Stanly Milgram .com Stanley Milgram .com home page
. Photo of book cover
Stanley Milgram's Biography 
	Now Available! 
	The Man who Shocked the World
Milgram Cia Link -
| Photo of Stanley Milgram © Al Satterwhite

Milgram and the CIA—NOT!
Thomas Blass, PhD
Professor, Department of Psychology
University of Maryland Baltimore County

This message is to alert you to a claim, in the event you have not seen it already, which, to my knowledge, has no factual basis whatsoever.  The assertion is that Stanley Milgram's obedience research may have been funded by the CIA.  Specifically, the contention appears in a book by a University of Wisconsin historian, Alfred W. McCoy, "A question of torture:  CIA interrogation, from the cold war to the war on terror" (Metropolitan Books 2006) (hereinafter, Torture) (p. 47):

In searching for other university research that contributed to the CIA’s evolving torture paradigm, the famed Yale obedience experiments by a young psychologist, Stanley Milgram, seem a likely candidate.  Since the agency regularly laundered MKUltra [CIA’s program on the control of human behavior] funds through other federal agencies to some 185 nongovernment researchers and has refused to release their names, we have no way of knowing the full scope of academic investigation that might have advanced the CIA’s study of torture.  But the timing, at the peak of the agency’s academic involvement, and the topic, torture, raise the possibility that Milgram’s work may well have been a part of its larger mind-control project…. [Footnote omitted.]

But Torture presents not a shred of evidence that Milgram received CIA funding, and I have no reason to believe that this claim has any foundation.  For my biography of Milgram, "The man who shocked the world:  the life and legacy of Stanley Milgram" (Basic Books 2004), I studied thousands of pages of archival materials – from Yale, Harvard, CUNY, the Archives of the History of American Psychology in Akron, and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton – and I interviewed or communicated with more than 80 people.  In the course of all of this research, over many years, I never came across the slightest suggestion of a Milgram-CIA connection.  Moreover, the case that Torture makes for this connection is, at least in my view, phantasmagorical.

To my astonishment, Torture bases its speculative claims against Milgram on a simple, benign set of circumstances that is detailed on pages 65-70 of my biography of him.  One of the three granting agencies that Milgram sent preliminary letters of inquiry to in October-November 1960, asking about the possibility of their supporting his planned obedience research, was the Group Psychology Branch of the Office of Naval Research (ONR).  (The others were NSF and NIMH.)  In the end, Milgram sent a formal application to, and was funded by, NSF (not ONR or NIMH).  At the time, there was certainly nothing out of the ordinary about contacting ONR to inquire about possible funding.  During the 1960's, ONR supported basic, mainstream social-psychological research that was virtually indistinguishable from the kind of social psychology research that was then being supported by NSF and NIMH.  In fact, coincidentally, in the same issue (October 1963) of the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology in which Milgram's first obedience article ("Behavioral study of obedience") appeared, the lead article (by Raven and Eachus) was funded by a grant from ONR.

As Torture describes it, Milgram's negligible contact with ONR – writing preliminarily to ask about the possibility of funding but never submitting an application – turns into "his close ties to the ONR" (p. 47), "Milgram's intelligence connections" (p. 49), "why the ONR would have been so solicitous of Milgram's career" (p. 49), and “his ONR patrons” (p. 49).  And because, according to the above quoted paragraph from Torture, the CIA used other federal agencies as conduits for its research funding to academicians, Torture suggests, without citing any evidence and using "guilt by association," that Milgram's funding also originated from the CIA.  Admittedly, Torture does contain some qualifiers in making its claims to this effect, e.g., Torture refers to "possible ONR or CIA pressure" (p. 47), but these qualifiers typically are intermingled with sentences that contain unqualified and unsupported claims that Milgram had "intelligence connections.”  See, for instance, examples 1 and 3 below from Torture’s narrative.

