Behind the Phoenix Program
By Edward Miller
Dec. 29, 2017
In late December 1967, the government of South Vietnam announced a reorganization of its war effort against the country’s Communist insurgency. Effective immediately, all South Vietnamese counterinsurgency activities became part of a new program known as Phuong Hoang, a reference to a magical bird associated with royalty and power in Vietnamese and Chinese cultural traditions. In response to the South Vietnamese move, American officials in Vietnam began referring to their own counterinsurgency coordination efforts by the name that they deemed the closest Western analogue to the mythical creature: Phoenix.
The Phoenix program would become one of the most controversial aspects of America’s war in Vietnam. Sponsored by the C.I.A., Phoenix used paramilitary teams to target undercover Communist operatives in villages throughout South Vietnam. Witnesses claimed that members of the program’s teams and their American advisers routinely carried out torture, murders and assassinations, accusations that American officials denied.
To date, the debate over Phoenix has focused mainly on the roles played by the C.I.A. and individual Americans in the program. But a vast majority of Phoenix personnel — soldiers, interrogators and analysts — were Vietnamese. Exploring the South Vietnamese role in Phoenix offers alternative perspectives on its origins and significance.
Of all the Vietnamese who contributed to Phoenix, perhaps the most influential was a South Vietnamese Army officer named Tran Ngoc Chau. As a young man, Mr. Chau had embraced the Viet Minh independence movement and its charismatic founder, Ho Chi Minh. But he refused to join Ho’s Communist Party, and he became uncomfortable with the Viet Minh’s growing emphasis on class struggle. In 1950, he defected to the French-backed anti-Communist government.
Mr. Chau eventually attracted the attention of President Ngo Dinh Diem, who assigned him to work on counterinsurgency strategy and tactics. In 1962, Diem appointed Mr. Chau as chief of Kien Hoa, a large province in the Mekong Delta. Mr. Chau spent much of the next three years in Kien Hoa, experimenting with alternative counterinsurgency methods.
Mr. Chau quickly saw that the government faced several overlapping problems in Kien Hoa. The province was known as the “cradle of revolution” because Communist cadres had organized one of the first local uprisings against Diem in one of its districts in 1960. Moreover, Mr. Chau later recalled, the government’s intelligence system was “almost a joke” because it depended on informants who had served the state for years and who were often fed disinformation by the enemy. As a result, government forces in Kien Hoa often did not know who the insurgents were or where they were operating. In lieu of targeted strikes based on accurate intelligence, commanders resorted to firepower-intensive operations that killed or wounded local residents. Villagers’ anger was further stoked by local officials and police officers, many of whom were incompetent, corrupt or both.
To remedy these problems, Mr. Chau devised the Census-Grievance program. This initiative dispatched teams of cadres to villages and hamlets under government control. After taking a census of the population, team members began conducting daily, compulsory one-on-one interviews with every adult resident. The questions were seemingly innocuous: Have you noticed anything unusual lately? What can the government do to help you and your family? In part, these queries aimed to elicit complaints about abusive local officials, whom Mr. Chau could then discipline or remove. But the ultimate goal was to collect more and better information about the enemy.
Mr. Chau’s second innovation was the creation of what he called Counter-Terror teams, a precursor to Phuong Hoang. Created with support from the C.I.A., these teams consisted of small numbers of men trained to conduct clandestine missions in enemy-controlled territory. When Mr. Chau received intelligence on the identities and whereabouts of enemy operatives, he dispatched a Counter-Terror team to kill or capture them. In this way, Mr. Chau and his C.I.A. collaborators hoped to wear down and destroy what they would later call the Vietcong infrastructure — the network of Communist cadres and agents who lived undercover among the rural population.
Mr. Chau was well aware that his methods were susceptible to abuse. An unscrupulous village business owner might manipulate the Census-Grievance program to persuade the government that his local rival was a Communist. And the members of the Counter-Terror teams, if not properly trained and supervised, might feel and act as if they had a license to commit murder. To guard against such problems, Mr. Chau appointed inspectors to investigate reports of official wrongdoing. He also declared that the use of deadly force would remain a last resort, taken only after efforts to persuade enemy operatives to defect to the government had failed.
Although Mr. Chau spoke English with a heavy accent, he could present his ideas about counterinsurgency in a plain and common-sensical manner, which made him popular with American advisers. Daniel Ellsberg, the RAND Corporation analyst who later became an antiwar activist, met Mr. Chau in the mid-1960s and considered him “the leading Vietnamese expert on the pacification process.” Mr. Chau also interacted and worked with John Paul Vann, William Colby, Edward Lansdale and other prominent figures in American counterinsurgency circles. These Americans particularly liked Mr. Chau’s insistence that it was possible to conduct counterinsurgency in a humane and ethical way, and to minimize collateral damage to civilian lives and property.
Thanks partly to the support of his American friends, Mr. Chau was assigned in late 1965 to lead a new counterinsurgency training program for South Vietnamese cadres. His promotion was part of a C.I.A. push to devise a nationwide counterinsurgency strategy for South Vietnam — efforts that would eventually produce the Phoenix program. In designing Phoenix, C.I.A. officials incorporated Mr. Chau’s Census-Grievance concept to collect intelligence from villagers. Mr. Chau’s influence was also evident in what became the most controversial component of Phoenix: the elite counterterrorism teams known as Provincial Reconnaissance Units. Recruited and trained by the C.I.A., these units carried out tens of thousands of “capture or kill” missions against enemy operatives from 1968 to 1972.
