In 1967 the CIA’s Far East Division of Clandestine Services developed a program that came to be known as Phoenix. MACV through Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support [CORDS] supported the newly initiated CIA-sponsored Phung Hoang (All Seeing Bird) or “Phoenix” program as it was known in English, aimed at the elimination of high-ranking VC cadre. Although later alleged to be an assassination campaign, the stated purpose of the Phung Hoang was “to enlist and coordinate the efforts of local leaders police and paramilitary groups to identify and dismantle the subversive apparatus.”
The program entailed a coordinated attack by all South Vietnamese and American military, police and intelligence units against the infrastructure of the Viet Cong. CIA funds served as the catalyst for the project. William E. Colby played the key supervisory role in its implementation.
Based upon the newly created District Intelligence Operational Coordinating Committees, consisting of police and village and hamlet officials, the idea was to target by name and arrest the local enemy ranking cadre, employing force if necessary. Various Vietnamese agencies carried out the actual campaign, including the national police, military security teams, armed propaganda teams, Census Grievance cadre, RD cadre, and an especially CIA-trained group called Provincial Reconnaissance Units (PRU). 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. It was, quite simply, a set of programs that sought to attack and destroy the political infrastructure of the Lao Dong Party (the Viet Cong Infrastructure or VCI) in South Vietnam. Phoenix was misunderstood because it was classified, and the information obtained by the press and others was oftenanecdotal, unsubstantiated, or false. 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.
Phoenix was one of several pacification and rural security programs that CIA ran in South Vietnam during the 1960s. The premise of pacification was that if peasants were persuaded that the government of South Vietnam and the United States were sincerely interested in protecting them from the Viet Cong and trained them to defend themselves, then large areas of the South Vietnamese countryside could be secured or won back from the enemy without direct engagement by the US military.
By 1967, the US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), had succeeded in consolidating all military and civilian pacification efforts into one entity, called Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support. CIA and MACV were intensely involved in CORDS, which was run in conjunction with the Saigon government.
It didn’t take long for Robert “Blowtorch” Komer to seize upon Phoenix as away to make his mark in Vietnam. He had President Lyndon B. Johnson’s ear and this made him politically powerful. Anyone standing in his way would be run over with a bulldozer. If anyone could move the program forward, it was this overbearing, arrogant, mission-driven former CIA analyst. He acted as a ramrod to implement a “rifle shot” rather than a “shotgun” approach to the VCI. As the number-three man in Saigon, he vetoed various “concept” papers until a “missions andfunctions”paper finally appeared before him, which he accepted.” Komer initially headed CORDS, but it was most active and successful under William E. Colby, who replaced Komer in 1968.
Colby had served as chief of station in Saigon from 1959 to 1962 and as chief of the Far Eastern Division since then. Colby believed the United States must rid the south of the existing communist parallel government in the villages and eradicate the Viet Cong Infrastructure (VCI) in the countryside. Thus CORDS, while working on village defense and civic action programs–the latter included land reform, infrastructure building, and economic development — also devoted considerable resources to rooting out the VCI.
Another component of CORDS was the Phoenix Program. Although Phoenix was run and ostensibly controlled by the Saigon government, CIA funded and administered it. Phoenix built on the work of the CIA-created network of over 100 provincial and district intelligence operation committees in South Vietnam that collected and disseminated information on the VCI to field police and paramilitary units.
Essentially, these committees created lists of known VCI operatives. Once the name, rank, and location of each individual VCI member became known, CIA paramilitary or South Vietnamese police or military forces interrogated these individuals for further intelligence on the communist structure and its operations. The lists were sent to various Phoenix field forces, which included the Vietnamese national police, US Navy Seal teams and US Army special operations groups, and Provincial Reconnaissance Units such as the one in Tay Ninh.
These forces went to the villages and hamlets and attempted to identify the named individuals and “neutralize” them. Those on a list were arrested or captured for interrogation, or if they resisted, they were killed. Initially, CIA, with Vietnamese assistance, handled interrogations at the provincial or district levels. Later, when the program was turned over to the Saigon government, the Agency alone handled information-gathering. Eventually, about 600 Americans were directly involved in the interrogation of VCI suspects, including both CIA and US military personnel.
During the latter stages of the Vietnam War, small teams of dedicated and courageous Vietnamese special police, led by American military and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) personnel, fought a largely unsung war against the political leadership of the Communist insurgency. These special police units were called Provincial Reconnaissance Units (PRUs), and they conducted some of the most dangerous and difficult operations of the Vietnam War. They were special paramilitary forces that were originally developed in 1964 by the government of South Vietnam and CIA. Initially, they were known as Counter-Terror Teams. Eventually numbering over 4,000 and operating in all of South Vietnam’s 44 provinces, the PRUs were commanded by US military officers and senior NCOs until November 1969, after which they were transitioned to CIA advisers.
The PRUs became probably the most controversial element of Phoenix. Because these units were created, trained, equipped, and managed by the CIA, they worked in secret, a status that often led to myths and falsehoods about their activities. So pervasive are these myths and falsehoods that many historians often take them at face value without subjecting them to the same scrutiny as other historical aspects of the Vietnam War. This lack of understanding is further complicated because of the political divisiveness within the United States surrounding the Vietnam War, which led some opponents of U.S. involvement in that war to accept the most pernicious and false claims made against the entire pacification effort conducted by the American and South Vietnamese governments.
The recruitment of PRU personnel varied from province to province. Many PRU members were former VC or former ARVN soldiers. Some were former South Vietnamese Special Forces soldiers or former members of a Citizen Irregular Defense Group (CIDG), while a few were simply local youths who did not want to join the regular ARVN forces and preferred to serve their country in their own home province. In a few provinces, some paroled criminals were allowed to join the PRU, but the number of such people was few and greatly reduced after 1968. Some had strong religious and community affiliations that made them natural enemies of the Communists, such as Catholics, Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, and Montagnard tribesmen.
Critics of US involvement in Vietnam claimed that the PRUs were nothing more than assassination teams, yet only 14 percent of the VCI killed under Phoenix were killed by PRUs. Most of the rest died in skirmishes and raids involving South Vietnamese soldiers and police and the US military.
In 1971, Colby revealed that between 1968 and May 1971, the Phoenix program led to the death of 20,587 persons in Vietnam. For instance, the CIA in 1969 reportedly directed that a Special Forces team in South Vietnam should execute a man named Thai Khac Chuyen, on the grounds that he was a double-agent. The man was executed by the Special Forces unit.
Determining Phoenix’ssuccess depends upon who one talked to. Stanley Karnow interviewed several top communist officials and came to the following conclusion about Phoenix’s effectiveness:(Phoenix) “.eliminated some sixty thousand authentic Vietcong agents. Col Bui-Tin, a senior officer: it had been a devious and cruel operation that cost the loss of thousands of our cadres . Nguyen Co Thach, Vietnam’s foreign minister after 1976, admitted that the Phoenix effort wiped out many of our bases in South Vietnam, compelling number of North Vietnamese and Vietcong troops to retreatto sanctuaries in Cambodia.
The Marine CAP experience with Phoenix was somewhat different according to Lieutenant Colonel W. R. Corson: “Almost immediately in the wake of the first operations of the Phoenix hit squadsin I Corps the rapport in the CAP hamlets between the Marines, the PF’s and the people as well as the intelligence flow dried up. 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 effort was nothing more, or less than a bounty program organized and led by a Chinese ethnic Nung brigands who were paid in American dollars forkilling people with little or no regard for their guilt or innocence.”
Critics charged tha the one U.S. Agency which used political assassination as a weapon was the Central Intelligence Agency. Many of its men in Vietnam assassinated civilian Communists in an effort to destroy the Vietcong infrastruclure. Operation Phoenix run by the CIA established a new high for U.S. political assassinations in Vietnam, largely in response to enemy terrorist tactics which also include assassination, kidnapping. tcrro;ism of all sorts.
In 1972 Colby wrote that “Operation Phoenix was run not by the CIA but by the Government of Vietnam, with the support of the CORDS clement of the U.S. Military Assistance Command in coordination with scveral U.S. agencies including CIA. Operation Phoenix is not and was not a program of assasination. It countered the Viet Cong apparatus attempting to overthrow the Goverruneut of Vietnam by targetttng its leaders. 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 thesee combat casualties, (even including the few abuses which ocurred) and the victims of the Viet Gong’s systematic campaign of terrorism.”
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 US 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.
That figure lies on the high end of estimates, all of which were dependent on statistics of varying reliability. By most accounts, however — including those of Vietnamese communists — Phoenix (which ended in 1971) and other pacification programs drove the VCI so far underground that it was unable to operate effectively. In the 1972 Easter offensive, and again in 1975, there was no sign of the VCI or the Viet Cong military because Phoenix and its allied activities had dealt them a very serious blow.
Phoenix was, arguably, one of the most effectiveoperations of the Vietnam War. Interviews conducted with VCI leadership after the war .paint a telling picture of the destruction Phoenix wrought. The former VC minister of justice wrote in his memoirs: “In some locations… Phoenix was dangerously effective. In Haug Nghia Province, for example, …the [VCI] infrastructure was virtually eliminated.” The Communists’ deputy commander of South Vietnam, Gen. Tran Do, described Phoenix as “extremely destructive.”
Nguyen Co Thach, a senior North Vietnamese diplomat during the war, who later became foreign minister,stated “We had many weaknesses in the South because of Phoenix. In some provinces, 95 percent of the communist cadre had been assassinated or compromised by the Phoenix operation.” He further stated that Phoenix had “wiped out many of our bases.”