mixed with oatmeal.” (27)

In knowing the exploitative nature of this experiment along with the many others that followed it, violations against the Nuremberg Code and Helsinki Declaration are instantly recognizable.

So, with the advent of the Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments twenty years later, the ethical measures of the radiation experiments were finally reviewed by the federal government and addressed publicly. In 1995, a press conference took place where the chair of the committee, Dr. Ruth Faden, admitted that “wrongs were committed,” as “people were used as research subjects without their knowledge and without their consent.” Likewise, she stated that “there were releases of radiation into the environment in context in which affected communities were not informed and where the information withheld effectively from the public and from these affected communities for decades.” With a conclusive “we’re sorry,” the United States belatedly forced itself to acknowledge that it had committed wrongdoings which have since affected the lives its citizens.

The Red Rival: Soviet Russia and its Inadequate Ethics

On the other side of the globe and spectrum, the Russian government has been even more reluctant to share publicly the experimental wrongdoings of its Soviet predecessor. Because of this, it is incredibly difficult to present a contemporary analysis of the unethical experiments conducted in the Soviet Union during the Cold War. For instance, as Vlassov wrote in the European Journal of Public Health, “we may be quite sure that the Soviet state has experimented with radiation on human subjects. But probably we never will learn the truth” (2006). Additionally, “Soviet physicians were not informed about the emergence of the World Medical Association and the Helsinki Declaration which was developed from the Nuremberg Code,” because the documents surrounding the Nazi Nuremberg Trials (which produced the Code) were not published in Russian scientific texts until the mid-1980s. Primarily, this is because Russian officials considered their exposure to be dangerous to the Soviet regime, since many documents implicated Stalin in the massacres of “thousands of Polish citizens.” As such, the reasons for experimentation may also be forever hidden from the public, but one can assume that such tests were conducted for reasons similar to the United States’: to acquire scientific and, subsequently, military advantages over their capitalist competitors during the hysterical period of the Cold War. Nonetheless, there are some Soviet, scientific malpractices that have been unofficially revealed to the public through witnesses, investigations and unassuming physicians.

A majority of known Soviet wrongdoing is best characterized by Lysenkoism. Lysenkoism, named after the proletariat, Soviet geneticist Trofim Lysenko, provided an adversarial hypothesis to the (accepted) molecular science of Western, “bourgeois specialists” (Graham, 73) before and during the Cold War. As such, the theory of genetics has developed a unique history in Russia. While most Western scientists accepted and agreed with the theories of molecular biology (as they do to this day) (101), most Soviet scientists for a time believed that an organism inherited characteristics acquired in their lifetime, because Lysenko ‘evidenced’ it in his experiments (85). However, this was not always the case. Prior to Lysenko’s rise to prominence, many Russians adopted and accepted Western science freely, which included the Western/Mendelian theories of genetics (50). It was only into the period of Lysenko’s dominance that those who supported Western theories of genetics were eliminated from the sphere of Soviet science.

In most cases, these scientists were eliminated by Lysenko through the process of “denunciation,” which involved using the secret police to rid oneself of enemies or rivals by labelling them as “treasonous” or “bourgeoise” (72). Since Lysenko’s scientific theories were largely unfounded at the time, and his “methods were incredibly lacking in rigor” (85), he had no means to combat his scientific opponents through empirical evidence. Instead, he relied upon the attitudes of Soviet society in the early phases of the Cold War, which were Communist and, as such, suspicious of science of the West (67). Through manipulation of this popular animosity, he offered alternative (non-Western) “agricultural remedies” by way of his biological theories during the Soviet Famine of 1932-33, a catastrophic result of Stalin’s collectivization efforts (140). This in combination with his “denunciations” allowed his unfounded theories to become widely accepted and promoted within Soviet society (72).

