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Phoenix: Moral & Effective Counterinsugency

Comrades—Phoenix: An Untold USA Success is Hanoi’s Propaganda Victory

In the end, Mark Moyar, author of the definitive work on the Phoenix pacification program,
writes, “The Government of Vietnam had won the struggle for control over rural
South Vietnam and the allegiance of its inhabitants, but it lost the war.”[1]

Conventional histories tell another story of a program of great moral depravity and militarily ineffective.

Among the little told successes of the Diem
regime was pacification of hamlets beginning with providing safe havens,
fortifications, outside of Viet Cong territory. Hanoi promptly described Diem’s
strategic hamlets as “concentration camps,” a characterization more accurate
for Hanoi practice than Saigon policy.

Strategic Hamlets: Unpopular but Effective

Meanwhile, fortifying hamlets and relocating remote hamlets had improved security for
elections.[2] Involuntary moves to Strategic Hamlets away from VC controlled home hamlets was
not popular, perhaps intentionally over extended,[3]
mismanaged and sabotaged by communist spy Pham Ngoc Thao,[4]
but still “abandonment of the hamlets hindered [the VC making)]. . . the
villagers both less accessible and less cooperative” to the VC. A former village cadre said,

“The more that people migrated to the Government areas, the less production workers, corve laborers, and informers the Front had.

“The Front would no longer have the people to support them and with whom they could mingle to hide.

“Many young men from the village went to the Nationalist areas, enlisted in the Nationalist army and returned to
the village to fight against the Front.

“This fact demoralized and confused the Front cadres the most.”[5]

Col. Pham Ngoc Thao was a serial coup plotter and Hanoi spy that the
CIA and Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge nearly put into office after the Lodge
facilitated coup (and assassination) of South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem.

Viet Cong expert and scholar Douglas Pike said of Pham Ngoc Thao that, “Although he was never uncovered as a Viet Cong spy, postwar reports from Hanoi indicated that he had been promoted posthumously to the rank of Colonel in People’s Army of Viet Nam and was buried in the Go Vap Hero Cemetery outside of Saigon.”[6]

…The Party Line: Pacification—Brutal and …Ineffective.

Hanoi’s super spy among the Saigon media, Pham Xuan An also was anxious to have Americans understand the failures of
pacification programs—Hop Tac, Phoenix-CORD—and to interpret them as
ineffective and brutal. It was one of An’s long term projects. Pham Xuan An
kept the North Vietnamese informed on all pacification efforts.

In one instance, Pham Xuan An drove Rufus Phillips, American pacification specialist, in his battered green Renault to
Cho Lon, site of a 100-man Viet Cong ambush of South Vietnamese village
self-defense forces at An Phu. According to Phillip’s account, Pham, a
Vietnamese friend, told him about “An incident occurred yesterday, right
outside of Saigon. The area is insecure as hell.”

Pham Xuan An says, “There were many places I could have taken Rufus, but this one [had] innocent
people…killed …and there was no such thing as security in these programs.”

The Viet Cong attack had passed through General Westmoreland’s vaunted “Rings
of Steel.” Decentralized South Vietnamese units did not communicate and had
taken six hours to respond to calls for assistance. Phillips passed the word to
Edward Lansdale and Brig. Gen. Fritz Fine who wrote reports, but “not a
goddamned thing happened.”[7]

Though Rufus Phillips believed An’s motivation was concern for the human tragedy at An Phu,[8] spy An had also achieved the objective of
disinformation, showing that pacification was not working to Phillips a  man deeply dedicated to helping the Vietnamese pacification and nation building.

Spy An’s northern commander, Mai Chi Tho, thought
that impugning the effectiveness of pacification was one of An’s greatest
achievements,[9] but Mai Chi Tho did not explain to Larry Berman,
An’s biographer, why An’s reports on pacification had high value added.

After all, the North Vietnamese already had reports from thousands of their other
cadre in the hamlets of South Vietnam who saw pacification up close and
personal every day in thousands of hamlets. An’s contribution was surely different.

The value of An’s work was likely sowing disinformation among the allies, saying the effective was ineffective and the humane was inhumane.

Moyar: Pacification Effective

Mark Moyar has documented that pacification programs had considerable successes in his Phoenix and The Birds of Prey[10], a book that was checked out only twice in a
decade from the shelves of professor Larry Berman’s university, UC-Davis, where he and others gave courses on the Vietnam War to a student body of 20,000.

A massive propaganda campaign was necessary to
defame pacification, the war in the shadows the communists finally lost. To
this day history falsely records pacification, particularly Phoenix, as brutal
and ineffective.  Later, the North Vietnamese admitted that Phoenix was effective[11] and that they had nonetheless successfully
undermined its legitimacy. “History,” Napoleon said, “is a fraud agreed upon.”

Phoenix—Moral and Effective Work to Pacify Villages

Pacification, especially the Phoenix program, has been falsely portrayed as an ineffective
program of indiscriminate assassination of thousands of innocent civilians and
political opponents. Both immoral and ineffective.

Its object was to neutralize the Viet Cong’s apparatus, its organized cadre, its secret shadow
government, propaganda shows and structure of terror. Neutralization could
consist of defection, capture, imprisonment, and yes, death. The Phoenix
program was the successor to a wide range of programs beginning with Diem,
Lansdale and Rufus Phillips such as the Intelligence Coordination and Exploitation, ICEX, Civil Action
Program, CAP, and in South Vietnamese it was known as Phung Hoang.

War Against A Shadow Government

This “war against the shadow government” was vast, complex and diverse and continued for many
years across many provinces and through many fits and starts and name changes.

Mark Moyar in Phoenix and the Birds of Prey presents the most thorough and honest treatment.[12] Moyar argues that Phoenix was neither
entirely black nor entirely white. It was shades of gray. It is true that the
South Vietnamese “arrested, tortured and killed (some) civilians who were not
Viet Cong…[On the other hand, it is clear] The allies went out of their way to
keep such abuses from occurring…The gray of the allies tended to be lighter
rather than darker…[Certainly] Ideals ran into reality”[13] in the villages and on the battlefields.

From 1960-1967 South Vietnamese pacification had included capturing, torturing, blackmailing and killing VC.

After 1967, the Phoenix era beginning in July 1968, American CIA advisors generally prevented
South Vietnamese torture and killing and insisted upon evidence to imprison.
Thereafter most of the falsely accused were promptly released and others served
short terms. In the end, as to who ultimately killed the Cong, Mark Moyar
credits the South Vietnamese: Provincial Reconnaissance Units, PRUs, and local
militias, which “devastated the Viet Cong shadow government, as well as the Viet Cong guerrilla forces.”[14]
Bruce Lawlor, former CIA officer and attorney remembers,

“A female lawyer…asked me…whether I had killed any babies…

“How do you answer an idiot like that…

“The PRU wasn’t a conspiracy. It was never an assassination program.

“Sometimes we made mistakes…but there was no evil intent. There were a lot of very honorable people.”[15]
The communists understood Phoenix better than our own CIA officers and morally pretentious attorneys,
not to be an assassination program, but a combination of allied Special Forces
targeting the shadow government, the Viet Cong terror network. These forces
included the PRU, Special Police, unconventional ARVN and U.S. specialty units,
e.g. Kit Carson Scouts, national police forces and small paramilitary units.

Indeed, Viet Cong cadre, traveling with armed escorts, resisting arrest, were shot rather more
often than they were peacefully arrested. Another explanation for high kill
rates was the bookkeeping—who got the credit. Phoenix
intelligence units provided the names of VC members to U.S. and ARVN military
units. Yet if ordinary military actions killed someone on the list, Phoenix
units were credited with the kill[16] instead of ARVN military units.

Hence, dead VC killed in armed combat and carried
on the Phoenix lists, easily were misinterpreted or intentionally characterized
as Phoenix assassinations.  It was this faulty method of accounting, so endemic to McNamara’s obsession with counting
things, resulting in Phoenix intelligence operations wrongfully being morphed
into an assassination program directed at civilians.

Covert cadre pretending to be civilians did not make them so.

It was this failure to make distinctions absolutely necessary in a covert war such as that fought in Vietnam and now in
Iraq and Afghanistan that led to charges of brutality and wanton civilian killing.

But killing armed Viet Cong cadre, dressed as civilians, was the same as killing armed soldiers, spies and terrorists. Viet
Cong cadres, whatever their disguises, were combatants, not civilians.[17]

But the Americong was highly proficient at disseminating this myth of wanton indiscriminate
killing of civilians.  For example, Elton
Manzione, a VVAW member is often cited as someone who claimed he had murdered
many civilians. Yet Navy Seals who served in Vietnam did not know this
self-proclaimed Seal because Manzione had never been to Vietnam.[18] Likewise, Mark Moyar discredits two other
witnesses, Mike Beamon and Kenneth Barton Osborne as an imposter and as a liar respectively.[19]
Journalists, Neil Sheehan and Frances Fitzgerald, widely promulgated the ruling myths of Phoenix assassinations.

Attempts were made to debunk the myth.  For example, in
answering the charge by columnist Walter Scott that Phoenix “established a new
high for U.S. political assassinations in Vietnam,” Phoenix Director, William
Colby, in a letter to editor Lloyd Shearer of Parade magazine on January 11, 1972 wrote:

“‘…Operation Phoenix is not and was not a program of assassination.

“It countered the Viet Cong apparatus attempting to overthrow the Government of [South] Vietnam by targeting its leaders.

“Wherever possible, [members of the Viet Cong apparatus] …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 degree, between these combat casualties (even including the few
abuses which occurred) and the victims of the Viet Cong’s systematic campaign of terrorism…”[20]

Of the 15,000 neutralized in 1968 some 72% were captured, 13 rallied to the government, and
only 15% were killed.[21] The South Vietnamese embraced pacification after Tet 1968. In 1969 the number of killed doubled. Through July 1972 26,000 killed, 32% were killed.[22]

It was hardly successful as an assassination program when those in custody stayed alive.

Hanoi Found Phoenix Effective

Besides accusations of the immorality of Phoenix, another contradictory false claim was
simultaneously disseminated, namely that Phoenix was not effective. Nguyen Co
Thach, a senior North Vietnamese diplomat, said that Phoenix, “had slaughtered
far more than the 21,000 officially listed… We had many weaknesses in the south because of Phoenix.”[23]

For the sake of argument, as an assassination programs Phoenix was very ineffective 73% of the 67,006
“neutralized” Viet Cong defected or were captured, only 27% were killed.[24]
The Communists knew pacification programs were always a threat to the Viet Cong
and could sometimes be very effective. Hanoi assessed Phoenix as a combination
of “political, economic, and cultural schemes with espionage warfare in order
to eliminate the infrastructure of the revolution and build the infrastructure of neo-colonialism.”[25]

After the war the communists told Stanley Karnow, that Phoenix was “the single most effective
program you used …in the entire war.”[26]
That was why Hanoi made pacification programs prime targets of propaganda blasts on the Second
Front, where their reliable agents could be expected to dutifully parrot the North Vietnamese party line.

In the end, Mark Moyar, author of the definitive work on
the Phoenix pacification program, writes, “The Government of Vietnam had won
the struggle for control over rural South Vietnam and the allegiance of its inhabitants, but it lost the war.”[27][1]


[1] Mark Moyar, “VILLAGER ATTITUDES DURING THE FINAL DECADE OF THE VIETNAM WAR, 1996
Vietnam Symposium, “After the Cold War: Reassessing Vietnam,” 18-20
April 1996, http://www.vietnam.ttu.edu/vietnamcenter/events/1996_Symposium/96papers/moyar.htm

[2] Cutting vegetation, erecting fences, moats, towers, guard posts and government forces manning the hamlet 24
hours a day. See: Moyar, Phoenix, 126.

[3] Marguerite Higgins, Our Vietnam Nightmare, New York: Harper & Row, 1965, 116-7.

[4] Karnow, 257.

[5] Rand Vietnam Interviews, Series AG, No. 545, 30 cited in Mark Moyar, “VILLAGER ATTITUDES DURING THE FINAL DECADE OF THE
VIETNAM WAR, 1996 Vietnam Symposium, “After the Cold War: Reassessing
Vietnam,”18-20 April 1996, http://www.vietnam.ttu.edu/vietnamcenter/events/1996_Symposium/96papers/moyar.htm

[6] Pike, Chapter 1, War in Shadows, Boston: Boston Publishing Co., 1988, 6.

[7] Rufus Phillips, “Rings of Steel,” Al Santoli, To Bear Any Burden, 167-8.

[8] Rufus Phillips, Why Vietnam Matters: An eyewitness account of lessons not
learned,
Naval Institute Press, 2008, 270-272.

[9] Larry Berman, The Perfect Spy: The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An, Time Magazine Reporter
& Vietnamese Communist Agent,
New York: Harper Collins, 2007, 178-9.

[10] Mark Moyar, Phoenix and the Birds of Prey; The CIA’s Secret Campaign to Destroy the Viet Cong, Annapolis:
Naval Institute Press, 1997; See also Lewis B. Sorley, A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Final Years in Vietnam,
New York: Harcourt, Brace 1999.

[11] Stanley Karnow, 601-2.

[12] Mark Moyar, Phoenix…

[13] Mark Moyar, Phoenix…, xvi.

[14] Mark Moyar, Phoenix , xi.

[15] Mark Moyar, Phoenix 365n45 cites his interview of Bruce Lawlor.

[16] D.E, Bordenkircher, S.A. Bordenkircher, Tiger Cage: Untold Story, Abby Publishing, 1998, 31.

[17] Mark Moyar, Phoenix, 226n9 cites Stuart A. Herrington, 13.

[18] Mark Moyar, Phoenix, 225n6 cites Douglas Valentine, The Phoenix Program, NY: Pocket Books, 1994, 340.

[19]Mark Moyar, Phoenix [Also University of Nebraska, 2007.93-96, 117, 213, 216, 380 n26.

[20] CIA, FOIA, W.E. Colby to Lloyd Shearer, January 11, 1972, at 668 of Family Jewels.

[21] Lewis Sorley, A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of
America’s Last Years in Vietnam
, New York: Harcourt, 1999, 145.

[22] Moyar Phoenix and the Birds of Prey, 236.

[23] Mark Moyar, Phoenix, 246n9 cites Seymour Hersh, Price of
Power
: Kissinger in the Nixon White House, NY: Summit Books, 1983, 280-81.

[24] Bill Laurie, Godzilla at Khe Sanh: Viet Nam’s Enduring Hallucinatory
Illusions
, unpublished manuscript to author August 26, 2009.

[25] War Experiences Recapitulation Committee of the High-Level Military Institute, Vietnam:
The Anti-U.S. Resistance War for National Salvation,
1954-1975, English 122
cited in Lewis Sorley, A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final
Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam
, New York: Harcourt, 1999, 147.

[26] Karnow Vietnam, 602.

[27] Rufus Phillips, “Rings of Steel,” Al Santoli, To Bear Any Burden, 167-8.

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