The Phoenix Program and Counterinsurgency in the Vietnam War, an Introduction

Drone strikes against jihadists in the Middle East are a common occurrence in the new, fourth-generation warfare world. There was a time when such direct, surgical action against individual targets was a new concept in fighting insurgents. This new way of war was forged during proxy conflicts of the Cold War, specifically the Vietnam War.

Borne out of the Vietnam War, the Phoenix Program was effort by the Central Intelligence Agency, South Vietnam, and US Special Forces to root out Communists in the South Vietnam, in an effort to reform existing American COIN doctrine.

By 1967, it was clear the North was employing Mao’s doctrine of people’s war; that is, the North Vietnamese eschewed Western style maneuver warfare involving large fronts, combined arms, and ‘set piece battles.’ The Viet Minh had employed such tactics against the French with disastrous results, only to defeat the European power when they switched to long-term insurgency. Similarly, the United States could not rely on defeating North Vietnam with its largely conventional airmobile warfare and search and destroy missions. While these tactics might have been a smashing success against Soviet forces on the plains of central Europe, they were not going to win a protracted struggle against an ideologically motivated enemy. The Vietnamese had resisted the Chinese for Phoenix_Program_(edit)centuries long before French and American involvement in the region.

The roots of initial US counterinsurgency theory lie in the Wehrmacht. Both in the Soviet Union, and most famously in Yugoslavia, German forces contended with guerilla fighters. The German response was to employ a cordon and sweep style operation. As the name implies, German forces would surround the area of Partisan operation in an attempt to root out the ‘bandits.’ Entire populations would be relocated or “liquidated” in order deprive the partisans any and all support. The SS Einsatzgruppen were a component in these tactics.

American soldiers did not go to such excess during the Vietnam War, but the underlying tactics were the same. US Army officers headed to Vietnam were trained with the two iterations of Wehrmacht anti-partisan doctrine. American infantry units undertook search and destroy missions in an effort to hunt down the Viet Cong. MACV measured ‘victory’ by the kill ratio of American casualties to the Communists. These tactics played into the Communist strategy. The North was well prepared for a protracted insurgency, while the American public (fueled by the distorted reporting of the American news media) was not. The generals of Vietnam had fought in conventional wars—the Second World War and Korea—where American involvement had been brief. Vietnam called for unconventional solutions.

Enter the CIA. Staffed by men who had practiced unconventional special operations under the Office of Strategic Services in WWII, the Central Intelligence Agency was well equipped to handle the new challenges of counterinsurgency. President Johnson appointed Robert Komer, one of the original members of the CIA, head of a new program called Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support. The new program blended civil and military action in order to win ‘hearts and minds’ in South Vietnam and rid Communist influence on the civilian population. The Phoenix Program fell under CORDS, along with more benign AID and State Department programs.

CIA adviser with South Vietnamese forces

CIA adviser with South Vietnamese forces

The Phoenix Program relied on gathering intelligence on Viet Cong cadre in the South. Often, Communist cadres operated under multiple aliases and collected taxes for the Viet Cong. Entire villages in the South had almost zero connection with the central Saigon government, especially in the Mekong Delta region. CORDS programs attempted to give aid to these villages in the form of medical care and public works projects, while at the same time fulfilling intelligence needs by registering South Vietnamese citizens with a national ID card. RVN National Police investigated suspected Viet Cong operating in the South. The CIA also gathered intelligence on Communist cadres. Once identified, American Special Forces and ARVN teams targeted the cadres for assassination or arrest. In 1971, William Colby reported some 20,000 cadres killed, 28,000 captured, and 17,000 defected. Combined with the near-destruction of the Viet Cong after Tet, Phoenix struck a heavy blow to the Viet Cong. I would even argue this two-pronged attack is what motivated the North to switch to conventional armor and maneuver warfare tactics after 1968.

Phoenix came under media scrutiny, but like the Vietnam War in general, it is largely forgotten by the American public other than the Oliver Stone version of the war, which bears little resemblance to what was a complex, difficult conflict for both the US and Vietnam. Former NVA and Viet Cong later reported the Phoenix assassinations were an extreme setback in their subversion (or liberation, in their view) of South Vietnam. Phoenix continues in a fashion today with drone strikes in the Middle East, although without nation building or the surgical ground forces that characterized CORDS in Vietnam. Vietnam has since ‘converted’ to an industrial pseudo market economy (for good or ill) and manufactures consumer products despite remaining under their Communist Party.

Bibliography/ Further Reading
  • Andradé, Dale. Ashes to Ashes: The Phoenix Program and the Vietnam War. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1990. [Note: this book has gone out of print, and I was only able to read it some time ago by checking it out from a library]
  • Birtle, Andrew James. US Army Counterinsurgency and Contingency Operations Doctrine, 1942-1976. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, U.S. Army, 2006.
  • Ingrao, Christian. The SS Dirlewanger Brigade: The History of the Black Hunters. New York: Skyhorse Pub., 2011. [Gives excellent overview to German anti-partisan operations, in addition to covering its subject]
  • Sheehan, Neil. A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. New York: Random House, 1988. [Vann was one of the CORDS regional directors. Sheehan’s biography doubles as a thorough history of the conflict as well]

One thought on “The Phoenix Program and Counterinsurgency in the Vietnam War, an Introduction

  1. Pingback: Definition of Literary Fiction | Samuel Stevens

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