Site Map

THE PHOENIX PROGRAM

CHAPTER 3: Covert Action

The dynamics of political warfare, as conceived by the Communists and copied by the CIA, revolved around armed propaganda teams. In South Vietnam a Vietcong armed propaganda team (APT) would enter a village at dusk, and the political cadres, being friendly and "upright," would go from person to person introducing themselves and getting everyone's attention. They would then gather everyone together for entertainment -- old tunes with a revolutionary twist -- followed by propaganda on GVN corruption and American war crimes, for example, a lecture on how American-made defoliants destroyed crops and caused disease or a skit depicting an American soldier raping a Vietnamese girl. Next came the obligatory self-criticism session, and last but not least, the recruitment of people into clandestine cells, liberation committees, guerrilla units, and informant nets.

As standard procedure, an armed propaganda team would return to the village to repeat the performance, and if the villagers resisted over a period of time, terror came into play. The APT would go through its routine, then announce that a spy had been discovered -- usually a secret policeman or corrupt village chief, sometimes a wife and children, too. The unfortunate person was put on trial before a "people's court" and, after being summarily convicted, was brutally murdered in the center of the village. A death notice was pinned to the body, and the body put on display.

The message was clear. The CIA determined early the economic advantages of this village-level selective terror approach. Only when selective terror was used by the CIA, it was called counterterror. The origin of the CIA's counterterror doctrine in South Vietnam may be traced to political warfare pioneer Ralph Johnson. A Chicago native, veteran of the Flying Tigers, and notorious ladies' man, whose most famous liaison was with Nguyen Cao Ky's wife, Johnson was described by one colleague as "a good-looking, fast-talking snake-oil salesman." [1] Johnson dubbed his counterterror doctrine Contre Coup and, in The Phoenix Program: Planned Assassination or Legitimate Conflict Management, describes it as "Turning the Communist terrorist strategy, which had proven effective, into a U.S.-Saigon pacification strategy." [2]

CIA officer Johnson formulated his theory in the Philippines in the mid-1950's and as a police adviser in Indonesia in 1957 and 1958, prior to the failed Sukarno coup. His cover having been blown in Jakarta, he was posted to Laos and assigned to the remote northern region bordering China and North Vietnam. There, working undercover for the Agency for International Development, Johnson began organizing Montagnard tribesmen and Pathet Lao defectors into Civic Action/commando teams on the Ed Lansdale "combat psywar" model.

In mid-1960, shortly before the Buddhist crisis, Johnson was transferred to Hue to serve as the CIA officer in charge of South Vietnam's northern provinces and to implement a program similar to the one he had created in Laos. In staffing the pilot programs they created, Johnson and his CIA colleagues spotted, vetted, and hired qualified military and police officers as agents. These Vietnamese nationals were detached from the military or the police and served at the pleasure of the local civilian authority. Such was the arrangement that enabled Johnson and Vietnamese Army Captain Le Xuan Mai to devise the Mountain Scouts, a political action program employing tactics and techniques Johnson had copied from the Communists and perfected in Laos.

According to Stu Methven, a veteran CIA officer who followed Johnson from Laos to Hue in early 1961, the Mountain Scouts were a unilateral CIA operation managed by CIA-funded province and district chiefs. The scouts were composed of Montagnard tribesmen recruited by Vietnamese agents in the CIA's employ. The "Yards" and their Vietnamese officers were then organized into fifteen-man teams that -- like the VC's armed propaganda teams -- had both paramilitary and political action capabilities. Their job, says Methven, was to "make the GVN presence felt outside the district capitals." Once inside a VC village, the Mountain Scout political officer would denounce the Communists and make a pro-GVN speech, co-written by Mai and Johnson. Other team members would take a census and make a map of the village. If possible, the team returned with defectors, left informers behind, and stuck a VC head on a pole as they left. The latter was a counterterror function, distinct from any strictly paramilitary function, which involved combat with enemy units.

