Retired Maj. Gen. John K. Singlaub stood ramrod-straight beneath pink crystal chandeliers and the white glare of television lights.
He gazed across a ballroom filled with Texas millionaires, Nicaraguan rebels, South American rightists and Chinese anti-Communists. To his surprise, he said later, a tear welled up in his soldierly eye.
“President Reagan is our symbol of strength,” he said, “the triumph of God’s will against the evil of Communist tyranny.”
The audience stood up and cheered. It cheered again for a Nicaraguan anti-Sandinista rebel commander who lost a leg in battle, for an Afghan rebel whose fingers were blown off by a mine and for a grandmotherly-looking heiress who has given the contras-- as the Nicaraguan insurgents are called--$65,000 to buy a helicopter.
These are heady days for the World Anti-Communist League.
A worldwide network of rightist groups led by Singlaub, 64, the former U.S. commander in Korea who retired in 1978 after publicly charging then-President Jimmy Carter with ignoring the Communist threat, the league was virtually unknown until a few months ago.
Once riven by neo-Nazis and anti-Semites, it has suddenly found itself the object of public attention as the most effective source of private funds for the contras.
Now, the organization, with chapters in 98 nations, says it plans to provide the same service for anti-Communist insurgents in Africa and Asia, becoming a new factor in Third World politics: a ready-made, fund-raising network for rightists.
Singlaub’s fervent fund-raisers believe they are riding the crest of a wave. And in large part, they think their new momentum comes from having a friend in the White House.
“I commend you all for your part in this noble cause,” Reagan told the organization’s members in a letter to its annual conference here last week. “Our combined efforts are moving the tide of history toward world freedom.”
Reagan’s letter stressed his commitment to promoting democracy in place of both rightist and leftist dictatorships, a basic tenet of what some officials have called the “Reagan Doctrine.”
But Singlaub and other league members were quick to defend the world’s remaining rightist autocrats.
The meeting’s delegates included an aide to Paraguay’s Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, South America’s longest-reigning dictator, and a Guatemalan rightist who U.S. officials charge has helped organize death squads in Central America. Delegates from Spain, Portugal and Argentina openly waxed nostalgic about the fallen dictatorships in their now-democratic countries.
And the conference took time out to send 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.
‘Idiocies of Congress’
“We are trying to organize programs of support to anti-Communist resistance movements to fill the gaps left by the idiocies of Congress,” Singlaub, a man who relishes direct speech, said in an interview.
In the case of the contras, he said, “The remarkable thing is that an effort on the part of the private sector kept them from collapsing.” The CIA funded the contras from 1981 until Congress halted the aid in 1984; in July, Congress agreed to resume funding but only for “non-lethal” supplies.
Administration officials have acknowledged that, in the interim, they directed some would-be donors to Singlaub but say they did not actively solicit contributions or advise Singlaub on the effort.
Support for Reagan
“The President’s policy was clear,” Singlaub said. “We just designed a program that we thought was carrying out the President’s desires.”
The retired general, who earlier ran a private aid program for the army of El Salvador with direct help from the Pentagon, said he abstained from almost any contact with the Administration because Congress had prohibited U.S. aid of any kind.
But, noting that he has long known several Administration officials--and that three members of his chapter have been named ambassadors by Reagan--he said, “I don’t think we’re out of touch.”
Adolfo Calero, one of the contras’ top leaders, says Singlaub has been his most effective fund-raiser in the United States, perhaps because the retired general makes no bones about going beyond purely “humanitarian” aid to help the rebels’ military effort.
Heiress Gives Up Cruises
His donors include Ellen Garwood, the elderly Austin heiress who says she “just gave up going on cruises and buying fancy dresses” to help the contras, and oil billionaire Nelson Bunker Hunt, who attended the league’s “Freedom Fighters’ Ball” here last week and lauded Singlaub for raising money “when our government should have been doing it.”
Singlaub said he has no way of estimating how much he has raised for the contras because many donors give supplies rather than cash. (Calero has said the rebels have been given almost $25 million during the last year, most of it from outside the United States, reportedly including some covert aid from Latin American governments.)
Federal laws prevent Singlaub from using money raised in the United States for buying guns and ammunition, and that is where the league’s network comes in. Especially in Latin America, the organization has steered him to wealthy, well-connected rightists who can fund weapons purchases.
Friends Around World
“I can go to any country in the world and I know that I have a friend there who can help me get in touch with people I need,” Singlaub said.
Now, he said, his group plans to expand its fund-raising efforts to help other insurgent movements in Afghanistan, Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
He said that league members in Portugal are already aiding rebels in the former Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique and that large chapters in Taiwan and South Korea have been active in Indochina.
