Nixon’s War 11

To spare Nixon the appearance of indignity, the job of pursuing the “liberals” was entrusted to Agnew. The vice-president began by assailing the news media as “a small and unelected elite” that “do not—I repeat not—represent the view of America.” The Democrats counterattacked, Hubert Humphrey denouncing the diatribe as an appeal to the public’s “baser instinct.” Television network execu¬tives howled, but, fearing the administration’s possible influence on the issuance and renewal of station licenses, caution became their guide.
The “moratorium” of November 15 was even bigger than the dem¬onstrations of the month before. By now, the American public was being exposed to disclosures that raised uncomfortable moral ques¬tions about the war. Colonel Robert Rheault and his special forces team were charged with the summary execution of a suspected Viet- cong spy, the alleged murder being labeled in official jargon as “ter¬mination with extreme prejudice.” And a U.S. military court indicted Lieutenant William Calley and Sergeant David Mitchell for the mas¬sacre of South Vietnamese civilians at Mylai, a village in coastal Quangngai province. But Nixon’s shrewd pitch to the “silent major¬ity” had been successful—for the present, anyway—in containing the antiwar movement. Henceforth, though, the war in Vietnam was to be “Nixon’s war.”
Some thirty thousand Americans had been killed in Vietnam by the time Nixon entered office—and nearly ten thousand were to perish there during his first year as president. The Communists greeted him with a series of attacks that stretched through the spring of 1969, causing heavy U.S. casualties. In May, continuing their massive search-and-destroy drives into the hipterlands, American forces fought one of the fiercest battles of the war to capture Apbia mountain, located in the Ashau valley a mile from the Laotian border. The peak, grue- somely nicknamed “Hamburger Hill” because the clash ground up so many GIs, was reoccupied by the North Vietnamese a month later, and the human cost of the senseless engagement further roused crit¬icism of the war at home. Soon afterward, as a grim reminder that the war was far from finished, Life published photographs of the two hundred and forty-two young Americans slain in a single week. Of¬ficial spokesmen tried to justify the value of dynamic actions, but General Abrams was quietly instructed to scale down the military effort. For different motives, the Hanoi hierarchy sent similar orders to its field commanders.
By early 1970, about two-thirds of the estimated one hundred and twenty-five thousand Communist regulars in the south were North Vietnamese, deployed to replace the main-force Vietcong troops dev¬astated during the Tet offensive two years earlier. For all their skill in battle, the northerners were handicapped politically by their unfa¬miliarity with the region. The Vietcong political structure was also suffering, largely as a consequence of the Phoenix program, one of the more controversial American operations of the war. Conceived by the CIA three years before, Phoenix was basically another Amer¬ican solution grafted onto a South Vietnamese problem. The Saigon government intelligence services, responsible for uprooting Vietcong agents, were typically a tangle of rival groups competing with each other for power and graft. By centralizing these factions under sound management, the American theory went, the rural apparatus on which the Vietcong relied for recruits, food, money and asylum could be crushed. So Phoenix was created as a cooperative enterprise—its title a rough translation of phuttg hoang, a mythical Vietnamese bird en¬dowed with omnipotent attributes. Saigon government military, po¬lice and civilian officials, trained by U. S. army advisers, were supposed to penetrate the peasant population to gather information and to arrest or slay Communist cadres. In 1969, according to the wondrously precise statistics released by the American mission in Saigon, 19,534 Vietcong organizers, propagandists, tax collectors and the like were listed as having been “neutralized”—6,187 of them killed.
The Phoenix operation aroused an outcry from American antiwar activists, who labeled it “mass murder.” But several Americans in¬volved in Phoenix described it instead as a program riddled with inefficiency, corruption and abuse. South Vietnamese officials, inter¬ested only in promoting themselves, balked at working together, robbed much of the U.S. aid appropriated for the exercise, and were so receptive to bribes that 70 percent of the Vietcong suspects captured bought back their freedom. Worse yet, Phoenix required village au¬thorities to fulfill monthly quotas, which they did by classifying any¬one killed in a skirmish as a member of the Vietcong—thereby distorting the figures of “enemy” dead. They also rounded up innocent peasants in order to inflate police blotters, sparing those who could pay them off, and they frequently tortured villagers on no more evi¬dence than the accusation of jealous neighbors. Looking back on his experience in one district, Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Herrington re¬called that “no single endeavor caused more grief and frustration” for an American adviser like himself.
Thus I was inclined to discount the claim advanced during the war by William Colby, the CIA executive who ran Phoenix, that the program as a whole, despite its flaws and excesses, eliminated some sixty thousand authentic Vietcong agents. My perspective changed after the war, however, when top Communist figures in Vietnam confirmed Colby’s assessment. Madame Nguyen Thi Dinh, a veteran Vietcong leader, told me that Phoenix had been “very dangerous,” adding: “We never feared a division of troops, but the infiltration of a couple of guys into our ranks created tremendous difficulties for us.” To Colonel Bui Tin, a senior officer, it had been a “devious and cruel” operation that cost “the loss of thousands of our cadres,” and the deputy Communist commander in the south at the time, General Tran Do, called it “extremely destructive.” Nguyen Co Thach, Viet¬nam’s foreign minister after 1975, admitted that the Phoenix effort “wiped out many of our bases” in South Vietnam, compelling num¬bers of North Vietnamese and Vietcong troops to retreat to sanctuaries in Cambodia.

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