It was January 1974, and Lyndon H. LaRouche Jr., the leader of a left-wing sect, was telling his followers why they had to believe his story that one of them had been brainwashed by the Soviet secret police.
"Any of you who say this is a hoax, you're cruds!" LaRouche told his followers. "You're subhuman! You're not serious. The human race is at stake."
It was vintage LaRouche, filled with invective and dire warnings about the fate of the world, a style reflected in his group's literature and in his public statements.
Last Nov. 25, 1,500 people from 40 nations gathered in the ballroom of a Crystal City hotel for a conference of the Schiller Institute, named for 18th century German poet Friedrich Schiller. They heard another, more toned down address by LaRouche, by then a three-time presidential candidate espousing right-wing views.
"Men and women of other nations have seen proof that the spirit of 1776 is still alive within these United States," LaRouche told the group, while his words were translated into four languages and piped into foreign visitors' earphones. "The United States of 1776 is not yet fully awakened, but forces within our government and among our citizens are sitting up and rubbing their eyes."
The story of how Lyndon LaRouche transformed himself from Marxist theoretician to red-white-and-blue conservative in 10 years is a tale of a political chameleon.
He has taken with him on his ideological journey a worldwide organization that follows his every instruction and mimics his every political twist and turn, according to interviews with former LaRouche associates and experts on the group, as well as the group's internal documents.
LaRouche "leads what may well be one of the strangest political groups in American history," the conservative Heritage Foundation said in a report. "LaRouche has managed to attract a small but fanatical following to his conspiratorial view of the world."
LaRouche lives on a heavily guarded estate near Leesburg in rural Loudoun County. Loudoun officials and former associates say the group is planning to move units of its national headquarters from New York to the Leesburg area. In the last several months, corporations tied to the group have bought three Loudoun properties worth more than a total of $1 million and agreed to buy an estate there for $1.3 million before the deal fell through.
LaRouche has a good deal of control over the lives of the members of his organization, known as the National Caucus of Labor Committees (NCLC), according to interviews with former NCLC members, others familiar with its activities, published reports and an examination of the group's internal documents, some of which were filed in a recent libel suit in Alexandria.
"It's a seven-day-a-week, 24-hour-a-day total immersion," said a recent dropout, who, like other ex-members interviewed, did not want to be identified for fear of retribution. "It's a situation where people wouldn't have any private lives anymore . . . . Everyone's got to march to the same tune."
"He demands sycophantic obedience," the former member said. "He repeatedly tells the members he is in total control of the organization."
The members are "rank-and-file automatons" devoted to LaRouche, according to one member's resignation letter several years ago.
The organization bred "pure psychological terror," the ex-member wrote. "The group was transformed into sniveling informers vying with each other for LaRouche's approval. Even couples were encouraged to 'inform' on each other's 'progress' . . . . In most cases the marriages were preserved, although the relationships were totally broken."
The LaRouche organization has "taken on the characteristics more of a political cult than a political party," said a March report by Information Digest, a biweekly publication written by journalist John Rees. LaRouche's followers have "afforded him blind obedience," wrote Rees, a longtime specialist in LaRouche.
LaRouche said the notion that he is the head of a cult is "garbage . . . . I don't have any control." He denies playing a leadership role in any of the organizations identified with him.
A top associate, Nancy Spannaus, agreed that the NCLC is no cult. "Mr. LaRouche's function is to encourage people to do as much independent research as they can," she said.
LaRouche associates point to the Schiller Institute's sometimes large conferences as evidence that his followers do not constitute a cult. The Schiller Institute has planned a march for tomorrow in the District of Columbia to protest starvation and "genocide" in Africa.
Paul Goldstein, a top LaRouche aide, said descriptions of the group as a cult come from former members who "have gotten burned out because of the pressure" of outsiders' attacks.
Former associates of LaRouche agree there is an atmosphere of tension in the group, but they say it is partly created by LaRouche and the group's other leaders. LaRouche-affiliated publications and the group's internal reports suggest frequently that members are under attack from outsiders.
Members, many of them well educated and well spoken, generally work long hours for little pay for the organization, according to ex-associates and LaRouche himself.
Former members interviewed had varying reasons for quitting, including disagreements with the group's ideology and distaste for LaRouche. All the "defectors," as they call themselves, said they are trying to reconstruct their personal and professional lives. Several said they are embarrassed about their years with the group.
The organization's ideology is hard to pin down. The NCLC started in the late 1960s as a left-wing Marxist sect and then shifted to the far right in the mid-1970s. Its philosophy now is a thick stew of political ingredients. Some people have publicly expressed doubts that the shift to the right was authentic and believe LaRouche is secretly still a Marxist.
With the move from left to right, the group's perceived enemies shifted as well. But one fear remained constant: that LaRouche is branded for assassination.
Supporters think they are acting defensively and appropriately when they telephone critics of the group and threaten them, or follow them on the street, published reports and former members said.
"There is some horrible psychological craziness in this group," said one defector.
LaRouche was born Sept. 8, 1922, in Rochester, N.H., and moved with his family to Lynn, Mass., when he was 9, according to a 1979 autobiography. His father was a manager of a shoe manufacturing company, and his mother was a strict Quaker.
LaRouche wrote that his childhood was "bitterly boring and grey." He was a "semi-outcast" with almost no friends, he wrote, and he retreated to the world of ideas by reading Descartes and Kant.
In World War II, he originally was a conscientious objector and worked in a Quaker camp in New Hampshire, according to a statement by former representative Paul McCloskey (R-Calif.) that was placed in the Congressional Record in 1981. LaRouche then enlisted in the Army and served in a noncombatant role in the Burma theater, acccording to McCloskey's statement.
A former associate said that years later LaRouche told his followers that he became a socialist in India around the time of the war after witnessing leftist demonstrations against British rule.
He joined the Socialist Workers Party, a Trotskyist sect, in the late 1940s and started using the pen name "Lyn Marcus," which he continued using into the mid-1970s. LaRouche periodically supported himself by working as a business consultant, he said.
In the late 1960s, LaRouche attracted a small group of followers who attended his Greenwich Village lectures on Marxist economics, associates said. LaRouche was known as an inspired Marxist theoretician at a time when other groups in the New Left were more given to street action. His group of about 100 believed its ideas alone could liberate the working class, and they said it would win state power in a matter of years, ex-members said.
LaRouche's followers were taken with his "intellectual brilliance," one ex-member said. "He had this amazing capacity to synthesize bodies of knowledge drawn from so many areas, from Beethoven and cognitive psychology to the philosophy of Descartes."
LaRouche was "eccentric and odd," a "mysterious character" who told a range of stories about his past and "stayed up for 24 hours at a stretch, talking nonstop," the ex-associate said.
In 1968, LaRouche's followers briefly took leadership of a student strike at Columbia University, but they ended up arguing with other leftist groups. LaRouche's followers later quit a leading New Left organization, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), over theoretical disagreements. Around that time they took the name they would keep, the NCLC.
LaRouche was "not domineering" in the earliest days, allowing dissent, one ex-member said. But by the early 1970s "his behavior changed increasingly and dramatically" in confronting members' disagreements, the ex-member said. Then he became "abusive and insulting" and resorted to "psychological intimidation."
In an interview, LaRouche denied that he had ever been a leftist, but he said that he had merely been opposed to senator Joseph McCarthy, the Wisconsin Republican who led an aggressive campaign against communists. But this assertion is contradicted by former associates and by dozens of the group's publications and internal reports explaining his beliefs of that time.
Some former members speak fondly of these days of leftist fervor, because they said things started changing in mid-1972. That is when LaRouche split up with his common-law wife, who then moved to England to marry an English follower of LaRouche's, according to ex-members and published reports.
LaRouche began to become more strident in his attacks on perceived foes, said ex-associates and experts on the group. At his urging, many members learned karate and street-fighting techniques, they said.
In April 1973, LaRouche ordered members to attack members of the Communist Party (CPUSA) and others in a plan called "Operation Mop-up," according to ex-members and published reports.
The group's newspaper, New Solidarity, reported then that "the NCLC has launched 'Operation Mop-up,' which will bury the Nixon-allied Communist Party in six to eight weeks." The article said the group would enter Communist meetings to accomplish this. "We destroy the CP," it went on, "because it is an absolutely necessary step to ensure that the working class in the USA and Western Europe is prepared with competent leadership . . . ."
In the following months, there were about 40 fights at gatherings of Communists and others, according to former associates of LaRouche and published reports. Many people were injured, and some LaRouche supporters were arrested, but there apparently were no convictions.
"Mobile squads of helmeted, club-wielding goons invaded bookstores and offices of the CPUSA, Socialist Workers Party and Peking-line groups, attacking their members there and on the street," said the study by journalist Rees.
Former members said some attacks were in retaliation for assaults by Communists, and others were unprovoked. LaRouche said in an interview that his supporters fought only when attacked.
At the time, LaRouche berated his followers for not being tough enough and criticized those who tried to avoid participating in the fights, according to ex-members and persons knowledgeable about the group.
"People would be called on the carpet to explain themselves," said one former member. "They were told, 'If you thought this was bad, wait until the revolution, when people would be carrying guns.' "
"There was a tremendous emphasis on being psychologically ruthless: 'Can you guys really take it?' " another said. "Mop-up" started the organization's move toward being a "security-conscious, paranoid, 24-hour-a-day thing . . . . It changed the organization psychologically."
