Fears 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.