My job this evening is to provide some historical context for understanding the film we are about to see. The Manchurian Candidate takes place during 1952 and this fact is considered important. It is virtually the first thing we learn: “Korea 1952” we are told in the film’s initial scenes, a pseudo-documentary of a grotesque brainwashing experiment perpetrated upon GI prisoners by an evil fusion of the venerable Fu Manchu and the not-yet-in- existence Dr. Strangelove (1964). The movie then switches Stateside and follows the surviving GIs, (Captain, then Major, Marco, played by Frank Sinatra, and Sergeant Raymond Shaw, played by Laurence Harvey,) as they struggle to distinguish truth from fiction, to regain control of their own minds, and to reconcile themselves to the things they did while under the influence.
This personal struggle is set against 1952’s principle event: the Republican presidential campaign. Strange as it may seem today, it had been 20 years since the country had experienced Republican administration. In 1932 Franklin Roosevelt had been elected, and since that time the country had been under Democratic leadership. Twenty years in which a lot happened. The country had recovered from a crippling economic depression. A vast program of domestic legislation had successfully been passed establishing The New Deal. The United States had been compelled to join and then play the pivotal role in a devastating world war. Afterwards, when America emerged as a major world power, Truman’s administration laid the cornerstones of the New World order in the form of the United Nations, the Marshall Plan, and NATO. It had been a terrible time to be in the political wilderness.
Since 1948 when Truman had won re-election by the slimmest of margins, the Republican wolves had been circling the Capitol, lean and hungry, ready to pick off any innocent who strayed too far from the herd, and waiting for their chance to strike. You can imagine their delight, the excitement of the salivary glands, when they succeeded in drafting Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of the D-Day forces, as the 1952 Republican presidential candidate. The man who had liberated Europe would now return the Republicans to power.
In The Manchurian Candidate it is the vice-presidential slot that is in question. Whether it will go to the moderate humane wing of the Republican Party personified by Senator Thomas Jordan or to the dreadful Senator Johnny Iselin, a version of the Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy. We are treated to a number of McCarthyesque moments in which the American media and public are harangued and manipulated by Senator Iselin who is himself the puppet of his hateful wife played by Angela Lansbury. Mrs. Iselin is also the mother of the brainwashed Raymond Shaw and a more toxic mom would be hard to find. This elitist manipulative she-devil is an entirely fictional character. And it is worth asking why invent such a creature? A woman who manipulates, torments, betrays, and ultimately sends to his spiritual death her natural born son, while she also manipulates, berates, and generally manhandles her husband, Raymond’s step-father (and a much rejected one). Both men, to whom she refers as “my boys, my two little boys,” are puppets for Mrs. Iselin’s pursuit of power masked as the national good.
Between 1950 and 1953 America was confounded by McCarthyism, the anti-communist crusade that reached into actors’ studios, campus buildings, and the halls of government. Spear-heading the movement was a troika plus one: Senator Joseph McCarthy, his assistant Roy Cohn, a New York lawyer, and Cohn’s friend David Schine. That’s the troika. These men were supplied with information by J. Edgar Hoover who was building the reputation of the FBI. All four men were closet homosexuals. Only Cohn lived long enough to be outted and to die of AIDS. And it is Cohn whom Condon, the author, said he used as the model for Mrs. Iselin. (Any of you who recall Tony Kushner’s Angels in America will no doubt notice the similarity.) An atmosphere of paranoia, hate and fear characterized the McCarthy period. Moral cowardice in all its many forms was much in evidence. And it is this atmosphere that pervades the Manchurian Candidate.
Arthur Miller’s The Crucible appeared in (1952) and it used the Salem witch trials to describe the mass fear and hysteria of McCarthyism. The Manchurian Candidate goes deeper into the experience. Finding a parallel with brainwashing, this film explores not only the way in which group dynamics overwhelms the individual but, through the character of Raymond Shaw, examines the pre-existing emotional conditions that create ripe opportunity. It also examines the crisis for Shaw who experiences the divided self and fails to reassert his autonomy.
But The Manchurian Candidate also recognizes that McCarthyism was not just about mass hysteria and a widespread witch hunt. A more targeted strategy was at work. Indeed the mass event may have masked the more sinister plot. To make this point the film borrows and modifies real incidents (telescoping the actions of several years into a number of months) as it portrays McCarthy’s assault on the highest echelons of governmental power: the State Department, the Defense Department, and the Army. Shortly after Alger Hiss was found guilty of perjury in January 1950 and Klaus Fuchs admitted passing atomic intelligence to the Soviets in February 1950, Senator McCarthy gave a Lincoln Day speech in Wheeling, West Virginia. He claimed to have the names of 205 Communists working in the State Department. Later speeches repeated these charges changing the number frequently and finally settling on 57.
