The Search for the Manchurian Candidate
In September 1950, the Miami News published an article
by Edward Hunter titled " 'Brain-Washing' Tactics Force Chinese into Ranks
of Communist Party." It was the first printed use in any language of the
term "brainwashing," which quickly became a stock phrase in Cold War
headlines. Hunter, a CIA propaganda operator who worked under cover as a
journalist, turned out a steady stream of books and articles on the subject. He
made up his coined word from the Chinese hsi-nao—"to cleanse the
mind"—which had no political meaning in Chinese.
American public opinion reacted strongly to Hunter's ideas,
no doubt because of the hostility that prevailed toward communist foes, whose
ways were perceived as mysterious and alien. Most Americans knew something about
the famous trial of the Hungarian Josef Cardinal Mindszenty, at which the
Cardinal appeared zombie-like, as though drugged or hypnotized. Other defendants
at Soviet "show trials" had displayed similar symptoms as they recited
unbelievable confessions in dull, cliché-ridden monotones. Americans were
familiar with the idea that the communists had ways to control hapless people,
and Hunter's new word helped pull together the unsettling evidence into one
sharp fear. The brainwashing controversy intensified during the heavy 1952
fighting in Korea, when the Chinese government launched a propaganda offensive
that featured recorded statements by captured U.S. pilots, who
"confessed" to a variety of war crimes including the use of germ
The official American position on prisoner confessions was
that they were false and forced. As expressed in an Air Force Headquarters
document, "Confessions can be of truthful details.... For purposes of this
section, 'confessions' are considered as being the forced admission to a
lie." But if the military had understandable reasons to gloss over the
truth or falsity of the confessions, this still did not address the fact that
confessions had been made at all. Nor did it lay to rest the fears of those like
Edward Hunter who saw the confessions as proof that the communists now had
techniques "to put a man's mind into a fog so that he will mistake what is
true for what is untrue, what is right for what is wrong, and come to believe
what did not happen actually had happened, until he ultimately becomes a robot
for the Communist manipulator."
By the end of the Korean War, 70 percent of the 7,190 U.S.
prisoners held in China had either made confessions or signed petitions calling
for an end to the American war effort in Asia. Fifteen percent collaborated
fully with the Chinese, and only 5 percent steadfastly resisted. The American
performance contrasted poorly with that of the British, Australian, Turkish, and
other United Nations prisoners—among whom collaboration was rare, even though
studies showed they were treated about as badly as the Americans. Worse, an
alarming number of the prisoners stuck by their confessions after returning to
the United States. They did not, as expected, recant as soon as they stepped on
U.S. soil. Puzzled and dismayed by this wholesale collapse of morale among the
POWs, American opinion leaders settled in on Edward Hunter's explanation: The
Chinese had somehow brainwashed our boys.
But how? At the height of the brainwashing furor,
conservative spokesmen often seized upon the very mystery of it all to give a
religious cast to the political debate. All communists have been, by definition,
brainwashed through satanic forces, they argued—thereby making the enemy seem
like robots completely devoid of ordinary human feelings and motivation.
Liberals favored a more scientific view of the problem. Given the
incontrovertible evidence that the Russians and the Chinese could, in a very
short time and often under difficult circumstances, alter the basic belief and
behavior patterns of both domestic and foreign captives, liberals argued that
there must be a technique involved that would yield its secrets under objective
CIA Director Allen Dulles favored the scientific approach,
although he naturally encouraged his propaganda experts to exploit the more
emotional interpretations of brainwashing. Dulles and the heads of the other
American security agencies became almost frantic in their efforts to find out
more about the Soviet and Chinese successes in mind control. Under pressure for
answers, Dulles turned to Dr. Harold Wolff, a world-famous neurologist with whom
he had developed an intensely personal relationship. Wolff was then treating
Dulles' own son for brain damage suffered from a Korean War head wound. Together
they shared the trauma of the younger Dulles' fits and mental lapses. Wolff, a
skinny little doctor with an overpowering personality, became fast friends with
the tall, patrician CIA Director. Dulles may have seen brainwashing as an
induced form of brain damage or mental illness. In any case, in late 1953, he
asked Wolff to conduct an official study of communist brainwashing techniques
for the CIA. Wolff, who had become fascinated by the Director's tales of the
clandestine world, eagerly accepted.
Harold Wolff was known primarily as an expert on migraine
headaches and pain, but he had served on enough military and intelligence
advisory panels that he knew how to pick up Dulles' mandate and expand on it. He
formed a working partnership with Lawrence Hinkle, his colleague at Cornell
University Medical College in New York City. Hinkle handled the administrative
part of the study and shared in the substance. Before going ahead, the two
doctors made sure they had the approval of Cornell's president, Deane W. Malott
and other high university officials who checked with their contacts in
Washington to make sure the project did indeed have the great importance that
Allen Dulles stated. Hinkle recalls a key White House aide urging Cornell to
cooperate. The university administration agreed, and soon Wolff and Hinkle were
poring over the Agency's classified files on brainwashing. CIA officials also
helped arrange interviews with former communist interrogators and prisoners
alike. "It was done with great secrecy," recalls Hinkle. "We went
through a great deal of hoop-de-do and signed secrecy agreements, which everyone
took very seriously."
The team of Wolff and Hinkle became the chief brainwashing
studiers for the U.S. government, although the Air Force and Army ran parallel
Their secret report to Allen Dulles, later published in a declassified version,
was considered the definitive U.S. Government work on the subject. In fact, if
allowances are made for the Cold War rhetoric of the fifties, the Wolff-Hinkle
report still remains one of the better accounts of the massive political
re-education programs in China and the Soviet Union. It stated flatly that
neither the Soviets nor the Chinese had any magical weapons—no drugs, exotic
mental ray-guns, or other fanciful machines. Instead, the report pictured
communist interrogation methods resting on skillful, if brutal, application of
police methods. Its portrait of the Soviet system anticipates, in dry and
scholarly form, the work of novelist Alexander Solzhenitzyn in The Gulag
Archipelago. Hinkle and Wolff showed that the Soviet technique rested on the
cumulative weight of intense psychological pressure and human weakness, and this
thesis alone earned the two Cornell doctors the enmity of the more right-wing
CIA officials such as Edward Hunter. Several of his former acquaintances
remember that Hunter was fond of saying that the Soviets brainwashed people the
way Pavlov had conditioned dogs.
