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Vietnam Declassified

The CIA and Counterinsurgency

Thomas Ahern

Publication Year: 2010

Vietnam Declassified is a detailed account of the CIA’s effort to help South Vietnamese authorities win the loyalty of the Vietnamese peasantry and suppress the Viet Cong. Covering the CIA engagement from 1954 to mid-1972, it provides a thorough analysis of the agency and its partners. Retired CIA operative and intelligence consultant Thomas L. Ahern Jr. is the first to comprehensively document the CIA’s role in the rural pacification of South Vietnam, drawing from secret archives to which he had unrestricted access. In addition to a chronology of operations, the book explores the assumptions, political values, and cultural outlooks of not only the CIA and other U.S. government agencies, but also of the peasants, Viet Cong, and Saigon government forces competing for their loyalty. The depth of Ahern’s research combined with the timely relevance of his analysis to current events in the Middle East makes this title an important addition to military literature.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Front cover

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pp. vii-viii

List of Maps and Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiv

What is the point of a meticulously written, four-hundred-page study of a strenuously pursued failure that lasted for twenty years? Who will read it, and what will be derived from a reading of it? ...

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pp. xv-xviii

No one still believes that history has come to an end. On the contrary, the further the twenty-first century advances, the more it resembles the one that preceded it. Millenarian ideology—once political, and now religious—aggravated by nationalist and ethnic antagonisms, dominates the politics of what is euphemistically ...

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pp. xix

Thanks are due to the many people who contributed to this study. Two former CIA chief historians, Kay Oliver and Ken McDonald, scrubbed the classified version of the manuscript, and other members of the CIA History Staff also reviewed it. ...


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pp. xxi-xxiii

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Introduction: To Build a Nation

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pp. 1-6

After seventy-one years of colonial rule in Vietnam—the principal component of French Indochina—the communist-led Viet Minh defeated the French Expeditionary Corps at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954. The Viet Minh, created by Ho Chi Minh in 1941, had led Vietnamese resistance to the World War II Japanese ...

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1. "The Effort Must Be Made"

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pp. 7-20

Sometime in late 1954, Paul Harwood, the chief of covert action in CIA’s regular Saigon Station, traveled in a military convoy to a Mekong Delta province capital, Vinh Long. This was the seat of a Catholic diocese headed by Bishop Ngo Dinh Thuc, a brother of Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem, and the visitors were attending the baptism ...

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2. "Get Them before They Get Us"

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pp. 21-38

If Paul Harwood was right, and the GVN had by mid-1955 got nowhere in establishing a civilian government presence in the countryside, the same could be said of the communists. No significant subversive or insurgent activity had yet surfaced, and from the American perspective rural political loyalties were still up for grabs. ...

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3. Counterinsurgency in the Central Highlands

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pp. 39-70

By the end of 1960, not only the U.S. Mission but also, for the first time, President Diem, recognized that the VC posed an immediate threat to the GVN presence in the Vietnamese countryside. The growing sense of urgency was reinforced, on the American side, by the November election of John F. Kennedy, ...

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4. Sea Swallows and Strategic Hamlets

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pp. 71-90

CIA chose the montagnards for the first of its 1961 counterinsurgency initiatives partly because of Ngo Dinh Diem’s failure to attract the active commitment of the Buddhist-Confucian ethnic Vietnamese who predominated in the lowlands of Central Vietnam and the Mekong Delta. ...

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5. Operation Switchback

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pp. 91-110

The transfer of CIDG and other paramilitary activities to MACV control was inevitable, despite widespread apprehension in CIA that this would result in distorting the programs’ respective missions. The Directorate of Plans (later the Directorate of Operations) lacked the personnel and organizational resources to manage ...

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6. Experiments in the Lowlands

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pp. 111-126

The self-immolations of Buddhist monks that dramatized religious unrest in the summer of 1963, and Diem’s inability either to mollify or to suppress the dissidents, paralyzed the South Vietnamese government and its campaign against the insurgency. In August, the GVN deployed Colonel Tung’s Special Forces in raids ...

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7. The Kien Hoe Incubator

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pp. 127-148

The absence of a national-level Vietnamese counterpart amplified the importance of local contacts as counterinsurgency partners. The most important of these was Lieutenant Colonel Tran Ngoc Chau, whose Buddhist affiliation had allowed him to escape crippling identification with the Diem regime. ...

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8. The People's Action Team

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pp. 149-168

In the gloomy atmosphere of late 1964, the ineffectual Nguyen Khanh concentrated on fending off his ARVN competitors for power while the GVN hold on the countryside continued to recede. Ambassador Taylor proclaimed in October that the task was “to get a maximum of pacification effort in South Viet-Nam with a minimum contribution ...

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9. Another Chance in the Countryside

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pp. 169-190

By the end of 1965, the Johnson administration had sent nearly 200,000 American troops to Vietnam. Together with GVN forces, some of which were fighting well, they had blunted the Viet Cong–North Vietnamese Army advance. It might be argued that at this point the question of pacification strategy had become moot, ...

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10. Growing Pains

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pp. 191-220

The new opportunity to win the countryside that Ambassador Porter and others thought they saw in the spring of 1966 was accompanied by daunting obstacles. A task force convened by Porter in April noted many of them: communist military strength, organizational weaknesses and confused mission assignments ...

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pp. 221-254

Every American and Vietnamese pacification manager recognized, by late 1966, that accomplishments had failed to match early expectations. Over the course of that year, pacification operations recorded a net gain of just over 400 hamlets, bringing the number of those declared secured to 4,400 of a total of 11,250. ...

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12. Phoenix

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pp. 255-280

A continual CIA effort to find intelligence access to policy levels of the Vietnamese Communist Party and the NLF had always accompanied the station’s action programs in rural South Vietnam. But from 1954 to 1964 the agency devoted little attention to the local communist political and administrative structure, ...

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13. The 1968 Tet Offensive and Accelerated Pacification

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pp. 281-308

The effectiveness of the organizational reforms and accelerated material investment introduced by CORDS depended as much on broader strategic and political questions as it did on the programs themselves. President Nguyen Van Thieu, elected in September 1967, was prepared to acknowledge that, ...

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14. Disengagement

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pp. 309-342

In retrospect, Hanoi’s 1968 return to a focus on its hamlet and village organization seems to have offered an opportunity for the GVN and its American patrons to exploit allied military superiority in expanded pacification operations. General Abrams did in fact devote more attention than Westmoreland had to the rural security aspects ...

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15. A Matter of Running City Hall

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pp. 343-356

At the end of 1970, with communist main forces still avoiding contact, the preponderance of military strength in the heavily populated areas of South Vietnam lay with the Saigon government. In Long An Province, for example, the GVN’s Regional and Popular Forces totaled 16,000 men. ...

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Conclusion: The Limits of Pragmatism

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pp. 357-376

The catastrophic failure of any undertaking, especially one as massive as the American intervention in South Vietnam, tends to evoke a search for scapegoats. These are most commonly found in the leaders of the failed enterprise, when the observer is hostile to it, or in malign outside forces, when the observer favors it. ...


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pp. 377-432

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 433-436


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pp. 437-450

E-ISBN-13: 9780813173573
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813125619

Page Count: 480
Publication Year: 2010