Now a special assistant to the vice-president of the Center for Naval Analysis, Methven co-managed the Mountain Scout program with Ralph Johnson in 1961 and 1962. To counter what he perceived as rampant VC terror, Methven began extracting the most aggressive individuals from Mountain Scout teams and hiring mercenaries -- often Vietnamese convicts or Chinese Nungs -- to act as counterterrorists, to do unto the Vietcong's armed propaganda teams what they were doing to GVN officials. With the creation of these counterterror teams, the second of Phoenix's foundation stones was set in place.

Ralph Johnson defines the CTs as "small teams ... particularly well trained, aggressive, and consisting of a large percentage of former Viet Cong who had become disillusioned and were now violently anti-Viet Cong. Designed like SWAT units employed by the Police Departments of any major city, the Counter-Terror Teams were constituted of five to 20 men whose mission was to collect intelligence in Communist-controlled areas, as well as to apprehend key Viet Cong leaders. At maximum strength the Counter-Terror Teams never totaled more than 3,500 throughout all South Vietnam, but because of their CIA support, and the need to protect not only Team members but their families from Viet Cong reprisals, an aura of mystery and secrecy came to surround these units." [4]

With the appearance of CT teams in 1962, three separate and distinct programs began to emerge; political action, paramilitary, and counterterror. At this point Ralph Johnson was transferred to Saigon as an adviser to several important government officials, and the CIA station's chief of covert action, Cliff Strathern, assigned Methven the task of selling the Mountain Scout program to the province chiefs in I Corps and II Corps. Assisted by half a dozen CIA contract officers, Methven eventually installed the program in thirteen provinces with a force of fifteen thousand men. [5]

Selling the Mountain Scout program to province chiefs, what he called "fostering local initiatives," was easy, Methven recalled, "because we gave them money and supplies." Province chiefs also found the program attractive because as a unilateral CIA operation the Mountain Scouts were not under GVN control and because having the teams under their control strengthened the hand of province and district chiefs in their dealings with Saigon.

In expanding the Mountain Scout program, Methven noted, "MAAG was our biggest supporter." But in return for logistical support, MAAG ultimately assumed control. And being less concerned with political action than with fighting NVA and VC combat units, MAAG advisers began transforming the Mountain Scouts and other paramilitary CIDG teams from "static" defense groups into mobile strike (Mike) forces. The CIA, however, did not forsake its political action or counterterror missions, and while MAAG increased the size of the units under its control, the CIA purposely kept its CT and political action teams in small units -- usually fewer than two hundred men in a province -- and in this way maintained greater control over political developments at the local level.

With the militarization of the Mountain Scouts, hunter/killer teams first appeared on the scene. Composed of two or three Montagnards or mercenaries and one or two American advisers, the hunter team penetrated enemy areas, reconnoitered for intelligence, and conducted kidnapping and assassination (snatch and snuff) operations. When the hunter teams, which performed as counterterrorists, stumbled on large enemy troop concentrations, they called in killer teams in black, unmarked helicopters provided by the CIA. Although they worked in tandem, hunter teams were not under the operational control of killer teams.

Also at this time the CIA began using selective terror not just to do to the Vietcong what they were doing to GVN officials. Knowing that an act of selective terror against one Montagnard would send the whole village scurrying to a refugee center or a strategic hamlet, where they were then recruited into CIDG teams, the CTs began disguising themselves as Vietcong and committing acts of selective terror against ethnic rivals.

However, as became increasingly clear during the early 1960's, organizing favorable minorities through the CIDG program was not enough to stem the Communist tide. Through arrogance and repression, Diem had alienated the Buddhist majority, and even his generals were plotting against him. Meanwhile, the NLF was organizing more and more Buddhist villages, and the CIA was failing to do likewise on behalf of the GVN. As Jeffrey Race points out, "The [GVN] could not create a viable 'underground' apparatus like the Party's, because of the low level of motivation of the government's operatives and their lack of a sympathetic environment." [6]

For VC and CIA alike, the purpose of political action was threefold: to expand influence through propaganda and civic action, to organize villagers to fight enemy military units, and to destroy the enemy's infrastructure -- meaning that if the counterinsurgency was to succeed, the CIA had to create cadres that were every bit as motivated as the Vietcong. So, in the spirit of Contre Coup, the CIA turned to defectors to spread its message in the rural villages of Vietnam, in effect, into enemy territory.

