Vietnam War / CIA

Adams, Sam. War of Numbers: An Intelligence Memoir. South Royalton VT: Steerforth Press, 1994. 251 pages. Introduction by Col. David Hackworth.

Sam Adams was a 1955 Harvard graduate who spent the years from 1963 to 1973 as an analyst for the CIA. His talents first attracted attention during the Congo crisis, when he was able to rattle off an analysis of African tribal politics when called on at high-level staff meetings. In 1965 Adams transferred to the section that was responsible for the daily situation report on Vietnam. On his subsequent trips to Vietnam, where he spoke to analysts with field experience, and from his analysis of captured enemy documents, Adams discovered that the U.S. brass was consistently rigging the numbers. Entire categories of combatants would be shifted to non-combatant status, in order to convince the Pentagon and White House that victory was close at hand. More Vietcong were dying in battle each week than the VC could recruit to replace them.

At first Adams assumed that this was simple oversight, but soon his career became sidetracked. Thirteen times he was threatened with dismissal. Finally he resigned in 1973 and went public with a cover story in the May 1975 issue of Harper's magazine. Later he set aside work on this memoir to help with a CBS documentary, which resulted in the famous Westmoreland vs. CBS libel trial in 1984. Adams died suddenly of a heart attack in 1988 before he could complete this memoir.


DeForest, Orrin and Chanoff, David. Slow Burn. New York: Pocket Books, 1991. 327 pages.

This book recounts the Vietnam experiences of Orrin DeForest, a CIA officer who organized intelligence collection as part of the Phoenix Program in Military Region Three from 1969 to the end of the war. DeForest had previously done a tour in Vietnam as an investigator for the army's Criminal Investigations Division, and was an air force investigator from 1955-1964. His approach in Region Three was based more on his background as a professional gumshoe, and less on the incompetence of Saigon's Special Branch Police, or the macho Special Forces retreads that the CIA sometimes used. DeForest organized a system to debrief defectors and develop spies within the enemy infrastructure, and channeled this flow of information into a data bank that provided timely access to those who depended on the intelligence product. It worked so well that DeForest threatened not only the enemy, but also the CIA bureaucracy that had grown comfortable with failure in the field, covered up with bigger and better body counts. The key to DeForest's success seemed to be that his techniques were usually based on treating people like people. What the books lacks, however, is some justification of the Phoenix Program as a whole, and an explanation of why DeForest thought he had the right to be in Vietnam in the first place. The U.S. defeat may have demonstrated a lack of technique, but more importantly, it was also a failure of moral vision and character.

Grant, Zalin. Facing the Phoenix: The CIA and the Political Defeat of the United States in Vietnam. New York: W.W. Norton, 1991. 395 pages.

Zalin Grant spent five years in Vietnam between 1964 and 1973, writing for Time and The New Republic. This is his interpretation of the war from the perspective of major players such as Edward Lansdale, Tran Ngoc Chau, and to a lesser extent John Paul Vann, Daniel Ellsberg, William Colby, and various other military, State Department, and CIA personnel. Grant believes that certain players had a good handle on how to neutralize the enemy through local political action and enlightened aid programs. Just as they were making significant progress, however, they were defeated by corruption in Saigon and by big-bang, big-bucks conventional-warfare mongers like William Westmoreland. In other words, we defeated ourselves. The media played a role through advocate-journalists like David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan, along with compelling video from broadcasters like Morley Safer.

This book is valuable because the author's experience in Vietnam (he speaks the language), along with his many contacts and interviews, add to our impression of what was happening in the country from 1945 until Chau's escape in 1979. But for those who understand Vietnam in the context of American hegemony (why were we there in the first place?), or those who feel that the U.S. peace movement played a major role, the author has nothing to say.


Moyar, Mark. Phoenix and the Birds of Prey: The CIA's Secret Campaign to Destroy the Viet Cong. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1997. 416 pages.

Phoenix was created by the CIA in 1967 to "neutralize" those insurgent communist and nationalist civilians who formed South Vietnam's "shadow government." U.S. Phoenix advisors had monthly "neutralization" quotas and by 1970 at least 20,000 persons had been killed. Based on the word of anonymous informers, many more were tortured and falsely imprisoned. In 1971, three U.S. congressmen concluded that Phoenix was an instrument of terror, and violated that part of the Geneva Conventions guaranteeing protection to civilians during time of war. But instead of being abolished, Phoenix became a "counter-terror" program, and was used as the model for CIA-sponsored death squads in El Salvador, Guatemala, and elsewhere.

Author Mark Moyar rationalizes the Phoenix holocaust in a book that is intellectually informed by an Agency riding high from victories in the Cold War, Latin America, and Iraq. His naive, albeit avant-garde revisionism casts CIA officers as misunderstood heroes, and blames Phoenix failures on an insidious anti-war movement that manipulated the press and inhibited the CIA and its South Vietnamese allies from "neutralizing" as many people as was needed to win the Vietnam War. If you thought William Calley got a bum rap, you'll enjoy this book. Otherwise bring along an air-sickness bag. -- Douglas Valentine


Robbins, Christopher. Air America. New York: Avon Books, 1985. 328 pages.

There are at least two books and a controversial movie about Air America, which is known for ferrying opium to market in exchange for Meo support of the CIA's military strategy in Laos. Robbins has one chapter on the opium question, but concentrates more on material he collected from "personal interviews with pilots, copilots, kickers, ground personnel, administrative workers, CIA men, journalists, and people on the fringe of the strange world of the Agency's air proprietaries."

Air America, which at its height had the largest commercial airfleet in the world, was secretly run by the CIA. A study of the executives and lawyers who played shell games with various CIA proprietaries ought to be done someday. When E-Systems bought Air Asia from the CIA in 1975, they pointed out that their intelligence contracting was with the Air Force, not the CIA, and that former CIA director William Raborn, a director of E-Systems, was not involved in the purchase. E-Systems president John W. Dixon insists that "we have never done any business with the CIA," even though other former top CIA officials are among the senior executives at E-Systems, and Dixon himself was a member of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers in 1983. Okay, we'll assume that they work together out of love of country to prevent excessive corporate profiteering....


Snepp, Frank. Decent Interval: An Insider's Account of Saigon's Indecent End Told by the CIA's Chief Strategy Analyst in Vietnam. New York: Vintage Books, 1978. 590 pages.

Snepp served in the CIA's Saigon station from 1969-1971 and 1972-1975; his duties included strategic estimates of NVA forces, agent networks, and interrogations of captured NVA and Vietcong. In this book his descriptions of the CIA's performance in Vietnam, particularly during the fall of Saigon, are stunning. However, his negative portrayal of Saigon station chief Thomas Polgar seems unfair given the complexity of the events.

Snepp was awarded the Intelligence Medal for Merit for his service; ironically, he had joined the CIA to avoid Vietnam. Angered by the CIA's failure to produce an after-action report on the CIA's performance during Vietnam's fall, Snepp wrote his book shortly after resigning. The CIA sued Snepp, forcing him to surrender his profits from the book for failing to submit it to the CIA Publications Review Board prior to publication.

-- Wendell Minnick


Valentine, Douglas. The Phoenix Program. New York: William Morrow, 1990. 479 pages.

Along with saturation bombing of civilian populations, Operation Phoenix has to rate as America's most atrocious chapter in its collection of fun facts from Vietnam. Between 1967 to 1973 an estimated 40,000 Vietnamese were killed by CIA-sponsored "counterterror" and "hunter-killer" teams, and hundreds of thousands were sent to secret interrogation centers. William Colby's records show 20,587 dead between 1968 and 1971, though he likes to believe that most were killed in military combat and afterwards identified as part of the VC infrastructure.

Other testimony suggests that Colby was a bit disingenuous in these 1971 hearings. At one point Congressman Ogden Reid pulled out a list signed by a CIA officer that named VC cadre rounded up in a particular action in 1967. "It is of some interest that on this list, 33 of the 61 names were women and some persons were as young as 11 and 12," noted Reid.

Valentine spent four years researching this name-intensive book, and managed to interview over 100 Phoenix participants. If post-Vietnam America had ever looked into a mirror, this book might have become a bestseller. Instead it was published just as the Gulf War allowed us to resume business as usual, and went virtually unnoticed.


Warner, Roger. Back Fire: The CIA's Secret War in Laos and Its Link to the War in Vietnam. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. 416 pages.

Author Roger Warner was too young during the 1960s, but became interested in Laos when he lived in Thailand from 1980-82. He saw a camp containing tens of thousands of Laotian refugees, and began interviewing CIA and other veterans. After 150 interviews, this book eventually emerged. It narrates the war in Laos through the eyes of some key U.S. paramilitary and diplomatic operatives, all stitched together with other items from the historical record. What's missing is the view from the other side (officials in Laos did not allow the author to travel outside of Vientiane). This book is a little bit too slick -- Alice Mayhew, editor for America's elite, encouraged the author, as did a grant from the intelligence-connected U.S. Institute for Peace. At least the author doesn't try to defend U.S. policy.

The U.S. began sending military advisors to Laos in 1960. When Laos became part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, this country experienced some of the heaviest bombing since World War II. U.S. bombs created 600,000 refugees out of a population of three million, and it was all kept secret from the American people and Congress. After the 1973 truce, the CIA's cowboys and their proxies shrugged their shoulders and went to Thailand or the U.S. to retire on their pensions. They left behind a country that, 22 years later, is full of bomb craters, antipersonnel bomblets, and amputees on crutches.


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