ColdWarCaptivesCold War Captives: Imprisonment, Escape, and Brainwashing

University of California Press, 2009, 346pp

This provocative history of early cold war America recreates a time when World War III seemed imminent. Headlines were dominated by stories of Soviet slave laborers, brainwashed prisoners in Korea, and courageous escapees like Oksana Kasenkina who made a “leap for freedom” from the Soviet Consulate in New York. Full of fascinating and forgotten stories, Cold War Captives explores a central dimension of American culture and politics—the postwar preoccupation with captivity. “Menticide,” the calculated destruction of individual autonomy, struck many Americans as a more immediate danger than nuclear annihilation. Drawing upon a rich array of declassified documents, movies, and reportage—from national security directives to films like The Manchurian Candidate—his book explores the ways in which east-west disputes over prisoners, repatriation, and defection shaped popular culture. Captivity became a way to understand everything from the anomie of suburban housewives to the “slave world” of drug addiction. Sixty years later, this era may seem distant. Yet, with interrogation techniques derived from America’s communist enemies now being used in the “war on terror,” the past remains powerfully present.

Cold War Captives is a strikingly original, scrupulously researched, and endlessly provocative work of cultural history that offers countless new insights into the bipolar mind of postwar America. Enlightening and informative, erudite but never stuffy, this book is a model of historical retrieval and critical interpretation.”

Thomas Doherty

Author of Cold War, Cool Medium: Television, McCarthyism, and American Culture

“With great originality and verve, Carruthers uses captivity metaphors to interrogate topics as widely ranging as brainwashing, the gulag, and U.S. policies on refugees, escapees, and psychological warfare… Cold War Captives is a marvelous book that is essential reading for specialists in modern U.S. history.”

Laura A. Belmont

Journal of American History

Cold War Captives is a wonderfully rich account of early cold war culture and politics. Carruthers writes with clarity and élan, illuminating aspects of the cold war that no one has heretofore explored.”

Marilyn Young

Author of The Vietnam Wars 1945-1990

“Carruthers ends her nuanced, fascinating book by linking her themes to similar ones in the global war on terror. As she points out, twenty-first century American officials revived not just the early Cold War’s discourse but also its most horrifying practices, including torture techniques developed by its communist enemies… Americans remain captives of the chilling legacies of the Cold War.”

Kathryn Olmsted

American Historical Review

"Cold War Captives" Research

Book Reviews
  • American Historical Review, 116, 5 (Dec. 2011)
  • Choice (August 2010)
  • Historical Journal of Film, Radio & Television, 30, 2 (June 2010)
  • Journal of American History, 97, 3 (Dec. 2010)
  • Journal of American Studies, 44, 3 (Aug. 2010)
  • Screening the Past: An International, Refereed, Electronic Journal of Visual Media & History, 31 (Aug. 2011)
  • Vingtième Siecle. 107 (jui-sep. 2010)


Other Writing on the Cold War Culture
  • BBC Radio 3 “Brainwash Culture” program
  • Manchurian Candidate DVD
  • “Between Camps: Eastern Bloc ‘Escapees’ and Cold War Borderlands,” American Quarterly, 57, iii (Fall 2005), pp.911-42
  • “Redeeming the Captives: Hollywood and the Brainwashing of America’s Prisoners of War in Korea,” Film History, 8, i, (1998), pp.275-94
  • The Manchurian Candidate and the Cold War Brainwashing Scare,” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 18, i (March 1998), pp.75-94
  • “Past Future: The Troubled History of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange,” National Forum, (Spring 2001), pp.29-33
  • “‘Not Just Washed but Dry-Cleaned’: Korea and the ‘Brainwashing’ Scare of the 1950s” in Gary D. Rawnsley (ed.), Cold War Propaganda in the 1950s (Macmillan, 1999), pp.47-66
Resources for Research on Cold War Culture

Cultures of the Cold War Network

On Prisoners of War:

On brainwashing: