by Davy Pawken
A covert CIA operation of the Vietnam War.
My thesis is that the classified Phoenix Program was a successful pacification program during the latter stages of the Vietnam War, and much of the Program’s success could be attributed to the unconventional Provincial Reconnaissance Units (PRU) in the 44 provinces. Through primary and secondary sources, I proved the PRU were dedicated soldiers, with many strategies for gathering intelligence. They acquired a reputation as assassins, but most of their neutralizations were captures or Hoi Chanhs, and the kills they did make were on the battlefield. They were, man for man, the most effective fighting force in South Vietnam.
To help get a unique perspective on the role of the Provincial Reconnaissance Units in the Phoenix Program, I sent out letters and questionnaires to approximately 25 men who were involved in the Phoenix Program and received answers back from Derrill Ballenger, Nelson Brickham, Warren Milberg, and John Wilbur. I asked them probing questions such as, “What knowledge do you have of any brutality or torture by the PRU?” and, “Do you have any firsthand knowledge of innocents being killed in the Phoenix Program pacification efforts?” Ballenger and Milberg wrote back, and Nelson Brickham talked to me on the phone. John Wilbur offered me next to nothing. The responses of the primary sources, some of which had to receive CIA clearance before being disseminated to me, helped me formulate my thesis.
The Role of the Provincial Reconnaissance Units in the Phoenix Program of the Vietnam War
During the latter years of the Vietnam War, approximately 1967-1973, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) undertook a project without the awareness of the American public: Intelligence Coordination and Exploitation (ICEX), now better known as the Phoenix Program, was one of the American military’s most closely guarded operations of the Vietnam War. The objective of the Phoenix Program was gathering intelligence on and neutralizing the Viet Cong Infrastructure (VCI) in South Vietnam. The term “neutralization” did not necessarily mean death: Kills, captures, or Viet Cong amnesty seekers (called “ralliers”) were all neutralizations. The Phoenix Program was one of a number of rural pacification programs designed to gain the hearts and minds of the rural South Vietnamese peasant population by eliminating communist control. The CIA conceived the Phoenix Program and acted as advisor to the various American and South Vietnamese units involved in its operation. American forces reporting to the CIA included Navy Seals, Army Green Berets, and Army Military Intelligence. South Vietnamese forces reporting to the CIA included Regional Forces, Popular Forces, and the Provincial Reconnaissance Units (PRU). The Phoenix Program was a successful pacification program, and the PRU contributed a great deal to that success. The membership, structure, incentives, rules, and tactics by which the PRU operated were unconventional and unique in modern warfare.
The Vietnam War spanned an enormous time frame. Fighting between the French and the Viet Minh (The League for the Independence of Vietnam, led by Ho Chi Minh) commenced in 1946. In 1954, a cease-fire was negotiated in Geneva and the Viet Minh moved north of the 17th parallel, while the non-communists moved south of it, thus creating North and South Vietnam. The Geneva conference specified that free elections would be held throughout the country in 1956 to unite the North and South under a single government; however, Ngo Dinh Diem, prime minister of South Vietnam, refused to hold the elections, so the North sought to unify the country through military power. The United States provided economic and military assistance to Diem’s regime, but Diem was becoming increasingly unpopular among the South Vietnamese. He replaced elected village councils with Saigon-appointed officials and chose his fellow Roman Catholics, rather than Buddhists, for many positions. Disapproval of Diem continued to grow in South Vietnam, and in November 1963, his own generals staged a coup and assassinated him. Amidst the turmoil of many incapable administrations, the Viet Cong increased their activity in South Vietnam. Finally, in August 1964, North Vietnamese boats fired on the United States (US) destroyer Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin, and Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which essentially allowed the US full intervention in the Vietnam War.
The US made numerous bombing raids on North Vietnam, but they had no dramatic effect. It became apparent to the CIA that to defeat the communists, they would have to practice the same tactics that the Viet Cong used against them. That was the purpose of the Counter Terror Teams (CTT), the immediate forerunner of the PRU. In 1965, William Colby, then head of the Far East Division of the Clandestine Services, supervised the founding of the CIA’s Counter Terror Teams. Vietnamese citizens filled the ranks, but the Counter Terror program was an American undertaking not affiliated with the South Vietnamese government. The CIA oversaw all aspects of the program, including recruiting, organizing, supplying, and paying the CTT (Marchietti and Marks, 245).
