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By Albert D. Biderman, Intelligence Methods Branch, Air Force Personnel and

Training Research Center, Air Research and Development Command, Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., April 1955


Terror is a paramount Communist weapon of conquest and control. A major objective of the Communists is to create the fear in the minds of their opponents that they possess mysterious, irresistible techniques for bending individuals to their will. Speculations about the extortion of false “bacteriological warfare confessions" from American airmen in Korea and about similar events have helped foster this fear. Labels such as "brain washing” and “menticide" reinforce the impressions of mystery and awe relating to Communist techniques of coercion.

In actuality, the means by which Communists extort false confessions or other compliance from persons under their power are neither new, mysterious, nor always irresistible. The various devices of coercive interrogation employed by the Communists have been known and used for centuries. They are based primarily on simple, easily understandable ideas of how an individual's physical and moral strength can be undermined, rather than upon subtle or startling psychological theories, Pavlovian or otherwise. Without ever capitulating, numerous individuals have withstood for months and even years the most determined Communist efforts to wring false statements from them and have survived to tell of their experiences.

This does not mean that men who have capitulated to such coercion, even after very short periods of time and seemingly slight duress, are weaklings, cowards, or fools. Cases of completely successful resistance to the most skilled and determined coercive interrogation represent spectacular feats of courage, endurance, and resolution. Not infrequently, extraordinary intelligence and insight have contributed as well. Sometimes, however, successful resistance is attributable as much to blunders of the inquisitors as to the singular strengths of the victim. For despite the fact that the Communists apply measures for inducing compliance in a more artfully calculated manner than has been encountered before, they are neither all-knowing nor all-powerful even when dealing with a seemingly powerless victim.

The impression that the Communist coercive methods create a zombie-like creature is a false one. Victims are not stripped of all independent will, of consciousness of what they are being forced to do, or of all ability to continue attempts at resisting and evading the demands of their captors. Men are seldom "broken," is in theory a horse can be, so that they cease all attempts at resisting the demands of their masters. Their physical and moral strength may be so enfeebled that the amount of resistance and evasion to successive demands may appear insignificant in relation to the enormity of the acts they are compelled to commit. But however feeble the ability, the will to resist remains and reasserts itself as strength and means are found. Thus, one of the Air Force officers whom the Chinese Communists exploited most extensively for bacteriological warfare propaganda can be seen in the Communist film of his "confession" indicating to the world, by gesture, that he has his “tongue in his cheek.” A recent analysis of the notorious Soviet purge trials of the late 1930's provides an extensive analysis of the veiled language the victims used in their “confessions” and in cross-examination to communicate what their real thoughts and feelings were.

There are several reasons for stating the above considerations, and for giving the description of Communist coercive methods which follows.

First of all, false notions should be combated which exaggerate the power of Communists over men and which contribute to the terror on which the Communists rely.

Secondly, the aura of mystery and dread which has long been associated with these methods is in itself a major factor in their effectiveness. The anxieties the victim may already have at the moment of his capture, from what he has heard about "brain washing” and the like, may be sufficient in themselves to weaken his ability to resist, with no particular effort from his captor needed. Disseminating

2 Nathan Leites and Elsa Bernaut, Ritual of Liquidation (Glencoe, III., The Free Press, 1954).

realistic information may thus aid any who may fall into Communist hands in the future.

Thirdly, this is indeed a matter in which "to be forewarned is to be forearmed.” The Communists place great reliance on the poor understanding of the victim of what is happening to him. Deceiving, tricking, and confusing the victim are important. It is also significant that certain individuals have maintained their moral strength under Communist interrogation and in similar stress situations by virtue of their ability to understand their experiences in a detached manner.2

The description of Communist coercive methods, below, attempts to contribute to an understanding of the measures used by Communists to induce compliance from an individual prisoner. It is possible to do this since Communists, the world over, utilize a mode of pressuring the individual which is identical in its essentials and even in many of its details wherever and whenever used. Its application varies only slightly from place to place, from time to time, and from objective to objective. Soviet Russian secret police, Chinese Communist interrogators in Korea, and satellite purge trial "investigators” have all employed essentially similar methods. Slight variations make the techniques adaptable to such objectives as: extracting information from reluctant OW, extorting “confessions of guilt,” making forced laborers more tractable, converting honest men into spies and false informers, or keeping domestic populations in line.

