American GIs and the Origins of “Brainwashing”

There’s been a lot of talk about “indoctrination” lately. From “ISIS’s remote control terror attacks” to Dylann Roof’s “self-radicalization” online, much ink has been spilled over the question of how people’s minds can be externally manipulated into committing acts of violence.

We’ve been here before. Brian McKnight, a guest on this week’s show, tells the remarkable story of the American GIs who defected to communist China in the Korean War — and how their return prompted fears of communist “brainwashing”.


Listen to Brian McKnight on the conditions in Korean POW camps.

McKnight on Americans’ response to “turncoat” GIs.


One such soldier was David Hawkins, captured in Korea at only 17 years old. After spending close to 3 years in a frigid prison camp, undergoing regular “indoctrination” sessions, Hawkins decided not to return to the United States in Operation Big Switch.

Instead, baffling Americans back home, Hawkins, along with 21 other US soldiers captured in the Korean War, decided to defect to newly communist China.

The event led to obsession in some quarters with unveiling the alleged communist power to “brainwash” prisoners. It even led to an award-winning film featuring none other than (pre-presidential) Ronald Reagan.


There’d been talk of brainwashing… maybe they even used narcotics.

– Ronald Reagan in The Ultimate Weapon


Watch the full film, The Ultimate Weapon, below.


This is psychological warfare on a scale incalculably more immense
than any militarist of the past has ever envisaged.

– Edward Hunter, originator of the term “brainwashing”


When the GIs returned to the United States, they arrived in the midst of the heightened anti-communist paranoia of McCarthyism. The “turncoat” soldiers were greeted with deep suspicion, leading many to offer mundane reasons for their defection.

One of the soldiers, however, refused to mince his words. Clarence Adams argued that as a uneducated African-American from Tennessee, he was far more likely to find life in China tolerable than under the Jim Crow regime of his native state.


Listen to McKnight on the GIs return to America.


And like another African-American communist collaborator we featured on this week’s show, Adams found life in China to be hospitable and friendly. American defectors were treated like local celebrities and gifted the services of housekeepers and personal assistants by the state.

Just like Joseph Roane, Adams never outright accepted communism or swore allegiance to the communist state. And indeed, when Chinese communism turned oppressive with Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Adams, like Roane, was forced out.

Adams returned to the United States in the midst of the Vietnam War, and was forever treated with suspicion, thanks to anti-war radio broadcasts he had made from China in the ’60s.

The concept of brainwashing, meanwhile, was experiencing a renaissance. Though the U.S. army’s own scientists debunked the idea in 1956, the CIA had simultaneously been ramping up its own “mind-control” project, MK Ultra.

Nowadays, academics look to these periods to understand how the concept of enemy indoctrination has resurfaced over time. At the University of London, a new project call “Hidden Persuaders” is asking what the 1950s can teach us about “how radicalization works in practice.

Perhaps they’re channeling Reagan in The Ultimate Weapon, who caps his final monologue with this unexpected sentiment: “Our prisoners were part of ourselves. What they did or failed to do reflects our acts, our failings.”


Listen to our full show, including segments on Joseph Roane and the Korean War defectors, below: