Ambassador William E. Colby

By Lewis Sorley
Excerpted from Indochina in the Year of the Dog—1970, pages 77–86, with permission.

William E. Colby (CIA)

William Egan Colby was born into an Army family in 1920. He got off to a good start (when his father was stationed in China) at a school whose motto was: “Tientsin Grammar School, fight we must, or Tientsin Grammar School, bite the dust.”

Colby graduated from Princeton, served in the OSS during World War II (parachuting into German-held France and Norway to assist partisans), graduated from Columbia University Law School after the war, then soon joined the newly-established CIA. Early postings in Italy and Sweden were followed by assignment to Vietnam, where he served as Deputy Station Chief, then Chief of Station, Saigon, during 1959-1962. He then became Chief of CIA’s Far East Division before returning to Vietnam to soon become Deputy to the Commander, US Military Assistance Command, for CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support).1 That meant he was, with the rank of ambassador, in charge of U.S. support for South Vietnam’s pacification program.

The COMUSACV then was General Creighton Abrams. Colby took over his new job from Robert Komer, who had been sacked by Abrams.

What they set about to prosecute was what they called “One War,” meaning not a war of “the big battalions,” as people had referred to the combat operations in the earlier years, contrasting them to an “other war” of pacification and so on. They said combat operations, pacification, and improvement of South Vietnam’s armed forces were all equally important, and all had to progress together, or if not then the overall enterprise was not going to succeed.

As a consequence, the measure of merit changed dramatically from the “body count” of the Westmoreland years to “population secured.” And the “search and destroy” tactics prescribed by Westmoreland were now changed to “clear and hold” tactics, with the “hold” being provided increasingly by the South Vietnamese, and especially their Territorial Forces (Regional Forces and Popular Forces), as U.S. troops were progressively withdrawn.

With Colby’s ascent to the top post in pacification support, the remarkable triumvirate of Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, General Abrams, and Colby—men of like character, integrity, devotion to duty, and personal modesty—was in place and managing American forces and actions in Vietnam to good effect.

Abrams and Colby quickly established a bond of mutual trust and confidence. “Shortly after Komer left,” Colby remembered, “Abrams drew me aside. ‘You know, I think our relationship is going to be a good one,’ he told me. ‘I’ll make sure it is, General,’ I responded.” And, added Colby, “I was enormously impressed by his grasp of the political significance of the pacification program. Finally we had focused on the real war.”2

Unlike his predecessor, who stuck close to his Saigon villa, Colby was out and about. General William Rosson, then the Deputy Commander to Abrams, liked what he saw in Colby, a man who “was soft-spoken and—unlike Komer—spent a lot of his time in the field, so he didn’t have to rely on reports and knew what was going on.”3

“My evaluation of how strong the infrastructure was, and how strong the enemy was,” Colby confirmed, “was more learned by my frequent visits to the countryside and driving up the roads…than by reading the numbers in Saigon.”4

Ambassador Bunker, too, welcomed Colby’s appointment, citing “his ability to get things done, also his judgment, his analytical powers…his experience.”5 Said a colleague, contrasting the new man with his predecessor, “Komer was always trying to convince you pacification was working, but Colby was trying to make it work.”6 Noted a reporter, “Colby’s recipe for good conversation has two ingredients—his questions and your answers.”

That had followed on an introductory briefing on the pacification program as Colby characterized it soon after becoming Deputy to the COMUSMACV for CORDS. Said General Abrams at a subsequent staff meeting: “I think that [Colby’s briefing] was a splendid presentation. I think it comes out at a most opportune moment.”7

In early July 1968 Abrams had described the ultimate objective at a weekly staff meeting: “I think we probably all agree,” he said, “that in the end what they’ve [the South Vietnamese government] got to get done here is control of their own people and get them secure. The pacification effort is the ultimate effort which has to be made.”8

Later Colby recorded his admiration for Abrams and his grasp of the war and how it should be fought. “It wasn’t until…1968 that we really began to make progress in the real nature of the war there,” he observed. “The intervening years were just confusion and chaos.”

In the aftermath of Tet 1968 Colby was the architect of an Accelerated Pacification Campaign designed to restore the damage done by Tet in the countryside and take advantage of the more favorable situation existing there as a result of the enemy’s severe guerrilla force losses at Tet, but in an abrupt break with earlier practice the plan was not just foisted on the Vietnamese. Rather they were led to develop a viable plan of their own, an approach that gave them a much greater stake in the outcome.

Even John Paul Vann, a professional skeptic, was favorably impressed by the resulting plan. “I greatly endorse the direction that this presentation suggests that we go, and greatly applaud the effort that’s gone into recognizing the basic problems that have got to be countered,” he told Abrams and the other commanders.9

In late September 1968 Abrams assembled his commanders for an analysis of the broader implications of the war. The heart of the briefing was presented by Colby, who described an ominous current situation, one that saw the enemy trying to establish “Liberation Committees” throughout South Vietnam with what he called a “particular sense of urgency.” At this point the Hamlet Evaluation System (a periodic statistical compilation designed to reflect the current status of pacification), while admittedly imprecise, suggested that more than 46 percent of the population was under some degree of Viet Cong influence. Thus, said Colby, “in the event of a cease-fire, the enemy might claim political control of about one-half of the population of South Vietnam.”

Colby then turned to means of reversing this unsatisfactory situation. The Accelerated Pacification Campaign—of which he was the architect, although he did not say so—would seek to eliminate enemy base areas and the command centers of his political effort. A program called Phuong Hoang—known as Phoenix in English and designed to neutralize the Viet Cong infrastructure—would serve as “an essential tool for this action.” A preemptive campaign would be targeted against those areas controlled by the Viet Cong, contested, or heavily infested by VC; its objective was to plant the government’s flag, saturate the areas with military forces, and purge the enemy’s underground shadow government. Territorial security, VCI [Viet Cong Infrastructure] neutralization, and supporting programs of self-help, self-defense, and self-government would thus constitute the counteroffensive.

This was, Colby made clear, a job for the Vietnamese, but one in which American forces could help by screening the pacification areas from enemy assaults and conducting spoiling operations against enemy forces. Phoenix was described by Colby as “a program of consolidating intelligence and exploitation efforts against these particularly key individuals [in the communist infrastructure].” It finally got off the ground, he said, in July 1968 when President Thieu signed a decree.

Having spent the past several months developing his approach, Colby now addressed his presentation most directly to Abrams. “I was not disappointed,” he said later. Abrams “listened intently, following each point with obvious understanding of the essentially political analysis I was giving.” At the end Abrams gave his full approval. When the Accelerated Pacification Campaign began on November 1, 1968, Abrams considered it the turning point at which the government “took the initiative in South Vietnam, the initiative in the larger sense of the total war.”