Fort Bragg, North Carolina (TFC) – Special Forces units are seen as some of America’s most elite warriors. Inside the Special Forces exists a very unique culture. Part of this culture is a shadowy fraternity of soldiers that some have called “The Special Forces Underground,” although they apparently don’t refer to themselves as that. This secretive group has one mission: to stop the US government from imposing a totalitarian regime on the citizens of the United States.
The term “Special Forces” is often misunderstood in civilian circles. SEAL Teams, Army Rangers, Marine Force Recon units, and so on are not Special Forces; they are “Special Operations.” The term “Special Forces” specifically refers to what most civilians identify as “Green Berets.” The Special Forces existed prior to the authorization of the iconic headwear, but they came into their own and became the fighting force we know today when President John F. Kennedy authorized the unusual headgear over the Department of Defense’s objections (DOD thought the berets were too feminine).
The legend of the Special Forces Underground reaches back to the same period. The story is that President Kennedy, an outspoken critic of the military-industrial complex, pulled selected Special Forces officers aside when he visited Fort Bragg in October of 1961. In a very informal conversation he asked these officers to promise that if the US military was ever used against the people of the United States the men of the Special Forces would use their very unique training to assist the people. According to the legend, this promise has been passed down through the decades to some of the soldiers wearing the Green Beret today. These men make up what the media and DOD investigations have referred to as “The Special Forces Underground.”
Is there any truth to this origin?
Kennedy did visit and meet with Special Forces officers on October 12, 1961 at Fort Bragg. That much is public record. The relationship between the Special Forces and President Kennedy is unique to say the very least. Any request the unit had during his administration was granted, and the number of Green Berets more than doubled during his short Presidency. On November 22nd, 1963 President Kennedy was assassinated. Within hours of the assassination, 46 Special Forces soldiers were en route to Washington, DC at the request of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. 21 of those soldiers were selected to participate in the President’s Honor Guard. Available records don’t indicate what the other 25 soldiers did. Kennedy is the only President to have ever had a detachment of Special Forces soldiers serve in this capacity. They stayed with his casket and guarded over it until after the President’s family left. After the family left, Command Sergeant Major Francis Ruddy removed his Green Beret and left it on the grave. By some accounts, all of the other Green Berets left their symbolic headgear behind as well. CSM Ruddy’s beret can be seen today at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library where it is on permanent display in honor of the US Army Special Forces. It is the only permanent military display in the museum, even though Kennedy himself served in the Navy.
It’s clear Kennedy had a special attachment to the Green Berets. For their part, the center where Green Berets are trained today is located where the reported promises were given at Fort Bragg, North Carolina and is called the US Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School. Every year, Green Berets travel to Arlington National Cemetery and place a wreath on Kennedy’s grave in a brief ceremony. No other President receives this attention from the Green Berets. The media attributes this to the fact that the President authorized the unit to wear berets instead of traditional headgear. Readers should keep in mind that President Kennedy authorized the creation of the Navy SEALs as well. There is no similar tribute from the Navy. It seems odd that the Special Forces would go to such lengths for more than fifty years over the approval of headgear, while the SEALs don’t over the approval of the entire unit.
The unusual ties between Kennedy and the Green Berets are clear. What happened during private conversations more than 50 years ago is up for debate, but the legend remains.
The mission of the Special Forces:
Every unit in the military would love to claim that they were handpicked by a President of the United States to be the last line of defense against tyranny, but the mission of the Green Berets makes their selection a little bit more probable. Every unit in the military has a specific purpose. The specialty of the Green Berets is to train a civilian population to fight back against, as Kennedy put it, “despotic” regimes.
This mission is embodied in the Special Forces motto which is emblazoned on the crest that adorns the iconic beret: De Oppresso Liber. The motto has two translations. The most common is “to free the oppressed.” A lesser known translation is “From a caught man, a free man.” Either way the symbolism is clear. The unit’s mission is to help people slide from under the yoke of tyranny.
The Green Berets are force multipliers. A Special Forces A-team (yes, that’s where the 1980s TV show gets its name) is a twelve man team that is designed to be able to instruct resistance fighters in the methods needed to overthrow a bad government. The idea is that each Green Beret can teach ten resistance fighters, who in turn can teach more, and so on. If you were a President concerned about the military-industrial complex, could you possibly think of a better unit to designate as America’s last line of defense against tyranny?
Where the term “Special Forces Underground” came from:
The term isn’t used by those associated with the group. The term came to prominence in the 1990s during the militia craze that swept the country after the end of the Cold War. It was then that Steven Barry began openly speaking about a secret organization within the Special Forces. Barry went to West Point but didn’t graduate, and then he was “peered out” of Ranger School (that’s when your own classmates say you aren’t fit for the Rangers). Eventually he wound up as an enlisted soldier and reportedly made it into the Special Forces and even became an instructor at the JFK Special Warfare Center. He publicized his newsletter called “The Resister” and coined the term “the Special Forces Underground.”
The problem is that Barry wasn’t really representative of the institution that is reported to exist within the Special Forces. The unofficial organization Kennedy started was concerned with one thing: preventing a military dictatorship. Barry was, well, a racist. He was outspoken and brought unwanted attention to the Special Forces, especially considering his views were extreme and not representative of the institution. The reader should be aware that the Special Forces actively recruit first-generation Americans of every race and ethnicity because of their foreign language abilities. The Special Forces is traditionally one of the most inclusive units in the military. Racism is not predominant in the Special Forces and never has been. Even during the Jim Crow era the Special Forces accepted black soldiers with open arms.
The racist views of Barry led to a Department of Defense investigation. It was determined that the group was not racist in nature. In 1995, Lt. Colonel Kenneth McGraw told the New York Times that several checks of the group by the DOD demonstrated that it did not violate any regulations. This was the first and only real admission by military personnel that the group even exists.
Barry has since faded into obscurity. The name “Special Forces Underground” stuck, much to the dismay of the Special Forces community who would rather not be associated with the racist nature of the man who came up with the term.
The interesting thing about this brotherhood within the Special Forces is that even though both the DOD and the FBI acknowledged that it exists during the investigation into the racist element of the 1990s, most Green Berets will say it doesn’t. However, those same Green Berets that say it doesn’t exist will be able to tell you exactly how a newly-minted Green Beret will be reviewed, approached by a current member of the organization, and brought into the fold. It has no formal structure and men associated with the organization might be in the same unit, working with each other every day, and not know of each other’s affiliation. This makes those that made a promise to a deceased President impossible to infiltrate. It also makes them impossible to predict.
What we do know is that the Department of Defense believes it exists, that alone is a deterrent that may offer some protection.
The men of the Green Berets are trained to keep secrets. Since there are no known membership rolls and nobody has publicly spoken about the organization in almost twenty years, as compelling as the evidence is, there is no way to know whether or not America’s last line of defense against dictatorial tyranny is the most overstated myth in the military or its best kept secret.
Author’s Note: I spoke to half a dozen current and former Green Berets about the so-called “Special Forces Underground.” None were willing to go on the record about the organization even though they all denied involvement. Even though they denied involvement they spoke about the movement in theoretical terms. Their responses were used only to provide context and a shove in the right direction.