Operation Chaos: The Vietnam Deserters Who Fought the CIA, the Brainwashers, and Themselves, by Matthew Sweet, Henry Holt and Company, 365 pages, $30
In March 1981, I delivered a comedy routine cum keynote address at a convention of Yippies. I asked the audience a rhetorical question: "How would you like to be a Secret Service agent guarding Ronald Reagan, knowing that his vice president, George Bush, is the former head of the CIA?" Satire would soon be outdistanced by reality: At the end of the month, John Hinckley shot the president, hoping to impress the actress Jodie Foster and take her bowling.
On April 2, the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner quoted a dispatch from the New Solidarity International Press Service, an outfit run by followers of the unlovable conspiracy theorist Lyndon LaRouche. "A group of terrorists and drug traffickers linked to Playboy magazine," it said, "met in New York City's Greenwich Village area and publicly discussed an assassination of President Ronald Reagan and Vice-President George Bush. The meeting, convened by the Yippie organization, featured former Playboy editor Paul Krassner and numerous individuals associated with High Times magazine, Hustler magazine and the Chicago Sun-Times."
I was scheduled to perform stand-up at Budd Friedman's Improvisation Comedy Club in Hollywood the next month, and Friedman had asked me to try to get some advance publicity. "Paul," he told me after the report appeared, "that's not exactly what I meant."
My show went fine, but in July the LaRouchies escalated the attack by publishing a whole dossier on me. "In the early 1950s," it claimed, "Paul Krassner was recruited to the stable of pornographers and 'social satirists' created and directed by the British Intelligence's chief brainwashing facility, the Tavistock Institute, to deride and destroy laws and institutions of morality and human decency." (For the record, I was never in England.)
Although LaRouche and I both taught at the Free University of New York in 1966, we didn't cross paths. Even then, he had his devoted fans: One student there told me that "LaRouche presented the most credible, most articulate, and best-argued version of Marxist economics that I ever heard." My own class was titled "Journalism and Satire and How to Tell the Difference."
LaRouche is a major character in Operation Chaos, the British journalist Matthew Sweet's account of some American deserters who made their way to Stockholm at the height of the Vietnam War. But LaRouche wasn't a deserter himself, and he didn't live in Sweden—he was a management consultant turned Trotskyist turned cult leader based in the United States. In the first half of the book, he's mostly offstage as Sweet focuses on the fractious, fearful world the deserters made.
If a psychologist giving you a free-association test said "Vietnam War deserters," you would probably reply "Canada." But by 1968, more than a thousand deserters and draft resisters had escaped to Sweden. Many of them formed an organization called the American Deserters Committee, which soon devolved from a militant protest group into a sort of insane inadvertent satire.
Part of the problem involved the group's members, who weren't all high-minded anti-war idealists; many of them were just unstable, and they seemed to have as much trouble functioning in exile as they did in the Army. Another part of the problem was the group's leader, a professional translator named Michael Vale, who inflicted manipulative mind games on his followers in the name of "ego-stripping" and revolutionary purity.
And part of the problem was that the deserters were clearly under surveillance. When many of an organization's members are already damaged people, and when their leader is already subjecting them to psychological abuse, it doesn't do anyone's sanity any favors to have actual good reasons to suspect some of your comrades are spies. As Sweet interviews the men who fled to Stockholm, he finds that several still carry suspicions about one another to this day—and he can't help wondering about some of them himself.
Sweet never quite solves the mystery of who was or wasn't a government agent, but he paints an engrossing portrait of a place and time where such fears were rampant. Along the way, he follows threads that lead everywhere from a '70s Swedish soft-porn flick (a suspected infiltrator among the deserters had a role in the movie as "The Mechanic") to a medical marijuana operation in Oregon, where one former member of the American Deserters Committee is now both a pot grower and a devoted follower of the alt-right.
But the biggest thread, the one that essentially takes over the second half of the book, is the one that leads to Lyndon LaRouche.
As the '70s dawned, LaRouche was leading one of several would-be successor organizations that emerged from the wreckage of Students for a Democratic Society following the club's chaotic 1969 convention. (Another offshoot was the Weather Underground, which soon commenced a bombing campaign.) Vale found the man's spin on Marxism interesting and, hungry for allies, he moved the American Deserters Committee into LaRouche's international orbit.
Vale soon discovered that he had paved the way for LaRouche to take over his crew of war deserters' lives. In Sweet's words, Vale "had stripped them of their egos and, unwittingly, prepared them for servitude to another charismatic leader." He also learned that it's not easy for two cult leaders to coexist in the same organization. LaRouche and Vale weren't able to work together for long—and once Vale was out of the fold, he became a prominent villain in LaRouche's labyrinthine conspiracy theories, a man denounced as fervently as Henry Kissinger, Queen Elizabeth II, and the LaRouche movement's other favorite demons.
Before long, LaRouche would be delivering an unnerving address in a shabby New York ballroom. The speech described a vast psy-war allegedly designed by the CIA, one where trusted comrades are drugged, imprisoned, brainwashed, turned into programmed killers, and returned to their friends as the unwitting vehicles of a murderous conspiracy. "We have the scoop," he said, "on one of the nastiest, most vicious CIA operations—the brainwashing institutes of Sweden. It's a great place to go for a vacation. But don't eat anything, don't drink anything. You may not come back a man, or a woman."
Paranoia can be contagious. "If I were to die without finishing this book," Sweet (who's still alive) eventually realizes, "then someone out there would undoubtedly set up a Web page claiming that I'd been bumped off, by either the CIA, the Swedish secret services, or the bizarre political group that had once counted many of my interviewees as its members—and would, by the time my research was concluded, come to regard me as an enemy infiltrator. And that was when I knew I'd been swallowed by my own story."
LaRouche and his followers drastically revised their worldview several times, drifting from the radical left to the radical right in the process. They spent most of 2016 mocking the Republican candidate for president, even recording a satirical song about him: "He's a festering pustule on Satan's rump!/Don't you be a chump for Trump!" But when the reality star won, their tune changed. "Suddenly," Sweet recounts, "Donald Trump was not, as had been previously thought, a maniac poised to legalize heroin and govern on behalf of Wall Street, but America's best chance to defeat the British Empire and forge a new alliance with Russia."
Some of the old Stockholm deserters are still in the LaRouche fold, while others have departed. One of the departers, a mysterious man named Clifford Gaddy, managed to move from the LaRouche network into a job at one of Washington's premier think tanks, the center-left Brookings Institution, where he became known as an expert on Vladimir Putin. Gaddy even co-wrote a book on Russia with Fiona Hill, now an advisor to the White House.
Hill was, Sweet notes, "a hawk on Putin and no fan of Trump," so her appointment to the administration was as puzzling as Gaddy's appointment to Brookings. Also puzzling: Gaddy himself quietly left the think tank around the same time, and no one there would tell Sweet why.
Sweet attempts to interview Gaddy at a club in Georgetown, where he encounters the erstwhile Putin expert playing cello in a folk band. Gaddy's wife shoos him away. "We have no interest in this," she tells him. "Do you respect that? Do you respect that? Do you respect that? Do you respect that?"
Denied his interview, Sweet sticks around for the band's second set. Gaddy—the former deserter, former LaRouche acolyte, and possible former spy—sits onstage singing a Leonard Cohen song: "Everybody knows that the dice are loaded / Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed / Everybody knows the war is over / Everybody knows the good guys lost…"