By Michael Grasso / March 13, 2017
On July 5, 1987, the day after Independence Day, a year and two days after President Reagan’s centennial rededication of the Statue of Liberty, and at the height of the Iran-Contra hearings, a monumental story appeared in the Miami Herald. Penned by investigative reporter Alfonso Chardy, the piece claimed to expose the workings of a “secret government” in place during the first six-and-a-half years of the Reagan Presidency, set up initially in 1980 to monitor then-President Carter’s efforts to release the Iran hostages. The clandestine operation, purportedly authorized by President Reagan himself after winning the 1980 presidential election, then metastasized into a cabal of troubleshooters even more powerful than President Nixon’s “Plumbers,” made up of Reagan advisors, intelligence veterans, and military liaisons like Oliver North.
What caused the most eye-raising among Herald readers was the account of a series of secret meetings between Oliver North and then-FEMA director Louis O. Giuffrida. FEMA, created by Jimmy Carter in 1979, had been given powers to aid in the aftermath of disasters that transcended the authority of local officials. Chardy reported that Reagan officials had gone to FEMA with plans to suspend the U.S. Constitution in the event of a devastating nuclear strike that destroyed American infrastructure, communications, and command and control. FEMA had in fact been practicing these “Readiness Exercises” since 1982, in conjunction with the Department of Defense. Diana Reynolds, affiliated with the Edward R. Murrow Center at Fletcher School for Public Policy at Tufts University, revealed the names of these joint exercises in a 1990 article in the CovertAction Information Bulletin: “Proud Saber/Rex-82,” “Pre-Nest,” and “Rex-84/Night Train.” REX 84 would eventually become an umbrella term for the entire series of Reagan-era acts and exercises.
The specifics of these plans in Chardy’s 1987 article were truly shocking:
North’s involvement with FEMA set off the first major clash between the official government and the advisers and led to the formal letter of protest in 1984 from then-Attorney General Smith… FEMA’s clash with Smith occurred over a secret contingency plan that called for suspension of the Constitution, turning control of the United States over to FEMA, appointment of military commanders to run state and local governments and declaration of martial law during a national crisis… The martial law portions of the plan were outlined in a June 30, 1982, memo by Giuffrida’s deputy for national preparedness programs, John Brinkerhoff. A copy of the memo was obtained by The Herald. The scenario outlined in the Brinkerhoff memo resembled somewhat a paper Giuffrida had written in 1970 at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., in which he advocated martial law in case of a national uprising by black militants. The paper also advocated the roundup and transfer to “assembly centers or relocation camps” of at least 21 million “American Negroes.”
Outrage followed, of course. Not just the presumption that North was secretly working with elements of FEMA under the Attorney General’s nose, not just Giuffrida recycling a 15-year-old emergency plan concocted during the height of paranoia about black nationalism in white America, but the very concept of American concentration camps roiled the public’s conscience. Of course, American concentration camps were nothing new. The history of the forced relocation and imprisonment of Japanese-Americans during World War II was well-attested and even formally apologized for in 1988 by Reagan through signing of the 1988 Civil Liberties Act. Even further back, of course, lies America’s shameful ethnic cleansing of Native peoples and enslavement of Africans, both of which required vast populations to be corralled and controlled. The dual legacy of both Indian reservations and chattel slavery echoes down to today’s America in a myriad of monstrous ways.
Reagan had fostered and acted as political mentor to Louis O. Giuffrida. Before being named FEMA head, Giuffrida had worked under then-Governor Reagan as the head of the California Specialized Training Institute, established in 1971. This was a governmental agency meant to train California authorities in emergency management tactics, one of which included a program to train police in paramilitary tactics during “civil disturbances.” Giuffrida’s Army War College paper obviously loomed large in Reagan’s decision to employ him, given Reagan’s historic paranoia over perceived black militancy. Giuffrida’s plan found its second life in these secret FEMA contingency plans uncovered by Chardy and others. Whistleblowers like Attorney General William Smith knew that the outlined domestic insurgency contingencies far outstripped FEMA’s disaster-planning mandate, even when put in the context of the decade’s fear of global nuclear conflict. FEMA’s secret expansion and exercises like REX 84 were ostensibly meant to protect the government from widespread popular rebellion if Reagan ordered U.S. troops to intervene directly in the Nicaraguan conflict—less than a decade after the painful and divisive Vietnam conflict.
This Miami Herald article, while a blockbuster, was not the first press mention of REX 84 or its predecessor plans; it was simply the first time the mainstream press had addressed the subject. Journalists, activists, and insurgents on both sides of the political spectrum had been working on these stories since 1984 (and previously, in some cases) in the fringe and underground press. Moreover, this opposition to and publicizing of REX 84 appeared in extremist political circles one wouldn’t expect to be hostile to the Reagan administration’s plans to round up African-Americans. The far-right antisemitic Liberty Lobby published an article in April of 1984 in its Spotlight newspaper titled “Reagan Orders Concentration Camps,” where Spotlight‘s own whistleblowers, ostensibly U.S. armed forces officers who were followers of the Liberty Lobby’s extreme right-wing politics, had inside knowledge of REX 84 a mere week after the supposedly secret Executive Order had been signed by President Reagan. The Spotlight article listed the locations of these camps (mostly near or in U.S. Army forts, although notably there was supposedly one near Oakland, California; keep this in mind). Liberty Lobby’s concern was for its own extremist right-wing readership, not for left-wing opponents of a Central American war. In the article, author James Harrer says the camps might be reserved for “a citizen [who] subscribes to the wrong newsletter,” asserting that the government might use a list prepared by the Jewish Anti-Defamation League to identify right-wing “patriots” to intern. This concern among right-wing militants about domestic internment camps operating under FEMA auspices would mutate into conspiracy theories like the UN Black Helicopter urban legends of the 1990s.
However, stretching back into the 1970s, the alert in underground media over plans for concentration camps and internment was almost entirely a left-wing concern, given the federal government’s political alignment under Nixon. In 1973, as Watergate broke, a new magazine appeared in Washington, D.C., raising hackles among the intelligence community. It was called CounterSpy and it declared itself a watchdog to the out-of-control American intelligence establishment. After the resignation of President Nixon, CounterSpy editors found an opening to expose the corruption in the Nixon White House and the degree to which Nixon had co-opted America’s intelligence establishment, following the Church Committee investigations in the U.S. Senate. (In 1975, CounterSpy had openly advocated for the exposure of CIA agents working abroad; the December 1975 killing of CIA Athens Station Chief Richard Welch by Marxists was initially blamed on CounterSpy by the intelligence community, even though Welch had not been identified in that role and station in the magazine.)
Ron Ridenhour, a GI who had served in Vietnam and was integral in exposing the My Lai Massacre, wrote an article in the Winter 1976 issue of CounterSpy titled “Garden Plot and S.W.A.T.: U.S. Police as New Action Army,” which detailed U.S. Army plans to handle widespread civil unrest in the aftermath of the riots of the mid-’60s. Ridenhour’s earlier 1975 article in New Times featured actual excerpts from Operation GARDEN PLOT documents, including an account of an exercise undertaken in 1969 called Operation CABLE SPLICER. This training exercise simulated a domestic military action designed to quell civil unrest in the Western states (California, Oregon, Washington). Governor Reagan gave an opening speech to the personnel involved in CABLE SPLICER, which featured the ominous opening “laugh lines” to the assembled military and police presence: “You know, there are people in the state who, if they could see this gathering right now and my presence here, would decide their worst fears and convictions had been realized—I was planning a military takeover.” Future Reagan White House eminence grise and second-term Attorney General Edwin Meese, then working for Governor Reagan as executive secretary, said of CABLE SPLICER: “This is an operation, this is an exercise, this is an objective which is going forward because in the long run… it is the only way that will be able to prevail.” Meese would later be implicated in a number of the Reagan White House’s more notorious ethical lapses, and would be forced to resign as Attorney General due to the Wedtech no-bid scandal.
