Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Brainwashing

Term originating during the Cold War referring to the indoctrination of an individual or a group of people. The U.S. military termed brainwashing "a prolonged psychological process designed to erase an individual's past beliefs and concepts and to substitute new ones." The term "brainwashing" came into general use during the Korean War, when it was used to explain the behavior of a significant number of U.S. prisoners of war (POWs) who chose to collaborate with their communist captors. Indeed, twenty-one U.S. POWs chose to remain after the war in either the People's Republic of China (PRC) or the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea).

Allegations of brainwashing, which also found their way into such films as The Manchurian Candidate, were exaggerated. The North Koreans displayed great brutality toward their prisoners but rarely attempted to indoctrinate them. The Chinese did attempt indoctrination, a process they referred to as xinao. It included the same methods employed by communist authorities in the PRC to indoctrinate their own people. Prisoners of the Chinese were segregated by rank, race, and nationality. The Chinese also separated the leaders, introduced informers, disrupted bonding activities, and encouraged collaboration. The authorities also intercepted mail, delivering only that which carried bad news. The reeducation process included lengthy compulsory political lectures as well as self-criticisms and confessions. The Chinese largely ended such practices in 1952. More important in influencing prisoners were the effects of cold, hunger, and illness as well as the threat of violence. U.S. servicemen captured early in the war had received no training in how to resist indoctrination, and many were poorly informed about U.S. foreign policy or the causes of the war.

The Korean experience led to training modifications and, in 1955, the establishment of a six-point code of conduct for American POWs. Filmed appearances by captured U.S. airmen during the Vietnam War and by U.S. and British airmen during the 1991 Persian Gulf War reminded the public that even well-trained personnel could be temporarily persuaded to embrace their opponents' cause. Other Cold War examples of brainwashing can be seen in the confessions of many prominent individuals in Soviet satellite nations who were subjected to show trials and yet were actually completely innocent of the charges brought against them.

Spencer C. Tucker


Further Reading
Cunningham, Cyril. "The Origins and Development of Communist Prisoner-of-War Policies." Institution 119(1) (March 1974): 38–43.; Winn, Denise. The Manipulated Mind: Brainwashing, Conditioning, and Indoctrination. London: Octagon, 1983.
 

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