According to William Colby, "The Armed Propaganda Team has [a number of] former Vietcong who are recruited to work for you .... Their function is to go around in the countryside and indicate to the people that they used to be Vietcong and that the government has received them and taken them in and that the Chieu Hoi [amnesty] program does exist as a way of VC currently on the other side to rally. They contact people like the families of known VC, and provide transportation to defector and refugee centers. [7]

As Colby explained, communication is the essence of political warfare. Thus, to understand political warfare and how Phoenix fits within that context, it is essential first to understand the role of language.

In its broadest political warfare application, language is the means by which governments, through subtle suggestion and disinformation, shape public opinion on issues. Communists and capitalists alike recognize the power of slogans and packaging to sell political as well as commercial products. For example, the Vietcong used language to peddle a totalitarian state in the guise of social justice, while language allowed Ed Lansdale to wrap the Diem dictatorship in the robe of Jesus Christ and sell it as a democracy. The difference in Vietnam, of course, was that the Vietcong slung their slogans at the rural population, proclaiming, "Land for the Landless," while Lansdale (who prior to World War II handled accounts for an advertising agency in San Francisco) declared straight-faced that "Christ has moved South," a pitch obviously aimed at the American public.

Lansdale was not unaware of what he was doing. The first objective of a covert action program is to create plausible denial -- specifically, in South Vietnam, to cloak the CIA's role in organizing GVN repression. The CIA did this by composing and planting distorted articles in foreign and domestic newspapers and by composing "official" communiques which appeared to have originated within the GVN itself. This disinformation campaign led predisposed Americans to believe that the GVN was a legitimately elected representative government, a condition which was a necessary prerequisite for the massive aid programs that supported the CIA's covert action programs. Insofar as language -- information management -- perpetuated the myth that Americans were the GVN's advisers, not its manufacturer, public support was rallied for continued intervention.

Next, the CIA judges a covert action program on its intelligence potential -- its ability to produce information on the enemy's political, military, and economic infrastructure. That is why the CIA's covert action branch operates as an intelligence arm under cover of civic action. What makes these intelligence operations covert is not any mistaken impression on the part of the enemy, but rather the CIA's ability to deny plausibly involvement in them to the American public. Here again, language is the key.

For example, during Senate hearings into CIA assassination plots against Fidel Castro and other foreign leaders, "plausible denial" was defined by the CIA's deputy director of operations Richard Bissell as the use of circumlocution and euphemism in discussions where precise definitions would expose covert actions and bring them to an end. [8]

The Church Committee report says, "In November 1962 the proposal for a new covert action program to overthrow Castro was developed. The President's Assistant, Richard Goodwin, and General Edward Lansdale, who was experienced in counter-insurgency operations, played major staff roles in creating this program, which was named Operation MONGOOSE." A special group was created to oversee Mongoose, and Lansdale was made its chief of operations. Those operations included "executive actions." [9]

A memo written by Lansdale and introduced during the hearings in part states that the "Attack on the cadre of the regime including key leaders ... should be a 'Special Target' operation. CIA defector operations are vital here. Gangster elements might prove the best recruitment potential for actions against police G-2 officials." When questioned about his language, Lansdale testified that the words "actions" and "attack" actually meant killing. He also testified that "criminal elements" were contracted for use in the attack against Castro. He euphemistically called these gangsters the Caribbean Survey Group. [10]

Further to ensure plausible denial, the CIA conducts covert action under cover of proprietary companies like Air America and the Freedom Company, through veterans and business organizations, and various other fronts. As in the case of fake newspaper articles and official communiques, the idea is to use disinformation to suggest initiatives fostering positive values -- freedom, patriotism, brotherhood, democracy -- while doing dirty deeds behind the scenes. In CIA jargon this is called black propaganda and is the job of political and psychological (PP) officers in the covert action branch. PP officers played a major role in packaging Phoenix for sale to the American public as a program designed "to protect the people from terrorism." [11]

***

Language, in its narrowest political-warfare application, is used to create defectors. Not only were defectors valued for their ability to sap the enemy's will to fight, but having worked on the inside, defectors were also the most accurate and timely source of intelligence on Vietcong and NVA unit strength and location. For that reason they made the best guides and trackers. After defecting, many returned immediately to their area of operations with a reaction force to locate hidden enemy arms or food caches. Others, upon turning themselves in, were screened and interrogated by security officers. Once turned, these defectors became penetration leads back into the VCI. Defectors who returned to their former positions inside enemy military units or political organizations were provided with a "secure" means of contacting their VBI case officer, whom they fed information leading to the arrest or ambush of enemy cadres, soldiers, and secret agents.

VBI case officers monitoring the defector program for potential recruits also conducted CIA-advised political reeducation programs for Communists and common criminals alike. Recycled wrongdoers were transformed by CIA advisers into counterterrorists and political action cadres who then co-opted former comrades, prepared leaflets, and conducted interrogations. Where hardened criminals were unavailable, counterterror elements were extracted from political action teams and hidden in sealed compounds inside Special Forces camps and CIA safe houses.

So it was that political and psychological warfare experts moved to the forefront of the counterinsurgency in the early 1960's, fighting, under cover of Civic Action, a plausibly deniable war against enemy agents and soldiers, using black propaganda, defectors, criminals (the entire Fifty-second Ranger Battalion was recruited from Saigon prisons), selective terror, forcible relocations, and racial hatred to achieve its goal of internal security.

The importance of information management in political warfare also meant a larger role in Vietnam for the U.S. Information Service (USIS). Ostensibly the overseas branch of the U.S. Information Agency -- performing the same propaganda and censorship functions outside America as the USIA performs within -- the USIS has as its raison d'etre promotion of the "American way" in its narrowest big business sense. In its crusade to convert the world into one big Chamber of Commerce, the USIS employs all manner of media, from TVs, radios, and satellites to armed propaganda teams, wanted posters, and counterterror.

The USIS officer most deeply involved in Phoenix was Frank Scotton. A graduate of American University's College of International Relations, Scotton received a U.S. government graduate assistantship to the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii. About the CIA-sponsored East-West Center, Scotton said in an interview with the author, "It was a cover for a training program in which Southeast Asians were brought to Hawaii and trained to go back to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos to create agent nets." After passing the Foreign Service exam, Scotton was persuaded by a patron to join the USIS, which "dealt with people," unlike the State Department, which "observed from a distance." [12]

A fabulously charismatic personality, tall and swarthy, Scotton had recently returned from a trip to Thailand -- which included taking his teenage son on a patrol into Cambodia, where they were shot at by Khmer Rouge guerrillas -- when William Colby introduced us in 1986. According to Scotton, when he arrived in Saigon in November 1962, he was met by and fell under the influence of Everett Bumgartner, chief of USIS field operations in Vietnam. A Lansdale disciple, Bumgartner had launched wanted poster and defector programs in Laos in 1954 and implemented similar programs in Vietnam after he arrived there in 1959.

Bumgartner introduced Scotton to John Paul Vann, the senior adviser to the ARVN Seventh Division and a friend of Colonel Tran Ngoc Chau's, the controversial Kien Hoa Province chief. A graduate of Fort Bragg, where he roomed with Nguyen Van Thieu, Chau was a CIA asset who in 1962 had just finished a six-year tour as chief of the GVN's Psychological Warfare Service. Over the next ten years Chau's relationship with Scotton, Bumgartner and Vann came to symbolize Phoenix and the duplicitous nature of U.S. Vietnamese relations.

