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As is apparent, Diem's security forces terrorized the Vietnamese people more than the VCI. In fact, as Zasloff noted earlier, prior to 1959 the VCI carried out an official policy of nonviolence.

"By adopting an almost entirely defensive role during this period," Race explains, "and by allowing the government to be the first to employ violence, the Party -- at great cost -- allowed the government to pursue the conflict in increasingly violent terms, through its relentless reprisal against any opposition, its use of torture, and, particularly after May 1959, through the psychological impact in the rural areas of the proclamation of Law 10/59." [4]

In Phoenix/Phung Hoang: A Study of Wartime Intelligence Management, CIA officer Ralph Johnson calls the 10/59 Law "the GVN's most serious mistake." Under its provisions, anyone convicted of "acts of sabotage" or "infringements on the national security" could be sentenced to death or life imprisonment with no appeal. Making matters worse, Johnson writes, was the fact that 'The primary GVN targets were former Viet Minh guerrillas -- many of whom were nationalists, not Communists -- regardless of whether or not they were known to have been participating in subversive activities."'

The 10/59 Law resulted in the jailing of fifty thousand political prisoners by year's end.

But rather than suppress the insurgency, Vietnamese from all walks of life joined the cause. Vietminh cadres moved into the villages from secluded base camps in the Central Highlands, the Rung Sat, the Ca Mau swamps, and the Plain of Reeds. And after four years of Diem style democracy, the rural population welcomed them with open arms.

The nonviolence policy practiced by Vietcong changed abruptly in 1959, when in response to the 10/59 Law and CIA intrusions into North Vietnam, the Lao Dong Central Committee organized the 559th Transportation and Support Group. Known as Doan 559, this combat-engineer corps carved out the Ho Chi Minh Trail through the rugged mountains and fever-ridden jungles of South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Doan 559 paved the way for those Vietminh veterans who had gone North in 1954 and returned in 1959 to organize self-defense groups and political cells in Communist-controlled villages. By the end of 1959 Doan 559 had infiltrated forty-five hundred regroupees back into South Vietnam.

Sent to stop Doan 559 from infiltrating troops into South Vietnam were U.S. Army Special Forces commandos trained in "behind-the-lines" anti-guerrilla and intelligence-gathering operations.

Working in twelve-member A teams under cover of Civic Action, the Green Berets organized paramilitary units in remote rural regions and SWAT team-type security forces in cities. In return, they were allowed to occupy strategic locations and influence political events in their host countries.

Developed as a way of fighting cost effective counterinsurgencies, the rough-and-tumble

Green Berets were an adjunct of the CIA -- which made them a threat to the U.S. Army.

But Special Forces troopers on temporary duty (TDY) could go places where the Geneva Accords restricted the number of regular soldiers. For example, in Laos, the "Sneaky Petes" wore civilian clothes and worked in groups of two or three, turning Pathet Lao deserters into double agents who returned to their former units with electronic tracking devices, enabling the CIA to launch air attacks against them. Other double agents returned to their units to lead them into ambushes. As Ed Lansdale explains, once inside enemy ranks, "they could not only collect information for passing secretly to the government but also could work to induce the rank and file to surrender." Volunteers for such "risky business," Lansdale adds, were trained singly or in groups as large as companies that were "able to get close enough in their disguise for surprise combat, often hand to hand." [6]

By the late 1950s, increasing numbers of American Special Forces were in South Vietnam, practicing the terrifying black art of psychological warfare.


Arriving in Saigon in the spring of 1959 as the CIA's deputy chief of station was

William Colby. An OSS veteran, Princeton graduate, liberal lawyer, and devout Catholic

, Colby managed the station's paramilitary operations against North Vietnam and the Vietcong. He also managed its political operations and oversaw deep-cover case officers like Air America executive Clyde Bauer, who brought to South Vietnam its Foreign Relations Council, Chamber of Commerce, and Lions' Club, in Bauer's words, "to create a strong civil base." [7]

CIA officers under Colby's direction funneled money to all political parties, including the Lao Dong, as a way of establishing long-range penetration agents who could monitor and manipulate political developments.

Under Colby's direction, the CIA increased its advice and assistance to the GVN's security forces, at the same time that MSUG ceased being a CIA cover.

MSUG advisers ranging across South Vietnam, conducting studies and reporting on village life, had found themselves stumbling over secret policemen posing as village chiefs and CIA officers masquerading as anthropologists.

And even though these ploys helped security forces catch those in the VCI, they also put the MSUG advisers squarely between Vietcong cross hairs.

