OPERATION CHAOS: The Vietnam Deserters Who Fought the CIA, the Brainwashers, and Each Other
Picador, 2018, 351 pages
Review by Phil Shannon
When a number of American GIs in Vietnam deserted in 1968 and “joined a movement that wanted to bring that conflict to an end and build a more just and equitable world”, only to “then meet Lyndon LaRouche and kiss reality goodbye”, their idealistic revolt descended into the “batshit crazy” politics of one of the weirdest cults of all time, says Matthew Sweet, writer and BBC broadcaster, in Operation Chaos.
The soldiers’ individual acts of rebellion became collective and political when, having found asylum in Sweden, they joined the American Deserters Committee (ADC), an anti-war movement which organised the thousand or so military refuseniks and draft resisters exiled in Stockholm. One undercover CIA operative who infiltrated the ADC reported on the political threat they posed - ‘they found it impossible to kill; were pacifists; believed that war in general was immoral and that American participation in the war in Vietnam was illegal’ and, alarmingly, they were forging links with European revolutionary groups.
The more politically-minded leaders gave the ADC its radical heft, including gatecrashing a dinner party at the US embassy in Stockholm, producing the Second Front newspaper for enlisted men stationed in US military bases in West Germany, doing radio broadcasts for troops in Vietnam encouraging them to desert, and giving lively press interviews (including charging fees to newspapers “which were not sufficiently radical”).
The CIA’s appropriately named Operation Chaos sought to disrupt the ADC through agents provocateurs, and through cajoling and intimidating deserters to desert from the ADC itself and become informers in return for avoiding court-martial, hard-labour jail-time and career-destroying dishonourable discharge. The mere knowledge that CIA surveillance was present was enough to sow corrosive suspicion and discord amongst the deserters.
The CIA exacerbated the latent internal stresses of the ADC as it split into sectarian grouplets over political differences. This dissolution gained momentum as the broader revolutionary tide, powered by opposition to a winding down Vietnam War, began to recede. As it did so, some bizarre, mutant political life-forms were left in its wake.
None was weirder than the innocuously-sounding National Caucus of Labor Committees, better known as the pejorative ‘LaRouchites’, after their leader, Lyndon LaRouche, an intelligent psychopath, a one-time (and highly peculiar) member of the US Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party, eight-time US Presidential candidate and purveyor of magnificently eccentric conspiracy theories.
LaRouche’s nutty concoctions about secret global cabals seeking genocidal world domination have inducted many actors, including the KGB - and the CIA. The Beatles, orchestrated by the philosopher, Bertrand Russell, were a British tool of psychological warfare despatched to the US to ruin American youth. Noam Chomsky is in on it, too (he is a NATO agent, in case you’re wondering). Former centre-left Prime Minister of Sweden, Olof Palme, was an axe-murderer ripe for assassination. The current mastermind of the whole conspiracy is Queen Elizabeth 11 who controls the world’s illegal drug trade and has mustered an army of zombie assassins, brainwashed by the CIA (or KGB – it’s hard to keep up) to launch World War 111.
The LaRouchites’ political interventions have notoriously included their 1973 ‘Operation Mop-Up’, in which the LaRouchites would achieve political dominance by neutralising the left competition, starting by “literally pulverising” the US Communist Party. To counter the CP’s alleged Stalinism, LaRouchite goons used martial arts, knuckledusters and clubs in a “carnival of violence and disruption” against party members (irony was not the ‘anti-Stalinist’ LaRouchites’ strong suit).
Another of the LaRouchites’ targets were its members who had joined from the ADC, which a paranoiac LaRouche had come to see as a CIA front. The ADC recruits were the focus for LaRouche’s rule-by-terror which ‘deprogrammed’ the CIA-brainwashed deserters through sadistic behaviour modification techniques, including non-stop Beethoven turned up to the max. Fear also drove the LaRouchites’ fund-raising in which members defrauded the public through cold-calling - failure to meet their daily target would result in the psychological and physical abuse of all-night ‘ego-stripping’ sessions, a technique LaRouche adopted from one Maoist strand of the ADC.
Despite the unsavoury political history of the LaRouchites and their barmy leader, they continue to find an audience by hiding their kookier side behind a bastardised quasi-Marxist jargon and a radical conservatism. Their likes (Putin, all things nuclear, Trump) and dislikes (an unhinged anti-Russian fever, finance capital, environmentalism, Trump) are all over the ideological shop but tilt to the Right. Their origins remain cloudy - the ex-CIA renegade, Philip Agee, regarded the LaRouchites as a CIA operation from the start, masquerading as leftist in order to divide and discredit the left.
What the LaRouchites do offer to an eccentric but sometimes influential few is a magic circle of LaRouchite wisdom and its entrance ticket to a select élite of LaRouchite philosopher-kings-in-waiting. Fear of expulsion from the group helps to keep its members faithful.
This factor was particularly pronounced amongst the handful of deserters whose “persistent presence” throughout LaRouchite history was born of the loyalty of some young, ill-educated men, who went into a monstrous war, or came out of it, with behavioural or psychological problems and found themselves, as deserters, stranded from their families, their country and its institutions, and were given a new home in the LaRouchite fold.
It is a mournful tale but Matthew Sweet’s narrative angle turns a sad little LaRouchian postscript of a small number of deserters into a major chapter of sixties political radicalism. Sweet’s focus on the LaRouchites and their deserter members foregrounds a noisy but aberrant and marginal political fringe, greying out the broader anti-war and revolutionary movements of the era. The US military deserters deserve to be remembered, not for their exotic and lamentable LaRouchian end, but for their heroic role in helping to stop a grotesque war.