[back] My Lai massacre

The My Lai Massacre and The “Tiger Cages”

Excerpt from The Phoenix Program by Douglas Valentine

The My Lai Massacre
The My Lai massacre was first reported in March 1969, one full year after the event. In April 1969, because of congressional queries, the case was given to the Army inspector general, and in August Army Chief of Staff William Westmoreland turned the case over to the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division (CID). In November 1969 Seymour Hersh broke the story, telling how 504 Vietnamese civilians were massacred by members of a U.S. infantry company attached to a special battalion called Task Force Barker.
Ten days after Hersh broke the story, Westmoreland ordered General William Peers to conduct an official inquiry. Evan Parker contended to me that Peers got the job because he was not a West Point graduate.2 However, Peers’s close ties to the CIA may also have been a factor. In World War II, Peers had commanded OSS Detachment 101, in which capacity he had been Evan Parker’s boss. In the early 1950s he had been the CIA’s chief of training and its station chief in Taiwan, and as SACSA in 1966 Peers had worked with the CIA in formulating pacification policy. Having had several commands in Vietnam, he was well aware of how the war was being conducted. But the most conclusive evidence linking Peers to the CIA is the report he submitted in March 1970, which was not made available to the public until 1974 and which carefully avoided implicating the CIA.

The perfunctory trials that followed the Peers inquiry amounted to slaps on the wrist for the defendants and fuelled rumors of a cover-up. Of the thirty people named in the report, charges were brought against sixteen, four were tried, and one was convicted. William Calley’s sentence was quickly reduced, and in conservative quarters he was venerated as a hero and scapegoat. Likewise, the men in Calley’s platoon were excused as victims of VC terror and good soldiers acting under orders. Of nearly two thousand Americans surveyed by Time magazine, 65 percent denied being upset.

Yet, if most Americans were willing to accept the massacre as necessary to ensure their security, why the cover-up? Why was the massacre portrayed as an isolated incident?

On August 25, 1970, an article appeared in The New York Times hinting that the CIA, through Phoenix, was responsible for My Lai. The story line was advanced on October 14, when defense attorneys for David Mitchell — a sergeant accused and later cleared of machine-gunning scores of Vietnamese in a drainage ditch in My Lai — citing Phoenix as the CIA’s “systematic program of assassination,” named Evan Parker as the CIA officer who “signed documents, certain blacklists,” of Vietnamese to be assassinated in My Lai.3 When we spoke, Parker denied the charge.

A defense request to subpoena Parker was denied, as was a request to view the My Lai blacklist. Outside the courtroom CIA lawyer John Greaney insisted that the agency was “absolutely not” involved in My Lai. When asked if the CIA had ever operated in My Lai, Greaney replied, “I don’t know.”
But as has been established in this book, the CIA had one of its largest contingents in Quang Ngai Province. [See: Map of South Vietnam - pop-up window] Especially active were its Census Grievance cadre, directed by the Son Tinh District RD Cadre intelligence chief, Ho Ngoc Hui, whose VNQDD cadres were in My Lai on the day prior to the massacre. A Catholic from North Vietnam, Hui reportedly called the massacre “a small matter.” 4
To understand why the massacre occurred, it helps to know that in March 1968 cordon and search operations of the type Task Force Barker conducted in My Lai were how RD Cadre intelligence officers contacted their secret agents. The Peers report does not mention that, or that in March 1968 the forty-one RD teams operating in Quang Ngai were channeling information on VCI through Hui to the CIA’s paramilitary adviser, who shared it with the province Phoenix coordinator.

The Phoenix coordinator in Quang Ngai Province at the time of the My Lai massacre was Robert B. Ramsdell, a seventeen-year veteran of the Army CID who subsequently worked for ten years as a private investigator in Florida. Ramsdell was hired by the CIA in 1967. He was trained in the United States and sent to Vietnam on February 4, 1968, as the Special Branch adviser in Quang Ngai Province. Ramsdell, who appeared incognito before the Peers panel, told newsmen that he worked for the Agency for International Development.

In Cover-up Seymour Hersh tells how in February 1968 Ramsdell began “rounding up residents of Quang Ngai City whose names appeared on Phoenix blacklists.”5 Explained Ramsdell: “After Tet we knew who many of these people were, but we let them continue to function because we were controlling them. They led us to the VC security officer for the district. We wiped them out after Tet and then went ahead and picked up the small fish.”6 The people who were “wiped out,” Hersh explains, were “put to death” by the Phoenix Special Police.” 7

Ramsdell “simply eliminated everyone who was on those lists,” said Gerald Stout, an Army intelligence officer who fed Ramsdell names. “It was recrimination.” *8 Recrimination for Tet, at a minimum.

* In August 1966 the CIA’s paramilitary adviser in Quang Ngai, Reed Harrison, unwittingly sent USAID employee Dwight Owen into an ambush outside Tu Nghia. The guerillas who killed young Owen were from the Forty-eighth VC Battalion.
Unfortunately, according to Randolph Lane — the Quang Ngai Province MACV intelligence adviser — Ramsdell’s victims “were not Vietcong.”9 This fact is corroborated by Jeffrey Stein, a corporal working undercover for the 525th MIG, running agent nets in Quang Nam and southern Thua Thien provinces. According to Stein, the VNQDD was a Vietnamese militarist party that had a “world fascist allegiance and wanted to overthrow the Vietnamese government from the right! The people they were naming as Communists were left-wing Buddhists, and that information was going to the Phoenix program. We were being used to assassinate their political rivals.” 10
Through the Son Tinh DIOCC, Phoenix Coordinator Ramsdell passed Census Grievance-generated intelligence to Task Force Barker, estimating “the 48th Battalion at a strength of 450 men.” The Peers report, however, said that 40 VC at most were in My Lai on the day prior to March 16 and that they had left before Task Force Barker arrived on the scene. 11

Ramsdell told the Peers panel, “Very frankly, anyone that was in that area was considered a VCS [Vietcong suspect], because they couldn’t survive in that area unless they were sympathizers.” 12

On the basis of Ramsdell’s information, Task Force Barker’s intelligence officer, Captain Kotouc, told Lieutenant Colonel Frank Barker that “only VC and active VC sympathizers were living [in My Lai and My Khe].” But, Kotouc said, because leaflets were to be dropped, “civilians would be out of the hamlets...by 0700 hours.” 13

Phoenix Coordinator Ramsdell then provided Kotouc with a blacklist of VCI suspects in My Lai, along with the ludicrous notion that all “sympathizers” would be gone from the hamlet by early morning, leaving 450 hard-core VC guerillas behind. Yet “the link between Ramsdell and the poor intelligence for the 16 March operation was never explored by the Peers Panel.” 14

As in any large-scale Phoenix operation, two of Task Force Barker’s companies cordoned off the hamlet while a third one — Calley’s — moved in, clearing the way for Kotouc and Special Branch officers who were “brought to the field to identify VC from among the detained inhabitants.” 15

As Hersh notes parenthetically, “Shortly after the My Lai 4 operation, the number of VCI on the Phoenix blacklist was sharply reduced.” 16

In an unsigned, undated memo on Phoenix supplied by Jack, the genesis of the blacklist is described as follows:

There had been a reluctance to exploit available sources of information in the hamlet, village and district. It was, therefore, suggested that effective Cordon and Search operations must rely on all locally available intelligence in order to deprive the Viet Cong of a sanctuary among the population. It was in this context that carefully prepared blacklists were made available. The blacklists were furnished to assist the Allied operational units in searching for specifically identified people and in screening captives or local personnel held for questioning. The information for the blacklists was prepared by the Police Special Branch* in conjunction with intelligence collected from the Province Interrogation Centers.