These left-wing activists’ and journalists’ grand fantasies of concentration camps and military takeovers probably seemed outrageous to most of middle America. But it had only been a few years since COINTELPRO (the FBI’s domestic “Counter Intelligence Program”) had been exposed by ordinary citizen activists. COINTELPRO had been designed to discredit and scatter left-wing political organizing, the Civil Rights Movement, and various black empowerment organizations. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover even used post-McCarthyism fears of Communist-consorting to scare black civil rights leaders away from activism: classic divide-and-conquer. These sorts of abuses, going back 20 years or more, were one of the main factors that led to the Church Committee’s establishment. The combination of citizen action and government investigation demonstrated conclusively to the American people that their own government was both spying on them and working against their constitutional right to peaceably assemble.
Chardy’s article had the impact it did because the mainstream media had been largely silent about such affairs for the first six years of Reagan’s presidency. One could certainly attribute this silence to Reagan’s ability as “the Great Communicator”—and his ability to charm an adversarial media. One could also attribute this silence to a concerted effort among corporate-controlled media to stick to the status quo, to ignore exposés that might cost them ratings, advertisers, or subscriptions. But some individuals had no such concerns about access or boat-rocking: artists, specifically authors of literature, who used REX 84 and its family of conspiracies in an effort to alert the American people to the possible curtailment of their freedoms. The “urban legend” quality of these tales of U.S. government concentration camps and military takeovers filtered through underground news, art, and fiction in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and then, inevitably, into the 1980s mainstream and beyond.
Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is a speculative look at a future America, the Republic of Gilead, where religious fundamentalists have used a crisis in fertility to take over the U.S. government, strip women of all rights, and turn fertile women into forced breeders called “Handmaids.” The novel examines how the putsch created an oppressive patriarchal, white supremacist state with details that sound creepily familiar to GARDEN PLOT (leaving aside the forced “resettlement” of Handmaids into training camps located at commandeered public schools). On the night of the “Ceremony,” when the protagonist, Handmaid “Offred,” is compelled to submit to sex with her “Commander” to produce an heir for the elite, the entire household is permitted to watch television. The state broadcasting apparatus shows images of religious apostates and heretics like Baptists and Quakers being rounded up, but there’s also an update from Detroit:
Now we can see a city again, from the air. This used to be Detroit. Under the voice of the announcer there’s the thunk of artillery. From the skyline columns of smoke ascend.
‘Resettlement of the Children of Ham is continuing on schedule,’ says the reassuring pink face, back on the screen. ‘Three thousand have arrived this week in National Homeland One, with another two thousand in transit.’ How are they transporting that many people at once? Trains, buses? We are not shown any pictures of this. National Homeland One is in North Dakota. Lord knows what they’re supposed to do, once they get there. Farm, is the theory.
Leaving aside Offred’s suspicion that there is in fact no resettlement, this passage requires a little bit of unpacking. In Christian exegesis from the Middle Ages onward, Noah’s three sons—Japheth, Ham, and Shem—were believed to be the ancestors of Europeans, Africans, and the Semitic peoples, respectively. The belief in a “Curse of Ham” as seen literally in the skin color of Africans was used as theological justification for the European enslavement of African peoples. In the Gilead of Atwood’s novel, this designation has returned as a way of Othering and eventually eliminating black Americans in the same Biblically-ordained way that Handmaids have been rendered into property and status symbols for the regime’s Commanders. In the far-future afterword, which takes place in a cheekily familiar academic conference in the year 2195, the scholars of Gileadean culture note that “[Gilead]’s racist policies… were firmly rooted in the pre-Gilead period, and racist fears provided some of the emotional fuel that allowed the Gilead takeover to succeed as well as it did.” The intimation among these far-future scholars is that it was intelligence and armed forces conspirators who orchestrated the Gileadean takeover of the U.S., and that they followed a plan they’d had all along.
Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise (also 1985) looks at the REX 84 family of stories from a slightly less fantastic (and consequently more disarming) perspective: that of the traditional government-run disaster management role of FEMA. During the novel’s central set piece, an “airborne toxic event” caused by a train derailment has led to the evacuation of a large part of the state, including the college town where our protagonist, Jack Gladney, teaches Hitler Studies. He is putting gas into the family station wagon when the event occurs, and he seeks aid at the evacuation point, a Boy Scout camp. There, technicians and aid workers have already established operations; computers and communications equipment are online. Gladney eyes the worker who’s interviewing him:
‘That’s quite an armband you’ve got there. What does SIMUVAC mean? Sounds important.’
