ON APRIL 10, 1953, ALLEN DULLES, THE NEWLY APPOINTED DIRECTOR OF THE CIA, delivered a speech to a gathering of Princeton alumni. Though the event was mundane, global tensions were running high. The Korean War was coming to an end, and earlier that week, The New York Times had published a startling story asserting that American POWs returning from the country may have been “converted” by “Communist brain-washers.”
Some GI’s were confessing to war crimes, like carrying out germ warfare against the Communists–a charge the U.S. categorically denied. Others were reportedly so brainwashed that they had refused to return to the United States at all. As if that weren’t enough, the U.S. was weeks away from secretly sponsoring the overthrow of a democratically elected leader in Iran.
Dulles had just become the first civilian director of an agency growing more powerful by the day, and the speech provided an early glimpse into his priorities for the CIA. “In the past few years we have become accustomed to hearing much about the battle for men’s minds–the war of ideologies,” he told the attendees. “I wonder, however, whether we clearly perceive the magnitude of the problem, whether we realize how sinister the battle for men’s minds has become in Soviet hands,” he continued. “We might call it, in its new form, ‘brain warfare.’”
Dulles proceeded to describe the “Soviet brain perversion techniques” as effective, but “abhorrent” and “nefarious.” He gestured to the American POWs returning from Korea, shells of the men they once were, parroting the Communist propaganda they had heard cycled for weeks on end. He expressed fears and uncertainty–were they using chemical agents? Hypnosis? Something else entirely? “We in the West,” the CIA Director conceded, “are somewhat handicapped in brain warfare.” This sort of non-consensual experiment, even on one’s enemies, was antithetical to American values, Dulles insisted, as well as antithetical to what should be human values.