* In June 1988 Quang Ngai Special Branch chief Kieu participated in a Vatican ceremony which elevated Catholics killed in Vietnam to the status of martyrs.
Kotouc was charged by the Peers panel with concealing evidence and falsifying reports, with having “authorized the killing of at least one VC suspect by members of the National Police,” and with having “committed the offense of maiming by cutting off the finger of a VC suspect.” 17

The CIA, via Phoenix, not only perpetrated the My Lai massacre but also concealed the crime. The Peers panel noted that “a Census Grievance Cadreman of Son My Village submitted a written report to the Census Grievance chief, Quang Ngai, on 18 March 1968,” indicating that “a fierce battle with VC and local guerrillas” had resulted in 427 civilian and guerrilla deaths, 27 in My Lai and 400 in the nearby hamlets of Thuan Yen and Binh Dong!18 The appearance of this report coincided with the release by Robert Thompson of a “captured” document, which had been “mislaid” for nineteen months, indicating that the Cuc Nghien Cuu had assassinated 2,748 civilians in Hue during Tet.

The only person named as having received the Census Grievance report is Lieutenant Colonel William Guinn, who testified in May 1969 that he “could not recall who specifically had given it to him.” In December 1969 Guinn, when shown a copy of the Census Grievance report, “refused further to testify and accordingly, it was not possible to ascertain whether the 18 March Census Grievance report was in fact the one which he recalled having received.”19 With that the matter of the Census Grievance report was dropped.

The My Lai cover-up was assisted by the Son Thinh District adviser, Major David Gavin, who lost a report written on April 11 by Tran Ngoc Tan, the Son Tinh district chief. Tan’s report named the 504 people killed at My Lai, and Tan said that “he discussed [the report] with Gavin” but that “Gavin denies this.” Shortly thereafter Major Gavin became Lieutenant Colonel Gavin. 20

The Eleventh Brigade commander dismissed Tan’s charges as “baseless propaganda.”21 Barker’s afteraction report listed no civilian deaths. Civilian deaths in South Vietnam from 1965 until 1973 are estimated at 1.5 million; none is reported in U.S. military afteraction reports.

The Peers panel cited “evidence that at least at the Quang Ngai Province and Son Tinh District levels, and possibly at 2nd ARVN Division, the Senior U.S. military advisors aided in suppressing information concerning the massacre.” 22

Task Force Barker commander Lieutenant Colonel Barker was killed in a helicopter crash on June 13, 1968, while traveling back to My Lai as part of an investigation ordered by the Quang Ngai Province chief, Colonel Khien. Khien is described “as a big time crook” and a VNQDD politico who “had a family in Hue” and was afraid the VC “were going to make another Hue out of Quang Ngai.” Province Chief Khien and the deputy province senior advisor, Lieutenant Colonel Guinn, both “believed that the only way to win the war was to kill all Viet Cong and Viet Cong sympathizers.” 23

The last piece in the My Lai puzzle concerned Robert Haeberle and Jay Roberts, Army reporters assigned to Task Force Barker. After the massacre Roberts “prepared an article for the brigade newspapers which omitted all mention of war crimes he had observed and gave a false and misleading account of the Task Force Barker operation.” Roberts was charged by the Peers panel with having made no attempt to stop war crimes he witnessed and for failing to report the killings of noncombatants. Haeberle was cited by the panel for withholding photographic evidence of war crimes and for failing to report war crimes he had witnessed at My Lai.

As Jeff Stein said, “The first thing you learn in the Army is not competence, you learn corruption. And you learn ‘to get along, go along.’” 24

Unfortunately not everyone learns to get along. On September 3, 1988, Robert T’Souvas was apparently shot in the head by his girl friend, after an argument over a bottle of vodka. The two were homeless, living out of a van they had parked under a bridge in Pittsburgh. T’Souvas was a Vietnam veteran and a participant in the My Lai massacre.

T’Souvas’s attorney, George Davis, traveled to Da Nang in 1970 to investigate the massacre and while there was assigned as an aide a Vietnamese colonel who said that the massacre was a Phoenix operation and that the purpose of Phoenix was “to terrorize the civilian population into submission.”

