Saigon To Pleiku by David Grant Noble

David Grant Noble’s Saigon To Pleiku: A Counterintelligence Agent in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, 1962-1963 (McFarland 204 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, Kindle) is a compelling memoir about his work in Vietnam during the Kennedy years. With candor and humility, Noble illustrates the challenges of gathering usable intelligence and realizing the true nature of the war. Drawing from detailed letters to family and friends, Noble has created an engaging, often dreamlike, account of what he saw when the facts were not always clear. 

In 1961, David Noble trained at the Army Counterintelligence Corps school at Fort Holabird.  When he received his orders to go to Saigon, he had no idea what country it was in.

Arriving in May, 1962, Noble found himself poorly prepared for his assignment. He was a tall, blonde kid with a Yale degree in French Literature. Speaking no Vietnamese, he was stunned to learn that no else in his department did either. That situation reflected the low status the war in Vietnam warranted at the time in the U.S. 

Despite this, Noble’s resolve was firm. Committed to the ideal that South Vietnam was a young democratic republic struggling to survive, he would see that it did. The issues seemed clear, and to suggest otherwise was heresy.

Even though he was a Private, Noble enjoyed the privileges of an officer with the 704th Intelligence Corps Detachment in Saigon. After months of barracks living, Noble found himself quartered at the Continental Palace, one of the city’s finest hotels. The ironies abounded, with more to come.

Posing as a civilian worker for the Army, Noble began traveling around Saigon, then to Pleiku in the Central Highlands, gathering information simply by talking with South Vietnamese and foreign officials. He became a good dinner companion and a respectful guest in their homes. 

Gradually, and reluctantly, Noble realized that America’s perception of the Ngo Dinh Diem administration was false. Far from helping the people of South Vietnam, Diem cared only for his family and friends. While ruthlessly suppressing the Buddhist and Montagnard populations, Diem ordered every report sanitized, declaring every operation successful, and every one of his actions just.

The façade weakened for Noble after a carefully planned Viet Cong attack on a Central Highlands village. With help from collaborators, the VC drew away Montagnard defenders and several Green Berets. With the village left poorly defended, the Viet Cong overran it, killing many villagers, burning houses, and seizing stocks of weapons and food.

The next day Montagnards suspected of collaborating were arrested, but getting useful information from them was difficult. Interrogations required three translators to convert questions from English to French, then to Vietnamese, and then to the tribesmen’s dialect. Often the questions were incomprehensible to the prisoners, and their answers were opaque. 

Having never used maps, calendars or clocks, they couldn’t provide specifics about the Viet Cong. They had collaborated simply because they were treated better by the VC than by their own government. They had never heard of Ho Chi Minh or Ngo Dinh Diem or the principles each professed to uphold. 

David Noble

Noble came away deeply shaken. It was the bitterest example of the absurdity of his nation’s cause. The implications were anathema to his superiors, but for Noble the conclusions were clear.      

By the end of his one year tour of duty he had become a valuable asset to the Army. Because of the many skills he learned and contacts he made, Noble was offered a reserve commission. But he refused it.  The gulf was too vast between what Noble was told to believe and what he had learned.

Wistful, bittersweet, at times despairing, Saigon to Pleiku is a sobering meditation on the dawn of America’s entry into the Vietnam War. For readers seeking a personalized insight into these formative years, Noble’s memoir is well worth the read.

The author’s website is davidgrantnoble.com

–Mike McLaughlin

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

Why Spy? by Brian Stewart and Samantha Newbery

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Why Spy? The Art of Intelligence (Hurst/Oxford University Press, 288 pp., $29.95 ) makes a strong argument for the proper use of intelligence in determining a nation’s course of actions. The British authors, Brain Stewart and Samantha Newbery, examine several cases—including the American wars in Iraq and Vietnam—to prove their point.

The discussion on Iraq focuses on Great Britain’s “Butler Review.” Its conclusions are nothing new. Basically, the authors show that the decision to invade Iraq relied on weak information. The UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee placed too much emphasis on input from dissident and émigré sources with an interest in returning to Iraq and made questionable interpretations of objective data, Stewart and Newbery say.

Furthermore, No. 10 Downing Street provided input in drafting the committee’s report. That interference was a major error, the authors say, because rules of good intelligence forbid the customer from tainting the findings.

Overall, the conclusions parallel what Americans have determined to be the truth: that although facts should have proved otherwise, we still invaded Iraq based on contrived fear that weapons of mass destruction existed there.

In reference to the Vietnam War, the authors write that beyond a failure to recognize the willingness of the North Vietnamese to fight on forever, the U.S. ignored the absence of an effective South Vietnamese government upon which we could build the nation our presidents desired. In four pages of personal reflection, with perfect logic, Stewart ties together that idea and other well-known U.S. intelligence shortcomings.

The book’s arguments often rely on the first-hand experiences of Stewart, who served worldwide in the intelligence community for seventy years. In 1967-68, he was the British Consul General in Hanoi, and afterward met with the CIA. His career began with the British Military Administration in Malaya in 1945. He devotes a section of the book to the use of good intelligence in quelling the 1949-60 communist-inspired insurgency in that nation.

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Brian Stewart with Prince Charles

Co-author Samantha Newbery lectures in Contemporary Intelligence Studies at the University of Salford, in Manchester, England.

The authors provide a short course in the machinery and methodology of intelligence, including collection methods and assessment problems and fallacies. They illustrate lessons with real-life examples, such as the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The book provides little new information on world events, but is important because it examines the extreme means used by political and military leaders to reach the ends they desire, regardless of contradictory intelligence findings.

—Henry Zeybel