In 1951 Paul Gallico published a novel called Trial by Terror, a gripping, terrifying story about a young American newspaper reporter arrested in the Soviet-occupied zone of Austria and forced to confess to the charge of espionage at a carefully staged show trial. The novel appeared on the American scene before the experience of American prisoners of war in North Korea had made "brainwashing" a familiar word. Yet it detailed that process with clinical precision.
Gallico's story was simple and straightforward. The reporter, tough, headstrong, and built like a football player, had entered the Soviet zone in the attempt to find out why men behind the Iron Curtain were confessing to crimes they had not committed. He learned the hard way. The book describes how a team of Russian psychiatrists worked to break him, using isolation, deprivation of sleep, drugs, and a nerve-shattering kind of violence--placing a galvanized iron pail over his head and beating it with broomsticks--until finally this once hulking, proud man was reduced to an empty shell of his former self, ready to intone his prepared confession at the slightest harsh word or most "accidental" clank of metal.
Trial by Terror was based on the postwar show trials in Eastern Europe, the most famous of which was that of Cardinal Mindszenty in Hungary. Today, 30 years later, recent events in Central America suggest that even more sophisticated methods of psychological manipulation and control have begun to appear on this side of the Atlantic; only this time they are being used not by communist regimes, but by right-wing governments using the threat of communism to justify the most violent kind of internal repression.