In the darkest days of the Vietnam War, America’s Central Intelligence Agency secretly initiated a sweeping program of kidnap, torture, and assassination devised to destabilize the infrastructure of the National Liberation Front (NLF) of South Vietnam, commonly known as the “Viet Cong.” The victims of the Phoenix Program were Vietnamese civilians, male and female, suspected of harboring information about the enemy—though many on the blacklist were targeted by corrupt South Vietnamese security personnel looking to extort money or remove a rival. Between 1965 and 1972, more than eighty thousand noncombatants were “neutralized,” as men and women alike were subjected to extended imprisonment without trial, horrific torture, brutal rape, and in many cases execution, all under the watchful eyes of US government agencies.
Based on extensive research and in-depth interviews with former participants and observers, Douglas Valentine’s startling exposé blows the lid off of what was possibly the bloodiest and most inhumane covert operation in the CIA’s history.
The ebook edition includes “The Phoenix Has Landed,” a new introduction that addresses the “Phoenix-style network” that constitutes America’s internal security apparatus today. Residents on American soil are routinely targeted under the guise of protecting us from terrorism—which is why, more than ever, people need to understand what Phoenix is all about.
About the Author
Douglas Valentine is the author of four books of historical nonfiction: The Hotel Tacloban, The Phoenix Program: America’s Use of Terror in Vietnam, The Strength of the Wolf: The Secret History of America’s War on Drugs, and The Strength of the Pack: The Personalities, Politics and Espionage Intrigues that Shaped the DEA. He is the author of the novel TDY, and a book of poems, A Crow’s Dream. He is also the editor of the poetry anthology With Our Eyes Wide Open: Poems of the New American Century. Valentine lives with his wife, Alice, in Massachusetts.
Read an Excerpt
The Phoenix Program
America's Use of Terror in Vietnam
By Douglas Valentine
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1990 Douglas Valentine
All rights reserved.
What is the VCI? Is it a farmer in a field with a hoe in his hand and a grenade in his pocket, a deranged subversive using women and children as a shield? Or is it a self-respecting patriot, a freedom fighter who was driven underground by corrupt collaborators and an oppressive foreign occupation army?
In his testimony regarding Phoenix before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February 1970, former Director of Central Intelligence William Colby defined the VCI as "about 75,000 native Southerners" whom in 1954 "the Communists took north for training in organizing, propaganda and subversion." According to Colby, these cadres returned to the South, "revived the networks they had left in 1954," and over several years formed the National Liberation Front (NLF), the People's Revolutionary party, liberation committees, which were "pretended local governments rather than simply political bodies," and the "pretended Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam. Together," testified Colby, "all of these organizations and their local manifestations make up the VC Infrastructure."
A political warfare expert par excellence, Colby, of course, had no intentions of portraying the VCI in sympathetic terms. His abbreviated history of the VCI, with its frequent use of the word "pretended," deliberately oversimplifies and distorts the nature and origin of the revolutionary forces lumped under the generic term "VCI." To understand properly Phoenix and its prey, a more detailed and objective account is required. Such an account cannot begin in 1954—when the Soviet Union, China, and the United States split Vietnam along the sixteenth parallel, and the United States first intervened in Vietnamese affairs—but must acknowledge one hundred years of French colonial oppression. For it was colonialism which begat the VCI, its strategy of protracted political warfare, and its guerrilla and terror tactics.
The French conquest of Vietnam began in the seventeenth century with the arrival of Jesuit priests bent on saving pagan souls. As Vietnam historian Stanley Karnow notes in his book Vietnam: A History, "In 1664 ... French religious leaders and their business backers formed the Society of French Missionaries to advance Christianity in Asia. In the same year, by no coincidence, French business leaders and their religious backers created the East India Company to increase trade.... Observing this cozy relationship in Vietnam, an English competitor reported home that the French had arrived, 'but we cannot make out whether they are here to seek trade or to conduct religious propaganda.'
"Their objective, of course," Karnow quips, "was to do both."
For the next two centuries French priests embroiled themselves in Vietnamese politics, eventually providing a pretext for military intervention. Specifically, when a French priest was arrested for plotting against the emperor of Vietnam in 1845, the French Navy shelled Da Nang City, killing hundreds of people, even though the priest had escaped unharmed to Singapore. The Vietnamese responded by confiscating the property of French Catholics, drowning a few Jesuits, and cutting in half, lengthwise, a number of Vietnamese priests.
