Black Ops, Vietnam

Title:                      Black Ops, Vietnam

Author:                 Robert M. Gillespie

Gillespie, Robert M. (2011). Black Ops, Vietnam: The operational history of MACVSOG. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press

LCCN:    2011018600

DS558.4 .G57 2011


Date Posted:      February 19, 2016

Reviewed by Hayden Peake.[1]

The Military Assistance Command, Vietnam; Special Operations Group (MACVSOG) was formed on 24 January 1964. For cover reasons the name was later changed to the Studies and Observations Group.

For eight years, it carried out its mission to conduct covert operations in and against North Vietnam “in direct retaliation to its aggressive moves” in the South. Black Ops Vietnam tells the story of MACVSOG operations and why, in the end, the group failed to stop North Vietnamese aggression.

After reviewing the history of MACVSOG’s formation, military historian Robert Gillespie presents a chronological account of the organization, its various types of operations, its key personnel, its command relationships, and the persistent bureaucratic difficulties the group encountered. In retrospect, each of these factors worked more against mission accomplishment than for it. MACVSOG’s relationship with the CIA is a good example. The Agency had conducted similar missions on a smaller scale before MACVSOG took over, according to Gillespie, and was reluctant to subordinate itself to military control. (pp. 12, 35) The South Vietnamese were similarly reluctant partners, though for different reasons. And then there were the difficulties of working with MACV under Gen. William Westmoreland, who was not an advocate of Special Forces. (They did not have the reputation or the wealth of experience they enjoy today.) Gillespie describes the problems the group’s commanders encountered as a result of these challenging relationships.

Despite the difficulties, MACVSOG conducted many and varied operations in South Vietnam and Laos. Some were psychological and propaganda, but most involved intelligence collection by special maritime, airborne, and ground teams. Gillespie gives a good account of each type. In addition to describing the tactical aspects of the operations, the logistical and communications problems with which the group had to deal, and the number of intelligence reports they produced, he describes individual contributions, some involving genuine bravery. The case of SSgt. Roy Benevidez is a fine example. While serving as a “desk jockey” in a staff billet, the sergeant joined a helicopter rescue of a reconnaissance team inside Laos. While under continuous fire, he helped extract the stranded team while suffering seven bullet and 28 shrapnel wounds, as well as a bayonet injury.

Gillespie makes clear that when MACVSOG was disbanded in 1972, the magnitude and the frustrations of its comprehensive failure in Vietnam were recognized at all levels. He doesn’t alibi the failures, but he does explain that they were inherently the result of the political and military strategy imposed on forces in the country. Those who have studied counterinsurgency and served in Vietnam will see in Black Ops Vietnam the seeds of contemporary doctrine. It is a well-documented, well-told account of a sad time in the nation’s history, when well-conducted Special Forces operations were laying the foundations for what would become a vital part of US operations in the current conflict in South Asia.

[1] Hayden Peake is a frequent reviewer of books on intelligence and this review appeared in The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies (19, 1, Winter/Spring, 2013, pp. 112-113). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Di recto rate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence. These and many other reviews and articles may be found on line at

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