So it was that while Raymond Babineau was on vacation, assistant MSUG project chief Robert Scigliano booted the VBI advisory unit out from under MSUG cover.

The State Department quickly absorbed the CIA officers and placed them under the Agency for International Development's Public Safety Division (AID/PSD), itself created by CIA

officer Byron Engel in 1954 to provide "technical assistance" and training to police and security officials in fifty-two countries. In Saigon in 1959, AID/PSD was managed by a former Los Angeles policeman, Frank Walton, and its field offices were directed by the CIA-managed Combined Studies Group, which funded cadres and hired advisers for the VBI, Civil Guard, and Municipal police.

Through AID/PSD, technical assistance to police and security services increased exponentially.

Introduced were a telecommunications center; a national police training center at Vung Tau; a rehabilitation system for defecting Communists which led to their voluntary service in CIA security programs; and an FBI-sponsored national identification registration program, which issued ID cards to all Vietnamese citizens over age fourteen as a means of identifying Communists, deserters, and fugitives.

Several other major changes occurred at this juncture. On the assumption that someday the Communists would be defeated, MSUG in 1957 had reduced the Civil Guard in strength and converted it into a national police constabulary, which served primarily as a security force for

district and province chiefs (all of whom were military officers after 1959)

and also guarded bridges, major roads, and power stations. CIA advisers assigned to the constabulary developed clandestine cells within its better units. Operating out of police barracks at night in civilian clothes, these ragtag Red Squads were targeted against the VCI, using intelligence provided by the VBI. However, in December 1960 the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group seized control of the constabulary and began organizing it into company, battalion, and regimental units armed with automatic rifles and machine guns. The constabulary was renamed the Regional Forces and placed under the Ministry of Defense. The remaining eighteen thousand rural policemen thereafter served to enforce curfews and maintain law and order in

agrovilles -- garrison communities consisting of forcefully relocated persons

, developed by MSUG in 1959 in response to Ed Lansdale's failed Civic Action program.

With the demise of Civic Action teams, pacification efforts were by default dumped on the Vietnamese Army, whose heavy-handed tactics further alienated the rural Vietnamese and enabled the Vietcong to infiltrate the Self-Defense Corps and erode the program from within. In an attempt to stop the bleeding, Civic Action cadres were redirected toward organizing "community development" programs, in which class A and B Communist offenders were forced to build agrovilles, as well as roads leading to and from them. When construction had been completed, South Vietnamese army units leveled the surrounding villages, "resettled" the inhabitants in agrovilles, and manned outposts along the roads as a means of facilitating the movement of security forces in search of Communist offenders.

The idea behind agrovilles was to control the rural population by physically moving the sea of sympathetic people away from the guerrilla fish. By making relocated persons build

agrovilles -- tent cities protected by moats, mud walls, and bamboo stakes

-- internal security, it was imagined, could be established, laws enforced, and potential revolutionaries tacitly involved in the fight against the guerrillas and thus psychologically prone to act as informers to VBI case officers. Their information would then lead to the elimination of the insurgent political cells through their imprisonment, assassination, or defection.

Agrovilles were defended by Regional Forces and the Popular Force -- derived from Self-Defense Corps -- trained and advised by U.S. Army, AID/PSD, and CIA personnel.

The secondary nation-building goal of the agroville program was physically to construct a social and economic infrastructure connected to the GVN. In reality, though, by uprooting the people from their ancestral homes, the program generated legions of Vietcong sympathizers. Moreover, the massive infusion of American aid amounted to a boondoggle for the corrupt government officials administering the program. Piled on top of a land reform program that stole from the poor and gave to the rich and of the 10/59 Law, agrovilles replaced Civic Action as the main target of the burgeoning insurgency and its North Vietnamese sponsors.

In response, when he became chief of the CIA's Saigon station in 1960, William Colby accelerated the pace of CIA operations into North Vietnam. He and Gilbert Lawton (a CIA officer disguised as a Special Forces colonel) also launched the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) program as a means of preventing North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and roving Vietcong guerrilla units from moving through, drawing sustenance from, or maintaining agents in GVN-monitored villages. Extrapolated from the French commando program begun in 1951, the CIDG program used Vietnamese Special Forces to organize "favorable minorities" into static Self-Defense Corps through Civic Action, which were armed, trained, and targeted by the CIA against Communist political and military units.

Father Hoa's Sea Swallows exemplify the CIDG program in operation.

