Your work has been a gift to mankind. You shaped the century.
—Alexander Pierce, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”
That something called “MKUltra” existed is not under debate.
But let’s face it: the very name has become part of our “tin foil hat” mainstream lexicon, the use of which sets off “red flags” (if you will excuse the possible pun) every time it’s mentioned as a sort of “crazy-person” fallback talking point.
And yet, MKUltra folklore is inextricably wrapped up with one of the most currently popular characters in movies and comic books: The Winter Soldier.
Project MKUltra was a program to study the control of the human mind started by the Central Intelligence Agency in the early Fifties, and officially pronounced “ended” in 1973. According to the U.S. Supreme Court, MKUltra was:
concerned with “the research and development of chemical, biological, and radiological materials capable of employment in clandestine operations to control human behavior.” The program consisted of some 149 subprojects which the Agency contracted out to various universities, research foundations, and similar institutions. At least 80 institutions and 185 private researchers participated. Because the Agency funded MKUltra indirectly, many of the participating individuals were unaware that they were dealing with the Agency.
So basically, you could have been a kid in a psychiatric facility, or a john being unwittingly dosed with LSD by a prostitute, or an inmate in prison, and an “unaware” participant in MKUltra research.
So that this thing existed is not a crazy-person fever-dream. Now, the extent to which it existed—and if it was indeed ever truly discontinued at all—is under debate.
But let’s talk comic book movie characters.
In 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, World War II soldier & recently liberated prisoner of war James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes presumably falls to his death during a fight and is presumed dead.
He survived the fall because he was experimented on by HYDRA (a.k.a. “The Nazis”) while he was a POW. HYDRA recovers his body, gives him a cybernetic arm, and subjects him to a battery of brainwashing techniques to create the ultimate assassin. At some point, Barnes ends up with the KGB and hence becomes The Winter Soldier.
But important to note here: in this version of the story, which differs from that in the comic books, Barnes is initially brainwashed by HYDRA, not the Russians. It is my belief that this vital switch ties the movie character far more to the MKUltra narrative, turning 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier into a thinly-veiled political narrative bordering on the outright dramatization of what has only been speculated about in the more “fringe” forums. (Compare to the equally-political Iron Man III with its “Bin Laden” echoes)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a surprisingly paranoid narrative that would be right at home in the 1970s, the period of time that’s brought us such movies as All The President’s Men and Three Days of The Condor—and this connection is brought home by the inspired choice of Robert Redford to play Alexander Pierce, who is essentially the MKUltra “handler” of Barnes.
When Barnes, on a mission, fleetingly recognizes his best friend Steve Rogers, Pierce subjects him basically to a “mind-wipe”—an actual machine that removes all of Barnes’ memories.
Similarly, one of the focuses of MKUltra was to play similar games with the minds of its subjects using such things as hypnosis and drugs like LSD. Here is a list of the goals of this program, per a Senate investigation:
- Substances which will promote illogical thinking and impulsiveness to the point where the recipient would be discredited in public.
- Substances which increase the efficiency of mentation and perception.
- Materials which will cause the victim to age faster/slower in maturity.
- Materials which will promote the intoxicating effect of alcohol.
- Materials which will produce the signs and symptoms of recognized diseases in a reversible way so that they may be used for malingering, etc.
- Materials which will cause temporary/permanent brain damage and loss of memory.
- Substances which will enhance the ability of individuals to withstand privation, torture and coercion during interrogation and so-called “brain-washing”.
- Materials and physical methods which will produce amnesia for events preceding and during their use.
- Physical methods of producing shock and confusion over extended periods of time and capable of surreptitious use.
- Substances which produce physical disablement such as paralysis of the legs, acute anemia, etc.
- Substances which will produce a chemical that can cause blisters.
- Substances which alter personality structure in such a way that the tendency of the recipient to become dependent upon another person is enhanced.
