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The Manchurian Candidate: The Spectre of Communism, the Terror of Totalitarianism


The Manchurian Candidate is a famous book, although it is only vaguely remembered in popular culture - well, such a statement is inherently vague, but my own vision of The Manchurian Candidate before I had read it was that of a brainwashed man sent to undermine the United States, by the Communists. This shallow depiction isn't necessarily wrong - but it masks the fact that the book is a much more complex, nuanced, and critical depiction of communism, the United States, and the miraculous, and unsettling, powers of totalitarianism in the 1950s.

The Manchurian Candidate is reflective of an era and its fears - reflective of a time when Americans had to grapple with a dramatically changed universe, where they had to embrace a global role and a unique mission as the standard bearer of the free nations of the world against Communism, where they feared internal subversion by external foes, where they had an unshakable belief in science and its mastery of the human condition, and where they faced the difficult mission of reconciling their liberties with the need for national defense and security against a seemingly omnipresent, energetic, and expansionist enemy.

Both the Manchurian Candidate and the anti-Communist hounds willing to sacrifice liberty and freedom in their effort to crush their enemies - regardless of their actual guilt - in their path to power share a fundamental belief that the greatest risk to the United States comes from within. Without assistance from willing accomplices and unscrupulous individuals, Communist subversion is powerless. Their difference is how to face the threat - either by a moral defense of the virtues that the United States holds dearest, or a demagoguery that exploits its worst traits.

Domineering Motherhood

One of the constant fears expressed by societies throughout history seems to have been the idea of an overly powerful mother, who dominates her children, particularly male ones, and prevents them from developing into independent and autonomous adults. 18th century Italy commented on it, viewing it as a feminization of men, and in the Cold War communism was often portrayed as a feminine force, seductive and which would utilize a femme fatale to turn asides the male sex. This fear could be expressed comically - think of Silk Stockings, the 1957 American film, where a ravishing Soviet police agent is sent to Paris to return turned Soviet spies back to the USSR - but it also expressed itself more seriously in fears over subversion, influence, penetration.

In The Manchurian Candidate, the key villain, the key central figure, is Ryaymond's mother, Eleanor, who completely controls her husband Johnny Iselin, and dominates her son too. Certainly, Eleanor is more than just a communist - her drive is less communism, and more power, and Soviet communism is simply a useful tool in her drive for power. But a common theme in the 1930s to 1950s era United States, and indeed present today, was of communist women as being unloving mothers and domineering, but also as being pretty and utilizing their charms to seduce men to the cause, loyal to the party - the two stereotypes existing at the same time despite their incompatibility. [1] What mattered most was that they denied men their independence, a fear noted in the opening shot of the Cold War: George Kennan's Long Telegram. To quote a relevant paragraph from this American perspective:

(d) In foreign countries Communists will, as a rule, work toward destruction of all forms of personal independence, economic, political or moral. Their system can handle only individuals who have been brought into complete dependence on higher power. Thus, persons who are financially independent--such as individual businessmen, estate owners, successful farmers, artisans and all those who exercise local leadership or have local prestige, such as popular local clergymen or political figures, are anathema. It is not by chance that even in USSR local officials are kept constantly on move from one job to another, to prevent their taking root.

This perspective on Communist domination and infiltration is all the more dangerous in the Manchurian Candidate because Raymond Shaw, the man who is targeted by the Communists, has a sociological profile which one would most expect independence and resistance from - that of a military man, who must by the very definition of a modern soldier, not only follow orders certainly, but stand up and fight independently and have discipline in the face of the enemy. The fact that Shaw can be corrupted in the book speaks decisively to the attempt of the Communists to subvert particularly those who are otherwise supposed to be the bulwark against them. Domineering motherhood in the book removes the masculine agency of men such as Raymond, and subjects them instead to domination by irrational, diseased, immoral, parasitical forces - who at their very core are inherently sick and perverted, most vividly shown by the incest that finally occurs between Raymond and his mother.

Internal Subversion

The most famous element of the Manchurian Candidate, other than of course its focus on brainwashing, is the idea of internal subversion of the United States. Perhaps it is almost too obvious to require note - the idea of foreign spies and saboteurs in the body politic has always been a real fear, one which is even more prevalent in the United States of our current era, 2021. The only major difference is that nowadays, the target has shifted from Communism to White Supremacy/disillusioned extremists/far right extremists - with the critical distinction that these are perceived as a homegrown problem, rather than externally foisted upon the United States. But of course, there have been plenty of previous examples of fear of the other and of subversion of America: one could see some stirrings of this after the September 11th, 2001 attacks, with the fear of Arab/Muslim extremists within the United States, Japanese being perceived as a fifth column in the United States during WW2, and during WW1 the German minority within the United States targeted for potential anti-American, pro-German, sentiments. But perhaps the most famous of all of these is the concern over Communist subversion, orchestrated by the Soviet Union. This had substantial related fears - the FBI spent substantial effort on investigating ties between the Soviet Union, Communists, and black reform movements and radicals in the United States, the labor movement was constantly targeted, and so too fears existed about the environmental movement and above all else international peace and understanding groups. All were perceived as real threats and ones which were vectors for Communist infiltration.