Imprisoned in the 1940's by the Communist Chinese for conspiring with the Kuomintang, Father Nguyen Loc Hoa led two thousand Catholic converts into Laos in 1950, shortly after Chiang Kai-shek had fled to Taiwan with his Nationalist Army. Eight years later, after enduring religious persecution in Laos, Father Hoa was persuaded by Bernard Yoh -- a Kuomintang intelligence officer on loan to the CIA -- to resettle his flock in the village of Binh Hung on the Ca Mau Peninsula in southern South Vietnam. The deal was this: Father Hoa was appointed chief of a district where 90 percent of the people were Vietcong supporters. He was given quantities of military aid and advice from a series of CIA officers disguised as Special Forces colonels. In exchange, Father Hoa had merely to fight the Vietcong, as he did with vigor.

As Don Schrande reported in the Saturday Evening Post of February 17, 1962, "Father Hoa personally led his pitifully small force into the swamps nightly to strike the enemy on his own ground." [8]

Stuck in the midst of a VC stronghold, Binh Hung village resembled a military outpost, replete with an obstacle course Father Hoa called "our own little Fort Bragg." As district chief Father Hoa used CIA funds to run "an intelligence network" consisting of "a volunteer apparatus of friendly farmers and a few full time agents." On the basis of this intelligence Father Hoa mounted raids against individual Vietcong cadres. By 1962 he had corralled 148 prisoners, whom he used as slave laborers in the village's rice paddies.

In the evenings Sea Swallow cadres indoctrinated their captives with religious and political propaganda

, prompting the weaklings to defect and join the ranks of Father Hoa's Popular Force battalion -- five hundred Vietnamese dressed in ill-fitting U.S. Army-supplied khaki uniforms.

Because it was composed of Vietnamese, the Popular Force battalion was not trustworthy, however, and did not include the Sea Swallows' own cadre. Described by Schrande as former Boy Scouts who gave the three-fingered salute, this "group of black-clad commandos armed to the teeth" was "[c]lustered around the priest like a personal bodyguard." [9] Unlike their Vietnamese neighbors, Father Hoa's Chinese Catholic zealots held what Bernard Yoh calls "an ideology that there can be no compromise with Communism." [10]

The image of a defiant band of foreigners, transplanted by the CIA to Vietnam to suit its purposes and surrounded by captives, defectors, and enemies, symbolizes perfectly the state of the counterinsurgency in the early 1960's. Things were not going well inside the GVN either. The Military Security Service was infiltrated by Communist agents, and in June 1959 the VBI arrested the personal bodyguard to the ARVN chief of staff and charged him with spying. In January 1960 two officers in the Operations Division of the Vietnamese Joint General Staff (JGS) were arrested as Vietcong agents. Even the Can Lao was penetrated by Communist agents, as events proved. The situation climaxed in November 1960, when a group of disgruntled Dai Viet paratroopers led a coup against Diem. Although a failure, the coup attempt drew attention to Diem's lack of popular support, a situation made worse when his brother Nhu sicced the secret police on the Dai Viets and their Buddhist allies. This purge sent the Buddhists underground and into alliances with the Communists, and what was called "the Buddhist crisis" ensued, eventually causing the demise of the Ngo regime.

Sensing that Diem was on the ropes and bolstered by the Buddhists' having joined their cause, the Communists on December 20, 1960, announced the formation of the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam and called for the expulsion of all Americans. Ho Chi Minh appointed Le Duan secretary-general of the southern branch of the party, and one year later the People's Revolutionary party (PRP) was activated in the South. The insurgency had begun in earnest.


How the insurgency was organized is essential to understanding Phoenix, which was targeted specifically against its leadership, the VCI. At the top of the VCI organizational chart was the Central Office of South Vietnam (COSVN), an executive committee answering to the Lao Dong Central Committee's Reunification Department in Hanoi. From its floating headquarters along the Cambodian border, COSVN in turn directed the activities of the People's Revolutionary party, the National Liberation Front, and the Liberation Army -- aka the Vietcong. COSVN's marching orders were sent to six regional committees in South Vietnam, plus one more for the Saigon capital zone. Province committees in turn directed district committees, which were formed by groupings of at least three village committees. Likewise, each village committee was composed of at least three hamlet-level chapters, which constituted the fundamental link to the rural population. Hamlet chapters had three to five members, who were organized into cells with elected leaders. The cell was the smallest VCI organizational unit but could not exist unless integrated into a chapter.

The National Liberation Front sought to mobilize the "people" through associations encompassing all sectors of society. The NLF coordinated the Communist party with other South Vietnamese political parties through its Central Committee, which floated along the Cambodian border in the area referred to as the Parrot's Beak. When operations were mounted against it, the Central Committee slipped into the Iron Triangle area north of Saigon, or into the famous tunnels of Cu Chi, or into Tay Ninh City. Regardless of where it was headquartered, the NLF was most viable at the grass-roots level.

There farmers' associations preached land reform; women's associations trained nurses; and liberation youth associations opposed the draft.

Liberation associations existed for all classes of society, including writers and Buddhists.

Initially, only Communist party members headed NLF associations, and all ambitious revolutionaries sought admission to the People's Revolutionary party, which by 1962 boasted half a million members. Entrance to the PRP required a sponsor, a background check, and a trial membership. As the insurgency's managers, party members were the primary target of Phoenix and its predecessor organizations.

Topping the hit list were party secretaries -- the people directing Vietcong operations at region, province, and district levels. Although usually known by name, they were nevertheless hard to find. VCI "duty expert" Robert Slater, a

Marine captain on contract to the CIA

from 1967 to 1969, writes: "In over three years in Vietnam, I knew of no Province Party Secretary ever being captured." Why so hard to kill? "Since he is the most important VC committee member in the province, access to him is limited to province and district committee members. This is to prevent any attempted assassination by Allied penetration agents or VC 'sell-outs.'" [11]

High on the list was the district party secretary, in Slater's words, "the indispensable link between COSVN, region, province and the villages." Armed and always on the move, the "DPS usually does not sleep in the same house or even hamlet where his family lives," Slater notes, "to preclude any injury to his family during assassination attempts or Allied raids." Such precautions did not always work. Writes Slater: "The Allies have frequently found out where District Party Secretaries live and raided their homes; in an ensuing fire fight the secretary's wife and children have been killed and injured." [12]

The village party secretary was another priority target. Traveling alone to hamlets to conduct person-to-person business in rice paddies, cafes, and barbershops, the village secretary was responsible for feeding, billeting, and guiding VC and NVA troops in the area. More visible than district or province cadre, village secretaries were considered easy pickings.

Managing revolutionary intelligence operations in South Vietnam was the Central Research Agency (Cuc Nghien Cuu) reporting to the National Defense Committee in Hanoi in conjunction with the Reunification Department of the Lao Dong Central Committee. The task of Cuc Nghien Cuu agents in South Vietnam, according to CIA officer Ralph Johnson, was the penetration of GVN offices, "to determine plans and capabilities, to recruit GVN military members, and to provide intelligence for paramilitary activities, espionage, subversion, and other political operations." [13] Agents of the Cuc Nghien Cuu reported through an intricate radio and courier network directly to Hanoi, where intelligence data were analyzed and collated with information from elsewhere in South Vietnam and abroad. The Cuc Nghien Cuu maintained secret bases and courier networks in the South as a means of supplying its agents with direction and equipment.

Introduced into South Vietnam in 1960 as the insurgency's security service was the An Ninh. Composed mainly of North Vietnamese agents who reported to Hanoi's Ministry of Public Security, the An Ninh investigated VCI members suspected of being double agents or potential defectors. From its headquarters in COSVN, the An Ninh ran intelligence nets, propaganda campaigns, and counterespionage operations at the village level, drawing up blacklists of double agents and manning armed reconnaissance teams that kidnapped and assassinated GVN officials.

More than any other branch of the Communist shadow government in South Vietnam, the An Ninh was responsible for destabilizing the GVN.

Ralph Johnson calls it "the glue that held the VCI together." [14]

The Cuc Nghien Cuu and the An Ninh were the CIA's archenemies and, ironically, the models for its Phoenix coordinators.

Indeed, as the CIA saw how the insurgency was organized, it structured its counterinsurgency accordingly.

Unable to admit that nationalism was the cause of the insurrection and that the United States was viewed as an intruder like the French, the CIA instead argued that Communist organizational techniques, especially its use of selective terror, compelled the Vietnamese people to support the insurgency.

As William Colby testified before Congress, "the implication or latent threat of force alone was sufficient to insure that the people would comply with Communist demands." [15]

In drumming up public support in America for military intervention, the CIA portrayed all armed anti-GVN sects as Communist puppets, and

because the agency asserted that the "people" were not behind the insurgency but were mindless peasants who had been coerced by a clever mix of propaganda and terror, the legitimate grievances of the people -- primarily their anger at Diem's dictatorship -- could be ignored.

This being the case, the GVN did not have to comply with the Geneva Accords, provide fair elections, or enact land reform. It did not have to end preferential treatment for Catholics, curb police corruption, or discipline ARVN soldiers. All grievances were dismissed as smoke and mirrors disguising the criminal ambitions of the Communists.

This revisionist view is what Stanley Karnow calls "the myth ... that the Vietcong was essentially an indigenous and autonomous insurgent movement." [16] The revisionists argued that the wily Communists had recognized the legitimate grievances of people, then adapted their organization to exploit local conditions. Having gained toeholds in the villages, they used selective terror to eliminate GVN authority and frighten the people into joining NLF associations and armed VC units.

Ipso facto the VCI and the "people" were in no real sense connected, and one had only to destroy the VCI -- the apparatus -- to stop the revolution.

Key to revisionist theory was the notion that selective terror was a more effective social control than the GVN's suppressive terror, which only fanned the revolutionary fires. As Jeffrey Race notes, "violence will work against the user, unless he has already preempted a large part of the population and then limits his acts of violence to a sharply defined minority." [17] Ironically, by using selective terror effectively, the VCI handed the CIA the rationale it needed to develop counterterror teams. And by announcing the formation of the NLF in a bid for political legitimacy -- just as this notion of killing off the enemy's civilian leadership was being advanced -- the VCI offered itself as a target.

Meanwhile, as the CIA became aware of what political warfare entailed, Diem and his brother Nhu began to be perceived as liabilities.

Convinced that William Colby had organized the November 1960 coup attempt, Nhu prohibited his Can Lao followers from consorting with the CIA.

This edict threw a wrench into CIA attempts to organize internal security in South Vietnam, and in May 1961 Ambassador Elbridge Durbow asked Diem to abolish the Can Lao, claiming it denied advancement to the majority of Vietnamese and nullified democratic reforms.

Unwilling to divest himself of his power base, Diem refused, and instead sought to appease the Americans by authorizing a statute legalizing the creation of the Central Intelligence Organization (CIO), a move Colby credits as the beginning of Phoenix. Station chief Colby then directed Raymond Babineau to provide the people and the equipment required to put the CIO in business. [18] Colonel Nguyen Van Y was named chief, a building in Saigon was selected as his headquarters, and he recruited his staff from a faction of the Can Lao that included General Tran Thien Khiem, the man who eventually managed Phoenix, and Nguyen Van Thieu, the army colonel who eventually became president of South Vietnam. Not limited to the coordination of police and military intelligence, the CIO also managed political and foreign intelligence operations. Smaller and more sophisticated than the Cong An, t

he CIO became the nerve center of the counterinsurgency.

Knowing that the single-minded Americans would carry the fight against the North, Diem, through his spymaster, Dr. Tuyen, and the Office of Political and Social Studies, redoubled his attack against his domestic opponents. However, Karnow writes, "Tuyen feared that Diem's failings would bring about a Communist takeover. Ironically, he filled his faction with dissenters he had blacklisted, and he also attracted disgruntled junior officers. He teamed up as well with Colonel Pham Ngoc Thao, unaware of Thao's clandestine Communist ties. Thao's followers included a young air force pilot, Nguyen Cao Ky." [19]

Believing Thao to be trustworthy, Nhu appointed him to manage the strategic hamlet program, which replaced the agroville program in 1962. Thus, by forcing Diem and Nhu into greater dependence on reactionary programs and a Communist double agent, the formation of the CIO in 1961 further hastened the demise of the Ngo regime.

Meanwhile, in order to stem the tide of cheap little wars of liberation that Nikita Khrushchev promised would "bury" the West, President John Kennedy formed the National Security Council Special Group to manage U.S. counterinsurgency efforts in Vietnam and elsewhere. A special assistant for covert and special activities (SACSA) was assigned to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, former Lansdale aide General William B. Rosson was made the special warfare assistant to the Army's chief of staff, and the CIA got a new headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

When, on September 18, 1961, an An Ninh terror squad decapitated the Catholic chief of Phuoc Long Province.

President Kennedy, ignoring troop limits set at the Geneva Accords, rushed legions of Special Forces advisers to the South Vietnamese.

The 704th Military Intelligence Group arrived and began advising the Military Security Service, and the Army sent its first province advisers to Vietnam, supplementing MAAG with the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV). CIA psywar and paramilitary officers, their brains bursting with big ideas and their Abercrombie and Fitch safari jacket pockets bulging with big bucks, converged on Vietnam from Cuba, Africa, Greece, Korea, the Philippines, Laos, and Indonesia.

By the end of 1962 nearly twelve thousand American soldiers were in South Vietnam, flying helicopters, dropping napalm on Communist villages, spraying Agent Orange, advising ARVN battalions, patrolling rivers and the coast, conducting "behind-the-lines" missions, and mounting anti-infrastructure operations that included attacks on Diem's political opposition. The counterinsurgency, too, had begun in earnest.

CHAPTER 3: Covert Action

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