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The Search for the Manchurian Candidate: The CIA and Mind Control by John Marks

29 September 2007

I first picked up this book after taking a class on the culture of the Cold War, which also had a film component. The Manchurian Candidate was one of the films featured and discussed in the class, and I happen to be working on a review of a more recent book about The Manchurian Candidate for a film studies journal. Perhaps posting this review will give me the impetus I need to finish the last 500 words of the other book review?

The Search for the Manchurian Candidate: The CIA and Mind Control by John Marks

If you’ve never seen The Manchurian Candidate, a brief summary will suffice. The original 1962 film version stars Laurence Harvey as the ‘Manchurian candidate’ — Sergeant Raymond Shaw, an American soldier who was captured while serving in Korea and brainwashed by the Communists to become the perfect assassin. Under the influence of hypnosis, he would take orders to kill people and then would have no memory of who gave those orders or what those orders were. Angela Lansbury also stars in a chilling role as the soldier’s manipulative mother, the wife of a Joseph McCarthy-type senator who is running for the vice-presidency but is greedy for higher office. The film seems a little on the campy side if you try to treat it as a straight-up espionage thriller, but it’s a fascinating film to watch from the perspective of a Cold War historian.

John Marks’ book draws on the image of the ‘Manchurian candidate’ as an appropriate description of an often-ignored aspect of Cold War history in America. The Central Intelligence Agency apparently spent much of the 1950s and 1960s trying to determine if such a scenario was possible — if a man could actually be brainwashed to become a ‘Manchurian candidate’ who could be programmed to kill, or if certain combinations of drugs could be used as ‘truth drugs’ or other useful chemical weapons in the intelligence officer’s arsenal. Marks shares stories of how CIA researchers experimented on each other with mind-altering drugs like LSD, even to the point of slipping chemicals in each other’s coffee or cigarettes and waiting to see what kind of reaction the drugs would produce. Researchers and field agents went to disturbing lengths in their attempts to produce some sort of truth serum or indeed any substance that would dramatically change an individual’s behaviour.

The Search for the Manchurian Candidate also postulates an intriguing theory about the CIA’s influence on the growth of the drug counterculture in America in the 1960s. Vaguely, the theory is that the CIA latched onto Sandoz, a Swiss pharmaceutical firm that had first synthesised LSD, because the drug’s potential use for intelligence activities was of great interest to behavioural researchers. So in order to test the properties of LSD and other psychedelic drugs, the CIA distributed LSD prototypes and synthetic chemicals to scientists and research professors at major universities, who passed it on to graduate students and student volunteers, who then passed it on to undergraduate students, who brought it into the mainstream of college life…and so on. With teachers influencing their students and upperclassmen doing the same to underclassmen, the drug spread around the country — but someone had to influence the teachers first. By this theory, the CIA was at the top of the LSD distribution system and of the ‘tune in, turn on, drop out’ counterculture of the 1960s.

Even if you’re willing to dismiss Marks’ theory as conspiracy claptrap, his book nonetheless provides a different perspective on the darker side of American espionage during the Cold War. The Search for the Manchurian Candidate is sometimes funny and sometimes unsettling, but it’s certainly informative.

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