John Prados: The CIA's Vietnam Story





[John Prados is an analyst of national security based in Washington, DC. Prados holds a Ph.D. from Columbia University and focuses on presidential power, international relations, intelligence and military affairs. He is a senior fellow and project director with the National Security Archive, leading both the Archive’s Iraq Documentation Project and its parallel effort on Vietnam.]

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...

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