In spite of some dissenters like Hunter, the Wolff-Hinkle
model became, with later refinements, the best available description of extreme
forms of political indoctrination. According to the general consensus, the
Soviets started a new prisoner off by putting him in solitary confinement. A
rotating corps of guards watched him constantly, humiliating and demeaning him
at every opportunity and making it clear he was totally cut off from all outside
support. The guards ordered him to stand for long periods, let him sit, told him
exactly the position he could take to lie down, and woke him if he moved in the
slightest while sleeping. They banned all outside stimuli—books, conversation,
or news of the world.
After four to six weeks of this mind-deadening routine, the
prisoner usually found the stress unbearable and broke down. "He weeps, he
mutters, and prays aloud in his cell," wrote Hinkle and Wolff. When the
prisoner reached this stage, the interrogation began. Night after night, the
guards brought him into a special room to face the interrogator. Far from
confronting his captive with specific misdeeds, the interrogator told him that
he knew his own crimes—all too well. In the most harrowing Kafkaesque way, the
prisoner tried to prove his innocence to he knew not what. Together the
interrogator and prisoner reviewed the prisoner's life in detail. The
interrogator seized on any inconsistency—no matter how minute—as further
evidence of guilt, and he laughed at the prisoner's efforts to justify himself.
But at least the prisoner was getting a response of some sort. The long weeks of
isolation and uncertainty had made him grateful for human contact even grateful
that his case was moving toward resolution. True, it moved only as fast as he
was willing to incriminate himself, but . . . Gradually, he came to see that he
and his interrogator were working toward the same goal of wrapping up his case.
In tandem, they ransacked his soul. The interrogator would periodically let up
the pressure. He offered a cigarette, had a friendly chat, explained he had a
job to do—making it all the more disappointing the next time he had to tell
the prisoner that his confession was unsatisfactory .
As the charges against him began to take shape, the prisoner
realized that he could end his ordeal only with a full confession. Otherwise the
grueling sessions would go on forever. "The regimen of pressure has created
an overall discomfort which is well nigh intolerable," wrote Hinkle and
Wolff. "The prisoner invariably feels that 'something must be done to end
this.' He must find a way out." A former KGB officer, one of many former
interrogators and prisoners interviewed for the CIA study, said that more than
99 percent of all prisoners signed a confession at this stage.
In the Soviet system under Stalin, these confessions were the
final step of the interrogation process, and the prisoners usually were shot or
sent to a labor camp after sentencing. Today, Russian leaders seem much less
insistent on exacting confessions before jailing their foes, but they still use
the penal (and mental health) system to remove from the population classes of
people hostile to their rule.
The Chinese took on the more ambitious task of re-educating
their prisoners. For them, confession was only the beginning. Next, the Chinese
authorities moved the prisoner into a group cell where his indoctrination began.
From morning to night, he and his fellow prisoners studied Marx and Mao,
listened to lectures, and engaged in self-criticism. Since the progress of each
member depended on that of his cellmates, the group pounced on the slightest
misconduct as an indication of backsliding. Prisoners demonstrated the zeal of
their commitment by ferociously attacking deviations. Constant intimacy with
people who reviled him pushed the resistant prisoner to the limits of his
emotional endurance. Hinkle and Wolff found that "The prisoner must conform
to the demands of the group sooner or later." As the prisoner developed
genuine changes of attitude, pressure on him relaxed. His cellmates rewarded him
with increasing acceptance and esteem. Their acceptance, in turn, reinforced his
commitment to the Party, for he learned that only this commitment allowed him to
live successfully in the cell. In many cases, this process produced an exultant
sense of mission in the prisoner—a feeling of having finally straightened out
his life and come to the truth. To be sure, this experience, which was not so
different from religious conversion, did not occur in all cases or always last
after the prisoner returned to a social group that did not reinforce it.
From the first preliminary studies of Wolff and Hinkle, the
U.S. intelligence community moved toward the conclusion that neither the Chinese
nor the Russians made appreciable use of drugs or hypnosis, and they certainly
did not possess the brainwashing equivalent of the atomic bomb (as many feared).
Most of their techniques were rooted in age-old methods, and CIA brainwashing
researchers like psychologist John Gittinger found themselves poring over
ancient documents on the Spanish Inquisition. Furthermore, the communists used
no psychiatrists or other behavioral scientists to devise their interrogation
system. The differences between the Soviet and Chinese systems seemed to grow
out of their respective national cultures. The Soviet brainwashing system
resembled a heavy-handed cop whose job was to isolate, break, and then subdue
all the troublemakers in the neighborhood. The Chinese system was more like
thousands of skilled acupuncturists, working on each other and relying on group
pressure, ideology, and repetition. To understand further the Soviet or Chinese
control systems, one had to plunge into the subtle mysteries of national and
While CIA researchers looked into those questions, the main
thrust of the Agency's brainwashing studies veered off in a different direction.
The logic behind the switch was familiar in the intelligence business. Just
because the Soviets and the Chinese had not invented a brainwashing machine,
officials reasoned, there was no reason to assume that the task was impossible.
If such a machine were even remotely feasible, one had to assume the communists
might discover it. And in that case, national security required that the United
States invent the machine first. Therefore, the CIA built up its own elaborate
brainwashing program, which, like the Soviet and Chinese versions, took its own
special twist from our national character. It was a tiny replica of the
Manhattan Project, grounded in the conviction that the keys to brainwashing lay
in technology. Agency officials hoped to use old-fashioned American know-how to
produce shortcuts and scientific breakthroughs. Instead of turning to tough
cops, whose methods repelled American sensibilities, or the gurus of mass
motivation, whose ideology Americans lacked, the Agency's brainwashing experts
gravitated to people more in the mold of the brilliant—and sometimes
mad—scientist, obsessed by the wonders of the brain.