On the face of it, Condon's book lends credence to the fear of internal subversion. After all, it is a textbook example of internal subversion. Foreign, Soviet-Chinese agents, cooperate together to plant sleeper agents in the United States, aiming to elect a puppet president malleable to their interests. They take advantage of the weak, the spineless, the manipulated, to serve their interests.

But this is where the catch comes - this internal subversion has as the tip of the spear the directly brainwashed and mentally altered. But the vast majority of the disciplines of Senator Johnny Iselin, who is the figurehead who has been subverted by the Communist plot, are in no ways suffering from the effect of Communist brainwashing themselves. They have followed Iselin completely of their own volition, out of fear, terror, convenience, an opportunity to settle issues with a rival, but regardless of their reasoning, they were seduced and swayed by Iselin. This is what Condon warns us against - not against demagogues, not against foreign spies, but against a citizenry willing to believe them.

Joseph McCarthy, the clear target of the book

Joseph McCarthy, the clear target of the book


Where the Manchurian Candidate departs from the McCarthyist theme of foreign agents attempting to destroy the United States is its very focus on the figure of McCarthy, with Senator Iselin, the main character Raymond's father, being blindingly obviously modeled off of Representative McCarthy. Iselin has been corrupted and led astray by his own domineering and power-hungry wife, a helpless puppet of her - but it is both him and the broader population who are at fault for falling to manicupation.

The ideal of democracy has always been one which is profoundly vulnerable to the demagoguery. As it is based on the rule and will of the people, it is naturally uniquely disposed to these people being led astray and following an inspiring, convincing, charlatan, who seeks to use their worst fears and flaws for his own power. Almost from the very beginning this trend in democratic societies has existed: the Athenian orator Alcibiades was famous for convincing the Athenians to embark on their disastrous, failed, expedition against Syracuse. The American ideal and system, heavily focused on the idea of populism and opposed to governance by experts - entirely reasonably and understandably - carries naturally the seeds of demagoguery within, and ever since Andrew Jackson has been easily stirred to follow a popular figure promising a war on elites.

Nothing in the Manchurian Candidate in this regards is particularly new or innovative - but what is striking about it is the way in which A)It could happen here, to quote Sinclair's book title form 1935, and B)That it takes square and uncompromising aim at McCarthyism, showing itself for the small, petty, bullying that it was.

Faith in Psychology

One of the key features of The Manchurian Candidate its its boundless faith in psychological conditioning and psychology. The sheer power which is displayed by psychological conditioning in the book is stunning: the ability to remove memories, to implant memories, posthypnotic triggers which enable any brainwashed individual to carry out any action, and then immediately forgetting what they had done. This is not completely successful in the book - Bennet Marco, Raymond's only friend (a friendship implanted and deepened to at least some extent by brainwashing) and another soldier have recurring nightmares where they remember their time being brainwashed, and in the end Shaw manages to break out of his conditioning. But the degree to which it is successful is nevertheless amazing and terrifying. Any regime with such powers would be immune to overthrow, immune to resistance, and capable of controlling society to an extent unimaginable elsewhere. Once totalitarianism, such as Soviet or Chinese communism, gains control over a society, with such powers under its control, it is impossible to remove.

This is a book which is largely silent about the greatest competition between the American and Soviet superpowers - the development of nuclear weapons. As explored in books such as "By the Bomb's Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age" by Paul Boyer, there was a decidedly conscious effort on the part of American authorities, and to some extent by public scientists, intellectuals, and cultural figures, soften the image of the bomb in all of its terror with a starry-eyed focus on what miraculous benefits would come from the peaceful scientific development of the atom. Perhaps it was simple desperation, for to do otherwise was to embrace the horror of nuclear war, to admit that modern science had produced the most deadly and destructive weapon which had ever been known by humanity, one which threatened to destroy human civilization - and to admit this, without giving it a silver lining, without hope in the future, would be to consign oneself to misery and hopelessness. This was particularly true during the initial years of the bomb, when public intellectuals assumed that the effects of the bomb on public consciousness would be dramatically more pronounced than they actually were, writing of the potential of a society numbed by the constant psychosis and fright of the bomb to slip into despotism, paranoia, and ultimate psychological collapse. To save suffering humanity from this fate, the social sciences vigorously put themselves forward as the hope for the human race, which would provide the solutions needed to rebuild society and to protect civilization in the Atomic Age. Is not Condon's book the corollary of this, hypothesizing that just as the evil of the atomic bomb existed alongside the bright utopian future predicted to come from peaceful usage of the atom, that evil in the form of mind control, brainwashing, and social control were the other side of the dreamy promises of social sciences? While American public intellectuals talked about using science to understand human nature and prepare it for the coming trial by atomic fire, was not it entirely possible that on the other side of the Iron Curtain, the dark forces of psychological domination and social control were being marshaled to achieve mastery over the human soul?

