A decorated hero in WW II, he ran death squad operations in North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in the Cold War; and was fired by Jimmy Carter for challenging civilian authority over the military.
When Philip Agee resigned from the CIA in the late 1960s, he embarked on a crusade to expose agency officers who had engaged in criminal activities.
One who clearly fit that designation was Major General John K. Singlaub, one of the CIA’s original members who died on January 29th at the age of 100.
Admirers point to Singlaub’s extraordinary courage on the battlefield in fighting the Nazis during World War II, and call him “the kind of guy you’d like to have on your side in a barroom brawl.”
But detractors point to his part in some of the dirtiest dirty tricks of the CIA, involving blatant violation of international laws.
In the 1980s, Singlaub set up private intelligence networks with Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North to finance the Nicaraguan Contras, a right-wing terrorist army intent on sabotaging the 1979 Sandinista-led socialist revolution, after Congress cut off funding for them under the 1984 Boland Amendment.
TV journalist Mike Wallace called Singlaub the “virtual director of the Contra War.” At the time, he was chairman of the World Anti-Communist League, which supported a collection of right-wing dictators, neo-Nazis, terrorists, and drug lords in the fight against communism.
Back in the 1950s, Singlaub had helped organize an anti-communist guerrilla force that was trained and equipped for partisan warfare behind enemy lines as CIA Deputy Chief of Station in Seoul during the Korean War.
South Korean and Chinese nationalists were air-dropped into North Korea on largely suicidal missions in which the “rate of return was very low,” according to a CIA historian. Some of the recruits had been coerced after prolonged torture at Koje-do island prison and had anti-communist slogans tattooed on their skin, which marked them for death.
From 1966 to 1968, Singlaub led secret CIA kill-and-capture missions into North Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, the latter in violation of the 1962 Geneva Accords mandating Laos’s neutrality.
The CIA recruited ethnic minority groups—Montagnards, Nung, and Hmong—whom one of Singlaub’s counterparts characterized as “mercenaries, paid to fight someone else’s war.” Their mission was to sneak up on enemy soldiers while they were sleeping, kill as many of them as possible, and get on without loss. Surprise, Kill, Vanish.
Born in Independence, California, on July 10, 1921, Singlaub first developed his expertise in guerrilla warfare as a Jedburgh, an elite para-military group, operating behind enemy lines in France during World War II. He earned numerous decorations in World War II, including for his role in helping to rescue 400 Allied prisoners on Hainan Island in South China.
Singlaub had joined the Army during his senior year at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), where his study of French had made him an attractive recruit for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS)—the precursor to the CIA.
Singlaub’s case officer in France was none other than William J. Casey, the future CIA Director. He also served with future CIA Director William J. Colby and Lucien “Lou” Conein, another legendary CIA officer who was involved in the assassination of U.S. client Ngo Dinh Diem.
Toward the end of the war, Singlaub trained guerrilla units in Vietnam to fight the Japanese—young Vietnamese volunteers from Ho Chi Minh’s Vietminh forces whom Singlaub two decades later would fight against.
He worked out of China’s OSS Kumming Station which used opium to fund anti-Japanese units. Colleagues there included Paul Helliwell, later the Mafia’s CIA liaison, Ray Cline, future CIA Deputy Director, future CIA Director Richard Helms, and Watergate felon E. Howard Hunt.
Believing that any negotiation with communists was futile, Singlaub was assigned by the CIA at the end of World War II to Manchuria where he trained Nationalist guerrillas fighting Maoists in a doomed cause in China’s civil war.
While in Manchuria, Singlaub recruited a network of exiled White Russians, some of whom went on to work for anti-Soviet organizations set up by the CIA like Radio Liberty (Radio Free Europe).
Following the declaration of the People’s Republic of China, Singlaub was put on trial as a spy and condemned to death in absentia.
He nevertheless expressed appreciation for the Red Army’s “perfection of night movements and attacks” and “skillful use of deception tactics and psychological warfare to confuse the enemy”—which served as a model for U.S.-trained guerrillas in the Cold War.
Terror and Deception
Singlaub in this period emerged as a specialist in unconventional warfare, which employed sabotage and guerrilla tactics combined with economic and psychological warfare, disinformation and civic-action programs designed to “win hearts and minds.”
Black operations that Singlaub led in the Indochina War included the dressing up of U.S. proxy soldiers as Vietcong so that atrocities they committed could be blamed on them.
