The CIA’s Counterinsurgency in Vietnam Was Brutal … And Effective
The Phoenix program eliminated Viet Cong infrastructure
As U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War escalated after the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, U.S. Army general William Westmoreland knew he would be simultaneously fighting two different types of enemies on the ground — the main battle force of the North Vietnamese Army and the guerilla insurgency of the Viet Cong in South Vietnam.
Westmoreland, who served as commander of Military Assistance Command Vietnam in the early years of the war, considered the North Vietnamese Army the greater threat. However, he could not ignore the Viet Cong, a versatile and resilient fighting force guided by its network of political cadres spread across the villages and towns of South Vietnam.
The Phoenix Program became the primary counterinsurgency operation against the Viet Cong. Although Phoenix was ostensibly under military control, the Central Intelligence Agency often directed operations on the ground. As is often the case with CIA counterinsurgency programs, either by design or circumstance, Phoenix quickly became notorious for allegations of widespread torture, summary executions, and indiscriminate killings.
Westmoreland viewed the North Vietnamese Army as “bully boys with crowbars” and the Viet Cong guerrillas and their political cadres as mere “termites.” The former posed a grave and immediate threat, while the latter was a nuisance that needed to be suppressed until the bigger problem of the NVA could be dealt with.
The Viet Cong relied on the Ho Chi Minh Trail for much of their supplies and logistical support, but it also needed their political cadres and the Viet Cong infrastructure for additional supplies, recruiting and intelligence. In addition to providing support, the cadres also acted, to the extent they were capable, as a Communist shadow government in South Vietnam in order to undermine the authority of Saigon and U.S. influence.
U.S. intelligence officials calculated that in order to pacify the Viet Cong, they needed to sever its political head. As ground offenses and aerial bombing against the Viet Cong supply routes and positions continued, U.S. and South Vietnamese intelligence agencies intensified efforts to seek out VCI operatives in rural villages and neutralize them—either by imprisonment, execution or defection.
In November 1966, the Department of State and Department of Defense formed the Office of Civil Operations to streamline civilian counterinsurgency operations in Vietnam. The OCO, however, did not control military intelligence, and tensions over who directed counterinsurgency efforts lingered. National Security Action Memorandum 362, “Responsibility for U.S. Role in Pacification (Revolutionary Development),” established the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support program, or CORDS, which effectively put the military in control of counterinsurgency operations.
CORDS took over almost all official military and civilian Viet Cong pacification organizations in Vietnam, including refugee agencies, the National Police, and USAID’s “new life development” initiative, an outreach and development program focused on rural villages. CORDS also oversaw the Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office’s field psychological operations, MACV’s civic action and civil affairs departments, and the “Open Arms” campaign that encouraged Communist activists, political operatives and soldiers in South Vietnam to defect.
Most significantly, in regard to Phoenix, it gained control of the CIA’s Rural Development program.
As military analyst Dale Andrade and retired Army lieutenant colonel James H. Willbanks note in their report “CORDS/Phoenix: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Vietnam for the Future,” by July 1967 it became obvious that anti-VCI intelligence gathering during the first three years of the war failed to provide adequate actionable information.
In December of that year, Phoenix evolved out of the Intelligence Coordination and Exploitation Program and was given high priority by CORDS, receiving an influx of funding and resources. Within weeks, Phoenix operatives had established or expanded intelligence operations throughout South Vietnam’s provinces. Provincial Reconnaissance Units and regional interrogation centers were the most vital parts of Phoenix.
PRUs consisted of 15 to 20 men, usually drawn from local South Vietnamese Regional Forces or Popular Forces militias or the National Police. They coordinated with CIA and military advisors and reported to provisional authorities, who also coordinated with the CIA and other intelligence agencies. PRUs would sweep villages in search VCI operatives. If any were found, they were killed in firefights, summarily executed or captured and interrogated. Blacklists of possible future VCI targets were created based on any new intelligence gathered during interrogations or from tips received through other intelligence sources.