Through Lysenko, the unethicality of the Soviet’s Cold War science reveals itself. While Lysenko did not test his theories on people, his experiments had tremendous consequences for many Soviets. As a result of his denunciations, many Soviet scientists who defended Western genetics were killed. One such scientist, Nikolai Vavilov, “died of starvation in detention” (73), and many others today have reacted to the modern discovery of epigenetics (the heritability of characteristics acquired in an organism’s lifetime) with fear (123). To the many who remember him, the name Lysenko is now synonymous with the authoritarian Soviet policies that took place during the Cold War.

Regarding human experimentation in Soviet Russia, little is known. As stated previously, Russia is incredibly hesitant to reveal its wrongdoings, presumably because doing so would go against the long-propagated propaganda of Soviet superiority in government and philosophy. Nevertheless, researchers have been able to discover that the Soviet Union spent upwards of a billion dollars on mind control research during the Cold War (Kernbach, 2013). How this research was conducted is still declassified, but many would consider mind control research of any kind to go against the Nuremberg Code and Helsinki Declaration, no matter the methods applied.

Notably, there are some unethical experiments that have been largely declassified by the Soviet Union. Although, all of these experiments were in regard to one thing: poison production and research. These experiments took place in the KGB’s poison factories, which were initially established before World War II by Lenin himself (Volodarsky ch. 4). “From the very beginning,” Volodarsky states, “its ‘products’ were to be used against the ‘enemies of the people,’” which really meant the “enemies of the Kremlin” (ch. 4). To test these “products” (mustard gas derivatives, ricin, digitoxin and curare, to name a few examples), they were often administered to prisoners, which, in most cases, would lead to the prisoner’s death. In other cases, the poisons would cause “extreme suffering” to their subjects (ch. 4). With the methods of these experiments in mind, their unethical nature need not be explained, no matter if the participants consented to them. Although, the nefarious scope of these experiments is much greater than the way in which they were performed.

In fact, most of the unethical experiments performed by both the United States and Soviet Union have had massive implications for both nations and their citizens. To return to the “products” of the KGB poison factories, many are assumed to have been utilized in the deaths of numerous public officials. For instance, the nephew of the former Japanese prime minister, Prince Konoe, the last commandant of Berlin, Helmut Weidling, and the German field marshal Ewald von Kleist all are assumed to have died from poison after having adverse interactions with the USSR (Sokolov, 2004). More recently, Alexei Navalny, an opposition politician and a staunch critic of Putin, was put into a coma after he had his tea allegedly poisoned (Ray, 2020). Admittedly, it is pure speculation whether the poisoning had anything to do with the Kremlin, but it does beg the question: is it possible that the poison factories are still active to this very day?

The Reverberating Consequences of Ethical Disregard

Correspondingly, Soviet Russia’s censorship in regard to the Nuremberg Code has had lasting consequences on the spheres of medicine. According to Vlassov:

“Present day, [Russian] journals publish reports describing ethically unacceptable research. In all medical research and teaching institutions medical scientists do research without prospective ethical review… [and] ethical review boards, where they are formed, are not independent and have no real voice to approve the study.” (2006)

This sentiment may lend itself to the idea that unethical experiments continue to this day under the supervision of uninformed physicians. Finally, there is the lasting impact of Lysenkoism, which continues to haunt genetic researchers and molecular biologists, especially with the emergence of theories that would seem to affirm some of Lysenko’s beliefs (Graham 123). However, as Graham states, “little danger exists that Lysenkoism will again take over academic genetics in Russia” (143).

In the United States, the consequences of Cold War experiments have been quite significant as well. Like the Soviet Union’s, they have led to a considerable amount of death and suffering that lasts to the present day. In the cases of the Human Radiation Experiments, and the Holmesburg Prison experiments, unaware subjects were exposed to harmful chemicals that have scarred them for the rest of their lives. In the case of MK ULTRA, participants have faced permanent psychological damage, which, in the most troubling instances, has had colossal ramifications for other citizens (refer once again to Ted Kaczynski for an example of these impacts). In less infamous cases, MK Ultra test subjects have contracted permanent brain damage, which has subsequently made them suicidal and abnormally violent (for instance, one known participant brutally beat their wife after being exposed to LSD) (Anderson, 1982; Anderson, 1983).

