Terrors of Brainwashing Ordeal

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"Terrors of Brainwashing Ordeal"

"Tortures Imposed on Red Prisoners"


By: Harold William Rigney

Date: June 1, 1956

Source: "Terrors of Brainwashing Ordeal: Tortures Imposed on Red Prisoners," as published by Vital Speeches of the Day.

About the Author: Father William Rigney came to China in 1946 to serve as rector of the Fu Jen Catholic University in Peking (Beijing). Following the Communist takeover of the university in 1951, Rigney was arrested as an American spy. He spent more than four years in the prisons of Tsao Lan Tzu Hutung and Tzu Hsing Lu. Despite extensive reports of both physical and psychological torture, he refused to confess to being an agent of the United States government. He told the story of his ordeal in the book Four Years in a Red Hell: The Story of Father Rigney, published in 1956.


The term "brainwashing" was coined by a journalist—who was purportedly also a CIA operative—named Edward Hunter. In 1951, he wrote a book called Brainwashing in Red China: The Calculated Destruction of Men's Minds. It was Hunter's assertion that agents of the communist Chinese government used a systematic and scientifically based program of mind control achieved through the use of drugs, hypnosis, classical (Pavlovian) conditioning, and repeated terrorist and anti-American philosophical propaganda to turn captive enemy citizens into supporters of their regime.

Hunter's book was a popular press favorite, and his statements achieved great belief and support among the masses; at the time, many people supported the notion that any communist use of propaganda constituted brainwashing. As a number of American military personnel, captured during the Korean conflict, publicly confessed to war crimes, there was an upsurge in popular belief that American servicemen were being brainwashed. Robert Jay Lifton, a psychiatrist and former professor turned terrorism expert for the media, published a groundbreaking book in 1961 entitled Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of "Brainwashing" in China, which offered some support to the notion that something not completely unlike what was termed "brainwashing" was actually occurring. He interviewed dozens of individuals who had been released from communist Chinese prisons and concluded that they had, indeed, been subjected to a multi-step program beginning with an assault on the identity of the prisoner through the use of humiliation and brutality (physical and emotional), and ending with either the admission of guilt, betrayal of friends, colleagues, total submission to the captors, and, sometimes, release. Some former prisoners reported confessing to extremely implausible, if not impossible, crimes.

However, in the view of Lifton, what was occurring in the communist Chinese prisons did not constitute mind control—it could, he felt, be more accurately termed group indoctrination and subjugation achieved through the use of torture, terrorism, physical brutality, and extreme intimidation. His support for that belief lay in the fact that less than 25 United States prisoners refused to be repatriated after the war, compared to more than 22,000 prisoners of war from communist countries.


I would like to make one remark to begin with, that I have not been brainwashed. I was subjected to the process of brainwashing, but I was never brainwashed. Now what do we mean by brainwashing? In the prisons of China, we use the term which in English you would translate by "changing your mind." Prisoners were told day in and day out that they must change their minds. . . it is a very simple concept. Brain-washing simply means a change of attitude and a change of mind from one of anti-communism to one of pro-communism . . .

To understand this awful process one must realize some of the psychological background.

The communists all over the world use two weapons wherever they have control and they are terror and deceit. They can't use terror in the free world, otherwise they would be arrested, but they can use deceit and they do. In America, they use deceit. In Communist China, they use the weapon of terror and the weapon of deceit. But please keep in mind that awful background of terror that every one in China, in Communist China, has in the background of his mind. It is an awful fear that he will be shot or she will be shot, or he or she will undergo even worse than being shot, being put into a wretched communist prison for life perhaps, or 30 years or 20 years, or 10 years.

The year I was arrested, in 1951, they were executing in Peiping alone, publicly, two to three hundred people every month, publicly taking them out with their hands bound behind their backs and their feet in chains, with a big slip of paper up each back, like a fish fin, with their crimes written on it.

