I have recently been watching a lot of old cold war films, in which many of the plots revolve around the phenomenon of brainwashing. Films such as The Manchurian Candidate, Michael Caine’s early film, The Ipcress File, and The Mind Benders starring Dirk Benders are classic spy/science fiction films with brainwashing as a new form of scientific weapon which is central to the plot. After a brief bit of research, I found out several governments during the Cold War were interested in establishing their own brainwashing research and development programmes. Despite all the scientific work which was going on at the time, scientists have yet to develop robust techniques for brainwashing individuals. I wanted to find out the origins of this history of this highly controversial science and why it captured the imagination of the public, countless authors, filmmakers, scientists and military officials during the Cold War.
One of the books which provided an ideal starting point for my search was Dominic Streatfield’s Brainwash: A Secret History of Mind Control. Streatfield’s history follows brainwashing through several decades, from the post-war era through to the present day. He looks at prominent psychiatrists such as William Sargant and Donald Ewan Cameron and their potential involvement in CIA and MI5. Brainwash explores CIA’s covert MKULTRA research programme, experiments using LSD and forced conversion techniques used by Soviet forces during the Korean War. More recently it also explores the rise of subliminal messaging used in advertising and the interrogation techniques used in Guantanamo Bay and during The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Streatfield’s book is brilliantly written and has an exciting structure, but is a little long and spends a lot of time covering topics without much resolution. Having said that, Streatfield’s experience as an investigative journalist is what makes this book really stand out. It is packed full of revealing interviews, intriguing and often astounding stories and attempts to answer several questions about this remarkable era, which is often shrouded in mystery. In the introduction to the book Dominic Streatfield describes his work as building on John Marks’ 1979 book The Search for The Manchurian Candidate, which is also a fantastic introduction into the CIA’s mind control programme.
Standard historical picture
Although there are not many overall synoptic textbooks focused on brainwashing, it is very interesting how brainwashing fits in with the standard historical picture depicted in cultural history textbooks during the Cold War. One fine overview can be found in David Seed’s Brainwashing: The Fictions of Mind Control, which focuses mostly on brainwashing in science fiction and film and literature and its relationship to public paranoia concerning brainwashing during the McCarthy era and during the rise of subliminal advertising and televised propaganda. Seed is a complex writer but provides a great analysis of books such as Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four and films like The Manchurian Candidate, situating them within their wider cultural context. Timothy Melley is a historian who has focused on the role of brainwashing in Cold War culture, especially surrounding the culture of Paranoia and Conspiracy during the Cold War. His book Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America, discusses the rise of conspiracy and its relationship between the public acknowledgement of the covert operations run by the CIA. Melley’s work is quite academic and can be a struggle to read at times, but nobody characterises the state of paranoia concerning internal and external mind control better than Melley.
If you are looking for a simple read which includes a more conventional narrative and plot surrounding Brainwashing, I highly recommend William Graebner’s Patty’s Got a Gun. This follows the bizarre story and trial of Patty Hearst An interesting case study may prove to be the case of Patty Hearst, a young American media heiress and Granddaughter of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, who was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974. After two months in captivity she announced she had joined the SLA and became involved in a 1974 armed bank robbery, before hiding out as a fugitive for almost a year. Her trial is notable as it is the first high profile case in which brainwashing was used by the defence and although Patty was convicted she was later pardoned. Graebner provides a compelling accessible and highly factual account of this story whilst deliberately placing the trial in a symbolic era of change in American history.
All the books I have read on brainwashing have been highly fascinating and revealing of a bizarre yet rarely discussed era in our history. If you have an interest in post-war sci-fi and brainwashing stories, these history books provide a fantastic compliment to understanding why stories such as Nineteen Eighty Four, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Day of the Triffids were so popular and compelling for readers and authors during this era.