Secrets and Lies in Vietnam by Panagiotis Dimitrakis

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“All’s fair in love and war,” Miguel de Cervantes once suggested, but he could have added “and in espionage.” Panagiotis Dimitrakis emphatically makes that point in Secrets and Lies in Vietnam: Spies, Intelligence, and Covert Operations in the Vietnam Wars (I.B. Tauris, 312 pp.; $57.14; $32,  Kindle). Dimitrakis examines the underworld of espionage in Vietnam by depicting the activities of agents and their masters from World War II to 1979.

An expert on intelligence and military history, Dimitrakis holds a doctorate in War Studies from King’s College London. Among a broad span of other work, he has written books on Afghanistan, the Cold War, and the Middle East.

Each chapter of Secrets and Lies in Vietnam focuses on individual spies and chronologically shows how North Vietnamese intelligence agents outwitted the French and more than held their own against the Americans. Dimitrakis heavily documents his writing with notes primarily from Western sources. He skillfully recreates stories that have been told before, but gives them new life by adding details that flesh out the people and events involved.

The first third of the book describes the turmoil in Vietnam from the end of World War II to the 1954 defeat of the French in Indochina. Dimitrakis writes about the intrigues among France, England, China, the Soviet Union, and the United States to influence the destiny of Vietnam. The country was rife with assassinations, bombings, sabotage, terrorism, raids, code breaking, theft of plans, signal intercepts, leaks, and duplicity. Dimitrakis weaves these factors together to present a succinct yet solid explanation for North Vietnam’s victory at Dien Bien Phu.

From there, he segues to the accomplishments of a Viet Minh mole who infiltrated the U.S. Saigon Military Mission in 1954. As North Vietnamese Gen.Vo Nguyen Giap put it: “We are now in the United States’ war room!”

Introducing the book, Dimitrakis says, “We will not analyze strategy, military operations, counterinsurgency, or international diplomacy.” Instead, “readers will witness events through the eyes of the spy.” Nevertheless, he provides a good deal of insight about military actions, much of which was new to me. For example, he describes United States-sanctioned black ops in the early 1960s against the Hanoi government. Similarly, he delves into the politics of leadership changes in South Vietnam.

The last third of the book provides the greatest enlightenment concerning espionage. The unpredictable interplay of personalities Dimitrakis unveils in the chapter titled “Molehunt and Spies in the Vietcong” shows the uncertainties of “the never-ending difficulty of intelligence gathering.”

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The author

He also follows the trail of lies and deception into the White House to assess Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s intrusion into intelligence work. The results of this research reminded me of The War after the War: the Struggle for Credibility during America’s Exit from Vietnam in which Johannes Kadura shows the president and his closest advisers colluding to mislead the entire nation for purely personal political reasons.

Books such as Secrets and Lies in Vietnam are important because they offer new perspectives about what happened in the war, both militarily and politically. Declassifying old government files and opening new sections of archives for perusal frequently reveal previously unobtainable facts. Even though the information is fifty or more years old, it is new to most people.

Panagiotis Dimitrakis—and similar scholars—merit praise for finding and presenting such facts in a highly readable format for the general public. More often than not, they permit veterans to validate complaints against leadership, especially inadequacies at higher levels.

—Henry Zeybel

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Code Warriors by Stephen Budiansky

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These days we apply different terms to an important game heroes and villains play: Leaking. Hacking. Phishing. Today’s players are Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, numerous Russians, and anybody else with a computer who searches deeply into the files of others—in other words, spies at work. Back in the day, they called it espionage.

One of the world’s most interesting espionage battles took place during the Cold War—from the end of World War II to the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Stephen Budiansky recreates this period in Code Warriors: NSA’s Codebreakers and the Secret Intelligence War against the Soviet Union (Knopf, 410 pp., $30, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle).

The story extends back to before World War II and describes America’s espionage tactics that led to the 1952 creation of the National Security Agency, which in turn led to crypt-analysis techniques capable of deciphering “unbreakable” codes.

An historian and lecturer, Budiansky has written fourteen books about military and intelligence history, science, and the natural world. In this highly informative book Budiansky tells less than a complete story because, as he explains, NSA “continues to this day to be extremely chary of revealing any details of its successes against Soviet cryptology.” In writing Code Warriors, Budiansky primarily relied on archival sources and document collections.

Nevertheless, Budiansky—the former national security correspondent and foreign editor at U.S. News & World Report—presents fresh perspectives on NSA triumphs and failures against Germany and Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and, most of all, the Soviet Union. He shows how NSA evolved into an organization in which “what had been acceptable in wartime but anathema in practice became the norm for peacetime, too.” While reading about the tactics NAS used on foes and friends, foreign and domestic, I vacillated between love and hate for the agency and its leaders.

Budiansky’s summation of the early years of the Vietnam War could dredge up unpleasant memories for veterans of that conflict. He cites many cases of American “overconfidence” and “disdain for the intelligence capabilities of the enemy,” along with falsification and concealment of the truth by NSA. Much of the latter aimed to appease the White House and established precedents that eventually were used to justify going to war in Iraq, he concludes.

111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111The scientific problems of code breaking are inseparable from politics, Budiansky says, but his accounts “give a sense of what the code breakers were up against without assuming any special knowledge of cryptology or mathematics on the part of the reader.”

Budiansky does not ignore aficionados of code breaking, however. His five appendixes challenge the mind:

  • Enciphered Code, Depths, and Book Breaking
  • Russian Teleprinter Ciphers
  • Cryptanalysis of the Hagelin Machine
  • Bayesian Probability, Turing and the Deciban
  • The Index of Confidence

When I reached that point in the book, I signaled a time out that is still in effect.

—Henry Zeybel