LaRouche developed a set of theories he called "Beyond Psychoanalysis," and he and other top leaders held grueling sessions with members, grilling them about their lack of toughness, their sexual feelings or other supposed problems, according to ex-associates and internal documents.
"People were compelled to confess in front of a group the most personal things about their sexual lives, personal lives," one former associate said. LaRouche's basic approach was, "Look what a wretch society has made of you, an infantile, impotent being," the ex-member said.
LaRouche said that only he could help his followers, and many begged to have sessions with him, former members said. Members were gripped with a "virtual religious hysteria" when they saw these criticisms as insights, one former associate said.
LaRouche outlined his therapy in a 1973 memo to members. He wrote that he was "taking your bedrooms away from you until you make the step to being effective organizers . . . . Your pathetic impotence in your sexual life" is a political matter, he wrote. "I will take away from you all hope that you can flee the terrors of politics to the safety of 'personal life.' "
LaRouche also said in the memo that the mother is "the principle source of impotence . . . . Can we imagine anything much more viciously sadistic than the Black Ghetto mother?"
In an interview LaRouche said it was around 1973 that he began to become concerned about his personal security.
In December of that year, LaRouche announced in a dramatic New York speech to members that Christopher White, the British associate who had married LaRouche's former common-law wife, had been kidnaped and then released by the CIA and the Soviet secret police, according to ex-members, published reports and the group's literature.
LaRouche said that agents had brainwashed White, then 26, with drugs and electric shock treatment and by forcing him to eat his own excrement. The agents then programmed White to set up LaRouche's murder by a hit squad, LaRouche said. He also told members they were all in danger of being murdered by the CIA, and that some of them had also been brainwashed.
"I was terrified like everybody else," said one ex-associate. The speech created an atmosphere of hysteria and fear, and a few members lost control and had to be restrained, according to former members and published reports.
Tapes, released to reporters, of LaRouche "deprogramming" White show LaRouche shouting at White, sounds of weeping and vomiting, and complaints by White that he is being deprived of sleep, food and cigarettes, a published report said. LaRouche said White was not mistreated, according to the report.
The episode involving White was described in documents read to the jury in the recent libel case in Alexandria.
Dozens of members begged LaRouche to deprogram them, too, ex-associates said. A number of members were interrogated for a few days at a time by the group's security squad, according to former members and published reports.
The group's public and internal publications around that time were filled with graphic references to members' fears and dependence on LaRouche.
These events, more than any other, changed the NCLC into a group under LaRouche's control, former associates said.
"It was so exciting, so bizarre," said one ex-member, who called the events "the great freakout of 1974." The ex-member remembered working extremely long hours for the group, and eating very little.
"I became theirs," the ex-member said.
"That's when it turned from being a political organization to being a cult," said another ex-member. "Once the members swallow something like that . . . you're willing to accept the deification of LaRouche."
Members went on a "war footing," another ex-member said, with many quitting their jobs and essentially cutting off relations with nonmembers.
"Your parents are immoral," the group's members were told in an internal bulletin several years later. "The people of the United States are not morally fit to survive . . . . Everything your parents say is evil -- they are like lepers, morally and intellectually insane."
The change in the group prompted many of LaRouche's early followers to quit.
"You have made yourself a prisoner of a cult of infallibility around your person," one longtime close aide told LaRouche in a 1981 letter. "I cannot allow you to create a precedent whereby anyone can be subjected to charges of insanity and back-room frame-ups because they choose to disagree with you in an honorable and proper way."
Because of the perceived danger of attack against the group, LaRouche set up a security team within the group to protect himself, said ex-members and others familiar with the group.
Some LaRouche associates were trained in the use of guns, knives and other weapons at a "counterterrorism" school in Powder Springs, Ga., according to former members and other sources. The school was operated by Mitchell WerBell III, a former guerrilla operative for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and an international arms dealer with whom LaRouche grew close.
WerBell, a soldier of fortune with contacts around the world, introduced LaRouche and his followers to numerous military and intelligence officials, according to ex-associates and other sources.
In the mid-1970s, LaRouche began to describe intricate plots against the group by the CIA, the Rockefellers and others, the group's publications show.
Aound that time, the group, by then better described as conspiracy-minded than left-wing, began making alliances with groups that shared its concern about supposed secret plots and conspiracies -- the radical right wing. The NCLC's turn to the political right "happened without most members realizing it," according to one former member. "It happened through this hysteria."
One man with whom LaRouche and his group dealt in the mid-1970s was Willis Carto, the founder of the Liberty Lobby, according to LaRouche's deposition in a libel case last year and one by Carto in another lawsuit.