His secret teams would snatch prisoners, destroy the enemy rice supply (Singlaub at one point proposed spraying food contaminants), and call in Rome plow bulldozers or air strikes to wipe out villages. Singlaub believed that, when confronting a “skilled, dedicated and devious enemy” like the Vietcong, “terror and deception were legitimate weapons.”
These weapons were adopted in the Phoenix Program, which Singlaub helped to direct. It resulted in the killing of at least 40,000 Vietnamese and torture of countless more in grossly overcrowded U.S.-run prisons.
After returning home from Vietnam, Singlaub suffered the indignity of having a young woman shout obscenities at him in an airport and having his son’s teacher call his son a “killer’s kid.”
Claiming that Richard Nixon showed “great moral courage” in his famous Christmas bombing of North Vietnam in 1972 in which the Haiphong harbor was illegally mined, Singlaub blamed the media for distorting the achievements of the U.S. military in Vietnam.
He also blamed the anti-war movement for launching “an organized assault on troop morale,” claiming that some anti-war groups in Europe had received funding from the Soviets and East Germans.
In the early 1970s, Singlaub enlisted his services in Nixon’s War on Drugs by helping to develop an army drug program, which forced soldiers who tested positive on urinalysis tests to stay an extra ten days in Vietnam to undergo drug rehabilitation—something many soldiers likened to a brutal incarceration.
Insubordination and Conservative Lobbying
In 1977, Jimmy Carter removed Singlaub as the military’s chief of staff in South Korea after he told a Washington Post reporter that the president’s plan to withdraw American troops there could lead to another North Korean invasion.
Subsequently, Singlaub became a spokesman for conservative military lobby groups, such as the American Security Council (ASC).
They aimed to block arms control agreements with the Soviets, pressed for the modernization of America’s nuclear arsenal, aggressive intervention in Third World countries, arming of anti-communist resistance forces, and ever higher military budgets—even though Carter had presided over the largest peacetime military budget in history.
Rambo Reagan’s Man
In the 1980 election, Singlaub helped craft the Republican Party’s foreign policy platform, having found a kindred soul in Ronald Reagan, whom he said “represented the principles of peace through strength I had been advocating for.”
Singlaub helped advance the Reagan Doctrine—advocating for the rollback of communism in the Third World—through the Western Goals Foundation, a private intelligence network that he co-founded with Congressman Larry McDonald (D-GA), former chairman of the John Birch Society, which was financed by Texas oil billionaire Nelson Bunker Hunt who lamented the abolition of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and elimination of domestic surveillance on “subversives.”
The Western Goals Foundation produced propaganda pamphlets and films warning of Soviet subversion in the Third World and championing anti-communist leaders favored by the Reagan administration like Roberto d’Aubuisson who headed the neo-fascist Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) Party in El Salvador.
Supported by Joseph McCarthy’s former attorney, Roy Cohn, the Foundation further provided weapons and material supplies to the Afghan mujahidin, Contras, and Lao resistance forces based in refugee camps in Thailand who were committed to “liberating” their homeland from the pro-communist Pathet Lao, which had won Laos’s civil war.
The Foundation additionally helped the Salvadoran government to suppress a left-wing insurgency that broke out following the assassination of the archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, by d’Aubuisson.
Advocating for the creation of a rural constabulary and reinvigorated counter-insurgency approach, Singlaub worked with Robert Brown, the founder of Soldier of Fortune magazine, to set up a police academy and supply military trainers to the Salvadoran army, which committed 93% of all atrocities in El Salvador’s civil war.
“Rolling Back Communist Domination and Tyranny Everywhere”
After Reagan’s 1980 election victory, Singlaub was invited by the Asian People’s Anti-Communist League (APACL), a branch of the World Anti-Communist League (WACL) founded originally by Chiang Kai-Shek, Mao’s adversary in the Chinese civil war, to address its regional conference, and helped found an American branch named the United States Council for World Freedom (USCWF).
The latter lobbied the Reagan administration to stop pressuring the South African government to amend its apartheid policies and for government support for anti-communist insurgents like RENAMO, a terrorist group opposed to Mozambique’s left-wing government.
The WACL’s 1985 conference at a posh hotel in Dallas was attended by representatives of Paraguay’s Stroessner dictatorship and South Vietnamese exiles seeking to form a guerrilla army to fight Vietnam’s communist government. A Texas heiress, Ellen Garwood, pledged $65,000 for a new helicopter for the Nicaraguan Contras.
Singlaub claimed that he worked to purge extremists from WACL, though the head of the Guatemalan delegation to the 1985 conference, Mario Sandoval Alarcón, was known as the “godfather of Central American death squads.”
Earlier, Singlaub was pictured talking with Yaroslav Stetsko, the leader of Stepan Bandera’s Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists which had collaborated with the Nazis during World War II.
According to Jon Lee and Scott Anderson, the WACL under Singlaub’s leadership evolved into an action-oriented organization that raised considerable funds for anti-communist resistance groups and became an “instrument for the spread of unconventional warfare.”
“The strategy must exploit to the maximum those many weaknesses within the Communist Empire with a view toward rolling back Communist tyranny and domination everywhere,” Singlaub wrote in a June 1984 WACL newsletter.
“Privately Funded Terrorism”
With Nicaragua serving as ground zero for the rollback strategy, Singlaub traveled to Contra bases in Honduras and met privately with Contra leaders such as Enrique Bermúdez, Eden Pastora and Adolfo Calero, providing them with military advice.
When the U.S. Congress cut off aid to the Contras—which had violated international law by mining Nicaraguan harbors—Singlaub raised millions of dollars for them along with other anti-communist groups in Central America privately with the White House’s blessing, soliciting funds from U.S. government allies in Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, Israel and South Korea.
This was in addition to conservative financiers such as Bert Hurlbut, President of the First Texas Royalty and Exploration Company, and Joseph Coors, the beer magnate and financial patron of considerable right-wing activism in the 1970s and 1980s.
Jim Leach (R-IA) called the private groups that funded the Contras “international vigilantes engaged in privately funded terrorism. What we’ve done is unleashed a force accountable to no one.”
The Contras were indeed known for killing Sandinista supporters indiscriminately while trying to destabilize Nicaragua and undermine its socialist government that had won elections in 1984.
One of the few beneficiaries of the war was Singlaub himself: He was appointed to the board of directors of military-defense contractors that supplied the Contras, notably GeoMiliTech Consultants Corporation (GMT), which specialized in the sale of military equipment.
“Epitome of organized crime, but on an international scale”
In 1986, Singlaub was a named defendant in a lawsuit filed by the Christic Institute, a public interest law firm founded by the family of whistleblower Karen Silkwood, who was killed just before she could leak information about being contaminated with plutonium while working for the Kerr-McGee Corporation.
The suit accused Singlaub of participating in terrorism, assassination and drug-smuggling as part of a right-wing cabal that had exhibited undue political power since the end of Richard Nixon’s presidency.
This cabal—which included CIA associates Theodore Shackley, Richard Secord, and Thomas Clines—used proceeds from the drug trade going back to the secret war in Laos to fund nefarious covert activities that extended to the U.S. itself where they had manipulated the 1980 election to ensure Ronald Reagan’s victory.
Daniel P. Sheehan, chief counsel in the lawsuit, said that Singlaub and his associates “represent the very epitome of organized crime, but on an international scale. They deal wholesale in narcotic drugs, illegal weapons, and violence. Rather than take over local businesses or undermine local government, they seek to take over whole nations. They do not hesitate to murder and destroy anyone or anything that gets in their way. By any definition, these defendants, alleged merchants of heroin and terrorism, are organized criminals on a scale larger than life.”
Clinging to an Illusion
Though the lawsuit was dismissed, Singlaub and his associates had indeed operated in the shadows of U.S. foreign policy for decades and were involved in illegal and unethical activities.
Singlaub’s career overall can be seen to epitomize the hubris and tragedy of the “greatest generation.” The triumph in World War II became a double-edged sword: it fueled a feeling of moral righteousness and invincibility that drove numerous foreign policy disasters and injustices.
Obituaries in the mainstream media were predictably sympathetic to Singlaub, glossing over his connection to so much death and destruction.
The New York Times ended its obituary by noting that Singlaub often took walks through Arlington cemetery to “reflect on the battles of my own life.” There he felt a certain coolness and nostalgia as he reached down and untangled his army dog tags, which had stayed around his neck since World War II, “symbolic of my commitment.”
Commitment, one must ask though, to what? To the illusions of the American Century, one could surmise, with its promise of worldwide freedom and prosperity, which died long ago.
