The Phoenix Program

The Vietnam War at Fifty

Eddie J. Girdner

“The earth devours the people and the government washes its hands.”

Eduardo Galeano

Douglas Valentine. The Phoenix Program., Inc. (First published by William Morrow, l990) 479 pages.

There was a flurry of press reports about how the American Central Intelligence Agency tortured people after 9-11 with the release of the CIA torture report in late 2014. But there was only an occasional mention of the CIA Phoenix Program in Vietnam in the l960s. Even when a reference was made, there was no explanation about what this program was all about.

The US policy of using torture did not begin with President George W. Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney. It did not begin with the Vietnam War either, but torture and assassination on a massive scale was at the center of the US war against Vietnam. The program was officially secret and denied by CIA director William Colby. Nevertheless, it happened and some of those who were involved have told their story.

Douglas Valentine has written the definitive study after years of research and some one-hundred interviews of those who implemented the program in Vietnam. The book was published some twenty-five years ago, but quietly went out of print and disappeared mysteriously from the bookstores. The US Government has gone to considerable pains to see that this extensive record of war crimes was flushed down the memory hole for good. Few people would know anything about it.

This effort appears to have been quite effective. Most reporters discussing the CIA torture in secret prisons around the world appear to know little or nothing about what happened in Vietnam. Fortunately, Valentine’s book is again available as a print on demand book. One is not likely to stumble across it in a book store in the US. The historical record has been wiped slick.

Now with the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the War in Vietnam being celebrated in the US, a new sanitized history of the war is being presented. Once again, it will be touted as a valiant effort to save the world from the evil of communism. America made mistakes, it will be said, but we all meant well. It is just the world out there is a difficult place. American exceptionalism will again be rehearsed. The United States of America is just too altruistic, some will plead, for its own good. 

The real story is here, retrieved from the memory hole, by those who would like for Americans to know what the directors of the US Empire were really doing in Vietnam. They were actually involved in torturing and murdering a lot of people, most of them innocent. Much of this CIA activity comes under the rubric of war crimes, what the Japanese were convicted of after World War II.

The story is long and complex. It takes some concerted effort to read Valentine’s book and follow the developments as the US attempted to prevent a communist take-over of South Vietnam. However, the effort is worth it for a deeper understanding, not only of this war, but how the necessary policies of Empires are put into action. The essence of the War was kept secret from the American people. At root, the war in Vietnam was a war against the people by a corrupt ruling class armed and funded by the United States of America.

The book begins with a true story told by a former Navy SEAL, who served in Vietnam. His name was Elton Manzione. He was sent on a mission in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) near the North Vietnamese border in l964. He was part of a “hunter-killer team.” The US had a problem with a small village because someone in the village was taking shots at aircraft from the village with an anti-aircraft gun.

A hunter-killer team of four members was often made up of four Americans, but sometimes it included two Vietnamese of Chinese or Chinese mercenaries (CTs). The CTs or counterterrorists were enemy soldiers who had defected or sometimes South Vietnamese criminals. After the four-man team scouts the village for a few days and the enemy is found, a killer team is called in. This team consists of twelve to twenty-five South Vietnamese Special Forces led by Green Berets.  

This time, however, the mission was for the four-man team to go into the village alone and blow up the gun and kill the guy who was operating the gun. Normally, the US would have just bombed the village, but perhaps because an important person was living there, this could not to be done.

With a map of the village and a picture of the guy operating the gun, the team scoped out the small village of fifteen hooches. They knew where the guy lived and that he had two daughters. It was Elton’s job to enter the hooch and kill the guy. Another team member would blow up the gun and another stand guard.   

The mission was carried out a four o’clock in the morning. The team crawled up to the village wearing black pajamas and with their faces covered with black. Elton found the hooch. When he entered, he found two people sleeping. He thinks one of them is the guy he is to assassinate. He has been trained how to kill a person instantly with his commando knife. He attacks and kills the first person. When the second person wakes up, he shoots her in the head. Then he discovers that he has killed two young girls, the guy’s daughters.

