Phoenix Program: Wikis


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The Phoenix Program (Vietnamese: Chiến dịch Phụng Hoàng, a word related to fenghuang, the Chinese phoenix) was a military, intelligence, and internal security program designed by the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and coordinated and executed by the Republic of Vietnam's (South Vietnam) security apparatus and US Special Operations Forces such as the Navy SEALs, United States Army Special Forces and MACV-SOG (now Special Operations Group in the CIA's Special Activities Division) during the Vietnam War. The Program was designed to identify and "neutralize" (via infiltration, capture, terrorism, or assassination) the civilian infrastructure supporting the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (NLF or Viet Cong) insurgency. The Program was in operation between 1967 and 1972, and similar efforts existed both before and after that period.



In South Vietnam during the 1960s and early 1970s there was a secret network, which the U.S. intelligence services called the Viet Cong infrastructure (VCI). This network provided the political direction and control of the Front's (and North Vietnam's) war within the villages and hamlets of the south.

By 1967 this network numbered somewhere between 70,000 and 100,000 members throughout South Vietnam. Almost every village had a cell made up of a Communist Party secretary; a finance and supply unit; and information and culture, social welfare, and proselytizing sections to gain recruits from among the civilian population. The members reported up the chain of command, which, in turn, took orders from the Lao Dong Party Central Committee in North Vietnam. A preferred NLF tactic was to kill carefully selected government officials in order to drive the Saigon regime out of the region.[1]

The VCI laid down caches of food and equipment for regular force troops coming from border sanctuaries; it provided guides and intelligence for the People's Army of Vietnam (the North Vietnamese army); it conscripted personnel to serve in local force (militias) and main force mobile combat units of the NLF, and levied taxes to facilitate the administration of a rudimentary civil government.

In areas loyal to the Saigon government, protection against the North Vietnamese forces, or even NLF guerrillas, was often compromised because village chiefs were assassinated, terrorist bombings took place, or supporters of the government would be executed. During 1969, for example, over 6,000 South Vietnamese citizens were killed (over 1,200 in selective assassinations) and 15,000 wounded. Among the dead were some 90 village chiefs, 240 hamlet chiefs and officials.

History of the program

In 1967 all pacification efforts by the United States had come under the authority of the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support, or CORDS. CORDS had many different programs within it, including the creation of a peasant militia which by 1971 had a strength of about 500,000.[1]

As early as 1964 the CIA used counter terror teams to seek out and destroy NLF cadre hiding in the villages. In 1967, as part of CORDS, the Intelligence Coordination and Exploitation Program (ICEX) was created. The purpose of the organization centered on gathering information on the VCI. It was renamed Phoenix later in the same year. The South Vietnamese program was called Phụng Hoàng, after a mythical bird that appeared as a sign of prosperity and luck. The 1968 Tet offensive showed the importance of the Viet Cong infrastructure, and the Communist-led military setback made it easier for the new program to be implemented. By 1970 there were 704 U.S. Phoenix advisers throughout South Vietnam.[1]

Officially, Phoenix operations continued until December 1972, although certain aspects continued until the fall of South Vietnam in 1975.[2]


The chief aspect of the Phoenix Program was the collection of intelligence information. VCI members would then be neutralized (captured, converted, or killed). Emphasis for the enforcement of the operation was placed on local government militia and police forces, rather than the military, as the main operational arm of the program.[1]

Neutralization was not arbitrary but took place under special laws that allowed the arrest and prosecution of suspected communists, but only within the legal system. To avoid abuses such as phony accusations for personal reasons, or to rein in overzealous officials who might not be diligent enough in pursuing evidence before making arrests, the laws required three separate sources of evidence to convict any individual targeted for neutralization. If a suspected VCI was found guilty, he or she could be held in prison for two years, with renewable two-year sentences totaling up to six years.[1]

According to MACV Directive 381-41, the intent of Phoenix was to attack the VCI with a "rifle shot rather than a shotgun approach to target key political leaders, command/control elements and activists in the VCI."

Heavy-handed operations—such as random cordons and searches, large-scale and lengthy detentions of innocent civilians, and excessive use of firepower—had a negative effect on the civilian population. It was also acknowledged that capturing VCI was more important than killing them.[3][2][4]

Measures of success and failure

According to one view, Phoenix was a clear success. Between 1968 and 1972, Phoenix neutralized 81,740 NLF members, of whom 26,369 were killed. This was a large section taken out of the VCI and, between 1969 and 1971, the program was quite successful in destroying the infrastructure in many important areas. By 1970, Communist plans repeatedly emphasized attacking the government’s pacification program and specifically targeted Phoenix officials. The NLF also imposed quotas. In 1970, for example, Communist officials near Da Nang in northern South Vietnam instructed their assassins to “kill 400 persons” deemed to be government “tyrant[s]” and to “annihilate” anyone involved with the pacification program. Several North Vietnamese officials have made statements about the effectiveness of Phoenix. In the end, it was a direct conventional North Vietnamese military invasion, not the guerrilla insurgents, that defeated the South Vietnamese.[1]

Others view the program less favorably, arguing that ultimately, the entire counterinsurgency in Vietnam was a failure for a variety of reasons: clearly, one critical factor was that the communists had established a large and effective support cadre throughout South Vietnam before a coordinated effort was undertaken to eradicate it. While indications are that Phoenix achieved considerable success in damaging that infrastructure, it was too little and too late to change the war’s overall course.[2]

The Phoenix Program is sometimes seen as an "assassination campaign," and has been criticized as an example of human-rights atrocities alleged to have been committed by the CIA or other allied organizations, including U.S. Military Intelligence. There was eventually a series of U.S. Congressional hearings. Consequently, the military command in Vietnam issued a directive that reiterated that it had based the anti-VCI campaign on South Vietnamese law, that the program was in compliance with the laws of land warfare, and that U.S. personnel had the responsibility to report breaches of the law. Supporters argue that the primary intent was to capture, not to kill, in order to gain further information. However, decentralized operations in an uncertain, ambiguous environment did lead to abuses.[2] In many instances, rival Vietnamese would report their enemies as "VC" in order to get U.S. troops to kill them (Myra MacPherson, Long Time Passing, New York: Signet, 1984, p. 625.) In many cases, Phung Hoang chiefs were incompetent bureaucrats who used their positions to enrich themselves. Phoenix tried to address this problem by establishing monthly neutralization quotas, but these often led to fabrications or, worse, false arrests. In some cases, district officials accepted bribes from the NLF to release certain suspects.[1]


Quote from Lieutenant Vincent Okamoto, intelligence-liaison officer for the Phoenix Program for 2 months in 1968 and a recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross. Wounded 3 times, he is the highest-decorated Japanese-American veteran of the Vietnam War. He has served as president of the Japanese American Vietnam Veterans Memorial Committee and as a Los Angeles Superior Court judge.[5][6]

The problem was, how do you find the people on the blacklist? 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 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.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g
  2. ^ a b c d
  3. ^ Phoenix Program 1969 End of Year Report. A-8.
  4. ^ Dale Andrade, Ashes to Ashes: The Phoenix Program and the Vietnam War, pg 53 (Lexington, MA: Heath, 1990)
  5. ^ "Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides" by Christian G. Appy, Penguin Books, 2003, page 361. [1]
  6. ^ "County’s Newest Judge Sworn In, Promises to Protect Rights" By Kenneth Ofgang. April 30, 2002. Metropolitan News-Enterprise.

Further reading

  • Andrade, Dale, Ashes to Ashes.
  • Cook, John L. The Advisor.
  • Herrington, Stuart, Stalking the Viet Cong.
  • Moyar, Mark, Phoenix and the Birds of Prey.
  • Douglas Valentine, The Phoenix Program, 1990. [2]. Chapter 24 "Transgressions" online: [3]. Author permission further explained: [4]
  • Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism., Newsweek, 19 June, 1972. [5]
  • Don Luce, Hostages of War (Indochina Resource Center, 1973). [6]
  • Seymour Hersh, Cover-Up, Random House, 1972. [7]
  • Long Time Passing, by Myra MacPherson, Signet, 1984. [8]
  • Then the Americans Came, by Martha Hess, Four Walls Eight Windows Press, 1996. [9]
  • Deadly Deceits: My 25 years in the CIA, by Ralph McGehee, 1999. [10]
  • Patriots: the Vietnam War remembered from all sides, by Christian G. Appy, Penguin, 2003. [11]

External links

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