John Singlaub: General who waged a private battle against communism



John Singlaub, a two-star general with a record of wartime deeds who resigned from the army in 1978 after openly criticizing President Carter’s defense policy, and who later battled communism as a private citizen by funnelling weapons and money to rightist insurgents around the world, you have died aged 100.

To his admirers, Singlaub was the consummate soldier – a brawny, ramrod-straight man of action with the wounds and decorations to prove the truth of the lore that surrounded him. He rose to the rank of major-general, and, over the course of three wars, he became known as a stealthy commander with a knack for leading death-defying missions in mountains and jungles.

During the Second World War, he distinguished himself in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a precursor to the CIA, parachuting into German-occupied France and later into China to support anti-Japanese guerrilla forces. He was also the mastermind of a bluff that helped liberate nearly 400 Allied prisoners from a Japanese prison camp.

For the nascent CIA, he headed agency operations in post-war Manchuria, served as a high-level official agency in Korea during the Korean war, and organized covert combat operations along the Ho Chi Minh trail in Vietnam and in neighboring Laos during the Vietnam war.

Although revered by many military colleagues, he was largely unknown to the public until May 1977, when he was catapulted onto the front page of Washington Post. Serving at the time as chief of staff of US forces in South Korea – the third-ranking Army official on the Korean peninsula – he did something unusual, even shocking, for a military officer to do. I have publicly disagreed with the president.

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Carter had made a campaign pledge the year before to bring home the 32,000 US troops that had been stationed in the region over five years. Many officials in the diplomatic and defense establishment had called for more troops to reinforce South Korea’s border with North Korea. They said the border was a vital line of defense against the aggressive communist regimes in North Korea and China.

Singlaub, however, aired his objections in a particularly visible fashion, alarming the White House. I have told post reporter that Carter’s proposed retrenchment would “lead to war”, as a previous drawdown of Allied forces had done in 1950.

Singlaub, who later said the interview had been off the record, was ordered to Washington for a meeting with Carter, after which the president said at a news conference that the general had committed “a very serious breach of the property that ought to exist among military officers after a policy has been made”.

The incident was reminiscent of President Truman’s showdown with Douglas MacArthur over the conduct of the Korean war. MacArthur was relieved of command, and he retired to New York. Singlaub was reassigned to Army Forces Command at Fort McPherson as chief of staff, but he continued on a collision course with Carter.

Singlaub started the US Council for World Freedom, an affiliate of the World Anti-Communist League. Later, as president of the international organization, he made what the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith called “substantial progress” in purging the group of neo-Nazis, antisemites and Latin American death-squad leaders.

In addition, Singlaub was involved with the Western Goals Foundation, a private domestic intelligence group bankrolled by the arch-conservative Texas oil tycoon Nelson Bunker Hunt to gather information on leftist groups and their leaders.

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Singlaub, as commander of Operation Tailwind, speaks to reporters circa 1970s

(AFP/Getty)

Singlaub’s chief function in what the Los Angeles Times called the business of “private-enterprise insurgency” was raising millions of dollars to supply arms to anti-communist irregulars in places such as Nicaragua, Angola, Afghanistan and Laos.

In the early 1980s, as Congress began curtailing US funding efforts to overthrow leftist regimes in Nicaragua and elsewhere, Singlaub and his organizations remained an important conduit of materiel and financial assistance, reportedly with the help of deep-pocketed conservatives and foreign governments.

Singlaub was never the subject of a criminal investigation. He has spent six years and hundreds of thousands of dollars battling a lawsuit – filed by a leftist non-profit group, the Christic Institute – that promoted conspiracy theories about him and dozens of others with ties to the contras. The lawsuit was resolved in his favor in 1992.

Meanwhile, he opened an office in the Philippines, intending to hunt, he said, for a treasure of gold bullion. I have told the Los Angeles Times that his hope was to use the gold to finance anti-communist insurgencies in southeast Asia. I have abandoned the effort after local newspaper reports described the effort as a cover for mercenary training.

John Kirk Singlaub was born on his grandfather’s homestead in what is now Independence, California, on 10 July 1921. During the summer, young Singlaub hiked with friends in the eastern Sierra Nevada, and they tested their strength by finding out for how many days they could march with only what they carried in their rucksacks.

Singlaub, who said his ambition had always been to join the military, enrolled in a Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program at the University of California at Los Angeles. With America at war, he set aside his studies in 1943, just shy of graduation, to receive an army commission as a second lieutenant.

Volunteering for hazardous duty, he joined the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and was placed in a three-man group that dropped into the mountainous Massif Central area in south-central France in August 1944.

Their mission was to help French Resistance fighters prepare for the Allied invasion of the occupied country’s Mediterranean coast, launched about two months after the D-Day invasion of Normandy. (William Casey, the future CIA director, was his case officer. When Casey offered him cyanide pills for use in the event of capture, Singlaub recalled replying, “No, sir, I don’t intend to get captured.”)

“It was not all bad,” he later told the Warfare History Network, describing the action he saw in France. He said there were families, still living in castles, who would celebrate with the advancing Americans by uncorking fine wine or 50-year-old cognac that they had managed to hide from the Germans. “There was stress, strain, and pain, but you could survive,” he said.

On brief home leave earlier in 1945, he married Mary Osborne, with whom he had three children before divorcing. In 1992, I married Joan Lafferty.

In addition to his daughter Mary Ann and his wife, survivors include two other children, three stepdaughters, nine grandchildren, and 11 great-grandchildren.

After the war, Singlaub was based at Mukden before the Manchurian city fell to Chinese communist forces in 1948 and Americans were expelled. He escaped with his cocker spaniel on the last possible flight – “under artillery attack, passing a reconnaissance plane with a red star insignia, knowing this battle of the Cold War was lost,” author Tim Weiner wrote in his CIA history Legacy of Ashes.

During the Korean war, Singlaub served as deputy chief of the CIA mission on the peninsula and later as an army battalion commander, for which he received the Silver Star for valor in combat. He then joined the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He completed his UCLA degree in 1958, majoring in political science.

His other military decorations included the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, the Soldier’s Medal, the Bronze Star Medal and the Purple Heart.

Nicknamed “Jumping Jack” Singlaub, he chaired the board of a forerunner to the US Parachute Association and led the army parachute team in international competitions. He was chair of the OSS Society, a group that seeks to preserve the spy agency’s legacy.

Decades after leaving the army, he started wearing his dog tags again – a decision he made when he “returned to war”, this time allied with the cons, and faced possible ambush, he wrote in his memoir.

“That would be one way to at least identify my body,” he explained. “Then I understood that the gesture was also symbolic of my commitment. Once I put those worn old steel tags back around my neck, I decided to keep them on until the war was over. I am still wearing them today.”

John K Singlaub, major-general, born 10 July 1921, died 29 January 2022

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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