The team goes back to the base having failed in their mission after killing two innocent people. Elton says that he sat on a pile of ammunition and refused to get up until he was promised a ticket back home. At some later point, he is living AWOL in Europe.

This program in 1964 was a forerunner to the Phoenix program but was exactly the same. The US military referred to it as the “undermining of the infrastructure” of the Vietcong. This was done through kidnapping, assassination, and sabotage. These operators came to realize that they were “no longer the good guys.” They were “assassins, pure and simple.

The research for the book took four years and was not easy. First, most who were in the program were legally prohibited from talking about it. Secondly, the military records were falsified. Their records sometimes do not even show that they were ever in Vietnam. Some were listed as “cooks.” The US Government used a “cloak of secrecy, threats and fraud.” To the extent that some of the truth eventually leaked out, Phoenix and other operations changed the way many Americans thought of themselves and their government. But it must be said that most Americans do not have a clue that any of this was going on, carried out by their own country. And they will never find out unless they have access to books like Valentine’s.

The Vietnam War became the most unpopular war ever, even with Americans not knowing the true story.

The Phoenix Program was developed by the CIA in l967. It brought existing counterinsurgency programs together to “neutralize” the Vietcong infrastructure. Neutralize meant to “kill, capture or make to defect.” The term “infrastructure” referred to “those civilians suspected of supporting North Vietnamese and Vietcong soldiers.” In other words, the program targeted civilians, especially political party members.

In targeting civilians, the Phoenix program was a violation of the Geneva Conventions guaranteeing protection to civilians in time of war. Those targeted were given no due process to defend themselves. Civilians could be kidnapped, tortured, detained without trial for two years, and even murdered just on the word of an anonymous informer. With the program up and running, the US directors, like Robert McNamara, were demanding a quota of 1800 neutralizations per month. Innocent civilians were caught up in this with all the corruption among policemen, politicians and racketeers. The Central Government used it as a blackmail scheme.

It was, in fact, massive state terrorism, under the name of “counterterrorism.” This was a psychological warfare tactic to murder Vietcong and their families and terrorize their neighbors into submission. Often propaganda was used to make it look like the murders were done by the communists.

Valentine wonders how an America ruled by “law and fair play” could create such a program. It was actually a variation of a program used by the British in Malaya. He believed that Americans were gradually losing touch with democratic ideals. In fact, it seems to be the case. Some polls showed that a majority of Americans asked about the recent CIA torture report said that they supported the use of torture by the US Government. It may well be that a democratic republic is incompatible with the US global Empire.         

What the US Government officials in Vietnam in the l960s referred to as the Vietcong infrastructure (VCI) was simply the domestic resistance to imperialism, first of the French and later the US Empire. Resistance was established over hundreds of years of foreign occupation. The people were forced to resort to guerrilla and terror tactics against the French rule. This is the classic case with any foreign occupation.

The French presence goes back to 1664 when missionaries arrived in Indochina. The French began to do business in trade and formed the East India Company. Trade followed the Bible as the natives were softened up by French Catholics. The French priests became involved in politics. In the nineteenth century, when a French priest was arrested for plotting against the Emperor, the French Navy shelled Da Nang and killed hundreds. In l859, the French Foreign Legionnaires arrived. In l861, Saigon was claimed for France.

As French imperialism planted deeper roots, the ports were opened up for trade. The French used Filipino and Chinese mercenary armies to suppress the insurgency. In l883, the French carried out a reign of terror with many nationalists guillotined. The French plundered the ancient city of Hue.

Taking over rule, the Emperor’s Council of Mandarins was disbanded and replaced with French advisors. The French took over the bureaucracy and nationalists were sent to jail. Resistors turned to using terrorism. Low level officials, such as police, teachers and mailmen were killed.

During World War I, Vietnamese religious sects served as fronts for anti-French activities. Political parties arose and some became communists. Secret cells were formed while the French sent agents to kill them or put them in Con Son prison. This prison was called Ho Chi Minh University.

In 1941, Ho Chi Minh formed the Viet Minh. By l945, Ho controlled six provinces around Hanoi and declared Vietnamese independence. The Viet Minh worked with the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during the war. This organization was transformed into the CIA after the war. But at this time, other Americans were supporting the French.

When it was clear that Ho had links with Moscow, the US moved to support the return of the French to the country. Vietnam was divided along the 16th parallel at Potsdam at the end of the war by Russia, China and the US. Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintong controlled the north. Chinese troops plundered Hanoi and drove out the Japanese as the French returned.

In the south, the British were in charge under Lord Louis Mountbatten. Saigon was returned to the French and Bao Dai installed as Emperor. He was what the French called a suppletif.

By l946, the Viet Minh were again at war with the French with the US CIA assisting the French. The US Army assisted in training commandos. The US provided four billion US dollars to the French war in Vietnam between l950 and l954. In l950, the US sent in a Military Assistance Group (MAAG) of 350 soldiers to Saigon to train Vietnamese soldiers. The US provided four million dollars a year to Bao Dai, mostly skimmed off and hidden in secret Swiss bank accounts.

After the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu in l954, Vietnam was divided at the 17th parallel. The US installed Ngo Dinh Diem, a Catholic Mandarin from Hue to head the Government in the South. Air Force Colonel Edward Lansdale arrived in Saigon in l954. He was a CIA officer, under Air Force attaché cover at the US Embassy. Arriving from running a counterterrorism assassination program in the Philippines, Lansdale began to set up programs that would eventually become a part of the Phoenix Program. Operations included sabotage and black propaganda. The CIA began to organize special forces, or assassination hit teams. Lansdale set up the Civic Action Program and funded it through the CIA. He used North Vietnamese Catholics as covers for CIA ops, but this effort largely failed. The people did not trust them. In Operation Brotherhood, dispensaries were used as covers for covert counterterrorism operations.

The National Revolution Movement was a political front for Diem’s Con Lao political party. Diem had all his political opposition arrested. Lansdale realized that this was not going to work and advocated a more open and free political process but it was too late. He was being rotated out of Vietnam. His successors were dedicated to giving support to Diem. Lansdale approached Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in Washington, who dismissed his views as “idealist.” South Vietnam was only a “mask of democracy.” Diem was a US puppet.  

In l954, Michigan State University was given a contract from the US National Security Council (NSC) for a technical assistance program in Vietnam. CIA officers worked undercover as professors. Among other things, special police would be trained for the Government of Vietnam under the rubric of internal security. Most aid was given to the new Vietnamese Bureau of Investigation (VBI). The top officers were trained by the US CIA and FBI at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. The classes included criminal investigations, interrogation, and counterinsurgency. This program became a key foundation for the Phoenix Program.

Americans in Saigon turned a blind eye as they watched truck-loads of political prisoners taken to Con Son prison. They would be tortured and many killed. The Saigon zoo was being used as a morgue. Diem’s enemies were suppressed and information collected on Vietcong activity in the villages.

In 1959, Diem held a sham election with Civil Action Cadre stuffing the ballot boxes. Everyone was too terrified to talk. Village chiefs were forced to rig the election in their village or be killed by the VBI. The Americans knew that eighty percent of the people favored the so-called Vietcong but there was a democratic facade. At the time, the Vietcong was following a policy of non-violence.

The most serious mistake made by Diem, according to a former CIA officer, was the 10/59 Law. Anyone considered to be infringing national security could be sentenced to death or imprisoned for life. Most of the targets were nationalists, not communists. The first year of the law jailed fifty-thousand people. This Diem-style “democracy” led many more to support the Viet Minh.

In reaction, under Doan 559, the Viet Minh carved out the Ho Chi Minh trail through Laos, Cambodia and South Vietnam. As troops infiltrated into the South, the Green Berets, US Army Special Forces, were sent to stop them. These operated in twelve-man teams under the cover of the Civic Action Program. They organized paramilitary units for counterinsurgency operations. They were operating as part of the CIA.

One group was called the “Sneaky Petes.” They dressed in civilian clothes and turned the Pathet Lao deserters into double agents. They returned to their units with tracking devices which allowed the CIA to carry out air strikes on units. More American special forces arrived to carry out psychological operations.

William Colby arrived in Saigon in l959. US CIA money was being handed out to all the political parties. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) was also a cover for CIA officers. For example, the AID/PSD or Public Safety Division was part or the operation to target dissidents.

The US set about uprooting the villages to set up “agrovilles.” These were tent cities protected by moats, brick walls and bamboo stakes. The old villages were then destroyed. The idea was to separate the guerrillas (fish) from the people (the sea). The insurgents would be treated to imprisonment or assassination, or sometimes given a chance to defect. The “Popular Forces” were South Vietnamese units trained by the US Army and the CIA to control these agrovilles. Lovely.

The program actually backfired, not too surprisingly. Few would like to uprooted from their village for a sort of concentration camp. People just became more sympathetic to the Vietcong. Corrupt government officials grew fat on US Government money. Diem lost more and more popular support. The Buddhists were supporting the insurgents.

In l960, the situation was ripe for the communists to announce the formation of the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam. They said all Americans should be expelled from the country. In l961, the People’s Revolutionary Party (PRP) was launched. The party claimed to have half a million members by 1962.

The PRP party members were the main targets of the Phoenix Program. Especially, they tried to neutralize the province, district and village party secretaries. This was relatively easy at the village level. Nearly impossible at the province level, as the chiefs were hard to find.

Valentine points out that the United States refused to admit that nationalism was the driving cause of the insurrection and that the US had come to be viewed as an occupying power, like the French. Colby always argued that the people were being coerced by communist terror to support the Vietcong.

At a later point, US President John F. Kennedy pulled the plug on Diem. The US gave the nod for him to be assassinated and he was taken out.

The counterinsurgency program unfolded through many phases over the years. Valentine’s book takes the reader through the twists and turns of the US programs from these early beginnings up to the l970s, when the US lost the war. It is a tedious history, but a revealing story. Americans should know it, but most will not. It is something that will never get into the school history textbooks. One may observe the whitewashing that goes on even now as the fiftieth anniversary of the war is celebrated.

In the late l960s, some 26,843 non-military Vietcong insurgents and sympathizers were neutralized in just fourteen months. The figures for l970 are 8191 Vietcong infrastructure (VCI) killed, 7745 defected, and 6415 jailed. Those behind the targeting of these civilians who were to have protection under the Geneva Conventions will never be taken to an international tribunal. Those who rounded up and tortured people in Afghanistan and Iraq after 9-11 will never have to answer for their actions. International law will never be applied to them. Most war crimes simply disappear down the memory hole.

One can see from reviews of Valentine’s book posted on the website that there is much hostility to the information that is brought to light in this book. Some anonymous reviewers just charge Valentine with blatant lies. One would like to know who is posting these comments. They are hiding their identity. On the other hand, most reviewers are thankful for the effort to uncover the real history of the war. Valentine merely replies that he interviewed around one-hundred people who were involved in implementing the program. They could not all be lying. There will always be those who defend the crimes of Empire in the interests of the Empire.

With the citizens of the Empire kept in the dark, it is not surprising that history keeps repeating itself. Officials will plea that we went off track and made mistakes at Abu Gharaib and Gitmo, but we want to ensure the people that it will never happen again. Then the next time the empire invades a country and carries out torture on a massive scale and it eventually comes out, it is again a surprise to the population, because they did not bother to inform themselves of the truth. The story has been kept out of the history books, at least those published by the big corporate publishers. There is a very good reason why the officials of the Empire do everything they can to prevent people from reading such informative books. And rather than honor scholars who sacrifice years to uncover the truth, the authors are discredited and attempts are made to silence them. Truthful academics who dare to reveal the secrets often seek jobs in universities in vain. Fortunately, Valentine’s book is available for those who want to know the truth in this fiftieth year celebration of the war.

Eddie J. Girdner is author of Global Political Economy. Denver, USA: Outskirts Press, 2014.