In 1953 CIA Director Allen Dulles made a rare public
statement on communist brainwashing: "We in the West are somewhat
handicapped in getting all the details," Dulles declared. "There are
few survivors, and we have no human guinea pigs to try these extraordinary
techniques." Even as Dulles spoke, however, CIA officials acting under his
orders had begun to find the scientists and the guinea pigs. Some of their
experiments would wander so far across the ethical borders of experimental
psychiatry (which are hazy in their own right) that Agency officials thought it
prudent to have much of the work done outside the United States.
Call her Lauren G. For 19 years, her mind has been blank
about her experience. She remembers her husband's driving her up to the old gray
stone mansion that housed the hospital, Allan Memorial Institute, and putting
her in the care of its director, Dr. D. Ewen Cameron. The next thing she recalls
happened three weeks later:
They gave me a dressing gown. It was way too big, and I was tripping all over
it. I was mad. I asked why did I have to go round in this sloppy thing. I
could hardly move because I was pretty weak. I remember trying to walk along
the hall, and the walls were all slanted. It was then that I said, "Holy
Smokes, what a ghastly thing." I remember running out the door and going
up the mountain in my long dressing gown.
The mountain, named Mont Royal, loomed high above
Montreal. She stumbled and staggered as she tried to climb higher and higher.
Hospital staff members had no trouble catching her and dragging her back to the
Institute. In short order, they shot her full of sedatives, attached electrodes
to her temples, and gave her a dose of electroshock. Soon she slept like a baby.
Gradually, over the next few weeks, Lauren G. began to
function like a normal person again. She took basket-weaving therapy and played
bridge with her fellow patients. The hospital released her, and she returned to
her husband in another Canadian city.
Before her mental collapse in 1959, Lauren G. seemed to have
everything going for her. A refined, glamorous horsewoman of 30, whom people
often said looked like Elizabeth Taylor, she had auditioned for the lead in National
Velvet at 13 and married the rich boy next door at 20. But she had never
loved her husband and had let her domineering mother push her into his arms. He
drank heavily. "I was really unhappy," she recalls. "I had a
horrible marriage, and finally I had a nervous breakdown. It was a combination
of my trying to lose weight, sleep loss, and my nerves."
The family doctor recommended that her husband send her to
Dr. Cameron, which seemed like a logical thing to do, considering his wide fame
as a psychiatrist. He had headed Allan Memorial since 1943, when the Rockefeller
Foundation had donated funds to set up a psychiatric facility at McGill
University. With continuing help from the Rockefellers, McGill had built a
hospital known far beyond Canada's borders as innovative and exciting. Cameron
was elected president of the American Psychiatric Association in 1953, and he
became the first president of the World Psychiatric Association. His friends
joked that they had run out of honors to give him.
Cameron's passion lay in the more "objective" forms
of therapy, with which he could more easily and swiftly bring about improvements
in patients than with the notoriously slow Freudian methods. An impatient man,
he dreamed of finding a cure for schizophrenia. No one could tell him he was not
on the right track. Cameron's supporter at the Rockefeller Foundation, Robert
Morrison, recorded in his private papers that he found the psychiatrist tense
and ill-at-ease, and Morrison ventured that this may account for "his lack
of interest and effectiveness in psychotherapy and failure to establish warm
personal relations with faculty members, both of which were mentioned repeatedly
when I visited Montreal." Another Rockefeller observer noted that Cameron
"appears to suffer from deep insecurity and has a need for power which he
nourishes by maintaining an extraordinary aloofness from his associates."
When Lauren G.'s husband delivered her to Cameron, the
psychiatrist told him she would receive some electroshock, a standard treatment
at the time. Besides that, states her husband, "Cameron was not very
communicative, but I didn't think she was getting anything out of the
ordinary." The husband had no way of knowing that Cameron would use an
unproved experimental technique on his wife—much less that the psychiatrist
intended to "depattern" her. Nor did he realize that the CIA was
supporting this work with about $19,000 a year in secret funds.
Cameron defined "depatterning" as breaking up
existing patterns of behavior, both the normal and the schizophrenic, by means
of particularly intensive electroshocks, usually combined with prolonged,
drug-induced sleep. Here was a psychiatrist willing—indeed, eager—to wipe
the human mind totally clean. Back in 1951, ARTICHOKE's Morse Allen had likened
the process to "creation of a vegetable." Cameron justified this tabula
rasa approach because he had a theory of "differential amnesia,"
for which he provided no statistical evidence when he published it. He
postulated that after he produced "complete amnesia" in a subject, the
person would eventually recover memory of his normal but not his schizophrenic
behavior. Thus, Cameron claimed he could generate "differential
amnesia." Creating such a state in which a man who knew too much could be
made to forget had long been a prime objective of the ARTICHOKE and MKULTRA
Needless to say, Lauren G. does not recall a thing today
about those weeks when Cameron depatterned her. Afterward, unlike over half of
the psychiatrist's depatterning patients, Lauren G. gradually recovered full
recall of her life before the treatment, but then, she remembered her mental
Her husband says she came out of the hospital much improved. She declares the
treatment had no effect one way or another on her mental condition, which she
believes resulted directly from her miserable marriage. She stopped seeing
Cameron after about a month of outpatient electroshock treatments, which she
despised. Her relationship with her husband further deteriorated, and two years
later she walked out on him. "I just got up on my own hind legs," she
states. "I said the hell with it. I'm going to do what I want and take
charge of my own life. I left and started over." Now divorced and
remarried, she feels she has been happy ever since.
Cameron's depatterning, of which Lauren G. had a
comparatively mild version, normally started with 15 to 30 days of "sleep
therapy." As the name implies, the patient slept almost the whole day and
night. According to a doctor at the hospital who used to administer what he
calls the "sleep cocktail," a staff member woke up the patient three
times a day for medication that consisted of a combination of 100 mg. Thorazine,
100 mg. Nembutal, 100 mg. Seconal, 150 mg. Veronal, and 10 mg. Phenergan.