The Liberty Lobby, a right-wing group, has said it was never allied with LaRouche. Carto said in his 1980 deposition that the Liberty Lobby never endorsed the NCLC but that he was "quite impressed" with its members and that his organization's newspaper, Spotlight, had praised it.
Another man LaRouche met in the mid-1970s was Roy Frankhouser, LaRouche said in a deposition. Frankhouser, then a top official of Pennsylvania's Ku Klux Klan, pleaded guilty in 1975 to dealing in stolen dynamite. He had also been an informant for several federal and local law enforcement agencies, according to published accounts. Frankhouser has sent the LaRouche group "intelligence" about a range of subjects, former members said.
LaRouche said in a deposition that his organization has paid Frankhouser for various services. LaRouche said Frankhouser is "a good man on security" who works to spot "nasties" who pose threats. According to a July 9 LaRouche deposition, Frankhouser had been working for the organization as recently as one week earlier.
Despite the group's right-wing allies and conservative rhetoric, some critics say they doubt that the LaRouche organization truly abandoned its leftist principles and believe it merely faked a conversion to the right -- a point raised by NBC in the libel case.
The Heritage Foundation said in a July report that despite LaRouche's appearance as a right-wing anticommunist, he takes political stands "which in the end advance Soviet foreign policy goals."
Daniel Graham, former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon's intelligence arm, and a longtime LaRouche critic, said he believes LaRouche is an "unrepentant Marxist-Leninist" who faked the move to the right "to suck conservatives into giving him money." Some other former high-ranking intelligence officials, mostly conservatives, said they join Graham in this belief.
LaRouche and his associates deny these allegations, and several ex-members interviewed back them up.
LaRouche is also sensitive to the frequent assertion that he is anti-Semitic. In the mid-1970s LaRouche publications began to criticize Jewish leaders and wealthy Jewish families for their supposed role in the international narcotics trade and other conspiracies.
The attacks reached their height around 1978, when the NCLC said in a position paper that "Israel is ruled from London as a zombie-nation." It called the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith "a treasonous conspiracy against the United States" and said B'nai B'rith "today resurrects the tradition of the Jews who demanded the crucifixion of Christ . . . . "
In October 1980, a New York State Supreme Court justice dismissed a defamation suit the NCLC had filed against the Anti-Defamation League and ruled that calling the NCLC anti-Semitic is merely "fair comment" or a matter of opinion.
In an interview, LaRouche said the idea that he is anti-Semitic is "crazy." He has said his attacks are on Zionists, not Jews.
Some of LaRouche's associates are Jewish, and they also deny the group is anti-Semitic. "It's totally a fabricated lie designed to smear Mr. LaRouche," said LaRouche aide Goldstein.
LaRouche associates said that instead of focusing on charges of anti-Semitism, outsiders should focus on LaRouche's economic ideas.
Many of his writings focus on the need to increase food production, increase industry in the Third World, restructure world debt and improve fusion energy technologies. The international narcotics trade is a frequent LaRouche target.
Some of LaRouche's statements are obtuse and hard to follow. For example, in a deposition, LaRouche described himself as "a neo-Platonic democratic republican."
In a letter LaRouche wrote in November to The New Republic magazine, in response to an article about his ties to federal agencies, one passage reads: "The most relevant point is my support for the view that a review of physics from the vantage point of the Gauss-Dirichlet-Riemann approach to topology and electrodynamics affords us not only a more accurate picture than the Maxwell-Boltzmann approach, but a more direct and easier approach to comprehension of fundamentals."
One recurring theme of the LaRouchian ideology is that the world faces nuclear war or world starvation unless his ideas are implemented, according to LaRouche's writings.
In the last 10 years, LaRouche has issued countless warnings that the world was doomed in the coming months, according to the group's literature.
"There are about 200 predictions about the collapse of the world economy, each of which didn't add up," one ex-member said. "Amnesia is one of the necessary qualificiations for membership."
One way the leaders communicate their thinking to members is through a daily memo, the "Morning Briefing." The briefing, sent by teletype from New York headquarters to offices around the country, has included the group's daily worldwide intelligence gleanings, reports from LaRouche and other leaders, and fund-raising tallies.
Members in the approximately 20 offices around the country usually review the briefing in the morning, ex-members said, and then go to work raising money or selling the group's literature in airports.
There is powerful peer pressure to be loyal to LaRouche, and leaving the organization usually involves an act of tremendous will, ex-members said.
"The preponderance [of early members] have left in disgust," said one former
member. "They realized they've wasted years of their lives . . . . I woke up one
day and realized I hadn't thought about the cult for two months. That's when you
know you're back to normal. It took a couple of years."