- A material which will cause mental confusion of such a type that the individual under its influence will find it difficult to maintain a fabrication under questioning.
- Substances which will lower the ambition and general working efficiency of men when administered in undetectable amounts.
- Substances which promote weakness or distortion of the eyesight or hearing faculties, preferably without permanent effects.
- A knockout pill which can surreptitiously be administered in drinks, food, cigarettes, as an aerosol, etc., which will be safe to use, provide a maximum of amnesia, and be suitable for use by agent types on an ad hoc basis.
- A material which can be surreptitiously administered by the above routes and which in very small amounts will make it impossible for a person to perform physical activity.
The character of the Winter Soldier is the embodiment of many of these goals: a mind-controlled amnesiac who can flip into “super killer” mode by the use of a number of “trigger words.” (And we see a lot more of this in the 2nd Captain America sequel, Civil War)
Now, wouldn’t this all be more akin to the cinematic figure of the Manchurian Candidate, who, in the 1962 movie of the same name was brainwashed by the Communists? (Important: this is a VERY different plot from the 2004 version, which featured an evil corporation)
Well, in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, an explicit connection between (the fictional organization) HYDRA and (the real-life organization) Nazis and (the real-life program) Operation Paperclip is made. In Operation Paperclip, the U.S. government secretly recruited Nazi scientists and engineers after World War II to be a part of various initiatives, including the burgeoning space program. But it’s believed that some of these Nazi operatives were also shunted off to mind-control/MKUltra experiments.
In the movie, Captain America is literally told point-blank that HYDRA scientists were recruited during Operation Paperclip, and that they were responsible for creating mind-controlled super-assassins like the Winter Soldier.
Further, the Winter Soldier is then connected to various real-life assassinations, prompting Pierce to tell Barnes that he “shaped the century.” Similarly, it has also been speculated by some writers that a number of real-life assassins might have been mixed up with MKUltra-type situations.
While Barnes gets out of the clutches of his handlers, he’s throughly fucked-up, has patchy memory, is still susceptible to trigger words, and is considered by the U.S. government to still be responsible for the assassinations he carried out as the Winter Soldier (even though they were completely out of his control). At the end of Captain America: Civil War Barnes asks to be put in cryogenic stasis (shades of the finale to The Empire Strikes Back!) because “I can’t trust my own mind.”
In some ways, not only is the character an analogue for the MKUltra experimentation victim, but for the returning veteran who has various difficulties such as PTSD and concussion syndrome after the war. We’ve heard the many unfortunate stories of the way some of these returning vets are let down by the country; given inadequate physical and mental health care. Contrast Bucky’s shell-shocked and haggard appearance at the end of Captain America: The First Avenger to the slick and even cheery veteran’s memorial he visits in an attempt to jog his memory.
The popularity of the Winter Soldier—especially among female fans—is, as I’ve said before, huge. Elaborate, sometimes extremely morbid/sexual fan-fiction is written about his ordeals. He also has a very interesting visual “look” that puts him in a category with other cinematic “anti-heroes” such as the Dark Knight Joker and The Crow (perhaps a topic for a future post; reference a fan theory that the Joker was really a returning soldier himself horribly physically and emotionally scarred by a mission gone wrong):
Finally, it’s almost certain that this popularity probably led to the way the character Ilya Kuryakin in the 2015 movie The Man From UNCLE was “rebooted”—into that of a troubled, psychologically-disturbed “super-assassin/agent.” And while Kuryakin himself does not seem to be the subject of an MKUltra/Manchurian Candidate experiment, there is a torture scene in the movie involving Napoleon Solo & a sadistic “ex-Nazi” type.
Perhaps the only way MKUltra has really made it to the mainstream consciousness is through our popular culture. Let us hope that awareness of it, in no matter what form, might lead to these sorts of experiments never happening again in our current era.
Everything HYDRA put inside of me is still there.
—Bucky Barnes, “Captain America: Civil War”