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Phoenix Program

The Phoenix Program (Vietnamese: Chiến dịch Phụng Hoàng, a word related to fenghuang, the Chinese phoenix) was a controversial counterinsurgency program designed, coordinated, and executed by the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), United States special operations forces, and the Republic of Vietnam‘s (South Vietnam) security apparatus during the Vietnam War 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 Viet Cong (VC) and neutralize it though capture, coercion or killing its members. Phoenix Program operation 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. 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. The Phoenix program is perhaps the most misunderstood program undertaken by the United States and South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. 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 and the adoption of the Geneva Accords, the government of North Vietnam 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 been unsuccessful with dealing 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, intelligence collection, and logistical support. The VCI rapidly set up shadow governments 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 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, 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 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 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, 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.

Allegations of abuse and torture

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

Lieutenant Vincent Okamoto, an intelligence-liaison officer for the Phoenix Program for two months in 1968 and a recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross said the following:

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 not 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.

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 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, “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.”

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