In Torture’s narrative about Milgram, we can find some questionable presentational devices that serve to advance the book’s claim about Milgram’s possible CIA funding.  Specifically, the following examples demonstrate the book’s use of time-compression to make dubious connections, selective use of information from my book, and, to my knowledge, plain misstatements of fact:

  1. After writing about how Harvard denied Milgram tenure, Torture states:  "However, Milgram's intelligence connections apparently saved his career.  He was soon hired, with a promotion to full professor, by the new graduate dean at the City University of New York, Mina Rees, who had recently retired as deputy director of the Office of Naval Research" (p. 49).

    In fact, while Rees, as CUNY's dean, approved Milgram's being hired, it was Howard Leventhal, a colleague of Milgram at Yale, who initially proposed him to CUNY, and the ultimate recommendation to hire him resulted from a unanimous decision of a committee of psychology faculty, not from anything that Dean Rees did.  See pp. 156-157 and 165 of my Milgram biography.

    Equally important, perhaps, the claim in Torture that Rees had "recently retired" from ONR is plainly wrong.  In fact, she had left ONR in 1953 – when Milgram was still an undergraduate at Queens College – and 14 years before Milgram was hired by CUNY!  I should mention that 1953 is clearly stated as the year in which Rees left ONR to return to her previous academic home, Hunter College, in a biographical essay that Torture cites as the source for this assertion.  See footnote 72, p. 223.  So I do not understand how this seeming factual confabulation could have occurred.

    Moreover, and most importantly, I believe, as noted above, Milgram's obedience research had been funded by NSF, not ONR.  So Rees' involvement in Milgram's hiring by CUNY and when she retired from ONR are truly "much ado about nothing," which proves nothing!

  2. In describing the outcome of Milgram's grant application to NSF, submitted in January 1961, Torture states that "the NSF gave Milgram a substantial $24,700 grant – an exceptional mix of caution and largesse that hints at NSF reluctance and possible ONR or CIA pressure" (p.47).

    One can only wonder how Torture could draw such a conjectural and far-fetched inference about what supposedly happened behind the scenes at NSF, simply on the basis of the dollar amount of the grant Milgram received.  To hint, without any support, that there may have been "ONR or CIA pressure," is, to my way of thinking (and to say the least), not the most circumspect approach to take.  Furthermore, the suggestion that the size of the grant supposedly "hints at NSF reluctance" is at odds with (and ignores) the fact, which I begin describing on page 113 of my Milgram biography – one of the pages that Torture references – that Milgram received, in rapid succession, two more grants from NSF for his obedience research (plus supplemental funding).  See also pp. 319-320 of my Milgram biography.

  3. In its very next sentence, Torture claims:  "Indeed, in later years when Milgram proposed other projects without ONR's backing, the NSF rejected all his applications, even though they featured a similar method [my emphasis] using a mechanical device to test aspects of human behavior" (p.47).

    I find this statement doubly troubling because not only does it contain a misstatement of fact, but it references my biography of Milgram as its source.  The end of the quoted sentence from Torture refers the reader to footnote 70.  The text of footnote 70, which appears in the Notes section in the back of the book (p. 222), cites pages 235-242 of my biography of Milgram as the source for the quoted text.  But the NSF proposals I describe in those pages were neither about support for conducting more obedience experiments nor were they proposals for research using "a similar method."  Nor did they involve using any mechanical devices to gauge behavior.  Rather, these proposals were to support making films on research ethics and to support Milgram's research on cyranoids!  (For those who are unfamiliar with the term, I might mention that a "cyranoid" is a term that Milgram used to describe a person who communicates with another person by using the words of a third person, which are transmitted to the cyranoid by means of a tiny FM receiver in his ear.)

For all of these reasons, among others I could mention, it is my opinion that, while Torture may have much to offer on other topics, its tortured suggestions about a CIA link to Milgram's research on obedience should not be credited.

Thomas Blass, Ph.D.
Department of Psychology
University of Maryland Baltimore County
1000 Hilltop Circle
Baltimore, MD  21250


Related Articles




Site designed by: Jon Friedland