CIA activities in Vietnam

CIA activities in Vietnam

There are 174 National Intelligence Estimates dealing with Vietnam, issued by the Central Intelligence Agency after coordination with the intelligence community of the US government. They may be searched at [1]


Vietnam 1945–1947

Even before the CIA was formed, a team from the OSS, and its successors that became the CIA, under Major Archimedes L.A. Patti, was in French Indochina, assessing the situation, and discussing alternatives with parties on all sides, including Ho Chi Minh.[1]

Vietnam 1954

Covert action

The initial CIA team in Saigon was the Saigon Military Mission, headed by United States Air Force Colonel Edward Lansdale, who arrived on 1 June 1954. His diplomatic cover job was Assistant Air Attaché. The broad mission for the team was to undertake paramilitary operations against the enemy and to wage political-psychological warfare.[2]

Working in close cooperation with the U.S. Information Agency, a new psychological warfare campaign was devised for the Vietnamese Army and for the government in Hanoi. Shortly after, a refresher course in combat psywar was constructed and Vietnamese Army personnel were rushed through it.

The second SMM member, MAJ Lucien Conein, arrived on July 1. A paramilitary specialist, well-known to the French for his help with French-operated maquis in Tonkin against the Japanese in 1945, he was the one American guerrilla fighter who had not been a member of the Patti Mission. In August, he went to Hanoi with the assignment of developing a paramilitary organization in the north.... A second paramilitary team for the south was formed, with Army LT Edward Williams doing double duty as the only experienced counter-espionage officer, working with revolutionary political groups.

Intelligence analysis

Working with available data, the CIA produced a National Intelligence Estimate in August. It began by stating that the Communist signing of the Geneva agreements had legitimized them, and they will immediately move to control the North while planning the long-term control of the country.

While the Diem government is in official control of the South, certain pro-French elements may be planning to overthrow it. Viet Minh elements will stay in the south and create an underground, discredit the government, and undermine French-Vietnamese relations. [3]

On October 26, 1954, Landsdale lured two key personnel in a planned coup against South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem out of the country. Lansdale invited Hinh and staff to visit the Philippines.

US personnel dealing with the Government of Vietnam had difficulty in understanding the politics. The diplomats were not getting clear information in 1954 and early 1955, but the CIA station "had and has no mandate or mission to perform systematic intelligence and espionage in friendly countries, and so lacks the resources to gather and evaluate the large amounts of information required on political forces, corruption, connections, and so on." [2]

Vietnam 1955

By 31 January 1955, a paramilitary group had cached its supplies in Haiphong, having had them shipped by Civil Air Transport, a CIA proprietary airline belonging to the Directorate of Support.

Vietnam 1961

In April 1961, Lansdale who has been designated Operations Officer for an interagency Task Force responsible for political, military, economic, psychological, and covert character, was to go to Vietnam in April. Changes in policy, however, transferred these responsibilities to the military and diplomats, and Lansdale was no longer involved with Vietnam.

CIA begins to sponsor and train the Civilian Irregular Defense Groups (CIDG) in the South Central Highlands. These were local defense operations with a mobile support component, "Mike Force", made up primarily of Nung mercenaries. Most CIDG units eventually became Vietnamese Rangers.

Vietnam 1963

The following Wikipedia article recounts allegations that CIA smuggled opium from Western Vietnam to the U.S. in order to fund covert operations:

Vietnam 1964

Intelligence analysis

A Special National Intelligence Estimate (SNIE) issued in May postulated that a short but intense air and naval campaign against the DRV would deter an invasion of the South, although not stop activities there. It also estimated that this would be a strong morale boost to the RVN.[4] The campaign described, however, was different than the actual gradual attacks that resulted from the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August.

In October, another, less optimistic SNIE was issued, limited to the South. It said the situation was deteriorating, and a coup could occur at any time. The Prime Minister of the country, General Nguyen Khanh, stayed in power by placating various groups, while exhibiting little leadership of the country or the military. Defeatism was spreading from Saigon to the countryside, and was aggravated by a Montagnard revolt on September 20. No clear leadership was emerging.