The dispassionate, generalized kind of description attempted here cannot substitute for the appreciation of the feelings experienced by a victim which only the personal accounts of the most insightful, honest, and eloquent victims provide. For anyone whose life involves the potential hazard of falling into Communist captivity, as is true of all Air Force combat personnel, the reading of such an account is recommended. Not recommended are accounts motivated by desires for self-justifiication and self-glorification, or laden with bitterness, vengeance, and propaganda, as many unfortunately but understandably are.

For the present purposes, different emphasis are required than in treatments of the same subject which aim primarily at informing the world of the monstrous barbarity of the Communist system. Probably no other aspect of communism reveals more thoroughly its disrespect for truth and the individual than its resort to these techniques. This, at the same time, is a demonstration of the fundamental weakness and insecurity of the Communist enemy-his unprecedented need to coerce the individual will, to falsify truth, and to attempt to reshape it and the individual man into that mythical world in which communism alone could thrive. No more important purpose could be served than to bring these facts home to the peoples of the world. To do this, the most brutal, ugly, and insane examples ought to be portrayed vividly.

This study, however, seeks to show that Communist attempts at individual coercion can be and ought to be resisted, and it is hoped that this paper will provide information which may help future victims resist. One important principle that requires emphasis here is that Communist purposefulness frequently limits Communist brutality. Although the Communists will attempt to utilize the anxiety which their notorious brutality has almost universally instilled, many interrogation victims will never be physically exposed to violence, even though they refuse to capitulate. The reasons for this vary, but an important one is that the Communists have learned that physical violence more frequently than not stiffens the resistance of the American prisoner, rather than the reverse.

Another significant principle which should be emphasized here is that communism assumes many disguises. At various times and places, it may seek to achieve its purposes by representing itself as a kindly, solicitous, smiling creature-at others, it may wantonly display its brutality in all its nakedness. Some prisoners have encountered communism in both guises ; others in only one or the other. Many have been impressed by its abilities as a quick-change artist. Anyone falling into its hands should be well prepared to encounter communism in

2 Good examples are: Alexander Weissberg, The Accused (New York, Simon & Schuster, 1951); Anton Ciliga, The Russian Enigma (London, Labour Book Service, 1940); Elie A. Cohen, Human Behavior in the Concentration Camp (New York, W. W. Norton & Co., 1953) ; Bruno Bettelheim, Individual and Mass Behavior in Extreme Situations, Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, XXXVIII (1943), 417-452. A view contrary to that expressed here is held by some former victims. See, for example, Gustav Herling, A World Apart (New York, Roy Publishers, 1951), p. 91.

3 See works cited above, as well as the following: Maj. Gen. William F. Dean, General Dean's Story (New York, Viking Press, 1954); F. Beck and W. Godin, Russian Purge and the Extraction of Confession (New York, Viking Press, 1951); Z. Stypulkowiki, Invitation to Moscow (London, Thames and Hudson, 1951).

any of the forms it assumes—not even excluding indignant denials that it is communism at all.

The outline below is restricted to those measures which are used to undermine the resistance of the victim. This omits the positive, primarily verbal, measures which are used to fashion the victim's compliance in the manner desired for particular objectives ; i. e., the verbal content of the interrogations themselves. A more extensive treatment than is possible here would be required to depict the plays on meanings, the verbal tricks and traps, the endless repetition of questions, the special language of Communist interrogation.

The material presented here is an outgrowth of a larger classified study of Communist exploitation of USAF prisoners of war being conducted jointly by the Officer Education Research Laboratory of the Air Force Personnel and Training Research Center and by the Evaluation Staff of the Air War College. While considerable reliance in preparing this outline has been placed upon the reports by USAF personnel who were POW of the Communists in Korea and Manchuria, a rather extensive review has also been made of the experiences of others who have been subjected to Communist coercive interrogations. Included were accounts by World War II POW of the Soviets, Soviet and satellite purge trial victims, and slave laborers. While this review indicated that the full repertoire of exploitative techniques was used against Americans during the Korean war, relatively few POW encountered them in their most skilled, intensive, and refined form. The North Koreans had comparatively few trained personnel for the effort. The Chinese Communists during the later stages of war were in some respects restrained in their methods by the likelihood of a truce and the necessity for repatriating prisoners.

It is likely that Americans who fall into Communist hands in the future will encounter captors who are better prepared. Perhaps the captives, too will be better prepared to thwart the captor.


The major categories below are each essential elements of the Communist techniques for forcing false confessions, "self-criticisms," information, and other collaboration from reluctant prisoners. The major purposes believed to underlie the use of each element is given. Each general technique may take one or several of the various forms indicated. Almost all victims will encounter every one of the general techniques in some form or other. The success of the entire interrogation, however, frequently depends upon the careful combination of the specific kinds of stress into a pattern adapted to the particular victim and the particular objective. The selection and timing of the specific forms of the techniques are varied-apparently in accordance with estimates of the temperament and weaknesses of the subject, the nature and degree of his resistance, the character of his interrogator, the significance and urgency of the collaboration sought, and variations from time to time and place to place with regard to the overall policies governing the treatment of prisoners. Both the prisoner's compliance and the cessation of the interrogation process without any compliance have occurred after the application of only the mildest of these measures. On the other hand, many prisoners have had “the whole book thrown at them.”

Purposes : To develop an intense concern with self; to make the victim dependent on the interrogator; to eliminate support of the victim's resistance, including mutual encouragement, praise, and blame from his fellows in terms of the moral standards of his own group.

(a) Complete solitary confinement: The prisoner is held for a prolonged period with no social contact whatsoever-not even with enemy personnel.

(6) Complete isolation: The prisoner is held with no contact with his fellows. The prisoner may live alone or together with his interrogator or with a guard.

(c) Semi-isolation: Two prisoners (less frequently, 3 or 4) under similar pressure are isolated from all others for prolonged periods. Frequently, one of the pair is regarded as more disposed to capitulation and hence likely to influence his partner in that direction.

(a) Group isolation : Small groups of prisoners (8 to 30) are held under extremely crowded and difficult conditions, with no communication outside the group. Individual prisoners are periodically pulled out for periods of intensive interrogation in complete isolation. Scarcity of space, food, and clothing are calculated to promote destructive competition and dissension among the group. Frequently, harsh punishments are inflicted for “violations of rules," which not only are expected to condition cooperation but are also calculated to alienate the members of the group from one another and to provoke fear of informers.

2. Monopolization of attention

Purposes : To fix the prisoner's attention upon his immediate predicament and discomforts.

(a) Physical isolation: The prisoner is held in a small, bare, windowless cell-sometimes in complete darkness.

() Other restrictions of sensory stimulation: The captors strive for control over the sights, sounds, and feelings that the prisoner experiences. Potentially gratifying or diverting sensations are reduced by denying the victim materials for reading, writing, or diversion; restricting the pleasure of movement by forbidding exercise or even, in some cases, any deviations from a fixed posture; serving monotonous food; etc. Exceptions are experiences which may orient the thoughts of the victim in accordance with some Communist purpose. Examples are the provision of the prisoner with Communist reading material as the only escape from boredom or worry; the hearing of real or feigned cries of anguish of another victim; a visit from a "friendly" interrogator; etc.

(c) Prolonged interrogation and forced writing: The thought and attention of the prisoner are concentrated in the manner sought by the captor through prolonged interrogation and through forced writing and rewriting of answers to very general questions. (See also 3 (f), below.) 3. Induced debilitation, exhaustion

Purposes : To weaken mental and physical ability to resist.

(a) Semistarvation: Rations restricted to minimum necessary to maintain life.

(0) Exposure: Subjection to intense cold, intense heat, or dampness.

(C) Exploitation of wounds and induced chronic illness : Dysentery, colds, skin disorders, and other chronic illnesses which do not present immediate threats to the life of the prisoner are allowed to progress unchecked to keep the individual in a state of intense discomfort and debilitation. Wounded prisoners may be told they can be treated only after completing the interrogation.

(d) Sleep deprivation: The victim is robbed of sleep when he is forced to attempt to rest in uncomfortable positions, with a minimum of protection from cold, and on a hard, vermin-infested floor or platform. Sleep is frequently interrupted by waking prisoners for interrogation or a "bed-check."

(e) Prolonged constraint: Long periods of forced sitting or standing at attention or in other strained positions ; confinement in a box, hole, or shackles permitting only painful, unnatural postures.

(f) Prolonged interrogation or forced writing: Persistent interrogation for many hours each day over a period of weeks or months; round-the-clock "conveyor belt” interrogation by successive interrogators; wearying, forced writing and rewriting of answers to interminable repetitious questions. (See also 2-c, above.) 4. The cultivation of anxiety and despair

Purposes: To develop disorganized and irrational responses; to make compliance appear trivial in relation to the victim's peril; to make eventual compliance appear inevitable, with not even death possible as an avenue of escape. (See also 5, below.)

(a) Threats of death: In addition to verbal threats, prisoners are forced to dig their own graves; undergo or observe fake executions; and to endure trial and sentencing to death by fake tribunals.

