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Vietnam Declassified

Vietnam Declassified: The CIA and Counterinsurgency

Thomas L. Ahern
Foreword by Donald P. Gregg
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 480
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  • Book Info
    Vietnam Declassified
    Book Description:

    Vietnam Declassified is a detailed account of the CIA's effort to help South Vietnamese authorities win the loyalty of the Vietnamese peasantry and suppress the Viet Cong. Covering the CIA engagement from 1954 to mid-1972, it provides a thorough analysis of the agency and its partners. Retired CIA operative and intelligence consultant Thomas L. Ahern Jr. is the first to comprehensively document the CIA's role in the rural pacification of South Vietnam, drawing from secret archives to which he had unrestricted access. In addition to a chronology of operations, the book explores the assumptions, political values, and cultural outlooks of not only the CIA and other U.S. government agencies, but also of the peasants, Viet Cong, and Saigon government forces competing for their loyalty. The depth of Ahern's research combined with the timely relevance of his analysis to current events in the Middle East makes this title an important addition to military literature.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7357-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Maps and Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Foreword
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    Donald P. Gregg

    What is the point of a meticulously written, four-hundred-page study of a strenuously pursued failure that lasted for twenty years? Who will read it, and what will be derived from a reading of it?

    First, the book is a detailed study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s involvement in rural pacification operations in South Vietnam, a prolonged effort that involved the participation of more American case officers than any other commitment made by the agency since its founding in 1947. If one is interested in how the CIA performed under pressure, in difficult and dangerous conditions, here is a great place...

  5. Preface
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  6. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xix-xx)
  7. Abbreviations
    (pp. xxi-xxiv)
  8. INTRODUCTION: To Build a Nation
    (pp. 1-6)

    After seventy-one years of colonial rule in Vietnam—the principal component of French Indochina—the communist-led Viet Minh defeated the French Expeditionary Corps at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954. The Viet Minh, created by Ho Chi Minh in 1941, had led Vietnamese resistance to the World War II Japanese occupation forces and their captive Vichy French regime. On 16 August 1945, two days after V-J Day, Ho’s forces occupied Hanoi, Vietnam’s northern capital. A week later, Bao Dai, the hereditary emperor maintained as a figurehead by the French, abdicated in favor of the Viet Minh and their Democratic Republic...

  9. CHAPTER 1 “The Effort Must Be Made”
    (pp. 7-20)

    Sometime in late 1954, Paul Harwood, the chief of covert action in CIA’s regular Saigon Station, traveled in a military convoy to a Mekong Delta province capital, Vinh Long. This was the seat of a Catholic diocese headed by Bishop Ngo Dinh Thuc, a brother of Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem, and the visitors were attending the baptism of the child of a third brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu. Another guest was Tran Trung Dung, the assistant defense minister.¹ At one point Harwood asked Dung about the government’s control of the countryside.

    “As long as we’re here it’s this far,” the...

  10. CHAPTER 2 “Get Them before They Get Us”
    (pp. 21-38)

    If Paul Harwood was right, and the GVN had by mid-1955 got nowhere in establishing a civilian government presence in the countryside, the same could be said of the communists. No significant subversive or insurgent activity had yet surfaced, and from the American perspective rural political loyalties were still up for grabs. But Ngo Dinh Diem preferred to take popular loyalty for granted. He made no effort, after the army gave up authority in the former Viet Minh zones, to use his civilian ministries to ingratiate his regime with the peasantry. Nor did he ever act on the Harwood-Nhu reform...

  11. CHAPTER 3 Counterinsurgency in the Central Highlands
    (pp. 39-70)

    By the end of 1960, not only the U.S. Mission but also, for the first time, President Diem, recognized that the VC posed an immediate threat to the GVN presence in the Vietnamese countryside. The growing sense of urgency was reinforced, on the American side, by the November election of John F. Kennedy, whose opponent, Richard Nixon, had accused him of being “soft on communism.” Looking for an arena in which to establish his anticommunist credentials, Kennedy selected the postcolonial nations as the new cold war battleground. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev seemed to accept the challenge in a militant speech...

