THE 1968 'HUE MASSACRE'
(Thảm sát Mậu Thân Huế 1968)
by D. Gareth Porter
FEED THEM A NUMBER. . .
major accomplishment of Pike's work was to launch the official “estimate”
or 4,756 as the number of civilians killed by the NLF in and around Hue.
This was no small feat because, in arriving at that figure, Pike had to
statistically conjure away thousands of civilian victims of American air
power in Hue. The undeniable fact was that American rockets and bombs, not
communist assassination, caused the greatest carnage in Hue. The bloodshed
and ruin shook even longtime supporters of the anti- communist effort.
Robert Shaplen wrote at the time, “Nothing I saw during the Korean War, or
in the Vietnam War so far has been as terrible, in terms of destruction
and despair, as what I saw in Hue.”48 After the communist occupation had
ended, Don Tate of Scripps-Howard Newspapers described bomb craters 40
feet wide and 20 feet deep staggered in the streets near the walls of the
citadel and “bodies stacked into graves by fives -- one on top of
another.”49 Nine thousand seven hundred and seventy-six of Hue's 17,134
houses were completely destroyed and 3,169 more officially classified as
“seriously damaged.” (In the rest of Thua Thien province another 8,000
homes were more than half destroyed.50) The initial South Vietnamese
estimate of the number of civilians killed in the fighting of the bloody
reconquest was 3,776.51
ARVN's political warfare specialists went to work, however, this initial
estimate, given in a March report of the office of the provincial chief of
Social Services and Refugees, was somehow replaced by a new estimate of
944, published in the Tenth Political Warfare Battalion's booklet.52 And
this was all Douglas Pike needed to transform those thousands of civilian
dead into victims of a “communist massacre.”
chart which he calls a “recapitulation” of the dead and missing, Pike
begins not by establishing the number of casualties from various causes,
but with a total of 7,600, which he says is the Saigon government's “total
estimated civilian casualties resulting from the Battle of Hue.”53 The
original government estimate of civilian casualties, however, again
supplied by the provincial Social Services Office, was just over 6,700 --
not 7,600 -- and it was based on the estimate of 3,776 civilians killed in
the battle of Hue.54 Instead of using the Social Services Office's figure,
Pike employs the Political Warfare Battalion's 944 figure. Subtracting
that number and another 1,900 hospitalized with war wounds, Pike gets the
figure of 4,756, which he suggests is the total number of victims of
communist massacre, including the 1,945 “unaccounted for” in this strange
method of accounting. In short, the whole statistical exercise had the
sole purpose of arriving at a fraudulent figure of 4,756 victims of a
PIKE REWRITES POLICY FOR THE NLF
substance of Pike's own analysis is what he calls a “hypothesis”
concerning the policy of the NLF leadership in Hue during the occupation
of the city. The gist of the “hypothesis” is as follows: NLF policy went
through three distinct phases, corresponding to different phases of the
occupation: in the first few days, the NLF expected to be in control only
temporarily and its mission was not to establish its own government but to
destroy Saigon administrative structure. During this period, NLF cadres
with blacklists executed not only civil servants and military officers but
religious and social leaders as well. Then, after the third or fourth day,
the communist leadership decided they could hold the city permanently,
whereupon they launched a “period of social reconstruction,” in Pike's
words, and sought to kill all who were not proletarian in ideology and
class background, in particular Buddhist, Catholic and intellectual
leaders. Finally, as they prepared to leave the city late in February,
they killed anyone who would be able to identify their cadres in the
While Pike refers vaguely to various pieces of evidence which he claims
support this hypothesis, he offers none of it in his published work. In
any case, all the evidence available at present contradicts Pike's
hypothesis from beginning to end. To begin with, captured NLF documents
indicate that the Front had the mission not only of destroying the Saigon
administration but of establishing a revolutionary government in Hue and
planned to hold the city for as long as possible. In fact, the very
document which Pike used to establish the communist admission of
responsibility for mass murder of civilians specified that the Liberation
Forces had the “mission of occupying Hue for as long as possible so that a
revolutionary administration could be established.”56
for the “blacklists” for execution, Pike's claim that the list as
extensive and included lower-ranking officials and non- governmental
figures is contradicted by none other than Hue's chief of secret police,
Le Ngan, whose own name was on the list. In 1968, soon after the
reoccupation of the city, Le Ngan told former International Voluntary
Services worker Len Ackland, who had worked in Hue before the offensive,
that the only names on the blacklist for Gia Hoi district were those of
the officers of the secret police apparatus for the district.57
Other lists were of those selected not for summary execution but for
capture on the one hand and for reeducation in place on the other. Those
who were to be captured -- although not necessarily executed, according to
a document called “Plan for an Offensive and General Uprising of Mui A”
given to me by the Joint U.S. Public Affairs Office in June 1971 -- were
limited to a relatively small number of Vietnamese and American
officials.58 The document says, “With regard to the province chief, deputy
province chief, officers from the rank of major up, American intelligence
officers and chiefs of services, it things go to our advantage, at 12
o'clock on the day some of them are arrested, they must quickly persuade
others not to hide and compel them to surrender . . . and then we must
take them out of the city.” The captives were to remain in prison outside
the city, according to the plan, until their dossiers could be studied and
a determination made on their individual cases. It emphasizes that none of
these higher U.S. or Vietnamese officials in Hue was to be killed unless
the fighting in the first hours was unsuccessful and there was no way to
conduct them out of the city -- a circumstance which obviously did not
document further exempted lower-ranking officials from capture or
retribution: “With regard to those ordinary civil servants working for the
enemy because of their livelihood and who do not oppose the revolution,
educate them and quickly give them responsibility to continue working to
serve the revolution.”
There was a third category of individual, those who were neither
high-ranking officials nor ordinary civil servants but officials who had
at one time or another been involved actively in the government's
paramilitary apparatus. While these individuals were not to be given jobs,
the evidence indicates that they were to be “reeducated” rather than
executed as long as the NLF was assured control of the city. They were
ordered in the first days of the occupation to report to their local
committees but were then allowed to return home.59
does not mean that there were no executions in Hue during the initial
period of the occupation. Len Ackland and _Washington Post_ correspondent
Don Oberdorfer have documented cases of individuals who were executed when
they tried to hide from the Front or resisted the new government in some
way or another.60 But these harsh measures, which may in many cases have
reflected individual actions by soldiers or cadres rather than a policy
decision by the Front (as when a person was shot for resisting arrest),
were distinct from the mass retribution for official position or political
attitude claimed by Douglas Pike. And the number of executions was
relatively small, according to Hue residents interviewed by Ackland.
CLERGY AND INTELLECTUALS EXECUTING THEMSELVES
Pike's argument that there was a period of “social reconstruction” marked
by a purge of religious figures and intellectuals is contradicted not only
by the logic of NLF political strategy in Hue but by documentary evidence
as well. As Pike himself pointed out in his book, _War, Peace and the Viet
Cong_, published in 1969, the revolutionary government in Hue during the
occupation comprised a number of leaders of the 1966 Struggle Movement
against the Ky government -- precisely the Buddhist and intellectual
leaders he later claimed the NLF wished to systematically eliminate in
1968.61 These were not proletarian revolutionaries eager to take vengeance
on the Buddhist hierarchy and the educated elite, as Pike intimates, but
representatives of those groups in Hue who had actively opposed the
Thieu-Ky government and the American military occupation. It was on these
strata that the NLF had based its political strategy of the broadest
possible united front in Hue.
Thus, the chairman of the Revolutionary Committee in Hue was Le Van Hao,
the well-known Hue University ethnologist who had earlier edited the
Struggle Movement's publication _Vietnam, Vietnam_. A deputy chairman was
the senior Buddhist monk in Central Vietnam, Thich Don Hau. Other 1966
Struggle Movement leaders who returned as members of the Revolutionary
Committee included Hoang Phu Mgoc Tuong, formerly a teacher at Quoc Hoc
High School, who became secretary general of the new committee; Nguyen Dac
Xuan, who had been dispatched by the Struggle Movement in Hue to organize
“student commandos” in Danang in 1966; and Ton That Duong Ky, a Hue
These veterans of the Buddhist protests of 1966 were joined in the
revolutionary regime by other well-known figures from educational
institutions in Hue, such as Mrs. Nguyen Dinh Chi, former principal of the
respectable Dong Khanh Girls' School, who was a deputy chairwoman of the
“Alliance” group formed later in 1968. Ton That Duong Thien, a teacher at
Nguyen Du High School, directed operations in Gia Hoi district, and many
others from the Hue educated elite accepted positions of responsibility in
the revolutionary administration.62
“Plan for an Offensive” also confirms that the political strategy of the
Front was to rely on Buddhist clergy and laity for support in Hue. In a
section dealing specifically with religious groups, the document says, “We
must seek by every means to struggle to unite with and win over the
Buddhist masses and monks and nuns.”