In the film Iselin does the same thing, but the accusation was applied to the Department of Defense. Additionally the film has the Secretary of Defense lose his cool with Iselin’s accusations. He becomes aggressive and insulting and Major Marco, now working as his aide, has to intervene. In real life, the man who lost his temper was the Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, and he lost it, not with Senator Joseph McCarthy, and not over the question of communists in the State Department, but with Senator Kenneth Wherry the Nebraska Republican minority whip of the Senate. Wherry too was a rabid anti-communist who referred to “Indigo China” when speaking of southeast Asia and to British troops in India as “gherkins.” He blamed Acheson for the problems in Korea and had recently begun to demand his dismissal. Wherry particularly liked to harangue Acheson whenever he was testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which, since the war in Korea was problematical, was often. In August of 1950 Acheson, finally lost patience with Wherry’s ignorant sanctimoniousness and exploded, “Don’t you dare shake your dirty little finger in my face!” Wherry, delighted, decided to ratchet things up another notch. Shaking his finger at Acheson he explained that not only COULD he do so, but he WOULD. Acheson lost his cool entirely and started out of his seat, fist clenched and swinging with fury if not expert aim. His legal assistant and a former member of the Princeton football team, Adrian Fisher, managed to get Acheson in a bear hug and soothingly murmured, “Take it easy, Boss, take it easy,” until the Secretary of State regained his composure.
These details are all recognizable in The Manchurian Candidate. But why get details, down to the multiple numbers exactly right but alter the target? Why shift the action from State to Defense? Surely not to spare Acheson embarrassment. And no one familiar with Bob Lovett, the Secretary of Defense in 1952, and even General George C. Marshall, the Secretary of Defense in 1951, could possibly believe that this was a life-like portrait of either of them. But perhaps Condon wished to gather together all the separate incidents—all the attacks on both State and Defense—and to fuse the characters of Acheson, Lovett and Marshall into one. Condon may have felt that behind these actions was one purpose, and that was the destruction of General Marshall.
And here we get to the crux of the matter. The war in Korea was going badly. So badly that in 1951 President Truman recalled the venerable General George C. Marshall to government. Marshall, it will be remembered, had been the Chief of Staff throughout the war period, 1939-45, rectifying the unprepared condition of the American Army and masterminding American warmaking on three continents. He had earned a position of trust with Roosevelt that brought him power far exceeding the permit of a Chief of Staff. His reputation for even handedness and non-partisan fairness was such that his testimony in Congress could win bi-partisan support for almost whatever he asked. This integrity was hard won. A man of impeccable character, Marshall was to America’s emergence as a world power what George Washington was to the emergent nation in 1789: a warrior statesmen, trusted by all, beyond self-interest, incorruptible. Appointed Secretary of State after the war, he responded to the devastation of postwar Europe with the Marshall Plan – a revolutionary act in its generosity and wisdom, which made possible not only European economic recovery but pointed the direction toward European Union. Of Marshall, Churchill remarked, quoting Marc Anthony on Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “here was the noblest Roman of them all.”
Now in his early seventies Marshall was reinstated as Secretary of Defense because Truman needed one final act. General Douglas MacArthur commanded the American and United Nations troops in Korea (his portrait hangs over Raymond Shaw as, in the film’s early scene, he collects his men from the GI party hall). He too was a venerable general, a great fighting general from both world wars. He had overseen the War in the Pacific, and the reconstruction of post-war Japan. But MacArthur was the supreme egotist, and his sense of invulnerability got the better of him. For some time he had been guilty of insubordination. Then, as the Administration was negotiating a cease-fire, MacArthur, pretending to speak for the United States and the United Nations when he had no authority to do so, issued an ultimatum and taunted the Chinese. Attempting to understand what had led to such folly, Acheson recalled Euripedes, “Whom the Gods destroy they first make mad.” MacArthur had gone too far. He would have to be removed. But this was extremely tricky, politically, particularly in the heated atmosphere of McCarthyism.