They would be put on a truck and driven through the main streets of Peiping and taken out to the place near the Temple of Heaven, and there they had to get down on their knees, with a soldier behind their backs with a rifle, and they would be shot. People would be asked to come over to see these executions. Imagine the terror that went over the city! Any day you could see a truck-load of good Chinese (they weren't criminals, very few were real criminals: most of them were ordinary, honest business people like yourselves, who simply did not believe in the wretched, diabolical character of communism; that was their only crime) being driven up and down the streets of Peiping and taken out and shot. Think of the terror!

After '51, the executions were not so numerous, but still there were always public executions to keep in the mind of every good Chinese the terror, the fear that perhaps he or she would be shot.

I remember in prison how often we were told by the prison wardens that we were all supposed to be spies. I was arrested as a spy. I deny those charges; they were false charges. And most of the poor fellows in prison with me were also innocent, I'm sure. But we were told so often that the "big problem of you 'spies' is the problem of your thinking. You must change your thoughts. You must destroy your reactionary thoughts, and if you don't destroy your own reactionary thoughts, then the government will destroy those reactionary thoughts when the government destroys your body." I will tell you that meant something. . . .


The communist Chinese regime maintained a large network of re-education camps, in which individuals who espoused "incorrect" ideology or dogma were subjected to systematic use of what is now termed a variant of "coercive persuasion." This is a practice still employed in many areas of the world when attempting to elicit information from suspected terrorists or prisoners of war. Essentially, it consists of repetitive use of police-style interrogation techniques, continual use of ideological propaganda, and physical intimidation. Sometimes, brutality, physical or emotional abuse, deprivation of food or sleep, and the use of extremes in temperature (from hot to cold, etc.) are employed as well. In the case of the prisoners held by the Chinese communists, the "coercive persuasion" utilized consisted of the systematic use of complete control over both information flow and the prisoner's environment, manipulation with the intent of eroding self-expression, criticism, humiliation and degradation, confession, peer pressure, renunciation of values, and coercion by physical force and threat.

The concept of brainwashing came to the forefront of the popular consciousness again in the 1970s, with the upsurge of radical cult activity. Although there were many assertions that brainwashing was an essential part of cult membership, or mass behaviors (as in the mass suicides at the People's Temple with Jim Jones in 1978), it was determined by some that this was not the case, because the element of physical coercion was notably absent during the process of cult indoctrination.

In November of 2003, Washington, D.C. area sniper suspect Lee Boyd Malvo's lawyer attempted to use the insanity defense during the teenager's first murder trial. It was potentially precedent-setting, as the defense contended that Malvo was "brainwashed to kill by his membership in a cult of two," by John Allen Muhammed, the other sniper suspect (Muhammed received the death penalty in a capital murder conviction for the same legal case).

Although there has been no compelling scientific evidence in favor of actual brainwashing, there is strong scholarly and popular support for the success of "coercive persuasion" techniques. In the American media, since the 1960s, there has been documentation of "brainwashing-like" activity, evidenced by the swastika carved foreheads and vacant stares of the Manson family murderers, the 912 member mass suicide at Jonestown, as well as that of the Heaven's Gate members. More recently, there has been much speculation about the use of coercive persuasion in extremist groups, in order to foment the willingness of members to become suicide bombers. Similarly, the families of Elizabeth Smart (kidnap victim who was held quite near her home for the duration of her captivity, but apparently never attempted an escape), "shoe bomber" Richard Reid, and American Taliban soldier John Walker Lindh have all asserted that their family members were "brainwashed."

There is progressively more evidence that behavior and attitudes can be strongly influenced by isolation, group mores, small group dynamics, information control, peer pressure, and obedience training—all of which are integral parts of extremist indoctrination.



Rigney, H.W., S.V.D. Four Years in a Red Hell: The Story of Father Rigney. Henry Regnery, 1956.

Lifton, Robert Jay. Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of "Brainwashing" in China. (Reprint Edition). University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

Hunter, Edward. Brainwashing in Red China: The Calculated Destruction of Men's Minds. Vanguard Press, 1951.

Web sites

PBS.org. "NOW Transcript: Bill Moyers Interviews Robert Jay Lifton." <http://www.pbs.org/now/transcript/transcript_lifton.html> ( June 30, 2005).

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