CIA's close relationship with Ngo Dinh Nhu, chief political adviser to his brother President Ngo Dinh Diem, is demonstrated by the presence of CIA officer Paul Harwood and his spouse at the confirmation ceremony for the Nhu's daughter Le Thuy. From left: Ngo Dinh Nhu, Mrs. Paul Harwood, Le Thuy, Bishop Ngo Dinh Thu, with Nhu's son Qunh, son Trac, [CIA officer] Paul Harwood, Madam Nhu." [Source, The CIA and the House of Ngo, p. 26]

The CIA's Vietnam Histories

Newly-Declassified CIA Histories Show Its Involvement in Every Aspect of the Indochina War

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 283

Posted - August 26, 2009

For more information contact:
John Prados - 202/994-7000

Washington, D.C., August 26, 2009 - The Central Intelligence Agency participated in every aspect of the wars in Indochina, political and military, according to newly declassified CIA histories. The six volumes of formerly secret histories (the Agency's belated response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by National Security Archive senior fellow John Prados) document CIA activities in South and North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in unprecedented detail. The histories contain a great deal of new material and shed light on aspects of the CIA's work that were not well known or were poorly understood. The new revelations include:

  • The CIA and U.S. Embassy engaged in secret diplomatic exchanges with enemy insurgents of the National Liberation Front, at first with the approval of the South Vietnamese government, a channel which collapsed in the face of deliberate obstruction by South Vietnamese officials [Document 2 pp. 58-63].
  •  As early as 1954 that Saigon leader Ngo Dinh Diem would ultimately fail to gain the support of the South Vietnamese people. Meanwhile the CIA crafted a case officer-source relationship with Diem's brother Ngo Dinh Nhu as early as 1952, a time when the French were still fighting for Indochina [Document 1, pp. 21-2, 31].
  • CIA raids into North Vietnam took place as late as 1970, and the program authorizing them was not terminated until April 1972, despite obtaining no measurable results [Document 5, pp. 349-372].
  • In 1965, a time when the South Vietnamese regime was again in conflict with the Buddhist majority, the CIA secretly funded Buddhist training programs [Document 2, p. 38].
  • CIA involvement in South Vietnamese elections goes beyond what has been previously disclosed, and matches the scope of the agency's controversial 1960s political action program in Chile [Document 2, pp. 51-58].
  • In the later period of the war, according to the CIA's own historian, Saigon leader Nguyen Van Thieu's mistrust of the United States increasingly focused on the CIA [Document 2, p. 87].
  • The CIA historian, contrary to neo-orthodox arguments regarding progress in the Vietnam war, concedes that U.S. pacification efforts failed in Vietnam—including the so-called "Phoenix" program—and traces this failure to several causes, including South Vietnamese lack of interest and investment in this key facet of the conflict [Document 3, p. xv-xvi].
  • The CIA was aware from the very early 1960s of the problems posed by Laotian drug trafficking to its Laos campaign, but not only took no action, it did not even make drug trafficking a reporting requirement until the Nixon administration declared war on drugs [Document 5, p. 535].


The CIA's Vietnam Story
By John Prados

The Central Intelligence Agency's Vietnam war history actually begins in 1950, when agency officers moved to French Indochina as part of the United States legation in Saigon. During the French war in Indochina the CIA's involvement grew to encompass a base in Hanoi but not much more, since the French did not encourage CIA activity. The French tamped down further after an incident in which CIA officers were revealed as reaching past them to open channels to Vietnamese nationalists. When the lands of Indochina—Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia—became independent "associated states" the CIA expanded its activity somewhat, and during the last year of the French war, 1953-1954, agency involvement grew considerably as the French were obliged to accept U.S. assistance with unconventional warfare activities as a condition of expanded military aid from the Eisenhower administration, and with the use of CIA proprietary aircraft of Civil Air Transport (later Air America) in Laos and at Dien Bien Phu.