Scotton, Bumgartner, and Vann are described by Ngo Vinh Long in The CIA and the Vietnam Debacle:

Frank Scotton was the originator of the Provincial Reconnaissance Units program, the predecessor of the Phoenix program. For years he worked closely with John Paul Vann, the famous CIA operative who specialized, among other things, in black propaganda, which involved him in murder, forgery and the outright deception of the American press in order to discredit the NLF in particular and the opposition to American intervention in general. Everett Bumgartner was Colby's deputy and used to oversee pacification efforts in the central provinces of Vietnam. Any person who has the faintest knowledge of the pacification program would know what disasters have visited the Vietnamese people as a result of such programs. Bumgartner was also in charge of the Phoenix program in that area. [13]

When Scotton arrived in Vietnam, Bumgartner assigned him to the Central Highlands, the expansive area between Saigon and Qui Nhon City, the capital of Binh Dinh Province. Bumgartner thought there was "a vacuum of knowledge" in the highlands and directed Scotton "to energize the Vietnamese" in what Scotton calls "prerevolutionary development." As Scotton likes to say, "pacification wasn't even a term then." [14]

The emphasis at the time was on the strategic hamlet program -- separating the guerrilla fish from the sea of people through forced relocations. Begun in March 1962 with Operations Sea Swallow in Ca Mau Province and Royal Phoenix in Binh Dinh Province, more than four million Vietnamese had been relocated into strategic hamlets in most of South Vietnam's forty-four provinces by the time Scotton arrived in-country. The program was administered by CIA-advised province security officers reporting to Ngo Dinh Nhu's confidential agent in Saigon, the notorious double agent Pham Ngoc Thao. However, because VC guerrillas had at least the tacit support of the rural population, police and security officials had difficulty conducting law enforcement and intelligence operations outside strategic hamlets or other secure, generally urban areas. In following Bumgartner's orders to fill the vacuum of knowledge in Central Vietnam, Scotton told me, "We would take a Vietnamese employee of the Vietnam Information Service (VIS) and put him in the provincial information system and have him provide resources -- leaflets, school kits, films that sort of thing. In return we expected reporting."

Having placed his agent net, Scotton turned his attention to the job of "energizing" the Vietnamese. However, as a result of CIA machinations against his regime, Diem had instructed his provincial appointees to resist American influence and to blunt U.S. efforts to escalate the war against the Communists. Indeed, Diem's brother Nhu was secretly negotiating with the North Vietnamese in hopes of reaching a settlement before the United States found a pretext to call in the Marines, as the Pentagon seemed intent on doing.

In looking for motivated individuals to mold into political cadres, Scotton turned to the CIA's defector program, which in April 1963 was placed under cover of the Agency for International Development and named the Chieu Hoi (Open Arms) amnesty program. There Scotton found the raw material he needed to prove the viability of political action programs. Together with Vietnamese Special Forces Captain Nguyen Tuy (a graduate of Fort Bragg's Special Warfare Center who commanded the Fourth Special Operations Detachment) and Tuy's case officer, U.S. Special Forces Captain Howard Walters (a Korean War veteran and psywar expert), Scotton worked through an extension of the Mountain Scout program Ralph Johnson had established in Pleiku Province.

As part of a pilot program designed to induce defectors, Scotton, Walten, and Tuy crossed the An Lao Valley, set up an ambush deep in Vietcong territory, and waited till dark. When they spotted a VC unit, Scotton yelled through a bullhorn, "You are being misled! You are being lied to! We promise you an education!" Then, full of purpose and allegory, he shot a flare into the night sky and hollered, "Walk toward the light!" To his surprise, two defectors did walk in, convincing him and his CIA sponsors that "a deter- mined GVN unit could contest the VC in terms of combat and propaganda."

Back in camp, according to Scotton, "We told the VC defectors that they had to divest themselves of untruths. We said that certainly the U.S. perpetrated war crimes, but so did the VC. We acknowledged that theirs was the stronger force, but that didn't mean that everything they did was honorable and good and just." In this manner, Scotton indoctrinated cadres for his political action teams. [15]

***

But these were tumultuous times in South Vietnam, as wild as the 1955 battle for Saigon. In early 1963, two hundred lightly armed VC guerrillas routed an ARVN force of twenty-five hundred, advised by John Vann and supported by U.S. bombers and helicopters at Ap Bac, a mere forty miles from Saigon. The incident reaffirmed what everyone already suspected: that the top-heavy, bloated, corrupt ARVN was no match for the underequipped, starving, but determined Vietcong.

