Were Cold Warriors Right about Brainwashing? Lifton’s Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism

Friday, January 4, 2019: 2:10 PM
Wabash Room (Palmer House Hilton)
Aminda M Smith, Michigan State University
“Brainwashing,” wrote Robert Vogeler in 1954 “is the most devastating Communist weapon, the heart of the Red strategy for world rule.” His comments joined other endorsements on a publicity flier for CIA-agent Edward Hunter’s traveling lecture “Brainwashing and What It Means to You!” Hunter warned Americans that the Chinese Communists had developed an exceptionally dangerous method of mind control, which was “a greater menace to peace than the Soviet H-Bomb,” a “diabolical communist technique for the calculated, total destruction of men’s wills and minds.” In the early 1960s, these understandings echoed through Robert Lifton’s Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, which highlighted the most powerful and profound piece of Chinese Communist mind work, its “exploitation of existential guilt.”

Historians of China and of the U.S. have tended to gloss these sorts of statements as Cold War hyperbole, but this paper argues that when we bring Chinese-language primary sources together with English-language, Cold-War era writings on brainwashing, we are reminded that much of the Cold-War discourse about brainwashing accurately depicted how Chinese Communists envisioned their own thought reform methods (once stripped of the Orientalizing and anti-Communist overtones). I re-read Lifton’s Thought Reform, together with the reports and other sources in which Chinese “brainwashers” discussed their work, to argue for the rehabilitation of Cold War visions of both thought reform and Chinese Communism. Maoism was global in vision, and reforming minds was the core of its praxis: “the heart of the Red strategy for world rule.”