The Phoenix Program was born in 1967. It was the idea of William Colby, and he remains today as the person most closely associated with it. The name “Phoenix” is a loose interpretation of the Vietnamese Phung Hoang, a mythical Vietnamese bird bestowed with magical power. Phoenix/Phung Hoang was a joint US/Vietnamese venture, Phoenix being the American program and Phung Hoang being the Vietnamese branch. In most South Vietnamese villages, there was a legitimate village government, and then there was an illegitimate Viet Cong shadow government, peopled by civilian South Vietnamese communists, which in fact ruled the village. These illegitimate VCI-supported governments maintained their status with economic and physical threats, intimidating villagers to the point that they were afraid to turn any Viet Cong in to the South Vietnamese government. The VCI was the “rural apparatus on which the Viet Cong relied for recruits, food, money and asylum” (Karnow, 601).
Colby also oversaw the creation of Provincial Interrogation Centers (PIC). As the name suggests, a PIC was constructed in each of South Vietnam’s 44 provinces. PICs were the site of interrogations, as well as much of the alleged torture that plagued the Phoenix Program’s reputation (Karnow, 601). Actually, Viet Cong were generally uneducated and taken from families against their will. For many of the people brought in to the PICs, their first decent meal in a long time was enough to convince them to relinquish information and defect, says Nelson Brickham. Brickham was Chief of Field Operations for the CIA Special Branch, and he admitted to being one of the chief architects of the Phoenix Program (Personal Interview, 13 July 2000).
The CTT became the PRU in 1966. The PRU served the same purpose as their predecessors, except the name change gave the PRU a different image. The word “Terror” in “Counter Terror Teams” reflected badly on an already controversial program, so the CIA changed the name. The key word in the PRU name is reconnaissance, or information gathering. Both the CTT and the PRU received the reputation of “assassins” and “trained killers,” but the fact is that they emphasized capture over kills because information gathering could only occur with a live person (Marchietti and Marks, 245).
“If a strict chain of command, a rank structure, and rigid rules make up military structure and discipline, then the PRU definitely was not part of the military … an unconventional enemy called for unconventional tactics.” That was precisely what the CIA was thinking when they created the PRU. They knew exactly for whom they were looking, and they generally did not have to venture far to locate them (Andrade, 172).
There were basically three types of South Vietnamese individuals that made up the PRU. The first type was those who had a fervent hatred of the communists on a personal level. A PRU adviser once said, “These were hard-bitten guys who were really ticked off by the communists. They had lost families and wanted revenge” (Andrade, 173). A large percentage of these anti-communists were actually former communists. The PRU were one of a few forces in the Government of Vietnam (GVN), if not the only one, that welcomed former communists into their ranks. “They needed a job, and when they came over all they knew how to do was fight. They didn’t want to be farmers, so they tried to join the PRUs” (Moyar, 168).
Army of the Republic of [South] Vietnam (ARVN) deserters constituted the second type of soldier in the PRU. The CIA had adequate power to prevent the return of the deserters to Vietnamese control if the GVN attempted to order it (Moyar, 168).
ARVN deserters and anti-Communists accounted for the vast majority of PRU members; however, a third type, violent criminals, sometimes filtered into the ranks, preferring war service to prison. They were watched closely because of their potential to commit criminal acts, but it was undeniable that their effectiveness was paramount to the average PRU because they possessed great courage and were not afraid to die (Moyar, 168).
The PRU was not a large force, probably numbering somewhere in the vicinity of 4,000-6,000 members in all of South Vietnam. Each of the forty-four provinces supported one platoon, which was divided into three squads. Squad size varied greatly, from 30 to 60. Three factors dictated this small structure. First, very few were made of the “right stuff” for the PRUs. A PRU adviser noted that “it was very clannish. You really had to be a tough nut to get into the PRU and stay in.” Secondly, the PRU worked in small groups because that was the key to military success. Third, strict security would ensure that Viet Cong spies would not make their way into the ranks of the PRU. In addition, creating too large a force would compromise the secrecy that, for the most part, hid PRU activities from disapproving Americans (Andrade, 173).
There were numerous incentives to join the PRU. PRU members received higher salaries than those working for the Government of Vietnam (GVN), and they received US medical treatment, a luxury for the South Vietnamese. They were rewarded for kills and captures and were sometimes even allowed to keep booty found during their mission. Residing in provincial capitals, they received good food and drink and were well protected from communist attacks. Despite the fact that PRU operations involved a great deal of danger, members suffered fewer deaths than other South Vietnamese units (Moyar, 168). Being in the PRU was essentially a privilege, explaining why the CIA could be quite selective in choosing members.
There was no official hierarchy within the PRU, but the advisors did have a chain of command. A PRU chief was the leader of a unit and directed the field operations, and his degree of aggressiveness usually determined the success of a unit. The PRU chief reported to the CIA province officer, who selected assignments. The province officers reported to the CIA regional officer, who reported to the CIA chief of station in Saigon, the head of the CIA in South Vietnam (Andrade, 176).
The mission of the PRU to gather intelligence and neutralize the VCI was accomplished through intense interrogation, which if unsuccessful could lead to torture until suspected Viet Cong confessed. There were many tactics in place to prevent torture. One of the intelligence gathering tactics employed in the Phoenix program was the Chieu Hoi (Open Arms) program, which offered amnesty to Viet Cong defectors. “Chieu Hoi personnel questioned the ‘ralliers’ about Viet Cong methods of operation, the identities of specific cadres, and other important topics. They indoctrinated the ralliers and then tried to get them to work for the GVN or resettle them in GVN areas” (Moyar, 36). Chieu Hoi was an integral part of Phoenix’s intelligence gathering system.
When Chieu Hoi failed and suspected Viet Cong remained silent, the PRU relied on other means to make them talk. Since the PRU operated on good intelligence, they needed the Viet Cong alive in order to interrogate them; however, the PRU did not hesitate to kill their targets. Most Americans viewed this as assassination and murder, not caring to examine the situation any further. “The result of what PRUs did was not much different than body counts from search-and-destroy missions, aerial bombings, and artillery strikes. Both resulted in death to the enemy, but PRU operations were much more discerning than the massive affairs launched by conventional United States and ARVN forces” (Andrade, 175). The PRU sometimes killed surrendering communists and captured prisoners, but it usually occurred shortly after the battle, when emotions played a large role in their judgement (Moyar, 92).
An operation in Ben Cat district of Binh Duong Province (just north of Saigon) characterized a typical PRU mission. The initial intelligence originated with a Hoi Chanh, who defected through the Chieu Hoi program. The PRU discovered that the assistant party secretary to the Chau Thanh Viet Cong district committee was in a tunnel. PRU personnel moved in and interrogated him on the spot, and he released the whereabouts of another tunnel holding a former assistant party secretary and the Viet Cong security section chief. The PRU advanced on that location, and after a short exchange of gunfire, these Viet Cong officials surrendered just like their comrade. The PRU captured documents and brought them to the PIC, and the cycle of intelligence gathering and suspect apprehension would continue (Andrade, 188). Sometimes, however, the suspects did not surrender so easily, and the PRU resorted to brutal methods.
A major factor in the Phoenix controversy was the alleged torture inflicted by the PRU, although most American sources deny that it ever happened. Jerome Waldie, a congressman, visited Vietnam to uncover secret torture practices and provide further justification for the United States to disengage itself from the Vietnam War, yet he reported no sign of abuse. Michael Walsh was a PRU adviser who sat in on interrogations at the PICs, and he emphasized that they “were experts in their field, and they used their minds to conquer the spirit of those they were questioning” (Moyar, 90). Warren Milberg, who served in Vietnam from July 1967 until April 1969 as Province Officer in Charge in Quang Tri Province, overseeing the PRU and Rural Development Cadre team operations, stated that no torture occurred as a matter of policy, and he was personally unaware of any abuses by the Quang Tri PRU (Correspondence, 2 August 2000).
Though Americans generally said that torture occurred very seldom if at all, many Vietnamese would strongly contest that. An anonymous Vietnamese employee at the National Police Convalescence Center offered an impression of the situation. “I saw prisoners hit with sticks while hung by their feet; others had nails pulled out and soapy water forced down their mouths until they choked. Sometimes they used the electric crank with wires attached to the ears, nose, or genitals. Even with the women. They attached the wires to their breasts.” In another incident, a former secret policeman at a PIC admitted to participating in torture and confirmed that a woman had a hard rubber club shoved into her vagina (Drosnin, 21).
As stated in the account above, torture was used to get information from stubborn people; however, innocent people were rounded up as well, which some suggest were intended to fulfill a neutralization quota imposed by the CIA. One source claimed two lieutenants became conscientious objectors after learning they would have to neutralize fifty VCI per month. Warren Milberg said “various kinds of quotas were often received from Da Nang, who probably received them from Saigon, who received them from Washington. We mostly attempted to do our jobs as best as we could under very difficult circumstances. As a result, not much attention was paid to quotas” (Correspondence, 2 August 2000).
The cells that the suspected Viet Cong were placed in were often called “tiger cages,” and the most infamous prison was Con Son, where these 5x9 foot pits with grated ceilings were found. The prisoners requested water, but instead were showered with lime, which burned their skin and blinded at least one woman. In PICs, the maximum “legal” amount of time the prisoners could be held was 45 days, but they were usually held until they paid their bribe or confessed. The term “confessed” is used loosely, because those tortured were often innocent people who had no real information to give. A former Vietnamese officer revealed a disturbing saying of his department: “If they are innocent, beat them until they are guilty” (Drosnin, 22).
Derrill Ballenger served two terms in Vietnam and had three assignments. From July 1967 to July 1968 he was G2 (intelligence) advisor to the 22nd Army of Vietnam Infantry Division; from September 1970 to January 1971 he was Special Assistant to the Commanding General, Combat Security, Quinhon Province; and from January 1971 to September 1971, Commander, Intelligence Collection Detachment, 3rd Military Intelligence Battalion, 525th Military Intelligence Group (United States Army in Vietnam). These assignments provided him knowledge of the Phoenix Program. Ballenger had personal knowledge of terrorist torture and assassination of friendly/hamlet district people by the Viet Cong, so he did not doubt that the torture was returned “in kind,” but he had no specific knowledge of innocents being killed (Correspondence, August 2000). Warren Milberg said that innocents were killed, but that they were accidental deaths and not ones that occurred as a matter of planning or policy (Correspondence, 2 August 2000).
It is widely accepted—even by William Colby himself—that Phoenix was not a complete success. However, many of those people who accept that assessment are just as ready to admit that it was an effective aspect of the US effort against the VCI. Colby mentioned that Phoenix was a public program, not a secret assassination operation, and to support this, he cites the fact that the Vietnamese Prime Minister launched the program publicly and explained its goals to the people. Phoenix supported peaceful resolution, putting up “wanted” posters. The posters did not say “Wanted: Dead or Alive” like in the 19th century American West; rather, they named VCI that Phoenix wanted to have surrender through Chieu Hoi. Phoenix made its intentions clear when it wanted to perform a mission, notifying the Village Chiefs of operations in their area so they could provide information about the area to help the PRU do the best job possible (Honorable Men, 273).
Derrill Ballenger opined on the successes and failures of the Phoenix Program. He believed Phoenix succeeded because it “created fear and apprehension within the VCI, removed important leaders and terrorists from the VCI, and it provided friendly forces with a sense of ‘deserved justice’.” He stated the Phoenix Program also had its weaknesses: Its “actions were sometimes based more on suspicion than hard intelligence, resulting in the deaths of innocent people; it was sometimes used to remove political opponents who were not actual VC personnel; and it was ‘stooping’ to the level of the enemy” (Correspondence, August 2000).
Considering the massive scope of the Phoenix Program, it is obvious that innocent people were killed. On the battlefield, those people were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. In terms of torture, saying that none occurred would almost certainly be erroneous, but it was never an approved method of interrogation. Any torture that did occur was inflicted by individuals or groups acting on their own. Even considering the fact that torture happened, the Phoenix Program did accomplish the things it was meant to do. The VCI later described to the CIA the success of Phoenix in neutralizing a large number of VCI. North Vietnamese General Tran Do called it “extremely destructive,” and Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach said Phoenix “wiped out many of our bases.” A great host of others supported these claims, admitting that thousands of true VCI were neutralized as a result of Phoenix (Karnow, 602).
To give a completely accurate response to the question of whether the Phoenix Program was a success or a failure, there would have to be 44 answers, since Phoenix success varied from province to province. Both Warren Milberg and Nelson Brickham agree that the success or failure of the Phoenix Program in each province was due in large part to the province chief. In Quang Tri Province, according to Milberg, the Vietnamese province chief, a colonel in the ARVN, had much control over the Phoenix activities in his province. After all, this was a joint US/Vietnamese program. In some provinces, the Province Chief was moral and used the forces to fight the Viet Cong, while in other provinces, like Quang Tri, the chief was corrupt and would use the PRU and other assets for his own political purposes, whatever those may have been (Brickham, Personal Interview, 13 July 2000) (Milberg, Correspondence, 23 July 2000).
Overall, however, the Phoenix program was a success. Milberg said, as did William Colby, that the program to neutralize the VCI was successful because it forced the North Vietnamese to abandon their basic attempt at insurgency in South Vietnam and to adopt a more traditional limited war strategy. The effectiveness of the Phoenix Program is apparent after studying the statistics. Colby stated that about 20,587 VCI had been killed, 29,978 were captured, and 17,717 had taken advantage of Chieu Hoi. Out of those numbers, 7,408 Viet Cong were captured and 4,407 were killed by the PRU; only 179 PRU members died. Those are excellent statistics for a force that numbered only several thousand men (Andrade 184). That totals 68,282 VCI neutralized, of which about 70% were not killed. Most of those that were killed were killed in the heat of combat, and 88% of those were killed by conventional, non-PRU forces (Lost Victory, 331). Therefore, the PRU reputation for assassination seems to be undeserved. A “midnight assassination”—the term given to sneaking into a hut at night and killing people in their sleep—plagued the PRUs’ reputation, but if it happened at all, it was an extremely rare occurrence.
