Operation Chaos: The Vietnam Deserters Who Fought the CIA, the Brainwashers, and Themselves

Operation Chaos: The Vietnam Deserters Who Fought the CIA, the Brainwashers, and Themselves

by Matthew Sweet


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An untold Cold War story: how the CIA tried to infiltrate a radical group of U.S. military deserters, a tale that leads from a bizarre political cult to the heart of the Washington establishment

Stockholm, 1968. A thousand American deserters and draft-resisters are arriving to escape the war in Vietnam. They’re young, they’re radical, and they want to start a revolution. Some of them even want to take the fight to America. The Swedes treat them like pop stars—but the CIA is determined to stop all that.

It’s a job for the deep-cover men of Operation Chaos and their allies—agents who know how to infiltrate organizations and destroy them from inside. Within months, the GIs have turned their fire on one another. Then the interrogations begin—to discover who among them has been brainwashed, Manchurian Candidate-style, to assassinate their leaders.

When Matthew Sweet began investigating this story, he thought the madness was over. He was wrong. Instead, he became the confidant of an eccentric and traumatized group of survivors—each with his own theory about the traitors in their midst.

All Sweet has to do is find out the truth. And stay sane. Which may be difficult when one of his interviewees accuses him of being a CIA agent and another suspects that he’s part of a secret plot by the British royal family to start World War III. By that time, he’s deep in the labyrinth of truths and half-truths, wondering where reality ends and delusion begins.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781627794633
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 02/13/2018
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Matthew Sweet is the author of Inventing the Victorians, Shepperton Babylon, and The West End Front. He is a columnist for Art Quarterly and a contributing editor for Newsweek International, and he presents the BBC radio programs Free Thinking, Sound of Cinema, and The Philosopher’s Arms. He was series consultant on the Showtime drama Penny Dreadful and played a moth from the planet Vortis in the BBC2 drama An Adventure in Space and Time. He lives in London.

Read an Excerpt



A JAPANESE FISHING boat, moving north to Soviet waters. Six Americans in the forward hold below the captain's cabin. Trying to stay warm. Trying to keep their nerve. Trying not to vomit too loudly. One is too drunk to feel seasick. He's up on his feet, swigging from a bottle of sake, peering into the moonless night, swearing he can see dolphins in the water and helicopters in the sky. The others don't bother to look. But when the beam of a searchlight streams through the crack in the door, all six scramble to the porthole, jostling to catch sight of the ship that has come down from the ice floes to meet them.

"It's them, man," says one. "The Russians are coming. We gonna be free now, baby."

Most of us would find it hard to pinpoint the single act that determined the course of our lives. Mark Shapiro can reenact his with the cutlery. When we spent the day together in San Diego, he collected me in a cream-colored vintage Volvo wagon, which was where most of our interview took place — stationary in the hotel parking lot or riding around the streets, where other drivers expressed their admiration for the age of his vehicle by beeping their horns and keeping a wary distance. But we did stop for lunch. And using the implements with which he was about to eat pasta, Mark illustrated the moment during the small hours of April 23, 1968, when he crossed from one life to another.

His knife and fork became two ships on the churning waves of the Sea of Japan. One was the fishing vessel that brought him and his five companions from a little harbor at the northeast tip of Hokkaido island. The other was the Soviet coast guard craft that edged alongside, and that, slammed by the relentless sea, appeared like a cliff soaring and sinking before them.

Between the two vessels was a six-foot span of furious air, through which Mark and his comrades were ordered to jump. Time was limited. The coast guards had boarded the fishing boat and were inspecting the captain's paperwork and checking the hold for contraband, the bureaucratic pretext for maneuvering so close. The Soviets had dragged a mattress to the cutter's deck of their ship and were holding it up like a firefighters' life net. One by one, displaying varying degrees of bravado and terror, the Americans slithered across the fishing boat's deck and around a funnel to reach an area unprotected by railings and open to the sea. One by one they jumped. Into the arms of a gang of Russian sailors, and into history.

* * *

It took three years to persuade Mark Shapiro to meet me. His first email was a blunt rejection. "I do not wish," he wrote, "to be contacted again on the matter." But the deserter grapevine brought him news of my inquiries and he changed his mind. Intimations of mortality also had something to do with it. Mark's health was fragile. He had heart trouble, and he slept with an oxygen cylinder by his bed. A tumor, he said, was growing in his skull. (He traced his finger over the place where it lay buried.) He knew that his time was limited and wanted to answer a question that was gnawing away at him. He wanted to expose the mole within the American Deserters Committee. His suspect was not among the five who traveled with him from Japan. The man upon whom Mark's suspicions turned — the man he'd been trying to catch out for years — had arrived in Sweden months before him, and he was one of the founders of the ADC. I said I would do my best.

I knew the bones of Mark's story from the accounts of his peers. On his tour of duty with the army in Vietnam, he'd found it hard to stomach talk of "gooks" and "slant-eyed bastards." Then, out on patrol one day, the soldier beside him was felled by a Viet Cong bullet. A murderous wake-up call for twenty-two-year-old Corporal Shapiro, with an unblemished service record and good prospects for promotion as a military cryptographer.

I was ready to take down more details, but Mark seemed incapable of fleshing out his narrative. Instead, he told me a story about his recent visit to a hypnotherapist.

"I told him that there was something in my past that I wanted to remember," he said. "And I didn't tell him any more than that. The guy was a little skeptical. He asked for the money in advance." The next thing Mark remembers is having his cash pressed back into his hand, and the therapist, visibly perturbed, assuring him that some stones were best left unturned. "So," Mark told me, with a shrug, "I have nothing to say about Vietnam. It's a form of amnesia." I accepted the explanation. I was already used to thinking of my interviewees as jigsaws with missing pieces.

Mark's decision to desert was not so lost to him. It was a textbook example of the act. In the first days of 1968, he read a newspaper article about four men who had successfully escaped the war. They had been on leave in Japan but were now poised to begin new lives in neutral Sweden. Their names were Craig Anderson, Rick Bailey, John Barilla, and Michael Lindner, but the press nicknamed them "the Intrepid Four," after the U.S. aircraft carrier that had sailed without them from Yokosuka, the Japanese home of the Seventh Fleet. Another expression was also used to describe them. Defectors. Used in recognition of what many saw as an act of treachery.

On their journey from east to west, the Intrepid Four had passed through the Soviet Union and accepted several weeks of Russian hospitality. Maybe more than hospitality. They had shared their antiwar sentiments with the international press, attended celebrations for the fiftieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, shaken hands with members of the Politburo, and flown from Leningrad to Stockholm with a $1,000 stipend from the Kremlin in their pockets. But they looked pretty happy in the photographs, waving and smiling on the tarmac at Stockholm Arlanda Airport, with their neat new haircuts and sharp new suits. And nobody was asking them to kill anyone in an increasingly unpopular war. Mark decided to follow their example and booked himself some R & R in Tokyo.

The news reports offered another helpful detail. The Intrepid Four did not make their journey unaided. They had been smuggled into Russia by an outfit called Beheiren, a group of activists who were fast becoming the focus of the Japanese antiwar movement. Beheiren had organized a rally in Tokyo at which Joan Baez had performed. It had taken out full-page ads in the Washington Post declaring that 82 percent of the Japanese population was opposed to the Vietnam War. It had sent its members to U.S. naval bases with leaflets encouraging sailors to desert, intending to make a provocative gesture — and had been rather surprised to find the offer being taken up. All over Japan, doctors, teachers, shopkeepers, and Buddhist monks began preparing hiding places and airing the spare bedding.

Beheiren, however, was a loose-knit organization, and when Mark arrived in Tokyo, determined to make contact, nobody seemed to know its address. "So," he explained, "I got into a cab and just said, 'Beheiren.'" The driver thought for a moment and made for Tokyo University and the office of Oda Makoto, a Harvard-educated novelist and academic who was the group's most visible spokesperson — the man who had gone before the cameras to announce the disappearance of the Intrepid Four. Makoto made some calls, and his associates sprang instantly into action.

By the end of the day Mark had checked out of his hotel and was installed in a Beheiren safe house. He soon discovered that he wasn't the only deserter being sheltered by the group. Five others were also in hiding, kept in circulation among the homes of sympathizers across Japan until the time was right to make the journey to Russia. "When I eventually met the others it was a shock," Mark said. "We had nothing in common, and it was immediately clear that two of them were nutcases."

His first American companion fit squarely into the category. Philip Callicoat was a nineteen-year-old sailor whose swaggering manner was at odds with his lowly status as a cook's helper on board the USS Reeves. Perhaps the attitude was a gift from his background: his father was a Pentecostal minister who press-ganged his enormous brood of children into service as the Singing Callicoats — a gospel act best known for having saved Ed Sullivan from humiliation by breaking into an unscheduled second number when a chimp act went badly wrong during a live TV show. Phil Callicoat had turned up at the Soviet Embassy seeking advice on how to defect, but his motives had less to do with politics and more to do with having drunk the last of his $120 savings in an all-night Tokyo jazz bar. Navy discipline did not suit him, and he had recently been confined to his ship for twenty-eight days for vandalism. He and Mark were brought together on a train from Osaka to Tokyo, then put up for the night in the apartment of a visiting French academic. Mark sensed that Phil was going to be trouble, and he was right.

The fugitives were taken to Tokyo International Airport, where three more deserters made a party of five. The noisiest was Joe Kmetz, a bullish New Yorker whose opposition to the war, he said, had earned him a month in a dark isolation cell on a diet of bread, water, and lettuce heads. The oldest of the group, twenty-eight-year-old Edwin Arnett, was a skinny, stooping Californian who chewed his fingernails and spoke in slow, somnolent tones. He was not a clever man. His educational progress had halted after the eighth grade, after which he'd trundled gurneys in a New York hospital and spent two years in the merchant marine. The army had expressed no interest in him until 1967, when a Defense Department initiative called "Project 100,000" — cruelly nicknamed the "Moron Corps" — admitted a huge swathe of low-achieving men. The other deserters called him "Pappy" — partly in honor of his age, partly to distance themselves from his oddness.

The sanest of the gang, it seemed clear to Mark, was its only African American: Corporal Terry Marvel Whitmore, a marine infantryman from Memphis, Mississippi, who had been wounded in action in Vietnam and received a Christmas bedside visit from President Lyndon B. Johnson, who saluted his bravery and pinned a Purple Heart to the pillow. When Whitmore learned he was also to receive the honor of being returned to the front as soon as he was upright, he discharged himself from the military hospital at Yokohama and lay low with a Japanese girlfriend, pretending to anyone who asked that he was a student from East Africa — and hoping not to encounter any actual East Africans.

Their Beheiren guide, a Mrs. Fujikowa, encouraged the deserters to behave discreetly on their trip. Easier said than done. As they boarded the plane, Mark got into an argument with the flight attendant about the size of his suitcase. When they landed at their destination, Nemuro airport on the island of Hokkaido, Phil Callicoat struck up a loud conversation with a local bar owner whose establishment offered more than just cocktails.

Before they could get into any serious trouble, the deserters were steered toward a pair of waiting cars and driven for four hours to a remote spot on the coast, where a gaggle of Beheiren sympathizers were huddled around a radio unit, exchanging messages with a Soviet ship — which informed them that the handover would have to wait until the following night. The plan postponed, the Americans were taken to a nearby fishing village, where the captain of their escape vessel was waiting at his home to greet them. He poured out the sake and told his nervous guests not to worry. He had been a kamikaze pilot in the Second World War, and he had come back.

The following night, the captain supplied the deserters with a change of clothes calculated to increase their chances of passing as Japanese fishermen during the short walk from his house to the floodlit harbor. Terry Whitmore wrapped himself in a blanket to conceal his conspicuous blackness. Fortified with more alcohol, the deserters went out into the freezing night and climbed aboard their host's fishing boat. They were told to stay belowdecks and keep quiet: most of the crew were unaware of their existence. As the vessel began chugging from the harbor, a sixth man stumbled into the hold: army private Kenneth Griggs, born in Seoul but adopted as a baby by a white couple from Boise, Idaho. Griggs — who introduced himself under his Korean name, Kim Jin-Su — had spent the better part of a year hiding out in the Cuban Embassy in Tokyo, and he seemed to have made good use of the free literature. His reasons for desertion were expressed as an intense critique of U.S. imperialism. He had a position to maintain: he had already said his piece in a four-minute film, shot by Beheiren and screened for journalists in a Tokyo restaurant.

When the Russian coast guard pulled alongside, Kim was the first to jump, leaping with reckless enthusiasm into Soviet-administered space. Joe Kmetz, his fears numbed by alcohol, went just as eagerly. Callicoat followed, sliding across the deck and launching himself with a Tarzan yodel. Mark went next. Hesitated. Watched the rust-marked hull of the Russian ship surge up and down before his eyes. "Jump, you dumb cunt!" shouted Kmetz, unsympathetically. Arms flailing, Mark made it, his suitcase tossed after him by the Japanese skipper.

