When Evil Doesn’t Seem Wrong: The Post World War II Lobotomies

The recent, shocking discovery that the Soviet Union forcibly lobotomized thousands of World War II veterans when the battle-weary soldiers could not cope with the post traumatic stress created by the horrors of war reaffirms our convictions about the dehumanizing effects of totalitarian government.

Wait…did I say the Soviet Union? My mistake. It was our government that did this, and sent letters to their families like this one:

lobotomy instructions

From the Wall Street Journal this week:

“The U.S. government lobotomized roughly 2,000 mentally ill veterans—and likely hundreds more—during and after World War II, according to a cache of forgotten memos, letters and government reports unearthed by The Wall Street Journal. Besieged by psychologically damaged troops returning from the battlefields of North Africa, Europe and the Pacific, the Veterans Administration performed the brain-altering operation on former servicemen it diagnosed as depressives, psychotics and schizophrenics, and occasionally on people identified as homosexuals. The VA doctors considered themselves conservative in using lobotomy. Nevertheless, desperate for effective psychiatric treatments, they carried out the surgery at VA hospitals spanning the country, from Oregon to Massachusetts, Alabama to South Dakota. The VA’s practice, described in depth here for the first time, sometimes brought veterans relief from their inner demons. Often, however, the surgery left them little more than overgrown children, unable to care for themselves. Many suffered seizures, amnesia and loss of motor skills. Some died from the operation itself.”

This is beyond shocking, but it compels perspective. The Wall Street Journal’s exhaustive report, which you can read here, does not show U.S. doctors or the military motivated by diabolical ideas or warped values, but by desperation, well-meaning misjudgments, ignorance, and dire circumstances they did not know how to handle. There was no enmity directed to these heroes; this was the Veterans Administration. Yet these men were, as we see it today, the victims of atrocities. This terrible chapter in our history does not mean the the U.S. Government was (or is) evil, just as other, equally terrible conduct—slavery, the treatment of Native American tribes, Jim Crow,child labor, sexism, homophobia, the internment of Japanese-Americans, even the Tuskegee syphilis study—were not necessarily the product of diseased minds and vile character. Ethics is a progression, and once a civilized society learns that what was once thought of as right was really very, very wrong, it seems so obvious that we often can’t imagine that those who engaged in the conduct didn’t know already, in their hearts and minds, that it was wrong too. Most of the time, however, they did not, and it is unfair to them for us to use hindsight bias and our current accumulated wisdom to condemn them.

It is unfair to ourselves as well. Future generations are certain to look back on some beliefs and practices that we thought were right and just with the same disgust and disbelief with which we now view the lobotomizing of our damaged WWII heroes.

I guarantee it.


Facts and Graphic: Wall Street Journal

16 thoughts on “When Evil Doesn’t Seem Wrong: The Post World War II Lobotomies

  1. Even at the time, someone with a scientific or even a management background should have known to organize followup studies that would have revealed the problems, and acted on that information to halt the procedures.

    “Evidence based medicine” should be the only kind.

    • Unfortunately the only external encouragement to do such studies are tort law (which the military is generally immune to). There are no regulators of surgical procedures (that I am aware of).

      As of 2002:
      “There are no clear federal regulations governing innovative surgery, even though general guidelines regulating research with human subjects do exist. We hypothesized that US surgeons are unaware of Department of Health and Human Services regulations, rarely seek IRB review, generally oppose outside regulation of innovative surgery, and are uncertain what constitutes innovation and research. These circumstances, if true, would pose a significant ethical problem and present potential harm to patients as unwitting subjects of research.”
      PMID: 12081071 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]

  2. Wait a minute…. about those politicians in Washington…. this might be the perfect solution. Of course, some may argue that there is evidence that such procedures may already have been carried out.

  3. “does not show U.S. doctors or the military motivated by diabolical ideas or warped values, but by desperation, well-meaning misjudgments, ignorance, and dire circumstances they did not know how to handle.”

    Psychotherapy was invented decades before these acts. And because it was, and because they already should have known about previously documented unintended side-effects of lobotomy (invented a full decade prior to the end of WW2), and because they still had no good idea on why lobotomy worked sometimes and didn’t work other times, I disagree that this doesn’t demonstrate warped values on their part.

    Screw up once and it’s a mistake. Screw up the same way again and you’re a bad man.

