Edward Hunter and the origins of ‘brainwashing’

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The Hidden Persuaders Project’s Marcia Holmes considers the oft-told story of how Edward Hunter, an American journalist, introduced the term ‘brainwashing’ into English. Why is Hunter considered the first to use the term when he himself argued that it was a mere translation of a Chinese phrase? Was Hunter working for the CIA when he doggedly promoted the threat of ‘brainwashing’ to his Western readers?


Edward Hunter: CIA operative?

Historians generally agree that the coining of ‘brainwash’, in English, can be credited to Edward Hunter (1902-1978), an American journalist and propaganda expert. While working as a foreign correspondent in Asia during the 1950s, Hunter wrote news articles and books about the People’s Republic of China’s programme to re-educate the masses in communist ideology. His earliest reports on brainwashing (1950a, 1950b) were teasers for Hunter’s book, Brain-Washing in Red China: The Calculated Destruction of Men’s Minds (1951), which is considered the first full monograph to describe the Chinese process of ‘brainwashing’. In this early account, ‘brainwashing’ meant intensive indoctrination in Maoism and the harsh repression of alternative political ideologies.

Yet this history of how ‘brainwashing’ entered the English language is not as straightforward as it may seem, because Hunter was no ordinary journalist. He was a keen student of propaganda who, in addition to reporting from the Far East for various news services, amassed a large collection of Chinese political pamphlets and ephemera (now available online). For two years during World War II he worked for the Morale Operations Section of the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). After the war, he not only wrote popular texts about communist brainwashing in China, Korea and the Soviet Union but also gave lectures on propaganda and psychological warfare. He served as a witness on communist brainwashing for the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee and the House Committee on Un-American Activities. In the 1960s, he edited and published a newsletter, TACTICS, which focused on psychological warfare and propaganda as it related to American national security.

One of the enduring mysteries surrounding Hunter is whether his contribution of ‘brainwashing’ to the English language was mere reportage, or was orchestrated by the CIA. Some scholars have considered Hunter’s employment in the OSS in the 1940s as indication that he had links to the CIA in the 1950s, and thus may have been helped by the CIA in his efforts to promote ‘brainwashing’ as an eminent threat (Marks 1979, Melley 2011, Young 2014; cf. Dunne 2013, pp. 23-24). This hypothesis seems supported by the fact that the word ‘brainwashing’ has been found in government documents that may have been written prior to Hunter’s first publications on the subject (Melley 2011, p. 28).

Indeed, Timothy Melley notes that a document found in the CIA’s MKUltra papers, ‘Narrative Description of the Overt and Covert Activities of [Redacted]’, references the term ‘brainwashing’.[1] Melley gives the date of this document as 1 January 1950, several months ahead of Hunter’s first publication to use the phrase. However, the actual date of this document is unknown–the index to the MKUltra papers assigns 01/01/1950 merely as a placeholder. Though it is likely that the document was created sometime in 1950, and could certainly pre-date Hunter’s writings on the subject, it seems implausible to therefore conclude that this documents proves a connection between the CIA and Hunter, or that the CIA invented the term ‘brainwashing’.

Meanwhile, our project’s PhD candidate Charlie Williams has come across another relevant document, one that uses the term ‘brainwashing’ and is dated 14 September 1950 (ten days ahead of Hunter’s article in the Miami News). The document is a report by the propaganda scholar-cum-novelist Paul Linebarger (aka Cordwainer Smith) on his observations on the Korean peninsula in the early stages of the Korean War. Linebarger describes seeing ‘an endless process which is called by the nick-name of “brain washing”’ in which teams of communist interrogators attempted to convert Chinese and Koreans to submit to communist authority.[2]

Potentially, both the CIA and Hunter learned the term ‘brainwashing’ from Chinese sources, and these sources used it to describe actual communist activities in China and Korea. Before I discuss this possibility, I’d like to offer an alternative explanation for Hunter’s near relentless promotion of ‘brainwashing’– the term and the communist threat–to Anglophone readers.


Edward Hunter: Audacious self-promoter?

Rather than viewing Hunter as a suspicious figure doing the CIA’s bidding, I have come to see Hunter as, foremost, a journalist and showman trying to make a name for himself in the uneasy but profitable world of Cold War journalism. That we now attribute the coining of ‘brainwashing’ to Hunter is, arguably, due to his persistent and public efforts to take personal credit for introducing the word into English. Though it is impossible to rule out whether Hunter had contact with the CIA, I believe examining his efforts further will tell us more about Hunter’s professional aspirations than his participation in an orchestrated, clandestine campaign to scare Americans.