Soon the status quo was one of open warfare. By 1859 French Foreign Legionnaires had arrived en masse and had established fortified positions near major cities, which they defended against poorly armed nationalists staging hit-and-run attacks from bases in rural areas. Firepower prevailed, and in 1861 a French admiral claimed Saigon for France, "inflicting heavy casualties on the Vietnamese who resisted." Fearing that the rampaging French might massacre the entire city, the emperor abdicated ownership of three provinces adjacent to Saigon, along with Con Son Island, where the French immediately built a prison for rebels. Soon thereafter Vietnamese ports were opened to European commerce, Catholic priests were permitted to preach wherever Buddhist or Taoist or Confucian souls were lurking in the darkness, and France was guaranteed "unconditional control over all of Cochinchina."
By 1862 French colonialists were reaping sufficient economic benefits to hire Filipino and Chinese mercenary armies to help suppress the burgeoning insurgency. Resistance to French occupation was strongest in the north near Hanoi, where nationalists were aligned with anti-Western Chinese. The rugged mountains of the Central Highlands formed a natural buffer for the French, who were entrenched in Cochin China, the southern third of Vietnam centered in Saigon.
The boundary lines having been drawn, the pacification of Vietnam began in earnest in 1883. The French strategy was simple and began with a reign of terror: As many nationalists as could be found were rounded up and guillotined. Next the imperial city of Hue was plundered in what Karnow calls "an orgy of killing and looting." The French disbanded the emperor's Council of Mandarins and replaced it with French advisers and a bureaucracy staffed by supplétifs—self-serving Vietnamese, usually Catholics, who collaborated in exchange for power and position. The supplétif crème de la crème studied in, and became citizens of, France. The Vietnamese Army was commanded by French officers, and Vietnamese officers were supplétifs who had been graduated from the French military academy. By the twentieth century all of Vietnam's provinces were administered by supplétifs, and the emperor, too, was a lackey of the French.
In places where "security" for collaborators was achieved, Foreign Legionnaires were shifted to the outer perimeter of the pacified zones and internal security was turned over to collaborators commanding GAMOs—group administrative mobile organizations. The hope was that pacified areas would spread like oil spots. Supplétifs were also installed in the police and security forces, where they managed prostitution rings, opium dens, and gambling casinos on behalf of the French. From the 1880's onward no legal protections existed for nationalists, for whom a dungeon at Con Son Prison, torture, and death were the penalties for pride. So, outgunned and outlawed in their homeland, the nationalists turned to terrorism—to the bullet in the belly and the bomb in the café. For while brutal French pacification campaigns prevented the rural Vietnamese from tending their fields, terrorism did not.
The first nationalists—the founding fathers of the VCI—appeared as early as 1859 in areas like the Ca Mau Peninsula, the Plain of Reeds, and the Rung Sat—malaria-infested swamps which were inaccessible to French forces. Here the nationalists honed and perfected the guerrilla tactics that became the trademark of the Vietminh and later the Vietcong. Referred to as selective terrorism, this meant the planned assassination of low-ranking government officials who worked closely with the people; for example, policemen, mailmen, and teachers. As David Galula explains in Counter-Insurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, "Killing high-ranking counterinsurgency officials serves no purpose since they are too far removed from the population for their deaths to serve as examples."
The purpose of selective terror was psychologically to isolate the French and their supplétifs, while demonstrating to the rural population the ability of the insurgents to strike at their oppressors until such time as a general uprising was thought possible.
In the years following World War I, Vietnamese nationalists organized in one of three ways: through religious sects, like the Hoa Hao or Cao Dai, which secretly served as fronts for anti-French activity; through overt political parties like the Dai Viets and the Vietnam Quoc Dan Dang (VNQDD); or by becoming Communists. All formed secret cells in the areas where they operated, and all worked toward ousting the French. In return, the French intelligence service, the Deuxième Bureau, hired secret agents and informers to identify, capture, imprison, and murder core members of the underground resistance.
In instances of open rebellion, stronger steps were taken. When VNQDD sailors mutinied in 1932 in Yen Bai and killed their French officers, the French retaliated by bombing scores of VNQDD villages, killing more than thirty thousand people. Mass deportations followed, and many VNQDD cadres were driven into exile. Likewise, when the French caught wind of a general uprising called for by the Communists, they arrested and imprisoned 90 percent of its leadership. Indeed, the VCI leadership was molded in Con Son Prison, or Ho Chi Minh University, as it was also known. There determined nationalists transformed dark dungeons into classrooms and common criminals into hardcore cadres. With their lives depending on their ability to detect spies and agents provocateurs whom the French had planted in the prisons, these forefathers of the VCI became masters of espionage and intrigue and formidable opponents of the dreaded Deuxième Bureau.