With all of this in mind, it is not surprising that recent studies conducted by the Pew Research Center have found that trust in the United States government is at an all-time low (2015). If these experiments occurred outside of public knowledge for decades, it makes one wonder if there is anything that would stop the government from doing it again if they could. Furthermore, many citizens believe that these clandestine experiments continue outside of public knowledge to this very day. Overall, these unethical experiments have drastically changed how people view not only the United States government, but governments in general.

These experiments are not just some events that happened in the past; they are continuous influence on society, especially in the era of the internet. Even if individuals had no direct relation to these experiments, they still feel their enduring effects. In Russia, scientists still fear the rise of a theory from decades past, and in the United States, people still fear what their government may be exposing them to without their knowledge, directly leading to the exponential prominence of conspiracy theories within recent years. As a result of the United States and Soviet Union neglecting the universal standards of scientific ethics and research methodology, their citizens have been significantly harmed, and it would only make sense for them to never regain that trust that they once had in their respective governments.


Anderson, J. (1982, August 28). Lawsuit Forces CIA Confession on MK-ULTRA.Washington Post.

Anderson, J. (Writer). (1983, February 12).Jack Anderson Confidential[Transcript, Radio broadcast]. Washington, D.C.: WJLA-TV.

Buchanan, Allen. “Judging the Past: The Case of the Human Radiation Experiments.” The Hastings Center Report 26, no. 3 (1996): 25.

Carlson, Robert V., Kenneth M. Boyd, and David J. Webb. “The Revision of the Declaration of Helsinki: Past, Present and Future.” British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology 57, no. 6 (2004): 695–713.

Chase, Alston. “Harvard and the Making of the Unabomber.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, June 2000.

David Kaczynski on December 29, 2010 at 3:27 PM. “Ted and the CIA, Part 2.” David Kaczynski, December 29, 2010.

Graham, Loren R. Lysenko's Ghost: Epigenetics and Russia. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2016.

Hornblum, Allen M., and Steve Rutter. Acres of Skin: Human Experiments at Holmesburg Prison: A True Story of Abuse and Exploitation in the Name of Medical Science. New York, New York: Routledge, 1999.

Kernbach, Serge. “Unconventional Research in USSR and Russia: Short Overview,” December 5, 2013.

Lederer, Susan E., and Jonathan D. Moreno. “Revising the History of Cold War Research Ethics.” Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 6, no. 3 (September 1996): 223–37.

Mangold, Tom, and Jeff Goldberg. Plague Wars: A True Story of Biological Warfare. New York, New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.

Miyamoto, Kenji. “The CIA MKULTRA Subproject 119 Was Their Initial Electromagnetic Program, Though Not Yielding Any Substantial Methodologies.” SSRN Electronic Journal, November 11, 2018.

Ray, Siladitya. “Russian Opposition Politician, Putin-Critic Alexei Navalny In Coma After Alleged Poisoning.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, August 20, 2020.

Ross, Colin A. “Ethics of CIA and Military Contracting by Psychiatrists and Psychologists.” Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry 9, no. 1 (2007): 25–34.

Sokolov, Boris. “Грани.Ру: Советская История Отравлений.” Грани.Ру: Главное, December 14, 2004.

Steven A. Capps, Tom Abate and Scott Winokur. “Forestry Lobbyist Dies in Explosion.” SFGATE, April 25, 1995.

Swancer, Brent, Paul Seaburn, and Brett Tingley. “Black Magic, the Occult, and the CIA.” Mysterious Universe, March 22, 2018.

“Trust in Government: 1958-2015.” Pew Research Center - U.S. Politics & Policy. Pew Research Center, November 23, 2015.

United States’ Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments. "Human Radiation Experiments Final Report."C-Span, October 1995.

Vlassov, Vasiliy. “Russian Medicine and the Nuremberg Trials.” European Journal of Public Health 16, no. 3 (June 2006): 229–29.

Volodarsky, Boris. The KGB's Poison Factory: From Lenin to Litvinenko. London: Frontline Books, 2009.

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