Review of: Operation Chaos: the Vietnam Deserters who Fought the CIA, the Brainwashers, and Themselves by Matthew Sweet 2018
Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA and the Secret History of the Sixties by Tom O’Neill and Dan Piepenbring 2019
The scope of covert action could include: (1) political advice and counsel; (2) subsidies to an individual; (3) financial support and “technical assistance” to political parties; ( 4) support of private organizations, including labor unions, business firms, cooperatives, etc.; (5) covert propaganda; (6) “private” training of individuals and exchange of persons; (7) economic operations; and (8) paramilitary [or] political action operations designed to overthrow or to support a regime (like the Bay of Pigs and the programs in Laos). These operations can be classified in various ways: by the degree and type of secrecy required [,] by their legality, and, perhaps, by their benign or hostile character. – Richard Bissell, ex deputy director, CIA, in a secret conference, 1968.
In French, there are two words corresponding to conspiracy in English: conspiration and conjuration. All analogy hunting is imperfect, and I will leave out a third word, complot, to make a conceptual point: conspiration is usually taken to refer to the machinations of an occult society from below, seeking some purpose that dare not be pursued openly due to the rational fear that the forces of order would crush it. Conjuration – a swearing-together – is usually taken to refer to a secret group on some higher echelon of society – aristocrats, the king’s ministers, generals. A cabal, the Littré says. Conjuration survives in English as conjure – to call up spirits. In Greek, horkos is to swear, from which we derive the latin exorcizo – exorcize. There is, in the semantic field of the oath, some further connection with the spirits, with elemental powers. That’s a rich field, since it encompasses not only the popular dread of secret policemen and the hidden moves of power players, but also the notion of the unearthly, the uncanny. Indeed, both of these themes have converged continually during the Cold War – that war culture that began in 1945 and was declared over after the overthrow of Soviet power in Russia in 1991. A war culture that gave birth to our own war culture, which is continually searching for a general purpose and a demon enemy.
Although English does not make the same distinction between conspiration and conjuration as French does, you can see that the concept works in any discussion of conspiracy. Conspiracy is allowed, even used as a justification, if it is a breathing together of the enemy, the Other. Thus, communists, the dangerous working class, the Islamic terrorists, are targeted as conspirators, and have been regularly shown to conspire by the establishment press in America, and the political/academic establishment in general. Osama bin Laden’s band conspires. On the other hand, hints of conjuration – of high levels working together as a cabal – almost immediately drive the establishment crazy. The CIA would never conspire to, say, bring narcotics into the country. The FBI would never be an accomplice to the assassination of civil rights leaders. And if by some happenstance we uncover, say, a scheme to sell arms to Iran to supply arms to mercenaries in Nicaragua, this is an aberration and not something that the American government would in any way regularly do. This is conspiracy theory territory. In the post World War II period, the theory of conjuration has been medicalized (as a paranoid delusion) and diabolized (as always involving the kind of Elders of Zion myth popularized by the Nazis).
Because of this conceptual line, we still have an odd and unbalanced history of the twentieth century. After the Soviet Union fell apart, for a brief period, the records of the KGB became available on an unprecedented scale, as did the secret police records of all the Eastern European states. These records have been read naively by academics – mainly the ideologically hardcore among them – as though they told the complete truth. From them, we can get a record of subversives among us. Never mind that bureaucratic files overflow with optimistic statements, obfuscations, lies and error in any organization, not to speak of a secret one. But the records of the intelligence agencies on the winning side – those of the U.S., the U.K., France, Italy, etc. – are still a matter of dribs and drabs, of troves of documents heavily redacted by the intelligence agencies themselves, or of troves discovered accidentally and revealed, usually, in hole-in-the-corner lefty publications. One would think that the enormous expansion of police powers and the various “organs” of intelligence should have, by now, achieved the kind of gravitas to deserve serious historical treatment even given this hostile terrain, but as Alain Dewerpe points out in Espion: une anthropologie historique du secret d’Etat contemporaine, the historical profession has made investigation in conjuration a no-go area, one that arouses suspicion of kookiness. Which is why the literature on, say, the CIA during the postwar period is still driven by journalists, sewing fact to fact, speculation to speculation. These journalists are regularly jeered at by the “historians” of the CIA’s house journal, Studies in Intelligence, for their use of anonymous sources and their method of using associations and analogies to establish causes. Of course, the cynicism of these in-house, bought off historians is functional: after all, we use indirection and supposition because the CIA has laws to protect the release of its records, and has long dodged any uncensored release of the material around, for instance, even such an ancient matter as the Kennedy assassination. It is important to see, too, that it is ideological: in the twentieth century, the right and its allies have long made their homes in spy agencies and police departments. From taking the Soviet Union for an enemy to taking any supposed “weakening” of attitude towards the Soviet Union for subversion is an easy step. Similarly, these departments were, for most of the cold war, very very white, and very very suspicious of black politicians and activists. Thus, your average libertarian or far right group had little to fear from the cops or the spies: but every leftist group offering even the mildest critique of the war culture, capitalism, or the state of race relations was on the target list.
These are circumstances that have, as it were, blown back on the spirit of democracy in many countries – the U.S. being one of them. If the population is largely suspicious, as every poll shows it is, of the Warren Commission story about the JFK assassination, and if the response of the establishment defenders is to label such suspicions “paranoid”, it will soon become impossible to trust the establishment defenders, and indeed the state itself, as an honest dialogue partner. The historian Richard Hofstadter, in 1964 (the year in which the Federal government lied about the Tonkin Bay incident, thus pushing U.S. into the most active phase of the Vietnam War), influentially cast the idea that conspiracy theory is a product of a “paranoid” style in American culture. Distrust of the motives of the governors, and their tendency to hide information and manipulate events to their profit, which was common sense to the Founding fathers and is the premise of any advertising campaign worth its retainer, is haughtily dismissed when it is expressed by the groundlings. The model, which has been followed to this day by such “influencers” as Cass Sunstein, is to laugh at the notion that something is rotten in a state in which agencies who are resourced with hundreds of billions of dollars get to choose their level of transparency. The problem of conspiracy beliefs, then, can be countered with clever practical tricks. In Sunstein’s Conspiracy theories and Other Dangerous Idea), the suggest is: “Our main policy claim here is that government should engage in cognitive infiltration of the groups that produce conspiracy theories.” This echoes the program followed by the CIA in the 1960s and 70s, called Operation Chaos. It has, predictably, spawned conspiracy theories about Sunstein himself, which then get turned around and used to show that look, all notion that there is some occult collusion at high levels of the government is nuts! – the last bit of the cycle falling to an article by Andrew Marantz at the New Yorker, who portrays Sunstein and his enemies with zero historical consciousness about the rich history of “cognitive infiltration” by the government in marginal groups, mostly leftwing, throughout the twentieth century.
Marantz’s lack of notice of the FBI, CIA, Military Intelligence and the infinite variety of homegrown subversives divisions generated by urban police departments is in contrast to pop culture’s hyper-attention: Netflix writers, for instance, regularly so regularly use MKUltra as their muse that the heirs of Sidney Gottlieb could probably sue for points. Conspiracy (or, as I will call it from now on, conjuration) is a popular framework for films, tv, and fiction, from Gravity’s Rainbow to the X files. For leftist artists, it has resulted in the replacement of earnest socialist realism (in which workers produce and are exploited) with glitzy assassination plots (in which freelancers with guns and no pension plans are the vital political players). JFK, here, is vaguely assimilated to King Arthur, just as the bogus Camelot label promised, and the king is always being brought down by evil. Conjuration, here, stands in contrast to your random superhero film, where the enemy is more usually a conspirator of the old police tradition – a criminal after the wealth of the wealthiest, in alliance, often, with some vaguely leftist extremist – see Poison Ivy in the Batman films, a veritable Earth Firster, for testimony.
