Is mind control fact or fiction?

In 1957, researcher James Vicary said that he had exposed cinema audiences of more than 45,000 adults to images on the cinema screen for only three-hundredths of a second – shown too briefly to be consciously noticed. The subliminal messages repeatedly told audiences to ‘Eat popcorn’ and ‘Drink Cocoa-Cola’. The result, said Vicary, was that popcorn sales rose by 57.5 per cent and Coke sales went up by 18.1 per cent. The experiment gave rise to the belief that the human mind could be controlled unconsciously.

These ideas on unconscious psychological influence, current since the Second World War, were brought together in the minds of politicians, the media and the public by several important post-war events. There was the global rise in Cold-War communist propaganda by Russia and China. There was the phenomenon of ‘brainwashing’ of British and American prisoners of war by their interrogators in the Korean war in 1950, in which formerly loyal troops were somehow turned into communist stooges by their captors. There was the advent of mass television audiences in the early 1950s, of commercial TV in Britain in 1954, and the rise of TV as the dominant medium of influence and persuasion. To top it all, there was Vicary’s announcement that audiences could be made to act without consciously knowing they had even received instructions.

Overlaid on these fears in Whitehall about the potentially malign effects of TV, was the new and terrifying phenomenon of ‘brainwashing’. When the Korean war broke out in 1950, formerly loyal soldiers of British and American forces who had been taken prisoner were compelled by their communist captors to make public statements falsely admitting that they used germ warfare and sympathising with communism. There were even a few cases of POWs defecting to the Chinese. British soldiers including Robert W. Ford and Colonel James Carne claimed that the Chinese subjected them to brainwashing techniques during their imprisonment. U.S. Brigadier General Frank H. Schwable was captured by the Chinese who claimed that he had admitted using biological weapons.

The explanation of this apparent co-operation, said U.S. writer and journalist Edward Hunter, was that the captives had been subjected to techniques of mind control. Hunter coined the term ‘brainwashing’ to describe these techniques and said they were the methods used by totalitarian communist regimes to control their populations. Hunter told a U.S. Senate investigation in 1950 that the Russians and Chinese were also directing their brainwashing techniques against western populations to convert them to communism.

The fears caused by Hunter’s revelations culminated, in popular form, in Richard Condon’s 1959 novel The Manchurian Candidate in which an American prisoner of war is brainwashed into assassinating a U.S. presidential candidate, against his will – his unconscious actions triggered by the subliminal effect of a playing card – the Queen of Diamonds. They emerged again in Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange.

In reality all these fears of mind control by governments in Britain and the United States were groundless. Vicary’s ‘experiment’ turned out to be completely fraudulent. He was unable to produce any solid evidence and no one has been able to reproduce his results. In a television interview with Fred Danzig in 1962 for Advertising Age, Vicary admitted that the original study was ‘a gimmick’ while investigations at the cinema by Stuart Rogers for Public Relations Quarterly showed that no experiments had taken place there.2 The British and American governments had passed regulations prohibiting a fantasy. Nor was that all.

‘Brainwashing’ also turned out to be a fabrication. Its author, Edward Hunter, as well as being a journalist was also a former psychological warfare agent of the Office of Strategic Services – forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency. He later testified to the House Committee on Un-American Activities that ‘the Reds have specialists available on their brainwashing panels,’ that they were experts in the use of drugs and hypnotism. Their aim, he said, was conquering America. The use of brainwashing techniques would make Americans ‘subjects of a “new world order” for the benefit of a mad little knot of despots in the Kremlin.’

In 1956, the U.S. Department of the Army published a report entitled Communist Interrogation, Indoctrination, and Exploitation of Prisoners of War which labelled brainwashing a ‘popular misconception.’ The Army’s report concluded that ‘exhaustive research of several government agencies failed to reveal even one conclusively documented case of “brainwashing” of an American prisoner of war in Korea.’

The CIA, too, had investigated brainwashing in 1953 and also concluded that it was a fantasy. However, when awkward questions were being asked about how loyal British and American servicemen could be persuaded to come out publicly in support of Communism, the CIA decided that ‘brainwashing’ was an attractive answer. It would be bad for business if people got the idea that any normal person could be converted to Communist ideas by means of rational political argument. Hence the CIA – through Hunter and other agents – pushed the concept of mind control both to discredit any statements made by Prisoners of War, and also to discredit Communist regimes as pitiless manipulators of men’s hearts and minds.

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