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By Zalin Grant

(I wrote this story about the Phoenix Program in honor of the forthcoming publication of VIETNAM LABYRINTH by Tran Ngoc Chau. In the works for 20 years, and co-written with Ken Fermoyle, Chau's book, I believe, will stand as the most important work by a Vietnamese who participated in the Vietnam War. I encouraged Chau to write his history/memoirs, I'm pleased to say, when I interviewed him for my 1991 book FACING THE PHOENIX: The CIA and the Political Defeat of the United States in Vietnam, from which this piece is largely adapted.)

Tran Ngoc Chau invented the Phoenix Program, although the credit—or infamy—was usually assigned to William Colby of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

Chau was a Buddhist from Central Vietnam.  His family had served as functionaries in the royal government, and he joined the communist Viet Minh to fight against the French occupiers at the end of World War Two. After he became disillusioned with the communists, he switched sides and joined the French and was later trained by the Americans.

Chau was drawn to the political side of the war.  He believed the political organization of the communists was more important than the low-level guerrillas.  The American military didn't know what to make of Chau.  They were there simply to kill communists.  Chau said they were wrong, that Vietnam was a civil war, and the fight was about improving the lives of the country's poor and winning their allegiance—not about using guns and bombs, which did nothing but create more Viet Cong.

A few Americans thought Chau was on the right track and offered their support.  They included intelligence officers such as Edward G. Lansdale and Rufus Philips and Stuart Methven.  Also ex-army colonel John Paul Vann and a civilian named Daniel Ellsberg.  Vann, who was probably the war's most controversial American, got most of his ideas about pacification from Chau.

Chau himself lifted a number of his ideas from the communists.  He thought their organization techniques, which drew in all segments of society, were effective but not their ideology.  He changed the focus of his programs from totalitarian communism to establishing a voter democracy.  He was actually making progress until the Americans overthrew President Ngo Dinh Diem in November 1963, opening the door to political chaos for the next four years.  With the chaos came the collapse of Chau's programs.

Only one program was left standing.  And it was to serve as the dark seed of the Phoenix Program.

Not all communists, Chau knew, could be won over by his pacification program.  The hardcore in the VC political organization would never give up and would have to be eliminated.  So he established three-man counterterrorism teams which would identify the hardcore leaders and kill them if necessary.  This was intended, however, as a last-resort measure.

After Diem's murder the CIA took Chau's counterterrorism program and spread it throughout South Vietnam.  The teams were called Provincial Reconnaissance Units.  They became identified with assassinations and the shakedown and intimidation of innocent civilians.

When a semblance of political stability returned in 1967, Ambassador Robert Komer and his deputy William Colby expanded the pacification program, using a number of Chau's ideas which were filtered through John Paul Vann.  When Komer left, Colby took over as chief of pacification.  


Colby asked the CIA for the loan of a few officers.  He used them to establish intelligence centers at the district level countrywide.  The Phoenix Program, as Colby tried to explain without much success, was an intelligence collection service.  The Phoenix staff did not run operations to eliminate the Viet Cong.  Once the Phoenix staff identified a member of the Viet Cong political organization, they passed the information to another organization for action: The National Police, the Saigon army, the Provincial Reconnaissance Units (PRUs), or the American military.

What's more, if a Viet Cong political official was killed on the battlefield during a regular military operation and identified afterward, his name was reported to the intelligence center and listed in the statistics as a kill for Phoenix.

From the start Phoenix was a magnet for attracting antiwar protests in the United States.  Much of the controversy grew from Colby's and Komer's insistence on describing Phoenix in bureaucratic terms that were clear only to them.  As they described it, Phoenix was designed to "neutralize" the Viet Cong "infrastructure," in which an "agitprop cadre" was more important than a guerrilla soldier.

Was neutralize a euphemism for assassination?  Infrastructure, didn't that sound like roads and bridges?  And what in God's name was an agitprop cadre?

Their failure to explain themselves in simple English contributed to the widespread belief that they were out to assassinate the largely innocent opponents of the Saigon government and trying to cover up their immoral acts with bewildering obfuscations.


Robert G. Kaiser, Jr, a Washington Post reporter who was skeptical of the war, tried to strip away the confusion surrounding the program in a lengthy article published February 17, 1970, entitled "U.S. Aides in Vietnam Scorn the Phoenix Project."

"Some war critics in the United States have attacked Phoenix as an instrument of mass political murder," Kaiser wrote. "Such sinister descriptions are not heard in Vietnam, where Phoenix has the reputation of a poorly plotted farce, sometimes with tragic overtones."

Kaiser went on to report: "Many of the accusations against Phoenix cannot be verified here.  Some seem to be based on misunderstandings of Phoenix terminology and statistics."

The next day another well-regarded reporter, James Sterba of the New York Times, published a critical article on Phoenix that backed up Kaiser's analysis of the program.


William Colby agreed with the reporters, as did I based on my own field investigations for The New Republic in 1970.

"Phoenix wasn't all that effective," Colby told me during our six hours of tape-recorded interviews for my book FACING THE PHOENIX.  "It was like many programs in that it never worked the way it was supposed to.  But it did focus on a key element and a necessary one—i.e., the fight against the secret apparatus.  That made the communists feel under pressure.  As they lost their connections with the population and were driven out of areas, they attributed their problems to Phoenix, when they really should have attributed them to the growth of self-defense forces and that sort of thing.

"So when the communists now talk about Phoenix as the reason they had a hard time during that period, I believe that they make the same mistake as the Americans who heard so many horror stories about Phoenix that they think it was what pacification was all about."

Colby admitted that some of the horror stories were true.

"There were excesses in the program," he said. "I knew that things had gone on that shouldn't have happened.  I never denied it, and that's what got me in trouble, because I didn't deny it."

Colby was lambasted when he said that about 20,000 Viet Cong had been killed by Phoenix.  But he wasn't talking only about assassinations.  Most of that number had been killed on the battlefield in regular military operations and then identified later as members of the "infrastructure."

Frank Snepp, a CIA analyst in Saigon, went on a Phoenix operation, though that wasn't his job.

"The orders were that no Americans were to be on the hit or the snatch," Snepp said. "It was to be only members of the Provincial Reconnaissance Unit.  So we went out and stopped at the edge of the hamlet while the PRU people went in.  I'd helped make up the target list and I was so proud of having identified a Viet Cong suspect.  He was a hamlet-proselytizing cadre, an agitprop person.

"They brought this guy out and he must have been eighteen or nineteen.  It was such a letdown.  So this is our enemy, I thought.  He had nothing to offer."

Colby instituted controls that ended the more blatant abuses that had occurred in the early days with the killer PRUs.  But no one could figure out how to stop the other forms of intimidation and extortion that Phoenix opened to Saigon government officials.  By threatening to brand an innocent civilian as a Viet Cong unless he paid up, a corrupt official could turn Phoenix into a profitable shakedown.

Ultimately, of course, the problem with Phoenix was that it had been taken out of the context of Tran Ngoc Chau's original plans.  It simply wasn't enough to kill Viet Cong officials.  The Saigon government had to counter the communists' programs with something better.  To do that more dedicated and imaginative Vietnamese like Chau were needed. 

But there were too few of them.  Much too few.


Tran Ngoc Chau struggled during the Vietnam War to turn the American strategy toward a political goal.  He became the most controversial Vietnamese connected with the war.  He clashed with the U.S. Military, the CIA, and the South Vietnam Government.  With the acquiescence of the American ambassador in Saigon, he was thrown in jail by President Nguyen Van Thieu.

Chau was released from prison near the end of the war.  When the North Vietnamese were on the verge of overrunning Saigon in 1975, he sought the help of the CIA in escaping the country.  The CIA refused to help him, and he was arrested by the communists and sent to a re-education camp.

After he was released, he began plotting to escape with the boat people who were fleeing the country.  Secretly helped by fellow Buddhists, he and his family landed with other boat people on a small Indonesian island.  By bribing a visiting policeman with a Rolex to send a telegram to Bangkok, he was able to make contact with several Americans who had supported him during the war.  They helped him resettle in California, where he got a job as a mid-level manager in a computer business.  His children excelled in their schooling and went on to successful careers.  Chau cried the day they all became American citizens.


William Colby also had a controversial career after Vietnam.  He became director of the CIA at a time when Congress was attacking the Agency for plotting assassinations.  Colby, to everyone's surprise, offered his full cooperation to congressional investigators.  Too much so, thought President Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger.  Kissinger accused Colby, a Catholic, of going to confession. Ford fired him. Colby joined a law firm and worked quietly for the next few years. 

Colby died under highly suspicious circumstances in 1996. See:   

The legacy of Vietnam continued to haunt America as it as it fought two overcast wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The imprecise descriptions used in Vietnam were applied to the new wars.  Insurgency.  Counterinsurgency.  Nation Building.  Winning Hearts and Minds.

Although Colby and I disagreed on aspects of Vietnam, we both thought it imperative to speak the simple truth about what kind of war America had taken on.  The later talk about "insurgency" and "counterinsurgency" was Vietnam-generated nonsense.  These terms only existed to camouflage the fact that it was actually a Civil War—whether it was in Vietnam or Iraq (after Saddam was overthrown) or Afghanistan.

He and I agreed that a two-sided civil war was vastly different from a conventional war against a single enemy, whereby an army went in and attacked until the enemy gave up.  In a civil war, one needed to speak the language, to understand the culture, to make sure you didn't kill the wrong people.  This was something Americans did not—could not—rise up to in Vietnam—or in the wars that followed.

In fact, no civil wars had been won when led by outsiders who were foreign to the country.  Che Guevara was the world's most famous insurgent outsider—and an abysmal failure in Africa and Bolivia. The revolution within the revolution was a pipe dream.  When al-Qaeda outsiders tried to take over the Civil War in Iraq, the Iraqis rose up and killed them—or had Americans kill them.  

Nor did any outsider ever succeed in leading the counterinsurgency part of a civil war to victory.  It was said that the British put down the insurgency in Malaysia.  But that was a special case where the insurgents were an ethnic minority who were easy to identify and who didn't have the support of the general population.

So, the Question: Was America ever on track in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Colby, I believe, would have said no.


ZALIN GRANT served as an Army Intelligence Officer in Vietnam. A former journalist for Time and The New Republic, he is the author of six books, including FACING THE PHOENIX: The CIA and the Political Defeat of the United States in Vietnam, which was also translated and published without permission in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. For further bio, see:

(Photo by Claude Boutillon - August 9, 2010)



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