There has been generous notice paid to Tom O’Neill’s book on Manson, which, if the book is accurate, might well help O’Neill over an obvious financial hump, since he gives us a record of failed deadlines and aborted publishing contracts. I imagine the notice is due, in part, to the intersection of celebrity culture and conspirace: Manson’s gang, slaughtering a minor celebrity, made Manson a major celebrity, with his murders generating a little cottage industry, while the problem over these seemingly unmotivated slaughters seems to call out for some conspiratorial solution. O’Neill is an entertainment journalist. He is, unfortunately, not equipped with any kind of investigative methodology. His thesis – or one of his theses – is that the famous legend of Helter Skelter, used by Vincent Bugliosi to convict Manson, was bogus. It isn’t that Manson was not a acid-tripping racist: it is simply not a very good omnium gatherum to make sense of Manson’s intent and history. As an unravelling of Bugliosi’s thesis, O’Neill’s book would make a good article, since he has the goods. But O’Neill is after more – after the enigma of Manson’s career arc, his seeming impunity for a series of minor crimes while on parole, and the clutz-y police investigation of the Tate murders that allowed, O’Neill claims, Manson’s gang to murder again. Unfortunately for O’Neill’s thesis, he is often at a loss where to look or how to look. He notices the incredibly loose treatment given to Manson by his parole officer in 1968-9, but it doesn’t seem to occur to him to ask whether the California system of parole at this period was dysfunctional by, say, comparing Manson’s case to others. Of course, it could be both: the system could have been dysfunctional and Manson could have been a police informer. If O’Neill were clearer about such methodological matters, I would trust him more: after all, what is an investigator without a method? O’Neill does show how Bugliosi distorted time frames and sheltered some celebrity droids making his Helter Skelter case (which itself is built on a silent editorial correction, since the Manson family apparently couldn’t spell “helter skelter”: “Healter Skelter” was how it was spelled out on the Labianca refrigerator in Rosemary Labianca’s blood by Patricia Krenwinkle. The illiteracy of the master mind always makes one suspect that he isn’t such a master mind after all). But O’Neill’s own theory that connects Manson to the CIA programs that experimented with LSD on unsuspecting subjects is severely under-evidenced. Again, comparison here would have been O’Neill’s friend: we know, or at least it is claimed, that Whitey Bulger was the subject of a prison house LSD experiment, and Bulger definitely came out of that one sadistic son of a bitch. Manson, though, never made such claims. We know that the CIA, through the offices of George White (a cop of such astounding corruption that he could have sprung straight from an underground comic or a Philip Dick novel), did experiment on unwitting victims with LSD and various “mind control” techniques in the San Francisco area, but O’Neill never finds evidence that Manson was one of the “low user population” on which these tricks were played.
These inadequacies, it turns out, furnish the connective thesis in the book: how one writer can go down the rabbit hole of a crime story and not find his way back. O’Neill essentially destroys his career and his bank account pursuing this story past every conceivable deadline. The fact that this is co-written with a seasoned New Yorker journalist hints at the fact that O’Neill is over his head.
It still seems to me that the best book about the Manson family is Ed Sanders The Family, written in the white heat of the moment without the copsweat and apologetic that is leaked all over the story by Bugliosi. Sanders is a poet. Chesterton’s most famous detective is a priest, Father Brown, but I have never found those stories satisfying. His greatest crime novel, The Man who Was Thursday, does have a satisfying poet/investigator, Syme, who detective m.o. comes from St. Paul: now we see as in a mirror darkly. And thus Sanders sniffs the air of collective madness in the larger scene of Manson’s crimes, that prosperous Southern California of the 60s, driven economically by the war industries, oil, entertainment and real estate.
It is no coincidence that Matthew Sweet’s book contains, in its title, the same reference to Chaos as is in O’Neill’s book. Or that the book takes on some of the same patterns: the same gathering of obsession as the author finds major discrepancies in the public record of a marginal event, the same chasing down of living participants or witnesses, the same inability to bring the story to closure.
Matthew Sweet is O’Neill’s superior as both a writer and researcher, which elevates his book from one that contains some interesting information to one that contains an interest in itself. He has a background in researching the literature of sensational literature – from the Victorian era – that has gone into previous semi-academic books, bringing to bear a broader cultural stock than O’Neill can claim.
Sweet began his book by investigating a rather obscure episode in the Vietnam War – the GIs who deserted the front and made it, by hook or crook, to Sweden. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) is prescient in imagining Sweden as a utopian destination for the potential deserter, Yossarian, a flyer in WW2:
“Yossarian was the squadron’s leading authority on internment and had already begun plotting an emergency heading into Switzerland on every mission he flew into northernmost Italy. He would certainly have preferred Sweden, where the level of intelligence was high and where he could swim nude with beautiful girls with low, demurring voices and sire whole happy, undisciplined tribes of illegitimate Yossarians that the state would assist through parturition and launch into life without stigma; but Sweden was out of reach, too far away, and Yossarian waited for the piece of flak that would knock out one engine over the Italian Alps and provide him with the excuse for heading for Switzerland.”