  12. CHAPTER 4 Sea Swallows and Strategic Hamlets
    (pp. 71-90)

    CIA chose the montagnards for the first of its 1961 counterinsurgency initiatives partly because of Ngo Dinh Diem’s failure to attract the active commitment of the Buddhist-Confucian ethnic Vietnamese who predominated in the lowlands of Central Vietnam and the Mekong Delta. Although this failure would have to be remedied if the insurgency was to be defeated, the GVN’s declining fortunes demanded action producing immediate results. The station therefore began, as we have seen, by recruiting minority groups of known anti–Viet Cong motivation into irregular formations outside the GVN military and internal security apparatus. The first of these units were...

  13. CHAPTER 5 Operation Switchback
    (pp. 91-110)

    The transfer of CIDG and other paramilitary activities to MACV control was inevitable, despite widespread apprehension in CIA that this would result in distorting the programs’ respective missions. The Directorate of Plans (later the Directorate of Operations) lacked the personnel and organizational resources to manage activities of this size without serious erosion of its ability to conduct worldwide intelligence collection and covert action operations. But the decision had other antecedents as well. The failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 made the Kennedy administration skeptical of the agency’s competence to run a military operation, even if it...

  14. CHAPTER 6 Experiments in the Lowlands
    (pp. 111-126)

    The self-immolations of Buddhist monks that dramatized religious unrest in the summer of 1963, and Diem’s inability either to mollify or to suppress the dissidents, paralyzed the South Vietnamese government and its campaign against the insurgency. In August, the GVN deployed Colonel Tung’s Special Forces in raids on urban Buddhist pagodas, and the station became embroiled in the question of Diem’s improper use of American-supplied resources to quell the wave of riots. The Kennedy administration soon came to despair of reinvigorating the war effort while Diem remained in power, and encouraged Major General Duong Van Minh and dissident colleagues to...

  15. CHAPTER 7 The Kien Hoa Incubator
    (pp. 127-148)

    The absence of a national-level Vietnamese counterpart amplified the importance of local contacts as counterinsurgency partners. The most important of these was Lieutenant Colonel Tran Ngoc Chau, whose Buddhist affiliation had allowed him to escape crippling identification with the Diem regime. The station had kept in touch with him during his tenure as mayor of Da Nang, and when in early 1964 Nguyen Khanh’s military government transferred him back to Ben Tre, he and Stuart Methven resumed their collaboration. By early spring, they had prepared to launch at the provincial level the kind of integrated program that the central government...

  16. CHAPTER 8 The People’s Action Team
    (pp. 149-168)

    In the gloomy atmosphere of late 1964, the ineffectual Nguyen Khanh concentrated on fending off his ARVN competitors for power while the GVN hold on the countryside continued to recede. Ambassador Taylor proclaimed in October that the task was “to get a maximum of pacification effort in South Viet-Nam with a minimum contribution from the central government in Saigon.” Perhaps in response to this imperative, COS De Silva flew to Quang Ngai with the USOM chief on 2 November to inspect a variant of the APA team that the station and USOM had begun supporting the previous April. Until then,...

  17. CHAPTER 9 Another Chance in the Countryside
    (pp. 169-190)

    By the end of 1965, the Johnson administration had sent nearly 200,000 American troops to Vietnam. Together with GVN forces, some of which were fighting well, they had blunted the Viet Cong–North Vietnamese Army advance. It might be argued that at this point the question of pacification strategy had become moot, that escalation by Hanoi followed by a Washington response in kind had rendered rural political loyalties irrelevant, or at most tangential, to the outcome. But the communists had always relied heavily on peasant cooperation for manpower, materiel, and intelligence, and the introduction of North Vietnamese Army combat forces...

