When researching the works of the secretive Studies and Observation Group (SOG) during the war in Vietnam, Richard H. Schultz Jr. digs through their papers in an exhaustive and sprawling piece of work.
While critical of much their work, especially in the matter of inserting foreign agents into North Vietnam, Schultz’s admiration for the warriors of SOG bleeds thru his work, and who can blame him? Some of America’s best warriors were the backbone of SOG, garnered from the US Army Special Forces (Green Berets) and Navy SEALs.
After the war in Vietnam ended, much of SOG’s operations were buried in the vaults of the Pentagon. Schultz spent countless hours digging thru thousands of pages of reports that had been recently declassified as well as conducted interviews with some of the key players. The result is a fascinating and extremely detailed read on the largest and most covert operations since World War II.
Studies and Observations Group (SOG) was the Pentagon’s code-name for their own Special Operations Group. It conducted operations from 1964 -1972. SOG came into being when President Kennedy in 1963 was very dissatisfied with the intelligence and guerrilla operations that CIA was running on North Vietnam, turned it over to the military.
The Pentagon and the staff officers didn’t understand Special Operations and had little interest in doing so. Their distrust of Special Operations and operators was very high. The Pentagon, the NSC (National Security Council) and State Department all had their hand in micro-managing SOG’s operations, however.
The official acronym (the military loves acronyms) for SOG, was MACVSOG (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, Studies and Observations Group). SOG was tasked with inserting intelligence agents into North Vietnam, waging psychological warfare, and mounting covert naval and reconnaissance operations as well as strike operations.
The first task failed miserably. Every single agent of the 500 inserted into North Vietnam was caught. They were either killed or turned into double agents. But the resourceful Americans turned some into the classic triple cross agents, though never to be trusted.
Even this failure though into a semi-successful operation. In a series of brilliant moves, SOG convinced the North that a massive underground was operating under their very noses and loyal North Vietnamese were implicated as traitors. The chapter on “psychological warfare”, where Shultz goes into detail with the “Drive Them Crazy with Psywar”. SOG set up a fake resistance movement, the Sacred Sword of the Patriots League (SSPL) and then sent bogus radio traffic, propaganda, and parachuted blocks of ice into the jungle to melt and leave empty chutes and have the North Vietnamese chasing ghosts
Part of the reason the Psywar campaign wasn’t more successful was that CIA didn’t value Psywar. To “fast track” in the Agency, one had to be in the Directorate of Intelligence or in Paramilitary Operations. Psywar was looked down on and so many of the agency’s best and brightest stayed away..
Schultz’s telling of how anything could be accomplished at all while dealing with the tottering bureaucracy is a testament to the bravery and resourcefulness of SOG’s operations personnel. They had many successes in trying to report and thwart the North Vietnamese on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. But even these successes were limited and often costly, due to the level that the South Vietnamese government had been compromised.
That chapter, “Crossing the Fence” is a chapter that many of the readers will want to check out as that is where he details the cross-border operations of SOG into Laos.
Shultz does an excellent job of detailing SOG’s operations and he spares no detail on the subject matter because the government finally decided to declassify documents that had been part of SOG. The biggest issue with the ultimate failure of SOG has to do with the military leadership in Vietnam. They had little use for the men working there, provided little to no support for their operations and had no consideration to ever included SOG’s efforts into the overall strategy. SOG and Special Operations Forces, in general, were not highly esteemed by the military and officers who led SOG troops were not fast-tracked.
Richard H. Shultz, Jr.’s The Secret War Against Hanoi: Kennedy’s and Johnson’s Use of Spies, Saboteurs, and Covert Warriors in North Vietnam (HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., New York, 1999) is a fantastic read for the lovers of both military history and those who can’t get enough of what makes Special Operations and operators tick.
It is a very detailed oriented book that spells out the many failures and successes of the SOG warriors during our long, troubled misadventures in Vietnam. The lessons learned from our failures in Vietnam were stepping stones to the way our Special Operations Forces are being used today. It is a book well worth your time.
Photo: Author, SOG