The Manchurian Candidate
(1959), a thriller novel by American political writer Richard Condon, concerns Major Bennett Marco, the son of a dynastic United States family with deep links to its political bureaucracy, who is kidnapped by the allied Soviets and Chinese during the Korean War. While a prisoner of war, his partner, Sergeant Raymond Shaw, is subjected to an intense psychological regimen of hypnosis, through which he is unwittingly transformed into a sleeper agent for the Communists. The novel reflects the intense paranoia that the U.S. public felt during the Korean War, using features of modern psychology to render its terrorist plot credible. The novel has been adapted into several films in the decades since its publication.
The novel begins in 1952, three years into the Korean War. Soviet commandos capture Major Bennett Marco, along with his friend, Sergeant Shaw. They are imprisoned in Manchuria with the other members of their platoon, where they are tortured and brainwashed over a span of months. When they emerge, they all subscribe to the belief that they were never brainwashed, and that Shaw saved their lives just when all hope seemed lost. When they return to the United States, the nation celebrates the platoon’s heroic story, and Shaw is awarded a Medal of Honor.
The novel shifts several years after the official end of the Korean War in 1953. Marco now works as an intelligence officer based in the United States. He begins to experience nightmares in which his platoon is back in Manchuria, surrounded by a group of old women. As the nightmare shifts, the old women morph into their Soviet and Chinese captors. Marco discovers that he is not the only person to have the nightmare: another soldier from his platoon reports a virtually identical experience.
Suspecting that something is awry with his platoon’s survivors, Marco decides to investigate. He first finds that Sergeant Raymond Shaw has newly employed a servant whom he remembers from their service in Korea. Marco goes to Shaw’s house and confronts the servant; after a brawl, Marco is placed under arrest. Afterward, Shaw recognizes Marco, and they warmly reconnect. Meanwhile, Marco begins a relationship with Rose Cheyney. Shaw has a relationship with Jocelyn Jordan, the daughter of Senator Thomas Jordan, who is also Shaw’s neighbor. Shaw’s mother has a mutual dislike for the Senator, but their children’s relationship continues unimpeded.
Marco discovers that the allied Soviet and Chinese Communists have been hypnotically controlling Shaw, transforming him into an assassin who forgets his actions as soon as he commits them. The hypnotic key command is to suggest that he play a game of solitaire; upon seeing the Queen of Diamonds card, he shifts into a hypnotic state in which he will kill anyone he is instructed to kill. Eleanor, Shaw’s mother, secretly belongs to the KGB and has been controlling her son. Eleanor’s goal is to convince the Communists to help her husband, Senator Johnny Iselin, become President of the United States. She has assured them that they will then have control over the American government.
Marco discovers Shaw’s trigger just before Iselin’s political party convenes for a highly publicized national meeting for the Presidency. Eleanor successfully arranges for Iselin to be selected as the vice presidential nominee. Marco discovers that Eleanor’s endgame is to force Shaw to shoot the presidential hopeful, thereby promoting Iselin to succeed him. Iselin intends to blame the murder on the Communists and install a dictatorship based on the national fear he has engendered. Marco attempts to re-hypnotize Shaw to follow a different set of commands. When the convention begins, Shaw kills Senator Iselin and Eleanor. Marco rushes to Shaw’s sniper hideout and pounces on him, stopping him just before he commits suicide.
A story infused with paranoia, The Manchurian Candidate
is a classic of the Cold War era. The uncertainty of its ending mirrors the uncertain national sentiment at the time of its publication when Americans remained quite unsure about the boundaries between domestic and foreign relationships, powers, and controls.