It’s not the first time Trump has been called a “Manchurian candidate.”
Most of these columns, including Thursday’s NYT opinion piece, don’t mention what that means. Like many phrases introduced by pop culture (think: Catch-22, gaslighting), it’s become shorthand for something — namely, a president controlled by a foreign (these days, most likely Russian) power — even though at this point wide swaths of the American public likely haven’t consumed the media that bore it.
The phrase first came into existence thanks to Richard Condon, who in 1959 wrote a novel by that title — “The Manchurian Candidate” — in which a platoon of decorated soldiers return from the Korean War, after being brainwashed to believe in communism. One of them has unwittingly become a sleeper agent, controlled by the communist Chinese and Soviet governments to perform a particular assassination, which will allow them to install a communist puppet dictator as U.S. president. (The comparison to Trump is derived from the thought that he might be a puppet of the Russian government.)
(Though it was published in 1959, some of it might have been written a bit earlier. Allegations have been levied against Condon, who died in 1996, claiming the author plagiarized passages from the 1934 novel “I, Claudius,” a book set during the Roman Empire. His agent denied these accusations.)
At the time of its release, the book — written by a man who chose his profession because “the only thing I knew how to do was spell” — received decidedly mixed reviews, notably appearing on Time’s 10 best bad novels list while being dubbed “a wild and exhilarating satire” by the New Yorker.
Regardless the novel was a hit, likely because it made campy pulp out of the era’s political climate. As Louis Menand — who called the book “a man in a tartan tuxedo, chicken à la king with shaved truffles, a signed LeRoy Neiman . . . Mickey Spillane with an M.F.A.” — wrote in the New Yorker:
Fear of Communist brainwashing seems an example of Cold War hysteria, but in the nineteen-fifties the fear was not without basis. United Nations ground forces began military action in Korea on July 5, 1950. On July 9th, an American soldier who had been captured just two days earlier delivered a radio speech consisting of North Korean propaganda. Similar broadcasts by captured soldiers continued throughout the war. At the end of the war, the Army estimated that one out of every seven American prisoners of war had collaborated with the enemy. (The final, generally accepted estimate is one out of ten.) Twenty-one Americans refused to return to the United States; forty announced that they had become Communists; and fourteen were court-martialed, and eleven of those were convicted.
Added Menand, “Condon’s book played on the fear that brainwashing could be permanent, that minds could be altered forever.”
If that sounds a bit cinematic for a novel plot, that’s because it was. Fittingly, while film historian David Thomson called it “a book written so that an idiot could film it,” director John Frankenheimer referred to it as “one of the best books I’ve ever read.”
Frankenheimer directed the 1962 film adaptation of the book, bearing the same name and starring Frank Sinatra, Angela Lansbury and Laurence Harvey. Film historian Howard Hampton wrote that one “could hardly have devised a more perfect union of formalistic effects, ideological paradox, and existential instability.”
Even so the movie was a complete flop. Perhaps it struck the wrong chord in the midst of the Cold War. Perhaps it was just too hard to follow.
Regardless of its success in the United States, it certainly created waves worldwide. As Rob Nixon wrote for TMC:
“The Manchurian Candidate”‘s story was considered so politically controversial it was either censored or prohibited from theatrical release in many Eastern European countries then under Communist governments and even in neutral countries such as Finland and Sweden. The theatrical premiere for most of those countries was held after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1993.
Most concerning for Americans at the time, the film included an assassination scene, which reportedly caused United Artists fear that it might prompt someone to perform such an action off-screen. A year after its release, of course, Lee Harvey Oswald shot and killed President Kennedy. This story is even more startling considering that Kennedy allegedly “interceded with United Artists to get the film greenlighted,” according to Hampton.
(It grows even creepier when one realizes, as Hampton wrote, that “in a stranger-than-fiction twist, Frankenheimer was with Robert F. Kennedy on the night of his murder.”)
A theory exists that Oswald was influenced by the film, which he likely saw, according to John Loken, who explored this very question in his book, “Oswald’s Trigger Films: The Manchurian Candidate, We Were Strangers, Suddenly?”
And, in fact, days after the assassination, a newspaper reporter asked Condon if he felt at all responsible for the president’s death. (He did not.)
The film was pulled after its original run (some claim at Sinatra’s insistence due to the death of his friend Kennedy but according to Menand this didn’t happen until later. He wrote, “In 1972, Sinatra bought the rights and, in 1975, removed it from circulation entirely.”).
The movie, though, lived on as a television staple some years later.
More than just being a cult classic, though, all the hubbub surrounding the film’s release (along with the success of the novel on which it was based) had seeped into the cultural consciousness like water into soil, and it bloomed a thousand offshoots.
Some, such as “Homeland,” which (spoiler alert) boasts a similar story, might seem obvious. Others, such as Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson’s absurdist comic romp “Zoolander” might seem less so.
That a 1959 book continues to live on in today’s politics, working as shorthand understood even by those who have never seen or read a word of its adaptations, is certainly a testament to how deeply it wormed its way into the American lexicon — much like the expression “Catch-22″ from Joseph Heller’s book bearing that title.
But that makes sense, I suppose, when considering what Ben Cosgrove wrote of the 1962 film for Time, “This is politics, and filmmaking, the way they’re meant to be: breathless.”