‘Manchurian Candidate’ in Dallas

Richard Condon
The Nation, 28 December 1963, pp. 449–450

Richard Condon is the author of The Manchurian Candidate (McGraw-Hill), The Oldest Confession (Appleton) and other books.


     I was reading about how Senator Thruston Morton of Kentucky absolved the American people from any guilt in the assassination of the President when a reporter from a South African press association telephoned from London to ask if I felt responsible for the President’s killing, inasmuch as I had written a novel, The Manchurian Candidate, on which had been based a film that had just been “frozen” in the United States because it was felt that the assassin might have seen it and been influenced by it. I told the reporter that, with all Americans, I had contributed to form the attitudes of the assassin; and that the assassin, and Americans like him, had contributed to the attitudes which had caused me to write the novel.

     The differences between Senator Morton’s views on this and my own are vast. The man who shot John Kennedy, Senator Morton said, “was a stranger to the American heritage” and “his mind had been warped by an alien violence, not by a native condition.”

     Brainwashing to violence and assassination is the line taken in my novel. On its melodramatic surface, the book is a study of the consequences of “a mind warped by alien violence,” but I had also hoped to suggest that for some time all of us in the United States had been brainwashed to violence, and to indicate that the reader might consider that the tempo of this all-American brainwashing was being speeded up.

     I meant to call attention, through example, to the proved brainwashing to violence shown by the increased sale of cigarettes after they had been conclusively demonstrated to be suicide weapons. I meant to show that when the attention of a nation is focused upon violence—when it appears on the front page of all newspapers, throughout television programming, in the hundreds of millions of monthly comic books, in most motion pictures, in the rhythms of popular music and the dance, and in popular $5 novels which soon become 50c paperbacks; when a most violent example is set by city, state and federal governments, when organized crime merges with organized commerce and labor, when a feeble, bewildered set of churches cannot counteract any of this and all of it is power-hosed at all of us through the most gigantically complex overcommunications system ever developed—we must not be surprised that one of us bombs little girls in a Sunday school or shoots down a President of our republic. We can feign surprise, as we did with the murder of President Kennedy, but none of us seemed either surprised or moved by the murder of Medgar Evers, who was also a man who had a young wife and children, and whose assassin most certainly matched the basic, American psychological pattern of the killer of our President.

     I was not surprised at the similarities between the two American products, Lee Oswald and Raymond Shaw, one all too actual, the other the fictional leading character of The Manchurian Candidate. Oswald’s wife has said she married him because she felt sorry for him; absolutely no one had liked him, “even in Russia.” The novel says, “It was not that Raymond was hard to like. He was impossible to like.” Oswald spoke frequently of the hardships his mother had experienced in the depression, before he had been born, and his mother had been quick to say that “they” had always been against her boy. In the novel, I quoted Andrew Salter, the Pavlovian psychologist. “…the human fish swim about at the bottom of the great ocean of atmosphere and they develop psychic injuries as they collide with one another. Most mortal of these are the wounds gotten from the parent fish.” The Associated Press dug up a truancy report on Oswald which said his resentment had been fixed on “authority.” On the surface he was calm, but inside there was much anger. “The resenters,” says the Chinese brainwasher in The Manchurian Candidate, “those men with cancer of the psyche, make the great assassins.” Raymond Shaw’s account of his past was confusingly dramatic, as was Oswald’s. It all seemed to revolve around his mother, as did Oswald’s.

     The brainwasher who was describing Raymond Shaw to an audience in an amphitheatre might have been describing the murderers of John Kennedy and Medgar Evers. “It has been said that only the man who is capable of loving everything is capable of understanding everything. The resentful man is a human with a capacity for affection so poorly developed that his understanding for the motives of others very nearly does not exist. They are men of melancholic and reserved psychology. They are afflicted with total resentment.”

     Lee Oswald’s indicated murder of Mr. Kennedy seems motivated only by his resentment against the most successful man in the world, resentment against a wonderfully intelligent, puissant, healthy, wealthy, witty and handsome man who was so rich in spirit that he made no attempt to conceal his superiority, who dominated the world and outer space, and who had an inexpressibly fine wife and two lovely children. From the view of this resentment, as long as this fellow stayed out of Lee Oswald’s path he would be all right, but when he came laughing into Dallas, and the newspapers printed a map that showed he would drive right past where Lee Oswald worked for a lousy fifty bucks a week, it was more than this classical resentment could bear.

     It takes time to achieve such resentment and to fire it there must be careful nurturing by constant unrelenting conditioning to violence. Oswald was not the only violence-packed American who was capable of murdering President Kennedy. The assassination was a wasteful, impersonal, senseless act, but the United States has undergone such a massive brainwashing to violence that such a senseless waste is á la mode.

      Ralph Gleason wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle after the President’s murder: “…we bred his murderer, our society produced him and he is, in one sense, a part of us all.” Then Senator Morton said: “…let us not mourn the American soul…let the blame be on him who actually committed the crime…what happened was not America’s fault.”

      John Hay Whitney, publisher of the New York Herald Tribune and thus a leading figure in the overcommunications industry, most hotly denied that the American people must share the guilt for President Kennedy’s murder. He amplified his defense by saying: “It’s true that there is hate in America, and violence, and brutality. But violence has not been and is not now a dominant strain in our character.”

     To me, it seems certain that Mr. Gleason is right and Senator Morton and Mr. Whitney are mistaken. Neither saints nor assassins appear among us fully grown and wholly developed. All of us are nothing more than the result of our conditioning.

      When the fanatic is a ruler, rather than the assassin of a ruler, the people who permitted him to take power must be blamed—whether they be the Germans of 1933–35 for Adolf Hitler, or the people of Chicago, Illinois, for their local government. But when the fanatic is the assassin, he emerges from the very fabric of the people. In answer to Senator Morton: if the American people are encouraging a mass educational system—the overcommunications industry—which instructs for the production of the highest crime rate and the most widely shared violence dependencies of any country in the world, is it not time to say, most particularly by our government, that each American is responsible for that state of affairs because he does nothing to change it? We are not, as some well-meaning European newspaper put it, a violent and unstable people because such “toughness” was required to tame the wild frontier 125 years ago. We are violent and unstable because we have been so conditioned to these responses that civilized, thoughtful conduct has become impossible for us.

      It is a hell of a spot for a country to be in. Who, the least brainwashed among us, will cast the first redemptive thought?