In the Cold War, this would have been a terrifying notion, but one fully in line with existing thoughts at the time. 1984 would have been an equivalent work,showing a society where revolt is impossible, where the power of the party over society has been established to such an extent that Oceania can never even dream of freedom - where any dissent is stamped out through re-education, where a boot stamping down on humanity forever, is the only future, the only possibility. What unites the two works is the firm belief in the ability of psychological power, be it in the form of re-education or brainwashing, to change even the most basic aspects of human personality and actions, to condition those having undergone it to be loyal tools of whoever brainwashed them.

This incredible degree of faith in the power of science is a crucial feature of the 1950s and its science, in modernism, in rationality and the boundless ability of psychology to control the individual. Today, this degree of confidence has clearly been diminished, albeit not destroyed, and we have come to embrace the mysteries of the brain and consciousness, realizing just how difficult it is to control the individual to such an extent. Certainly, control and influence is a major theme today, but the belief of it as all-powerful and of psychological control as achievable on the extent that is prophesied in The Manchurian Candidate is lacking. The Manchurian Candidate is a product of its times, of a modernist era with faith in science for both good and for evil.

Stalin and Mao, united in fraternal alliance. What a difference from reality, where the Sino-Soviet alliance was always split by major policy differences and the mutual jealousy of the USSR and PRC, vying for leadership of the Communist world!

Stalin and Mao, united in fraternal alliance. What a difference from reality, where the Sino-Soviet alliance was always split by major policy differences and the mutual jealousy of the USSR and PRC, vying for leadership of the Communist world!

Communist Unity

Although an external factor and not proper to the United States itself, one of the defining features - and an anachronism in hindsight - is its insistence on the unified nature of the Communist world, with perfect and harmonious Sino-Soviet cooperation, as part of a tightly coordinated, internationally organized ploy to undermine the United States.

This is clearly not something which is unique to Condon's time. After all, it saw its reemergence during the War on Terror, with the obsession of the idea of a unified, Muslim world, dedicated to war with the United States. Clearly, there are clear strains and commonalities among the extremist groups who sought to fight against the United States, and civilizational ties which produce a shared set of ideology and leads to civilizational conflict. But to paraphrase it all as all strains of Muslims as being hostile to the United States is an impressive denial of diversity and competing interests, of the rivalries that divide Muslim states, ethnicities, even its internal religious divisions. Americans have a tendency to seek absolutes, black and white, monolithic enemies, where they do not exist.

Where does this stem from? Well of course, there is an inherent psychological element to humanity which can seek to clearly divide into groups of us vs. them. But it is especially pronounced in the United States, and it stems from a Protestant morality and a self-righteous belief in Manifest Destiny, an absolutism which easily categorizes the world into good and evil. It is a dramatic difference from the history of Western Civilization during the past millennia - particularly the past few centuries, up until the 1900s. Then, the enemy of today could well be the friend of tomorrow, and balance of power and a stately quadrille of alliances reigned. It is in the past few centuries that ideological war has gripped Western Civilization, and Americans, in the international dominance and global ambitions of the capitalist system, are only its most fervent practitioners. The Communists are naturally seen through this lens, transforming a disunited and ill-coordinated alliance into a homogenous foe. Condon, despite his own biting critique of McCarthyism, must have found its central premise - the global Communist conspiracy to undermine the United States - a seductive premise.

The Continued Relevance of the Manchurian Candidate

The Manchurian Candidate has something of a feeling of a B-movie about it in retrospect, in popular culture. Its general perception has been watered down, into a book which is just about the fear of communist infiltration of the United States, just the threat from abroad. But in fact, it is far more interesting and relevant to contemporary society, as it shows that the real danger is less foreign agents, and more the internal divisions and unscrupulous people in American society who make the prospect of foreign subversion possible. It is demagogues and greedy, power-hungry people, who can exploit the idea of a foreign threat, who pose the real challenge to the United States. The shadow of McCarthyism is independent of Communism or the Soviet Union - it is a specter which continues to haunt the United States, showing just how fragile democracy, liberty, and justice is. It shows a snapshot of a society deeply beset by the terror of the technological monsters that it had unleashed, by the dark shadows of the future - and many of the questions that it raised are ones which we must today still confront.

[1] Attacking the Washington "Femmocracy": Antifeminism in the Cold War Campaign against "Communists in Government" by Landon R. Y. Storrs, pg. 129

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