In their weeklong convention in a Dallas luxury hotel, the league’s regional organizations agreed on “action plans” for helping rebellions but refused to make them public.
“We’ll let you know once we’ve done some of it,” said Walter Chopiwskyj, a Ukrainian-American activist who serves on the board of Singlaub’s U.S. Council for World Freedom, the Phoenix-based U.S. chapter of the league. “Right now, we’re just talking about plans.”
Pitches for Help
That disclaimer did not stop dozens of anti-Communist guerrillas and would-be guerrillas from around the world from turning up in Dallas to make pitches for help, each offering reasons his rebellion deserved special attention.
They ranged from the contras’ Calero to members of two competing Afghan groups who eyed each other warily. They included former South Vietnamese army officers hoping to organize a rebellion in their homeland, and a lonely representative from Kachinland, an ethnic minority area of Burma, who worked vainly to get his small insurrection added to the league’s list.
Private-enterprise insurgency is a relatively new mission for Singlaub’s organization, which was founded in 1967 by members of Taiwan’s ruling Kuomintang party mainly as a vehicle for organizing opposition to Communist-ruled mainland China.
For most of its 18-year history, the league has concentrated on forging links among rightist groups in Europe and elsewhere, helping rightist regimes in Latin America fight leftist revolution and fulminating against what this year’s final communique called “false expectations on Peking’s current posture.”
And during that earlier period, its membership included factions dominated by ex-Nazis, anti-Semites and officials of some of the most savagely repressive dictatorships in Latin America. Its Latin American regional organization served as a meeting ground for individuals bent on maintaining rightist power in the area, regardless of the human costs.
In a 1982 interview with The Times, for example, Salvadoran rightist leader Roberto D’Aubuisson said that he attended a 1980 conference of the Latin American chapter in Argentina, then ruled by rightist military officers who are now on trial for killing thousands of suspected leftists.
Accompanied by Guatemalan rightist leader Mario Sandoval Alarcon, D’Aubuisson said he met with Argentine “civilian advisers” whom he later brought to El Salvador to instruct the Salvadoran National Guard in countersubversion, a program that contributed to the bloody campaigns of the death squads.
In those days, the league’s Latin American group was run by Argentine, Paraguayan, Brazilian and Mexican rightists, according to league records.
The Mexican chapter helped precipitate a crisis in the organization in the early 1970s when it joined with some European chapters to recruit neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic groups. The British and American chapters withdrew from the league for a time in protest.
But not until 1984, when Singlaub became chairman, were the last anti-Semites finally expelled. And today, even his critics credit the general for sincerity in trying to root out such elements.
“They were ejected . . . because of their radical views and because they were recruiting groups for membership in WACL that were not only anti-Semitic but were headed by Nazis--even, in one case, an SS group,” Singlaub said last week.
But some of the individual Paraguayans and others who shared the leadership of the organization’s Latin American region are still in the organization, and Singlaub acknowledges he has not yet established complete control over the membership.
The normally unflappable general was taken aback last week when reporters informed him that Sandoval, the Guatemalan rightist, was a delegate at his convention.
“I didn’t know that,” Singlaub confessed. “He must be here as an observer, not as a delegate.”
Told that Sandoval was, in fact, the chief of the Guatemalan delegation, Singlaub rallied to his support:
“He may have been part of (the old Latin American organization), but he does not hold anti-Semitic views. . . . You can accuse Sandoval of all sorts of things, but to my knowledge he has never been charged with anything by his government.”
The league’s turn toward support of anti-Communist insurgencies coincided with the Reagan Administration’s adoption of the Nicaraguan rebels and the gradual emergence of the Reagan Doctrine--the proposition that supporting such rebellions should be an integral part of U.S. foreign policy.
Singlaub’s anti-Communist group has a variety of links to the Administration. He has served as a consultant to the Pentagon; members of his U.S. Council for World Freedom are now the U.S. ambassadors to Guatemala, Costa Rica and the Bahamas, and many of Singlaub’s donors have been Reagan campaign contributors as well.
His group criticizes the Administration fiercely on some issues: U.S. relations with China, pressure on South Africa over its apartheid policy of racial separation and aid to the Marxist government of Mozambique. But its members insist they are never angry at Reagan himself--only, they say, a little disappointed. “I believe he’s had some very bad advice,” Singlaub said.
As for the league’s inclusion of outright authoritarians and its kindness toward rightist dictators, Singlaub’s view is clear:
“Some of these regimes are more authoritarian than would be our standard,” he said, ". . . but (they are) certainly anti-Communist.
“You either advocate Marxism-Leninism or you oppose it,” he said. “You can’t be halfway.”
Craig Pyes of the Center for Investigative Reporting contributed to this article.