I was first struck by this alternative interpretation when I read Edward Hunter’s papers, which are available to the public at the Wisconsin Historical Society Archives in Madison, Wisconsin. Hunter’s desire to set the record in his favour (if not set it straight) is clear from the fact that his papers exist to be studied at all – they were deposited by Hunter himself in 1961-1962, according to the Wisconsin Historical Society’s finding aid. Hunter’s papers are a carefully curated collection of personal memorabilia, manuscripts and correspondence. Taken together, they present a self-styled portrait of a man who fought for recognition of his work, often in a manner that conflated his personal reputation as a newsman with a broader, nobler fight against communism.

I have come to see Hunter as, foremost, a journalist and showman trying to make a name for himself in the uneasy but profitable world of Cold War journalism.

What is perhaps most surprising about Hunter’s collection is how it illustrates the sheer tenacity of his early efforts to fashion himself as the USA’s pioneering expert on ‘brainwashing’. Hunter’s self-promotion is especially apparent in his correspondence with the editors of TIME Magazine, beginning in the autumn of 1951, in which he complains that his book Brain-Washing in Red China has not been reviewed in their pages. Hunter becomes caught up in a testy exchange with TIME’s editors about whether the magazine breached journalistic ethics by using the term ‘brainwashing’ in their articles without acknowledging Hunter’s seminal book on the subject. Though the editors eventually concede that they had made an honest mistake in not crediting Hunter with the first usage of ‘brainwashing’ in English, they question whether it was truly a journalistic achievement to translate a phrase that, as Hunter himself attests, was invented by the Chinese.

Hunter’s ire at TIME’s position is palpable in his letters, and it is significant for at least two reasons. First, Hunter interprets TIME’s offhanded treatment of the ‘brainwashing’ term as a conniving attempt to deny his contribution and suppress his book. Hunter writes to TIME on October 27, 1951:

If Time has any sincerity at all in its editorial policy on the communist issue, it would make every effort, I am sure, NOT to injure the first book to reveal this ‘brain-washing’ situation in a fully documented form. I still trust that Time will recognize this, and give the book the attention it deserves – not harm it. If it did sink to such depths, the Communists would be right in their contempt – deep contempt – for those people among us who are so beset by their petty competitions with their neighbors that they would cut their own throat, and that of their country’s, to get some slight, momentary advantage.

Hunter’s anger perhaps seems misplaced or exaggerated given that, in the midst of his tussle with TIME, Brain-washing in Red China was receiving positive reviews from a number of American periodicals. The book was selling so well that it was already into its second printing. Yet Hunter’s barbed response suggests that he viewed his account of ‘brainwashing’ as a journalistic scoop, one that deserved to be acknowledged not only for its timeliness but also for its significance in the crusade against communism. Hunter may have felt slighted because TIME failed to connect his name and reputation to this greater cause.

Second, Hunter’s bitterness leads him to write to several journalist colleagues at a variety of news outlets, and to his publisher at Vanguard Press, to alert them to the TIME editors’ underhanded treatment of his book. The Hunter Papers include not only Hunter’s letters to friends, but their sympathetic responses. If Hunter had not already considered himself as the first, best source of information about ‘brainwashing’ for American readers, it appears that this now becomes essential to how he views himself and his work. Though his earliest reports on brainwashing had not been precise about how he had learned the phrase, his later writings would clarify that the term was based on the Chinese phrase ‘hsi nao’, meaning ‘to cleanse the mind’, and that this was not an official Communist phrase (it does not appear in Chinese dictionaries or newspapers) but was nevertheless said, on record, by Hunter’s Chinese informants. As Hunter would explain, ‘hsi nao’ was a clever pun on a longstanding Confucian principle, ‘hsi hsin’, to wash the heart, a metaphor that meant to prepare oneself for a quiet retirement from world affairs.[3]

Whether Hunter learned the phrase ‘brain washing’ from CIA operatives or from actual Chinese usage will remain unclear until new archival sources are discovered; the Hunter papers do not provide hard evidence for either explanation. A related question persists as well: whether many Chinese ever used the term to describe Maoist reeducation, like Hunter maintained in his publications and private writings. As the historian of modern China, Aminda Smith, noted at our Hidden Persuaders workshop last summer, the existence of ‘hsi nao’ in Chinese 1950s slang is eminently credible, but more research is needed to establish who used the term and how.


