Being a spy is a big, serious thing. The information that you would provide to the side you were spying for, whichever it was, could determine the success or failure of their plans or missions. The details that you would give could also dictate the next moves that they would take. At the same time, being a spy meant risking your life and accepting the possibility of being caught and probably killed. That’s why the price to pay these agents was no joke, too. Depending on the value of information that one could provide, we’re talking about millions of dollars for payment. However, during Vietnam War, there was a time when the CIA paid their Vietnamese agents not with money but with products from the Sears catalog.
Money Doesn’t Talk
In 1966, intelligence officer Jon Wiant arrived in Hue, in central Vietnam. At that time, the United States’ involvement in the war between the north and the south was slowly increasing, with the 200,000 Marines that the US had deployed to the country and started bombing North Vietnam. When Wiant arrived in Hue, he took over a small operation and hired Vietnamese agents to bring him useful information about Viet Cong. It could’ve been fairly easy to pay his Vietnamese informants if not for one problem: money was of little to no use to them.
These agents were working in areas with basic infrastructure where money was of little value. Those who were there got by through bartering, and they instead needed specific tools to help them successfully carry out their missions. Prior to Wiant, the intelligent officer paid the spies with rice and some other necessities that they consumed or traded for some other things that they needed, be it power tools, pens, fishing equipment, or something bigger like drugs or weapons. This, however, became less effective when the local officers began looking into the earnings of the agents, so Wiant had to think of new forms of payment that he could personally deliver to the agents.
Wiant witnessed how another handler who said he was the “best of the Vietnamese agent handlers” gave an agent a straw hat as his bonus, and the agent gladly took it. An idea sparked in his mind.
Perhaps it was the most American idea to ever come up in his mind at that time, as he decided that he would order items for his spies from the Sears catalog. He said,
My wife had just sent me a Sears catalog … It was sitting on the corner of my desk. I started thumbing through it … and it suddenly struck me that this might be the answer to our problem.
Honestly, why not? It’s like the Amazon of its era that sold everything that one could ever need in his life, from underwear to vet supplies to firearms. Started by a railroad station agent in Minneapolis named Richard Sears in 1886, his gold watches of $14 per piece grew into a general mail-order firm that wowed the customers with their thick catalogs. By 1894, their catalog page count reached 322 pages billing themselves as the “Cheapest Supply House on Earth” or “the Book of Bargains.”
Just before the United States’ entrance into World War II, General Patton actually ordered the tools, supplies, and parts from the Sears catalog to equip the 2nd Armored Division.
Paid With Sears
So, Wiant came up with creating a pay scale of different products that would depend on the length and difficulty of the missions. He would also send the catalog into the field so that his agents could browse them themselves and think ahead about what they wanted to get.
One of the requests that he got was “six boys’ size red velvet blazer vests with brass button” each was a payment for an agent’s 20 days’ work worth. Wiant’s brilliant idea worked perfectly, as the spies were able to get useful items that helped them in their daily lives. Sometimes, the agents would get creative, like that one time when they ordered a large bra and attached it to a bamboo pole so they could use it to harvest fruits.
This payment system lasted until 1967 only, as the area became too dangerous for the agents, and the products from Sears could not compensate with the jobs anymore. The marines instead began to cover the area and gathered their own intelligence. Regardless, the Sears payment system that Wiant came up with was successful and great while it lasted.
Would you accept Sears products for your spy services?