Phung Hoang: The Phoenix Program

Original unissued patch

Except for the significance of Tet ’68, the Phung Hoang (Phoenix Program) was the most misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misreported event or program of the Vietnam War.

Though the surprise Viet Cong offensive at Tet ’68 was a psychological victory for the Communist forces, it was a devastating defeat for both the VC military forces and the VC infrastructure in the South. The Viet Cong forces, having come out of hiding and committed themselves, could not sustain their offensive and hold the objectives they had seized. They were overwhelmed by U.S. and ARVN forces and suffered tremendous casualties from which they never recovered. The Viet Cong infrastructure who surfaced during this offensive likewise suffered enormous losses, both from the fighting itself and from the fact that, now identified, they could be targeted and eliminated by the Phoenix Program. These losses and the successes of both the Chieu Hoi and pacification programs ultimately led the North Vietnamese government to abandon their guerrilla war strategy in favor of more conventional attacks.

The Phoenix Program certainly ranked high among the most controversial and notorious programs of the Vietnam War. Critics of Phoenix claimed it to be a barbarous program of assassination, abduction, and intimidation that resulted in the murder of thousands and the illegal incarceration and torture of thousands more (often innocent) civilians. Unfortunately, this was the view portrayed broadly by the U.S. media.

The program’s proponents cited the necessity of attacking the Viet Cong infrastructure (VCI) as an essential component of a successful counterinsurgency strategy. North Vietnamese and Viet Cong documents, which have come to light in the years after the war, reflect deep concern on their part regarding the effectiveness of the Phoenix Program.

Phoenix was a creation of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Implemented in 1967 as ICEX (Intelligence Collection and Exploitation), the program was intended to target the Viet Cong “shadow government,” whose infrastructure existed from the very top of the government down through the village and hamlet level in every part of Vietnam. For example, in Dinh Quan District there was a VC district chief and staff, and similarly VC chiefs for every village and hamlet. There were VC tax collectors, propaganda and recruiting teams, and corresponding officials at all levels. These “officials” generally lived in the surrounding jungle areas, but frequently entered the occupied areas at night to tax, recruit, propagandize, or terrorize the population. In some cases members of the VCI were seemingly respectable loyal citizens by day, but clandestinely served as Viet Cong agents, supporters, or insurgents at night.

The Phoenix Program was an intensive intelligence operations program at the district and province levels that targeted these individuals. Each district had a District Intelligence Operations Coordination Center (DIOCC) at which information was collected, intelligence leads analyzed, and dossiers developed on suspected VCI. The DIOCC was an operational partnership between the police and military, with each party sharing information and jointly planning intelligence activities and operations. When sufficient evidence was amassed on an individual, he or she would be brought in for interrogation.

Special efforts were made to locate known members of the VCI who were targeted for arrest or elimination, and military operations were mounted to carry out their apprehension. Much of the public outcry against Phoenix was this latter aspect of targeting for elimination members of the “civilian” population. Critics never seemed to acknowledge that these “civilians” and the Viet Cong were one and the same. They somehow made a distinction between the Viet Cong operating in military units and living in base camps in the jungle, and the Viet Cong who posed as an innocent civilian by day and either picked up a weapon and served as a Viet Cong by night or provided clandestine leadership activities for the VC as a member of the shadow government. Both were the enemy of the Republic of Vietnam and served in the revolutionary forces. My conscience never bothered me when one of the targeted VCI was killed as a result of a planned operation.

Each district advisory team had an intelligence officer whose main function was to advise and assist in the operation of the DIOCC. In Dinh Quan during my tenure that was initially Captain Backlin, and later Captain Hughes. The DIOCC coordinated activities of the district headquarters, the Special Police, the National Police Field Force (NPFF), and local military forces as necessary. In addition, Hughes coordinated his activities through the CIA officer assigned to the Province Intelligence Operations Coordination Center in Xuan Loc. Locally, Hughes relied on his counterpart, 1st Lt. Dong Van Thanh, the Vietnamese district intelligence officer (S-2), for coordination of intelligence activities. The district chief had delegated the day-to-day operation of the DIOCC to Lieutenant Thanh. Thanh was an older officer, not anxious to be too aggressive or to make waves. Working with him was pleasant but frustrating for Hughes because change was suspect and progress was slow. Captain Hughes’s access to funds, however, provided him considerable influence in intelligence operations. In addition to paying the Provincial Reconnaissance Units and providing money to pay for agents and information, he had discretionary funds to use as he felt necessary. This issue was sensitive to the Vietnamese, so Hughes was careful to coordinate his activities with Lieutenant Thanh.

The action arm for the Phoenix Program was a volunteer force called the Provincial Reconnaissance Unit (PRU). These units, which ranged in size from company (100 men) to squad (10 men), were comprised of individuals with a variety of motivations: defectors from the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army, ardent anticommunists who sought revenge for some VC atrocity against their family members, draft dodgers, mercenaries, or criminals avoiding prison—an interesting bunch. In its own way, it reflected somewhat the mentality of the legendary French Foreign Legion. In some areas of Vietnam, U.S. Army Special Forces or Navy SEALS provided direct leadership for these groups—not so in Dinh Quan.

The PRUs had several distinct advantages in their efforts to recruit. First, since they were funded by the CIA, their pay was much higher than that of the Vietnamese soldiers. Second, since they operated only regionally, an individual could join and remain in his home area. And finally, the PRUs had somewhat of a mystique about them—they were tough by reputation, notably successful in their operations, and a valuable resource to the district. They made raids against the VC, captured VCI, conducted ambushes, and were a valuable source of intelligence through their reconnaissance, prisoners, and the documents they frequently recovered during their operations. The prisoners were interrogated and the documents were analyzed at the DIOCC before being forwarded through the intelligence chain to the province headquarters. They often provided critical leads on VC strength, equipment, morale, and operations. They also frequently identified other VC or VCI, often leading to their capture or elimination through subsequent operations.

In Dinh Quan, the PRUs consisted of a single squad-sized unit who worked directly for Captain Hughes in his role as intelligence officer. They were an interesting collection of individuals who had earned themselves a respected reputation within the district. Hughes oversaw the PRU operations through the DIOCC.

One particularly memorable event involving the PRU centered upon a bag of documents recovered during a PRU raid on a suspected VC cadre safe house in the jungle north of the predominately Chinese hamlet of Loi Tan. Among the sizable pile of documents was a scale drawing of the floor plan of our team house. Each room was accurately detailed and functionally described. Especially disturbing to me was the annotation on that portion of the sketch that represented my room at the right rear corner of the house: labeled neatly on the rectangular bed space was “Thieu-ta Becket.” They not only knew who and where I was, they also knew exactly where I slept! Not a comforting thought. Of course, they had misspelled my name, so how good could their intelligence be?

Although other team members weren’t identified by name, their bunk locations were accurately depicted. The discovery of this sketch made everyone, particularly me, a little uneasy for a time. How had the VC gotten this level of detail? Although we all trusted Ba, the two Cos, and our interpreters—those with total access to the team house—as we watched them go about their daily duties, we nonetheless secretly wondered if the information could have come from them. Jokingly we had often accused Ba of being a VC; this incident made us realize that in truth she, or any of the other Vietnamese, could be. In reality, a number of the Vietnamese officers, soldiers, and civilians were in our team house every single day, and during our movies—God alone knew who was there in the darkness. We never discovered the source, and the incident ultimately passed. The sketch was merely yet another uncomfortable reminder of our own vulnerability—a fact we tried not to dwell on, but knew all too well.

Shortly after lieutenant hughes’s arrival, he decided to accompany the PRU on an ambush operation. It was to be his “cherry” mission. Through a number of intelligence sources, the DIOCC had gotten word that a VC political cadre and propaganda team was going to try to infiltrate one of the hamlets. An ambush was planned on the logical route leading into the hamlet. As Hughes reported later, all went well: they moved into the ambush sight just after dark, set up the Claymore mines, and deployed in a standard L-shaped ambush. Hughes and Houston positioned themselves at the bend in the ambush formation and settled in. Just before dawn, Hughes was sound asleep, as it was Houston’s shift to be alert, when the dead stillness was shattered by the earth-shaking explosions of two Claymore mines detonating nearly simultaneously. At the same instant, the entire ambush formation erupted with automatic small-arms fire. Hughes, startled awake by the explosions, was groggy and totally disoriented. As he attempted to clear his head, the PRU members all around him were scrambling to their feet, screaming and charging across the opening to their front. Not knowing what the hell was going on, but determined not to be left behind out there in the jungle darkness, Hughes stumbled along behind them with heart pounding and adrenaline flowing. In the near light of the coming dawn, Hughes could make out the soldiers converging on a large dark mass on the edge of the clearing. By the time he arrived, they had knives and machetes out and were hacking away, each frantically working to get his share of the meat of the dead water buffalo that had wandered into the ambush. Hughes watched with amazement. There was no security, no unit discipline—this was meat for the table or for the market, and it was every man for himself.

