The Living Memory
A Secret Revealed
It was one of the Vietnam War's most closely held secrets. From
1964 to 1972, a U.S. covert operation dispatched spies to North
Vietnam, where they conducted psychological warfare, manipulated
POWs, kidnapped citizens, and raided Hanoi's coast.
Camouflaged among Pentagon files with the vaguely nefarious cover-up
of "SOG"-Studies and Observation Group-"it was an
operation that took place in the shadowy world of spies, deception
and sabotage," says Richard Shultz, director of the Fletcher
School's International Security program. "But it was war, after
all, and SOG played real hardball, with dirty tricks that were fiendishly
nasty and sometimes highly successful."
If Shultz speaks with crisp assurance, it is an authority he has
earned as the author of the first book to illuminate this top-secret
episode in the Vietnam War. His new book, The Secret War Against
Hanoi, released this fall by HarperCollins, weaves a compelling
narrative based on thousands of pages of declassified top-secret
documents and interviews with 60 officers who ran the covert programs
and the senior officials who directed them, including Robert McNamara
and William Westmoreland.
The book has been called an "eye-opener," "required
reading" for new CIA officers, a "virtual checklist of
do's and don'ts" for policymakers, to a "long overdue
book about courageous men fighting two wars-one against the North
Vietnamese; and the other against conventional military leaders
who failed to appreciate their potential."
Unquestionably, the book will stir up discussions about American
policy toward North and South Vietnam, about the Kennedy and Johnson
administrations, about the moral and ethical dimensions of covert
warfare. It is also likely to reveal something about the business
of covert operations. SOG, as Shultz points out, "had some
spectacular blunders," most devastating being the complete
failure of 500 agents inserted into North Vietnam by the CIA and
SOG to establish spy networks. "Hanoi caught everybody and
doubled several back, feeding the U.S. disinformation for several
Shultz' interest in raising questions inspired him early on to
research the book with the tools of a scholar, but not to write
with an academic's distanced tone. Using historian Doris Kearns
Goodwin as his model, he says he has focused on producing a narrative
that engages the imagination.
"I wanted to reveal a secret war, to lay it all bare,"
he says. "Also, as a person who works in security studies and
public policy, I felt there were important lessons to be deduced
that have implications for the future."
The book's genesis goes back to September 1994 when Shultz met
Terry Scott, commanding general of the U.S. Army's special operations
command. Shultz felt Scott might be someone who would be open to
a book idea.
"I told him that there was a part [of the war] we really hadn't
studied, the covert war against North Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh
trail and in Laos and Cambodia," says Shultz. "It was
the largest covert operation the United States ever ran, yet the
military had never really looked at this strategic policy decision
and the impact of its psychological warfare."
The problem was that Shultz needed access to information buried
so deep in the Pentagon, that access by more traditional channels
probably would have happened at the speed of continental drift.
Shultz, however, had significant credentials. Director of the International
Security Program at the Fletcher School and associate professor
of international politics, he has a long track record of military
research, especially on issues of national security. Previously,
he taught strategy at the Naval War College and at West Point. He
is the author of The Soviet Union and Revolutionary Warfare and
Security Studies of the 21st Century. His reputation for serious
scholarship combined with his insider's understanding of the military
won Scott's support, and, ultimately, access to thousands of pages
of classified reports.
Scott and Shultz also reached an agreement regarding findings that
were likely to outrage many Americans. "We agreed that we would
let the cards fall where they would fall," says Shultz. "I
had the right to write the book as I saw it and to publish it commercially.
This was a very unusual arrangement. I think they trusted me to
present an even-handed analysis, even when it risked showing the
worst side of military and government leaders."
The Secret War Against Hanoi has already been praised as "lucid,
sweeping and utterly readable," and its endorsement by people
such as Caspar Weinberger, former secretary of defense, Seymour
Hersh, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and G. Hugh Tovar, former
chief of the CIA's Covert Action Staff, give Shultz good reason
to believe that his work has made a strong impression among diverse
readers and that it will have a practical impact. Readers of different
persuasions, of course, will interpret the book through their own
personal political and moral perspectives. As for Shultz, he has
reserved his evaluation of SOG for the book's epilogue. It is an
assessment in the carefully measured words of a scholar who sees
both sides of an issue at once.
"My argument is that in a war like this these are instruments
that presidents have to consider, that you have to do it on a case
by case basis," he says. "Some readers will respond with
'Oh my God! Should we have done this?' That is an important question.
But I think it is important because the international security of
the future is likely to be very different; we already see various
threats to security that are incredibly frightening in their danger
and difficulty to responding to. In the future we may have to operate
clandestinely. I hope, at the very least, that this book about what
happened in North Vietnam helps generate that debate."