    • Best wikipedia quote, by my man Norbert Wiener:

      “In 1948 Norbert Wiener, the author of Cybernetics: Or the Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, said: “[P]refrontal lobotomy… has recently been having a certain vogue, probably not unconnected with the fact that it makes the custodial care of many patients easier. Let me remark in passing that killing them makes their custodial care still easier.”[131]”

  4. It was fortunate I didn’t let my parents know about my Gender Dysphoria in 1972.

    Lobotomy was the standard therapy then. It didn’t remove the Gender Dysphoria of course, but it made the patient tractable.

    The same treatment was used on Gays too.

    Wednesday 12 September 1973
    Earlier in the day a group of 12 gay activists had invaded the Macquarie Street offices of a doctor famed for his lobotomies as a cure for homosexuality. The group had first offered lambs brain to passers by. They then entered the building and went to the doctor’s surgery reception. The poor Secretary said the doctor was not available so the group emptied out the lambs brains on the floor of the surgery reception and trampled them in. After this, the group left the building and walked down Martin Place to the Cenotaph where six of us had congregated.


    • Awful. And certain States used to sterilize the mentally retarded or ill, Native Americans, and girls/young women deemed “promiscuous.” Ethics is a progression certainly Jack, but some things were known to be wrong at the time.

      The syphilis study you mentioned continued to lie and treat these men with placebos even after penicillin was a known cure. Medical testing without consent is wrong now and it was wrong then.

      • Awful. And certain States used to sterilize the mentally retarded or ill, Native Americans, and girls/young women deemed “promiscuous.” Ethics is a progression certainly Jack, but some things were known to be wrong at the time.

        And these laws that allowed such things are constitutional, proving once again than legality does not always coincide with morality.

        • Hmm. To the contrary, some of these laws undoubtedly were not constitutional. But I agree with you — just because there is a law on the books doesn’t mean that it isn’t immoral.

  5. Belgium euthanasia was the first thing I thought of. It can’t be long until euthanasia seems like a good idea everywhere. Retroactive abortion is a small step from universally available abortion. When governments are the providers of healthcare what’s good for people is not the primary concern.

    • A young man in the care of the Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands was surgically castrated decades ago after complaining about sexual abuse, according to new evidence that only adds to the scandal engulfing the church there.

      It is unclear, however, whether the reported castration was performed as a punishment for whistle-blowing or what was seen as a treatment for homosexuality.

      You don’t have to make up fantasies about socialist conspiracies – you have actual evil, not imaginary evil going on, and not by socialised medicine, but the Religious Right.

      Kidnapped for Christ is a new documentary about an Evangelical reform school located in the Dominican Republic called “Escuela Caribe.” It seems to function as a boot camp for Evangelical teens whose parents believe them to be straying.


      Better dead and destined for heaven than alive and damned. And bad as that place is, and others in Paraguay where rebellious teen girls are sent to be married off to good, Christian husbands to keep them in line, there’s worse.

      As The Telegraph reported, Raymond Buys died two weeks after being put on life support two months into a three-month “training course” provided by Alex de Koker’s Echo Wild Game Rangers camp. The 15-year-old Buys had brain damage and a broken arm and bruises at the time, and had emerged severely malnourished, dehydrated and covered in cigarette burns, according to the report.

  6. I was a sad chapter in psychiatric ‘treatment’. The medical model, imho truly sucks and unfortunately has produced a plethora of drugs that are used as chemical straight jackets for mentally ill and especially behaviorally disordered children and adolescents. Many psychologists and marriage and family therapists have rejected this model.

    • It has also produced a plethora of medications that are both effective and disorder-specific. We haven’t used what you call “chemical strait jackets” since the use of thorazine pretty much went away. If you want to be outraged about something, try being outraged about electro-convulsive therapy still being the treatment of last resort for a number of disorders, sometimes, admittedly rarely, involuntarily.

      • >shudder< I've met a few folks who underwent ECT. Had a conversation with one fellow who was talking to a lady who was about to get it in the next few days. "It hurts like hell, plan to spend the rest of the day puking and unable to think clearly. You'll be weak as a kitten for about a week, and it'll take about 30 sessions to be effective. You'll lose a bunch of your memories, both long and short term. But you have to ask yourself – does all that sound worth being able to be happy again?"

        That one stuck in my mind.

        • My first response would have been “Define happy”. I know this is a “treatment of last resort” but we don’t even know why it works, when it works. My guess would be “Cheer up or we’ll keep doing this to you until you do!” That’d work for me.

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