The Viet Cong, however, were not seen to be planning an immediate takeover, but are concentrating on psychological operations to increase unrest.[5]

Vietnam 1965

Intelligence analysis

Special National Intelligence Estimate 10-9-65, was done to assess the reactions, in various parts of the world, to an escalation of US attacks on North Vietnam. This estimate is especially significant in the conflict between the White House and the military & intelligence community. This entry has subsections so it will cross-reference with those other regional parts. [6] The assumptions made about the course of action, to which reactions are estimated, were:

  1. US decides to increase its forces in South Vietnam to about 175,000 by 1 November:
  2. call up about 225,000 reserves
  3. to extend tours of duty at the rate of 20,000 a month
  4. increase the regular strength of the armed services by 400,000 over the next year
  5. double draft calls.

We further assume

(a) that the increase in forces would be accompanied by statements reiterating our objectives and our readiness for unconditional discussions,
(b) that US forces would be deployed so that no major grouping threatened or appeared to threaten the 17th Parallel, and
(c) that we might either continue present policy with regard to air strikes or extend these strikes in North Vietnam to include attacks on land (but not sea) lines of communication from South Chin2 and military targets in the HHA.

The general response was predicted to be "Communists and non-Communists alike would see in the increased US military involvement in Vietnam a strong indication that the US saw little hope of early negotiations. This would be particularly true if, at the same time, the US extended its air operations in North Vietnam.

Vietnam 1965: Viet Cong and DRV reactions

At present the Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese (DRV) leaders appear confident that their course in South Vietnam promises ultimate and possibly early success without important concessions on their part. They seem to believe that they can achieve a series of local military successes which, sooner or later, will bring victory through a combination of a deteriorating South Vietnamese army (ARVN) morale and effectiveness, a collapse of anti-Communist government in Saigon, and an exhaustion of the US will to persist.

"We do not believe that inauguration of the US actions here assumed would basically alter these expectations. The VC and the DRV ... probably believe that the VC, with increased North Vietnamese assistance, can find ways to offset the effect of larger US forces. Nor do we think that the extension of air attacks to military targets in the Hanoi and Haiphong area [HHA] would significantly injure the VC ability to persevere in the South or persuade the Hanoi Government that the price of persisting was unacceptably high. The Air Force dissented with this paragraph, saying:

We believe that inauguration of the US actions here assumed, which emphasize US willingness and determination to become more deeply involved in combat operations in the South and eliminate the concept of an area 'sanctuary' in North Vietnam, has a reasonable chance of basically altering the Communists' short-term expectations. While the VC and the DRV probably have come to expect some additional US commitments, and they probably believe that the VC, with increased DRV assistance, can ...offset the effect of larger US forces, such confidence could be quite quickly undermined by effectively expanded US combat operations. Extension of air attacks to military targets in the HHA would pose the added threat that urban/industrial targets might be next. The selective and limited nature of US bombing target selections to date may have led Hanoi seriously to underestimate the extent of US determination to exert the power necessary to force discontinuance of DRV support for the VC. US military actions resulting from the assumed program could well persuade the Hanoi Government that the price of persisting was becoming unacceptably high.""

Returning to the main estimate, the next conclusion was "If the extension of air attacks were to include sustained interdiction of land lines of communication leading from South China, these actions would obviously make the delivery of... aid more difficult and costly, and would have a serious impact on the limited industrial sector of the DRV [Democratic Republic of (North) Vietnam] general economy. It would still not have a critical impact on the Communist determination to persevere and would not, at least for the short term, seriously impair VC capabilities in South Vietnam.

If, in addition, POL [petroleum, oil and lubricants] targets in the Hanoi-Haiphong area were destroyed by air attacks, the DRV's ability to provide transportation for the general economy would be severely reduced. It would also complicate their military logistics.... The VC also depend on supplies from the North to maintain their present level of large-scale operations. The accumulated strains of a prolonged curtailment of supplies received from North Vietnam would... inhibit and might even prevent an increase in large-scale VC military activity, though they would probably not force any significant reduction in VC terrorist tactics of harassment and sabotage.... But the final decision on whether to seek negotiations would depend to a great extent on political developments in the Indochina area and elsewhere, and on the actual course of combat in South Vietnam. The State Department and the Army dissented with this paragraph, saying:

Department of State, and the Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Department of the Army, believe that in spite of greater damage and harassment caused by sustained air attack on lines of communication (LOC) and other targets, the capacities of DRV and Laos LOC are sufficient to permit support of the war in South Vietnam at the scale envisaged in this estimate. Other significant factors supporting this position are the impossibility of doing irreparable damage to LOC capacity; demonstrated Communist logistic resourcefulness and ability to move large amounts of war material long distances over difficult terrain by primitive means; and the difficulty of detecting, let alone stopping, sea infiltration.

"In response... the Communists would almost certainly undertake measures to increase their own strength in South Vietnam for a higher level of struggle. They are already augmenting VC units and dispatching additional PAVN forces to South Vietnam; the assumed US actions would probably result in a speeding up of this process. By the end of 1965, the total of PAVN regulars in organized units in South Vietnam could reach 20,000 to 30,000 men. Although the Communists are aware of the dangers of concentrating their troops in large numbers, they might, during the next few months, attempt major assaults against GVN forces and positions...

"In coping with larger US forces employed in a more aggressive fashion, we believe that the VC would seek to avoid the kind of engagements which risked a serious Communist defeat." They would concentrate on harassments...or increasing operations in Laos.

"... the Communists' strategy will depend upon the actual course of combat and their estimates of South Vietnamese stability and US will to persist. They are predisposed to attach great weight to signs of disintegration in Saigon and to manifestations of domestic US opposition to Administration policies. These... reinforce the leadership's conviction that Communist staying power is inherently superior." If the situation changes their preconception, they might show interest in negotiating, as long as they preserve their freedom of action while inhibiting US/GVN operations.

"Faced with the buildup outlined in our assumptions, the DRV would probably request more air defense equipment from the USSR, including SAMs, fighters, technicians, and perhaps pilots, particularly if US air attacks were expanded." Hanoi would probably request air defense equipment from the PRC and North Korea, but limit the personnel sent.

The DRV might be concerned about a US invasion of the North, but would not ask for Chinese combat forces unless actual invasion seemed imminent.

Vietnam 1965: Chinese Communist reactions

It was estimated that the Chinese are even more certain than the DRV/VC remaining firm will defeat the US. It was not believed they would actively intervene with combat troops, but would intensify propaganda and take some steps to mobilize reserves.

"If air strikes were extended to the HHA and particularly to lines of communication from South China, the chances of Chinese Communist air intervention from Chinese bases would increase," especially if the main roads and rail lines were cut the main roads and rail lines over which the principal supplies are moving... we consider the chances are about even that Chinese aircraft would deliberately engage the US over North Vietnam from bases within China, unless large numbers of US aircraft operated close to the Chinese border. DIA, the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, and NSA disagreed, saying "If air strikes were extended to the Hanoi-Haiphong area and particularly to lines of communication from South China, the chances of Chinese Communist air intervention from Chinese bases would increase. Nevertheless, we believe the Chinese would be reluctant to engage the US in an air war or to risk US retaliation against Chinese military installations. We therefore consider it unlikely that Chinese aircraft would deliberately engage the US over North Vietnam from bases within China." The State Department disagreed, saying the risks were even higher than in the text.

The Director of Intelligence and Research, Department of State, believes that the chances are better than even that Chinese aircraft would deliberately engage the US under these circumstances. Even if air engagements were accidental they would have extremely dangerous repercussions and if they were deliberate they could not fail to lead to a wider war.

Vietnam 1965: Soviet reactions

While the Soviet Union hopes for an eventual Communist victory in South Vietnam, but it is more conscious than Peiping and Hanoi of the larger military does not wish the kind of Communist victory which would magnify the prestige and power of China. Unlike Peiping and Hanoi, Moscow is concerned with minimizing damage to East-West relations. In this situation, the USSR prefers a course of negotiations...