Davis told me: “When I told the people in the War Department what I knew and that I would attempt to obtain all records on the program in order to defend my client, they agreed to drop the charges.” 25

Indeed, the My Lai massacre was a result of Phoenix, the “jerry-built” counterterror program that provided an outlet for the repressed fears and anger of the psyched-up men of Task Force Barker. Under the aegis of neutralizing the infrastructure, old men, women, and children became the enemy. Phoenix made it as easy to shoot a Vietnamese child as it was to shoot a sparrow in a tree. The ammunition was faulty intelligence provided by secret agents harboring grudges — in violation of the agreement that Census Grievance intelligence would not be provided to the police. The trigger was the blacklist.
As Ed Murphy said, “Phoenix was far worse than the things attributed to it.” Indeed, the range of transgressions generated by Phoenix was all-encompassing but was most evident in its post-apprehension aspect. According to Jeff Stein, the CIA “would direct the PRU teams to go out and take care of a particular target...either capture or assassination, or kidnapping. Kidnapping was a common thing that they liked to do. They really liked the whole John Wayne bit — to go in and capture someone at night. ... They’d put him in one of these garbage collection type bins — and the helicopter would pick up the bin and fly him off to a regional interrogation center.
“I think it’s common knowledge what goes on at the interrogation center,” Stein writes. “It was common knowledge that when someone was picked up their lives were about at an end because the Americans most likely felt that, if they were to turn someone like that back into the countryside it would just be like multiplying NLF followers.” 26

Bart Osborn (whose agent net Stein inherited) is more specific. “I never knew in the course of all those operations any detainee to live through his interrogation,” Osborn testified before Congress in 1971. “They all died. There was never any reasonable establishment of the fact that any one of those individuals was, in fact, cooperating with the VC, but they all died and the majority were wither tortured to death or things like thrown out of helicopters.” 27

The “Tiger Cages”
One of John Hart’s original ICEX charges was to develop a means of containing within the GVN’s judicial system the explosion of civilian detainees. But as Nelson Brickham explained, no one wanted to get the name of the Jailer of Vietnam, and no agency ever accepted responsibility. So another outcome of Phoenix was a prison system filled to overflowing.

It was not until April of 1970, when ten Vietnamese students put themselves on display in a room in the Saigon College of Agriculture, that treatment of political prisoners gained the attention of the press. The students had been tried and convicted by a military field court. Some were in shock and being fed intravenously. Some had had bamboo splinters shoved under their fingernails. One was deaf from having had soapy water poured in his ears and his ears pounded. The women students had been raped as well as tortured. The culprits, claims Don Luce in his book Hostages of War, were Saigon’s First District police, who used false documents and signatures to prove guilt, and used torture and drugs to extract confessions.

The case of the students prompted two congressmen to investigate conditions at Con Son Prison in July 1970. Initially, Rod Landreth advised station chief Shackley not to allow the congressmen to visit, but Shackley saw denial as a tacit admission of CIA responsibility. So Landreth passed the buck to Buzz Johnson at the Central Pacification and Development Council. Thinking there was nothing to hide, Johnson got the green from light General Khiem. He then arranged for Congressmen Augustus Hawkins and William Anderson and their aide Tom Harkins to fly to Con Son accompanied by Public Safety Adviser Frank Walton. Acting as interpreter for the delegation was Don Luce, a former director of the International Volunteer Service who had been living in Vietnam since 1959. Prison reform advocate Luce had gained the trust of many Vietnamese nationalists, one of whom told him where the notorious tiger cages (tiny cells reserved for hard-core VCI under supervision of Nguyen Minh Chau, “the Reformer”) were located at Con Son Prison.

Upon arriving at Con Son, Luce and his entourage were greeted by the prison warden, Colonel Nguyen Van Ve. Harkins presented Ve with a list of six prisoners the congressmen wished to visit in Camp Four. While inside this section of the prison, Luce located the door to the tiger cages hidden behind a woodpile at the edge of a vegetable garden. Ve and Walton protested this departure from the guided tour, their exclamations prompting a guard inside the tiger cage section to open the door, revealing its contents. The congressmen entered and saw stone compartments five feet wide, nine feet long, and six feet high. Access to the tiger cages was gained by climbing steps to a catwalk, then looking down between iron grates. From three to five men were shackled to the floor in each cage. All were beaten, some mutilated. Their legs were withered, and they scuttled like crabs across the floor, begging for food, water, and mercy. Some cried. Others told of having lime buckets, which sat ready above each cage, emptied upon them.

