Fears of Communism during the Cold War spurred psychological research, pop culture hits, and unethical experiments in the CIA.
Journalist Edward Hunter was the first to sound the alarm. “Brain-washing Tactics Force Chinese Into Ranks of Communist Party,” blared his headline in the Miami Daily News in September 1950. In the article, and later in a book, Hunter described how Mao Zedong’s Red Army used terrifying ancient techniques to turn the Chinese people into mindless, Communist automatons.
He called this hypnotic process “brainwashing,” a word-for-word translation from xi-nao, the Mandarin words for wash (xi) and brain (nao), and warned about the dangerous applications it could have. The process was meant to “change a mind radically so that its owner becomes a living puppet—a human robot—without the atrocity being visible from the outside.”
It wasn’t the first time fears of Communism and mind control had seeped into the American public. In 1946 the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was so worried about the spread of Communism that it proposed removing liberals, socialists and communists from places like schools, libraries, newspapers and entertainment. Hunter’s inflammatory rhetoric didn’t immediately have a huge impact—until three years into the Korean War, when American prisoners of war began confessing to outlandish crimes.
When he was shot down over Korea and captured in 1952, Colonel Frank Schwable was the highest ranking military officer to meet that fate, and by February 1953, he and other prisoners of war had falsely confessed to using germ warfare against the Koreans, dropping everything from anthrax to the plague on unsuspecting civilians. The American public was shocked, and grew even more so when 5,000 of the 7,200 POWs either petitioned the U.S. government to end the war, or signed confessions of their alleged crimes. The final blow came when 21 American soldiers refused repatriation.
Suddenly the threat of brainwashing was very real, and it was everywhere. The U.S. military denied the charges made in the soldiers’ “confessions,” but couldn’t explain how they’d been coerced to make them. What could explain the behavior of the soldiers besides brainwashing? The idea of mind control flourished in pop culture, with movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Manchurian Candidateshowing people whose minds were wiped and controlled by outside forces.
FBI director J. Edgar Hoover referred to thought-control repeatedly in his book Masters of Deceit: The Story of Communism in America and How to Fight It. By 1980 even the American Psychiatric Association had given it credence, including brainwashing under “dissociative disorders” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-III. Had Chinese and Soviet Communists really uncovered a machine or method to rewrite men’s minds and supplant their free will?
The short answer is no—but that didn’t stop the U.S. from pouring resources into combatting it.
“The basic problem that brainwashing is designed to address is the question ‘why would anybody become a Communist?’” says Timothy Melley, professor of English at Miami University and author of The Covert Sphere: Secrecy, Fiction, and the National Security State. “[Brainwashing] is a story that we tell to explain something we can’t otherwise explain.”
The term had multiple definitions that changed depending on who used it. For Hunter—who turned out to be an agent in the CIA’s propaganda wing—it was a mystical, Oriental practice that couldn’t be understood or anticipated by the West, Melley says. But for scientists who actually studied the American POWs once they returned from Korea, brainwashing was altogether less mysterious than the readily apparent outcome: The men had been tortured.
Robert Jay Lifton, one of the psychiatrists who worked with the veterans and had previously studied doctors who aided Nazi war crimes, listed eight criteria for thought reform (his more measured term for brainwashing). They included things like “milieu control” (having absolute power over the individual’s surroundings) and “confession” (in which individuals are forced to confess to crimes repeatedly, even if they aren’t true). For the American soldiers trapped in the Korean prison camps, brainwashing meant forced standing, deprivation of food and sleep, solitary confinement, and repeated exposure to Communist propaganda.
“There was concern on the part of [the American military] about what had actually happened to [the POWs] and whether they had been manipulated to be [what would later be known as] a ‘Manchurian candidate,’” says Marcia Holmes, a science historian at the University of London’s “Hidden Persuaders” project. “They’re not sleeper agents, they’re just extremely traumatized.”