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Features >> Articles >> Phoenix

Flight Of The Phoenix

Destroying the Viet Cong infrastructure was the key to winning the guerrilla war. The Phoenix program was designed to do just that.

By Colonel William Wilson, U.S. Army (retired)

ARVN instructors train members of a Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) to protect their village against the Viet Cong. The Phoenix program was designed to carry the undercover war to the Viet Cong infrastructure (VCI). (National Archives)
An elaborate, sophisticated, secret enemy network existed in Vietnam that tried to impose its authority on the people through terror and threat. This network, called the Viet Cong infrastructure (VCI), provided the political control and direction of the enemy's war within the villages and hamlets.

The VCI supplied the caches for the troops infiltrating from the border sanctuaries; it provided the guides and the intelligence for the North Vietnamese newcomers entering South Vietnam for the first time; it taxed, terrorized and conscripted youth for the military. During 1969, terrorists killed more than 6,000 people, 1,200 of whom had been selected for assassination. In addition, there were 15,000 wounded. Among the dead were 90 village chiefs and officials, 240 hamlet chiefs and officials, 229 refugees and 4,350 of the general populace.

Between the assassination of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963 and the emergence, in mid-1965, of General Nguyen Van Thieu, South Vietnam's war effort was greatly hampered by political instability. A period of some 19 months saw the stagnation of the pacification programs (a broad term that included all the past and present socioeconomic efforts of the government to "win the hearts and minds of the people") and the continued deterioration of rural security as the VCI took advantage of the disarray in Saigon.

By 1965 the situation was so grave that American and South Vietnamese officials concluded that all efforts to date -- including pacification plans, counterinsurgency operations and the reorganization of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) -- were insufficient to stave off defeat at the hands of the Communists.

In March 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Robert W. Komer as his special assistant in Washington to direct, coordinate and supervise nonmilitary programs (in his words, "the other war") -- further evidence of the priority the president gave to pacification. After several trips to Vietnam, Komer reported pacification at a virtual impasse and recommended to the president a number of measures that might produce results. He believed the best way to weaken the Viet Cong was by consolidating American assistance under a single manager empowered to eliminate overlapping programs and disentangle competition for resources.

Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) Intelligence summarized a comprehensive study of the enemy strategy, distributed June 29, 1967, based on an analysis of information reports, interrogation reports and captured documents in U.S. and ARVN files. It clearly stated that the VCI provided a pervasive and insidious threat to meaningful victory in Vietnam, making the destruction of the VCI our most formidable task. That same year, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) proposed that all U.S. intelligence agencies pool their information on VCI at province, district and Saigon levels. Next >>

Copyright (c) 2000, PRIMEDIA Enthusiast Publications, Inc.

Jim Schueckler
"Soon we were heading towards the mountains with a Huey full of mail, food, Christmas cargo, and two American young women."

Tom Fowler
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The average cost per B-52 mission during Vietnam was $41,421, with an average of 27 tons of munitions dropped.
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