  18. CHAPTER 10 Growing Pains
    (pp. 191-220)

    The new opportunity to win the countryside that Ambassador Porter and others thought they saw in the spring of 1966 was accompanied by daunting obstacles. A task force convened by Porter in April noted many of them: communist military strength, organizational weaknesses and confused mission assignments in the GVN and among U.S. agencies, continued GVN instability, overemphasis on the material side of pacification, and “weaknesses of Vietnamese administration and motivation.” The group saw additional problems, including poor security in areas of RD team deployments, “overlapping security forces,” lack of common conceptual ground between Americans and Vietnamese, and a destructive emphasis,...

    (pp. 221-254)

    Every American and Vietnamese pacification manager recognized, by late 1966, that accomplishments had failed to match early expectations. Over the course of that year, pacification operations recorded a net gain of just over 400 hamlets, bringing the number of those declared secured to 4,400 of a total of 11,250. This progress represented only a little more than a quarter of the 1966 goal, and the modest scope of the so-called National Priority Areas for 1967 demonstrated the reduced scale of GVN and U.S. pacification objectives. In the five provinces of I Corps, for example, only the area around Da Nang...

  20. CHAPTER 12 Phoenix
    (pp. 255-280)

    A continual CIA effort to find intelligence access to policy levels of the Vietnamese Communist Party and the NLF had always accompanied the station’s action programs in rural South Vietnam. But from 1954 to 1964 the agency devoted little attention to the local communist political and administrative structure, later dubbed the Viet Cong infrastructure. Aside from the intelligence by-product of the action programs, the only CIA-sponsored collection on the local party apparatus took the form of the Hamlet Informant program, which subsidized police payments to casual and apparently untrained informants. This effort seems to have been directed more at following...

  21. CHAPTER 13 The 1968 Tet Offensive and Accelerated Pacification
    (pp. 281-308)

    The effectiveness of the organizational reforms and accelerated material investment introduced by CORDS depended as much on broader strategic and political questions as it did on the programs themselves. President Nguyen Van Thieu, elected in September 1967, was prepared to acknowledge that, as a U.S. Army historian put it, pacification prospects depended not only on “battlefield successes, but on . . . reform and reorganization efforts within the South Vietnamese armed forces and government.” In January 1968, Thieu told a senior CORDS official, Major General George Forsythe, that he wanted to get the ARVN corps and division commands out of...

  22. CHAPTER 14 Disengagement
    (pp. 309-342)

    In retrospect, Hanoi’s 1968 return to a focus on its hamlet and village organization seems to have offered an opportunity for the GVN and its American patrons to exploit allied military superiority in expanded pacification operations. General Abrams did in fact devote more attention than Westmoreland had to the rural security aspects of the conflict, and new GVN initiatives in land reform and hamlet self-defense were to follow. But the drive to compete with the Viet Cong in the political mobilization of the countryside faltered after the Tet offensive, partly because of CIA’s withdrawal from a leadership role.¹

    That withdrawal...

  23. CHAPTER 15 A Matter of Running City Hall
    (pp. 343-356)

    At the end of 1970, with communist main forces still avoiding contact, the preponderance of military strength in the heavily populated areas of South Vietnam lay with the Saigon government. In Long An Province, for example, the GVN’s Regional and Popular Forces totaled 16,000 men. The GVN had finally overcome its reluctance to arm a volunteer militia, and the People’s Self-Defense Forces there included another 27,000 men and women and 9,000 weapons. The PRU alone had more men than the 180-odd surviving Viet Cong guerrillas. The sole remaining VC district company now contained just 12 men, and the two provincial...

  24. CONCLUSION: The Limits of Pragmatism
    (pp. 357-376)

    The catastrophic failure of any undertaking, especially one as massive as the American intervention in South Vietnam, tends to evoke a search for scapegoats. These are most commonly found in the leaders of the failed enterprise, when the observer is hostile to it, or in malign outside forces, when the observer favors it. The collapse of South Vietnam has certainly generated its share of such scapegoats, which competing interpretations find in incompetent U.S. and corrupt South Vietnamese officials, politically self-serving American presidents, a treasonous press, or a pusillanimous Congress.

    Despite the pejorative qualifiers that invariably accompany each of these theories,...

  25. Notes
    (pp. 377-432)
  26. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 433-436)
  27. Index
    (pp. 437-450)