Another staff doctor would also awaken the patient two or sometimes three times
daily for electroshock treatments.
This doctor and his assistant wheeled a portable machine into the "sleep
room" and gave the subject a local anesthetic and muscle relaxant, so as
not to cause damage with the convulsions that were to come. After attaching
electrodes soaked in saline solution, the attendant held the patient down and
the doctor turned on the current. In standard, professional electroshock,
doctors gave the subject a single dose of 110 volts, lasting a fraction of a
second, once a day or every other day. By contrast, Cameron used a form 20 to 40
times more intense, two or three times daily, with the power turned up to 150
volts. Named the "Page-Russell" method after its British originators,
this technique featured an initial one-second shock, which caused a major
convulsion, and then five to nine additional shocks in the middle of the primary
and follow-on convulsions. Even Drs. Page and Russell limited their treatment to
once a day, and they always stopped as soon as their patient showed
"pronounced confusion" and became "faulty in habits."
Cameron, however, welcomed this kind of impairment as a sign the treatment was
taking effect and plowed ahead through his routine.
The frequent screams of patients that echoed through the
hospital did not deter Cameron or most of his associates in their attempts to
"depattern" their subjects completely. Other hospital patients report
being petrified by the "sleep rooms," where the treatment took place,
and they would usually creep down the opposite side of the hall.
Cameron described this combined sleep-electroshock treatment
as lasting between 15 to 30 days, with some subjects staying in up to 65 days
(in which case, he reported, he awakened them for three days in the middle).
Sometimes, as in the case of Lauren G., patients would try to escape when the
sedatives wore thin, and the staff would have to chase after them. "It was
a tremendous nursing job just to keep these people going during the
treatment," recalls a doctor intimately familiar with Cameron's operation.
This doctor paints a picture of dazed patients, incapable of taking care of
themselves, often groping their way around the hospital and urinating on the
Cameron wrote that his typical depatterning patient—usually
a woman—moved through three distinct stages. In the first, the subject lost
much of her memory. Yet she still knew where she was, why she was there, and who
the people were who treated her. In the second phase, she lost her
"space-time image," but still wanted to remember. In fact, not being
able to answer questions like, "Where am I?" and "How did I get
here?" caused her considerable anxiety. In the third stage, all that
anxiety disappeared. Cameron described the state as "an extremely
interesting constriction of the range of recollections which one ordinarily
brings in to modify and enrich one's statements. Hence, what the patient talks
about are only his sensations of the moment, and he talks about them almost
exclusively in highly concrete terms. His remarks are entirely uninfluenced by
previous recollections—nor are they governed in any way by his forward
anticipations. He lives in the immediate present. All schizophrenic symptoms
have disappeared. There is complete amnesia for all events in his life."
Lauren G. and 52 other subjects at Allan Memorial received
this level of depatterning in 1958 and 1959. Cameron had already developed the
technique when the CIA funding started. The Agency sent the psychiatrist
research money to take the treatment beyond this point. Agency officials
wanted to know if, once Cameron had produced the blank mind, he could then
program in new patterns of behavior, as he claimed he could. As early as
1953—the year he headed the American Psychiatric Association—Cameron
conceived a technique he called "psychic driving," by which he would
bombard the subject with repeated verbal messages. From tape recordings based on
interviews with the patient, he selected emotionally loaded "cue
statements"—first negative ones to get rid of unwanted behavior and then
positive to condition in desired personality traits. On the negative side, for
example, the patient would hear this message as she lay in a stupor:
Madeleine, you let your mother and father treat you as a child all through
your single life. You let your mother check you up sexually after every date
you had with a boy. You hadn't enough determination to tell her to stop it.
You never stood up for yourself against your mother or father but would run
away from trouble.... They used to call you "crying Madeleine." Now
that you have two children, you don't seem to be able to manage them and keep
a good relationship with your husband. You are drifting apart. You don't go
out together. You have not been able to keep him interested sexually.
Leonard Rubenstein, Cameron's principal assistant, whose
entire salary was paid from CIA-front funds, put the message on a continuous
tape loop and played it for 16 hours every day for several weeks. An electronics
technician, with no medical or psychological background, Rubenstein, an
electrical whiz, designed a giant tape recorder that could play 8 loops for 8
patients at the same time. Cameron had the speakers installed literally under
the pillows in the "sleep rooms." "We made sure they heard
it," says a doctor who worked with Cameron. With some patients, Cameron
intensified the negative effect by running wires to their legs and shocking them
at the end of the message.
When Cameron thought the negative "psychic driving"
had gone far enough, he switched the patient over to 2 to 5 weeks of positive
You mean to get well. To do this you must let your feelings come out. It is
all right to express your anger.... You want to stop your mother bossing you
around. Begin to assert yourself first in little things and soon you will be
able to meet her on an equal basis. You will then be free to be a wife and
mother just like other women.
Cameron wrote that psychic driving provided a way to make
"direct, controlled changes in personality," without having to resolve
the subject's conflicts or make her relive past experiences. As far as is known,
no present-day psychologist or psychiatrist accepts this view. Dr. Donald Hebb,
who headed McGill's psychology department at the time Cameron was in charge of
psychiatry, minces no words when asked specifically about psychic driving:
"That was an awful set of ideas Cameron was working with. It called for no
intellectual respect. If you actually look at what he was doing and what he
wrote, it would make you laugh. If I had a graduate student who talked like
that, I'd throw him out." Warming to his subject, Hebb continues:
"Look, Cameron was no good as a researcher.... He was eminent because of
politics." Nobody said such things at the time, however. Cameron was a very
The Scottish-born psychiatrist, who never lost the burr in
his voice, kept searching for ways to perfect depatterning and psychic driving.
He held out to the CIA front—the Society for the Investigation of Human
Ecology—that he could find more rapid and less damaging ways to break down
behavior. He sent the Society a proposal that combined his two techniques with
sensory deprivation and strong drugs. His smorgasbord approach brought together
virtually all possible techniques of mind control, which he tested individually
and together. When his Agency grant came through in 1957, Cameron began work on
For several years, Agency officials had been interested in
the interrogation possibilities of this technique that Hebb himself had
pioneered at McGill with Canadian defense and Rockefeller money. It consisted of
putting a subject in a sealed environment—a small room or even a large
box—and depriving him of all sensory input: eyes covered with goggles, ears
either covered with muffs or exposed to a constant, monotonous sound, padding to
prevent touching, no smells—with this empty regime interrupted only by meal
and bathroom breaks. In 1955 Morse Allen of ARTICHOKE made contact at the
National Institutes of Health with Dr. Maitland Baldwin who had done a rather
gruesome experiment in which an Army volunteer had stayed in the "box"
for 40 hours until he kicked his way out after, in Baldwin's words, "an
hour of crying loudly and sobbing in a most heartrending fashion." The
experiment convinced Baldwin that the isolation technique could break any man,
no matter how intelligent or strong-willed. Hebb, who unlike Baldwin released
his subjects when they wanted, had never left anyone in "the box" for
more than six days. Baldwin told Morse Allen that beyond that sensory
deprivation would almost certainly cause irreparable damage. Nevertheless,
Baldwin agreed that if the Agency could provide the cover and the subjects, he
would do, according to Allen's report, "terminal type" experiments.
After numerous meetings inside the CIA on how and where to fund Baldwin, an
Agency medical officer finally shot down the project as being "immoral and
inhuman," suggesting that those pushing the experiments might want to
"volunteer their heads for use in Dr. Baldwin's 'noble' project."
With Cameron, Agency officials not only had a doctor willing
to perform terminal experiments in sensory deprivation, but one with his own
source of subjects. As part of his CIA-funded research, he had a "box"
built in the converted stables behind the hospital that housed Leonard
Rubenstein and his behavioral laboratory. Undaunted by the limits set in Hebb's
work, Cameron left one woman in for 35 days, although he had so scrambled her
mind with his other techniques that one cannot say, as Baldwin predicted to the
Agency, if the prolonged deprivation did specific damage. This subject's name
was Mary C., and, try as he might, Cameron could not get through to her. As the
aloof psychiatrist wrote in his notes: "Although the patient was prepared
by both prolonged sensory isolation (35 days) and by repeated depatterning, and
although she received 101 days of positive driving, no favorable results were
Before prescribing this treatment, Cameron had diagnosed the 52-year-old Mary
C.: "Conversion reaction in a woman of the involutional age with mental
anxiety; hypochondriatic." In other words, Mary C. was going through
In his proposal to the CIA front, Cameron also said he would
test curare, the South American arrow poison which, when liberally applied,
kills by paralyzing internal body functions. In nonlethal doses, curare causes a
limited paralysis which blocks but does not stop these functions. According to
his papers, some of which wound up in the archives of the American Psychiatric
Association, Cameron injected subjects with curare in conjunction with sensory
deprivation, presumably to immobilize them further.
Cameron also tested LSD in combination with psychic driving
and other techniques. In late 1956 and early 1957, one of his subjects was Val
Orlikow, whose husband David has become a member of the Canadian parliament.
Suffering from what she calls a "character neurosis that started with
postpartum depression," she entered Allan Memorial as one of Cameron's
personal patients. He soon put her under his version of LSD therapy. One to four
times a week, he or another doctor would come into her room and give her a shot
of LSD, mixed with either a stimulant or a depressant and then leave her alone
with a tape recorder that played excerpts from her last session with him. As far
as is known, no other LSD researcher ever subjected his patients to unsupervised
trips—certainly not over the course of two months when her hospital records
show she was given LSD 14 times. "It was terrifying," Mrs. Orlikow
recalls. "You're afraid you've gone off somewhere and can't come
back." She was supposed to write down on a pad whatever came into her head
while listening to the tapes, but often she became so frightened that she could
not write at all. "You become very small," she says, as her voice
quickens and starts to reflect some of her horror. "You're going to fall
off the step, and God, you're going down into hell because it's so far, and you
are so little. Like Alice, where is the pill that makes you big, and you're a
squirrel, and you can't get out of the cage, and somebody's going to kill
you." Then, suddenly, Mrs. Orlikow pulls out of it and lucidly states,
"Some very weird things happened."
Mrs. Orlikow hated the LSD treatment. Several times she told
Cameron she would take no more, and the psychiatrist would put his arm around
her and ask, "Lassie," which he called all his women patients,
"don't you want to get well, so you can go home and see your husband?"
She remembers feeling guilty about not following the doctor's orders, and the
thought of disappointing Cameron, whom she idolized, crushed her. Finally, after
Cameron talked her out of quitting the treatment several times, she had to end
it. She left the hospital but stayed under his private care. In 1963 he put her
back in the hospital for more intensive psychic driving. "I thought he was
God," she states. "I don't know how I could have been so stupid.... A
lot of us were naive. We thought psychiatrists had the answers. Here was the
greatest in the world, with all these titles."
In defense of Cameron, a former associate says the man truly
cared about the welfare of his patients. He wanted to make them well. As his
former staff psychologist wrote:
He abhorred the waste of human potential, seen most dramatically in the young
people whose minds were distorted by what was then considered to be
schizophrenia. He felt equally strongly about the loss of wisdom in the aged
through memory malfunction. For him, the end justified the means, and when one
is dealing with the waste of human potential, it is easy to adopt this stance.
Cameron retired abruptly in 1964, for unexplained reasons.
His successor, Dr. Robert Cleghorn, made a virtually unprecedented move in the
academic world of mutual back-scratching and praise. He commissioned a
psychiatrist and a psychologist, unconnected to Cameron, to study his
electroshock work. They found that 60 percent of Cameron's depatterned patients
complained they still had amnesia for the period 6 months to 10 years before the
They could find no clinical proof that showed the treatment to be any more or
less effective than other approaches. They concluded that "the incidence of
physical complications and the anxiety generated in the patient because of real
or imagined memory difficulty argue against" future use of the technique.
The study-team members couched their report in densely
academic jargon, but one of them speaks more clearly now. He talks bitterly of
one of Cameron's former patients who needs to keep a list of her simplest
household chores to remember how to do them. Then he repeats several times how
powerful a man Cameron was, how he was "the godfather of Canadian
psychiatry." He continues, "I probably shouldn't talk about this, but
Cameron—for him to do what he did—he was a very schizophrenic guy, who
totally detached himself from the human implications of his work . . . God, we
talk about concentration camps. I don't want to make this comparison, but God,
you talk about 'we didn't know it was happening,' and it was—right in our back
Cameron died in 1967, at age 66, while climbing a mountain.
The American Journal of Psychiatry published a long and glowing obituary
with a full-page picture of his not-unpleasant face.
D. Ewen Cameron did not need the CIA to corrupt him. He
clearly had his mind set on doing unorthodox research long before the Agency
front started to fund him. With his own hospital and source of subjects, he
could have found elsewhere encouragement and money to replace the CIA's
contribution which never exceeded $20,000 a year. However, Agency officials knew
exactly what they were paying for. They traveled periodically to Montreal to
observe his work, and his proposal was chillingly explicit. In Cameron, they had
a doctor, conveniently outside the United States, willing to do terminal
experiments in electroshock, sensory deprivation, drug testing, and all of the
above combined. By literally wiping the minds of his subjects clean by
depatterning and then trying to program in new behavior, Cameron carried the
process known as "brainwashing" to its logical extreme.
It cannot be said how many—if any—other Agency
brainwashing projects reached the extremes of Cameron's work. Details are
scarce, since many of the principal witnesses have died, will not talk about
what went on, or lie about it. In what ways the CIA applied work like Cameron's
is not known. What is known, however, is that the intelligence community,
including the CIA, changed the face of the scientific community during the 1950s
and early 1960s by its interest in such experiments. Nearly every scientist on
the frontiers of brain research found men from the secret agencies looking over
his shoulders, impinging on the research. The experience of Dr. John Lilly
illustrates how this intrusion came about.
In 1953 Lilly worked at the National Institutes of Health,
outside Washington, doing experimental studies in an effort to "map"
the body functions controlled from various locations in the brain. He devised a
method of pounding up to 600 tiny sections of hypodermic tubing into the skulls
of monkeys, through which he could insert electrodes "into the brain to any
desired distance and at any desired location from the cortex down to the bottom
of the skull," he later wrote. Using electric stimulation, Lilly discovered
precise centers of the monkeys' brains that caused pain, fear, anxiety, and
anger. He also discovered precise, separate parts of the brain that controlled
erection, ejaculation, and orgasm in male monkeys. Lilly found that a monkey,
given access to a switch operating a correctly planted electrode, would reward
himself with nearly continuous orgasms—at least once every 3 minutes—for up
to 16 hours a day.
As Lilly refined his brain "maps," officials of the
CIA and other agencies descended upon him with a request for a briefing. Having
a phobia against secrecy, Lilly agreed to the briefing only under the condition
that it and his work remain unclassified, completely open to outsiders. The
intelligence officials submitted to the conditions most reluctantly, since they
knew that Lilly's openness would not only ruin the spy value of anything they
learned but could also reveal the identities and the interests of the
intelligence officials to enemy agents. They considered Lilly annoying,
uncooperative—possibly even suspicious.
Soon Lilly began to have trouble going to meetings and
conferences with his colleagues. As part of the cooperation with the
intelligence agencies, most of them had agreed to have their projects officially
classified as SECRET, which meant that access to the information required a
Lilly's security clearance was withdrawn for review, then tangled up and
misplaced—all of which he took as pressure to cooperate with the CIA. Lilly,
whose imagination needed no stimulation to conjure up pictures of CIA agents on
deadly missions with remote-controlled electrodes strategically implanted in
their brains, decided to withdraw from that field of research. He says he had
decided that the physical intrusion of the electrodes did too much brain damage
for him to tolerate.
In 1954 Lilly began trying to isolate the operations of the
brain, free of outside stimulation, through sensory deprivation. He worked in an
office next to Dr. Maitland Baldwin, who the following year agreed to perform
terminal sensory deprivation experiments for ARTICHOKE's Morse Allen but who
never told Lilly he was working in the field. While Baldwin experimented with
his sensory-deprivation "box," Lilly invented a special
"tank." Subjects floated in a tank of body-temperature water wearing a
face mask that provided air but cut off sight and sound. Inevitably,
intelligence officials swooped down on Lilly again, interested in the use of his
tank as an interrogation tool. Could involuntary subjects be placed in the tank
and broken down to the point where their belief systems or personalities could
It was central to Lilly's ethic that he himself be the first
subject of any experiment, and, in the case of the consciousness-exploring tank
work, he and one colleague were the only ones. Lilly realized that the
intelligence agencies were not interested in sensory deprivation because of its
positive benefits, and he finally concluded that it was impossible for him to
work at the National Institutes of Health without compromising his principles.
He quit in 1958.
Contrary to most people's intuitive expectations, Lilly found
sensory deprivation to be a profoundly integrating experience for himself
personally. He considered himself to be a scientist who subjectively explored
the far wanderings of the brain. In a series of private experiments, he pushed
himself into the complete unknown by injecting pure Sandoz LSD into his thigh
before climbing into the sensory-deprivation tank.
When the counterculture sprang up, Lilly became something of a cult figure, with
his unique approach to scientific inquiry—though he was considered more of an
outcast by many in the professional research community.