CORDS staff at their Pleiku headquarters in 1968. Photo via Wikipedia
Though Phoenix was officially under the control of CORDS and the MACV, the CIA provided much of the training for the Provincial Reconnaissance Units and oversaw interrogation centers. The program quickly became notorious for the type of violence that would typify CIA operations and interrogation Latin American and elsewhere in subsequent years. At times it seemed that gathering information was secondary to inflicting terror and intimidating the Viet Cong and local populace.
In his book The Betrayal, retired Marine lieutenant colonel William R. Corson suggested that the heavy-handedness of the Phoenix Program was ultimately counterproductive. In his opinion, the excessive violence proved particularly detrimental to the work of Combined Action Program units, platoons of South Vietnamese militia led by squads of Marine rifleman positioned near rural hamlets. CAP units also often worked with Provisional Forces. Prior to Phoenix, CAPs had been one of the most effective counterinsurgency tools against the Viet Cong.
“Almost immediately in the wake of the first operations of the Phoenix hit squads in I Corps, the rapport in the CAP hamlets between the Marines, the PFs, and the people, as well as the intelligence flow, dried up,” Corson wrote. “Upon examination we found out that the people and the PFs were scared shitless that the Phoenix hoodlums would come and take them away, or kill them. The Phoenix tactics reeked of the same kind of terrorism practiced by Ngo Dinh Nhu’s thugs in the Delta region during the early 60s, and I knew it had to be stopped, at least in the CAP hamlets.”
Corson expressed his concerns to Ambassador Barney Koren, Military Air Force, Maj. Gen. Herman Nickerson, commander the First Marine Division in Vietnam, and Maj. Gen. Lewis Walt, commander of of the 3rd Marine Amphibious Force and 3rd Marine Division in Vietnam. Koren, Walt, and Nickerson sympathized and shared Corson’s apprehensions, but said their hands were tied because the program, in all reality, was under CIA control.
Lt. Vincent Okamoto elaborated on the indiscriminate nature of the program’s “targeted” killings and its effect on local populations in Christian G. Appy’s Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides, an oral history of the conflict. Okamoto was a Distinguished Service Cross recipient who served as an intelligence-liaison officer for the Phoenix Program and later became a California superior court judge.
“The problem was, how do you find the people on the blacklist?” Okamoto recalled. “It’s not like you had their address and telephone number. The normal procedure would be to go into a village and just grab someone and say, ‘Where’s Nguyen so-and-so?’ Half the time the people were so afraid they would [not] say anything.”
“Then a Phoenix team would take the informant, put a sandbag over his head, poke out two holes so he could see, put commo wire around his neck like a long leash, and walk him through the village and say, ‘When we go by Nguyen’s house scratch your head.’ Then that night Phoenix would come back, knock on the door, and say, ‘April Fool, motherfucker.’ Whoever answered the door would get wasted. As far as they were concerned whoever answered was a Communist, including family members. Sometimes they’d come back to camp with ears to prove that they killed people.”
In his book The Phoenix Program, which drew from a cache of Phoenix-related documents and numerous interviews with former CIA officers, Douglas Valentine chronicled a litany of torture and abuses carried about by CIA operatives, PRU members and other intelligence agents and military personal under the Phoenix Program.
Torture tactics employed under Phoenix included “rape, gang rape, rape using eels, snakes or hard objects, and rape followed by murder,” as well as more common techniques such as waterboarding, beatings with rubber hoses and whips, the use of dogs to maul prisoners, and electric shock “rendered by attaching wires to the genitals or other sensitive parts of the body, like the tongue.”
The “airplane” was another common practice. For this technique, “a prisoner’s arms were tied behind the back, and the rope looped over a hook on the ceiling, suspending the prisoner in midair, after which he or she was beaten.”
In another account, Joe Allen and John Pilger cite former Military intelligence officer K. Barton Osborne in their book Vietnam: The (Last) War the U.S. Lost.
