Comparisons already have been floated between Vietnam's "quagmire" and the war on terrorism. That may be a bit premature, but if the adage about "history repeating itself" is true, historian John Prados' comments about the parallels between Vietnam and the current fight make for a relevant warning.
One comparison Prados draws is between the hunt for terrorists and the controversial Phoenix "neutralization" program in Vietnam, which was conceived to identify and pacify Viet Cong members but allegedly led to the assassination of thousands of Vietnamese, not all of whom were guilty. In "Lost Crusader," Prados' biography of former CIA Director Bill Colby (who headed up efforts in Vietnam that included the Phoenix program), the author makes the case that "efforts to capture members of terror networks and then interrogate them amount to a program quite similar to Phoenix. Public opinion about this activity after 9/11 already exhibited misgivings, and a fickle public attitude may easily change to revulsion in the future."
Colby's CIA career spanned three decades, from the Office of Strategic Services (the CIA's predecessor) following World War II to his term as CIA director from 1973 to 1975. He was the subject of both admiration and controversy-the latter mostly for his role in Phoenix. Prados generally maintains a just-the-facts approach in detailing the troubles surrounding the former spy, but it is also apparent that Prados admires Colby. Writing about the 1975 congressional investigations into CIA assassination plots and agency abuses, Prados comments:
"In terms of the Senate and House investigations, the broad conclusion has to be that William E. Colby in fact saved the Central Intelligence Agency. His cooperation proved just sufficient to dissuade Congress from more forceful action, whereas Colby's careful husbanding of CIA secrets limited the inquiries in the areas Langley found most uncomfortable."
Prados also offers analysis of Colby's post-CIA life, noting that the former director remained a "good soldier" for the agency after his retirement, testifying at congressional hearings and writing newspaper opinion pieces on the CIA and Vietnam.
And Prados goes beyond Colby's personal story to provide a portrait of the CIA itself. Because Colby's career spanned such a large portion of the CIA's existence, "Lost Crusader" is as much a history of the agency-especially its activities and "secret wars" in Southeast Asia-as it is of Colby. The sections on Vietnam are especially detailed, and readers looking for insight into that era and how it relates to the current one won't be disappointed. Colby's 1996 death, on the other hand, gets only limited coverage; conspiracy theorists won't find any illumination here.
Prados comes to the conclusion that the secretive nature of the CIA and the lack of consensus about the agency's proper role makes it vulnerable today to controversy that could "demolish the agency and its capabilities, even those that are truly necessary." And while not everyone will agree with Prados that another Colby is what the United States needs, this historical account provides valuable perspective for the debate over what the next steps should be.