Two new books on the secret war in Vietnam provide amazing details of clandestine activities.
By John Witmer
The war that ended in Vietnam 25 years ago was about more than helicopters, search-and-destroy missions, VC and the Ho Chi Minh Trail. While world attention was focused on military action in the South and then in Laos and Cambodia, clandestine efforts were being made north of the 17th parallel to influence or even coerce North Vietnam to drop its plans to reunify Vietnam under a Communist banner. United States leaders at the highest levels gave the green light for the deployment of spies and saboteurs into North Vietnam as early as 1960, in the hope that an internal threat would give the Communist leaders second thoughts about continuing their drive south. Begun under the auspices of the CIA, this clandestine program was reassigned to the U.S. Army in 1963 at the direction of President John F. Kennedy. Two new books record the history of those efforts and explain why they failed so completely. Or did they?
Richard H. Shultz, Jr.’s The Secret War Against Hanoi: Kennedy’s and Johnson’s Use of Spies, Saboteurs, and Covert Warriors in North Vietnam (HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., New York, 1999, $27.50) is quite a remarkable book–that is, in the sense of what it says about the secret war against North Vietnam as well as what it has to say about how the overt war was waged in South Vietnam. The book focuses on the personnel and activities of the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam–Studies and Observation Group, MACV-SOG for short, or plain SOG as it has come to be known. Originally chartered by President Kennedy to take over responsibility for covert operations in North Vietnam from the CIA, whose performance Kennedy found wanting, SOG later became best known for its cross-border intelligence missions and covert operations against the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Shultz does an excellent job of narrating SOG’s activities and rendering a scorecard on the relative success or failure of various operations. He is able to go into some detail in this regard because of his access to recently declassified documents. The most serious setback encountered by SOG was the discovery that all the agents sent into North Vietnam, totaling about 500, had been killed or captured. Many were turned against the Americans in a classic double cross. To their lasting credit, the men of SOG sought to turn this disaster to their advantage by transforming the situation into a triple cross. They were on their way to realizing some substantive accomplishments with this ploy when all operations north of the DMZ were summarily halted by President Lyndon B. Johnson for political reasons. While SOG successes against the trail were many, they were also expensive due to a high-level enemy penetration of the South Vietnamese government.
Perhaps the most incredible part of this story is how SOG was given a mission and then was so circumscribed by bureaucratic layers of management as to makecarrying out that mission impossible. The active hostility of the State Department and SOG’s own Regular Army senior commanders did not help, either. How SOG personnel managed to accomplish anything is a marvel and a testimony to their dedication and courage. The great mystery and tragedy, as this book reminds us, is that policy-makers were able somehow to separate in their minds the flesh-and-blood troops from the geopolitical strategies that dictated the war on the ground. The Secret War Against Hanoi may make it easier to understand events that up until now seemed inexplicable to many of us.
While Spies & Commandos: How America Lost the Secret War in North Vietnam, by Kenneth Conboy and Dale Andradé (University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, 2000, $34.95), was not written as a companion book to The Secret War, it is not a stretch to imagine them as volume one and volume two on the same subject. Spies provides the reader with an amazing amount of detail on what were supposed to be, after all, clandestine operations. The names of the commandos sent into North Vietnam by the CIA and MACV-SOG are given, as well as how and where they were recruited, what training they received, the code names of their missions, when and how they were inserted into North Vietnam, and finally, comprehensive accounts of their missions, including the ultimate fates of the men involved. This effort is a considerable accomplishment of which the authors can be justifiably proud. Their success is due to their extensive research in the United States and in Vietnam and especially to their interviewing the participants in the events, both American military commanders and trainers and survivors of the ethnically diverse commando troops.
Except for one or two occasions, all the men sent into North Vietnam, and those who transported them via plane or boat, were Asians, with the exception of a few Norwegians. This was done for reasons of plausible deniability, even though Hanoi was well aware who was the ultimate source of the plague of agents who dropped from the sky and swam in from the sea. Although all the men sent north were captured or killed–sometimes within hours of insertion–and many were “turned” in a classic double-cross maneuver, the secret war still seemed to have some effect on Hanoi, perhaps for good reason.
For example, the longest-running operation, the Sacred Sword of the Patriots’ League (SSPL), which was a purely notional resistance movement inside North Vietnam, apparently kept the North Vietnamese in a state of uncertainty as to whether they really had captured all the spies and saboteurs. They could never find members of the SSPL, but they did not stop looking for them. This notional entity was given some real-life credibility by Operation Loki, which involved capturing North Vietnamese fishermen and taking them to Cu Lao Cham, an island 22 kilometers from Da Nang. After they were interrogated to obtain low-level intelligence and indoctrinated in SSPL principles, the fishermen were given gifts and allowed to return to their homes. Although blindfolded coming and going, some fishermen were able to identify their place of detention. Yet, significantly, there is no evidence to indicate that the location of the SSPL facility was ever betrayed to North Vietnam officials.
The two books are in fairly close agreement on why the secret war failed. Conboy and Andradé pretty much discount the idea that failure was due to enemy penetrations in Saigon, believing instead that the rollups can be well enough accounted for by the closed, tightly controlled society of wartime North Vietnam. Plus, Hanoi has never claimed or admitted to such penetrations. All this is plausible, but not conclusive.
On the upside, Spies & Commandos provides information on the current status of some of the surviving commandos. After years of imprisonment in North Vietnam, some are now alive and well in the United States and, with the intervention of Vietnam vet congressmen, have even been awarded cash settlements by the U. S. government as reward for past services.