Next, Diem's brother Thuc, the archbishop of Hue, forbade the display of Buddhist flags at a ceremony in Hue commemorating the 2587th birthday of Buddha. A demonstration led by Buddhist priest Thich Tri Quang erupted on May 8, and Nhu sent the LLDB in to put it down. In doing so, they killed nine people, mostly women and children. Official communiques blamed VC "terrorists," but the Buddhists knew better; they strengthened their alliance with the NLF and began organizing massive demonstrations. On June 11, 1963, a Buddhist monk doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire in Saigon. Soon others were doing likewise across Vietnam. "Let them burn," Madame Nhu, the Dragon Lady, cooed, "and we shall clap our hands." [16]

Two months later, while Nhu negotiated with the North Vietnamese and the Joint General Staff pressured Diem to declare martial law, a South Vietnamese Special Forces unit disguised as ARVN troops attacked Saigon's Xa Loi Temple, the city's most sacred Buddhist shrine. Buddhists immediately took up arms and began fighting the LLDB in Hue. The spectacle was repeated across Vietnam, as thousands of Buddhists were arrested, jailed, and summarily executed. In response, on August 21, 1963, the Special Group in Washington ordered the CIA to pull the financial plug on the Vietnamese Special Forces. The search for a more dependable, unilaterally controlled army began, and the nascent counterterror teams emerged as the most promising candidates.

Meanwhile, in Saigon Diem's downfall was originating within his own palace guard. CIA asset Tran Van Don conspired with secret police chief Dr. Tran Kim Tuyen, NVA double agent Pham Ngoc Thao, and, among others, General Duong Van Minh (known as Big Minh), who had the backing of the Dai Viets in the ARVN. Colonel Nguyen Van Thieu and Tran Thien Khiem joined the plot. In October President Kennedy suspended economic aid, and the pope ordered Thuc to leave his post in Hue, a decision "that eased the conscience of the Catholic plotters." [17]

As plotters swirled around them, Nhu and Diem instructed the Vietnamese Special Forces chief Colonel Le Quang Tung to prepare a counter-coup. But Tung was summoned to the senior officers' club at Joint General Staff headquarters and shot dead by Big Minh's personal bodyguard. That prompted III Corps Commander General Ton That Dinh to withdraw the Special Forces under his command from Saigon. The CIA-controlled palace guard vacated the premises, and the military began arresting Diem loyalists. Knowing the end was near, Nhu and Diem fled to a friend's house in Cholon, then sought sanctuary in a nearby church. Soon a military convoy arrived, arrested them, and took them for a ride. When the convoy reached Hong Thap Tu Alley, between Cao Thang and Le Van Duyet streets, the brothers were shot dead. "The military men in the vehicle, who hated Nhu, stabbed his corpse many times." [18]

America endured a similar bloodletting three weeks later, when President John Kennedy was caught in a crossfire of gunfire in Dallas, Texas. The assassination, curiously, came shortly after Kennedy had proposed withdrawing U.S. advisers from Vietnam. Three days after JFK's death, President Lyndon Johnson signed National Security Action Memorandum 273, authorizing planning for covert military operations against North Vietnam. Conceived in secrecy, the ensuing policy of "provoked response" paved the way for full-scale U.S. military intervention for which the CIA was laying the groundwork through its three-part covert action program in South Vietnam's provinces.

On December 19, 1963, the Pentagon's planning branch in the Pacific, CINCPAC (Commander in Chief, Pacific), presented its plans to the Special Group. Two weeks later LBJ approved OPLAN 34A, and Marine General Victor Krulak, SACSA, handed operational control to MACV. The Special Operations Group (SOG) was formed in Saigon to implement OPLAN 34A, and attacks against North Vietnam began in February from Phoenix Island off the coast of Da Nang.

