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Book Review

The Phoenix Program by Douglas Valentine.

The Phoenix Program

20 November 2006


Doug Valentine’s book lifts the lid on the controversial operational methods and tactics employed by the Phoenix Program during the Vietnam War.

The Phoenix Program was established in 1967 to neutralize important Viet Cong Cadre and to destroy the civilian support network that allowed the insurgency to survive and grow in South Vietnam. The author reveals that the ideas behind the program were based on the methods successfully employed by the British against the communist insurgents in the Malaya Emergency. The British managed to separate the rural population from the insurgents by relocating the villagers into fortified villages / hamlets. This cut off the insurgent's access to food and shelter and forced them to live in the jungle, where they were constantly in danger of being detected by army patrols.

Similar to the situation in Malaya, the Viet Cong Infrastructure (VCI) consisted of a framework of Cadres, tax collectors and district officials. The book explains that the US quickly became cognisant of the danger posed by this shadow government and looked for a way to combat it.

To begin with Phoenix had three principal operational divisions:
  • The Hamlet Informant Program (HIP)
  • The Province Interrogation (PIC) Program
  • Penetrations into the Viet Cong Infrastructure
The information from these operations was used by Special Branch / covert CIA teams to target individuals for arrest or kidnap. Following their capture suspects were interrogated and frequently tortured. Later in the war those even suspected of just aiding the enemy were assassinated! Not only did these methods break the Geneva Conventions, but they also went against everything that America was fighting for at the time.

The necessarily covert nature of the program has meant that up until this point details of its operations and methods have been shrouded in secrecy. Nearly everything held at the US Embassy in Saigon was shredded during the final evacuation in 1975 and what ever the CIA holds at Langley is not available even under the Freedom of Information Act!

However, during Valentine's research for the book he travelled all over the USA and interviewed more than a hundred former Phoenix advisors and CIA Case officers. One of those interviewed was Nelson Brickham, who was the driving force behind the development of the program and had saved copies of almost everything he wrote during his time at the Agency. This incredible collection of previously unseen material has allowed the author to produce a magnificently detailed and authoritative exposé of the Vietnam War's most complex counter-insurgency program.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is how it examines the relationships between the disparate parts of the Phoenix program. The CIA, Field Police and Special Branch were separate agencies that did not cooperate enough or share information with each other for fear that the other might be infiltrated by enemy agents. However, on those occasions when there was cooperation between the agencies the enemy certainly felt the effects.

In addition to the fascinating details delivered by Valentine's work there are some shocking revelations, one of which concerns the infamous My Lai massacre in March 1968. Though it is widely known that Charlie Company of the Americal Division killed hundreds of civilians after failing to find any VC in My Lai, the book asserts that the visit to the hamlet was actually planned as Phoenix sweep and pick-up operation.

The completeness of Valentine's research is underlined by the book's epilogue that divulges what happened to some of the men behind Phoenix and how the program never died, just like the mythical bird it was named after. In fact Phoenix found its way to Central and South American countries, along with some of the original CIA case officers and advisors.

The Phoenix Program is a serious body of work and a valuable contribution to the documented history of the Vietnam War. It is a demanding read that requires your full attention simply due to the complex nature of the subject, however, rarely is one's concentration so richly rewarded.

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