Lessons from the 1950s on mind control

Sarah Marks and Daniel Pick explore the difficulty in pinpointing how radicalization works in practice

Jesse Morton was 16 when he ran away, trailed a Grateful Dead tour and scraped a living from the proceeds of drugs peddled outside concerts in the mid-90s. Caught and jailed for drug offences, he was radicalized in a prison in Virginia. Bin Laden became an idol and he himself a notable recruiter for Al-Qaeda. It is said that he inspired some of those who plotted to send a remote-controlled, explosive-packed plane into the Pentagon. Following a process of so-called de-conversion and work for the FBI, it is widely reported that today he pursues a new career to win back the hearts and minds of the kind of people he previously cultivated to fight the West. Talking to The New York Times in August, he declared himself ‘100 per cent de-radicalized’.

Morton assumes a particular psychological interpretation of his case. He understands himself as a person whose troubled childhood sowed the seeds of later life-changing decisions: feelings of betrayal were incubated at a school that failed to protect him from his mother’s abusive behaviour. Morton believes that, as a teenager, he cultivated wishes for vengeance and was drawn inexorably towards the polarizing rhetoric of fundamentalism, and into the clutches of powerful mentors implacably hostile to the West.

But how and why are some people ‘turned’, this way or that? How far can a skilled ‘radicalizer’ or ‘de-radicalizer’ bypass the conscious intent of the human subject? All of this may look like a new conundrum, but in fact we have been here before. A longer-term perspective is useful: current arguments about radicalization bear comparison with earlier 20th-century fears of ‘brainwashing’.

In a team-based research project, ‘Hidden Persuaders’, funded by the Wellcome Trust, and based at Birkbeck, University of London, we are exploring the history of brainwashing: the ideas, experiments, fictions, myths and policies that crystallized in the 1950s, and that placed the expertise of the psychological professions centre stage.

Seen in the light of that history, stories such as Morton’s, and the manner in which they are conventionally interpreted, take on a familiar hue. True, there are obvious differences between past and present fears of mind control, but it is worth noting, nonetheless, how often pundits fall back on unspoken assumptions about the nature of the mind and the group, redolent of the Cold War past.

Indeed, more often than we care to acknowledge, we now narrate the lives of these ‘radical others’ through a plethora of clichés. Unearthing Cold War literature on brainwashing is important for another reason, too: several major commentaries on this subject that emerged more than half a century ago still provide insights worth recalling now.

The terrorist mindset?
Policy-makers and commentators seek to trace affinities between cases such as Morton’s and interpret the motives of those who ‘go rogue’. But a focus on the apparent pathologies of particular individuals may distract us from the underlying social and political circumstances that alienate whole communities or large populations.

Profiles, to be sure, may yield clues, pointing to those most likely to be vulnerable. But they can also offer false reassurance, as though the problem is simply to be found in some discrete, toxic sub-group. The widespread conviction today that there is some quintessential ‘terrorist radical type’ may be a sign of perplexity. It may characterize not an advance in scientific knowledge, but rather desperation to explain the crisis away by confining discussion to the diagnosis of psychological abnormalities.

In fact, many of the features routinely discussed as markers of terrorist mindsets are the most ordinary of human emotions, albeit in sharpest relief. In one 22-point checklist which was circulated in 2015 by Prevent, a key part of the British government’s counterterrorism strategy, the criteria proposed for those especially at risk of being ‘groomed’ might surely define any of us on a particularly good or bad day: they included a propensity for excitement and adventure, feelings of threat and insecurity, a sense of anger and a wish for status. There is indeed a debate about the value of the methods used to build such profiles, and awareness among those who use them of the vexed nature of these categories.

Policy-makers might do better to read more novels and memoirs about political violence and terrorism to bring home the complexity of the subject. These give the lie to any reassuring belief that some pre-given type of dangerous individual can be located securely in advance. Joseph Conrad in The Secret Agent or, more recently, Philip Roth in American Pastoral, accentuate the fact that ‘the terrorist’ is also a person, not some clockwork instrument. We are more than the sum of given social influences, and are not mere predictable instances of abstract human processes.