In 1941 the Communist son of a mandarin, Ho Chi Minh, gathered the various nationalist groups under the banner of the Vietminh and called for all good revolutionaries "to stand up and unite with the people, and throw out the Japanese and the French." Leading the charge were General Vo Nguyen Giap and his First Armed Propaganda Detachment—thirty-four lightly armed men and women who by early 1945 had overrun two French outposts and were preaching the gospel according to Ho to anyone interested in independence. By mid-1945 the Vietminh held six provinces near Hanoi and was working with the forerunner of the CIA, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), recovering downed pilots of the U.S. Fourteenth Air Force. A student of American democracy, Ho declared Vietnam an independent country in September 1945.
Regrettably, at the same time that OSS officers were meeting with Ho and exploring the notion of supporting his revolution, other Americans were backing the French, and when a U.S. Army officer traded a pouch of opium for Ho's dossier and uncovered his links to Moscow, all chances of coexistence vanished in a puff of smoke. The Big Three powers in Potsdam divided Vietnam along the sixteenth parallel. Chinese forces aligned with General Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang were given control of the North. In September 1945 a division of Chinese forces advised by General Phillip Gallagher arrived in Hanoi, plundered the city, and disarmed the Japanese. The French returned to Hanoi, drove out the Vietminh, and displaced Chiang's forces, which obtained Shanghai in exchange.
Meanwhile, Lord Louis Mountbatten (who used the phoenix as an emblem for his command patch) and the British were put in charge in the South. Twenty thousand Gurkhas arrived in Saigon and proceeded to disarm the Japanese. The British then outlawed Ho's Committee of the South and arrested its members. In protest the Vietnamese held a general strike. On September 23 the Brits, buckling under the weight of the White Man's Burden, released from prison those French Legionnaires who had collaborated with the Nazis during the occupation and had administered Vietnam jointly with the Japanese. The Legionnaires rampaged through Saigon, murdering Vietnamese with impunity while the British kept stiff upper lips. As soon as they had regained control of the city, the French reorganized their quislings and secret police, donned surplus U.S. uniforms, and became the nucleus of three divisions which had reconquered South Vietnam by the end of the year. The British exited, and the supplétif Bao Dai was reinstalled as emperor.
By 1946 the Vietminh were at war with France once again, and in mid-1946 the French were up to their old tricks—with a vengeance. They shelled Haiphong, killing six thousand Vietnamese. Ho slipped underground, and American officials passively observed while the French conducted "punitive missions ... against the rebellious Annamese." During the early years of the First Indochina War, CIA officers served pretty much in that same limited capacity, urging the French to form counterguerrilla groups to go after the Vietminh and, when the French ignored them, slipping off to buy contacts and agents in the military, police, government, and private sectors.
The outgunned Vietminh, meanwhile, effected their strategy of protracted warfare. Secret cells were organized, and guerrilla units were formed to monitor and harass French units, attack outposts, set booby traps, and organize armed propaganda teams. Assassination of collaborators was part of their job. Company- and battalion-size units were also formed to engage the French in main force battles.
By 1948 the French could neither protect their convoys from ambushes nor locate Vietminh bases. Fearful French citizens organized private paramilitary self-defense forces and spy nets, and French officers organized, with CIA advice, commando battalions (Tien-Doan Kinh Quan) specifically to hunt down Vietminh propaganda teams and cadres. At the urging of the CIA, the French also formed composite airborne commando groups, which recruited and trained Montagnard hill tribes at the coastal resort city of VungTau. Reporting directly to French Central Intelligence in Hanoi and supplied by night airdrops, French commandos were targeted against clandestine Vietminh combat and intelligence organizations. The GCMAs were formed concurrently with the U.S. Army's First Special Forces at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
By the early 1950s American soldiers were fighting alongside the French, and the 350-member U.S. Military Assistance and Advisory Group (MAAG) was in Saigon, dispensing and accounting for U.S. largess. All in all, from 1950 through 1954, the United States gave over three billion dollars to the French for their counterinsurgency in Vietnam, including four million a year as a retainer for Emperor Bao Dai, who squirreled away the lion's share in Swiss bank accounts and foreign real estate.
