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Fresh interest in the history of counterinsurgency has focused renewed attention on the Phoenix Program, the United States' primary effort to improve intelligence coordination and operations aimed at identifying and dismantling the communist underground during the Vietnam War. Modern-day advocates of the program argue that it was devastatingly effective, but detractors condemn it as a merciless assassination campaign. Without a clearer understanding of the truth about Phoenix and its overall effectiveness, analysts risk drawing flawed conclusions about the program's applicability to contemporary conflicts.

The authors explore the Viet Cong underground (the target of Phoenix operations) and the early U.S. and South Vietnamese operations designed to dismantle it. Tracing the provenance and evolution of the Phoenix Program from these early operations, they identify the program's three elements and assess its overall success. They conclude that the truth about Phoenix and its effectiveness lies somewhere between the extremes of today's competing claims: The program made positive contributions to counterinsurgency in South Vietnam, but its political costs to the United States were substantial. The authors note that the Phoenix Program highlights the continuing importance of intelligence coordination and anti-infrastructure operations in contemporary counterinsurgency.

The research described in this paper was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Department of the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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