In Search of Reds

Headquarters: Ghosts in the Halls

CIA in Vietnam

excerpted from the book

Deadly Deceits

by Ralph McGehee

Ocean Press, 1999

(originally published 1983)


In Search of Reds

In September 1965(I began work in Bangkok. At the time) Thailand was supposedly a constitutional monarchy, but in fact was more a military dictatorship. The real power was in the hands of two military officers-Prime Minister Thanom Kittikachom and the de facto leader of the government, Deputy Prime Minister Praphat Charusathien, who also headed the military establishment. King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikhit were powerful emotional symbols, but they seldom contradicted the military. There was an on-and-off parliament, but it acted more as a rubber stamp than an independent branch of government.

Headquarters: Ghosts in the Halls

Some bureaucrats had built their careers around China activities and had a vested interest in continuing operations against China. There was an unrecognized danger in that game, for these people had to sustain the impression of China as an implacable foe of the United States. From at least the early 1970s the Chinese Communists supported a strong NATO and a unified Europe as a counter to what they called Soviet Socialist Imperialism. China's position on NATO and Nixon's trip to Peking caused problems in China operations. How could they continue to portray China as the main enemy when it had adopted our policy and hosted our President? The answer was simple: they ignored events and continued the game. Several examples illustrate the point.

In the mid-1970s when I was working for the international communism branch, China desk asked me to brief the new chief of a European security service on the Marxist-Leninist movement's splinter Communist parties in Europe and their relationship to the Chinese. It instructed me to portray the Chinese Communists as foes because it wanted his service to help us in operations against the Chinese. I was only one of a series of briefers. The chief of the service seemed bored and did not ask a single question. When my turn came, having little fear since I planned to retire at the first opportunity, I gave him my honest assessment of China's foreign policy. He came to life and asked numerous questions and requested that I be made available for a second session. That was the last time China desk permitted me to brief its guests.

At about the same time, the CIA acquired a document of approximately 40 pages covering a briefing by top Chinese officials to a trusted and highly regarded ally. The briefing covered China's long-range policy toward two continents with separate sections on short-range actions in individual countries. Yet when it reached me, I noticed that comments on the internal routing sheet indicated the reports section of China desk had no interest in disseminating the document. Dumbfounded that the information had been rejected, I routed it back to China desk, suggesting it might want to reconsider. Several weeks later the document found its way back to me with a notation from the China desk that it had no plans to disseminate the information. A document that set forth China's intentions -the most difficult and highly desired information on an important country's policy-but we did not want it? Why? Because it showed that China planned to act in a responsible way and that its goals to a large extent paralleled our own. Our operational warriors realized that if they disseminated the report, it might stimulate some government leaders to question the CIA's insistence that China deserved to be on the top of its operational target list.

Case officers developed a very personal interest in keeping China as one of the primary enemies of the United States. Promotions, foreign travel, and assignments abroad all depended on maintaining that concept. Once, in the middle of one of Washington's hottest summers, we learned that a Chinese Communist planned to attend a conference at a cool, expensive overseas summer resort. The chief of one desk of China activities decided to try to contact the official to assess his recruitment potential. She went on an extended temporary duty assignment to that resort area, where she spent her time relaxing by the hotel's pool, dining in its best restaurants, and appearing at other swish spots where the Chinese official might surface and be prompted to speak to her. After several unsuccessful weeks of this hardship duty, she returned to the torrid Washington weather.


The CIA in Vietnam: Transforming Reality

The more I heard, the greater my disillusionment. While in Washington I had acquired a copy of Viet Cong, a book by Douglas Pike, the U.S. government's leading authority on the Viet Cong. It described in great detail the farmers', women's, and youth organizations and how they were built. That book held the numbers of civilian members of these Communist front groups to ridiculously low levels. Even so, the station did not even acknowledge the existence of the associations. Michael Charles Conley's book, The Communist Insurgent Infrastructure in South Vietnam, written under contract to the Department of the Army under the auspices of American University, set forth a detailed discussion of the mass-based civilian communist structures. Even though Conley must have been under tremendous pressure to keep his number of civilian members of the South Vietnamese communist movement low, he reported that there were probably more than a million-a million that did not exist anywhere in Agency reporting.

