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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 years."

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."

   

 

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