In Search of Reds
Headquarters: Ghosts in the Halls
CIA in Vietnam
excerpted from the book
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
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
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
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
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
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