for the Catholics of Hue, the evidence from both communist documents and
eyewitness testimony shows that the NLF's policy was not directed against
the Catholic Church. The captured “Plan for an Offensive” does refer to
“isolating reactionaries who exploit Catholicism in Phu Cam.” In
Vietnamese communist terminology, however, “isolate” means to act to cut
off the influence of the individual in question in community affairs. It
does not mean execution or even imprisonment necessarily, contrary to what
the American political warfare specialists may argue.
document specifies that only those priests who were found to “hide the
enemy” were subject to any form of punishment, and the specific treatment
was to depend on the degree to which the individual had opposed the
revolution in the past.
Gia Hoi district, which the NLF controlled for 26 days, one Catholic
priest told Len Ackland that not one of his parishioners was harmed by the
Front.63 The only two Catholic figures identified by the Saigon regime as
having been killed by the NLF are two French Benedictine priests, Father
Guy and Father Urbain. It was reported by sources from the Thien An
Monastery, however, that NLF forces occupied the monastery for several
days when Father Guy and Father Urbain were still present and that neither
they nor any other priests were harmed. The two were reported by Agence
France Presse to have fled from heavy American bombing of the monastery on
February 25 -- two days after the NLF forces had withdrawn.64 The spot
where their bodies were found was in the area in which Dr. Vennema says
villagers reported heavy American bombing at the time the two priests were
said to have been killed.65 Moreover, the official Saigon government
account is again marred by a major contradiction. The Political Warfare
Battalion pamphlet claims that both Father Urbain and Father Guy were
arrested and forced to remove their tunics before being taken to the area
of the Dong Khanh tombs, where they were killed and buried. But the priest
who recovered the body of Father Urbain is quoted in the same pamphlet as
saying that he recognized it from the laundry number on his tunic!
Douglas Pike's notion of an NLF plan to purge Vietnamese society through
mass executions is so bizarre and unrelated to the reality of NLF policy
that it tells us more about Pike's own mind than it does about the
movement he claims to be describing. Likewise, his suggestion that the
Front tried to eliminate anyone who knew the identity of previously
underground cadres in Hue appears to be based more on Pike's conception of
how the Mafia operates than on any understanding of how the NLF operates.
Obviously, cadres whose identities were well-known could not have remained
in the city when the NLF evacuated it. Others, who did not reveal
themselves even after the NLF takeover of Hue, no doubt remained behind.66
apparently made no effort to inquire into what in fact did happen in the
later period of the communist occupation. Saigon officials in Hue told Len
Ackland in 1968 that those who were killed by the NLF when it prepared to
leave the city in the face of Saigon and U.S. military pressure were
officials and anti-communist political party leaders who had earlier been
on the list for reeducation.67 At that point, the NLF was faced with the
choice of leaving those individuals to carry on their war against it, or
eliminating them while the NLF was still in control of the city, or taking
them out of the city for reeducation. There is no doubt that some of those
previously marked for reeducation were executed during the latter part of
the occupation, although the number appears to have been many times less
than the Saigon government and Douglas Pike claim. Others who had been
marked for reeducation were taken out of the city toward the mountains for
that purpose. The charge that these prisoners were systematically killed
is supported neither by evidence or by logic.
Pike's “hypothesis,” therefore, must be judged unworthy of serious
consideration. It represents ill-formed speculation undisciplined by
attention to the available documentary evidence, much less to the
revolutionary strategy and tactics about which Pike claims to be an
expert. Yet Pike's pamphlet must be considered a political warfare
success, for his interpretation of events in Hue remains the dominant one
for journalists and public figures.
issue which historians must weigh in the NLF occupation of Hue is not
whether executions took place but whether they were indiscriminate or the
result of a prearranged “purge” of whole strata of society, as charged by
political warfare specialists of the Saigon and U.S. governments. Equally
important is the question of whether it was the NLF or U.S. bombing and
artillery which caused the deaths of several thousand Hue civilians during
the battle for the city.
available evidence -- not from NLF sources but from official U.S. and
Saigon documents and from independent observers -- indicates that the
official story of an indiscriminate slaughter of those who were considered
to be unsympathetic to the NLF is a complete fabrication. Not only is the
number of bodies uncovered in and around Hue open to question, but more
important, the cause of death appears to have been shifted from the
fighting itself to NLF execution. And the most detailed and
“authoritative” account of the alleged executions put together by either
government does not stand up under examination.
