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.

2nd Battalion, 4th Marines into Dai Do village on May 1968. (Archives from Quantico, USACC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

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.