Greg Grandin, Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006), p. 150. ↑
See Jon Lee Anderson and Scott Anderson, Inside the League: The Shocking Expose of How Terrorists, Nazis, and Latin American Death Squads Have Infiltrated the World Anti-Communist League (New York: Dodd Mead, 1986). ↑
See Annie Jacobsen, Surprise, Kill, Vanish: The Secret History of CIA Paramilitary Armies, Operators and Assassins (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 2019), p. 49; Major General John K. Singlaub, with Malcolm McConnell, Hazardous Duty: An American Soldier in the Twentieth Century (New York: Summit Books, 1991), pp. 179, 182. Singlaub in his memoir singled out John Paul Vann as an outstanding lieutenant who led reconnaissance patrols deep into the mountains of North Korea, hiking by night and hiding by day. During his time in Korea, Singlaub is thought to have helped lay the groundwork for the creation of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA). ↑
See Jeremy Kuzmarov, “Under the Façade of Benevolence: Psy-Wars, Amnesty and Defectors in America’s Asian Wars,” The International History Review, September 4, 2019. Army Counterintelligence agent Donald Nichols reported that the Korean National Police were “advised to dump untrustworthy agents off the back of a boat in the nude at high speed or give him false information plants—and let the enemy do it for you.” ↑
Singlaub, Hazardous Duty, 17; Jacobsen, Surprise, Kill, Vanish, p. 168. ↑
Jacobsen, Surprise, Kill, Vanish, p. 152. ↑
Jacobsen, Surprise, Kill, Vanish, 152. ↑
Singlaub, Hazardous Duty, ch. 2. ↑
George C. Wilson, “‘Tough, Blunt, No-Nonsense Soldier,’” The Washington Post, May 20, 1977, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1977/05/20/tough-blunt-no-nonsense-soldier/8b0fa42b-8090-4c81-826b-8372561df4b7/ ↑
Singlaub, Hazardous Duty, p. 79. ↑
Singlaub, Hazardous Duty, p. 81; Peter Dale Scott, “Operation Paper: The United States and Drugs in Thailand and Burma,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, November 1, 2010, https://apjjf.org/-Peter-Dale-Scott/3436/article.html. Kumming was at the center of the Guomindang-controlled opium traffic. Singlaub also worked with Mitchell WerBell III, who later became known as “the whispering wizard of death” for his role as an arms merchant and work with death-squad operators and extreme anti-communists. In the early 1980s, Singlaub gave a lecture at a terrorist training camp in Powder Springs Georgia run by his old comrade-in-arms. ↑
Singlaub, Hazardous Duty, pp. 133, 134. In his memoir, Singlaub expressed resentment at State Department officials who favored the communists and felt them naïve in their belief that the U.S. could successfully negotiate with the communists. ↑
Singlaub, Hazardous Duty, p. 158. ↑
Singlaub, Hazardous Duty, p. 160. ↑
Anderson and Anderson, Inside the League, pp. 120, 150. ↑
Singlaub, Hazardous Duty, pp. 296-300, 314. See also Douglas Valentine, The Phoenix Program (New York: William Morrow, 1990). Singlaub at one point proposed using tranquilizer darts to incapacitate enemy prisoners ambushed on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Washington deemed the darts to be unnecessarily cruel. ↑
Singlaub, Hazardous Duty, p. 305. Singlaub claimed that under his command prisoners were treated humanely, stating that “sadism is bad for morale, and in the long run, humane treatment yields more information than brutality.” ↑
Anderson and Anderson, Inside the League, p. 151; Valentine, The Phoenix Program; Jeremy Kuzmarov, Modernizing Repression: Police Training and Nation Building in the American Century (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), ch. 7. ↑
Singlaub, Hazardous Duty, pp. 322, 323, 327, 348. ↑
Singlaub, Hazardous Duty, pp. 343-347. For more detailed discussion of these programs, see Jeremy Kuzmarov, The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009). ↑
Singlaub, Hazardous Duty, p. 423. ↑
See Jerry W. Sanders, Peddlers of Crisis: The Committee on the Present Danger and the Politics of Containment (Boston: South End Press, 1999); Jeremy Kuzmarov, “The Improbable Militarist: Jimmy Carter, the Revolution in Military Affairs, and Limits of the American Two-Party System,” Class, Race and Corporate Power, 6, 2 (2013), https://digitalcommons.fiu.edu/classracecorporatepower/vol6/iss2/7/ ↑
