Phoenix Program
The Phoenix Program was a controversial counterinsurgency program designed, coordinated, and executed by the United States Central Intelligence Agency
Central Intelligence Agency
The Central Intelligence Agency is a civilian intelligence agency of the United States government. It is an executive agency and reports directly to the Director of National Intelligence, responsible for providing national security intelligence assessment to senior United States policymakers...

 (CIA), United States special operations forces
United States Special Operations Forces
United States Special Operations Forces under United States Special Operations Command are active and reserve component forces of U.S. Military...

, and the Republic of Vietnam's (South Vietnam) security apparatus during the Vietnam War
Vietnam War
The Vietnam War was a Cold War-era military conflict that occurred in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from 1 November 1955 to the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975. This war followed the First Indochina War and was fought between North Vietnam, supported by its communist allies, and the government of...

 that operated between 1967 and 1972.

The Program was designed to identify the Viet Cong Infrastructure (VCI) supporting the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (NLF), more commonly referred to as the Vietcong (VC) and neutralize it through capture, coercion or killing its members. Phoenix Program operations were carried out by the South Vietnam’s National Police, National Police Field Force, Special Police Branch, U.S. and Vietnamese conventional armed forces; and by what became known as the Provincial Reconnaissance Units, or PRU’s. In later years, US Army intelligence Phoenix advisors were trained at the Ft. Bragg Institute for Military Assistance and assigned throughout Vietnam. By 1972, Phoenix operatives had neutralized 81,740 suspected NLF supporters, of whom 26,369 were killed.

Results of the program’s effectiveness remain debated to this day however it is generally viewed by both US Military and former North Vietnamese officials as being the most productive counterinsurgency operation of the conflict and dealt a serious blow to the Viet Cong and the VCI. The Phoenix Program was widely criticized by opponents of the conflict who called it little more than an “assassination program” utilizing “indiscriminate brutality” and a violation of international law. Much of the critical characterization arose from the classified nature of the program coupled with anecdotal, unsubstantiated, or false information relayed to the media and critical scholars about Phoenix.


Shortly after the 1954 Geneva Conference
Geneva Conference (1954)
The Geneva Conference was a conference which took place in Geneva, Switzerland, whose purpose was to attempt to find a way to unify Korea and discuss the possibility of restoring peace in Indochina...

 and the adoption of the Geneva Accords, the government of North Vietnam
North Vietnam
The Democratic Republic of Vietnam , was a communist state that ruled the northern half of Vietnam from 1954 until 1976 following the Geneva Conference and laid claim to all of Vietnam from 1945 to 1954 during the First Indochina War, during which they controlled pockets of territory throughout...

 organized a force of several thousand to mobilize support for the communists in the upcoming elections. When it became clear that the elections would not take place, these forces became the seeds of what would eventually become the Viet Cong, a North Vietnamese insurgency whose goal was unification of Vietnam under the control of the North.

While counterinsurgency efforts had been ongoing since the first days of US military involvement in Vietnam, they had unsuccessfully dealt with either the armed component Vietcong or the Vietcong’s civilian infrastructure (VCI) which swelled to between 80,000 and 150,000 members by the mid 1960’s. The VCI, unlike the armed component of the Viet Cong, was tasked with support activities including recruiting, political indoctrination, psychological operations
Psychological warfare
Psychological warfare , or the basic aspects of modern psychological operations , have been known by many other names or terms, including Psy Ops, Political Warfare, “Hearts and Minds,” and Propaganda...

, intelligence collection, and logistical support. The VCI rapidly set up shadow governments
Shadow government
Shadow government may refer to:*An opposition government in a parliamentary system, see Shadow Cabinet*A term for plans for an emergency government that takes over in the event of a disaster, see continuity of government...

 in rural South Vietnam by replacing local leadership in small rural hamlets loyal to the Saigon government with communist cadres. The VCI chose small rural villages because they lacked close supervision of the Saigon government or the South Vietnamese Army

VCI tactics in establishing local communist control began by identifying towns and villages with strategic importance to either the Viet Cong or NVA and local populations with communist sympathies with the Hanoi government putting a great deal of emphasis on the activities and success of the VCI.. After a community was identified, the VCI would threaten local leadership with reprisals if they refused to cooperate or kidnap local leaders and send them to reeducation camps
Reeducation camp
Reeducation camp is the official title given to the prison camps operated by the government of Vietnam following the end of the Vietnam War. In such "reeducation camps", the government imprisoned several hundred thousand former military officers and government workers from the former regime of...

 in North Vietnam. Local leaders who continued to refuse to cooperate or threatened to contact the Saigon government were murdered along with their families. After VCI agents took control of an area it would be used to quarter and resupply Viet Cong guerrillas, supplying intelligence on US and South Vietnamese military movements, providing taxes to VCI cadres, and conscripting locals into the Viet Cong.


The Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) Directive 381-41 officially created the “Phoenix Program” on July 9 1967 calling it the Intelligence Coordination and Exploitation for Attack on VC Infrastructure or "ICEX". By the end of 1967 the name had been changed to Phoenix. The interrogation centres and PRUs were developed by the CIA's Saigon station chief Peer DeSilva. DeSilva was a proponent of a military strategy known as "counter terror" which held that terrorism was a legitimate tool to use in unconventional warfare, and that it should be applied strategically to "enemy civilians" in order to reduce civilian support for the Viet Cong. The PRUs were designed with this in mind, and began terrorizing suspected civilian sympathizers in 1964. Originally, the PRUs were known as "Counter Terror" teams, but they were renamed to "Provincial Reconnaissance Units" after CIA officials "became wary of the adverse publicity surrounding the use of the word 'terror'".

In 1967 all "pacification" efforts by the United States had come under the authority of the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support
Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support
CORDS was a pacification program of the United States military in the Vietnam War.- Development of the Program :...

, 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.

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 NLF. It was renamed Phoenix later in the same year. The South Vietnamese program was called Phụng Hoàng, after a mythical bird
Fenghuang are mythological birds of East Asia that reign over all other birds. The males are called Feng and the females Huang. In modern times, however, such a distinction of gender is often no longer made and the Feng and Huang are blurred into a single feminine entity so that the bird can be...

 that appeared as a sign of prosperity and luck. The 1968 Tet offensive showed the importance of the NLF infrastructure, and the military setback for the US made it politically more palatable for the new program to be implemented. By 1970 there were 704 U.S. Phoenix advisers throughout South Vietnam.

Officially, Phoenix operations continued until December 1972, although certain aspects continued until the fall of Saigon
Fall of Saigon
The Fall of Saigon was the capture of Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, by the People's Army of Vietnam and the National Liberation Front on April 30, 1975...

 in 1975.


According to MACV Directive 381-41, the intent of Phoenix was to attack the NLF with a "rifle shot rather than a shotgun approach to target key political leaders, command/control elements and activists in the VCI." To this end, the Phoenix Program had two primary elements: intelligence gathering and military/police forces who carried out operations based on that intelligence. Intelligence was gathered and disseminated through either Province Intelligence and Operations Coordination Centers (PIOCC’s) or their subordinate District Intelligence and Operations Coordination Centers (DIOCC’s)

The official story of the military was that neutralization was not arbitrary but took place under special laws that allowed the arrest and prosecution of suspected communists
Communism is a social, political and economic ideology that aims at the establishment of a classless, moneyless, revolutionary and stateless socialist society structured upon common ownership of the means of production...

, 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 NLF member was found guilty, he or she could be held in prison for two years, with renewable two-year sentences totaling up to six years.

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 NLF members was more important than killing them.


It has been alleged that civilians who were detained in interrogation centers were tortured in an attempt to gain intelligence on VC activities in the area. and that few of the prisoners survived their interrogation.

Military intelligence officer K. Milton Osborne states he witnessed the following use of torture:
"The use of the insertion of the 6-inch dowel into the canal of one of my detainee's ears, and the tapping through the brain until dead. The starvation to death (in a cage), of a Vietnamese woman who was suspected of being part of the local political education cadre in one of the local villages ... The use of electronic gear such as sealed telephones attached to ... both the women's vaginas and men's testicles [to] shock them into submission."

Extrajudicial killings

A lieutenant is a junior commissioned officer in many nations' armed forces. Typically, the rank of lieutenant in naval usage, while still a junior officer rank, is senior to the army rank...

 Vincent Okamoto
Vincent Okamoto
Vincent Okamoto is a former U.S. Army officer. He is the most highly decorated Japanese American to survive the Vietnam War.-Biography:...

, an intelligence-liaison officer for the Phoenix Program for two months in 1968 and a recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross
Distinguished Service Cross (United States)
The Distinguished Service Cross is the second highest military decoration that can be awarded to a member of the United States Army, for extreme gallantry and risk of life in actual combat with an armed enemy force. Actions that merit the Distinguished Service Cross must be of such a high degree...

 said the following:
Okamoto stated; "If Phoenix goes in and murders someone who was not Viet Cong, and they abuse the mother and the sister, well anybody in the family who survives is going to be a card-carrying Viet Cong by the next afternoon."

False reporting

Charges that rival Vietnamese would report their enemies as "VC" in order to get U.S. troops to kill them were also made as well as allegations that Phung Hoang chiefs were incompetent bureaucrats who used their positions to enrich themselves.

Strategic effect

Between 1968 and 1972, Phoenix "neutralized" 81,740 people suspected of NLF membership, of whom 26,369 were killed. Although some of these were incorrectly identified as NLF cadres a significant number of NLF were killed, and between 1969 and 1971 the program was quite successful in destroying NLF 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
Da Nang
Đà Nẵng , occasionally Danang, is a major port city in the South Central Coast of Vietnam, on the coast of the South China Sea at the mouth of the Han River. It is the commercial and educational center of Central Vietnam; its well-sheltered, easily accessible port and its location on the path of...

 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. According to William Colby
William Colby
William Egan Colby spent a career in intelligence for the United States, culminating in holding the post of Director of Central Intelligence from September 1973, to January 1976....

, "in the years since the 1975, I have heard several references to North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese communists who account, who state that in their mind the most, the toughest period that they faced in the whole period of the war from 1960 to 1975 was the period from 1968 to '72 when the Phoenix Program was at work."

Public response

"One of the first people to criticize Phoenix publicly was Ed Murphy
Ed Murphy (activist)
Ed Murphy is an American activist and the Executive Director of the Workforce Development Institute. He is a former military intelligence agent who exposed the CIA's Phoenix Program in April 1970.- Profile :...

, a native of Staten Island, New York" in 1970.

There was eventually a series of U.S. Congressional
United States Congress
The United States Congress is the bicameral legislature of the federal government of the United States, consisting of the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Congress meets in the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C....

 hearings. In 1971, in the final day of hearing on "U.S. Assistance Programs in Vietnam", a former serviceman named K. Barton Osborn, described the Phoenix Program as a "sterile depersonalized murder program." 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.

William Colby
William Colby
William Egan Colby spent a career in intelligence for the United States, culminating in holding the post of Director of Central Intelligence from September 1973, to January 1976....

, who had overall responsibility for the Phoenix Program, testified in his own confirmation hearing to become CIA director
Director of Central Intelligence
The Office of United States Director of Central Intelligence was the head of the United States Central Intelligence Agency, the principal intelligence advisor to the President and the National Security Council, and the coordinator of intelligence activities among and between the various United...

 that the Phoenix Program was part of the U.S. "pacification" program, and not an "assassination program". He also said that Phoenix had not used any euphemisms; they had said "killed", not "eliminated".

According to Noam Chomsky
Noam Chomsky
Avram Noam Chomsky is an American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, and activist. He is an Institute Professor and Professor in the Department of Linguistics & Philosophy at MIT, where he has worked for over 50 years. Chomsky has been described as the "father of modern linguistics" and...

 and Edward S. Herman
Edward S. Herman
Edward S. Herman is an American economist and media analyst with a specialty in corporate and regulatory issues as well as political economy and the media. He is Professor Emeritus of Finance at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He also teaches at Annenberg School for...

, after Phoenix Program abuses began receiving negative publicity, the program was officially shut down. However, another program of a similar nature, code-named "F-6", was initiated as Phoenix was phased out.

See also

  • Nguyen Hop Doan
    Nguyen Hop Doan
    Nguyễn Hợp Đòan was to be the last Mayor of Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam and Province Chief of Gia Dinh Province, before the fall of Saigon that led to the reunification of Vietnam under the Communist party in 1975...

  • Special Activities Division
    Special Activities Division
    The Special Activities Division is a division in the United States Central Intelligence Agency's National Clandestine Service responsible for covert operations known as "special activities"...

  • Counter-insurgency
    A counter-insurgency or counterinsurgency involves actions taken by the recognized government of a nation to contain or quell an insurgency taken up against it...

  • Vietnam War Crimes Working Group Files
    Vietnam War Crimes Working Group Files
    The Vietnam War Crimes Working Group Files is a collection of documents compiled by Pentagon in the early 1970s during Army investigations into atrocities by U.S. forces during the Vietnam War. They detail 320 alleged incidents that were substantiated by United States Army investigators — not...

  • Operation Speedy Express
    Operation Speedy Express
    Operation Speedy Express was a controversial United States military operation of the Vietnam War conducted in the Mekong Delta provinces Kien Hoa and Vinh Binh...

  • Awakening movements in Iraq
    Awakening movements in Iraq
    The National Council for the Awakening of Iraq , also known as the Sunni Awakening movement Anbar Awakening or the Sons of Iraq program, are coalitions between tribal Sheikhs in a particular province in Iraq that unite to maintain security in their communities.-About:The movement started among...

Further reading

External links

  • Documents from the Phoenix Program
  • Senate Review of Phoenix Program
  • "A Concept for Organization for Attack on VC Infrastructure". By Nelson H. Brickham and John Hansen. May 22, 1967. A founding document for the Phoenix Program. Explained by Douglas Valentine.
  • Interview with Carl F. Bernard, 1981 on the Vietnam War, including the effectiveness of the Phoenix Program. WGBH Open Vault. Served in World War II
    World War II
    World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

    , Korea
    Korea ) is an East Asian geographic region that is currently divided into two separate sovereign states — North Korea and South Korea. Located on the Korean Peninsula, Korea is bordered by the People's Republic of China to the northwest, Russia to the northeast, and is separated from Japan to the...

    , Laos
    Laos Lao: ສາທາລະນະລັດ ປະຊາທິປະໄຕ ປະຊາຊົນລາວ Sathalanalat Paxathipatai Paxaxon Lao, officially the Lao People's Democratic Republic, is a landlocked country in Southeast Asia, bordered by Burma and China to the northwest, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the south and Thailand to the west...

     and Vietnam
    Vietnam – sometimes spelled Viet Nam , officially the Socialist Republic of Vietnam – is the easternmost country on the Indochina Peninsula in Southeast Asia. It is bordered by China to the north, Laos to the northwest, Cambodia to the southwest, and the South China Sea –...

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