During the Korean War, almost 5,000 American POWs signed confessions or petitions calling for an end to the war, while high-ranking USAF officers in captivity denounced alleged U.S. war crimes against Korea and China. Standard interrogation techniques like isolation, physical deprivation, and, of course, torture were used to elicit these performances of coercive propaganda, but to Americans watching their “boys” do and say such things, something far more sinister had to be at play. What if the Communists had developed a secret program for mind-control and human enslavement?
The idea of “brain-washing” can be credited to Edward Hunter, a CIA-funded writer and editor, who in 1950 started writing articles and books on the subject. His thesis was that Red China and the Soviet Union could control the minds of their respective citizenry—which explained how susceptible Americans captured on foreign soil would be.
Timothy Melley, who details how the lurid notion of brainwashing took hold of the American imagination, gives a sample of Hunter’s prose: Brainwashing mixed the inscrutable Orient with the robotic Soviet to produce something “like witchcraft, with its incantations, trances, poisons, and potions, with a strange flair of science about it all, like a devil dancer in a tuxedo carrying his magic brew in a test tube.”
Melley calls brainwashing a “powerful and long-lived cultural fantasy,” born of the anxieties and paranoia aroused by the Cold War. Such conspiratorial thinking eventually disassociated from communism and entered mainstream American culture. For instance, critiques of advertising, like Vance Packard’s classic The Hidden Persuaders (1957), argued that corporations attempted to brainwash consumers; Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking The Feminine Mystique (1963) said that Cold War femininity was a result of brainwashing.
Perhaps the most fervid manifestation of the brainwashing obsession was the 1962 movie Manchurian Candidate, which was all at once a satire of anti-communism, the worst-case scenario of the anti-communist imagination, and a Freudian nightmare of “momism” (another bizarre 1950s notion, in which overbearing mothers were emasculating their sons and, by extension, the nation).
Melley shows how the “nightmare antithesis of the liberal self: the brainwashed subject” was in fact a construction of liberal democracy itself. The irony is compounded by the fact that the U.S. government was also working on mind-control experiments to bridge a supposed “brainwashing gap” between us and them.