Thesis

A dirty, inglorious affair: the Phoenix program in Vietnam

This thesis offers an analysis of the Phoenix Program, a counterinsurgency operation during the Vietnam War. From 1967 to 1972, American military advisors worked with South Vietnamese military and police forces to defeat a Communist insurgency deeply enrooted in the Vietnamese society. The Viet Cong Infrastructure (VCI) accessed all levels of the South Vietnamese government in Saigon and helped defeat the regime. Using a variety of techniques including propaganda, monetary rewards, imprisonment, and torture, the Phoenix Program eliminated tens of thousands of VCI members, but in the process, innocents died and Phoenix acquired the label of an “assassination program.” Journalists and anti-war demonstrators took up this label, hoping to bring an end to the war. The war became a dirty conflict with accusations of brutality and war crimes on both sides. The United States portrayed itself as a defender of freedom and human rights, but after years of frustration, American officials looked for a way out by any means necessary.
 The Vietnam War divided a nation and in the years since, historians cannot agree on the war’s legacy. Either the United States fought for righteous reasons or politicians deceived the American people for decades on the importance of Vietnam in world affairs. Phoenix, mired in claims of cruelty, equally has a clouded heritage. The war ended in defeat for the United States, making it difficult to judge the Phoenix Program’s impact. In an attempt to win the war for the Saigon government, Phoenix advisors took the fight directly to the insurgency, but in the process, their actions and those of the South Vietnamese working in the Phoenix Program committed violations and atrocities the sullied the program and the overall war effort.
 The tremendous amount of writing on the Vietnam War allows scholars to look back on the period and analyze almost any topic—even sensitive operations such as the Phoenix Program. This thesis draws from soldiers’ memoirs from both sides of the conflict, newspaper articles, and Congressional hearing transcripts. These records provide firsthand accounts of the war from the Phoenix offices and the difficulty in fighting the Communist insurgency. In order to understand what the Phoenix Program was, it is important to listen to the voices of those involved. Equally, the newspaper articles and Congressional hearings reveal Phoenix’s impact on the home front. Articles from Time, Newsweek, and newspapers around the country provide this important perspective as Americans learned of the actions of their military overseas. Finally, secondary accounts also assisted in the formation of my analysis, with a reliance on the work of Dale Andradé, Mark Moyar, and Douglas Valentine.
 By analyzing the various sources on the Phoenix Program and the Vietnam War, this thesis uncovers examples of brutality committed against the Vietnamese citizenry, forcing the question of what kind of program was Phoenix: an attempt at defeating the insurgency by any means necessary or a ruthless program bent on eradication of any suspected of harboring anti-Saigon leanings. Those involved with the program defended their actions, while those on the outside condemned it. Phoenix became infamous because of its secretive nature and the large number of accusations leveled against it. The Phoenix Program did not intend to become an assassination operation, but in the course of fighting the insurgency, many people, including innocent South Vietnamese, died. In the end, the Phoenix Program became just another frustrating failure during the Vietnam War.

Thesis (M.A., History)--California State University, Sacramento, 2012.

This thesis offers an analysis of the Phoenix Program, a counterinsurgency operation during the Vietnam War. From 1967 to 1972, American military advisors worked with South Vietnamese military and police forces to defeat a Communist insurgency deeply enrooted in the Vietnamese society. The Viet Cong Infrastructure (VCI) accessed all levels of the South Vietnamese government in Saigon and helped defeat the regime. Using a variety of techniques including propaganda, monetary rewards, imprisonment, and torture, the Phoenix Program eliminated tens of thousands of VCI members, but in the process, innocents died and Phoenix acquired the label of an “assassination program.” Journalists and anti-war demonstrators took up this label, hoping to bring an end to the war. The war became a dirty conflict with accusations of brutality and war crimes on both sides. The United States portrayed itself as a defender of freedom and human rights, but after years of frustration, American officials looked for a way out by any means necessary. The Vietnam War divided a nation and in the years since, historians cannot agree on the war’s legacy. Either the United States fought for righteous reasons or politicians deceived the American people for decades on the importance of Vietnam in world affairs. Phoenix, mired in claims of cruelty, equally has a clouded heritage. The war ended in defeat for the United States, making it difficult to judge the Phoenix Program’s impact. In an attempt to win the war for the Saigon government, Phoenix advisors took the fight directly to the insurgency, but in the process, their actions and those of the South Vietnamese working in the Phoenix Program committed violations and atrocities the sullied the program and the overall war effort. The tremendous amount of writing on the Vietnam War allows scholars to look back on the period and analyze almost any topic—even sensitive operations such as the Phoenix Program. This thesis draws from soldiers’ memoirs from both sides of the conflict, newspaper articles, and Congressional hearing transcripts. These records provide firsthand accounts of the war from the Phoenix offices and the difficulty in fighting the Communist insurgency. In order to understand what the Phoenix Program was, it is important to listen to the voices of those involved. Equally, the newspaper articles and Congressional hearings reveal Phoenix’s impact on the home front. Articles from Time, Newsweek, and newspapers around the country provide this important perspective as Americans learned of the actions of their military overseas. Finally, secondary accounts also assisted in the formation of my analysis, with a reliance on the work of Dale Andradé, Mark Moyar, and Douglas Valentine. By analyzing the various sources on the Phoenix Program and the Vietnam War, this thesis uncovers examples of brutality committed against the Vietnamese citizenry, forcing the question of what kind of program was Phoenix: an attempt at defeating the insurgency by any means necessary or a ruthless program bent on eradication of any suspected of harboring anti-Saigon leanings. Those involved with the program defended their actions, while those on the outside condemned it. Phoenix became infamous because of its secretive nature and the large number of accusations leveled against it. The Phoenix Program did not intend to become an assassination operation, but in the course of fighting the insurgency, many people, including innocent South Vietnamese, died. In the end, the Phoenix Program became just another frustrating failure during the Vietnam War.

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