The glaring, sometimes violent political divide in America today is often compared to the tumult of the Vietnam era, when movements for black, women’s and LGBTQ equality tested the power of democracy. But some of the activism of that time was carried out by young men in their late teens and 20s who simply wanted nothing to do with the brutal war in Southeast Asia. More than 1,000 of them ultimately sought asylum in Sweden, where many hoped to wait out a war that they either feared or didn’t believe in.
Of course, not everyone in the Scandinavian contingent was content to sit around while much of the planet—and their home country—seemed to be coming apart at the seams.
Upon arrival in Stockholm, the ex-soldiers and dissident tag-alongs became instant celebrities, and some of the more radical among them soon got involved with leftist groups bent on overturning the political order back home. As it happened, a radical group of antiwar, possibly-revolutionary Americans yukking it up in Europe was too much for Lyndon B. Johnson's administration to bear. The president ultimately presided over the launch of Operation Chaos, a secret CIA cell designed to sniff out alleged foreign influence in the US anti-war movement both at home and abroad.
In his forthcoming book, Operation Chaos: The Vietnam Deserters Who Fought the CIA, The Brainwashers, and Themselves, journalist Matthew Sweet explores the story of a specific group of young Americans who turned their back on their country and got more than they bargained for. Among other things, Sweet found, CIA agents and their allies successfully infiltrated the deserters in hopes of fomenting discord, setting off a vicious cycle of internal scrutiny and paranoia marked by interrogations and allegations of brainwashing. Almost 50 years later, some of these same Americans are still dealing with the attendant trauma.
For some perspective on this strange episode and the eerie reporting process behind the book, we reached out to Sweet for a chat. Here's what he had to say.
VICE: Lyndon B. Johnson is generally understood to have been plenty wiling to use the national security apparatus to do almost anything. Even so, this particular project seems a bit paranoid on his part, no?
Matthew Sweet: Johnson was convinced Russia was turning the youth of America against him, the war, and US institutions generally. But the mission was never accomplished. The Chaos guys couldn’t find any evidence of Soviet interference among student radicals, deserters, or other anti-establishment groups. Still, Johnson and [then] Nixon after him—[they] wouldn’t take no for an answer. So the search went on until HYDRA—their vast computer database housed in a cypher-locked vault in the basement at Langley—contained files on 9,994 named subversives. Chaos used a network of assets and operatives to spy on radical organizations across the world.
For those who might be skeptical, can you talk a bit about how we can be confident in your reporting on the nature of this operation?
We know that the US intelligence services spied on the deserters because a handful of reports survive from assets who moved with ease in the deserters’ world. The names are coded or redacted, but those documents show that spies were with the deserters at their meetings, in their offices, and even on a trip they made to a Communist Youth festival in Bulgaria. These were sent to the CIA’s headquarters at Langley and should all have gone to the incinerator. Fortunately, some escaped the flames. The Swedish intelligence services also cooperated with the CIA and forwarded information gathered by their undercover operatives. I met one of these—an expert diver and harpoon-fisher who lived for years as a Maoist revolutionary in order to get inside the anti-war movement.
What kinds of people inhabited the ranks of the deserters, and what was their life like in Sweden? Did they expect to simply return home?
Men who wanted to protest the war, men who wanted to join the revolution. Some artists, some con-artists. The situation was so volatile, so febrile. They were reacting to the situation in which they found themselves. Most had no idea what would happen next. [Life was] disorienting. They were young, a long way from home, and had just made the decision of a lifetime. Some came in a very dramatic fashion—smuggled by Japanese anti-war activists into the Soviet Union, where they were pressured to go on television and denounce the US. Some responded to that pressure by inventing stories of atrocity. When the KGB judged them to have done their work, they were flown on to Sweden where, at first, they were treated as heroes, and later as a disruptive influence on Swedish society.
The majority of deserters settled down into regular lives, but a sizable minority turned to crime—mainly petty theft and drug dealing. One tried to rob a bank with a water pistol, but concussed himself on a glass door and was overpowered by a teenage girl. Another attempted to hijack a plane. The bad press peaked in 1973 when two LSD-raddled deserters killed a hotel concierge, then stripped naked and ran, holding hands, through the streets of Malmö.
How did the deserters get so divided that they started turning on one another and engaging in interrogations?