"...we believe that the USSR would see no alternative to continued support of the DRV and further expansion of its military aid. It would thus be likely to grant a DRV request for additional air defense equipment and personnel. It would probably feel compelled to comply promptly with DRV requests to replace air defense equipment destroyed by US attacks in the Hanoi area. The Soviet aid program might be hampered by Chinese restrictions on transit rights.

"The USSR would probably indicate that, if the US remains unyielding in Vietnam, it faces trouble elsewhere in the world, as, for example, in Berlin. We do not think, however, that Moscow would confront us with a major challenge...We believe that the US decisions considered here would produce important reactions in general Soviet policy..." The USSR would probably increase its military spending.

Vietnam 1965: general non-communist reactions

[these actions] would cause rising alarm because, in combination with Communist statements in response, they would revive and fortify fears of increased cold-war tensions and even of a much larger war. This might make some governments more reluctant to give public support to US policy, particularly governments in political difficulty, e.g., the UK, Canada, and Norway...Over the longer run, however, the more important reactions will depend on the subsequent course of the conflict.

"In non-Communist Asia, Japan offers the most serious problem. We believe the Sato government would maintain its policy of supporting US policy in spite of howls from the press and opposition forces. Sato's position would be made much more difficult, however, if Okinawa or especially Japan were to become a greatly expanded conduit for support of US forces in Vietnam, or if it appeared that China was about to become involved in the fighting." India would deplore the intensification, but the actual positions of India and Pakistan would not change.

Vietnam 1967

Covert action

The Phoenix Program was an attempt to attack the Viet Cong infrastructure (VCI) with a "rifle shot rather than a shotgun approach to target key political leaders, command/control elements and activists in the VCI." In that the VCI, as opposed to the main force VC/NVA combat forces, used terror against villagers, Phoenix can be considered a counterterror program using some of the same methods as its opponents.

While Phoenix has often been called a CIA program, that is not entirely correct. It was under the direction of William Colby, who had been Saigon Deputy CIA Station Chief, and then Station Chief, between 1959 and 1962. He returned to Vietnam in 1968, as deputy to Robert Komer, the civilian head of the American efforts against the Communists, called Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS). Shortly after arriving, Colby succeeded Komer as head of CORDS, which drew on a wide range of US and South Vietnamese organizations, including the CIA station's Rural Development cadre.[7]

Vietnam 1969

Mixed covert action and intelligence collection

Neither the CIA nor the military really wanted Phoenix. A footnote to a report on the program may be more to the point than the main report [8]

On December 15 Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird met with George A. Carver, Jr., the DCI’s Special Assistant for Vietnamese Affairs. In a December 15 memorandum to Helms, Carver stated that Laird was anxious to remove all U.S. military personnel from the PRU program, as were MACV commanding general Creighton Abrams and the JCS. Laird admitted that his concerns were “political,” and he wanted to avoid a flap over the PRU in which U.S. military personnel would be associated. Carver explained that recent steps had been taken to tighten controls over the program, curtail the operational involvement of U.S. military personnel, and shift the emphasis to intelligence collection from ambush or “elimination.” Carver argued that the sudden removal of U.S. military personnel, who were already in the process of being gradually reduced, would be a mistake and would jeopardize the program. Laird agreed to reconsider his view.

The main report gives the level of US involvement, showing the Phoenix personnel were primarily South Vietnamese.

The Provincial Reconnaissance Unit (PRU) Program in South Vietnam forms an investigative and paramilitary attack upon the covert communist apparatus in South Vietnam. PRU teams, currently totalling approximately 4,200 men, operate in 44 provinces of South Vietnam. PRU are based in their home areas and operate in teams of 15–20 men. They are presently advised and supported by 101 U.S. military advisors and seven CIA personnel. CIA funds the PRU and retains overall administrative control of the project for the U.S. Government.

