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The fatally flawed OPLAN 34A commando raids on North Vietnam were a disaster with lasting consequences.

OPLAN 34A, the flawed and failed operation designed to “send a message to Hanoi,” in the words of former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, left a disastrous swath of human destruction and suffering in its wake. Vietnamese commandos, recruited first by the Central Intelligence Agency and then assigned to the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam­Studies and Observations Group (MACV­SOG), were compromised in their designated mission. Out of 33 commando teams in Phase I, only 11 were on target. The rest had the same poor record.

The operation was so inadequately planned and executed that it was not even necessary to leak the teams’ arrival places and times to the North Vietnamese high command. During the early 1960s, when the operation was put into effect, all that was necessary to intercept the commando teams was to await the routine nightly arrival of low-flying C-123s in the border areas of Laos and the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

The CIA recruited commandos who were ethnic minorities in North Vietnam. They signed contracts that promised pay for themselves and allotments for their families, even in the event of capture and imprisonment. Most commandos were captured or killed, and the North Vietnamese Army forced captured team radio operators to send false reports to MACV­ SOG. Eventually, the American and South Vietnamese commanders acknowledged that something had gone seriously wrong.

Sedgwick Tourison, author of Secret Army, Secret War (Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Md., 1996, $29.95), was with U.S. Army Intelligence in Southeast Asia and also spent five years with the Defense Intelligence Agency in the office for POW/MIA affairs. He knows his subject and uses both his interviews of leading players in the Vietnam War and the remembrances of the surviving commandos to flesh out the bare bones of the now declassified memorandums. Tourison’s narrative deals effectively with a painful subject.

Some former commandos have filed law suits to obtain monetary compensation for their struggle to survive the North Vietnam prison system. One of the litigants, Pham Ninh Ngoc, was not optimistic. In 1986, Vu Duc Guong was turned down because the details to prove his suit were still classified. Today, that is no longer the case. Recently, a federal claims court ordered the disclosure of secret payrolls and memos of these men who were declared dead during the Vietnam War.

One cannot help but wonder why the U.S. government, under all administrations, continued a failed operation. The most chilling part of this account are the conclusions of CIA Chief William Colby, Robert McNamara, and other high-ranking officers and officials. This mission was one that never could have succeeded, given all the parameters that existed at the time. On paper, it must have sounded like the perfect solution to gathering intelligence and putting the North Vietnamese government on notice that the allies could infiltrate their territory and work at will. Designed to be a limited war, it encompassed everything and everyone.

A.K. Dawson

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