The Evil That Was Phoenix
“Phoenix was far worse than the things attributed to it.”—Ed Murphy, former member of the Phoenix program.
There’s a reason the CIA wanted to prevent the publication of Douglas Valentine’s 1990 book, The Phoenix Program: America’s Use of Terror in Vietnam. This masterwork is more than an exposé of the US pacification program in Vietnam the book is titled after. It is an indictment of a cynical and bloody plan to kill Vietnamese. In his book The Family Jewels, author John Prado wrote, “When a (CIA) Publications Review Board lawyer checked to see whether Phoenix was off-limits …, he was advised to caution interviewees not to talk to Valentine.” Valentine wrote in an email regarding the CIA’s attempts to stifle his investigation: “There were other form of harassment as well, the kind all investigators of CIA war crimes are subjected to. The midnight calls threatening to kill me or burn my house down. My wife got in the habit of telling the callers to take a number and stand in line. We never took it seriously. Ironically, everything I was doing was legal, and I wasn’t trying to hide anything….Many of the threats came from former Navy SEALs, who were angry about my portrayal of them as psychopathic killers on a murder spree. A group of former Phoenix advisors, who did not like characterizing them as war criminals for conducting Gestapo style operations against Vietnamese civilians, were also prone to threats and later, after the book came out, slanders on Amazon and elsewhere. This is the same “Swift Boat” clan that attacked John Kerrey during his presidential campaign.”
However, times were slightly different then. Intelligence agencies, while powerful, were not as powerful as they are today, in part because of the popular revulsion at their modus operandi. So, one assumes, the Agency really could not prevent the book’s publication. It has been out of print until now. Mark Crispin Miller, professor of media studies and a media critic, is now publishing it as the first of his Forbidden Bookshelf series; an endeavor involving reprinting hard-to-find books addressing the realities of the US social-political infrastructures from a critical (and mostly left) perspective.
The Phoenix program was the culmination of a number of counterinsurgency plans undertaken by the Central Intelligence Agency, the military and a few other related agencies. All of these plans, like Phoenix itself, were designed to infiltrate and destroy the infrastructure of the communist-led Vietnamese insurgency—or as it was known by most US residents—the Viet Cong. Valentine describes in specific detail a bureaucratic machinery of torture and deceit: a single-minded operation designed to sow distrust, uncertainty and death. The first several chapters in the book describe and dissect the agencies, programs and individuals involved in the counterintelligence precursors to the Phoenix Program. It is a tale of inter-agency competition and occasional cooperation, clashing egos in Vietnam and DC and differences of opinion between Vietnamese and US police and government agencies. The latter is perhaps best exemplified by the different meanings attributed to the Phoenix bird symbol. The Vietnamese word for Phoenix is Phuong Hoang, yet the graphic used by the Vietnamese represented hope, while the US symbol was a bird of prey holding missiles in its claws.
For those who don’t know, Phoenix was a systemic attempt to find and kill Vietnamese fighting against the US and its designs. It did this through terror, torture, intelligence-gathering and the relocation (and murder) of the insurgency’s civilian supporters. Even if one believes the worst of the US military and intelligence agencies in Vietnam, the facts on how Phoenix played out on the ground among the Vietnamese people remains difficult reading. Valentines journalistic “just the facts ma’am” approach does not hide anything. Nor is that his intention. By laying out the facts in the manner that Valentine does, the reader finds passages in this book where the recitation of those facts cause great sadness and anger. Perhaps the greatest such example of this occurs in the chapter Valentine calls “Modus Vivendi” where he summarizes the Vietnamese writer Truong Buu Diem’s 1968 article in the liberal Catholic Vietnamese newspaper Tin Sang (Morning News). The article, which was titled, “The Truth About Phoenix,” describes the violent and deadly effects of the program, questions its purpose, and calls it American revenge for Tet. The layers of hierarchy and bureaucracy constructed and maintained in order to facilitate this machine remind the reader of both General Motors and Nazi Germany’s Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Reich Main Security Office.) Morality was not part of the equation. Although some military members assigned to Phoenix objected on moral grounds or because they were expected to violate the Geneva conventions, most of those who opposed their assignment did so on career grounds or because they resented being under CIA command.
Valentine ends the body of his text with a look at the US-sponsored warfare and counterinsurgency operations being waged in Central America in the 1980s (when his book was originally published.) If one extrapolates the essence and practices of the Phoenix Program to Washington’s more recent wars—from Afghanistan to Iraq to the so-called Global War on Terror, it becomes clear that Phoenix remains a working template of how the US continues to conduct such operations.
The Phoenix Program is an alternative history of the US war on the Vietnamese. It is closer to the truth than anything published by the military or intelligence establishment and gives lie to the ongoing efforts by various veteran and government historians to turn the US war into a noble effort—something that it never was. There is currently a campaign to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the US war in Vietnam. The campaign relies on a revisionist retelling of that adventure and attempts to relieve US forces (military and otherwise) responsibility for the death and destruction they caused. This is one more reason the republication of The Phoenix Program is therefore quite timely.
Ron Jacobs is the author of the just released novel All the Sinners, Saints. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His third novel All the Sinners Saints is a companion to the previous two and is due out in April 2013. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He can be reached at: email@example.com.