August 3, 2004


How brainwashing came to life and thrived (Jeff Stryker, August 1, 2004, SF Chronicle)

The term "brainwashing" was first popularized by Edward Hunter, in his 1951 book, "Brainwashing in Red China." Brainwashing was his translation for a Chinese term "hsi-nao," meaning, roughly, "cleansing of the mind." "It is practically impossible to fight something until it has been given a name," Hunter wrote, saying that brainwashing had a more "flesh-and-blood" quality than a more clinical alternative, "menticide," which means murder of the mind.

The fear of brainwashing was rooted in wartime, fueled by anti-communist fervor and tinged with racism and xenophobia. Some U.S. prisoners of war in Korea renounced their citizenship in radio broadcasts and many signed confessions against American interests, including charges, still debated today, that the United States was engaged in germ warfare with anthrax.

For Americans to abandon their ideals, the Communists must have devised some nefarious new means of thought control -- or so it was thought.

The Army conducted shipboard interviews with more than 4,000 returning American prisoners of the Korean conflict. Robert Jay Lifton, one of the psychiatrists who conducted the interviews, analyzed them in his 1961 classic book, "Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism."

Lifton concluded that the Chinese interrogation techniques were merely time-honored methods of psychological coercion: isolation, humiliation and the repetition of propaganda. But by this time, it was too late. The "flesh-and- blood" term brainwashing had come to life and refused to be contained, never really losing its power.

George Romney's 1967 comment that he had been "brainwashed" about the Vietnam War put the kibosh on Romney's run for the presidency, prompting opponent Eugene McCarthy to quip that a "light rinse would have done."

The question of whether religious cults were brainwashing adherents kept the notion alive through the 1960s and '70s. Brainwashing was claimed as a defense in a number of American court cases, but without much success (It did not work for Patty Hearst, for example). In recent years, claims of brainwashing have been asserted for sniper Lee Boyd Malvo, the American Taliban soldier John Walker Lindh and kidnap victim Elizabeth Smart.

"Today, the notion surfaces in court mostly in child custody disputes, where one parent accuses the other of 'brainwashing' -- more as a rhetorical flourish rather than any real scientific claim," said Alan Scheflin, a professor of law at Santa Clara University and author of "The Mind Manipulators."

Interesting that Russell Kirk's small classic, The American Cause, was motivated by the whole brainwashing kerfuffle.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 3, 2004 5:48 AM

"There are four lights!"

Posted by: PapayaSF at August 3, 2004 2:01 PM


Good one!

Posted by: jim hamlen at August 3, 2004 2:24 PM

Never heard of McCarthy's slam on George Romney - can it be applied to John (I was misled) Kerry?

Poodles need rinsing, too.

Posted by: ratbert at August 3, 2004 3:31 PM

Hmmm. Is that the same Jeff Stryker?

Never expected to see him here.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at August 3, 2004 5:29 PM

Patty Hearst and Elizabeth Smart were (probable) victims of Stockholm Syndrome, in which captives, totally dependant on their captors for life and creature comforts, come to like and imitate their oppressors.

That is, in fact, "brainwashing".

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at August 3, 2004 5:44 PM


I was thinking the same thing, and also realized I hadn't heard his name in awhile. And here I thought this was a family website.

Posted by: Brian (MN) at August 3, 2004 9:04 PM