THE 1968 'HUE MASSACRE' by D. Gareth Porter

"Indochina Chronicle," #33, June 24, 1974

Part One

Six years after the stunning communist Tet Offensive of 1968, one of the enduring myths of the Second Indochina War remains essentially unchallenged: the communist "massacre" at Hue. The official version of what happened in Hue has been that the National Liberation Front (NLF) and the North Vietnamese deliberately and systematically murdered not only responsible officials but religious figures, the educated elite and ordinary people, and that burial sites later found yielded some 3,000 bodies, the largest portion of the total of more than 4,700 victims of communist execution.

Although there is still much that is not known about what happened in Hue, there is sufficient evidence to conclude that the story conveyed to the American public by the South Vietnamese and American propaganda agencies bore little resemblance to the truth, but was, on the contrary, the result of a political warfare campaign by the Saigon government, embellished by the U.S. government and accepted uncritically by the U.S. press. A careful study of the official story of the Hue "massacre" on the one hand, and of the evidence from independent or anti-communist sources on the other, provides a revealing glimpse into efforts by the U.S. press to keep alive fears of a massive "bloodbath."1 It is a myth which has served the U.S. administration interests well in the past, and continues to influence public attitudes deeply today.


To unravel the official story of Hue, one must go back to the source of the original information which was conveyed to the American public about the episode.

The agency of the Saigon government given overall responsibility for compiling data on the alleged "massacre" and publicizing the information was neither the Ministry of Social Welfare and Refugees nor the Ministry of Health, as one might have expected, but the Tenth Political Warfare Battalion of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). It is on the word of this body, whose specific mission is to discredit the National Liberation Front without regard to the truth, that the story of the "massacre" reported by the U.S. press in 1968 and 1969 was based. Neither the number of bodies found nor the causes of death were ever confirmed by independent sources. On the contrary, as we shall see, evidence from independent sources challenges the Tenth Political Warfare Battalion's version of the facts.

The official Saigon account of the alleged massacre surfaced on April 23, 1968 when the Political Warfare Battalion released a report that over one thousand people were executed by the communists in and around Hue. The battalion's report was repeated in detail by the United States Information Service but the U.S. media ignored it.2 One week later the U.S. Mission released a report of its own which was essentially a restatement of the ARVN report. The U.S. Mission report was said to have been the result of an investigation "by the United States and South Vietnamese authorities."3 But the role of the U.S. advisors in the report appears to have been secondary; according to the Saigon government news agency, Vietnam Press, the report was based on data supplied by the National Police in Hue, U.S. advisers, interviews with South Vietnamese Information and Refugee officials and "records of the Tenth Political Warfare Battalion," which supplied the basic statistics on the alleged executions.4 Vietnam Press further reported that "an officer of the Tenth Political Warfare Battalion involved in investigating the executions estimated that almost half of the victims were found buried alive."

During the months of March and April, when the alleged victims of communist execution were being uncovered, the Saigon government did not allow any journalists to view the grave sites or bodies, despite the fact that many foreign journalists were in Hue at the time. Province Chief Col. Pham Van Khoa announced at the end of February that 300 civilians government workers had been executed by the communists and had been found in common graves southeast of the city.5 But no journalist was ever taken to see the alleged graves. In fact, French photographer Marc Riboud, who demanded several times to see the graves, was repeatedly refused permission. When he was finally taken in a helicopter to travel to the alleged site the pilot refused to land, claiming that the area was "insecure."6 Riboud never saw the site , and when the official chronology of discoveries and map coordinates of the grave sites were finally released, there was no site resembling the one described by Co. Khoa.7

Stewart Harris of the _London Times_ was in Hue to do a story on the alleged mass executions in late March, just at the time when, according to the official chronology, some 400 bodies were being uncovered in the area of the imperial tombs south of Hue. But instead of taking him to that site, the American political warfare officer took Harris to a village where there no mass graves, while the Vietnamese political warfare officer took him to a grave site in Gia Hoi district, where the bodies had long since been reburied.8 So he had to depend on the word of the Vietnamese and American officials concerning what was to be found at the grave sites.

Moreover, ARVN'S Political Warfare Department issued contradictory reports on how many bodies were actually uncovered. At the Gia Hoi High School sites, for example, the official American report, based on information furnished by the Tenth Political Warfare Battalion, gave a total of 22 mass graves and 200 bodies, for an average of nine bodies per grave.9 But when Stewart Harris was taken to the site, he was told by his Vietnamese escort officer that each of the 22 graves held from three to seven bodies, which would have put the total somewhere between 66 and 150.10 At about the same time, the Tenth Political Warfare Battalion published a pamphlet for Vietnamese consumption which said there were 14 graves at the high school instead of 22, which would have reduced the total still further.11


The elusiveness of Saigon's figures is significant in the view of the testimony of Alje Vennema, a doctor working for a Canadian medical team at Quang Ngai hospital, who happened to be in the Hue province hospital during the Tet Offensive and who made his own investigation of the grave sites.12 Vennema agreed that there were 14 graves at Gia Hoi High School but said there was a total of only 20 bodies in those graves. Vennema also stated that the other two sites in Gia Hoi district of Hue held only 19 bodies rather than the 77 claimed by the government, and that those in the area of the imperial tombs southwest of Hue contained only 29 bodies rather than 201 as claimed in the official report.

According to Vennema, therefore, the total number of bodies at the four major sites discovered immediately after Tet was 68, instead of the officially claimed total of 477. Then, too, while he did not claim that none of these bodies was the victim of NLF execution, he said that the evidence indicated most of them were victims of fighting in the area, rather than of political killings. In the case of the sites in the imperial tombs area, he stated that most of the bodies were clothed in the threads of uniforms. He reported having talked with nearby villagers who said that from February 21 to 26 there had been heavy bombing, shelling and strafing in the immediate area. And, in contrast to the government claims that many victims had been buried alive there, Vennema said all the bodies showed wounds.

The circumstances of the official version -- its political warfare origins, the refusal to allow confirmation by the press from first-hand observation, the questionable statistics -- and the conflicting testimony of a medical doctor who was present at the time all point to misrepresentation of the truth by the Saigon government in its April 1968 report. In fact, the evidence suggests that the Political Warfare Battalion may have inflated the number of actual executions by the NLF by a factor of ten or more.


During 1969, as more bodies were uncovered in the villages surrounding Hue, another phase of the Saigon government campaign was launched by ARVN's political warfare officers. The first bodies were found southeast of Hue, where digging was carried out under the supervision of a "Committee for Search and Burial of Communist Victims" headed by the district chief, Major Trung. Again newsmen were not invited to watch the work while it was going on, but were later summoned by Major Trung and told that the Committee had found 135 bodies in Vinh Luu hamlet of Phu Da village and 230 bodies in seven graves in Phu Xuan village.13

What the district chief did not tell the reporters was that the entire area in which the grave sites were found southeast of Hue had been a battleground for many weeks early in 1968. The NLF continued to hold many of the hamlets even after being driven out of the city, and some hamlets remained in their hands for months, as American fighter-bombers carried out heavy strikes against them.

One of the four sites discovered in late March 1969, which allegedly contained 22 bodies, was between Phu My and Tuy Van villages.14 Phy My village, only three miles east of Hue, was one of the villages occupied by communist troops during the offensive, when many young men of military age were drafted into the Liberation Army. According to a later interview with one of its inhabitants, American planes bombed the village repeatedly, destroying hundreds of homes and killing civilians.

The three other burial sites, uncovered in late March and early April, containing 357 bodies according to the Pentagon's chronology of discoveries, were located in Phu Xuan village and a short distance down the road in Phu Da village.15 Again, Phu Xuan, 13 miles east of Hue, had been the scene of fierce fighting, including the heavy use of American air power, in the weeks after the offensive. In one all-day battle in which American air strikes were called in, some 250 communist soldiers were killed, according to an interview with the Phu Xuan village chief published in the Political Warfare Department's own newspaper, _Tien Tuyen_.16

The Saigon assertion that the bodies found were victims of communist execution were not convincing even to officials of the Saigon government. The Minister of Health, Tran Luu Y, after visiting the burial sites in April 1969, frankly informed the Thua Thien deputy province chief of his opinion that the bodies could be those of NLF soldiers killed in battle.17 The Political Warfare Department's newspaper promptly denounced the minister for this skepticism.18

What little information was made available about the bodies discovered certainly supported the suspicion that very few were actually victims of communist execution. For one thing, Major Trung's own report on the bodies found in his district claimed only nine civil servants and 14 soldiers of the Saigon army out of a total of 365.19 It was well known that a considerable number of the bodies were those of women and children. An American officer in Hue admitted to a _Washington Post_ reporter at a mass funeral for the dead, "Some may have just gotten caught up [in the fighting]."20 It would not be surprising indeed if the NLF had not buried many women and children killed by airstrikes or artillery fire in the hamlets which they controlled near Hue.

Another major discovery of bodies at Da Mai Creek, a heavily wooded area ten miles south of Hue, in September 1969 remains shrouded in vagueness and contradictions. Even the number of bodies found remains something of a mystery. The official Pentagon account of the discovery shows that the number was approximately 250.21 But when Douglas Pike, the U.S. Information Agency's Vietnam specialist, reported the find a few months later, the figure had grown to 428.22

Moreover, the one "defector" produced by Saigon to testify on this alleged communist massacre told two very different and contradictory stories about the episode. In an interview arranged by the Saigon government for the _Baltimore Sun_ late in 1969, the "defector" testified that a communist district chief who had been his friend had told him that nearly 600 people from Phu Cam and Tu Dam were turned over to pro-communist hill tribesmen to be murdered. The reason, he explained to the _Sun_, was that they had been "traitors to the revolution."23 But this same man, in an interview with the correspondent of _Tien Tuyen_ a few days later said he had been told by the same district chief that 500 "tyrants" were being taken to the mountains, not to be killed but to be reformed."24

