The U.S. Intelligence Community has received mixed reviews of its performance during the Vietnam War. The CIA’s participation in the Phoenix Program during the war provoked controversy and helped feed a view of the agency as a “Rogue Elephant,” a view which in turn led to several formal reviews of U.S. intelligence in 1975, the so-called “Year of Intelligence.” The controversy over the alleged manipulation of enemy strength estimates surfaced by the 1982 CBS documentary, The Uncounted Enemy, and resulting court case Westmoreland v. CBS, added to the sense of an intelligence apparatus adrift from its core mission of gathering and analysing information for policy-makers.
In recent times, some historians and intelligence studies scholars have painted a more favourable picture of U.S. intelligence, or at least some U.S. intelligence agencies, during the war. Intelligence assessments from the CIA, the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), and other parts of the U.S. Intelligence Community argued that there was little chance of success, both regarding the war overall, and regarding component parts of the war effort such as the aerial bombing campaign of North Vietnam known as Operation Rolling Thunder. These well-reasoned and researched assessments, these scholars argue, were ignored by LBJ and his key advisors.
These debates over U.S. intelligence performance during the Vietnam War serve as a point of departure for this paper, both temporally, as the paper considers U.S. intelligence assessments of the Asia Pacific in the years after the war, and historiographically, as the paper attempts to move beyond debates over whether or not U.S. intelligence got it “right” and towards an understanding of how, and to what effect, the U.S. Intelligence Community constructed its picture of threats in the Asia Pacific region. In particular, it examines the shift from a Cold War logic of anticommunism to a counter-terror logic of instability and chaos. In this reframing of the stakes of intelligence history, the paper also reacts to a tendency within some of the intelligence studies literature to accept the premises of the function of intelligence as understood and practised by the U.S. Intelligence Community.