The Frank Olson Legacy Project

The Death of Frank Olson in Historical Context

From “Work-related accident” to “Mind-control murder”

Second period: From the death of Frank Olson to lunch with William Colby

First period: To the death of Frank Olson
Third period: From the settlement with the government to the exhumation of the body

Second period: From the death of Frank Olson to lunch with William Colby

Fourth period: From the Morganthau memo to the end of the affair…
  Olson family informed of the death of Frank Olson.
Nov. 28, 1953 (Saturday morning): In the early morning Olson’s family is informed of Olson’s death by Olson’s boss (SOD chief, Vin Ruwet) and the family doctor. The family is told only that Olson has “fallen or jumped” from the window of a hotel. Alice Olson is thirty-eight years old, Eric is nine, Lisa is seven, and Nils is five. Government employee’s compensation for the Olson family, based upon Frank’s having died in a “work-related accident,” is arranged in three days. So great was the shock experience by the family that we did not grieve our loss at all; it was as if nothing had happened.

Dec. 1, 53: Funeral of Frank Olson.
Olson’s coffin, which is draped with an American flag, is closed because the government has advised the family that Olson’s body is too badly injured to be seen. Sidney Gottlieb and Robert Gottlieb attend the funeral.

American POWs in Korea being used in terminal mind-control experiments
Dec. 53: Evidence becomes known in Washington that five hundred American troops are being held as prisoners in North Korea after the end of the Korean War, and are being used in terminal mind-control experiments conducted by the Czechs and the Soviets. Eisenhower decides not to press for the release of these prisoners. (This does not become known publicly until September 1996.)

Key events in 1953.
(Was 1953 the hinge of the twentieth century?)

Soviets explode first thermonuclear device.

Stalin dies (March 6).

CIA launches MK-ULTRA project (April).

Castro put on trial for sedition by Batista regime.

Che Guevara in Guatemala.

Plans are laid by the CIA to remove the Arbenz government in Guatemala by staging a coup.

Rosenbergs executed for treason.

Nude photo of Marlin Monroe launches Playboy magazine.

Shah installed in Iran by the CIA (August).

Korean War ends, inaugurating the Cold War.

I.F. Stone begins publication of “I.F. Stone’s Weekly” to expose lies of the American government.

Watson and Crick discover double helix structure of DNA.

Discovery and repression of the link between cigarette smoking and cancer.

IBM introduces its first computer.

Urey and Miller advance theory of “primordial soup” as explanation for rise of life on earth.

Hillary and Norkay reach the top of Mt. Everest.
(In 1991 Norgay’s son Jamling Tenzing Norgay published an account of his own ascent of Everest, Touching My Father's Soul : A Sherpa's Journey to the Top of Everest.)

1954, Jan 4: CIA assassination manual sent to Nicaragua.
CIA assassination manual (the first of many) sent to Nicaragua for use in the CIA-engineered coup in Guatemala. Manual de-classified in the spring of 1997. As the preferred method of “contrived accident” to disguise a murder the manual recommends a “drop” from at least 75 feet onto a hard surface.

May 7: French surrender at Dien Bien Phu.

Alice Olson starts drinking.
Alice Olson begins a long decline into what becomes very severe alcoholism. This begins with afternoon cocktails with her husband’s boss Vin Ruwet after work, at the time when her husband would normally have been arriving home. Alice considers Vin’s companionship an act of kindness and support. In the CIA documents which the family obtains in 1975 we discover that immediately after Frank Olson’s death Ruwet was instructed by Allen Dulles to “keep track of the wife.”

1960: Timothy Leary establishes a psilocybin research project with the approval of Henry Murray, Chairman of the Department of Social Relations at Harvard. This project will eventually become the home of extensive LSD research and of the cultural proselytizing which helps to start a drug revolution.

1957: William Sargant publishes Battle for the Mind.
A British psychiatrist named William Sargant publishes Battle for the Mind, one of the first books on the psychology of “brainwashing.”

1961: Robert Jay Lifton publishes Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brainwashing in China..
An American psychiatrist named Robert Jay Lifton publishes Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China. In the course of writing this book Lifton begins a dialogue with psychologist Erik H. Erikson, whose book Young Man Luther had examined the psychology of religious conversion in a historical context. Lifton and Erikson will become pioneers in the new discipline of “psychohistory,” in which Erikson’s 1950 book Childhood and Society has already become a classic. Lifton’s work on “thought reform” provides the basis for his continuing interest in radical personality change and identity transformations, which he will later call “protean shifts.” This concept eventually becomes one of the sources of my work in developing “the collage method” in my Harvard PhD dissertation.

1961: Olson brothers bicycle across the United States.

June 26: My brother Nils (age 12) and I (age 16) leave our home in Frederick, Maryland on bicycles to follow Route 40 west all the way to San Francisco. On August 12 we arrive in San Francisco, having completed 3200 miles on bicycles. “Harolds Club or Bust!” becomes our motto. At the time Nils is almost certainly the youngest person ever to ride a bicycle across the United States; he later calls the trip a rite of passage for me.

Nov. 61: President Kennedy fires Allen Dulles as Director of the CIA following revelations of the CIA’s role in the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.
1967: CIA backing of Asia Foundation and other organizations exposed.

July 67: I am forced to leave India on short-notice after the Asia Foundation, which had promised me a research grant, is forced out of India following revelations of its secret function as a conduit for CIA funds.

Alice Olson’s alcoholism reaches a crisis.
Aug. 67. I return from India to Frederick and find that my mother is drunk. I realize that her alcoholism has become so severe that she can no longer work as a teacher or live alone. I decide to spend a year living with in Frederick to try to help with this problem. My efforts fail. My mother is arrested for drunken driving and spends Christmas night in jail.

1970. I make my first collage.
Summer 70: I make a collage—my first since the high school photo montages—which surprises me by starkly revealing how present the trauma of my father’s death still is.

Robert Jay Lifton and atomic bomb analogy.
Winter 70: While earning a MA degree at Harvard I hear Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, professor of psychiatry at Yale University, give a lecture called “Prophetic Survivors,” in which he contrasts the psychology of atomic scientist Robert Oppenheimer with that of the father of the H-bomb Robert Teller. In this lecture I recognize themes that seem useful in understanding my father’s death. I later discover that in 1959 Lifton published one of the first books on the psychology of brainwashing. In 1984 Sidney Gottlieb will tell me he secretly financed this book.

1971: Alice Olson’s recovery from alcoholism begins.
Summer: Alice Olson, committed to a mental hospital for alcoholism, begins a long process of recovery. After learning about the connection between families, alcoholism, and repressed grief in a course at Harvard, I arrange family therapy, which we undergo in the summer. My mother eventually recovers from alcoholism, and in the 1980’s she become a leading figure in the local alcoholism recovery movement. A halfway house for recovering alcoholics in Frederick is named for her.

July 13: The New York Times publishes The Pentagon Papers, leaked to the press by Daniel Ellsberg. These documents contain damaging assessments of US prospects in the Vietnam War. Henry Kissinger’s concern with these and other leaks leads Nixon to establish the “plumbers” who enlist the aid of the CIA to break into the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. This and similar violations will lead in 1974 to the formation of the Rockefeller Commission, whose assignment is to investigate domestic spying by the CIA. In 1975 the Rockefeller Commission will exposes the secret drugs tests on my father conducted my Gottlieb’s MKULTRA group.

Colleagueship with Robert Jay Lifton begins.
Fall 71: I begin graduate school at Yale, with the purpose of studying psychohistory with Robert Jay Lifton. Lifton and I begin work on death and psychology which is published under the title Living and Dying.

1972. Oct. 10: Watergate scandal breaks.

MKULTRA files destroyed.
1973: Richard Helms and Sidney Gottlieb both retire from the CIA. Acting on orders from Helms, Gottlieb destroys all MKULTRA files before leaving the Agency.

1973: The start of the collage method.
April: While engaged in an interview study of innovative styles among young scientists and lawyers with Robert Lifton, I decide that a new psychological method can be devised by utilizing the techniques and principles of collage. This work draws upon my childhood fascination with photography, and seems to be confirmed by the fecundity demonstrated in the work of Picasso (who dies two weeks later, on April 9, 1973) in the collage medium.

May 73. As a response to accusations of the CIA’s involvement in Watergate, William Colby assembles a file of CIA misdeeds that will eventually come to be known as “the Family Jewels.” In so doing Colby violates Richard Helms’ principle that all the secrets must be compartmentalized and are never to be gathered in one place. For this Colby will never be forgiven by CIA old-timers.

Interviewing survivors of the Buffalo Creek flood.
Fall 73: I spend many weeks in Buffalo Creek, West Virginia interviewing survivors of the 1972 Buffalo Creek flood disaster. The interviewing is intended to support a law suit brought against the coal company that built the unsafe dam whose collapse caused the flood. The attorney who organized the suit is Harry Huge of the Washington law firm Arnold and Porter. Robert Lifton and I publish a psychiatric paper on the Buffalo Creek experience called: “The Human Meaning of Total Disaster.” (In 1994 Harry Huge will agree to represent us in a second case against the CIA.)

The trauma of loss revisited.
Winter 73: The extremely painful breakup of a love relationship provokes memories of the pain of my father’s sudden and inexplicable disappearance.

1974. Aug. 9: Nixon resigns and the Presidency is assumed by Gerald Ford.

Living and Dying published.
Book entitled Living and Dying which I co-author with Robert Jay Lifton is published.