The Agency's briefers told us that there were several hundred thousand armed North and South Vietnamese communists in South Vietnam and that they had been badly demoralized by their losses during the Tet attacks in early 1968. That figure was obviously low. The reason that it had to be low was that U.S. policymakers had to sell the idea that the war in the South was being fought by a small minority of Communists opposed to the majority-supported democratic government of Nguyen Van Thieu. The situation, however, was the opposite, as I was to understand later. The United States was supporting Thieu's tiny oligarchy against a population largely organized, committed, and dedicated to a communist victory. But the numbers were not the only thing the United States policymakers lied about. The American people were not aware, and neither, I am sure, were my CIA briefers in Saigon, of the extent of CIA covert operations in Vietnam beginning as early as 1954. Only later did this tragic history come out, largely through the Pentagon Papers. It was only years after the publication of those papers during the research for this book that I began to appreciate fully the scope of CIA covert operations in Vietnam and the level of Agency deceits concerning the war.

The origins of the war dated back to 1858 when the French invaded and colonized Indochina. The French, utilizing the Vietnamese landlord class as their puppets, turned Vietnam into a marketplace for high-priced French manufactured goods and a source of cheap labor and raw materials for the "mother" country. At the time of the French invasion approximately 90 percent of the people lived and worked as farmers in the rural areas. The colonizers made laws that allowed them to confiscate peasant land, and as a result, over the ensuing decades, many peasants were left impoverished. The Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) was formed in 1930 to recapture control of the country from the French. This party evolved into Ho Chi Minh's Vietnam Workers Party. In its first manifesto in 1930 the ICP promised to "wipe out feudal remnants [the Vietnamese who cooperated with the French], to distribute land to the tillers, to overthrow imperialism, and to make Indochina completely independent."

During the 1930s the ICP was divided by a series of internal battles about the proper way to fight the French, and at the same time was decimated by the French police.

In September 1939, World War II broke out in Europe and in September 1940 Japanese troops moved into Vietnam. During World War II the Japanese asserted control over the ports and airfields of Vietnam but allowed the French to continue to administer the local government. This cooperation ceased a few months before the end of World War II when the Japanese took control of all of Vietnam.

World War II was decisive for Ho's forces, for in 1941 he returned from China-where he had observed Mao's program of organizing the peasantry to overthrow Chiang-and formed the Viet Minh coalition to fight the Japanese and the French. A major element of Ho's program was reconfiscation of the land of the French and their Vietnamese puppets and distribution of that land to the peasantry. Through his anti-imperialism and land-reform programs, Ho built the Viet Minh into a committed, broadbased political organization, making him the only Vietnamese leader with a dedicated national following.

During World War II the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor of the CIA, recognized the strength of the Viet Minh and depended on it for intelligence and help in recovering downed pilots. The OSS and the Viet Minh worked in close cooperation and the OSS provided 5,000 weapons, along with ammunition and training, to convert Ho's guerrillas into an organized army. When the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, the Viet Minh marched into Hanoi and dozens of other cities in Vietnam and proclaimed the birth of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). For a few weeks in September 1945, Vietnam was for the first time in recent I history free of foreign domination. North and South were I united under Ho.

U.S. policymakers decided the French had lost their I will to fight in Vietnam and began to plan to assume the French role in that country. This approach was formalized on August 20, 1954 in National Security Council memorandum NSC 5429/2, which said the U.S. must "disassociate France from levers of command, integrate land reform with refugee resettlement.... Give aid directly to the Vietnamese-not through France.... Diem must broaden the governmental base, elect an assembly, draft a constitution and legally dethrone Bao Dai."

Once this decision was made, overnight the CIA's intelligence about the situation in Vietnam switched. The Agency now portrayed Diem as the miracle worker who was saving Vietnam. To make the illusion a reality, the CIA undertook a series of operations that helped turn South Vietnam into a vast police state. The purpose of these operations was to force the native South Vietnamese to accept the Catholic mandarin Diem, who had been selected by U.S. policymakers to provide an alternative to communism in Vietnam. It was a strange choice. From 1950 to 1953, while Ho's forces were earning the loyalty of their people by fighting the French, Diem, a short, fussy bachelor, was living in the U.S. in Maryknoll seminaries in New Jersey and New York.