On July 31, 1964, SOG achieved its goal of creating a provoked response. That night SEALs Elton Manzione and Kenny Van Lesser led twenty South Vietnamese marines in a raid against Ron Me Island. Dropped at the wrong end of the island, Manzione and Van Lesser failed to knock out their target -- an NVA radar installation -- but the raid did push the North Vietnamese into attacking the USS Maddox, which was monitoring NVA electronic defenses activated by the attack. The incident was sold to the American public as a North Vietnamese "first strike" and resulted in Congress's passing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. The resulting air strikes against North Vietnam are cited by many historians as the start of the Vietnam War. Tonkin Gulf also allowed LBJ to sell himself as tougher than Republican candidate Barry Goldwater and to win the 1964 presidential election.

In Saigon, South Vietnamese armed forces Commander Duong Van Minh, who was supported by the important generals, the Dai Viets, and the CIA, surfaced as the new chief of state. Big Minh appointed General Khiem III Corps commander, and, in league with Nguyen Van Thieu, had General Ton That Dinh, the Vietnamese Military Security Service chief Mai Huu Xuan, CIO chief Nguyen Van Y, and Tran Van Don arrested. Generals Thieu and Khiem then used the unpopular arrests to undercut Big Minh, their main adversary, whom they replaced with General Duong Van Khanh. General Khanh, in the spirit of the times, called for an invasion of North Vietnam. But the plan was subverted three days later, when Air Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky -- fired from Operation Haylift for smuggling opium on his "black" flights -- revealed that the CIA had been sending teams into North Vietnam since July 1963. Diem's spy chief, Dr. Tuyen, was sent into honorable exile as ambassador to Egypt. NVA double agent Pham Ngoc Thao temporarily escaped detection and was appointed Ben Tre province chief; he served until 1965, when he was killed by Thieu, who suspected Thao of working against him on behalf of Ky. Thieu, Khiem, and Ky emerged as the big three power brokers and invited Dai Viet leaders Nguyen Ton Hoan and Professor Huy to return from ten years' exile in France to join a new but very loose coalition government. [19]

In the wake of the coup, according to Frank Scotton, "administrative paralysis set in. The VC exploited that and physically dismantled the strategic hamlets as despised symbols of the GVN." And as the grateful inmates returned to their villages, the country erupted in open revolt. Even the road leading from Saigon to John Vann's headquarters in My Tho was unsafe, so in December 1963 Ev Bumgartner sent Scotton to Long An Province, a few miles south of Saigon. Scotton brought along his political cadre from Quang Ngai Province, Civic Action recruits were provided by the Long An province chief, and Scotton set about "seeing what was wrong and getting a fix on the hamlets." He did this by using "small armed teams seeking information." [20]

Working with the American province adviser, Scotton organized three survey teams, which operated in three neighboring hamlets simultaneously: Each six-member team was equipped with black pajamas, pistols, a radio, and a submachine gun. Standard procedure was to regroup at the last moment before daybreak, then shift at dawn to a fourth hamlet, where the team would sleep during the day. At night they sat beside trails used by the VC cadres they had identified during visits to the hamlets. When Vietcong armed propaganda teams under their surveillance departed from a hamlet, Scotton's cadre would move in and speak to one person from each household, so the VC "would have to punish everyone after we left. But that never happened. A woman VC leader would bring in a unit after us," Scotton added, "but there were never any recriminations.

"The mission of these survey teams," according to Scotton, "was intelligence, not an attack on the VCI. But Long An proved the viability of small units. I felt confident that motivated small units could go in and displace the VC simply by their presence. Will and intent had to be primary, though; if they were, then the method generated useful reports."

With Diem dead, three quarters of South Vietnam's province chiefs fired from their jobs, and no more prohibitions on taking CIA money, the time was ripe for "local initiatives." Local officials, along with legions of Diem loyalists purged from government after the coup, were hired by the CIA and put in management positions in its covert action programs in the provinces and districts. But it was an American war now, with GVN stature at an all-time low, making it harder than ever to wage political war. And of course the situation was exploited by the North Vietnamese, who started infiltrating regular NVA troops, not just regroupees, into South Vietnam.