Reasons against continued CIA involvement included a concern, much like that raised during the Korean War, about diverting CIA from its national-level to a tactical role:

  1. Continued U.S. support of the PRU program risks adverse publicity either through an untoward incident, a press campaign to publicize its efforts or complaints from accommodation-minded South Vietnamese officials or politicians.
  2. CIA will have to continue its support to a program which lies, at least in part, outside its usual intelligence mission.[8]

Psychological operations

From a psychological operations perspective, "The Vietnam War Phoenix Program is controversial to this day. Supporters say that it was a legal and closely controlled US-Vietnamese intelligence program aimed at destroying the Viet Cong infrastructure, while the critics say that it was an illegal system of arresting, torturing and murdering innocent Vietnamese civilians...[9]

"Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) Directive 381-41, dated 9 July 1967, inaugurated the Intelligence Coordination and Exploitation (ICEX) program to Attack the Viet Cong Infrastructure (VCI). In late 1967, MACV replaced the name “ICEX” with “Phoenix,” after a mythical bird that appeared as a sign of prosperity and luck and a near translation of the South Vietnamese name for the program, “Phung Hoang” (All-seeing bird”)."

As early as 1964, GEN William C. Westmoreland, commander of Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) "knew that he lacked the forces to wage both a war of attrition and one of pacification, so he chose the former. The argument over whether or not this was the right course of action will likely go on forever, but undoubtedly the shape of the war changed dramatically after the Tet Offensive. The enemy was badly mauled and, despite the political gains made, militarily lost the initiative for quite some time." [7]

When the VC regrouped after the Tet Offensive, "Westmoreland never had such an advantage. When American ground forces entered the war in 1965, they faced an enemy on the offensive, but in June 1968 the new MACV commander, General Creighton W. Abrams, confronted an enemy on the ropes. Abrams plainly recognized his advantage and implemented a clear-and-hold strategy aimed at moving into rural enclaves formerly dominated by the VC."

Much criticized for lack of precision, the Phoenix Program was described by a former official as a "sterile depersonalized murder program...I never knew an individual to be detained as a VC suspect who ever lived through an interrogation"[10]

Numerous left-wing websites have William Colby assigning an Operation Phoenix body count of 20,587 Viet Cong enemy combatants, and have the South Vietnamese Government reporting the death toll as 40,994. Representative of these is page 5 of a book by author Ami Chen Mills[11]


  1. ^ Patti, Archimedes L. A (1980), Why Viet Nam?: Prelude to America's albatross, University of California Press 
  2. ^ a b "Document 95, Lansdale Team's Report on Covert Saigon Mission in 1954 and 1955,", The Pentagon Papers, Gravel Edition, Volume 1: pp. 573–83, 
  3. ^ NIE 63-5-54
  4. ^ SNIE50-2-64
  5. ^ Central Intelligence Agency (1 October 1964), SNIE 53-2-64 The Situation in South Vietnam, 
  6. ^ Central Intelligence Agency (July 23, 1965), SNIE 10-9-65: Communist and Free World Reactions to a Possible US Course of Action, 
  7. ^ a b Andrade, Dale; Willbanks, James H. (March/April 2006), "CORDS/Phoenix: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Vietnam for the Future", Military Review, 
  8. ^ a b Kissinger, Henry (11 December 1969) ([dead link]), Memorandum for the 303 Committee: The Provincial Reconnaissance Unit Program in Vietnam, Foreign Relations of the United States, Nixon-Ford Administrations. Volume VI. Foreign Relations, 1969-1976. Vietnam, January 1969-July 1970, United States Department of State, FRUS Document 157, 
  9. ^ Friedman, Herbert A., The Phoenix Program, 
  10. ^ "COMMITTEE ON GOVERNMENT OPERATIONS HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES - U.S. Assistance Programs in Vietnam - Statement of K. Barton Osborn". August 2, 1971. Retrieved 2007-06-25. 
  11. ^ Mills, Ami Chen (1991), CIA Off Campus: Building the Movement Against Agency Recruitment, South End Press 

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