Understanding the techniques of distortion and misrepresentation practiced
by Saigon and U.S. propagandists in making a political warfare campaign
out of the tragedy of Hue is as important today as it was when U.S. troops
were still at war in Vietnam. It goes to the heart of the problem of
facing the truth about the Vietnamese revolution and the American efforts
to repress it by force. The screen of falsehood which has been erected
around the Tet Offensive in Hue was and is but another defense mechanism
for the U.S. government and much of the American public as well to avoid
dealing honestly with the real character of the struggle there.
GARETH PORTER is a fellow of the International Relations of East Asia
Project, Cornell University, and is concurrently a staff member of the
Indochina Resource Center in Washington, D.C.
1 For a study of the earlier
underpinnings of this strategy, see D. Gareth Porter, “Bloodbath; Myth or
Reality?” Indochina Chronicle No. 19, September 15, 1973.
2 Joseph Dees, “Survivors
Relate Communist Mass Murders of 1,000 in Hue,” IPS (USIS) dispatch, April
3 New York Times, May 1,
1968; Washington Post, May 1, 1968.
4 Vietnam Press, May 1, 1968.
The UPI story on the report indicated that it was based solely on
information supplied by the police, failing to mention the role of the
Political Warfare Battalion. Washington Post, May 1, 1968. The New York
Times did not mention the source of the information. It is safe to say,
therefore, that no American newspaper reader learned that the ARVN Tenth
Political Warfare Battalion played the key role in compiling the story.
5 New York Times, February
6 Le Monde, April 13, 1968.
7 “Chronology of Graves
Discovered, Vicinity of Hue (Civilian Deaths in Tet 1968),” obtained from
the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs,
8 New York Times, March 28,
9 “Chronology of Graves
10 New York Times, March 28,
11 Vu Cuong Sat cua Viet Cong
tai Co Do Hue (Communist Murder in Hue), Tenth Political Warfare Battalion
of ARVN, 1968, p. 13. 12 Alje Vennema, “The Tragedy of Hue,” unpublished
manuscript, 1968, pp. 19-23.
13 “Chronology of Graves
Discovered,” site 22.
14 “Villagers Returning to
Hue,” UPI, in San Francisco Chronicle, December 8, 1968; “South Vietnamese
Farmer Stoically Works Fields,” Washington Post, January 4, 1970.
15 “Chronology of Graves
Discovered,” sites 21, 13 and 14.
16 Tien Tuyen, January 27,
17 Tien Tuyen, May 3, 1969.
19 Vietnam Press, April 12,
20 Washington Post, May 5,
21 “Chronology of Graves
Discovered,” site 25.
22 Douglas Pike, The
Viet-Cong Strategy of Terror (Saigon: U.S. Mission, Vietnam, 1970), p. 29.
23 Baltimore Sun, October 12,
24 Tien Tuyen, October 17,
25 Pike, op. cit., pp. 28-29.
26 “Chronology of Graves
27 Embassy of Viet-Nam,
Washington, D.C., Vietnam Bulletin, Viet- Nam Information Series, No. 28,
April, 1970, p. 6.
28 Agence France-Presse
dispatch, February 15, 1968, in L'Heure Decisive (Paris: Dossiers
AFP-Laffont, 1968), p. 153.
30 Vietnam Bulletin, loc.
31 This is what Pike told
Benedict Stavis of Cornell University in an interview on September 10,
1973. Letter from Stavis to the author, September 10, 1973.
32 Washington Post, November
33 Christian Science Monitor,
December 1, 1969.
34 “Tien Chien Thang Hue tu
Ngay 31.1, 23.3” (Information on the Victory in Hue from January 31 to
March 23), xerox copy obtained from the Combined Documents Exploitation
Center, Saigon. The document, it should be noted, is far from being a
high-level report or analysis of the Tet Offensive in Hue. It is
handwritten, sketchy, and clearly done at the local level for local
35 Nhan Dan, February 28,
36 Tu Dien Tieng Viet
(Vietnamese Language Dictionary) (Hanoi: Nha Xuat Ban Khoa Hoc, 1967), p.
