What is black propaganda? The term black propaganda is reserved for those materials planted by the United States but in such as way that it seems to be the product or even an internal document of the target group. In other words, "black propaganda" is nothing less than a form of intellectual and political subversion. Its purpose is to attribute actions to a source, other than the true one.

SOG was the most secret elite U.S. military unit to serve in the war in Vietnam, so secret it was "black", meaning its very existence was carefully concealed. Innocuously named the "Studies and Observation Group", SOG was made up of volunteers from such elite units as the Army Green Berets, US Air Force Air Commandos and Navy SEALs.

SOG's Psychological Studies Branch responsible for developing "black propaganda" was known as OP-33. Patterned after the old OSS Morale Operations Division, OP-33 operated behind such heavy security that few Americans in Asia knew of its existence, which was essential as any trace of SOG's involvement would destroy a deception's effectiveness.

By no means a small operation, SOG's covert propaganda operations had a 1967 budget of $3.7 million and a staff of 150, about half of them Vietnamese civilians, the other half U.S. military, plus a dozen CIA officers.

The key to successful black operations is to develop a general theme upon which to hang all sorts of individual operations. As in any kind of deception, the SOG propagandist found, it was faster, easier, and more effective to reinforce what the enemy already believed or suspected, rather than try to convince them of something entirely new. For instance, since the North Vietnamese feared and hated the Chinese, black propaganda could target and further aggravate these tensions.

Black propaganda efforts initiated by SOG included stories that: Chinese troops in North Vietnam were romancing the girlfriends and wives of faraway NVA soldiers; the Chinese were supplying poor quality ammunition; Peking was bleeding its Vietnamese comrades merely to send a political message to America. Of course there was a grain of truth to all these stories which helped make them all that more credible to the NVA.

Project Humidor

"Project Humidor" was another brainchild of OP-33. A false fishing village was created on a small island off South Vietnam in which North Vietnam fisherman were kidnapped, blindfolded and taken to by high speed boats. Not familiar with the high speed of the boats that transported them, the captive fisherman thought they were still in North Vietnam waters. These captured fisherman were then treated to a feast of food and told how the village belonged to an anti-Communist resistance group known as "The Sacred Sword of the Patriot League". The captured villagers were returned to North Vietnamese waters after being given false clues concerning conspiracies, secret agents and saboteurs, to be passed on to enemy counterintelligence officers who were certain to debrief them. SOG experts interlocked these clues with other evidence ranging from phony radio transmissions sent to nonexistent agents, to secret instructions hidden in a fisherman's gift bundle which would be found by counterintelligence officers. On top of this SOG agents planted Patriotic League leaflets along North Vietnamese roads and trails while C-123s aircraft airdropped resupply bundles to phantom resistance units. The harder the enemy pursued the Patriot League, the more confused they became, for awhile even suspecting that it was the Soviets who were the Patriot Leagues secret sponsor.

Poison Pen Letters

Another successful black propaganda effort was SOG's so-called Poison Pen Letters program which attempted to implicate North Vietnamese officials by inventing apparent evidence of espionage and disloyalty.

Drawn up in Saigon, the Poison Pen Letters were then mailed to North Vietnam from Hong Kong, and places as far away as Africa and New Caledonia. In 1964 SOG was mailing two hundred such letters a month. By 1966 the amount grew to five hundred letters a month.

Most candidates were targeted solely because analysts found some means to incriminate them thanks to SOG's extensive and sophisticated database that contained profiles on many important North Vietnamese.

The scheme might involve sending the target a birthday card from Paris, perhaps with a microdot message hidden under the stamp, but it's not his birthday. North Vietnamese officials were very suspicious to the point of paranoia thanks to the Patriotic League ruse. Chances are the untimely card would be suspicious enough that the card would be checked. Upon finding the microdot the investigators would discover very vague pseudo instructions which would only serve to make the recipients ordinary activities seem even more suspicious.

Another example would be sending a Poison Pen Letter with a Paris return address but a Hong Kong postmark - just odd enough to catch the censors attention. The letter would be examined and after brushing it with chemicals a secret message would materialize warning the recipient that an agent had been arrested and that he was now expected to assume the lost agents mission. To add credence to the message, the letter might be sent after a real agent had been discovered. To further incriminate the recipient, perhaps a few hundred dollars would be deposited in a Hong Kong bank in his name, or a bundle of gold coins given to a known double agent for him. Or keeping with the mysterious Patriot League theme, a fisherman kidnapped by the Patriot League would be told that if he ever needs help he should place an "X" on a telephone that just happens to be across the street from the targeted official's apartment building.

Mere suspicions were enough to lock up almost anyone. To the targeted official's relatives and friends, each unjust arrest verified the regimes brutal character thus furthering their own dissidence and unrest with their government.

Black Radio

Other covert psychological operations included SOG's "Black Radio" which was aimed at North Vietnamese civilians and soldiers.

Black Radio was limited by what the U.S. government would sanction. It was specifically forbidden to suggest the overthrow or destruction of the Hanoi government.

In Project Jenny, a U.S. Navy EC-121 aircraft broadcasted SOG radio programs while flying off the North Vietnam coast (a technique used to confuse enemy radio direction finders, and because the radio broadcast was not that far away tended to overwhelm local radio stations). One program involved a supposed clandestine radio. Listeners were told broadcasts originated in North Vietnam and the radio station had to constantly be moved to evade the North's security services. On occasions in mid program there would be an excited shout that Communist forces were approaching and the station would have to close down. A few days later (with another flight) the program would be on the air with the announcer explaining how close a call it had been.

SOG's primary radio technique was called "surfing" which means transmitting alongside a real stations frequency to capture listeners who mistakenly think they've tuned to the real station. Another technique was "hitchhiking" or coming up on the same frequency of a radio stationed just after it had signed off and using its call sign.

Of course the limitation in the effectiveness of psyop broadcasted radio is that the target audience must have radios to receive the message. The solution was simple enough. Build radios that no matter how carefully you tuned the frequency dial, you would get static except for one frequency, that of the SOG's "Radio Hanoi" broadcasts. These radios were inserted using ruses like: lost rucksacks; or packages left behind on buses in Viet Cong areas; Navy patrol boats floated hundreds ashore in North Vietnam; U.S. recon teams planted Peanut radios in enemy base camps or left them along trails; and C-130 Blackbirds airdropped them into North Vietnam inserting eight thousand in 1967.

Though the exact effects remain unmeasurable, there can be little doubt SOG's black propaganda yielded results. The closest SOG ever came to learning its impact was in Paris in May of 1968, when as a precondition to the peace talks, Hanoi's negotiators insisted that the U.S. put an end to its black PSYOPS programs, especially that "despicable Sacred Sword of the Patriot League."

If you would like to learn more about the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) Studies and Observation Group (SOG) I recommend that you read John L. Plaster's "SOG - The Secret Wars of American Commandos in Vietnam" (Simon & Schuster, 1997).