Catalog product

A History of the CIA, Spies, and the Sears Catalog in the Vietnam War

Being a spy is an important and serious thing. The information you provide to the side you are spying for, whoever it is, could determine the success or failure of their plans or missions. The details you would give could also dictate the next moves they would take. At the same time, being a spy meant risking your life and accepting the possibility of being caught and possibly killed. This is why the price to be paid to these agents was not a joke either. Depending on the value of the information that we could provide, we are talking about millions of dollars for payment. However, during the Vietnam War, there was a time when the CIA paid its Vietnamese agents not with money but with products from the Sears catalog.

Money don’t talk

In 1966, intelligence officer Jon Wiant arrived in Hue, central Vietnam. At this time, US involvement in the war between North and South was slowly increasing, with the 200,000 Marines the US had deployed in the country and began bombarding North Vietnam. When Wiant arrived in Hue, he took over a small operation and hired Vietnamese agents to bring him useful information about the Viet Cong. It might have been easy enough to pay off his Vietnamese informants if it weren’t for one problem: the money was of no use to them.

2nd Battalion, 4th Marines in the village of Dai Do in May 1968. (Quantico Archives, USA, DC BY 2.0via Wikimedia Commons)

These agents worked in areas with basic infrastructure where money had little value. Those who were there got by on barter, and instead needed specific tools to help them carry out their missions. Before Wiant, the smart officer paid spies with rice and other necessities which they consumed or exchanged for other things they needed, be it power tools, pens, fishing or something bigger like drugs or weapons. However, this became less effective when local agents began looking at agent earnings, so Wiant had to think of new forms of payment he could personally offer agents.

Wiant witnessed how another manager who said he was the “best of Vietnamese agent managers” gave an agent a straw hat as a bonus, and the agent gladly took it . An idea germinated in his mind.

One-stop shop

It was perhaps the most American idea that ever occurred to him at that time, because he decided that he would order items for his spies from the Sears catalog. He said,

My wife had just sent me a Sears catalog…it sat on the corner of my desk. I started flipping through it…and suddenly thought this might be the answer to our problem.

Boys' coats from the Sears fall catalog, 1942.
Boys’ coats from the Sears fall catalog, 1942. (Lady of Genealogy/Pinterest)

Frankly, why not? It’s like the Amazon of his day selling everything you could possibly need in your life, from underwear to vet supplies to guns. Started by a Minneapolis station agent named Richard Sear by 1886 his $14-a-piece gold watches became a general mail-order business that won over customers with their thick catalogs. In 1894, the number of pages in their catalog has reached 322 pages billing itself as the “cheapest supply house in the world” or “bargain book”.

Just before the United States entered World War II, General Patton actually ordered the tools, supplies and parts from the Sears catalog to equip the 2nd Armored Division.

Paid with Sears

Thus, Wiant proposed to create a pay scale of different products that would depend on the duration and difficulty of the missions. He would also send the catalog out into the field so his agents could go through it themselves and think ahead about what they wanted to get.

One of the requests he received were “boys size six red velvet blazer vests with a brass button” each was payment for 20 days’ worth of an agent’s work. Wiant’s brilliant idea worked perfectly, as the spies were able to get useful items that helped them in their daily lives. Sometimes officers got creative, like this time they ordered a big bra and tied it to a bamboo stalk so they could use it to harvest fruit.

This payment system only lasted until 1967, as the area became too dangerous for agents, and Sears’ products could no longer offset the jobs. The marines instead began covering the area and gathering their own intelligence. Anyway, the Sears payment system that Wiant developed was successful and excellent while it lasted.

Would you accept Sears products for your spying services?

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