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Vietnam War Dictionary

Phoenix Program

Phoenix Program Insignia
The Phoenix Program was an intelligence operation designed to gather and analyze information on both the operational structure and members of the Viet Cong Infrastructure (VCI), the Communists' secret administrative and political apparatus in South Vietnam.

Background
Operating in the rural communities, Viet Cong activists intimidated, proselytized, taxed and conscripted members of the local population. In order to improve intelligence on this polictal enemy, U.S. MACV and the CIA created Intelligence Coordination and Exploitation (ICEX) in July 1967. Similarly conscious of the need to counter the Communists' people's war, the Government of Vietnam (GVN) established the Phung Hoang program five months later. Renamed Phoenix, the U.S. mission was to provide financial and advisory assistance to the new Phung Hoang program. However, Phung Hoang (Phoenix) didn't become fully effective until mid 1968 due to the Communist's Tet offensive and the resulting need for additional intelligence on the military threat.

Operation
District Intelligence and Operations Coordinating Centers (DIOCC) collected, analyzed and distributed information on VCI members to action forces, which included the ARVN, territorials (Regional Forces and Popular Forces), Police forces and Provincial Reconnaissance Units (PRU). Identified VCI members were to be either induced to defect, captured and detained, or as a last resort, killed. Individuals not killed were taken to Provincial Interrogation Center's (PIC) and any information extracted during interrogation was delivered to the DIOCC.

One criticism of the program was that low level VCI members or villagers were too often captured or killed in order to meet neutralization quotas. Consequently, In March 1969 VCI members were graded into three categories:

A: Party Member (PRP) or important official
B: Cadre in key position
C: Local organization member / courier / rank and file guerrilla etc

Only category A and B individuals were to be targeted by Phung Hoang (Phoenix).

Between 1968 and 1972, 81,740 VCI members were neutralized. Of those, 22,013 defected, 33,358 were captured and detained and 26,369 were killed.

Controversy
The Phoenix Program was accused of carrying out assassinations and of using torture during interrogations. However, whilst admitting some mistakes were made, William Colby, head of CORDS 1968 - 1972, states that the bulk of VCI killed were killed in combat and were not murdered or executed as prisoners. He also points out that U.S. Phoenix advisors were specifically prohibited from engaging in assassinations or other violations of the rule of land warfare.

According to Colby, defection and capture were the preferred methods of neutralization, as the individuals provided valuable intelligence information. He also denies that torture was part of the program, explaining that its use is counterproductive to the collection of accurate information. Either the interrogator gets what he wants to hear or prisoners die attempting to resist.


The Phung Hoang (Phoenix) program was an essential element of the post Tet 1968 pacification plan. The main pacification effort focussed on giving the rural population an alternative to Communist rule by providing them with security and stimulating them in to work in support of the government. Phoenix complimented those efforts by identifying and destroying Communist attempts to impose their authority on local communities.