When compared with other unit types within the Phoenix Program, PRU effectiveness was even more evident. Statistics from 1968 in the province of Long An indicate that the ARVN had a 66% desertion rate, while the Regional Force, a district level military unit, had a 29% desertion rate. The Popular Force, a village level military unit, had an 18% desertion rate, and in the PRU desertion was 0%. In a ratio of enemies killed in action to friendly killed in action, the ARVN had 2.5 (2.5 times more kills than deaths among themselves), the Regional Force had 3.2, the Popular Force had 3.1, and the PRU had 6.6. These statistics indicate that the PRU were dedicated soldiers who worked hard to do their job well and were extremely effective (Race, 231).
The PRU were composed of Vietnamese, but their advisers were American. As Derrill Ballenger states, some advisers were “contract cowboys” who “ignored good intelligence” and “wanted to play Rambo,” but most carried out their duties effectively (Correspondence, August 2000). As the years progressed, it became readily apparent that the leadership of the US advisers was an important factor in determining the PRU success. In the final years of the war, around 1973, the PRU were placed within the structure of the National Police, who were under the supervision of the GVN, and this effectively reduced both the level of US advisory and financial support. This was done as part of a “Vietnamization” program, which aimed to make the South Vietnamese more self-reliant by letting them control their own operations. “They became part of the GVN’s unwieldy and often corrupt and incompetent system” and “degenerated into bands of armed thugs who extorted money from the local population at will” (Andrade, 185). Now that the most effective fighting force in the Phoenix Program had been reduced to a horde of renegade criminals, the Phoenix had lost its wings, and it was only a matter of time before it would come crashing to the ground.
The PRU were the most effective force countering the VCI during the entire Vietnam War and specifically within the Phoenix Program. “No one could have disputed the Phoenix Program’s effectiveness if everyone had performed as well as the PRU.” Their operational professionalism and effective use of intelligence made them the best Phoenix force by far, boasting 422 VCI neutralizations for every 1,000 PRU. The National Police, the next best organization in man-to-man neutralizations, neutralized only 36 VCI for every 1,000 men. Unfortunately, because of their small numbers, the PRU only accounted for about 7% of all VCI neutralizations (Andrade, 187). If the number of PRU had been larger, however, they would have possibly been less effective, both because of greater chance of VCI infiltration into PRU ranks and a greater chance of disorganization. Rumors of torture and killing of innocents dogged the PRU and Phoenix’s reputation, and chances are that isolated incidents did occur, but it was war, and sometimes a combatant doesn’t have time to think before shooting someone, or emotions may overtake his judgement. The American public didn’t consider the fact that if it were their town being taken over by hostile forces, they would be fighting in the exact same manner. The Vietnam War was an unconventional war, and the methods used by the PRU were similarly unconventional. A vast array of organizations affirmed PRU effectiveness, ranging from the CIA to the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, who saw the forces of Phoenix decimate the ranks of their shadow governments. The PRU fought with skill and precision, but they were dependent on the US for leadership and financial resources, important factors in determining PRU success. Discontinuance of US support ultimately led to the end of the previously unstoppable PRU fighting force and the demise of the Phoenix Program. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Andrade, Dale. Ashes to Ashes: The Phoenix Program and the Vietnam War. Lexington, Massachusetts: Lexington Books, 1990.
Ballenger, Derrill. Correspondence. August 2000.
Brickham, Nelson. Personal Interview: 13 July 2000.
Colby, William, and Peter Forbath. Honorable Men: My Life in the CIA. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978.
Colby, William, with James McCargar. Lost Victory: A Firsthand Account of America’s Sixteen-year Involvement in Vietnam. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1989.
Drosnin, Michael. “Phoenix: The CIA’s Biggest Assassination Program.” New Times, August 1975, 16-24.
Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. New York: Viking, 1983.
Marchetti, Victor, and John D. Marks. The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974.
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Milberg, Warren. Correspondences. 23 July 2000 and 2 August 2000.
Moyar, Mark. Phoenix and the Birds of Prey. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1997.
Race, Jeffrey. War Comes to Long An. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1972.