General MacArthur was beloved by the China Lobby, the anti-communists, and many on the Republican right who had hoped that he would head the Republican ticket and only Marshall could make his removal appear a non-partisan act. Even so the firing of Douglas MacArthur set the rabid Republicans howling for blood. His defenders were out to destroy. Chief among them was Senator Joe McCarthy who, at least verbally murdered General Marshall in June 1951 by reading into the Congressional Record a document of several hundred pages which was then published as American Retreat from Victory: the Story of George C. Marshall. In this ghostwritten diatribe McCarthy asserts that “Marshall was a Communist dupe and thus to blame for much of what was wrong in the world.” He insisted that Marshall had made decisions that “aided the Communist drive for world domination” and implied that he was a traitor to his country. This attack was taken up by another rabid anti-communist, Senator Jenner of Indiana, who claimed that “George C. Marshall is not only willing, he is eager to play the role of a front man, for traitors. [meaning Truman and Acheson] The truth is this is no new role for him, for General George C. Marshall is a living lie…”
Marshall refused to answer the accusations. “If I have to explain at this point that I am not a traitor to the United States, I hardly think it’s worth it.” But there were many who came to his defense. Men like Senator Leverett Saltonstall of Massachusetts who was in the mold of the film’s Senator Thomas Jordan embodied the virtues of decency, humanity, integrity and consideration—all Marshallian virtues, if you will accept the term. Jordan’s moral courage does not flinch in the face of Mrs. Iselin dressed as Little-Bo-Peep, and he calls her tune declaring that her husband cannot be dismissed as the idiot he is. He is doing more evil to the country than any soviet agent could manage. Unwittingly having “outted” Mrs. Iselin, Jordan vows to prevent Senator Iselin wining the vice-presidential spot on the Republican ticket.
When Raymond, under the spell of his mother’s brainwashing, murders Senator Jordan, his father-in-law, and then murders Jordan’s daughter, the girl he loves and has just married, we understand that something in Raymond is irretrievably broken. Raymond has killed the good father who has nurtured the only truly loving relationship Raymond has known. The crime in all its vicious brutality both in the murders and in Shaw’s total lack of conscience bespeaks the sense of violation and self-destruction at work in McCarthy’s demolition of Marshall, the man and his achievements.
One man who did not defend Marshall was his former protégé, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Touring the country giving political speeches, with his eye on the White House, Eisenhower did not defend the man to whom he owed his career. Even though his speech writer had prepared a stirring defense of Marshall, Eisenhower skipped over it.
This of course brings us to the film’s climax, an act of redemptive self-destruction at the Republican National Convention in Chicago in July of 1952. Once again, Mrs. Iselin makes a murderous request. This time Raymond is asked to murder the presidential candidate, thereby clearing the way for Johnny Iselin to become President. (Mrs. Iselin has by now gone a bit mad herself. This is her moment of hubris.) Tension mounts as Shaw remains emotionally impenetrable preparing himself, loading his weapon, etc. Not until we as the viewers have had the ghastly opportunity to believe that Mrs. Iselin might really win, gain power and control everything are we relieved of our anxiety. The moment the presidential candidate speaks the word “liberty,” poor Raymond finds the courage within himself to commit his one free act.
Liberty, symbolized in the film by the bust of Abraham Lincoln, is the word that in America is most degraded by sophistry and demagoguery. But in its purest form, it is the American value paying the highest premium. In 1775 Patrick Henry said, “Give me liberty or give me death.” And ever since that day Americans have been dying for liberty in all its forms. In Raymond’s case, liberty and death went hand in hand. As Raymond threw off the shackles of his brainwashing, and liberated himself from the influence of his mother, his conscience awoke with excruciating horror to the acts he had committed while a slave to his handlers, Fun Manchu, Strangelove, Mom. A tortured soul his final act was to kill the enemy—his own and America’s. Personal revenge aligned perfectly with patriotic duty.
In real life it didn’t work out that well. On that July 1952 platform no assassinations took place. Dwight Eisenhower accepted the presidential nomination. And the man who became his vice-president was the man I forgot to mention earlier. Elected to the House of Representatives in 1946 by campaigning on an anti-communist platform, he became Chairman of the House Un-American Activities Special Subcommittee, an ally of Senator Joe McCarthy, and a principal in driving forward the trial of Alger Hiss. In 1950 he was elected Senator from California by accusing his opponent of being a communist sympathizer and earned the sobriquet he never shook, “Tricky Dick.” In the Senate, he joined McCarthy in Red-baiting, and other pursuits. Chosen as the vice-presidential candidate he almost lost the chance when accused of having a slush fund. Richard Millhouse Nixon saved his political life by going on television in 1952 and claiming that he wanted nothing for himself, his wife did not wear mink and the only personal gift he’d received was a cocker spaniel that he couldn’t give back because his daughters loved the dog. He also admitted that he did have a slush fund but it was only for political use. The implication of this admission was lost in all the sentimentality over the dog and the coat. Only after the election, when safely ensconced in the White House, and after McCarthy, in his moment of hubris, attacked Eisenhower’s beloved army, did the new President decide that McCarthy had gone too far and needed to be brought to heel. He ordered Nixon to disassociate himself from his former ally which Nixon did in his inimitable grudging fashion, refusing to name names. “Men who have in the past done effective work exposing Communists in this country have, by reckless talk and questionable methods, made themselves the issue rather than the cause they believe in so deeply.”