Osborne reported seeing South Vietnamese soldiers and intelligence officers repeatedly commit torture and murder under the supervision of the CIA during the Phoenix Program. According to Osborne, some of the greatest atrocities he witnessed were the use of electric shock to men’s and women’s genitals, a Vietnamese woman being caged and starved to death for suspicion of being involved with a local Viet Cong education cadre, and the insertion of a six-inch wooden dowel into the canal of one of a detainee’s ears. The dowel was then tapped into the detainee’s brain until he died.
North Vietnamese militia. Photo via Wikipedia
Despite the widespread reports of atrocities, the CIA and military continue to defend the program, dismiss criticism of it and outright deny any wrongdoing.
“The Phoenix program is arguably the most misunderstood and controversial program undertaken by the governments of the United States and South Vietnam during the Vietnam War,” according to a “retrospective” of the Phoenix Program by retired Marine colonel Andrew R. Finlayson, published on the CIA’s official website.
“Phoenix was misunderstood because it was classified, and the information obtained by the press and others was often anecdotal, unsubstantiated, or false,” Finlayson continued. “The program was controversial because the antiwar movement and critical scholars in the United States and elsewhere portrayed it as an unlawful and immoral assassination program targeting civilians … Unfortunately, there have been few objective analyses of Phoenix, and it still is looked upon with a great deal of suspicion and misunderstanding by many who study the Vietnam War.”
Former CIA Director William Colby, who served during the final years of Phoenix, placed any blame for wrongdoing on the South Vietnamese government, arguing that they were ostensibly in control of the program and that any killings carried out by Phoenix members occurred during combat operations rather than assassinations. His defense ultimately rested on the premise that whatever the CIA may have done wrong, it wasn’t as bad as what the Viet Cong did.
“[Phoenix] countered the Viet Cong apparatus attempting to overthrow the Government of Vietnam by targeting its leaders,” Colby wrote. “Wherever possible, these were apprehended or invited to defect, but a substantial number were killed in firefights during military operations or resisting capture. There is a vast difference in kind, not merely in degree, between these combat casualties (even including the few abuses which occurred), and the victims of the Viet Cong’s systematic campaign of terrorism.”
Despite what Colby, Finlayson and others may say, it is difficult to imagine that a counterinsurgency program in operation during Henry Kissinger’s time as national security advisor and secretary of state, a program that in many ways foreshadowed Operation Condor in South America, was simply an innocent intelligence gathering project. The CIA’s track record on human rights speaks for itself.
Setting ethical quandaries aside, Phoenix was strategically successful in many ways.
“In 1972 CORDS reported that since the 1968 Tet Offensive, Phoenix had removed over 5,000 VCI from action, and that conventional military actions and desertions—some prompted by Phoenix—accounted for over 20,000 more. MACV claimed that Phoenix and the U.S. military’s response to the Tet Offensive, along with other rural security and militia programs, had eliminated upwards of 80,000 VCI through defection, detention or death,” Finlayson concluded in his retrospective.
The U.S. intelligence community wasn’t just patting itself on the back. Andrade and Willbanks’s report cites several Vietnamese Communist political and military officials who acknowledged the damage Phoenix did to the Viet Cong.
For instance, in Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History, North Vietnamese deputy commander in South Vietnam Gen. Tran Do is quoted as saying Phoenix was “extremely destructive.” In A Vietcong Memoir: An Inside Account of the Vietnam War and Its Aftermath, former Viet Cong minister of justice Truong Nhu Tang recalls that “Phoenix was dangerously effective” and that in Hau Nghia Province west of Saigon, “the Front Infrastructure was virtually eliminated.”
Likewise, Mark Moyar’s Phoenix and the Birds of Prey: The CIA’s Secret Campaign to Destroy the Viet Cong quotes Vietnamese foreign minister Nguyen Co Thach as admitting after the war “[w]e had many weaknesses in the South because of Phoenix.”
In their report, Andrade and Willbanks, like Colby and Finlayson, brush aside questions of the ethical implications of programs like Phoenix and instead highlight its results and potential. “For better or worse, Vietnam is the most prominent historical example of American counterinsurgency—and the longest—so it would be a mistake to reject it because of its admittedly complex and controversial nature.”