Ve denied everything. The lime was for whitewashing the walls, he explained, and the prisoners were evil people who deserved punishment because they would not salute the flag. Despite the fact that Congress funded the GVN’s Directorate of Corrections, Walton accused the congressmen of interfering in Vietnamese affairs. Congressman Hawkins expressed the hope that American POWs were being better treated in Hanoi.

The extent of the tiger cage flap was a brief article in The New York Times that was repudiated by U.S. authorities. In Saigon the secret police cornered Luce’s landlady and the U.S. Embassy accused Luce of being a Vietcong agent. Rod Landreth approached Buzz Johnson with the idea of circulating evidence of Luce’s alleged homosexuality, but Johnson nixed the idea. When Luce began writing articles for Tin Sang, all issues were promptly confiscated and his press card was revoked. Finally, Luce was expelled from Vietnam in May 1971, after his apartment had been ransacked by secret policemen searching for his records. Fortunately Luce had mailed his notes and documents to the United States, and he later compiled them in Hostages of War.

Michael Drosnin, in the May 30, 1975 issue of New Times, quotes Phoenix legal adviser Robert Gould as saying, “I don’t know for sure, but I guess Colby was covering up for Con Son too. Nothing really was changed after all that publicity... the inmates who were taken out of the Tiger Cages were simply transferred to something called ’cow cages,’ which were even worse. Those were barbed wire cells in another part of the camp. The inmates were shackled inside them for months and left paralyzed. I saw loads of spidery little guys — they couldn’t stand and they couldn’t walk, but had to move around on little wooden pallets.”28 According to Gould, “It was a well known smirking secret in certain official circles that with all the publicity about the Tiger Cages, no one ever found out about the cow cages.” 29

Added Gould: “The responsibility for all this is on the Americans who pushed the program. We finally made some paper reforms, but it didn’t make any difference. The Province Security Committees did whatever the hell they wanted and the pressure our ‘neutralization’ quotas put on them meant they had to sentence so many people a month regardless. And God, if you ever saw those prisons.” 30

In Hostages of War Don Luce refers to the GVN as a “Prison Regime” and calls Phoenix a “microcosm” of the omnipotent and perverse U.S. influence on Vietnamese society. He blames the program for the deterioration of values that permitted torture, political repression, and assassination. “While few Americans are directly involved in the program,” Luce writes, “Phoenix was created, organized, and funded by the CIA. The district and provincial interrogation centers were constructed with American funds, and provided with American advisers. Quotas were set by Americans. The national system of identifying suspects was devised by Americans and underwritten by the U.S. Informers are paid with US funds. American tax dollars have covered the expansion of the police and paramilitary units who arrest suspects.” 31

Thus, Luce writes, “the U.S. must share responsibility for the nature of the Saigon government itself. It is a government of limited scope whose very essence is dictated by American policy, not Vietnamese reality.”32 But the CIA absolved itself of responsibility, saying that abuses occurred in the absence of U.S. advisers and that oversight was impossible. However, if the CIA had accepted responsibility, it would have nullified the plausible denial it had so carefully cultivated. Like Phoenix, the prison system was intentionally “jerry-built,” enabling sadists to fall through the gaping holes in the safety net.
Writes Luce: “Abuses of justice are not accidental but an integral part of the Phoenix Program.” For example, “The widespread use of torture during interrogation can be explained by the admissibility of confession as evidence in court...and by the fact that local officials are under pressure from Saigon to sentence a specific number of high level VCI officials each month.” He adds that “Phoenix was named after the all seeing mythical bird which selectively snatches its prey — but the techniques of this operation are anything but selective. For many Vietnamese, the Phung Hoang program is a constant menace to their lives.” 33

