When Richard Condon, a former publicist for Walt Disney, sought a theme to unsettle late 50s America, arguably the calmest period of the Cold War, he didn’t resort to nuclear war. Instead, he backtracked to the early 1950s, when every headline showed the exposure of one more Soviet Spy in the halls of power. This formidable fear competed with brainwashing, a technique pioneered by the Chinese during the Korean War. While the communist-in-government theme disturbed America and led many to support the housecleaning Joseph McCarthy promised, it posed the same terror as brainwashing. The notion of working America that treachery was exclusive to Ivy League elitists like Alger Hiss was dispelled when they saw melting pot American soldier spouting anti-American rhetoric while surrounded by their Chinese guards. No longer could the patriotism of the ordinary joe be considered impervious to the fiendish Yellow Peril that Americans thought had been destroyed in 1945.
Alone, these fears were cringeworthy. But Condon conjoined them, while at the same time making a powerful statement about how destructive McCarthyism was to American security. What probably kick started the book was the oft-quoted observation that “McCarthy may as well have been a KGB Agent for all the damage he did.” Condon didn’t make his McCarthy character, John Iselin, a sinister agent of the Comintern. In a clever move, he made the figure who accused witnesses of being dupes of the International Communist Conspiracy, one himself. Like other dupes of this era, Iselin believes he is serving democracy, when the reality is he is aiding a dictatorship. Like McCarthy, Iselin is a pratfalling, theatrical drunk who has jumped on board the anticommunist gravy train; but he has done so, not on his own initiative (as in the case of the real McCarthy), but at the command of his much more intelligent, but no less cynical wife.
Eleanor Iselin is the kind of political animal conservatives saw Hillary Clinton as; indeed in Iselin’s schizophrenic membership in organizations at odds politically with each other (The Friends of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade along with The Committee to Impeach General George Marshall) does compare with Clinton working for the Nixon campaign by day and at night meeting secretly with the Eugene McCarthy side. Power is what Eleanor Iselin is interested in, and although it shocked readers in 1959 when it was revealed that she had been a Soviet mole since 1936, it really shouldn’t have. As George Orwell once said, intellectuals gravitated to Stalinism because they saw a chance to get their “hands on the whip.” But Iselin is not content with merely getting into the White House and imposing martial law; she also intends to turn on her controllers—to “grind them into the dirt” for “what they did to me.” And what they did to her is standard communist practice. Like Stalin, who held families hostage to ensure his followers carried out his commands, the Peking/Moscow brainwashers use her son as their programmed assassin as a pressure point to ensure she too carries out their plot.
By the time the cameras rolled for the movie adaption, the filmmakers felt they needed to tone down the anticommunist message of the film. Those associated with the film, all friends of then President John F. Kennedy, feared that its anticommunist message, would compromise détente (Kennedy in a typical witty moment, didn’t even express concern and instead asked “who are you going to get to play the mother”). Today they assert that it was not an anti-communist film, but such fashionable statements are incorrect. The film brims with hostile portraits of both Peiking and Moscow. To have toned down the message they would have to had eliminated the brainwashing scene, where Raymond Shaw, the Manchurian Candidate, robotically strangles and shoots two members of his platoon at the command of his controllers. Some allowances are made to show friction between the Chinese and Russians, but it is a given in the film that a communist-controlled assassin is a bad thing.
After the Kennedy assassination, star Frank Sinatra withdrew the film, fearing that Lee Harvey Oswald was a real life Manchurian Candidate. There is a certain parallel with Shaw and Oswald. Oswald’s apparent calmness during his three remaining days on earth baffled the populace and dangled the possibility that he was hypnotized. Both Shaw and Oswald were soldiers who could not help but to come in contact with Oriental communist parties. Indeed, the conclusion of both the Warren Commission and House Committee on the Assasination of JFK was that Oswald had been in contact with Japanese Communists while stationed there; it was not too much of a leap to consider that Oswald then and there might have become a puppet. While in America, Oswald, like Shaw, trafficked with the far right: Shaw with his seemingly right-wing mother; Oswald with the White Russian community in Dallas. Both had their controllers: again, Shaw’s mother; and Oswald’s best friend, George De Morenschet, who orbited between the far right and far left, (expressing pro-Castro sentiments while debriefing Oswald at the behest of the CIA).
But Oswald openly expressed communist sympathies, something Shaw, with his upper class haughtiness did not (indeed, when is under a spell, the perception is he doesn’t know who he is working for). Like Oswald, who may have shot Kennedy over the President’s anti-Castro policies, Shaw’s targets are not leftists, but liberal Republicans, one of whom is a card-carrying member of the ACLU. The message might be that liberal anti-communists are more of a threat to Peiking/Moscow than clumsy right wingers like Senator Iselin.
Watching the Manchurian Candidate today is sad, for it shows that once upon a time, Hollywood was not the Left Coast, but sturdily anti-communist. The ideological shift since 1962 is nowhere more apparent than in the 21st century remake of the film. In a world where North Korea rattles sabers, and Russians celebrate Stalin’s birthday, the filmmakers opted to have as the string-pulling villain, that liberal bête noir, big business. But like many political films today, the plot is not worked out: a corporation powerful enough to program a Presidential candidate, would hardly need the commander in chief in their control. But alas, such plot holes are not even addressed. Like much else that comes out of studios today, the remake is more interested in bursts of lefty passions.