Hunter’s TACTICS

Admittedly, Hunter’s professional posturing as a journalist cannot disprove the hypothesis that he first heard about ‘brainwashing’ through CIA sources. In fact, his efforts at image-making seem to invite speculation. While there is no direct confirmation in Hunter’s files for his association with the CIA, later in life Hunter did claim to have been an erstwhile consultant for the agency. But Hunter may have said this primarily to burnish his credentials as a commentator, because he made these assertions in advertisements for his new professional venture, the TACTICS newsletter. These advertisements, found in the Hunter Papers in Wisconsin, also include a quotation from TIME Magazine that I imagine Hunter took some delight in reprinting after his battle with the magazine’s editors:

As an author, lecturer and China specialist since the 1920s, New York’s Edward Hunter is fascinated by words and their meanings, especially as they apply to the conflicts between Communism and the free world. Around 1950, Hunter heard a Chinese friend, talking about the methods of the Red Chinese government, use the phrase hsi nao. Translating it, Hunter introduced a grim word to the cold war vocabulary: ‘brainwashing.’ Last week, appearing as a witness before the U.S. Senate’s Internal Security Subcommittee, Author (Brain-Washing in Red China) Hunter again showed his preoccupation with words, made a sharp point: ‘We are going to be taken for a ride at the summit if we do not realize that the Communists have a special code language which we must deal with.’ (‘Insectivization’ 1959, p. 23)

All told, Hunter’s professional self-promotion implies his strong belief in his own knowledge and expertise of Chinese propaganda, rather than a desire to serve the needs and strategies of the CIA.


Hunter’s legacy

Interestingly, Hunter may not have been the first to employ the term in an Anglophone periodical, his traditional claim to fame. Ian Magor, a PhD student on our project, has alerted us to an instance of the term in the 3 January 1950 issue of The Guardian. In an article written by Robert Guillain, the Chinese programme of political re-education is described: ‘…all converts undergo public examinations of conscience in which they seek to unearth all their personal faults or collective mistakes, with the aid of a party instructor. This is what Chinese papers graphically term “washing one’s brains,” or “laying one’s heart on the table” (Guillain 1950, p. 6).’ This reference to ‘brainwashing’ in a well-known British periodical seems to have slipped past historians unnoticed. Our project group is discussing what to make of this. Who was Guillain? The Guardian notes that he was a correspondent for Le Monde – did he compose his report in French?

Even if we do not credit Hunter as the first to introduce ‘brainwashing’, we might still acknowledge the role that he played in recognizing the term’s significance and disseminating it in America’s fight against Communist influence. As Andreas Killen notes, we should recognize Hunter for his prescient awareness of how the term ‘brainwashing’ could evoke an ‘eerie sensation’ for his readers, one that ‘tapped into deep undercurrents of anxiety in the contemporary public.’ (Killen 2011, p. 43). Whether he was following CIA instruction, or merely pursuing the journalistic scoop that would define his career, Hunter’s name will always be linked to the peculiar history of Cold War ‘brainwashing’.



Matthew Dunne, A Cold War State of Mind: Brainwashing and Postwar American Society (Amherst: University of Manchester Press 2013)

Robert Guillain, ‘China Under the Red Flag, III: The “New Democracy”’ The Guardian (3 January 1950): 6, 8

Edward Hunter, ‘Brain Washing Tactics Force Chinese into Ranks of the Communist Party’ Miami News (24 September 1950)

Edward Hunter, ‘Brain-Washing in ‘New’ China’ New Leader (7 October 1950): 6-7

Edward Hunter, Brain-Washing in Red China: The Calculated Destruction of Men’s Minds (New York: Vanguard Press 1951)

‘Insectivization’ TIME Vol 73, Issue 14 (6 April 1959): 23

Andreas Killen, ‘Homo Pavlovius: Conditioning, Cinema, and the Cold War Subject’ Grey Room 45 (2011): 42-59.

Timothy Melley, ‘Brain Warfare: The Covert Sphere, Terrorism, and the Legacy of the Cold War’ Grey Room 45 (2011): 19-41

Timothy Melley, The Covert Sphere: Secrecy, Fiction and the National Security State (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 2012)

Charles S. Young, Name, Rank, and Serial Number: Exploiting Korean War POWs at Home and Abroad (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2012)


[1] ‘Narrative Description of the Overt and Covert Activities of [Redacted]’, MKUltra Papers, disk 2, Mori ID #190882, The National Security Archive.

[2] Paul Linebarger, ‘Possible Operations Research in FEC Psychological Warfare’ ORO Technical Memorandum, ORO-T-2(FEC), 14 September 1950, excerpted in Appendix 20, Appendices to the Opinion of George Cooper, Q.C., regarding Canadian government funding of the Allan Memorial Institute in the 1950’s and 1960’s [Annexes Opinion de M. George Cooper, c.r. au sujet du financement par le gouvernement canadien de l’institut Allan Memorial au cours des années 1950 et 1960].

[3] See Hunter’s letter to the editors of Webster’s New International Dictionary, 21 January 1953, Box 1, folder: Correspondence, 1933-1953; Edward Hunter Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society. The interpretation of ‘hsi nao’ as a pun on ‘hsi hsin’ is explained in a letter written to Hunter by the sinologist Max Perelberg, 30 May 1953, Box 1, folder: Correspondence, 1933-1953.