(6) Threats of nonrepatriation : Prisoners are told they will never be repatriated unless they comply.

(c) Threats of punishment as a “war criminal”: Prisoners are told that they will be considered "war criminals” until they comply; that they will be tried as “war criminals”; that they will be turned over to the civilian population for punishment.

(a) Threats of endless isolation : Prisoners are told that the interrogators are not in a hurry; that they will be held continuously in isolation and constantly interrogated until they capitulate.

(e) Vague threats : Threats may sometimes be vague, either with the interrogator is veiling his threats in an attempt to maintain the fiction that he has a benevolent interest in the prisoner, or when he is attempting to convey the impression that a fate more terrible than words can express is in store for the prisoner if he persists in resisting.

(f) Threats against prisoner's family: Some Korean war prisoners were told that injury would be inflicted on their families by the Communist underground in the United States if they did not cooperate.

(9) Mysterious changes of treatment or place of confinement: The POW may frequently be moved from place to place, either temporarily or permanently ("with belongings”) with no explanation as to the reason for the move. The objective appears to be to make the prisoner anxious regarding the consequences of the move. Great changes in treatment occur for no apparent reason.

(h) Changes in questioning and interrogators : Iuterrogations frequently take new and puzzling directions. Interrogators may frequently be changed. 5. Alternating punishments and rewards

Purposes : To "condition" the victim to comply; to hinder adjustment to privation; to indicate possibilities of “a happy future” in captivity.

(a) Occasional "favors" : Almost never do the Communists allow the treatment of the prisoner to be completely negative in tone for any long period of time. Even when the most extreme deprivations are being inflicted, the prisoner may well receive his customary tobacco ration; a surprisingly good meal; some liquor in celebration of an American holiday; solicitous inquiries from his tormentor; etc. The intent is probably to convince the prisoner that the Communists are really "good people,” to remind him of how pleasant things can be, and to prevent him from completing an adjustment to "doing without” various comforts.

(6) Extreme fluctuations of interrogators' attitudes : Interrogators will frequently switch from a calm or kindly manner to violent excoriations of the prisoner. Frequently, different interrogators will take different attitudes. One, sometimes appearing as of higher authority, will pretend to be the prisoner's benefactor who does not quite approve of the methods of his subordinates.

(0) Promises of improved conditions: Prisoners are told that they will be given regular POW status, that their isolation will end, that they will receive mail, good food, medical attention, etc., if they comply with the interrogator's demands.

(d) Special promises : POW may be promised special jobs or privileged status as rewards for cooperation.

(e) Rewards given for partial compliance: Most improvements of the prisoner's condition are represented as a reward for cooperativeness. Short of complete capitulation, and generally even then, rewards are trivial-cigarettes, a blanket, somewhat better food, or merly a good word from the interrogator.

(f) Tantalizing : Prisoners may be shown rewards (e. g., good food, pictures of other POW at play, or a well-fed and well-groomed POW may be brought in), which they are told will be given to them if they cooperate. Cigarettes may be given in quantity, but matches withheld. Tasty food may be given, but in miniscule quantities. 6. Demonstrating omnipotence" and "omniscience" of captor

Purpose: To suggest futility of resistance.

(a) “Omniscience”: Painstaking efforts are made to collect minute facts about the prisoner, his unit, his friends, and his previous life, generally. This information is fed to the prisoner to bolster the interrogator's assertions: "We know all about you !” Useful information for this purpose is gained from fellow prisoners; information given by the prisoner himself in prevoius interrogations and questionnaires; letters the POW has written or received; and United States newspapers and radio broadcasts. The interrogators attempt to create the impression that they already know the answers to all the questions they ask and that the interrogation is “a test of the cooperativeness and veracity of the prisoner.” Subjects are constantly accused of lying and being caught in lies.

(6) “Omnipotence”: The prisoner is shown evidence, real or false, that other POW have capitulated—especially those with whom the subject is acquainted. Other POW may be forced to tell him that resistance is futile. Interrogators behave at all times as if cooperativeness on the part of the subject is taken for granted. Refusals are reacted to with feigned surprise. Noncooperation is treated as a strange and foolish aberration. Interrogators may make frequent mention of the might of the Communists. Many heavily-armed guards are in evidence. Strict obedience to many rules is required of the prisoner. (See also 8, below.) 9. Degradation

Purposes : To make capitulation appear less damaging to self-pride than the indignities and debasement inflicted because of resistance; to reduce the prisoner to simple, "animal level” concerns.

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