The VC political cadre, whether tipped off about the ambush or not, had apparently changed their plans and had not come out that night. The PRU, however, did credit itself with one VC water buffalo. Hughes took gas from the team members for his “successful” ambush and from Ba for not bringing home any fresh meat!

The national police Field Force located in Dinh Quan was another action arm of the Phoenix Program. They participated in intelligence collection and analysis, operated roadside checks, conducted searches and ID card checks during the frequent cordon and search operations, and were most frequently dispatched to arrest a suspect residing in one of the hamlets. The RF/PF also conducted operations in support of the Phoenix Program. In addition to their local security mission, they provided the cordon for cordon and search operations and conducted operations against larger suspected targets such as local VC units or armed VC tax collection teams.

The companion component of the Phoenix Program was the Chieu Hoi or Open Arms program. If Phoenix was the stick used against the Viet Cong, the Chieu Hoi Program was the carrot. This highly effective program offered rewards and incentives for individuals who defected from the VC or NVA to the Vietnamese government, including amnesty, security, resettlement, and cash. As the war wore on; as military pressure increased on the VC; as VC strength and morale were severely hurt by the Tet ’68 outbreaks; as B-52 raids and artillery continued to rain down terror; as lack of supplies and medical aid worsened and living conditions deteriorated; as disenchantment grew within the VC ranks; and as the effectiveness of Phoenix increasingly identified and eliminated the VCI, the incentive to defect became greater and greater, and as such more and more ralliers (hoi chanhs) surrendered to the government.

The establishment of goals for the provinces and districts added increased pressures and assuredly contributed to false accusations and arrests as officials sought to meet those goals. I cannot speak to the alleged abuses by government officials—no doubt they existed and no doubt some number of innocent civilians were killed or imprisoned. I can only speak to Phoenix operations in Dinh Quan District. The Phoenix program there was a small-scale, reasonably effective program that successfully identified a number of the VCI cadre and resulted in their arrest or elimination. The net result was a weakening of the Viet Cong influence in the district. It also made recruitment by the VC more difficult and improved the credibility of the local government officials.

Captured Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN), the North Vietnamese headquarters for Viet Cong forces in the South, documents and other documents subsequently released by the North Vietnamese after the war describe the deep concerns of the VC and NVA about the effectiveness of the Phoenix and Chieu Hoi Programs in decimating local VC units and limiting their ability to recruit and operate. It was this very effectiveness in eliminating the influence and strength of the Viet Cong that led the North Vietnamese ultimately to abandon their guerrilla war strategy and resort to a conventional war strategy—ironically, fighting and winning the very kind of war that the U.S. had unsuccessfully been trying to fight in all the years prior to our withdrawal.

It didn’t take me long to figure Dinh Quan’s role in the VC scheme of things: Dinh Quan represented a lucrative tax base for the Viet Cong. I am convinced that it was precisely this role that kept VC attacks within the district to a minimum. There were three primary sources for these taxes: the farmers and villagers, the trucks moving on the highway, and the loggers.

The farmers would be “taxed” in the fields by armed VC tax collector teams and forced to pay piasters or, more often, a portion of their crops. To resist meant death. Occasionally a farmer would be abducted for service with the Viet Cong. The villagers would be subjected to taxes as they went into the jungle to hunt or gather firewood. Less frequently, the VC would enter the hamlets at night to collect taxes, recruit, and deliver propaganda messages. As security improved, these nighttime visits became more and more difficult for the VC.

Captain Backlin and I quite stupidly stumbled onto a VC tax cadre at work one morning. He and I were returning from an inspection of several tons of pierced steel planking that had been delivered at the airstrip when we noticed a number of people gathered at the edge of the woods about a hundred meters from the road. Curious as to what was going on, and without thinking, we pulled over, climbed out of the jeep, and proceeded toward the group of perhaps twenty people. We had only our .45-caliber pistols with us, and unsuspecting as we were, they were still snugly holstered. As we approached the group, they stopped talking and just stood there looking at us. At about thirty meters, after some apparent indecision on their part, the group split in half. About a dozen slipped back into the jungle, out of sight, and the remainder scurried back toward us. As they approached, they kept their eyes down and headed right past us toward the hamlet without a word. Just about then Backlin and I simultaneously uttered “Oh shit!” as the truth struck us like a bolt of lightning. We had walked right into an armed VC tax cadre collecting taxes from the villagers. Our suspicions were later confirmed through an intelligence report from an informant in the hamlet. They either thought we were the bravest dudes they had ever seen or the dumbest. More than likely the latter! In any event, after some indecision, they chose to slip away rather than take us on. Had they chosen to fire, I am convinced there was no way we could have survived. We were within thirty meters of them, in the open with no cover available, and armed only with pistols. Once again, fate had decided in my favor.

National Highway 20, which ran the width of the district and carried hundreds of cargo-laden trucks daily between Dalat and Saigon, was likewise a lucrative target for VC tax collection teams. They would spring from the cover of the jungle at some deserted stretch of highway, halt the vehicle, and demand a tax according to the cargo being carried. The driver would have no choice but to pay. The VC would then melt back into the jungle. The attitude of the drivers was that this was an irritating nuisance, but the price of doing business. If the driver bothered reporting the incident at the next checkpoint, by the time Vietnamese security forces reacted (if they did), the tax team would be long gone. The U.S. project to widen, straighten, and resurface Highway 20 later played a major role in reducing the vulnerability of these trucks and the effectiveness of the VC tax collection teams. The jungle was pushed back farther from the highway and the road was straightened, allowing security units greater visibility. These improvements allowed the trucks to move at greater speed and security units to react more quickly. In addition, there was an effort on the part of the district chief to improve highway security and more aggressively react to incidents on the highway. The net result was a marked decrease in the exploitation of truckers in Dinh Quan.

The greatest source of tax revenue for the Viet Cong, however, came not from the farmers or truckers, but from the loggers who worked the heavily forested areas north and south of Highway 20. As a group, the loggers represented the biggest target for the VC tax collection cadres in Dinh Quan. First, the loggers were the most vulnerable, as they worked deep in the surrounding jungle. Secondly, the teak, ebony, and other hardwoods they harvested were extremely valuable and brought premium prices in Saigon. The estimated wholesale value of the lumber harvested in the district exceeded 430 million piasters a year, roughly $3.7 million U.S. Approximately 25 percent of the population of Dinh Quan District was involved in the logging industry. It was not only the major economic engine of the district’s economy, but also a significant source of tax revenue to the Vietnamese government. Loggers in Dinh Quan paid nearly 100 million piasters (more than $800,000) in taxes to the Vietnamese government each year.

In the spring of 1970, I did a study of the logging operations in Dinh Quan. Estimated taxes being collected by the VC averaged nearly 15 million piasters a month, or 180 million Ps per year. That was almost $1.5 million—nearly twice as much as what was being collected by the GVN. My study, which was forwarded to the province and subsequently up the chain of the CORDS organization, recommended several measures that I believed could severely cut back the taxes being collected by the VC.

The problem as I saw it was simple. The Vietnamese Ministry of Forestry, which controlled logging operations nationwide, had restricted logging operations in Dinh Quan to an area that ran 6 kilometers on both sides of Highway 20 across the width of the district. The belief was that security could be provided to loggers operating in this narrow band. Unfortunately, the designated 12-kilometer belt had long since been completely harvested of all significant hardwood trees. The loggers had to go deeper and deeper into the jungle in search of harvestable trees. The logging trucks were required to be brightly painted so they could be identified and monitored from the air. Unfortunately, when they left the authorized cutting areas and went into the restricted areas, they frequently became targets for U.S. and Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) aircraft. There were repeated incidents of these aircraft engaging the lumber trucks without clearance from the district headquarters. Of course, the farther they went, the more vulnerable they were to the VC cadres. In addition to being heavily taxed, their trucks often were commandeered to haul VC supplies and equipment. The profitability of the logging business, however, encouraged the locals to take the risks and to pay the heavy taxes being exacted.

It seemed to me to be clearly in the best interest of the GVN to promote and protect this profitable industry and deny this lucrative source of taxes and in-kind services to the Viet Cong. The industry could be promoted by extending the authorized logging areas farther than 6 kilometers from Highway 20. By such an extension of the authorized area, the loggers could be protected from being fired upon by patrolling aircraft. In order to deny access to the VC, I recommended that one battalion of the 43rd Regiment of the ARVN 18th Division, in whose tactical area of operation these loggers worked, be assigned to heavily patrol these areas and provide necessary security to the loggers. The economic benefits to be gained were obvious. I also assumed the tactical benefits were obvious. Because the payoff was so high, I knew that the VC would take extraordinary risks to collect taxes, thus increasing their own vulnerability in the heavily patrolled area. This would result in some real tactical successes for the 43rd Regiment. I learned, however, that while everyone seemed to agree my plan made a great deal of sense, like many other great plans in Vietnam it was never implemented. Years later, in 1995, I was pleasantly surprised to come across my handwritten study in a dusty bin in the National Archives. It had been annotated favorably as it had worked its way up the chain of command, but somewhere along the line it had lost its way and was quietly buried in the bureaucratic morass of some higher headquarters.

Ronald L. Beckett