Bungling cloaks, pointless daggers

November 21, 1999|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Sun Staff

"The Secret War Against Hanoi," by Richard H. Shultz. HarperCollins. 354 pages. $27.50.

While American presidents and the Pentagon chiefs militarily bungled their way through the Vietnam War relying on body counts and outmoded tactics, a more daring and effective fight was taking place in the shadows.

But the White House and the military bungled that one too, Richard Shultz tells us, in his fascinating and detailed work that lifts the veil on psychological operations, sabotage and other dirty tricks aimed against North Vietnam during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

Drawing on more than 1,500 pages of classified documents and interviews with dozens of participants, Shultz weaves a compelling tale of super secret American commandoes and operatives, known as SOG -- the Studies and Observations Group.

They led small teams against that North Vietnamese lifeline to the South, the Ho Chi Minh trail. Others created phony opposition groups, ran agents and beamed propaganda radio broadcasts. Still others sent unsuspecting North Vietnamese prisoners back home with incriminating espionage items sewn into their clothing -- and a likely death sentence.

It was all designed to attack a police state's most pressing need: internal control. The hyperkinetic and romantic Kennedy pressed for more of this cloak and dagger stuff to bring Hanoi to heel. But LBJ was more cautious -- much like his handling of the conventional war -- and curtailed many of the secret missions, Shultz writes.

Johnson feared domestic political fallout and a widened war with China and Russia if these sordid activities came to light. Moreover, the turf-conscious CIA didn't offer the military's special operatives much assistance. And the Pentagon never included them in its war plans, considering them more rabble rousers than soldiers and their plans inconsequential.

"SOG fought two formidable enemies -- North Vietnamese leadership in Hanoi and America's leadership in Washington," writes Shultz, a professor at Tufts University who taught at West Point.

SOG's record was "mixed," and among the major disappointments: 500 agents sent into North Vietnam were all captured. Still, Hanoi was starting to show "some concern" by 1968, Shultz notes, mounting a major counterespionage effort and taking steps to increase the security of the Ho Chi Minh trail.

When Hanoi agreed to sit down and Paris and talk peace, it had only two criteria: stop the bombing and the other military activities -- meaning SOG. Shultz cites North Vietnamese radio broadcasts, newspapers and party documents of the time noting the concern about American operations and the supposed spies in their midst.

Now that the former enemy has a U.S. ambassador and former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara travels to Hanoi for conferences, the reader yearns for more recent reaction about the impact of these "black" activities.

Shultz includes an intriguing comment from a battle-hardened Vietnamese colonel to an American human rights activist in 1995, who wondered if America could have done anything to emerge victorious in Vietnam. If LBJ had allowed the military to enter Laos and cut the Ho Chi Minh trail, the colonel replied candidly, "Hanoi could not have won the war."

More forthcoming comments about what goes on in the shadows, however, are perhaps unlikely, especially from a police state.

Tom Bowman covers military affairs for The Sun. Robert F. Kennedy and foreign policy was the subject of his master's thesis at Boston College.

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