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In Vietnam, the C.I.A. Paid Spies With Stuff From Sears

Nothing says “clandestine espionage” like a mail-order catalog

Sears sweater models...or government agents? (Todd Lappin/Flickr/Creative Commons)
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How do you pay a spy? Hollywood clichés suggest the goods get delivered in bulletproof suitcases or anonymous envelopes, but in real life, spies collect old-fashioned paychecks just like the rest of us. But that wasn’t always true, writes Sarah Laskow for Atlas Obscura. In the 1960s, the U.S. government developed a plan to pay spies with gear from the Sears catalog.

It was all part of a ploy to recruit more agents in Vietnam, reports Laskow — agents who didn’t rely on cash. Laskow writes that intelligence officer John Wiant struck on the catalog idea after noticing that his potential agents relied on a barter system:

A man who Wiant calls the "best of the Vietnamese agent handlers" did have some success giving one agent a canvas hat as a bonus, and that’s what gave Wiant the idea of sending that agent handler back out into the field with a Sears catalog, the most recently one available, which his wife had recently sent over. Wiant flagged a few pages of possible interest and created a basic “pay scale” connecting items of a certain value to missions of a certain length and danger. But he also told the handler to let his agents page through the catalog.

Though the Sears catalog can seem like an artifact of distant memory, it had serious clout throughout the 20th century. As Sears Archives recalls, a 1943 company newsletter called it "a mirror of our times, recording for future historians today’s desires, habits, customs, and mode of living" — a defining role it held for decades. The pioneering catalog helped Sears become America’s most important retailer, peddling everything from fetching “pettipants” to mail-order homes. When Sears printed its last Big Book in 1993, collectors formed long lines to purchase a final copy.

So, which items convinced would-be spies to take payment in Sears gear? Read Laskow’s piece to find out — and remember never to underestimate the political power of a Wish Book.

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