Singlaub, Hazardous Duty, p. 435. Singlaub had pushed for the resumption of military aid to a death-squad regime in Guatemala. Anderson and Anderson, Inside the League, p. 174. ↑
Anderson and Anderson, Inside the League, p. 155. ↑
One of the Western Goals Foundation films was titled: “D’Aubuisson on Democracy.” Anderson and Anderson, Inside the League, p. 156. ↑
Singlaub, Hazardous Duty, p. 456; Anderson and Anderson, Inside the League, p. 238, ↑
Singlaub, Hazardous Duty, pp. 443, 450; Grandin, Empire’s Workshop, p. 142. ↑
Singlaub, Hazardous Duty, pp. 436, 440. ↑
Doyle McManus, “Rightist Crusade Finds Its Way Into the Spotlight: Led by Retired Gen. Singlaub, Anti-Communist League Is Funnel for Private Funds to Contras,” Los Angeles Times, September 16, 1985, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1985-09-16-mn-21940-story.html. On RENAMO’s reign of terror, see Kathi Austin, Invisible Crimes: U.S. Private Intervention in the War in Mozambique (Washington, D.C.: Africa Policy Information Center, 1994). A State Department report determined that RENAMO, backed by apartheid South Africa, was responsible for 95 percent of abuses of civilians in Mozambique’s civil war, which followed independent from Portugal, and that RENAMO killed as many as 100,000 civilians in what one official termed “one of the most brutal holocausts against ordinary human beings since World War II.” One third of RENAMO’s fighters were children under eighteen many of whom had been forcibly abducted and conscripted. Singlaub traveled to Mozambique and had direct contacts with RENAMO leader Alfonso Dhlakama. He gave speeches supporting RENAMO at conservative caucus foundation dinners on South Africa. ↑
McManus, “Rightist Crusade Finds Its Way Into the Spotlight.” In 1985, the WACL sent a telegram to Chile’s president, Gen. Augusto Pinochet, congratulating him on the anniversary of his 1973 coup d’etat against a Marxist regime. “That was one place where the people overthrew a Communist government,” Singlaub said. ↑
McManus, “Rightist Crusade Finds Its Way Into the Spotlight.” ↑
Anderson and Anderson, Inside the League, p. 256. The WACL hosted seminars on unconventional warfare. Most of the instructors were ex-U.S. intelligence or Special Forces veterans. ↑
Anderson and Anderson, Inside the League, p. 256. ↑
Singlaub, Hazardous Duty, pp. 464, 472; Grandin, Empire’s Workshop, p. 142; Anderson and Anderson, Inside the League, pp. 238, 268, 269. Singlaub deposited the funds intended for the Contras into a secret overseas bank account. ↑
Anderson and Anderson, Inside the League, pp. 269, 270. ↑
See Holly Sklar, Washington’s War on Nicaragua (Boston: South End Press, 1999). ↑
Singlaub, Hazardous Duty, p. 471. ↑
Ed Kelly, “Singlaub Sees Red Over City-Born Group’s Lawsuit,” The Oklahoman, January 17, 1988, https://www.oklahoman.com/story/news/1988/01/17/singlaub-sees-red-over-city-born-groups-lawsuit/62664863007/. Singlaub responded predictably by denouncing Christic as a radical, left-wing, anti-American group. ↑
Janette Rainwater, “The Secret Team,” https://aadl.org/sites/default/files/aa_agenda/aa_agenda_19870400-p10-02.jpg. See also Jonathan Marshall, Peter Dale Scott and Jane Hunter, The Iran Contra Connection: Secret Teams and Covert Operations in the Reagan Era (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1987). ↑
Richard Goldstein, “John K. Singlaub, 100, General Who Clashed with Jimmy Carter, Dies,” The New York Times, January 31, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/31/us/john-k-singlaub-dead.html ↑
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About the Author
Jeremy Kuzmarov is Managing Editor of CovertAction Magazine.
He is the author of five books on U.S. foreign policy, including Obama’s Unending Wars (Clarity Press, 2019), The Russians Are Coming, Again, with John Marciano (Monthly Review Press, 2018), and Warmonger. How Clinton’s Malign Foreign Policy Launched the U.S. Trajectory From Bush II to Biden (Clarity Press, 2023).
He can be reached at: email@example.com.