1. McCollum interview.
2. Parker interview.
3. “Calley Defense Asks Disclosure of Top-Secret Data on Song My,” The New York Times, August 25, 1970
4. Wall interview.
5. Seymour Hersh, Cover-Up (New York: Random House, 1972) p. 87.
6. Hersh, p. 88.
7. Hersh, p. 88.
8. Hersh, p. 88.
9. Hersh, p. 88.
10. Myra MacPherson, Long Time Passing (New York: Signet, 1984), p. 625.
11. Joseph Goldstein, The My Lai Massacre and Its Cover-up (New York: The Free Press, 1976), p. 256.
12. Hersh, p. 93.
13. Hersh, p. 93.
14. Hersh, p. 95.
15. Goldstein, p. 145.
16. Hersh, p. 95.
17. Goldstein, p. 339
18. Goldstein, p. 270
19. Goldstein, p. 277
20. Goldstein, p. 278
21. Goldstein, p. 288
22. Goldstein, p. 313
23. Hersh, pp. 188-189.
24. MacPherson, p. 625.
25. Interview with George Davis.
26. Jeffrey Stein and Michael T. Klare, “From the Ashes: Phoenix,” Commonweal, April 20, 1975, p. 159.
27. “U.S. Assistance Programs in Vietnam,” p. 53.
28. Michael Drosnin, “Phoenix: The CIA’s Biggest Assassination Program” (New York Times, August 22, 1975), p. 24.
29. Drosnin, p. 24.
30. Drosnin, p. 23.
31. Don Luce, Hostages of War (Indochina Resource Center, 1973) p. 26.
32. Luce, p. 27.
33. Luce, P. 24.


Agroville — (Khu Tru Mat): garrison community into which rural Vietnamese were forcefully relocated in order to isolate them from the Viet Cong.
ARVN — Army of the Republic of Vietnam
Census Grievance (CG) — CIA covert action program designed to obtain information on the VCI through static agents in villages, or mobile agents in armed propaganda teams. [Back]
CIO — Central Intelligence Organization: formed in 1961 to coordinate South Vietnamese foreign and domestic intelligence operations.
DIOCC — District Intelligence and Operations Coordination Center: office of the Phoenix adviser in each of South Vietnam’s 250 districts. [Back]
Free Fire Zone — Area in South Vietnam where U.S. military personnel had the authority to kill anyone they targeted.
GVN — Government of Vietnam [Back]
ICEX — Intelligence coordination and exploitation: original name of the Phoenix program, formed in June 1967. [Back]
Kuomintang (KMT) — Official ruling party of the Republic of China (Taiwan), formed by Dr. Sun Yat-sen in 1911.
MACV — Military Assistance Command, Vietnam: arrived in Saigon in February 1962 as a unified command under the Commander in Chief, Pacific, managing the U.S. military effort in South Vietnam. [Back]
NIC — National Interrogation Center: CIA facility built in 1964 inside CIO headquarters in the naval shipyard in Saigon.
NLF — National Liberation Front: formed in 1960 by the various insurgent groups in South Vietnam. [Back]
NVA — North Vietnamese Army
Phung Hoang — The mythological Vietnamese bird of conjugal love that appears in times of peace, pictured holding a flute and representing virtue, grace, and harmony. Also the name given to the South Vietnamese version of Phoenix. [Back]
Province Security Committee (PSC) — nonjudicial body charged with the disposition of captured VCI. [Back]
PRU — Provincial Reconnaissance Units: mercenary forces under the control of the CIA in South Vietnam. [Back]
RD — Revolutionary Development: CIA program to build support for the GVN in provinces of South Vietnam. [Back]
RDC — Revolutionary Development cadre: South Vietnamese trained by the CIA at Vung Tau to persuade the citizens of South Vietnam so support the central government.
RDC/O — Revolutionary Development Cadre, Operations: CIA officer in charge of paramilitary operations in a province.
RDC/P — Revolutionary Development Cadre, Plans: CIA officer in charge of liaison with the Special Branch in a province.
SACSA — Special assistant (to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) for Counterinsurgency and Special Activities: office within the Joints Chiefs with responsibility for Phoenix policy. [Back]
USIS — United States Information Service: branch of the U.S. government responsible for conducting psychological operations overseas.
VC — Viet Cong: Vietnamese Communist
VCI — Viet Cong Infrastructure: all Communist party members and NLF officers, plus Vietcong and NVA saboteurs and terrorists. [Back]