‘Short for simulated evacuation. A new state program they’re still battling over funds for.’
‘But this evacuation isn’t simulated. It’s real.’
‘We know that. But we thought we could use it as a model.’
‘A form of practice? Are you saying you saw a chance to use the real event in order to rehearse the simulation?’
‘We took it right into the streets.’
All throughout White Noise, echoes of the actual events of the novel are found in the pages of supermarket tabloids, which, at the time, were one of the most popular delivery methods for outrageous urban legends. As Gladney’s wife Babette reads from a tabloid psychic’s predictions at their evacuation camp, Gladney notes to himself, “The tabloid future, with its mechanism of a hopeful twist to apocalyptic events, was perhaps not so very remote from our own immediate experience.” After the airborne toxic event, SIMUVAC remains behind, becoming part of the landscape of Gladney’s everyday life, performing drills at the town supermarket and investigating strange chemicals at the local school. Mysterious figures in environment suits pop up here and there throughout the remainder of the novel, investigating disasters both simulated and (possibly) real. After the airborne toxic event gives this shadowy state group license to walk the streets of College-on-the-Hill, SIMUVAC thus becomes a permanent part of the community’s landscape, right alongside consumers in their supermarkets, children in their schools. The tabloid future has come to live in the present. The specter of disaster and evacuation lingers, heralded by “Mylex”-suited SIMUVAC employees.
In terms of manmade disasters resonating in the public mind during this time, America was only six years removed from the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown, which occurred on March 28, 1979. In one of those historical and pop culture coincidences that sometimes stretch credulity, Three Mile Island occurred fewer than two weeks after the wide release of the film The China Syndrome in American theaters. One of the last of the great 1970s political thrillers and whistleblower narratives, The China Syndrome is about dogged journalists (Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas) and a harried insider (Jack Lemmon) trying to expose the slipshod safety procedures of the owners of a southern California nuclear power plant. Lemmon’s character’s death at the hands of police at the end of the film reminds us of the militarization of local California law enforcement that began with CABLE SPLICER. In another bizarre coincidence, the Three Mile Island incident in Pennsylvania also occurred three days before FEMA was due to begin its operational life by statute (April 1, 1979). Continuing the pattern of fiction anticipating reality, DeLillo’s White Noise was written before, and subsequently released only a few months after, the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India, in December 1984, when industrial byproducts from a pesticide plant were released into the air from a Union Carbide factory, killing nearly 4,000 people and injuring over half a million.
In Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland (1990), his first novel after the epochal Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), the aftermath of 1960s activism is handled with a deft comic touch. The story is set in 1984 and examines how television has made the American public into “Thanatoids,” half-dead “tubefreex” who haunt the edges of the narrative, which dives back and forth between Reagan’s America in 1984 and Reagan’s California in 1968. Within the late ’60s portion of the fractured story, heroine Frenesi Gates is imprisoned in a CABLE SPLICER/GARDEN PLOT-like camp engineered by the antagonist, FBI agent Brock Vond. The relocation camp program that Vond initiates with the help of folks in Washington (“just about to be put in as a rider to what would be the Crime Control Act of 1970 by a not-so-neo-fascist congressman”) is called “PREP,” for “Political Re-Education Program.” Instead of relocation and internment, the PREP camps are meant to convert leftists into double agents using imprisonment and behavioral conditioning, echoing both the conceit of Room 101 at the Ministry of Love in 1984 (1948) and the widely-known series of real-life CIA mind control programs that fell under the umbrella of MKUltra. Vond believes that this political reeducation was well on its way already, as he sees an inherent desire for authority in the ’60s generation: “Brock saw the deep—if he’d allowed himself to feel it, the sometimes touching—need only to stay children forever, safe inside some extended national Family.” This extends into Vond’s overtly sexual relationship with Frenesi, Elektra overtones and all, as well as through the Thanatoids’ own relationship with television.
Pynchon’s statement on the cultural trajectory of hippie-to-yuppie and the deep-seated Boomer desire for power notwithstanding, his characters also explicitly call out the specific elements of REX 84 in the book’s present-day setting of 1984, as Frenesi’s daughter Prairie hangs out with two of her mother’s former comrades as they discuss their fear of government raids:
‘In the olden days we called it the last roundup,’ DL explained. ‘Liked to scare each other with it, thought it was always real enough. The day they’d come and break into your house and put everybody in prison camps. Not fun or sitcom prison camps, more like feedlots where we’d all become official, nonhuman livestock.’
