Thanks to the New York Times and 60 Minutes, most people are now aware that former Senator and Presidential candidate Bob Kerrey once led a raid on the peasant village of Thanh Phong during his service in Vietnam, and murdered nearly two dozen villagers in cold blood. His team disemboweled women, children and infants and shot dead whole families.
What most people don't know, is that Kerrey was operating on orders from a CIA program known as Operation Phoenix, the program that oversaw some of the most horrific war crimes ever unleashed on Planet Earth.1
It was in 1964, under CIA station chief Peer DeSilva, that the Phoenix Program was initiated. DeSilva was a proponent of the belief of 'counter-terrorism', CIA doublespeak for the idea that terror was a legitimate tactic in unconventional warfare.2
Historian Douglas Valentine summarizes the concept of Operation Phoenix as follows:
"Central to Phoenix is the fact that it targeted civilians, not soldiers... Under Phoenix, due process was totally non-existent. South Vietnamese civilians whose names appeared on blacklists could be kidnapped, tortured, detained for two years without trial, or even murdered simply on the word of an anonymous informer. At its height, Phoenix managers imposed a quota of eighteen hundred neutralizations per month on the people running the program in the field, opening up the program to abuses by corrupt security officers, policemen, politicians, and racketeers, all of whom extorted innocent civilians as well as VCI [Viet Cong Infrastructure]. Legendary CIA officer Lucien Conein described Phoenix as, "A very good blackmail scheme for the central government: 'If you don't do what I want, you're VC.'”
“Indeed, Phoenix was, among other things, an instrument of counter-terror - the psychological warfare tactic in which members of the VCI were brutally murdered along with their families or neighbors as a means of terrorizing the entire population into a state of submission. Such horrendous acts were, for propaganda purposes, often made to look as if they had been committed by the enemy.”3
This is the intellectual context under which Bob Kerrey massacred the hamlet of civilians, for which he was subsequently awarded the Bronze Star.
Peer DeSilva quickly expanded Phoenix to cover all 40 provinces in South Vietnam, each equipped with an Intelligence Coordinating Committee and its own prison. Torture techniques such as electric shock, beatings and rape were commonplace.4
The Central Intelligence Agency originally had trouble finding Americans who were willing to murder and mutilate, so the 'counter-terror' squads were composed of ex-convicts, VietCong defectors, and mercenaries.5 They then employed Special Forces, Navy SEALS and other highly trained Americans such as Bob Kerrey, who had essentially been indoctrinated by the military into killing machines, to oversee the program.
Former Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Herbert, who was involved in Operation Phoenix, described his experience in his autobiography Soldier: “They wanted me to take charge of execution teams that wiped out entire families and tried to make it look as though the VC themselves had done the killing.”6
Former CIA agent Ralph McGee, speaking to PBS's Bill Moyers for the fantastic documentary 'The Secret Government', stated that:
"We were murdering these people, incinerating them... My efforts had resulted in the deaths of many people, and I just – for me it was a period when I guess I was – I considered myself nearly insane – I just couldn't reconcile what I had been and what I was at the time becoming."7
McGee was operating under Phoenix helping to set up the South Vietnam secret police, and has since become one of the most outspoken critics on the CIA. He recalls that the program cost billions of dollars, and CIA Director William Colby refused an investigative audit before a Congressional Committee.8
The Agency's website describes how the entire South Vietnamese population was mapped out with Census Grievance teams in conjunction with national data.9 They determined which villages were more likely to be friendly to the VietCong through interviews, and color coded maps based on that information, specifically noting that "These maps would often contain the names of family members who were VCI members or sympathetic to the communists."
“I think it’s common knowledge what goes on at the interrogation center... It was common knowledge that when someone was picked up their lives were about at an end because the Americans most likely felt that, if they were to turn someone like that back into the countryside it would just be like multiplying NLF followers.” -Jeff Stein, Author and Former Military Intelligence, Vietnam Veteran10
The 1971 Congressional Inquiry revealed that the blacklists created by these maps and census data was not thoroughly vetted, as opposed to claims by Agency officials. One member of the Phoenix Program described to Congress that:
"It was my experience that the majority of people classified as VC were “captured” as a result of sweeping tactical operations. In effect, a huge dragnet was cast out in our area of operation (AR) and whatever looked good in the catch, regardless of evidence, was classified as VCI."11
Lieutenant Vincent Okamoto, Army Combat Officer and recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross, testified on his experiences with using blacklists as a means of 'neutralizing' Viet Cong:
"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."
Psychological warfare against civilians was an integral part of Phoenix. Soldiers would leave pamphlets on dead bodies, or on doors indicating that recipients were marked for death.
“Attention Villagers: 1.Your village was bombed because you harbored Vietcong in your village. 2. Your village was bombed because you gave help to the Vietcong in your area. 3. Your village was bombed because you gave food to the Vietcong.” -USMC Leaflet12
Phoenix officer Bart Osbourne testified before Congress in 1971:
"I never knew in the course of all those operations any detainee to live through his interrogation. They all died. There was never any reasonable establishment of the fact that any one of those individuals was, in fact, cooperating with the VC, but they all died and the majority were either tortured to death or things like thrown out of helicopters. It became a sterile depersonalized murder program."13
Throwing victims out of a helicopter, for example, served a psychological warfare purpose as well, terrorizing those on the ground.
The intelligence that the CIA received was often flawed. Anyone in the South Vietnam infrastructure could report intelligence, and it was often not verified, which led to abuses such as South Vietnam politicians feeding intelligence to kill their political rivals.14
"We had no way of determining the background of these sources, nor their motivation for providing American units with information.
No American in the team spoke or understood Vietnamese well enough to independently debrief any “contact.” None of us were sufficiently sensitive to nor knowledgeable of the law, the culture, the customs, the history, etc.
Our paid sources could easily have been either provocateurs or opportunists with a score to settle. Every information report (IR) we wrote based on our sources’ information was classified as (1) unverifiable and (2) usually reliable source. As to the first, it speaks for itself; the second, in most cases was pure rationale for the existence of the program." - Michael J Uhr, First Lieutenant involved with Phoenix.15
Historian Marvin Gettleman described in his book Vietnam and America: A Documented History, how "Intelligence gathered during interrogation was often used to direct 'search and destroy' missions aimed at wiping out whole villages or groups of villages."16
All told, documents show that Phoenix led to the 'neutralizing' of over 80,000 people, about a third of them killed, between the years of 1968 and 1972.17
One Pentagon contract-study of Phoenix's operations found that only 3% of those 'neutralized' were full party members above the district level between 1970 and 1971, and that over half "...were not even party members."18
A Saigon government document lists the number of assassinated at over 40,000, nearly double that of other documents, highlighting potential disparity between record keeping and reality.19 The program supposedly ended in 1972, though it has been revealed that at least certain aspects continued until the fall of Saigon in 1975. Understanding that official documents don't cover the full scope of Phoenix, and the history of records destruction by the Agency, it is unlikely that the full extent of Phoenix will ever be known.
So what about the infamous My Lai massacre that resulted in the rape and mutilation of around 400 civilians? Historian Daniel Valentine argues it was most certainly a Phoenix operation. He cites a known 'blacklist' of names to be 'neutralized' in My Lai, multiple accounts of military personnel referring to the entire village as Viet Cong sympathizers, using the logic that only sympathizers could survive in the area, and a Vietnamese Colonel who said himself that My Lai was a Phoenix operation, among other evidence.20
Marvin Gettleman concurrs:
"By late 1967, before the Tet offensive, 70% of the villages in Quang Ngai province had already been destroyed.
In response to Tet, this slaughter was intensified literally with a vengeance. In mid-March on 1968, Quang Ngai province was the scene of what was to become the most notorious example: the massacre of villagers in My Lai 4. There the killing of hundreds of villagers, almost all unarmed women and children, and old men, so successfully swelled the body count that General Westmoreland sent a personal message of 'Congratulations to officers and men of Charlie Company for outstanding action' that 'dealt the enemy a heavy blow'.
When the carnage finally came to light, evidence poured in showing that this massacre was not an aberration but just an especially appalling instance of a systematic strategy." -Gettleman, page 41121
Project Phoenix would first come to the public in 1971 with a congressional inquiry. William Colby, CIA chief and director of the Phoenix program, testified that the agency didn't distinguish between VietCong members and civilians.22 Colby would later defend the program, citing it as 'the toughest opposition the Viet Cong faced'.23
Food for Thought:
- In what other wars has terrorism been used as a tactic?
- Is it possible that the multitude of abuses in Latin America in the decades that proceeded the Vietnam War were 'Phoenix' offshoots?
- Why has there been such little discussion about the 'Phoenix Program' both in the mainstream media and in academia after its revelations came to light?
1Counterpunch, “Fragging Bob,” May 17, 2001, written by Historian Douglas Valentine
2Michael Otterman, “American Torture,” excerpt available here.
3From Douglas Valentine's Website.
4Alfred McCoy, “A Question of Torture,” excerpt available here.
6Quoted in the book “Hero´s,” excerpt available here.
7Documentary available here.
8Ralph McGee, “CIA and Operation Phoenix in Vietnam,” February 19, 1996
10Douglas Valentine, “The Phoenix Program,” excerpt available here.
11Testimony to Congress by Michael J. Uhl, available here.
12Leaflet excerpt available here.
13Doug Valentine, “The Phoenix Program,” excerpt available here.
15Testimony to Congress by Michael J. Uhl, available here.
16Marvin Gettleman, “Vietnam and America,” excerpt available here.
17Wikipedia Article on the Phoenix Program
18Alfred McCoy, “A Question of Torture,” excerpt available here.
19“Fiscal Year 1975 Foreign Assistance Request,” excerpt available here.
20Doug Valentine, “The Phoenix Program,” excerpt available here.
21Gettleman, excerpt here.
22Congressional Testimony, “U.S: Assistance Programs in Vietnam,” excerpt available here.
23Interview with William Colby, 1981, available here.