In April 1952, American advisers began training Vietnamese units. In December 1953, an Army attaché unit arrived in Hanoi, and its officers and enlisted men began interrogating Vietminh prisoners. While MAAG postured to take over the Vietnamese Army from the French, the Special Technical and Economic Mission provided CIA officers, under station chief Emmett McCarthy, with the cover they needed to mount political operations and negotiate contracts with the government of Vietnam (GVN).
Finally, in July 1954, after the Vietminh had defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu, a truce was declared at the Geneva Conference. Vietnam was divided along the seventeenth parallel, pending a nationwide election to be held in 1956, with the Vietminh in control in the North and Bao Dai in control in the South. The French were to withdraw from the North and the Vietminh from the South, where the United States was set to displace the French and install its own candidate, Ngo Dinh Diem, a Catholic mandarin from Hue. The CIA did this by organizing a cross section of Vietnamese labor leaders and intellectuals into the Can Lao Nham Vi (Personalist Labor party). Diem and his brothers, Nhu, Can, and Thuc (the archbishop of Hue), thereafter controlled tens of thousands of Can Lao followers through an interlocking maze of clandestine cells present in the military, the police and security services, the government, and private enterprise.
In Vietnamese History from 1939-1975, law professor Nguyen Ngoc Huy, a Dai Viet politician who was exiled by Diem in 1954, says about the Diem regime: "They persecuted those who did not accept their orders without discussion, and tolerated or even encouraged their followers to take bribes, because a corrupt servant must be loyal to them out of fear of punishment.... To obtain an interesting position, one had to fulfill the three D conditions: Dang [the Can Lao party]; Dao [the Catholic religion]; and Dia phuong [the region—Central Vietnam]. Those who met these conditions and moreover had served Diem before his victory over his enemies in 1955 enjoyed unbelievable promotions."
Only through a personality cult like the Can Lao could the CIA work its will in Vietnam, for Diem did not issue from or have the support of the Buddhist majority. He was, however, a nationalist whose anti-French reputation enabled the Americans to sell themselves to the world as advisers to a sovereign government, not as colonialists like the French. In exchange, Diem arranged for Can Lao businessmen and their American associates to obtain lucrative government contracts and commercial interests once owned exclusively by the French, with a percentage of every transaction going to the Can Lao. Opposed to Diem were the French and their supplétifs in the Sûreté and the Vietnamese Mafia, the Binh Xuyen. Together with the Hoa Hao and Cao Dai religious sects, these groups formed the United Sect Front and conspired against the United States and its candidate, Diem.
Excerpted from The Phoenix Program by Douglas Valentine. Copyright © 1990 Douglas Valentine. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: The Phoenix Has Landed,
Chapter 1: Infrastructure,
Chapter 2: Internal Security,
Chapter 3: Covert Action,
Chapter 4: Revolutionary Development,
Chapter 5: PICs,
Chapter 6: Field Police,
Chapter 7: Special Branch,
Chapter 8: Attack on the VCI,
Chapter 9: ICEX,
Chapter 10: Action Programs,
Chapter 11: PRU,
Chapter 12: Tet,
Chapter 13: Parallax Views,
Chapter 14: Phoenix in Flight,
Chapter 15: Modus Vivendi,
Chapter 16: Advisers,
Chapter 17: Accelerated Pacification,
Chapter 18: Transitions,
Chapter 19: Psyops,
Chapter 20: Reforms,
Chapter 21: Decay,
Chapter 22: Hearings,
Chapter 23: Dissension,
Chapter 24: Transgressions,
Chapter 25: Da Nang,
Chapter 26: Revisions,
Chapter 27: Legalities,
Chapter 28: Technicalities,
Chapter 29: Phoenix in Flames,
About the Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
What an explosive book this one is, exposing the phoenix program which is a strategy of terror and its role in political warfare, it exposes the S vietnam massacre in 1969 where 12 women and children in thanh Phong village were grouped together and executed, the Phoenix Mission dispose and kill them. How with cor-ordinated military, police and intelligence agencies who gather information on people, put it into a mainframe computer, arrest, detain and torture, how even children as young as 12 are taken the how the government dont want you to know this information as Phoenix is supposed to protect the people from terrorism. How military records are altered, government cover ups, concealment of misdeeds under a cloak of secrecy.
A shameful conemnation of an effective program that rooted out viet cong supporters, saving the lives of American servicemen and servicewomen.