Edwin Arnett, though, was in a worse state, paralyzed by the sight of the rising, falling ship. Whitmore muscled past him, hurled himself across the divide, and was caught by two burly Russian sailors before he hit the deck. Left behind, Arnett seemed unable to compute the physics of the situation. Instead of jumping as the Russian ship fell, he jumped as it rose, colliding with the railing and leaving himself dangling over the sea by one leg. Whitmore and one of the Russians dragged him back to safety.

* * *

The Soviet ship was old. The plumbing hissed and thudded. The deserters registered the signs in Cyrillic and knew that they had passed from one political sphere to the next. But the Russians made them comfortable, allocating the deserters quarters beside the officers and giving them as much vodka as they could hold. For their whole time in the Soviet Union, it seemed to Mark, they were carried on a small river of colorless alcohol. "I guess," he reflected, "they thought it would increase the amount of careless talk."

There were toasts at dinner. To each other. To the interpreter, an incongruously flamboyant man with a cigarette holder. To the captain, who ended the meal by challenging his guests to a drinking game. Only Callicoat accepted, pushing a hunk of black bread inside his mouth and taking a huge slug of some unidentified spirit. He was soon carried back to his bunk.

For four days and nights the deserters knocked back vodka, dined on salmon, looked through the portholes, and watched the thickening ice. The interpreter took the opportunity to steer each man away from the group for a thorough discussion of his background and history. On April 25 the ship neared the coast of Sakhalin island, where a patrol boat brought the passengers ashore. Officials confiscated their passports and identity papers. A doctor examined Arnett's injured leg and shrugged.

Then, for four dizzying, vodka-sluiced, bouquet-filled, flashbulb-illuminated weeks, Mark Shapiro and his comrades went on a publicity tour of the USSR: Vladivostok, Moscow, Tbilisi, Gorki, Leningrad, with a short break in the Black Sea resort of Batumi. They accepted flowers from little girls. They saw circus shows. They browsed at the GUM department store. They visited Lenin's tomb. ("Who's Lenin?" asked Terry Whitmore.) They saw more circus shows. All under the supervision of a small staff of well-mannered KGB officers and neckless security men in Al Capone fedoras. Some of the security men, they learned, had also kept an eye on the Intrepid Four. One had been taught a single phrase of English, which he repeated over and over again: American cinema — I love you.

In Leningrad the deserters were installed in the Hotel Astoria, where Mark shared a room with Terry Whitmore. "Terry could hear this whining noise," Mark recalled. "He was convinced that the Russians were bugging the room. So he turned everything over, looking for a hidden microphone. But it was only the sound of the elevator. Just being in Russia made us all nervous."

Their edginess caused conflict: Kim and Callicoat got into a fistfight, apparently over Kim's plan to acquire and burn an American flag. On the rare occasions they were allowed to wander about on their own, the deserters assumed they were being followed. Assumed, too, that they were being informed on by the local women who were so eager to come up to their rooms — not least because they seemed so fascinated by the intricacies of the U.S. Navy. The minders never objected to these one-night stands, as long as they took place in the hotel. Conversely, when Whitmore and Kmetz broke bounds and spent the night with two women in an apartment, the security guys were not pleased and accused them of going out on a spying mission for the CIA. It wasn't, it seems, a very relaxing evening: the women expected payment and though the Americans obliged, they were soon interrupted by a jealous husband, who upended the dining table in anger and then, rather more weirdly, began to show a gentle curiosity in the texture of Terry Whitmore's hair.


Excerpted from "Operation Chaos"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Matthew Sweet.
Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Who's Who in Operation Chaos xi

Introduction: Deep Snow 1

1 The High Road 11

2 The Committee 26

3 The Translator 44

4 The Jerum Affair 56

5 Petunia 72

6 The Birth of Chaos 91

7 The Split 105

8 The Infiltrators 123

9 Out of Love 143

10 The Next Step 163

11 Beyond Psychoanalysis 174

12 The Brainwashers 189

13 The Zombie Army 209

14 Operation Destruction 228

15 The Believers 241

16 The Assassins 266

17 The End of the World 292

18 Cliffhanger 304

Notes 315

Acknowledgments 349

Index 353

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