1974: Thanksgiving dinner: first suspicion of CIA involvement.
Nov. 28: My father died on November 28, which was early Saturday morning following Thanksgiving. In 1974 November 28 falls on Thanksgiving day, which intensifies the connection this year between the holiday and my father’s death. After Thanksgiving dinner the family watches old family movies that include shots of Frank. I again ask my mother to tell the story of what happened to my father. This time her account includes elements that I have not appreciated before. For the first time it occurs to me that my father’s death was in some way the work of the CIA. I say that after I finish my PhD I plan to begin an investigation to prove my the CIA’s involvement. My mother bursts into tears.

Dec. 22, 74: Following leads that had emerged during the Watergate investigation, Seymour Hersh publishes a report of the CIA’s “Operation Chaos” in the New York Times. Having had his suspicions confirmed in an interview with William Colby, Hersh describes illegal CIA investigations of American citizens. Hersh’s NY Times story leads Gerald Ford to establish the Rockefeller Commission to investigate CIA wrongdoing, and also leads to the Senate Select Committee headed by Frank Church. The Church Committee investigation ultimately reveals CIA involvement in assassination plots on foreign leaders.

1975. March.: I begin a Jungian analysis.
My first dream is of me probing the upholstery of an old chair for a coat that had belonged to my father: “You are preparing to come into your father’s legacy” is the interpretation given by the analyst. This interpretation is borne out in an extraordinary way by events soon to unfold.

April 30, 75: Vietnam War ends.

Washington Post story: “Suicide Revealed.”
June 11, 75: The Washington Post carries a front page story saying that the just-released Rockefeller Commission Report on the CIA includes description of an “Army scientist” (no further identification is given) who jumped to his death from a New York hotel room window in 1953 after being drugged with LSD. Seymour Hersh later tells us that the CIA file concerning Frank Olson was released to the Rockefeller investigators by mistake. I will later conclude that the headline is doubly ironic: the name of the victim was not revealed; and the death was not a suicide.

June 12, 75: A medial examination reveals that Alice Olson has cancer of the cervix.

Mid-June 75: In a private meeting with family members, Vin Ruwet confirms that the unidentified Army scientist referred to in the Washington Post article is Frank Olson.

Mid-June 75: The family approaches Washington attorney Harry Huge to represent us in a suit against the CIA. Huge at first agrees, but later has to decline when he discovers that his colleague Mitch Rogovin at Arnold and Porter has already agreed to represent CIA Director William Colby in the hearings at the Senate, thus creating a conflict of interest.

I then contact two very brilliant yourng lawyers from Philadelphia, David Rudovsky and David Kairys, who were good friends of mine, and invite them to represent our family. They agree, and one of their first suggestions is that we hold a family press conference to describe our grievance and make our demands clear both to the public and the government.

(Both David Kairys and David Rudovsky have gone on to very distinguished legal careers in practice, writing, and teaching, and still maintain a firm together in Philadelphia. David Kairys is now a professor at the Temple University Law School, and David Rudovsky, who was subsequently awarded a MacArthur "Genius" Award, is a Senior Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. In a 1999 interview David Rudovsky called his work on the Olson case “the most memorable” of his career.)

1975: Press conference in the backyard.
July 10: The family holds press conference in backyard of the family house in Frederick, Maryland. With the yard swarming with media we demand full disclosure of all relevant information concerning my father’s death, assurances from the government that this sort of experimentation will never occur again, and a financial settlement. The press conference is carried on all the network evening newscasts and is front page news across the US and in many other countries.

July 13, 75: Armand Pastore, night manager of the Statler Hotel on-duty the night Frank died, writes to inform the family that Frank was still alive when Pastore found him on the street.

Meeting with President Gerald Ford in the Oval Office of the White House.
July 21, 75: President Ford apologizes to the family and promises to support release of all relevant information from the CIA and an appropriate financial settlement.

Lunch with William Colby in his seventh floor office at the CIA.
August, 75: My sister Lisa, brother Nils, our two attorneys and I meet CIA Director William Colby for lunch in his seventh floor office at the CIA to receive a CIA apology and a file of documents which Colby claims represents the complete file on the death of Frank Olson. I spend much of the lunch arguing with Colby— who served as chief of the Project Phoenix which was allegedly responsible for the deaths of twenty thousand Vietnamese—about the Vietnam war. In the weeks and months to follow I find the documents given to us by Colby completely baffling. For a decade I continue to study these documents, finally concluding from the many sorts of discrepancies they contain that we have been given a false file. I conclude that the file we have been given is one that was prepared to conceal the true story of my father’s death within the CIA.

Gottlieb testifies to his involvement in assassination plots.
Oct. 7, 75: Sidney Gottlieb testifies before the Church Committee of the US Senate, admitting, among other things his direct involvement in the attempt to assassinate Lumumba in the Congo in 1960. Gottlieb admits that he personally carried anthrax to the Congo to be used in the assassination, and says that he obtained the anthrax from Detrick.

1976: Harvard Ph.D.: “The Mind’s Collage.”
June: I am awarded a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and Public Practice from Harvard University. My dissertation is titled “The Mind’s Collage: Psychic Composition in Adult Life.” (More on the collage work.)