37 Los Angeles Times,
November 20, 1969; Washington Daily News, November 25, 1969.
38 Pike, op. cit., p. 16;
news articles cited above.
39 The paragraph immediately
preceding Pike's mention of the document refers to a whole class of
villagers being “wiped out,” op. cit.
40 “15 Tieu Chuan Cuu Tap”
(Fifteen Criteria for Investigation), xerox copy obtained from U.S.
Embassy, Saigon. This document is reproduced in Viet-Nam Documents and
Research Notes, Document No. 97, August 1971, Part II.
Counterrevolutionaries: The Viet Cong System of Punishment,” Viet-Nam
Documents and Research Notes, Document No. 5, October 1967.
42 Washington Daily News,
November 5, 1969. Chuyen gave the figure of three million in the Los
Angeles Times, November 20, 1969.
43 In the report on the
interrogation of Chuyen, the interrogator pointedly put question marks
after the rank and past assignments in the VPA claimed by Chuyen. U.S.
State Department, Captured Documents and Interrogation Reports (1968),
item no. 55, “Interrogation of Le Xuan Chuyen.”
45 Speech by Tran Van Do,
Troi Nam, No. 3, 1967, p. 13.
46 Vo Van Chan, The Policy of
Greater Unity of the People (Saigon: Minister of Chieu Hoi, Republic of
Vietnam, 1971), p. 19.
47 See Pike, op. cit., p. 18;
Sir Robert Thompson, “Communist Atrocities in Vietnam,” New York Times,
June 15, 1972.
48 “Letter from Vietnam,” The
New Yorker, March 23, 1968.
49 Washington Daily News,
March 1, 1968.
50 “Status of Refugees,”
official report by Office of Refugees, U.S. Agency for International
Development, May 2, 1968.
51 Saigon Post, March 17,
52 VC Carnage in Hue, Tenth
Political Warfare Battalion, 1968, p. 8.
53 Pike, op. cit., pp. 30-31.
54 Saigon Post, March 17,
55 Pike, op. cit., pp. 30-31.
56 “Information on the
Victory in Hue.”
57 Len Ackland and D. Gareth
Porter, “The Bloodbath Argument,” Christian Century, November 5, 1969.
Reprinted in Paul Menzel, ed., Moral Argument and the War in Vietnam
(Nashville: Aurora Publishers, 1971), pp. 141-46.
58 “Ban Ke Hoach Con Kich va
Khoi Nghia cua Mu A” (Plan for an Offensive and General Uprising of Mui
A), xerox copy obtained from Office of Special Projects, JUSPAO, Saigon,
59 Len Ackland, “Resist and
They Die,” unpublished manuscript, 1968, pp. 5-6.
60 Ibid., pp. 15-19;
Washington Post, December 7, 1969; and Don Oberdorfer, Tet (New York, Avon
Books, 1971), pp. 216-53.
61 Pike, War, Peace and the
Viet Cong (Cambridge, MIT Press, 1969.
62 Ackland, op. cit., p. 8;
Christian Science Monitor, May 8, 1968; Vennema, op. cit., p. 10; notes
from interviews in Hue by Francois Sully of Newsweek, March, 1968.
63 Ackland and Porter, op.
cit., p. 145.
64 Agence France-Presse
dispatch, March 3, 1968, in Vietnam Press Special Reports, March 5, 1968.
65 Vennema, op. cit., p. 26.
66 Vu Cuong Sat cua Viet Cong
tai Co Do Hue, pp. 2, 18-21.
67 The Chinese communists
faced a similar situation in 1947, when they occupied a county seat and
their shadow government and officials surfaced for the first time. David
Gulala tells of asking the political commissar what would happen when the
Red Army had to leave the town. “They will leave, too, and resume their
clandestine work,” he replied. “Are you not afraid that they will lose
their value now that they have revealed themselves?” Gulala asked. The
commissar said, “We have secret agents in this town who did not come out
when we took it. We don't even know who they are. They will still be here
when we go.” Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (New
York: Praeger, 1964), pp. 56-57.
Porter, “1968 Hue
Massacre”; HTML'd by Grover Furr 30 Jan 95 /
Posted on 22 Mar 2009