For most of the outside world, Lilly became famous with the
release of the popular film, The Day of the Dolphin, which the filmmakers
acknowledged was based on Lilly's work with dolphins after he left NIH. Actor
George C. Scott portrayed a scientist, who, like Lilly, loved dolphins, did
pioneering experiments on their intelligence, and tried to find ways to
communicate with them. In the movie, Scott became dismayed when the government
pounced on his breakthrough in talking to dolphins and turned it immediately to
the service of war. In real life, Lilly was similarly dismayed when Navy and CIA
scientists trained dolphins for special warfare in the waters off Vietnam.
A few scientists like Lilly made up their minds not to
cross certain ethical lines in their experimental work, while others were
prepared to go further even than their sponsors from ARTICHOKE and MKULTRA.
Within the Agency itself, there was only one final question: Will a technique
work? CIA officials zealously tracked every lead, sparing no expense to check
each angle many times over.
By the time the MKULTRA program ended in 1963, Agency
researchers had found no foolproof way to brainwash another person.
"All experiments beyond a certain point always failed," says the
MKULTRA veteran, "because the subject jerked himself back for some reason
or the subject got amnesiac or catatonic." Agency officials found through
work like Cameron's that they could create "vegetables," but such
people served no operational use. People could be tortured into saying anything,
but no science could guarantee that they would tell the truth.
The impotency of brainwashing techniques left the Agency in a
difficult spot when Yuri Nosenko defected to the United States in February 1964.
A ranking official of the Soviet KGB, Nosenko brought with him stunning
information. He said the Russians had bugged the American embassy in Moscow,
which turned out to be true. He named some Russian agents in the West. And he
said that he had personally inspected the KGB file of Lee Harvey Oswald, who
only a few months earlier had been murdered before he could be brought to trial
for the assassination of President Kennedy. Nosenko said he learned that the KGB
had had no interest in Oswald.
Was Nosenko telling the truth, or was he a KGB
"plant" sent to throw the United States off track about Oswald? Was
his information about penetration correct, or was Nosenko himself the
penetration? Was he acting in good faith? Were the men within the CIA who
believed he was acting in good faith themselves acting in good faith? These and
a thousand other questions made up the classical trick deck for spies—each
card having "true" on one side and "false" on the other.
Top CIA officials felt a desperate need to resolve the issue
of Nosenko's legitimacy. With numerous Agency counterintelligence operations
hanging in the balance, Richard Helms, first as Deputy Director and then as
Director, allowed CIA operators to work Nosenko over with the interrogation
method in which Helms apparently had the most faith. It turned out to be not any
truth serum or electroshock depatterning program or anything else from the
Agency's brainwashing search. Helms had Nosenko put through the tried-and-true
Soviet method: isolate the prisoner, deaden his senses, break him. For more than
three years—1,277 days, to be exact—Agency officers kept Nosenko in solitary
confinement. As if they were using the Hinkle-Wolff study as their instruction
manual and the Cardinal Mindszenty case as their success story, the CIA men had
guards watch over Nosenko day and night, giving him not a moment of privacy. A
light bulb burned continuously in his cell. He was allowed nothing to read—not
even the labels on toothpaste boxes. When he tried to distract himself by making
a chess set from pieces of lint in his cell, the guards discovered his game and
swept the area clean. Nosenko had no window, and he was eventually put in a
specially built 12' X 12' steel bank vault.
Nosenko broke down. He hallucinated. He talked his head off
to his interrogators, who questioned him for 292 days, often while they had him
strapped into a lie detector. If he told the truth, they did not believe him.
While the Soviets and Chinese had shown that they could make a man admit
anything, the CIA interrogators apparently lacked a clear idea of exactly what
they wanted Nosenko to confess. When it was all over and Richard Helms ordered
Nosenko freed after three and a half years of illegal detention, some key Agency
officers still believed he was a KGB plant. Others thought he was on the level.
Thus the big questions remained unresolved, and to this day, CIA men—past and
present—are bitterly split over who Nosenko really is.
With the Nosenko case, the CIA's brainwashing programs had
come full circle. Spurred by the widespread alarm over communist tactics, Agency
officials had investigated the field, started their own projects, and looked to
the latest technology to make improvements. After 10 years of research, with
some rather gruesome results, CIA officials had come up with no techniques on
which they felt they could rely. Thus, when the operational crunch came, they
fell back on the basic brutality of the Soviet system.
Edward Hunter's article " 'Brain-Washing' Tactics Force
Chinese into Ranks of Communist Party" appeared in the Miami News on
September 24, 1950. His book was Brainwashing in Red China (New York:
Vanguard Press, 1951). Other material came from several interviews with Hunter
just before he died in June 1978.
The Air Force document cited on brainwashing was called
"Air Force Headquarters Panel Convened to Record Air Force Position
Regarding Conduct of Personnel in Event of Capture," December 14, 1953.
Researcher Sam Zuckerman found it and showed it to me.
The figures on American prisoners in Korea and the quote from
Edward Hunter came from hearings before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on
Investigations,84th Congress, June 19,20,26, and 27, 1956.
The material on the setting up of the Cornell-Hinkle-Wolff
study came from interviews with Hinkle, Helen Goodell, and several CIA sources.
Hinkle's and Wolff's study on brainwashing appeared in classified form on 2
April 1956 as a Technical Services Division publication called Communist
Control Techniques and in substantially the same form but unclassified as
"Communist Interrogation and Indoctrination of 'Enemies of the State'—An
Analysis of Methods Used by the Communist State Police." AMA Archives of
Neurology and Psychiatry, August, 1956, Vol. 76.
Allen Dulles spoke on "Brain Warfare" before the
Alumni Conference of Princeton University, Hot Springs, Virginia on April 10,
1953, and the quote on guinea pigs came from that speech.
The comments of Rockefeller Foundation officials about D.
Ewen Cameron and the record of Rockefeller funding were found in Robert S.
Morrison's diary, located in the Rockefeller Foundation Archives, Pocantico
Hills, New York.
The key articles on Cameron's work on depatterning and
psychic driving were "Production of Differential Amnesia as a Factor in the
Treatment of Schizophrenia," Comprehensive Psychiatry, 1960, 1, p.
