Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Cold War interrogations

Yesterday the New York Times alleged that U.S. interrogators lifted techniques from the late Albert D. Biderman's descriptions of Chinese Communist interrogations of Americans in the 1950's.  Biderman was one of many social scientists employed by the Department of Defense to fight the Cold War's intellectual and political battles; for the larger context, see Ron Robin, The Making of the Cold War Enemy (Princeton University Press, 2001).  Biderman's studies of Korean War POW's, especially March to Calumny: The Story of American POW's in the Korean War (MacMillan, 1963), and the interrogations they endured provided a critical corrective to earlier reports that had blamed U.S. prisoners for failing to resist Communist indoctrination.  He argued convincingly that the torture and deprivation to which POW's were subjected, not their weaknesses compared to soldiers past, was responsible for their cooperation with their communist captors.

The 1957 Biderman article that was apparently used as a training document for contemporary interrogations was delivered at the New York Academy of Medicine in November, 1956 and later published in a medical journal. It relates how prisoners had to be trained by their Chinese captors before they could even understand what was expected of them, and that POW's only gradually became adept at concocting stories to fit "the wild but inalterable preconceptions" of their captors about the United States (622). 

Consistent with his other work, Biderman in this article focuses on the nature of resistance to coercive techniques rather than on their utility.  He wrote in counterpoint to journalists like Eugene Kinkead, whose widely read account Every War But One (W.W. Norton, 1959) castigated Korean War POW's for collaborating with their Communist interrogators.  Biderman prepared a chart of interrogation methods to help explain the difficulty of answering the question he was most frequently asked (623): why did some prisoners comply while others did not?  Not surprisingly, he fails to answer directly, but he does conclude that "resistance was the dominant ingredient" in prisoners' responses to coercive interrogation (625).   

Biderman's article was intended to promote a better understanding of prisoner resistance, not to provide a list of interrogation techniques.  The chart that was used for contemporary military training was but a minor piece of a major military sociologist's work.