FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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.”Douglas-Valentine-Phoenix-Program-Review

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: ronj1955@gmail.com.

More articles by:

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

Weekend Edition
February 15, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Matthew Hoh
Time for Peace in Afghanistan and an End to the Lies
Chris Floyd
Pence and the Benjamins: An Eternity of Anti-Semitism
Rob Urie
The Green New Deal, Capitalism and the State
Jim Kavanagh
The Siege of Venezuela and the Travails of Empire
Paul Street
Someone Needs to Teach These As$#oles a Lesson
Andrew Levine
World Historical Donald: Unwitting and Unwilling Author of The Green New Deal
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Third Rail-Roaded
Eric Draitser
Impacts of Exploding US Oil Production on Climate and Foreign Policy
Ron Jacobs
Maduro, Guaidó and American Exceptionalism
John Laforge
Nuclear Power Can’t Survive, Much Less Slow Climate Disruption
Joyce Nelson
Venezuela & The Mighty Wurlitzer
Jonathan Cook
In Hebron, Israel Removes the Last Restraint on Its Settlers’ Reign of Terror
Ramzy Baroud
Enough Western Meddling and Interventions: Let the Venezuelan People Decide
Robert Fantina
Congress, Israel and the Politics of “Righteous Indignation”
Dave Lindorff
Using Students, Teachers, Journalists and other Professionals as Spies Puts Everyone in Jeopardy
Kathy Kelly
What it Really Takes to Secure Peace in Afghanistan
Brian Cloughley
In Libya, “We Came, We Saw, He Died.” Now, Maduro?
Nicky Reid
The Councils Before Maduro!
Gary Leupp
“It’s All About the Benjamins, Baby”
Jon Rynn
What a Green New Deal Should Look Like: Filling in the Details
David Swanson
Will the U.S. Senate Let the People of Yemen Live?
Dana E. Abizaid
On Candace Owens’s Praise of Hitler
Raouf Halaby
‘Tiz Kosher for Elected Jewish U.S. Officials to Malign
Rev. William Alberts
Trump’s Deceitful God-Talk at the Annual National Prayer Breakfast
W. T. Whitney
Caribbean Crosswinds: Revolutionary Turmoil and Social Change 
ADRIAN KUZMINSKI
Avoiding Authoritarian Socialism
Howard Lisnoff
Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Anti-immigrant Hate
Ralph Nader
The Realized Temptations of NPR and PBS
Cindy Garcia
Trump Pledged to Protect Families, Then He Deported My Husband
Thomas Knapp
Judicial Secrecy: Where Justice Goes to Die
Louis Proyect
The Revolutionary Films of Raymundo Gleyzer
Sarah Anderson
If You Hate Campaign Season, Blame Money in Politics
Victor Grossman
Contrary Creatures
Tamara Pearson
Children Battling Unhealthy Body Images Need a Different Narrative About Beauty
Peter Knutson
The Salmon Wars in the Pacific Northwest: Banning the Rough Customer
Binoy Kampmark
Means of Control: Russia’s Attempt to Hive Off the Internet
Robert Koehler
The Music That’s in All of Us
Norah Vawter
The Kids Might Save Us
Tracey L. Rogers
Freedom for All Begins With Freedom for the Most Marginalized
Paul Armentano
Marijuana Can Help Fight Opioid Abuse
Tom Clifford
Britain’s Return to the South China Sea
Graham Peebles
Young People Lead the Charge to Change the World
Matthew Stevenson
A Pacific Odyssey: Around General MacArthur’s Manila Stage Set
B. R. Gowani
Starbucks Guy Comes Out to Preserve Billionaire Species
David Yearsley
Bogart Weather
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail