Brainwashed U.S. P.O.W.s in Vietnam. Archive film 97479
Smithsonian: The True Story of Brainwashing and How It Shaped AmericaFears 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 Candidate showing 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 late studied doctors who aided Nazi war crimes, listed eight criteria for thought reform (the term for brainwashing used by Mao Zedong's communist government). 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.”
Related: Radio Show explanation excerpt: American GIs and the Origins of “Brainwashing”
There’s been a lot of talk about “indoctrination” lately. From “ISIS’s remote control terror attacks” to Dylann Roof’s “self-radicalization” online, much ink has been spilled over the question of how people’s minds can be externally manipulated into committing acts of violence.
We’ve been here before. Brian McKnight, a guest on this week’s show, tells the remarkable story of the American GIs who defected to communist China in the Korean War — and how their return prompted fears of communist “brainwashing”.
One such soldier was David Hawkins, captured in Korea at only 17 years old. After spending close to 3 years in a frigid prison camp, undergoing regular “indoctrination” sessions, Hawkins decided not to return to the United States in Operation Big Switch.
Instead, baffling Americans back home, Hawkins, along with 21 other US soldiers captured in the Korean War, decided to defect to newly communist China.
The event led to obsession in some quarters with unveiling the alleged communist power to “brainwash” prisoners. It even led to an award-winning film featuring none other than (pre-presidential) Ronald Reagan.
When the GIs returned to the United States, they arrived in the midst of the heightened anti-communist paranoia of McCarthyism. The “turncoat” soldiers were greeted with deep suspicion, leading many to offer mundane reasons for their defection.
One of the soldiers, however, refused to mince his words. Clarence Adams argued that as a uneducated African-American from Tennessee, he was far more likely to find life in China tolerable than under the Jim Crow regime of his native state.
And like another African-American communist collaborator we featured on this week’s show, Adams found life in China to be hospitable and friendly. American defectors were treated like local celebrities and gifted the services of housekeepers and personal assistants by the state.
Just like Joseph Roane, Adams never outright accepted communism or swore allegiance to the communist state. And indeed, when Chinese communism turned oppressive with Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Adams, like Roane, was forced out.
Adams returned to the United States in the midst of the Vietnam War, and was forever treated with suspicion, thanks to anti-war radio broadcasts he had made from China in the ’60s.
The concept of brainwashing, meanwhile, was experiencing a renaissance. Though the U.S. army’s own scientists debunked the idea in 1956, the CIA had simultaneously been ramping up its own “mind-control” project, MK Ultra.
Nowadays, academics look to these periods to understand how the concept of enemy indoctrination has resurfaced over time. At the University of London, a new project call “Hidden Persuaders” is asking what the 1950s can teach us about “how radicalization works in practice.”
Perhaps they’re channeling Reagan in The Ultimate Weapon, who caps his final monologue with this unexpected sentiment: “Our prisoners were part of ourselves. What they did or failed to do reflects our acts, our failings.”
Hear the full show.
Note: Scientific American: We’ve Known for 400 Years That Torture Doesn’t Work Why torture doesn't work
As recounted by author and journalist Daniel P. Mannix, during the European witch craze the Duke of Brunswick in Germany invited two Jesuit scholars to oversee the Inquisition's use of torture to extract information from accused witches. “The Inquisitors are doing their duty. They are arresting only people who have been implicated by the confession of other witches,” the Jesuits reported. The duke was skeptical. Suspecting that people will say anything to stop the pain, he invited the Jesuits to join him at the local dungeon to witness a woman being stretched on a rack. “Now, woman, you are a confessed witch,” he began. “I suspect these two men of being warlocks. What do you say? Another turn of the rack, executioners.” The Jesuits couldn't believe what they heard next. “No, no!” the woman groaned. “You are quite right. I have often seen them at the Sabbat. They can turn themselves into goats, wolves and other animals.... Several witches have had children by them. One woman even had eight children whom these men fathered. The children had heads like toads and legs like spiders.” Turning to the flabbergasted Jesuits, the duke inquired, “Shall I put you to the torture until you confess?”
One of these Jesuits was Friedrich Spee, who responded to this poignant experiment on the psychology of torture by publishing a book in 1631 entitled Cautio Criminalis, which played a role in bringing about the end of the witch mania and demonstrating why torture as a tool to obtain useful information doesn't work. This is why, in addition to its inhumane elements, it is banned in all Western nations, including the U.S., whose Eighth Amendment of the Constitution prohibits “cruel and unusual punishments.”
What about waterboarding? That's “enhanced interrogation,” not torture, right? When the late journalist Christopher Hitchens underwent waterboarding for one of his Vanity Fair columns, he was forewarned (in a document he had to sign) that he might “receive serious and permanent (physical, emotional and psychological) injuries and even death, including injuries and death due to the respiratory and neurological systems of the body.” Even though Hitchens was a hawk on terrorism, he nonetheless concluded: “If waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.”
Still, what if there's a “ticking time bomb” set to detonate in a major city, and we have the terrorist who knows where it is—wouldn't it be moral to torture him to extract that information? Surely the suffering or death of one to save millions is justified, no? Call this the Jack Bauer theory of torture. In the hit television series 24, Kiefer Sutherland's character is a badass counterterrorism agent whose “ends justify the means” philosophy makes him a modern-day Tomás de Torquemada. In most such scenarios, Bauer (and we the audience) knows that he has in his clutches the terrorist who has accurate information about where and when the next attack is going to occur and that by applying just the right amount of pain, he will extort the correct intelligence just in time to avert disaster. It's a Hollywood fantasy. In reality, the person in captivity may or may not be a terrorist, may or may not have accurate information about a terrorist attack, and may or may not cough up useful intelligence, particularly if his or her motivation is to terminate the torture. In contrast, a 2014 study in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology entitled “The Who, What, and Why of Human Intelligence Gathering” surveyed 152 interrogators and found that “rapport and relationship-building techniques were employed most often and perceived as the most effective regardless of context and intended outcome, particularly in comparison to confrontational techniques.” Another 2014 study in the same journal—“Interviewing High Value Detainees”—sampled 64 practitioners and detainees and found that “detainees were more likely to disclose meaningful information ... and earlier in the interview when rapport-building techniques were used.” Finally, an exhaustive 2014 report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence analyzed millions of internal CIA documents related to the torture of terrorism suspects, concluding that “the CIA's use of its enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees.” It adds that “multiple CIA detainees fabricated information, resulting in faulty intelligence.” Terrorists are real. Witches are not. But real or imagined, torture doesn't work.