Diem's police state found its programs unable to control the people. Beginning in 1959, with the assistance of the CIA, it sponsored a program to move villagers into organized communities for self defense. This concept, called "agrovilles," generated fierce resistance from the South Vietnamese who were forced to leave their homes to settle in the new sites.

Learning little from this experience, Diem's government, with the CIA in the lead, initiated the "strategic hamlet" program in late 1961. South Vietnamese were forcibly moved into fenced and guarded compounds, and the Special Police weeded out any Communists. An ideal strategic hamlet included a watch tower, a moat, fortifications, and barbed wire. The program infuriated the people whose homes were destroyed to force them into those confined sites. The strategic hamlet program died with the assassination of Diem.

In early 1964 President Johnson's national security advisers decided something was needed to overcome the U.S. I public's apathy toward the war. To this purpose an entire series of U.S. provocations occurred in the Gulf of Tonkin. They included a July 31 attack on Hon Me Island by MACV-supported South Vietnamese Special Forces; the August 2 bombardment and strafing of North Vietnamese villages in the vicinity of Hon Me by aircraft, and the repeated feints of attack against Hon Me Island by the U.S. Navy destroyer Maddox. The ruse worked and North Vietnamese patrol boats, assuming the Maddox to be a part of the earlier South Vietnamese Special Forces attack, fired a few rounds at the destroyer. The next day the Maddox returned with a second destroyer and another so-called attack was launched at this two-ship patrol. Congress reacted immediately to what became known as the Tonkin Gulf incident. It passed a joint resolution of support and the American people responded to this "attack" on our sovereignty.

On March 6,1965(just a week after the issuance of the White Paper, President Johnson ordered two Marine Corps battalion landing teams into Vietnam and the initiation of Operation Rolling Thunder, which consisted of the systematic bombing of North Vietnam.

U.S. combat troops in South Vietnam quickly discovered that the rural South Vietnamese, who were fighting for and supporting the Viet Cong, considered them the enemy. Nonetheless, the United States developed a simple plan to win- force the peasants by the millions into the cities and towns, turn the entire country into a massive police compound, and you deny those millions to the communists. Search-and-destroy missions, free-fire zones, and bombing of rural South Vietnam were all conducted to force the peasants out of their villages into the cities.

General Westmoreland put it this way: "So closely entwined were some populated localities with the tentacles of the VC base areas . . . that the only way to establish control short of constant combat operations among the people was to remove the people."

The CIA created a program of hunter-killer teams. According to Marchetti and Marks, "In 1965 Colby . . . oversaw the founding in Vietnam of the Agency's Counter Terror (CT) program. In 1966 the Agency became wary of adverse publicity surrounding the use of the word 'terror' and changed the name of the CT teams to the Provincial Reconnaissance Units (PRUs).... [The operation was described as] 'a unilateral American program, never recognized by the South Vietnamese government. CIA representatives recruited, organized, supplied, and directly paid CT teams, whose function was to use . . . techniques of terror-assassination, abuses, kidnappings and intimidation-against the Viet Cong leadership."

All of the various civilian, military, and police programs were to contribute to the CORDS structure and programs. The primary CORDS program was the Phoenix operation. Under Phoenix, devised by Colby's office, all units coordinated "an attack against the Vietcong infrastructure.... Again CIA money was the catalyst. According to Colby's own testimony in 1971 before a congressional committee, 20,587 suspected Vietcong were killed under Phoenix in its first two and a half years. Figures provided by the South Vietnamese government credit Phoenix with 40,994 VC kills.

Under normal circumstances my job would have been an outstanding opportunity and challenge. But my earlier motivation no longer existed. I had once believed that although the United States followed self-interest in our overseas programs, we matched this interest with a concern for the people in the foreign countries. Now I did not know what to believe. I doubted the Agency's intelligence, its personnel, and even its integrity. Furthermore, my simplistic view of communists as the incarnation of evil and the United States as all good was slowly beginning to change. I seemed to be the only one around who realized we couldn't win. I knew by now that any careful examination of available information, let alone the survey, would prove that the vast majority of the Vietnamese people were fighting against the U.S. troops and for the NLF. They had chosen the kind of government they wanted, and all American war efforts were aimed at postponing the inevitable

Deadly Deceits

Index of Website

Home Page