Starting with the Geneva agreements of 1954 the CIA's role expanded further and began to assume the shape it would keep through the remainder of the Indochina wars. Agency stations were created in South Vietnam and Laos, an agency base remained in North Vietnam until the spring of 1955, and the CIA was represented in Cambodia until that nation broke relations with the United States in 1963 (a CIA station in Cambodia was created following U.S. intervention there in 1970). Besides its crucial importance in gathering intelligence and providing interpretations of events in Indochina, the agency was arguably as important as the U.S. embassy in political relations with the South Vietnamese government.  Moreover, as the primary action agency for counterinsurgency through most of the war, it actually conducted a full-scale war in Laos and ran a variety of paramilitary programs in South Vietnam. The agency's broad span of activities reached into virtually every aspect of the Indochina war.

The newly declassified CIA histories cover much but not all of this ground. Despite their massive size—almost two thousand pages in six volumes—the histories leave out significant pieces of the story. The most notable lack is any substantial treatment of U.S. intelligence analysis on Indochina, although a complementary study by General Bruce Palmer, Jr., published in 1984, dealt with intelligence estimates in some detail and the reports themselves have since been declassified. (Note 1)

The present set of monographs nevertheless stand as the broadest recounting of CIA operational experience in the Southeast Asia conflict, a substantial achievement for their author, Thomas Ahern, a clandestine services officer who served during the war in both South Vietnam and Laos. Ahern began work on the series in the early 1990s, completed the first in 1998 and finished the last of the series in 2006.

Some discussion of the individual studies appears below. In terms of overall scope, Ahern began with South Vietnam, with a discussion of CIA's role during the high years of the war and the crisis of the final evacuation from Saigon. Published in October 1998 under the auspices of the agency's Center for the Study of Intelligence, Ahern's CIA and the Generals deals with the agency's political action programs, its role in elections, in secret negotiations, and CIA liaison with the South Vietnamese government from 1964 through the end of the war in 1975. Ahern's second monograph, CIA and the House of Ngo (June 2000), returns to the dawn of the American involvement and covers the same ground for the period of the leadership of Ngo Dinh Diem, which ended late in 1963. The third volume in the series, CIA and Rural Pacification in South Vietnam (August 2001), bridges both eras and focuses in on operational programs that attempted to gain the loyalty of Vietnam's peasantry for the Saigon government or to neutralize the parallel hierarchy of the insurgents, the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam. In February 2004 the Center for the Study of Intelligence put out Ahern's more limited monograph, Good Questions, Wrong Answers: CIA's Estimates of Arms Traffic Through Sihanoukville, Cambodia, During the Vietnam War. In this study Ahern comes closest to reviewing intelligence analysis, although most of his treatment of the subject remains redacted in the version of this document that the CIA recently declassified.

Another specialized study followed in May 2005, The Way We Do Things: Black Entry Operations into North Vietnam, in which Thomas Ahern turns his attention to CIA efforts to mount clandestine espionage and sabotage missions into the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, primarily in the period until 1963, although there is some treatment of later efforts. By far the longest of the Ahern narratives is his 2006 monograph on the CIA in Laos, Undercover Armies: CIA and Surrogate Warfare in Laos, 1961-1973, in which he deals with the full panoply of agency activity in that landlocked Southeast Asian nation.

All of these studies provide much detail, although, as noted, they are thin on some aspects of CIA's work. Aside from intelligence analysis, the CIA monographs contain little on early agency activities during the French war, on the organization and function of the agency's Saigon Station, on intelligence collection (excepting specific cases of particular operatives, and the question of collection on Sihanoukville), on its activities in Cambodia (except as just mentioned), on CIA coordination with the U.S. military, on its relations with agency proprietaries like Air America, or (except in the case of CIA missions into North Vietnam) on the specifics of CIA's cooperation with South Vietnamese police and intelligence services. Nowhere in these many pages will the reader discover a figure for the overall number of CIA officers who served in the Vietnam war or on the agency's casualties in that conflict.  

A second problem is the deletion of materials which CIA censors continue to keep secret. This is a particular difficulty with Ahern's monographs on North Vietnamese operations, the Sihanoukville intelligence dispute, and the volume on Laos. The Sihanoukville study, in particular, is so heavily redacted that readers may fail to grasp the story. (Note 2) The monograph on pacification was previously declassified in 2007. A comparison between that version of Ahern's study and the one released in 2009 reveals that the bulk of materials protected by CIA censors in their earlier redaction are of purely historical interest. It can only be hoped that censors today are protecting true national security secrets.  




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