Some were political radicals who wanted to take the fight back to the States. Others just wanted to settle down and build new lives in Sweden. The radicals became moreso as time went on—mainly thanks to the influence of an American expatriate named Michael Vale. Many thought Vale was an agent provocateur, a CIA operative employed to discredit the deserter movement by pushing it in an extreme political direction. But having got to know him, I doubt that. Michael was a revolutionary, and he believed that revolutionaries were made through rough, tough psychological treatment. As one of his protégés, a former US marine, put it: “He degrades you. Tells you that you’re worth nothing. Unless you do what he says. When all the defenses are down, he imposes.” Not so different to being in the marines, I suppose—except Michael’s aim was to start the new American revolution.
It seemed like you suspected some of the former exiles you interviewed weren’t completely honest with you when relating their stories. Why would that be, 50 years later? What's at risk now?
I think almost everyone told me their story to the best of their knowledge, it’s just that sometimes their knowledge was incomplete—or distorted by paranoia or fantasy. I’ll give you one example: a deserter who agreed to speak to me on condition that he used a pseudonym. "Pseudonym" isn’t quite the right word. It was the name of a long-dead child whose identity he used in order to obtain a false passport. Jim deserted from the Marines in 1968 when he received his orders to go to Vietnam. Then he joined the American Deserters Committee in Stockholm.
But in the early 70s, he was among those who came back to the States and got caught up in an organization that remains one of America’s most tenacious and peculiar political cults: the one lead by Lyndon LaRouche. Under its influence, he spent years convinced that one of the leaders of the American Deserters Committee had been a CIA agent who was bending the minds of his comrades to create a network of brainwashed zombies who would do his bidding. Jim has since rid himself of that belief, but suspicion still lingers. To anyone who has lived through such an experience, the question “what happened” isn’t always easy to answer. Often, it felt like I was interviewing people about their dreams.
What do stories like this say about the US government and the lengths its agents will go to protect their interests—and secrets?
They speak of a paranoia inside the White House that the CIA chose to act upon by creating a large and unconstitutional surveillance project called Operation Chaos. But it says as much about how the idea of infiltration and surveillance is as effective a weapon as any spying project. Many deserters have told me that suspicion and paranoia became a way of life—that they could never be sure who was a real deserter and who might be a plant. And a few within that community exploited that paranoia. One deserter made a desperate phone call claiming that he’d been kidnapped in Sweden by the CIA, but had escaped from them and was now lying low in Paris. In reality, he’d committed fraud and fled the country.
Isn’t this stuff largely about a bygone era, though? How relevant is it to the Trump era?
The Vietnam War isn’t in the past. And the suffering it caused wasn’t limited to those who went into battle—the act of desertion carried its own heavy psychological penalties. Just today, the son of a deserter got in touch with me via Twitter. His father, Ray Sansiviero, was 19 when he was wounded at the battle of Khe Sanh and awarded a Purple Heart. He was in a bad way psychologically. He deserted to Sweden via “the high road”—a Japanese anti-war group smuggled him to Russia in a fishing boat, after which the Soviets put him on television and persuaded him to make accusations about American atrocities, then packed him off on a plane to Stockholm. He didn’t stay long. He went back home to face the music, and was given a bad discharge with hard labor. Today he’s still suffering from post-traumatic stress caused by his combat experience. He also has dementia. The Vietnam War isn’t over for him. He deserves peace. The peace that we have, who never had to define our lives by the choice to fight or not to fight.
For the Americans familiar with what remains of his organization, how heavily did Lyndon LaRouche figure into all of this?
We should probably explain who LaRouche is—I think for most people he’s now just a half-forgotten joke in a Halloween episode of The Simpsons. But in 1973, LaRouche became convinced that the CIA and the KGB were plotting to assassinate him, and that some of his followers had been programmed, Manchurian Candidate style, to carry out the act. Some of this brainwashing, he thought, had happened in a secret clinic in Sweden run by one of the leaders of the deserter movement. The rest in the basement of a school in London, where the children were not real, but a series of photographs. It was pretty far-out. But most of his followers went along with it.
They’ve constructed bizarre fantasies around all kinds of people—particularly Henry Kissinger and the Queen of England. Adherents still believe that the Queen controls the international drugs trade and is plotting to start World War Three. One member—a nice guy, really—sends me pictures of the Queen as a rotting zombie pulling the strings of the White House. They hated Obama and used to display posters of him with a Hitler mustache, but at the moment they love Donald Trump, probably because they share his love of the insupportable and the irrational. But I think that’ll change. Everyone ends up part of the Satanic Conspiracy in the end. Most definitely me.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.