Vietnam epitomized the mindless destruction and unobtainable ends of the Secret Team. As in Laos, the combination of massive bombing, tribal allies gulled by promises of greater autonomy, and an imposed elite of collaborators enriched by the narcotics trade, only destroyed alternatives to communist rule in the long run.
The CIA's shadowy activities in Vietnam were necessary to prepare American public opinion to accept the commitment of ground troops to a foreign war. Its actions in this regard were diabolically clever, William Blum in his book, The CIA, A Forgotten History, draws attention to the confessions of Phillip Liechty, a former CIA officer. Liechty revealed he had seen the plans to take large amounts of Communist bloc arms, load them on a Vietnamese boat, fake a battle, and then call in naive reporters to see the "captured" weapons as proof of foreign assistance to the Viet Cong. After this staged incident concerning the sinking of a "suspicious vessel" in "shallow water" off South Vietnam on Feb. 16, 1965, the United States State Department released a paper alleging aggression from the North. Liechty noted also an elaborate scheme to forge Viet Cong postal stamps to indicate North Vietnamese aid; Life Magazine put the CIA forgery on a full cover blow up.
THE CIA'S DRUG DEALING efforts in Vietnam began with a paradox, which underlay the growing American colonization of the southern republic. The Americans' man in South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, had come to power in 1955 by driving out the French-backed opium lords of Saigon, involving violent confrontations with these gangsters. Soon, however, as Alfred McCoy spells out in his book, The Politics of Heroin in South-east Asia, the nationalistic sounding Diem had simply become an American puppet in place of the former French-backed emperor Bao Dai. Unable to build a popular basis of support, Diem turned to the familiar means - a secret police financed by the opium trade. From 1958 to 1960, Diem's security adviser, Ngo Dinh Nhu, revived the opium trade and stationed agents in Laos and in the Corsican Mafia-controlled commercial airline, Air Laos. From 1961 to '62, South Vietnamese Transport Groups smuggled opium from Laos to South Vietnam.
McCoy outlines how, after Diem's ouster in 1963, the instability of South Vietnamese governments largely stemmed from the inability of a single strong man to control the opium trade. Competing power factions used different government institutions. Premier Khan used the national police force. President Thieu used the navy customs and port authority. Vice-President Ky was involved in smuggling operations using the air force. Ky directed one particularly audacious "Operation Haylift," an American plan intended to fly agents into North Vietnam. It ended up as a cover for gold and opium smuggling. These competing factions would frequently arrest each other. George Robert, chief of the U.S. customs advisory team, complained in 1967 that it was impossible to distinguish between "honest actions and dishonest ones."
One of the high profile opium lords, General Loan, directed Ky's smuggling and at one point intimidated South Vietnam's legislative assembly by invading it with armed guards. Thieu's man, the infamous General Dang Van Quang (now living in Montreal) was exposed in a July, 1971 NBC News broadcast as the "biggest pusher" in Vietnam.
WHILE MANY AMERICAN MILITARY officers deplored the effects of the drug trade and tried to combat it, such qualms were not shared by the Secret Team. With the Vietnam war reaching its peak of escalation in 1968, Theodore Shackley was transferred from CIA Chief of Station, to the same position in Saigon. Shortly after his arrival he arranged a meeting with his former Cuban associate Mafia Chieftain Santo Trafficante and his Laotian ally Van Pao. According to the Christic Institute, a partnership between the two led to Trafficante's becoming the most important distributor of heroin in America. Henrik Kruger in The Great Heroin Coup, notes that Trafficante went on a business trip in 1968 to the Far East, beginning in Hong Kong, where he had located his emissary Frank Furci. Furci controlled the market on soldier's nightclubs, mess halls and a chain of Hong Kong heroin clubs.
McCoy notes that, after Trafficante's visit, a Filipino ring delivered Hong Kong heroin to the U.S. Mafia. This involved 1,000 kg of pure heroin equivalent to ten to twenty percent of all U.S. consumption. These events coincided with an American-initiated shutdown of opium-growing in Turkey, and the destruction of the "French connection" of Corsican Mafia smuggling more fled to French than American foreign policy interests (See Kruger's book for details of this).
The suit of the Christic Institute elaborates on how the Trifficante-boosted South Vietnamese drug trade provided the same basis for secret police repression under the Phoenix program as it had under Diem. While critics of the suit, noting that Theodore Shackley was no longer station chief in Saigon, imply that it made a slip, the suit is quite clear that both Shackley and Clines directed it from Washington. Promoted for their secret activities in Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam, the dynamic duo now served as Chief and Deputy Chief of the East Asia division of the CIA. Directing all CIA covert operations in Southeast Asia, Shackley and Clines also controlled the Phoenix program, which saw the assassination of some 60,000 village majors, treasurers, school teachers, and other non-Viet Cong administrators. In 1971 CIA officer William Colby, Director of Phoenix, was asked by a Congressmen, "Are you certain that we know a member of the VCI from a loyal member of the South Vietnam citizenry?". Colby replied, "No, Mr. Congressman, I am not," as William Blum points out in his book. Blum also cites the Congressional testimony of U.S. military intelligence officer in Vietnam, K. Barton Osborn. Phoenix suspects were interrogated in helicopters and then pushed out, Osborn noted. Electric shock until death was a frequent tactic. All persons detained during tactical raids were routinely classified as Viet Cong. Osborn said that none held for questioning were able to live through it.
Noam Chomsky in The Political Economy of Human Rights notes that the Phoenix system fell more harshly on non-Communist dissidents than Viet Cong, who were better able to defend themselves. By providing cash for murder, it encouraged vendettas against any foe of the powerful in the country. All this slaughter simply worked to ensure the eventual domination of South Vietnam by the Communist North, the complete mirror image of American rhetoric justifying its intervention.
John Bacher , Ph.D. is a historian working in Toronto.