Yossarian became the archetype for a certain demoralized soldier in America’s last draft-army war, Vietnam. Many of them, helped by war resister networks, made their way to Sweden, where they met various Milo Minderbenders, among which is the figure that sails through Sweet’s book like some hapless underground prince: Michael Vale. Milo, as Catch-22 fans will know, has mysterious business connections throughout the war theater, and keeps appearing in the oddest company. Vale was a lefty connector, with mysterious resources (he claimed it was from translation work) and a good line in the oncoming revolution, for which he trained his recruits among the deserters by cramming them with the proper texts (some Trotsky, some Marx, some Wilhelm Reich). He seemed just to pop up among this group. In due course, he subjected them to the struggle sessions (ego-stripping) that, in one way or another, marked the Zeitgeist.
Sweet’s topic converges, blindly, with Tom O’Neill’s when we get to the dread and fascinating topic of mind-control techniques. O’Neill connects Manson’s brainwashing of the family through LSD, rape and harassment to similar techniques that were explored by the CIA. However, Manson seems to be responding more in tune with a larger fashion, here, than with the narrow training provided by some CIA agent. In fact, such psychological techniques (plus or minus the hallucinogens) were manifested in the sixties and seventies all over the world, in disparate venues, from the Chinese cultural revolution to Esalen (which was in Manson’s back yard, so to speak) to various quasi-academic, quasi-leftist groups in New York City. The encounter group, as they came to be called, grew out of training sessions for managers in the fifties. One must remember that the military-industrial complex extended to the question of organizations in business: McNamara, who helped study efficient modes of military organization in WWII, brought this training to Ford Motor Company, where he pioneered new number-based control systems, and then back to the Pentagon under Kennedy. Training managers to be self-critical was one of the new psychological innovations brought about by the war. The encounter group form then grew out of its corporate jacket. The new feminist wave of the seventies owes much to “consciousness raising groups”, which employed a form of encounter pioneered by psychological therapists. The form of the “circle” in which private or clandestine information and dialogue was encouraged describes, as well, certain aspects of the CIA itself. Matthew Sweet quotes the director of the MKUlta operation, Henry Rositzke, who wrote a book about the CIA after he retired
“They form a society of their own, with purposes and standards distinct from those of the nation. Prolonged immersion in the segregated, self-contained, and self-justifying world of deception and secrecy tends to erode links to reality,” he argued. “The misuse and abuse of the CIA may have been as much the result of the inner momentum of an isolated and hallucinatory bureaucracy as of the interference of Presidents.”
Gone are the days when, as one Group encounter guide published in the 70s put it, “everybody has by now encountered an encounter group” – but the encounter circle is still there, and the idea that some such circle is run by evil – Satanists, terrorists, leftists or rightists – is still hugely influential. If the CIA has, by its very nature, diminished the American confidence that the people in any way control the government, they have also enriched pop culture with a recurrent twentieth and twentieth century motif: the encounter group form gone bad.
Sweet’s book was, as it were, wrung from him against his will. Like many writers of books following the lefthand path of paranoia, Sweet became as much the prisoner of his story as its teller. All of those who write about “secret histories” seem, at one point or another, to suffer from the Ancient Mariner syndrome:
Since then, at an uncertain hour
That agony returns:
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.
In Sweet’s case, his intention to write a book about deserters from the Second World War to the present first diverged into the subculture of the Vietnam war deserters in Sweden, and then wildly went after various historical anomalies, as for instance the LaRouche political cult, the assassination of Olaf Palme, and the persistence of mysteries concerning the CIA in the seventies in Europe. In the midst of this, he was “swallowed by his story”:
“I had a growing sense that I was exploring events that were mysterious even to those who had actually experienced them—and that those mysteries were now exerting their power over me.”
I found Sweet’s story more compelling than the replay of the Manson narrative because the later really didn’t mark the end of hippiedom or anything so culturally important (hippiedom was wiped out by the oil embargo of 1973 and the subsequent end of the on the road saga), while the LaRouche people whose doings Sweet records in detail, crazy as they are and were, seem eerily prescient of the cult around Donald Trump. The constant paranoia, the existence of fictional conspiracies that mask real ones, the whole anti-democratic atmosphere of the CIA operation, these have become much more real to us as we stumble further into the 21st century. The century of Stranger Things, indeed.