*Prerequisite spoiler alert:. Do NOT continue to read if you haven’t yet seen and still plan to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Lessons from Captain America: How The Winter Soldier Got History Right
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (TWS) was one of the most profitable movies of the 2014 domestic box office, indicating that it struck a cultural nerve in America. As a classic political spy thriller hidden inside a superhero movie, the film is true to its comic source material. It is also a microcosm of the United States’ dark and seedy past and present. TWS touches on major points of the 20th and 21st century by appropriating true events from history to fit within the Marvel universe. This includes the absorption of Nazi scientists into America after WWII, human experimentation during the Cold War, and fast forwards to today’s debate between national security and individual rights. By shining a light on these events, TWS teaches important lessons about history and the political climate that we live in today.
Welcome to America Nazis
The parallels between Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D. and the C.I.A. are undeniable, with the former grown out of the Strategic Science Reserve (SSR) and the latter from the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Both were created to combat the Nazis and then later developed into an espionage and law enforcement organization. Similar to it’s fictional counterpart, in the waning years of WWII as well as those years following, America’s C.I.A. hijacked almost two thousand German scientists in an OSS program called Operation Paperclip. Many of these German scientists, taken under American protective custody, were Nazis who committed various war crimes at concentration camps. Several were even prosecuted at the historical farce known as The Nuremberg Trials. Although President Truman prohibited the inclusion of Nazi party members and enthusiasts in Operation Paperclip, under the outright lies and the guise of fake records created by the OSS, numerous Nazis gained access to highly paid positions and some even found fame.
Some of these men were similar to Nazi scientist Armin Zola, the comic representation of Nazi scientist Wernher Von Braun. In the movie, the computerized version of Zola reveals to Cap and Black Widow how he came to fall under the American wing of S.H.I.E.L.D. through Operation Paperclip, a reference to the actual operation of the same name. Known in America as the “Father of Rocket Science,” Von Braun helped the country take giant leaps in rocketry and space exploration. He directly contributed to the creation of NASA, the U.S. space program, and served as the agency’s first Center Director. Wernher claimed not to be an outright supporter of the Nazi party, but undeniable evidence directly links him to countless deaths at the Buchenwald concentration camp. Like H.Y.D.R.A. - the post-WWII Nazi terrorist organization who infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D - the influence of Nazi scientists in the U.S. were distinctly felt during the Cold War years.
Cold War Human Experimentation
One of the more disturbing research campaigns performed was the illegal Cold War-era CIA program called Project MKUltra. Its tentacles started within the military industrial complex and reached into universities, hospitals, Big Pharma, and the United States prison system. A number of these major institutions were unaware of the abhorrent activities that took place right under their noses, as the government willfully participated in illegal activities that defied the ethical guidelines of the Nuremburg Doctrine that they had helped write. According to recently released documents via the Freedom of Information Act, the same Nazi scientists who studied brainwashing, experimented on humans, and tortured and killed under Hitler’s regime, continued similar research in America through this government project.
MKUltra utilized a variety of atrocious methods to attain the experimental goal of mind control and the development of a “Manchurian Candidate.” Torture, sexual and verbal abuse, sensory deprivation, and the use of LSD as well as other chemicals were popular methodologies. Related hypnosis experiments tried to identify and study a personality that would be susceptible to brainwashing. Another popular technique was electroshock therapy which induced amnesia for the victim. Among other symptoms, the victims consequently mistook the experimenters as paternal figures. The entire movie serves as a looming reminder of these horrid events during this dark historical period, and is symbolized by the Communist Red Star on TWS’ prosthetic arm. Through electroshock therapy and hypnotic brainwashing by the hands of S.H.I.E.L.D. and HYDRA, The Winter Soldier aka Bucky Barnes (Captain America’s frenemy) becomes the Manchurian Candidate responsible for the elimination of those opposed to the clandestine operations of American’s shadow agencies. When Bucky‘s amnesia, confusion, and false allegiance wear off and he remembers glimpses of his former self, S.H.I.E.L.D./HYDRA’s Alexander Pierce wipes his mind through electroshock therapy. A short memory like that of TWS reflects the political ideology of our present day society.
Other buzz words ripped straight from real life headlines such as drones, weapons of mass destruction, Iraq, terrorism, and the tight control of ownership in the media are splattered throughout the flick. But perhaps the most significant aspect of today’s political world discussed in the movie is the debate between the sacrifices of individual constitutional rights in exchange for our so-called national security. Back in 2001 through the passage of the Patriot Act, citizens of this nation, terrified in a post 9/11 world, willfully allowed the government’s intelligence apparatus access to our private and public lives. In the vein of Marvel’s Project Insight, the NSA’s PRISM Program not only collects text messages and call records from almost every major cell phone company, but also has unfettered access to the data of U.S. tech giants (Facebook, Google, etc.) without the necessity of individual warrants.
In theory, the collection of information from the digital world in order to evaluate real world security threats is a great one, when in the right hands. But we were hoodwinked. The Snowden revelations revealed that the American government and other international governments purposely destabilize the security standards upon which business, banking, and the internet rely. We also now know that a wealth of information is stored on the average upstanding citizen with no justification or true assurance that the information will be kept secure. This is due to the large amount of independent contractors hired by the government for its intelligence apparatus. Nick Fury was dead right when he proclaimed that there are eyes and ears everywhere. The 21st century digital book is the gateway to deeming people as threats, whether real or perceived. Humanity is clearly being endangered by the sightless implementation of machines in the name of protection. What are you willing to give up in the name of security?
James Madison, the "Father of the Constitution" once said "liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power." TWS teaches the validity of this statement and shows how our own government exploits citizens and abuse its power. All of these secret intelligence programs - Operation Paperclip, Project MKUltra, and PRISM - were justified in the name of protection. Now, our constitutional rights are being infringed upon and negated for the same purported reason. Akin to Captain America, we must search for the meaning in a time when patriotism is NOT the same thing as obedient loyalty to political leaders.
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