Matthew W. Dunne. A Cold War State of Mind: Brainwashing and Postwar American Society. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013. 296 pp. $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-62534-041-2; $80.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-62534-040-5.
Reviewed by John Morello (DeVry)
Published on H-War (November, 2014)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
In speaking with a friend, Napoleon Bonaparte was reported to have said, “There are but two powers in the world, the sword and the mind. In the long run the sword is always beaten by the mind.” And while the mind may not have been a new battlefield, it certainly became a critical one during the Cold War, according to Matthew Dunne in A Cold War State of Mind: Brainwashing and Postwar American Society. In a little under three hundred pages Dunne makes the case that communist brainwashing, which achieved notoriety in the Korean War, instigated an across-the-board reevaluation of American society, and argues that flaws in the American system--an American system which seemed to coddle its citizens and promote conformity over individuality--might be the greater enemy. Indeed he claims that by the mid 1950s journalists, contemporary observers, and Cold War experts contended that the success of communist brainwashing was due to softness in American men, which they attributed variously to flaws in the nation’s child rearing practices, the American educational system, and widespread generational and social decay.
Dunne builds his case gradually. He focuses first on the anxiety surrounding brainwashing when it first emerged in the national discourse (the story begins with the controversy over the behavior of repatriated American prisoners from the Korean War) and devotes the second half of his work to tracing the evolution of these anxieties as they shifted from communism and concerns about the state of American society to the manipulative tendencies of American consumer culture. Dunne outlines America’s fear, frustration, and fascination with mind control, suggesting its enduring presence in several genres, including film (John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate , Ben Stiller’s Zoolander ), and television (Showtime’s Homeland [2011- ]). But Dunne starts the paper trail (literally) with journalist Edward Ward Hunt’s 1951 Brainwashing in Red China: The Calculated Destruction of Men’s Minds. It was an indictment, he said of the communists’ use of psychological warfare to enslave a people. But it also took aim at conditions in the United States--overrun by Ivory tower intellectuals and liberals which made it ripe for such a fate. Before he’s through Dunne will have enlisted the services of Benjamin Spock, William Whyte, and David Riesman as evidence that the inner core of American rugged individualism had been hollowed out long before the brainwashing flap became front-page news.
In fact, argues, Dunne, regardless of all the official fulminating and posturing about communist dirty tricks in opening up a new front in the Cold War, Americans were no strangers to mind control. Propaganda efforts in World Wars 1 and 2 were proof, he says. The United States supported the notion that national governments were intent on overtly manipulating the opinions and outlook of the public. And the brutality of fascism most likely helped. Evidence of Hitler’s crimes helped convince Americans to enlist in the crusade both physically and emotionally. Given the horror and heroics of that conflict, the Cold War, claims Dunne, should not have found Americans in a state of physical, emotional, and intellectual decline. They would and should have been up for the task of dealing with a similar enemy using similar techniques. He quotes Hannah Arendt’s view that Nazism and communism were both totalitarian movements, seizing power through propaganda, the imposition of mass conformity, and a general climate of fear. And after having secured power, she posits, they were able to pursue their ultimate goal: the transformation of human nature itself. The suggestion that communism sought not simply the eradication of American minds but also their individuality, argues Dunne, gave rise to the specter of legions of Americans turned into conformists and robots, and a society in which the concept of the individual “I” had been replaced by the “we” of collectivity. But Dunne suggests the Cold War notion of the “I-We” confrontation could not on its own have thrown Americans into a tizzy. He reminds us of the millions of Americans who participated in World War 2 and traded in their identities for look-alike uniforms and interchangeable ration booklets. They tolerated propaganda, shortages, delays, and losses in the sort of shared experience few events other than war could provide. When the shooting stopped, the conformity continued as those same Americans left the military, emptied their bank accounts, or cashed in their GI Bill benefits to march by the thousands either into school or suburbia.
But in any event, Dunne has readers re-examine life in America for clues which suggest additional reasons for conformist behavior. In chapter 4, “Motherhood and Male Autonomy during the Cold War,” Dunne suggests the new conflict was revealing an unflattering image of American manhood, symptomatic of a basic softness in America. Blame it on home life? Dunne acknowledges the prevailing wisdom of the time, which held that a medley of bad parenting, new gadgetry, and consumer excess might be to blame. Too much time was being spent on the couch watching television and not enough time out in the fresh air. But do taut bodies automatically guarantee taut minds? Dunne asks. He answers his own question, describing an America awash in nurturing motherhood, television, rock and roll, movies, and gadgets. It might explain, he says, why American men were perceived to be soft around the waistline and even softer between the ears.
The good news for motherhood is that Dunne doesn’t see home life as the primary villain in America’s hour of distress. He suggests other factors may have been at work, among them corporations and corporate advertising. He cites Vance Packard of The Hidden Persuaders (1957) fame, who alleged that corporate executives were employing large-scale efforts to channel our unthinking habits by the insights gleaned from psychiatry and the social sciences, and that these types of practices were moving the United States to the chilling world of George Orwell and his Big Brother. He also calls on market researcher James Vicary, whose work for the Subliminal Projection Company drew comment from Los Angeles Times reporter Donald Craig, claiming hidden commercials were on a par with communist psychological warfare. Dunne also brings in David Risesman, William Whyte, and C. Wright Mills to nail down once and for all the true threat to American individuality, characterizing Whyte’s The Organization Man (1956) in Whyte’s own words “as a vision of corporate America intent on capturing the worker’s soul” (p. 189). He goes on to suggest to the reader that if communism disliked individuality, corporations were no fans, either. Indoctrination, psychological manipulation, and social engineering were used, the author argues, to convey a simple message to workers; accept. In Dunne’s view, the “Organization Man” and the “New Soviet Man,” who “goes where he is sent, does what he is told, and is judged by how well he does it,” had much in common. As Cold War paranoia embraced the notion of communist mind control, the leap from what Americans knew and what they feared would prove, according to Dunne, to be more of a short hop; he claims we were closer than we thought.
Whether the reader buys into Dunne’s anti-corporate screed will depend on the reader’s own state of mind. He spends a lot of time on the issue, despite the fact that permissive parenting or even wartime conformity may have been contributing factors. But whatever the cause, Dunne’s suggestion that the real problem was at home suggests that the fault, as Caesar told Brutus, lay not in our stars but in ourselves.
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