Spies and Commandos

How America Lost the Secret War in North Vietnam

Kenneth Conboy and Dale Andrade

Winner: Richard W. Leopold Prize

During the Vietnam war, the United States sought to undermine Hanoi's subversion of the Saigon regime by sending Vietnamese operatives behind enemy lines. A secret to most Americans, this covert operation was far from secret in Hanoi: all of the commandos were killed or captured, and many were turned by the Communists to report false information.

“A marvelous and convincing book brimming with evidence that a strategy of dealing with foreign dictators by plotting their removal is no strategy at all.”

Wall Street Journal

“A pathbreaking book that's also a good read.”

Washington Times
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Spies and Commandos traces the rise and demise of this secret operation—started by the CIA in 1960 and expanded by the Pentagon beginning in1964—in the first book to examine the program from both sides of the war. Kenneth Conboy and Dale Andradé interviewed CIA and military personnel and traveled in Vietnam to locate former commandos who had been captured by Hanoi, enabling them to tell the complete story of these covert activities from high-level decision making to the actual experiences of the agents.

The book vividly describes scores of dangerous missions-including raids against North Vietnamese coastal installations and the air-dropping of dozens of agents into enemy territory—as well as psychological warfare designed to make Hanoi believe the "resistance movement" was larger than it actually was. It offers a more complete operational account of the program than has ever been made available-particularly its early years-and ties known events in the war to covert operations, such as details of the "34-A Operations" that led to the Tonkin Gulf incidents in 1964. It also explains in no uncertain terms why the whole plan was doomed to failure from the start.

One of the remarkable features of the operation, claim the authors, is that its failures were so glaring. They argue that the CIA, and later the Pentagon, was unaware for years that Hanoi had compromised the commandos, even though some agents missed radio deadlines or filed suspicious reports. Operational errors were not attributable to conspiracy or counterintelligence, they contend, but simply to poor planning and lack of imagination.

Although it flourished for ten years under cover of the wider war, covert activity in Vietnam is now recognized as a disaster. Conboy and Andradé's account of that episode is a sobering tale that lends a new perspective on the war as it reclaims the lost lives of these unsung spies and commandos.

Additional Titles in the Modern War Studies Series