The Korean War — the "forgotten war" — seems to have been left behind by American literature. Dozens of Vietnam or World War II or Civil War novels can be found (many of them excellent), but the Korean War’s contribution to popular culture is largely limited to MAS*H (a half-funny satire of a book turned into a brilliant satire of a movie turned into a treacly swamp of liberal self-mythologizing of a telelvision show). Brainwashing has legs, however; from new religions to John Walker Lindh, it’s still being discussed today. Throughout the war, Americans were shocked to hear and see anti-American, pro-Communist propaganda recited by American prisoners of war. After the war ended, twenty-one American POWs elected to return to China with the Communists (three remained in the country and some left to settle in Europe, but most eventually returned to the United States). The "turncoat G.I.s" represented all that anti-Communist Americans were afraid of and warned against:
By the time Congress reconvened in January 1954, the Army was considering punitive action against the soldiers, and elected officials from both parties exploited the issue to strengthen their anti-communist credentials. Republican William C. Cole of Missouri rose in the House on 21 January to warn that "every last one of these twenty-one ungrateful wretches may receive all of the benefits provided by law for our war veterans who have served our country honorably." Cole was mortified that these men, if granted honorable discharges, would be eligible for pensions, housing grants, and burial in military cemetaries, or might even return and utilize the G.I. Bill for education. Representative Robert L. F. Sikes, a Florida Democrat, led the call for court-martial proceedings against the two who changed their minds during the 90-day waiting period. While President Eisenhower and Secretary of State Dulles made biblical allusions to the prodigal son and lost sheep, Sikes considered "the fawning publicity that a few reconverted pro-Red American POWs from Korea have been getting just a bit sickening."
Casting about for an answer as to why American soldiers would turn to supporting the Communists, Edward Hunter, reporter, possible CIA channel, and friend of Ayn Rand, coined the term "brainwashing", a loose translation of the Chinese term "xi nao" or "thought purificiation", and the idea spread like wildfire.
Although there were some traditional war films about Korea (the William Holden/Grace Kelly vehicle The Bridges at Toko Ri is one), the most noteable movies to come out of the Korean War were POW films: The Rack, Time Limit ("Your son was a hero for hundreds of days…[a]nd on only one day did he break."), The Bamboo Prison, The Manchurian Candidate. The Manchurian Candidate, with its three-day brainwashing producing a Trilby-esque inability to resist (and huge commercial and critical success), probably did more to shape American ideas about brainwashing than any other movie. The Manchurian Candidate, like many right-wing critics, blames American soldiers’ mother fixation for brainwashing’s success; however, with its essential sympathy for Raymond (not to mention the nasty McCarthy parody), writer George Axelrod was essentially giving the anti-anti-Communist reaction.
Whether the POWs who elected to in China were innocent victims or sissified weaklings, the idea was firmly sunk into the American consciousness: the Chinese could turn Americans into Reds. Projects like the CIA’s MKULTRA project (which resulted in the mysterious death of CIA scientist Frank Olson after he was dosed with LSD) were thus necessary reactions; America had to close the Brainwash Gap. The 1977 Senate hearings on MKULTRA might a useful accompanyment to the Church hearings and the current debate on what powers the CIA shoud not have.
The CIA failed to produce a perfect truth serum. LSD proved irresistable to thousands of college kids, but did not seduce Soviet generals into defecting. The MKULTRA project covered up the death of Frank Olson for twenty years. Perhaps the Army knew all along that brainwashing could be explained by torture and simple collaboration: "Even though some American POWs collaborated with their captors, most of them did so for personal convenience. No confirmed cases of brainwashing came out of the Korean War." There were no great escapes.