A compelling, fictional ‘thick description’ of what might lead someone in and out of group-sponsored acts of horrific violence is provided in Emma Cline’s best-selling novel, The Girls (2016). The story explores the charismatic allure of a murderous leader of a commune in California – a man with more than a passing resemblance to Charles Manson – as seen from the vantage point of one young woman. A myriad of deeply personal factors, not to mention chance, shapes her entrance and exit from this terrifying delusional cult. The point is that the story is hers alone. Other novels would be required for other camp followers.

Freud made the dual aspect plain: he insisted on considering certain common features of being human, even as he demonstrated, in depth, that none of us is internally consistent, any more than two people’s stories are ever the same. His cases read more like novels than identikit profiles.

Of course our histories bear upon us, sometimes traumatically. We know that many people who commit appalling crimes – serial killers for instance – often faced ghastly and terrifying early histories, but also that large numbers of people with appalling childhoods ultimately pose no threat to the law. We can work backwards and make inferences about the damaging consequences of particular environments, modes of parenting and social experiences. But we cannot ever confidently predict that social circumstance A will necessarily produce behaviour B in human subject C, months or years later.

One of the most sophisticated commentators on techniques of coercive persuasion during the Cold War was Robert Jay Lifton. His writings have cast much light on what he calls psychic numbing, as well as on particular cults, indoctrination procedures, and various aspects of hidden persuasion at large. His 1961 book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of ‘Brainwashing’ in China helped to shape this field. He showed how various processes he defined, including milieu control, sacred language, mystical manipulation, the supremacy of doctrine over experience and the exercise of total power over life and death would leave the victim profoundly vulnerable to indoctrination.

At the same time, Lifton eschewed the assumption that a reliable fast-track method existed to manufacture automaton subjects, hence his caution about endorsing the term ‘brainwashing’. People are never just robots in the manner parodied in that most iconic of all Cold War mind-control movies, The Manchurian Candidate (1962).

The Manchurian Candidate, 1962, was the most iconic mind-control film of the Cold War period

The story of brainwashing
The term ‘brainwashing’ itself was coined in 1950, at the time when liberal democracies’ fears that Nazism might re-erupt in Germany, or elsewhere, were still of recent vintage, albeit increasingly eclipsed by worries about Stalinism and Maoism, or what was, by then, increasingly known as ‘totalitarianism’.

The Cold War was regarded as the arena, par excellence, of psychological battles, and often of zero-sum games between ‘freedom’ and ‘tyranny’. At the same time, a raft of stories explored the possibility of psychic automatism. The risks of brainwashing were debated in the human sciences, and depicted in popular culture in films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). A titanic struggle between ‘the open society’ and its ‘enemies’ was mooted in a number of influential works in the 1940s and after by philosophers and economists.

In the decades after Hitler’s defeat, the psyche was frequently likened by anxious liberals to the political state: pluralism, tolerance, openness to dissenting voices, a structure of ‘checks and balances’ was seen to be the picture of the normal healthy mind and polity. The term ‘totalism’ was coined to convey the psychic equivalent of totalitarianism. Other new terms such as ‘menticide’ also emerged in the 1950s, capturing the sense of psychiatric as well as economic and political threat posed by the global advance of communism. The notion of ‘brainwashing’, no less than ‘radicalization’, often obscured far more than it revealed. Both terms could be a lazy way of refusing to inquire further into individual histories, inviting the assumption that the way people act can be known in advance. Both terms could also serve to treat an adversarial ideology as little more than mass hypnosis: radicalization and brainwashing as modern, seemingly more scientific, labels for the old tale of the Pied Piper.

The story of brainwashing as a dangerous modern science became household news on both sides of the Atlantic when, in 1953, with the Korean War just over, 21 American PoWs made a momentous decision – not to go home to the United States but to live in China. Their ‘choice’ brought a ton of opprobrium down on their heads and became a centrepiece of debate about Cold War mass conversion. The GIs’ actions provoked fierce attacks – with insulting labels such as ‘un-American’ or ‘turncoats’ hurled freely – as well as much consternation. Many regarded them not only as renegades, but also as suitable cases for psychiatric treatment: the cry went out, ‘bring in the shrinks!’

The youngest of those 21 was David Hawkins, whose life, no less than Morton’s, turned out to be full of intriguing twists and turns. It lent itself poorly to catchall labels. He lived in Mao’s China for some years before returning to the United States to face hostile scrutiny, including notably in a TV grilling on the Mike Wallace Show in 1957. When, in 2014, we caught up with an elderly Hawkins, by then living in Los Angeles, he told us about how he saw his own and his fellow prisoners’ conversions, and their second thoughts: he recounted the troubled past he had left, bad experiences in childhood and adolescence, family tensions, and, on the other hand, his spirit of adventure, and search for new shores. Hawkins recognized his own cussedness as a motive too: he was piqued that officials took their decisions for repatriation for granted. China was almost a ‘spur of the moment’ decision.

Others who also left for Beijing, such as the African-American soldier, Clarence Adams, author of a resonant memoir, published posthumously as An American Dream in 2007, described their own complex personal journeys and experiences of racism. They insisted to inquisitive onlookers that they were acting autonomously, declaring their right to self-made paths in the world, and to come and go as they pleased.

Back home in the US the meanings of their choices and the role of unconscious processes in indoctrination were endlessly debated. Competing experts warred with one another as to the truth, but few saw the actions of the soldiers as an expression of true freedom.

At the time, however, in 1953, Hawkins had no truck with the label ‘brainwashed’ at all. But he would later give the term brainwashing some credence. He wove it, increasingly, into his own self-understanding, taking possession of the label, along with others, from Freudian psychoanalysis. Further down the line, at the suggestion of psychiatrists, he began to consider whether his experiences might be linked to ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’, a condition that was ‘discovered’ in response, principally, to American military experiences during the military and moral catastrophe of American involvement in Vietnam.

Hawkins was offered other designations such as Stockholm syndrome, used to describe the feelings of sympathy and defensiveness that hostages sometimes displayed towards their captors, coined after a Swedish bank robbery in 1973: here was another means of thinking about his own response to enforced captivity.

The parallels between Hawkins’ and Morton’s manner of exploring the psychology of their life choices and the many attempts that have subsequently been made to interpret the causes of such decisions raise interesting questions – not only about political decision-making but also about what epithets such as ‘brainwashing’ or ‘radicalization’ may mean or may obscure.

What emerges, when we look at the men’s own evolving stories, and the barrage of diagnoses that are made by others about them, is the intensity of the anxieties, fantasies and projections involved and the many uncertainties we cannot resolve about the actual driving forces and the complex human interactions involved.

Placing the notion of the brainwashed subject or the radicalized psyche in historical context can serve a number of purposes, not least in offering a cautionary note about how political desires and anxieties may inform seemingly neutral concepts.

Perhaps the very aspirations that can be seen in Cold War efforts to place ‘brainwashing’, or at least a theory of brainwashing, on a firm scientific footing should give us pause for thought, too. Attempts at general models for how individuals are drawn into, or subsequently disengage from, extremism may offer some dividends, perhaps, but they also risk downplaying human complexity and social and political contexts.

Be that as it may, it is important, we argue, that policy-makers, politicians, and researchers should be as transparent as possible about what model of the mind they are assuming, and why. There may be a greater prospect of serious dialogue about the nature of radicalization – its prevention and reversal – if we begin by reflecting harder on the casual use made of the terms themselves, the functions they may serve, and the built-in assumptions they may carry.

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