26 and "Effects of Repetition of Verbal Signals upon the Behavior of
Chronic Psychoneurotic Patients" by Cameron, Leonard Levy, and Leonard
Rubenstein, Journal of Mental Science, 1960, 106, 742. The background on
Page-Russell electroshocks came from "Intensified Electrical Convulsive
Therapy in the Treatment of Mental Disorders" by L. G. M. Page and R. J.
Russell, Lancet, Volume 254, Jan.—June, 1948. Dr. John Cavanagh of
Washington, D.C. provided background on
the use of electroshock and sedatives in psychiatry.
Cameron's MKULTRA subproject was #68. See especially document
68-37, "Application for Grant to Study the Effects upon Human Behavior of
the Repetition of Verbal Signals," January 21, 1957.
Part of Cameron's papers are in the archives of the American
Psychiatric Association in Washington, and they provided considerable
information on the treatment of Mary C., as well as a general look at his work.
Interviews with at least a dozen of his former colleagues also provided
Interviews Yvith John Lilly and Donald Hebb provided
background on sensory deprivation. Maitland Baldwin's work in the field was
discussed in a whole series of ARTICHOKE documents including #A/B, I,76/4, 21
March 1955, Subject: Total Isolation; #A/B,1, 76/12, 19 May 1955, Subject: Total
Isolation—Additional Comments; and #A/B, I, 76/17,27 April 1955, Subject:
Total Isolation, Supplemental Report #2. The quote from Aldous Huxley on sensory
deprivation is taken from the book of his writings, Moksha: Writings on
Psychedelics and the Visionary Experience (1931-1963), edited by Michael
Horowitz and Cynthia Palmer (New York: Stonehill, 1978).
The material on Val Orlikow's experiences with Dr. Cameron
came from interviews with her and her husband David and from portions of her
hospital records, which she furnished.
Cameron's staff psychologist Barbara Winrib's comments on him
were found in a letter to the Montreal Star, August 11, 1977.
The study of Cameron's electroshock work ordered by Dr.
Cleghorn was published as "Intensive Electroconvulsive Therapy: A Follow-up
Study," by A. E. Schwartzman and P. E. Termansen, Canadian Psychiatric
Association, Volume 12, 1967.
In addition to several interviews, much material on John
Lilly came from his autobiography, The Scientist (Philadelphia: J. B.
Lippincott Company, 1978).
The CIA's handling of Yuri Nosenko was discussed at length in
hearings before the House Assassinations Committee on September 15, 1978. The
best press account of this testimony was written by Jeremiah O'Leary of the
Washington Star on September 16, 1978: "How CIA Tried to Break
Defector in Oswald Case."
1. Among the Air Force and Army project
leaders were Dr. Fred Williams of the Air Force Psychological Warfare Division,
Robert Jay Lifton, Edgar Schein, Albert Biderman, and Lieutenant Colonel James
Monroe (an Air Force officer who would later go to work full time in CIA
behavioral programs). (back)
2. Cameron himself may not have known
that the Agency was the ultimate source of these funds which came through a
conduit, the Society for the Investigation of Human Ecology. A CIA document
stated he was unwitting when the grants started in 1957, and it cannot be said
whether he ever found out. (back)
3. Cameron wrote that when a patient
remembered his schizophrenic symptoms, the schizophrenic behavior usually
returned. If the amnesia held for these symptoms, as Cameron claimed it often
did, the subject usually did not have a relapse. Even in his "cured"
patients, Cameron found that Rorschach tests continued to show schizophrenic
thinking despite the improvement in overt behavior. To a layman, this would seem
to indicate that Cameron's approach got only at the symptoms, not the causes of
mental problems. Not deterred, however, Cameron dismissed this inconsistency as
a "persistent enigma." (back)
4. Cameron wrote in a professional
journal that he gave only two electroshocks a day, but a doctor who actually
administered the treatment for him says that three were common at the beginning
of the therapy. (back)
5. In his proposal to the Human Ecology
group, Cameron wrote that his subjects would be spending only 16 hours a day in
sensory deprivation, while they listened to psychic driving tapes (thus
providing some outside stimuli). Nevertheless, one of Cameron's colleagues
states that some patients, including Mary C. were in continuously. Always
looking for a better way, Cameron almost certainly tried both variations. (back)
6. Cleghorn's team found little loss of
memory on objective tests, like the Wechsler Memory Scale but speculated that
these tests measured a different memory function—short-term recall—than that
the subjects claimed to be missing. (back)
7. Lilly and other veterans of
government-supported research note that there is a practical advantage for the
scientist who allows his work to be classified: it gives him an added claim on
government funds. He is then in a position to argue that if his work is
important enough to be SECRET, it deserves money. (back)
8. As was the case with LSD work, sensory
deprivation research had both a mind control and a transcendental side. Aldous
Huxley wrote thusly about the two pioneers in the field: "What men like
Hebb and Lilly are doing in the laboratory was done by the Christian hermits in
the Thebaid and elsewhere, and by Hindu and Tibetan hermits in the remote
fastness of the Himalayas. My own belief is that these experiences really tell
us something about the nature of the universe, that they are valuable in
themselves and, above all, valuable when incorporated into our world-picture and
acted upon [in] normal life." (back)
9. In a program called "swimmer
nullification," government scientists trained dolphins to attack enemy
frogmen with huge needles attached to their snouts. The dolphins carried tanks
of compressed air, which when jabbed into a deepdiver caused him to pop dead to
the surface. A scientist who worked in this CIA-Navy program states that some of
the dolphins sent to Vietnam during the late 1960s got out of their pens and
disappeared—unheard of behavior for trained dolphins. John Lilly confirms that
a group of the marine mammals stationed at Cam Ranh Bay did go AWOL, and he adds
that he heard that some eventually returned with their bodies and fins covered
with attack marks made by other dolphins. (back)
10. After 1963 the Agency's Science and
Technology Directorate continued brain research with unknown results. See
Chapter 12. (back)