‘You’ve seen camps like this?’ At once there seeped into the cheery space a silence like a stain in the light. Ditzah, at her editing table trembling, seemed to turn her body from what DL would say, to present less of a target, but DL only answered evenly.
‘Yep, I’ve seen ’em, your mom was in one, you’ll recall, but better than us reminiscing and boring you, go to the library sometime and read about it. Nixon had machinery for mass detention all in place and set to go. Reagan’s got it for when he invades Nicaragua. Look it up, check it out.’
Here Pynchon not only links his fictional PREP program to the actual historical Nixon-era plans that are now part of the historical record, but also links Nixon-era internment plans to the Reagan administration’s explicit desire to have camps on hand for social unrest in the face of another foreign war against Communism. Pynchon is clear to state that all of these plans are publicly available, perhaps only in the underground press of the time, but also hinting at the open history of right-wing oppression of left-wing activists. Just go to the library.
Into the 1990s, the REX 84 family of narratives was folded into the mythology of the nascent post-Cold War anti-UN/sovereign citizen/white separatist movement, but it was still being used by left-wing writers as shorthand for the dangers of authority ungoverned by the Constitution. Scottish comic creator Grant Morrison’s seminal series The Invisibles (1994-2000) features several plot points inspired by REX 84. Most notable of these concerns a former NYPD cop-turned-occult-terrorist Lucille Butler (Invisible code name “Boy”). In Boy’s origin issue (The Invisibles, Vol. 1, No. 20, 1996), REX 84 is explicitly called out as an element of the interdimensional Outer Church’s efforts to control humanity and imprison rebels who threaten global control. Boy’s older brother Martin, an NYPD detective, collaborates with the government agents who’ve been cleaning up gang activity, but balks when he finds out about the REX 84 plan. Later, elements of Morrison’s own personal Invisibles mythology interweave with REX 84, as Boy deals with the possibility that she may be an unconscious double or even triple agent thanks to her thirst for revenge over her older brother’s death or detention. As in Pynchon (and Orwell), the internment camp in The Invisibles looms as a place where individuals have their closely-held beliefs burned out of them. Any commentary on War on Terror-era black sites, psy-ops, and “enhanced interrogation” techniques is left to the reader.
Despite the fact that REX 84 and its predecessors and offshoots began and flourished under Republican Presidents as part of an explicit design to silence or even incarcerate left-wing activists and others who would threaten the status quo, it is today most frequently right-wing extremists who espouse conspiracy theories surrounding FEMA camps. It seems that the idea of mass internment, when it is perceived to threaten gun-enthusiastic white people, becomes an imminent national emergency that necessitates taking up arms. Mass relocation and internment have, however, as examined earlier, demonstrably threatened a quite different set of demographics throughout American history: people of color and left-wing activists. That practice continues today.
No matter which side of the political spectrum, the enduring life of REX 84 and related conspiracy narratives in American pop culture is a testament to the seeming alienness of political internment in “the land of the free.” To Americans, the liberators of concentration camps during World War II, the idea of ceding to fascist impulses to imprison and isolate the politically undesirable is a profound psychic wound to the nation’s self-image. But, in reality, Americans acquiesced to all of these plans, even after they were exposed to the public by both journalists and artists. All of them—GARDEN PLOT, REX 84, the George W. Bush administration’s National Security and Homeland Security Presidential Directive—are real. These documents, these plans, and the ambitions of men like Louis Giuffrida, remain acknowledged and archived by the government, and await rediscovery and reauthorization. If we do not remain vigilant now, if we cede the rightful suspicion of plans such as REX 84 to those on the extreme political margins, then those who resist the autocratic advances of the current administration may be in for much worse than Nixon or Reagan or Bush ever intended.
Michael Grasso is a Contributing Editor and Exhibit Curator at We Are the Mutants. He is a Bostonian, a museum professional, and a podcaster. You can read his thoughts on museums and more on Twitter at @MuseumMichael.