Phoenix Program

Original unissued patch

The Phoenix Program (Vietnamese: Chiến dịch Phụng Hoàng) was a program designed and coordinated by the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) during the Vietnam War, involving cooperation between American, South Vietnamese and Australian militaries.

The program was designed to identify and destroy the Viet Cong (VC) via infiltration, torture, capture, counter-terrorism, interrogation, and assassination.[1][2][3][4] The CIA described it as "a set of programs that sought to attack and destroy the political infrastructure of the Viet Cong".[5] The Phoenix Program was premised on the idea that infiltration had required local support from non-combat civilian populations, which were referred to as the "political branch" that coordinated the insurgency [6] including propaganda, recruitment and assassination of South Vietnamese officials and others associated with the government.

Throughout the program, Phoenix "neutralized" 81,740 people suspected of VC membership, of whom 26,369 were killed and the rest surrendered or were captured. A number of criticisms arose regarding the Phoenix Program, including the unknown number of neutral civilians killed, the nature of the program (which critics have labelled as a "civilian assassination program"[6]), the use of torture and other coercive methods, and the program being exploited for personal politics. Nevertheless, the program was described as suppressing Viet Cong political and revolutionary activities.[6] Disclosure of the program publicly had caused significant criticisms, including congressional hearings, and the CIA was pressured to shut-down the Phoenix Program, although a similar program "Plan F-6" continued under South Vietnamese authorities.


The major two components of the program were Provincial Reconnaissance Units (PRUs) and regional interrogation centers. PRUs would kill or capture suspected VC members, as well as civilians who were thought to have information on VC activities. Many of these people were taken to interrogation centers and were tortured in an attempt to gain intelligence on VC activities in the area.[7] The information extracted at the centers was given to military commanders, who would use it to task the PRU with further capture and assassination missions.[7] The program's effectiveness was measured in the number of VC members who were "neutralized",[8] a euphemism[9][10] meaning imprisoned, persuaded to defect, or killed.[11][12][13]

The program was in operation between 1965 and 1972, and similar efforts existed both before and after that period. By 1972, Phoenix operatives had "neutralized" 81,740 suspected VC operatives, informants and supporters, of whom between 26,000 and 41,000 were killed.[14][15]

The interrogation centers and PRUs were developed by the CIA's Saigon station chief Peer de Silva. DeSilva was a proponent of a military strategy known as counter-terrorism, which encompasses military tactics and techniques that government, military, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies use to combat or prevent terrorist activities, and that it should be applied strategically to "enemy civilians" in order to reduce civilian support for the VC. The PRUs were designed with this in mind, and began targeting suspected VC members in 1964.[7] 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'".[16]

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.[17]

In 1967, as part of CORDS, the Intelligence Coordination and Exploitation Program (ICEX) was created,[17] from a plan drafted by Nelson Brickham partly inspired by David Galula's Counterinsurgency Warfare (1964), a book based on Galula's experiences in the Algerian War which Brickham was "very taken" with and carried with him around Vietnam.[18] The purpose of the organization centered on gathering information on the VC. 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 VC infrastructure, and the military setback for the U.S. made it politically more palatable for the new program to be implemented.[citation needed] By 1970 there were 704 U.S. Phoenix advisers throughout South Vietnam.[17]

Officially, Phoenix operations continued until December 1972, although certain aspects continued until the fall of Saigon in 1975.[19]

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