That fear of the government, so incongruous on the part of a war veteran, made me more determined than ever to uncover the truth about Phoenix, a goal which has taken four years to accomplish. That’s a long time to spend researching and writing a book. But I believe it was worthwhile, for Phoenix symbolizes an aspect of the Vietnam War that changed forever the way Americans think about themselves and their government.
Developed in 1967 by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Phoenix combined existing counterinsurgency programs in a concerted effort to “neutralize” the Vietcong infrastructure (VCI). The euphemism “neutralize” means to kill, capture, or make to defect. The word “infrastructure” refers to those civilians suspected of supporting North Vietnamese and Vietcong soldiers like the one targeted in Elton Manzione’s final operation. Central to Phoenix is the fact that it targeted civilians, not soldiers. As a result, its detractors charge that Phoenix violated that part of the Geneva Conventions guaranteeing protection to civilians in time of war. “By analogy,” said Ogden Reid, a member of a congressional committee investigating Phoenix in 1971, “if the Union had had a Phoenix program during the Civil War, its targets would have been civilians like Jefferson Davis or the mayor of Macon, Georgia.”
Under Phoenix, or Phung Hoang, as it was called by the Vietnamese, due process was totally nonexistent. South Vietnamese civilians whose names appeared on blacklists could be kidnapped, tortured, detained for two years without trial, or even murdered, simply on the word of an anonymous informer. At its height Phoenix managers imposed quotas of eighteen hundred neutralizations per month on the people running the program in the field, opening up the program to abuses by corrupt security officers, policemen, politicians, and racketeers, all of whom extorted innocent civilians as well as VCI. Legendary CIA officer Lucien Conein described Phoenix as “A very good blackmail scheme for the central government. ‘If you don’t do what I want, you’re VC’”
Because Phoenix “neutralizations” were often conducted at midnight while its victims were home, sleeping in bed, Phoenix proponents describe the program as a “scalpel” designed to replace the “bludgeon” of search and destroy operations, air strikes, and artillery barrages that indiscriminately wiped out entire villages and did little to “win the hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese population. Yet, as Elton Manzione’s story illustrates, the scalpel cut deeper than the U.S. government admits. Indeed, Phoenix was, among other things, an instrument of counterterror—the psychological warfare tactic in which VCI members were brutally murdered along with their families or neighbors as a means of terrorizing the neighboring population into a state of submission. Such horrendous acts were, for propaganda purposes, often made to look as if they had been committed by the enemy.