January 18

1951: “Brainwashing” concept embedded in American culture

The term “brainwashing” was the brainchild of Edward Hunter, a covert CIA propaganda agent who churned out a stream of books and articles warning about the threat of Communist “brainwashing.” In testimony before the House Un-American Committee, Hunter warned:

the Reds have specialists available on their brainwashing panels, [they use] drugs and hypnotism. . . Their ultimate goal was conquering America. The United States is the main battlefield. Brainwashing would make Americans subjects of a ‘new world order’ for the benefit of a mad little knot of despots in the Kremlin. (Weiner. Remembering Brainwashing, NYT, 2008)

The CIA broadened the concept to include effective techniques of persuasion, propaganda and covert methods for “engineering consent.” A massive propaganda campaign fomented Cold War hysteria, fostering fear of an imminent threat of a nuclear war; shelters were built and “take-cover” drills had America’s school children duck under their desks. Suspicion that an international communist conspiracy was penetrating American institutions with the goal of overthrowing the government and installing a totalitarian state resulted in McCarthy witch hunts.


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