Somewhat unexpectedly, however, Mr. Chau did not participate in the actual design or fulfillment of Phoenix. As head of the South Vietnamese national cadre training program, he soon became frustrated with the endless political infighting among senior South Vietnamese leaders. In 1967, Mr. Chau left his official position and successfully ran for a seat in the South Vietnamese National Assembly.
In the wake of the 1968 Tet offensive, Mr. Chau began to call for a negotiated settlement of the war. This earned him the enmity of the South Vietnamese president, Nguyen Van Thieu, who had Mr. Chau arrested, tried and jailed on charges of treason. He spent the rest of the war in prison or under house arrest. After the North Vietnamese victory over South Vietnam in 1975, he was imprisoned again, this time in a Communist re-education camp. He was released in 1978 and emigrated to the United States with his family.
In the decades since the end of the Vietnam War, Mr. Chau and his American supporters have lamented his downfall as both a betrayal and a missed opportunity. In their view, Mr. Chau devised a counterinsurgency formula that worked: By engaging the local population in Kien Hoa via the Census-Grievance program, he won their hearts and minds while also collecting the intelligence that his Counter-Terror teams used to target the enemy’s clandestine networks. Yet Mr. Chau also believed that the senior leadership of the C.I.A. had failed to grasp the core elements of his approach.
Although the Phoenix program borrowed some aspects of the Kien Hoa model, he concluded that it placed too much emphasis on the use of force and not enough on the mobilization of the population. As a result, Mr. Chau and his American friends came to see Phoenix as a “perversion” of his original ideas. Mr. Chau has presented this interpretation in interviews, in his 2012 English-language memoir, and in the recent documentary film “The Vietnam War” by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.
But what did Mr. Chau actually accomplish in Kien Hoa? His American supporters often cited official statistics to demonstrate his success: During his first year as province chief, the estimates of the number of civilians living in government-controlled areas of the province rose from 80,000 to 220,000 (out of a total population of more than half a million). Yet Mr. Chau himself often noted that such gains counted for very little if local residents could not be persuaded to identify with the government and its claims to national sovereignty — a goal that proved exceedingly difficult in South Vietnam during the mid-1960s. The fleeting quality of Mr. Chau’s achievements was revealed after his departure from Kien Hoa, when Communist forces quickly recovered most of the territory and population they had lost.
Mr. Chau’s most tangible achievement in Kien Hoa was the Census-Grievance program. As a C.I.A. historian later noted, the program proved an effective means of generating actionable intelligence on enemy operatives and forces. But its effectiveness derived less from the winning of popular support than from its surveillance of the population.
Indeed, the program did not merely collect intelligence on the “Vietcong infrastructure.” It compiled detailed information on every resident of every hamlet and village in which the program operated — information that included data about kinship ties, political and religious affiliations and property ownership. As Mr. Chau acknowledged, this information was often used to pressure families and entire communities to comply with the government’s directives. In this regard, the program was less benign and more coercive than its promoters acknowledged.
The use of the Counter-Terror teams in Kien Hoa also sometimes failed to conform to the high-minded principles that Mr. Chau preached. By targeting specific Communist cadres for “neutralization,” the program increased the military and psychological pressure on the enemy. Communist commanders responded by offering special bounties to any of their men who killed a Counter-Terror team member. The struggle between the two sides quickly devolved into community-level internecine warfare in which Mr. Chau’s promise to use violence only as a last resort often went by the boards: When Communist propagandists distributed fliers celebrating a guerrilla sniper who killed an American military adviser in Kien Hoa, Mr. Chau ordered a Counter-Terror team to infiltrate the enemy-controlled hamlet where the sniper lived. Team members killed the sniper by tossing grenades into his house while he slept.
Critics of American counterinsurgency practices in Vietnam would most likely treat the sniper story as proof that Mr. Chau’s activities in Kien Hoa constituted an assassination program, pure and simple. He and his defenders might reply that such killings were necessary and were justified by the Communists’ use of targeted killings, and that his occasional deployment of such tactics should be evaluated in the context of his broader efforts to win “hearts and minds.” But both of these arguments discount critical elements of counterinsurgency warfare as it was practiced in Vietnam.
Mr. Chau did not propose to defeat the Communists in Kien Hoa merely by assassinating them. He created the Census-Grievance teams specifically as a means to enlist the population in the fight against the enemy. However, the process by which he proposed to ensure the cooperation of villagers was not one that depended on gaining their consent or willing participation. The Census-Grievance teams provided the government with a way to impose a system of surveillance and control over entire communities and to extract intelligence from individual residents. While Mr. Chau hoped that residents would provide this intelligence voluntarily, his overriding goal was to acquire the information needed to expose and destroy the enemy’s clandestine networks. Moreover, while the pursuit of this goal included efforts to capture enemy operatives or to persuade them to surrender, it also involved plenty of intimidation and deadly force — including some assassinations. In all of these aspects, the model that Mr. Chau devised in Kien Hoa bore more than a passing resemblance to the later Phoenix program.
Tran Ngoc Chau’s career points to some larger truths about counterinsurgency in Vietnam, and about the history of counterinsurgency warfare in general. Like his American counterparts, Mr. Chau promoted what is now known as population-centric counterinsurgency — an approach that emphasizes the protection and control of civilian populations. The advocates of this approach invariably portray it as a humane mode of warfare that is entirely in keeping with the laws of war and with American liberal convictions.
Mr. Chau’s approach was undoubtedly less destructive than the tactics of South Vietnamese and American commanders who preferred to engage the enemy with artillery and airstrikes. But his methods were far from bloodless, and the victory he aimed to achieve did not turn on the winning of hearts and minds. Instead, his approach relied much more on manipulation, coercion, fear and killing. Americans will do well to remember these qualities when contemplating the counterinsurgency wars that their country continues to wage today.