Brainwashing, The Manchurian Candidate, and Cold War America


“Why Don’t You Pass the Time by Playing a Little Solitaire?”

Brainwashing, The Manchurian Candidate, and Cold War America


The recent U.S. Senate report on abusive interrogation is helping fuel an ongoing debate over the utility and morality of the harsh techniques applied to terrorist suspects in U.S. custody the during the “Global War on Terror.” The contours of that debate have included questions about whether “enhanced interrogation” constituted torture; the ethics of the participation of psychiatrists and other medical personnel; and the physical and psychological effects on the prisoners themselves.

But this is not the first time in recent U.S. history that the physical and mental coercion of detainees has aroused keen public and official attention. During the Korean War, Americans heard disturbing reports of U.S. prisoners of war being “brainwashed” by their North Korean and Chinese Communist captors. Lurid journalistic accounts described insidious “Oriental” and Pavlovian methods capable of nothing less than the annihilation of the self. Brainwashing, according to one author, could transmogrify a man into “a living puppet—a human robot.”

Some experts within the burgeoning “human sciences” were equally alarmist in their proclamations. A Columbia University psychiatrist characterized brainwashing as the “rape of the mind,” “psychic homicide,” and “menticide.” In 1953, newly appointed Director of Central Intelligence Allan Dulles reinforced the nation’s growing moral panic with his public assertions that the Communist world was waging “brain warfare” against the West.

In fact, as declassified documents and the work of scholars like John C. Marks later revealed, the Central Intelligence Agency had been at work since the earliest days of the Cold War on psychic warfare methods of its own. Closing a supposed “mind-control gap” became an urgent national priority.  Under the MKULTRA program, scientists throughout the 1950s and into the following decade used psychedelic drugs, sensory deprivation, hypnosis, and practices such as “psychic driving” on human subjects in the search for weapons to employ on the Cold War’s mental battlefields.

This “Manhattan Project of the mind” took place well outside the public’s gaze. But popular anxiety over mind control was not confined to concerns about its Communist practitioners. The “hidden persuaders” and “depth boys” on Madison Avenue, within corporate America, and in the new mass medium of television elicited considerable unease. Apprehension over covert mental manipulation was reflected in contemporaneous American culture. One film in particular captured (and contributed to) the unease permeating American life.

On October 24, 1962, as Cuban Missile Crisis entered its terminal phase and the United States and the Soviet Union stood at the brink of nuclear war, The Manchurian Candidate opened to generally favorable reviews. Eventually recognized as an American masterpiece—and as perhaps the greatest political thriller ever to appear on celluloid—the film vanished from public view relatively quickly. Rumors circulated that Frank Sinatra, the movie’s co-star, had the film pulled from distribution after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Although it was aired on television a number of times in the following years, it was not re-released in theaters until 1988.

The film tells the story of returning Korean War hero, Raymond Shaw (Lawrence Harvey), who along with other members of his platoon was brainwashed while held captive by North Korea. Unbeknownst to everyone except his Communist masters, Shaw has been programmed—“rebuilt,” in the movie’s parlance—to assassinate a U.S. presidential candidate. His former commanding officer, Bennett Marco (Sinatra), detects and overcomes his own mind-scrubbing. Marco goes on to disrupt a conspiracy that includes Shaw’s harridan of a mother (Angela Lansbury). Married to a buffoonish, McCarthy-like right-wing senator, she is in fact a secret Communist agent working as her son’s “operator.”

The queen of diamonds playing card is Raymond’s “trigger,” and at various points in the film the Lansbury character urges him to “pass the time by playing a little solitaire.” According to Dr. Yen Lo (Khigh Dhiegh), the sinister, chortling Fu Manchu like psychiatrist responsible for Shaw’s “treatment,” the former POW’s brain “has not only been washed, as they say . . .It has been dry cleaned.”

The Manchurian Candidate’s oblique, Pinter-esque dialogue contributes to the film’s otherworldly atmospherics and gives its viewers the sensation of eavesdropping on a nightmare.  During the course of Marco’s self-initiated investigations, he meets the alluring Rosie (Janet Leigh) in the vestibule of a railroad car:

Rosie: Maryland is a beautiful state.

Marco: This is Delaware.

Rosie: I know, I was one of the original Chinese workmen who laid the track on this straight. But, em… nonetheless, Maryland is a beautiful state.  So is Ohio for that matter.

Marco: I guess so, Columbus is a tremendous football town.

Shot in exquisite black and white, and with an elegiac score by David Amram, The Manchurian Candidate would prove to be the pinnacle of director John Frankenheimer’s career. More than 50 years after its premiere, the movie remains fresh and deeply disturbing. Its fractured, non-linear plotting, hallucinatory mise-en-scène, subversive humor, and magnificent cast give it an enduring power. In the words of one scholar, The Manchurian Candidate is “a central work of the Cold War and a key focus of the cultural anxieties of the time”—and in particular, the dread over what General Mark W. Clark, the United Nations commander in Korea, called the “mind annihilating methods of the Communists.”

During the 1950s, some psychiatrists, and even the military itself, challenged the validity of psychic warfare and the possibility of creating a “Manchurian Candidate.” Ultimately, “brainwashing” proved chimerical; it was a cultural fantasy, albeit a powerful one.

But the “search for the Manchurian Candidate” did produce some results, traces of which can still be detected today. American brain-warfare research had a defensive as well as offensive dimension. In the aftermath of the Korean conflict, the armed forces developed techniques to help American personnel resist Communist interrogation and indoctrination—most notably, Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE) training. Ironically, SERE would later serve as the foundation of the “coercive management” methods used on Guantánamo Bay detainees.


William Rosenau is a senior analyst at the CNA Corporation’s Center for Strategic Studies and a regular War on the Rocks contributor. The views expressed here are his own.


Photo credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division; New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection.

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