Any decent book dealing with 1960s American counterculture should have a reference to Timothy Leary, who, in the early 1960s while a lecturer in psychology at Harvard University, promoted the use of the hallucinogen synthetic drug, Lysergic Acid Diethylamide 25, more commonly known as LSD. Leary subsequently became famous for popularizing the phrase, “Turn on, tune in, drop out” and for being labelled “the most dangerous man in America” by Richard Nixon.
Thomas Powers comments in his interesting book about what was occurring in America during the earlier years of the Vietnam War (The War at Home: Vietnam and the American People,1964-1968 [Grossman Publishers, 1973], p.203):
Leary felt that a lot of the world’s problems could be solved by a kind of instant spiritual revolution based on LSD. He felt there was a realistic chance that American establishment liberals like Arthur Schlesinger and even John F. Kennedy might try it, with far-reaching effects. If the preoccupation with self and the competitiveness that self entailed could be eliminated, the world might be redeemed.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is, or at least should be, a serious journal. In May 1962 the journal published a letter by Timothy Leary and others including Leary’s Harvard colleague Richard Alpert. The authors argued that the best defence to the potential threat of a possible Russian attack on the United States by contaminating the water supply with LSD was to have the whole population of US experiment with LSD in order that they could be prepared for its effects. Fortunately this journal is freely available on line. I copy an extract of the letter below:
The Politics of the Nervous System
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May 1962, pp.26-27.
Most psychiatrists who have experimented with such conscious-affecting drugs report danger. Most non-psychiatrists see these drugs as great benefactors of mankind. Included in the latter group are Albert Hoffman, the brilliant biochemist who first synthesized LSD and psilocybine; Alan Watts, author and philosopher; Robert S. de Ropp, biochemist; Aldous Huxley, novelist and philosopher; and the great American psychologist and philosopher,William James….
Psychologically these amazing substances expand your awareness, they open your mind. The kaleidoscopic and complex world that has always been there, the powerful sensations from every part of your body and the unusual connections of thoughts and feelings that are normally ignored come dramatically into consciousness.
Of course these experiences can be frightening. If you are not prepared, if you do not know what is happening to you and your brain, if you are struggling to maintain complete verbal control over your senses and your awareness, you will certainly be frightened and angry. But if your are prepared, if you know what kind of chemical you have taken and what to expect… then the experience can be wonderful, enlightening and life-changing. If an enemy does drop LSD in the water supply and if you are accurately informed and prepared then you have two choices. If you have time and the inclination you should sit back and enjoy the most exciting educational experience of your life (you might be forever grateful to the saboteur). If you don’t have the time or the inclination for this pleasant and insightful experience, then swallow a tranquilizer, which is a good antidote, and you’ll be back to the prosaic reality…..
Leary was fired by Harvard in April 1963 and Alpert lost his appointment a month later.