Other changes were also forthcoming as a result of the coup. With Operation Switchback and the transfer of the CIDG program to MACV, Ralph Johnson launched a new covert action program in Dam Pao outside Pleiku. Called Truong Son, it organized Montagnards into small units having civic action, counterterror, and intelligence functions. Meanwhile, Stu Methven was assigned to the Delta to stimulate "local initiatives" among the new generation of province chiefs.

Methven's plan was to create a three-part program with separate teams for civic action, counterterror, and intelligence. However, because the fighting was less intense in the Delta than in central Vietnam, Methven advocated easily monitored teams no larger than six men each -- the type Scotton was toying with in Long An. Methven also incorporated ideas developed in Kien Hoa Province by Tran Ngoc Chau, whose innovative census grievance teams were proving quite successful. Using Chau's and Scotton's programs as his models, Methven sold "local initiatives" to province chiefs across South Vietnam.

Behind every province chief, of course, was a CIA paramilitary officer promoting and organizing the CIA's three-part covert action program. Walter Mackem, who arrived in Vietnam in early 1964, was one of the first. After spending two months observing the CIDG program in Ban Me Thuot, Mackem was transferred to the Delta to institute similar programs in An Giang, Chau Doc, Sa Dec, and Vinh Long provinces. Mackem also reported directly to Washington on the political activities of the various sects and favorable ethnic minorities in his area of operations, the most important of which were the Hoa Hao (Theravada Buddhists) and the closely related ethnic Cambodians, the Khmer.

According to Mackem, there were no counterterror teams prior to his arrival on the scene. What did exist were private armies like the Sea Swallows, and those belonging to the sects. It was from these groups, as well as from province jails and defector programs, that Mackem got recruits for his CT teams. The composition of the teams differed from province to province depending "on what form opposition to the GVN took, and on the motives of the province chief" -- as Mackem puts it, "if he wanted the CT program tidy or not." The biggest contributors to Mackem's CT teams were the Khmer, who "didn't get along with the Vietnamese," while the armed propaganda team served as "a Hoa Hao job corps." [21]

Mackem personally selected and trained his CT and political action cadres. He dressed in black pajamas and accompanied them on missions deep into enemy territory to snatch and snuff VCI cadres. "I wandered around the jungle with them," Mackem admitted. "I did it myself. We were free-wheeling back then. It was a combination of The Man Who Would Be King and Apocalypse Now!"

To obtain information on individual VCI in GVN villages, according to Mackem, the CTs relied on advisers to the VBI, "the liaison types who set up an Embassy House." Information on VCI members in their own villages, or those in dispute, was provided by undercover agents in the villages, who, because of their vulnerability, "had a more benevolent approach [toward the VCI] than the police."

Such was the situation following the coup. The Vietcong controlled most of the countryside, and the Vietnamese Bureau of Investigations had little role to play outside Saigon and the major cities. In the countryside counterterror and armed propaganda teams, aided by secret agents in the villages, gathered intelligence on and attacked the Vietcong infrastructure. Meanwhile, U.S. airplanes, artillery, and combat units arrived and began driving the rural population into refugee camps or underground. However, the division of labor within the CIA station, which pitted police advisers against paramilitary advisers, had to be resolved before an effective attack on the VCI could be mounted, and first, the CIA would have to incorporate its covert action programs within a cohesive strategy for political warfare. Such is the subject of the next chapter.

Go to Next Page

 

Exit Survey

I am interested in:
Law and Government
Visual Arts
Cinema
Health
Music
Religion
Philosphy

I came to the Library:
To write a class paper
To do other research
To read for pleasure
Other

How I got here:
Been here before
Teacher referred me
Search Engine
Someone else referred me

How I feel about the Library:
Will return
Will refer others
Probably won't return
Skip Survey