Designed by the Central Intelligence Agency, the Phoenix program evolved into a cooperative effort between US, South Vietnam, and the Australian military. It was designed to identify and destroy Communist Viet Cong infrastructure through infiltration, capture, interrogation, and assassination. This all may sound hideous now, but in the late 1950s and the next ten years, some of the worst abominations were committed against innocent peasants by the Viet Cong. To stabilize the South Vietnamese government, it was necessary to find out who these people were, and deal with them.
This is precisely what the Phoenix program did. By 1972, Phoenix operatives had neutralized a bit under 82,000 suspected Viet Cong operatives, informants, and shadow-government cadres. Sounds bad, I suppose. Yet, at the same time, Viet Cong murdered 34,000 South Vietnamese village officials, innocent by-standers, and district or provincial civil servants. As soon as the NVA and VC units had seized Hue City in 1968, they immediately began rounding up and killing civil servants, priests, teachers, any foreigner they could find, and anyone found at the US Special Forces compound.
History doesn’t change, only man’s perceptions of it. Those who have never placed themselves in harm’s way are quick to criticize the program’s methods and results, never thinking what a blight upon humanity the Viet Cong were. And by the way, I was in Vietnam in 2012; the deportment of Vietnamese uniformed personnel toward any and all foreigners hasn’t changed from the days when NVA and VC contemptuously beheaded fallen soldiers and marines. The communists were then, and remain now, pure evil.
The main players in the Phoenix program were the CIA (in a supervisory role), USMACV (both military and civilian agencies), the government of South Vietnam, and the Australian special forces. Speaking of this today, there appears three points of view: (1) Phoenix was a low-cost, well-coordinated, targeted effort to eliminate a ruthlessly vile enemy; (2) It was a counterinsurgency program run amok, and (3) A balanced analysis of historical fact.
Let’s take a look at it—because there are consequences to every human decision. In history, we sometimes refer to these decisions and their resulting actions as “causes and effects.” There may be one or more causes of an event, and these may produce any number of effects. Whenever we make important decisions, we hope (and sometimes pray) that there are no unintended consequences. It does happen—and while there is not a lot we can do once Pandora’s box is opened, we should at least learn important lessons from our foopahs.
A sense of nationalism (national and cultural unity) began in Vietnam around 3,000 years ago—at a time when the Vietnamese lived in two independent kingdoms. Since then, the Vietnamese have constantly rejected (often through war) foreign meddling by the Chinese, Champs, Khmers, Siamese, French (twice), Japanese, internal civil strife, and then finally, the Americans.
Before World War II, Vietnam was colonized and brutalized by France. By the time the Japanese enveloped Indochina, France was an ally of Japan and Germany. Throughout Japanese occupation, an official French presence remained in Hanoi (even if it was ignored by the Japanese). In September 1945, the Japanese Empire was defeated. France quickly moved to recover its former colony. Vietnamese Nationalists had a different preference.
One of these nationalists was a communist named Ho Chi Minh (not his real name). He wasted no time announcing the creation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. It was a short-lived republic, however. Nationalist Chinese and British occupation forces sided with the anti-communist Vietnamese who, having had enough slavery under French colonialism, rejected slavery under a communist regime. Anti-communist Vietnamese were well-aware of what Stalin did to the Russian people between 1924 and 1945.
Vietnam held its first national assembly election in 1946. Central and northern Vietnamese favored the communist ticket , those living in the south —not so much. Then, France attempted to reclaim its previous authority by force —an unpopular move among many (but not all) Vietnamese. It was the beginning of the First Indochina War and it lasted until 1953.
After the French defeat in 1953, the United States stepped in to help broker an agreement that would bring peace to the region. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. The 1954 Geneva Conference left Vietnam a divided nation. Ho Chi Minh ruled the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north from Hanoi, and Ngo Dinh Diem ruled the Republic of Vietnam in the south from Saigon.
Between 1953 and 1956, North Vietnam instituted oppressive reforms. Witness testimony from those living in the north suggested a government run assassination campaign that produced a murder ratio of one for every 160 residents. If true, then the North Vietnamese regime murdered upwards of 100,000 people. Today we think this number is a bit high, but it is true that an awful lot of people were brutalized and murdered.
As Ho Chi Minh crushed his people in the north, Ngo Dinh Diem crushed his people living in the south, carrying out murderous campaigns against political and religious opponents.
Today we can conclude that America’s involvement in South Vietnamese affairs was a massive mistake, but we should remember that there were other things going on in the world. President Truman had a lot of irons in the fire after 1946, and he wasn’t all that bright to begin with. The United States became involved with Vietnam as a consequence of its trying to convince France to relinquish its former colonies and to join an emerging NATO alliance. Ultimately, tens of millions of American tax dollars went to French Indochina and then later, to the newly created Republic of Vietnam. It was a commitment inherited by President Eisenhower who, to his credit, refused to engage the United States militarily beyond providing arms, equipment, and a small cadre of military and civil advisors.
The Second Indochina War broke out in 1954. It was more on the order of a civil war between the communist north and the non-communist south. Ho Chi Minh sought to unify Vietnam under his rule. Ngo Dinh Diem sought to unite Vietnam under his rule . Vietnam entered into a period of bloody civil war and the United States became South Vietnam’s proxy much in the same way that China became North Vietnam’s source of support. Of course, there was one difference between the two Vietnam’s: Diem focused on consolidating his power in the south; Ho Chi Minh’s ruthlessness between 1946 and 1957 solved his problem. Not having a lot of people nipping at his heals allowed Uncle Ho to initiate a communist insurgency in the south. There are several names for these insurgents. We mostly remember them as Viet Cong.
The Viet Cong Insurgency
Recall that most Vietnamese from the central highlands who participated in the first national assembly (1946) threw their support behind the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (the communist regime). According to the 1954 Geneva accord, the people of Vietnam could relocate to one country or the other, of their choosing, through 1956. In the mean, the shift in populations north or south was probably even. Around 90,000 pro-communist Vietnamese relocated to the north; 10,000 of like persuasion remained behind. Of those migrating south, some percentage were no doubt sent into the south to agitate.
From these pro-communist factions came the Viet Cong, or more formerly, the National Liberation Front and the People’s Liberation Army. Their task of creating an insurgency was made easier by the fact that Diem was a tyrant . It wasn’t long before the communists began a campaign of assassination and intimidation. They called it “exterminating traitors.” Another euphemism was “armed propaganda.”
The North Vietnamese Communist Party approved a people’s war on the South in January 1959. Arms began flowing into the south along the so-called Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos. A communist command center was created, called the Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN). Afterwards, with increasing frequency, communist insurgents began targeting US military and civilian advisors. Bombings in Saigon were becoming more frequent.
The People’s War was waged primarily in the rural areas, home to a vast majority of South Vietnam’s (then) 16 million inhabitants. Central to the task of fomenting rebellion and revolution in the countryside was what the Americans called the Viet Cong Infrastructure (VCI) —a shadow government called the People’s Revolutionary Party and the National Liberation Front. NLF subcommittees existed in secret alongside South Vietnam’s political entities at the village, district, provincial and national levels. A key mission of VCI was providing support to local communist military units: recruitment, intelligence-gathering, logistics support, and obtaining needed funds. To achieve this last task, the VCI imposed taxes on peasant farmers and business owners. People who refused to pay (or were unable to pay) simply disappeared. It was quite an operation: the Republic of South Vietnam governed during the day, the VCI governed at night.
VCI success depended in large measure on its ability to break the Vietnamese peasant’s strong kinship, adherence to tradition, including literally thousands of demonstrations where the village head man was humiliated in front of his villagers to emphasize the fact that the National Liberation Front would no longer tolerate adherence to the old ways. Officials disappeared with amazing regularity.
In 1967, VCI teams numbered as many as 100,000 willing insurgents. Most of South Vietnam’s efforts and resources, and those of the US military, went toward combating guerrillas and main-force units. Citizen Nguyen was caught in the middle. Something had to be done.
US and allied efforts haven’t all been 007ish. Beginning in the early 1960s, and with the assistance of the USA, RVN launched a series of programs to identify, disrupt, and dismantle the VC’s shadow-government. Now anyone who suggests that this was a wrong move, or inappropriate, needs a few reality checks. I wonder what the United States would do today if suddenly an insurgency developed from within our largest (and most dangerous) cities. Slap on the wrist, perhaps? And, as they tried to destroy the VC shadow government, they stepped up military operations against VC and NVA units. Again, how would the US react to Mexico smuggling dangerous weapons across our border and putting them into the hands of MS-13 thugs?
Here are a few of the programs implemented under the Phoenix umbrella:
(1) The Open Arms program, beginning in 1963. It offered amnesty and resettlement to encourage defections from the VC. Through this one program, close to 200,000 people came in and spilled their guts about the VC: who, what, where, and how. We already knew the why.
(2) Census Grievance Program sought to interview family members to see how the government could be more responsive to the needs of average families. Actually, the questions were asked in such a way as to elicit information about VC activities in that locality. This ploy generated more information than RVN officials could manage. It was the time before computers.
(3) Counter-Terror Teams attempted to mirror the VC counterparts. These individuals were organized, trained, and equipped by the CIA to perform small-unit operations within VC dominated areas. The teams were to capture or kill members of the VCI. Success was personality driven. Some teams were effective, others not so much. If one looks hard enough, it was possible to find corruption at every level of Vietnamese government and society. It was true in 1960, its’ true today. A lot of people died under the auspices of this program. If someone made a mistake, well … you can’t bring them back.
As previously mentioned, the program was the brainchild the CIA, but Army Special Forces and other snake eaters loved it. It was great fun. Thousands of people running around killing other thousands. But while it did reduce the number of VC (and some of the RVNs as well), it really didn’t do much for the rice farmer who just wanted everyone to leave him alone. More to the point, Phoenix didn’t save South Vietnam, either.
The Marine Corps had a better idea —one that General Westmoreland, the MACV commander absolutely detested and fought against. The Combined Action Program (CAP) began in 1965 as an operational initiative/counterinsurgency program whereby a Marine rifle squad of thirteen Marines and one attached U. S. Navy Corpsman was placed within or adjacent to a rural Vietnamese village or hamlet to provide security to the villagers. The Marine squad was augmented by a Vietnamese Popular Forces (PF) squad consisting mostly of individuals too young or too old for active service with the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).
CAP was not a perfect counterinsurgency tool, however; there were problems:
- Training for Marines/Navy personnel assigned to CAP was inadequate. The in-country school consisted of two weeks of orientation to Vietnamese history and culture. Under the best of circumstances, Marine volunteers spoke only rudimentary Vietnamese, so at the very outset, there was a language deficiency.
- Marines assigned to the CAP first served half of their 13-month in-country tour of duty with a regular rifle company. Unless these Marines “extended” their tours of duty in Vietnam, they would rotate back to the United States within six or so months. Frequent turnovers of key personnel resulted in a lack of continuity.
- The program was personality dependent. Squad leaders who were fully engaged and proactive in this mission helped to produce quality results within the village. Not every NCO was detail oriented, and these kinds of situations produced villagers who would not cooperate with the Marines and, in fact, may have created the greatest danger to CAP personnel.
- Not every village could produce a sufficient number of Vietnamese to serve in a PF contingent. Whenever villages communicated apathy to the Marines, too often the Marines developed a “to hell with it” mindset. It was for this reason that program managers wanted only the best sergeants to serve as NCOIC of the CAP. This didn’t always happen, however.
The genesis of the Combined Action Program/Platoon was the Marine Corps Small Wars Manual (1940), which was developed over many years from Marine Corps experience in the Caribbean/Central America during the so-called Banana Wars. Between 1915-1933, Marines learned how to defeat a counterinsurgency —they passed these lesson on to future generations. Was the CAP successful? The answer is “mostly,” but the only people who can authoritatively answer this question are those who served in Combined Action Platoons. I’ve provided a few posts about the CAP in the past:
Go ahead and check them out. I’ll be here if you have any questions.
- Combined Action Platoons: A Possible Role in the Low-Intensity Conflict Environment, Major Charles W. Driest, USMC, School of Advanced Military Studies, U. S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, 1990
- The Phoenix Program and Contemporary Counterinsurgency, William Rosenau and Austin Long, National Defense Research Institute, The RAND Corporation, 2009
 Communist agents employed a wide range of strategies to secure a pro-communist referendum, including the murder of non-communist politicians and intimidation at polling stations.
 Lyndon Johnson told the American people that it was necessary to commit US forces in defense of South Vietnam. It was only partially true. The series of South Vietnamese presidents following (but also including) Diem had every intention to unify the country under his own flag. American troops were fighting and dying in Vietnam in furtherance of this goal.
 Ngo Dinh Diem had unique problems in the south. Culturally, they were fiercely independent and wanted to stay that way. In the vacuum of repatriated Japanese, war lords began taking control of large areas of South Vietnam. Diem acted harshly to squash these gangsters. Ho Chi Minh never had these kinds of problems. The people of North Vietnam were used to doing what they were told.