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“Dr. Delirium and the Edgewood Experiments” is a terrifying portrait of American moral failure (Review)

Image courtesy of Discovery+

PSA: The following may cause readers to lose whatever faith they have left in their government.

In the 1960’s, the United States was smack dab in the middle of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. What many don’t know is that there was an internal war going on in their own backyard. Dr. Delirium and the Edgewood Experiments does a deep dive on experiments spearheaded by the U.S. government, taking place across twenty years, on American volunteers. 

“The whole thing is just so criminal, they did it to their own soldiers. Somebody needs to be held accountable,” says one of the veterans who was a part of the Edgewood experiments. The greatest strength of this documentary is the lengths it goes to to do its due diligence. An investigative team led by former ABC White House correspondent Tara Palmeri, who serves as a de facto narrator, sifts through a number of documents, videos, and interviews as they try to get to the bottom of just what happened all those years ago. The main subject is Dr. James Ketchum, the leader of the Edgewood experiments.

Cold War paranoia, known commonly as “The Red Scare,” was a justification by Americans to defend unconstitutional actions by using a sense of nationalism, or “anti-communism.” This documentary makes it clear that the origins of these experiments start from that justification. They look to Operation Paperclip, a U.S. intelligence program that took place from 1945-1959 in which over 1,600 Nazi Scientists were employed by the U.S. government for the sole purpose of getting ahead on the Soviets. This was just the first domino to fall. Soon after, more drastic actions began to unfold. Scientists observed as cats, who usually view mice as prey, ingested LSD and then jumped in fear around those same mice. Thus began the human experiments that would become known as the Edgewood Experiments. 

Ketchum’s interview is eye-opening, but the documentary’s emotional foundation lies in the present-day interview with surviving veterans who were experimented on. With each harrowing detail of their experience it becomes more and more clear that these were not viewed as human beings, rather a means to an end. While cats responded to LSD inhalation with fear, human subjects did not match their level of trepidation, so the military reacted by switching to BZ, a more potent form of LSD that caused delirium amongst the human subjects, sometimes for up to 36 hours. 

Image courtesy of Discovery+

Compounding the issue for the subjects was the oath of silence each took regarding their part in the experiments. On an individual level, it destroyed the mental health of the subjects. Each returned from the experiment with serious issues they were unable to discuss. This led to feelings of despair, isolation, hallucinations and, in some cases, suicide. Eventually, some of the remaining subjects began seeking potential compensation avenues, which created the ultimate catch-22; if the subjects were to break their oath of silence, they would be dishonorably discharged and lose their pension plans. 

The format of this documentary is simple; clips of the experiments and interviews with the subjects themselves are spliced together with clips of the investigative team, led by Palmeri, watching and discussing them, making it easier for the viewer to dissect the great deal of information they are being asked to absorb, as well as a straight-line narrative. Their thesis statement is that far too many people knew about these appalling crimes and did nothing, and their mission statement is to inform the audience as thoroughly as possible. It’s an ambition they achieve overwhelmingly. As it was reaching its end, I was reminded of a C.S. Lewis quote that applies to real life far too often;

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

It would be difficult to describe doctors and scientists injecting volunteer patients, people who’ve given their trust, with LSD and other more powerful drugs, as ‘omnipotent moral busybodies’. But these were very clearly experiments done with a greater good in mind. It is a safe bet that the words, “the ends justify the means” were at one point spoken by those calling the shots. But rarely does that ever end up being the case. And if you compromise once, it becomes easier to do so over and over again, which can have some pretty terrifying consequences. This documentary is just another in a long line of examples of that. It is informative and entertaining. In a certain retrospect, it is fantastic. In another, it is horrifying. 

Poster courtesy of Discovery+

Dr. Delirium and the Edgewood Experiments premieres today, June 9, on Discovery+