Again, there is a major and direct conflict between Pike and the official Pentagon version on who the victims were and where they came from. Pike's version is that they were a group captured in a church in the Catholic district of Phu Cam in Hue on February 5, 1968 and marched five miles south, where 20 of them were executed by a people's court and then turned over to a local communist unit, which took them three and a half more miles away from Hue before being murdered.25 But the Defense Department account shows that the group of civilians taken from the church in Phu Cam numbered only 80 to 100 people, not 400 as Pike suggests.26 Moreover, an account originally published in the semi-official _Viet-Nam Magazine_ and reprinted by the Saigon Embassy in Washington, asserts that all except the 20 people executed by the people's court were allowed to return to Hue with the warning that the NLF would some day return to Hue, and that the people should behave accordingly.27

These contradictions are important, given Pike's effort to argue that the skeletons at Da Mai had to be the victims of communist murder because they were a group which had been taken from Hue as prisoners. In fact, there is evidence that most of the people who left Phu Cam with the communists were not prisoners at all, but were pressed into service as stretcher- bearers, ammunition carriers, or even as soldiers for the NLF.28 As Agence France Presse reported from Hue during the battle for the city, a number of young men, especially from the Phu Cam area, received guns or were used as stretcher-bearers to transport wounded soldiers toward the mountain camps.29

Again, circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that the 250 skeletons found at Da Mai Creek (not 400 as claimed by Pike) were also killed in battle or by American B-52 strikes. The _Viet-Nam Magazine_ article notes in passing that the site was "in the vicinity where the communists fought their last big battle with the allies (April 30 to May 2, 1968)"30 -- a fact of which readers of the American press were never informed. The People's Liberation Armed Forces have always made a point of carrying as many of their war dead as possible from the battlefield to be buried, in order to deny their enemy tactical intelligence on casualties.

In short, the inconsistencies and other weaknesses of the various official documents, the lack of confirming evidence, and the evidence contradicting the official explanation all suggests that the overwhelming majority of the bodies discovered in 1969 were in fact the victims of American air power and of the ground fighting that raged in the hamlets, rather than NLF execution.


It was in large part due to the work of one man that the Hue "massacre" received significant press coverage and wide comment in 1969 and 1970. That man was U.S. Information Agency's Douglas Pike. It was Pike who visited South Vietnam in November 1969, apparently at the suggestion of Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, to prepare a report on Hue.31

During the last two weeks of November, Pike inspired, either directly or indirectly, several different newspaper articles on both Hue and the "bloodbath" theme in general. Pike himself briefed several reporters on his version of the communist occupation of Hue and at the same time circulated a translation of a captured communist document which he had found in the files and which he argued was an open admission of the mass murder of innocent civilians during the occupation of Hue.

The document was the subject of several stories in the American press. The _Washington Post_, for example, carried the Associated Press article on the document with the headline, "Reds Killed 2900 in Hue during Tet, according to Seized Enemy Document."32 The _Christian Science Monitor_ correspondent's article, under the headline, "Communists Admit Murder," began, "The Communist massacre in Hue in early 1968 represented the culmination of careful planning."33 Both articles quoted as proof of the "admission" the following sentence from the translation: "We eliminated 1,892 administrative personnel, 39 policemen, 790 tyrants, 6 captains, 2 first lieutenants, 20 second lieutenants, and many non-commissioned officers."

No reported questioned the authenticity of the document or the accuracy of the translation they were given. Yet the original Vietnamese document, a copy of which I obtained from the U.S. Command in Vietnam in September, 1972, shows that the anonymous author did not say what the press and public were led to believe he said.34 In the original Vietnamese, the sentence quoted above does not support the official U.S. line that the communists admitted murdering more than 2,600 civilians in Hue. To begin with, the context in which this sentence was written was not a discussion of punishing those who were considered criminals or "enemies," but an overall account of the offensive in destroying the army and administration in Thua Thien. Two paragraphs earlier, the document refers to the establishment of a "political force whose mission was to propagandize and appeal for enemy soldiers to surrender with their weapons." It recalls that self- defense forces were so frightened when the Front's forces attacked that they tried to cross the river, with the result that 21 of them drowned. The section dealing with Phu Vang district notes the strength of the opposing forces and the locus of the attack, claiming the seizure of 12 trucks to transport food and 60 rolls of cloth for flags.

It is the next sentence which reads, "We eliminate 1,892 administrative personnel" in the official translation. But the word _diet_, translated as "eliminate" here, must be understood to mean "destroy" or "neutralize" in a military sense, rather than to "kill" or "liquidate," as Pike and the press reports claimed. As used in communist military communiques, the term had previously been used to include killed, wounded or captured among enemy forces. For example, the Third Special Communique of the People's Liberation Armed Forces, issued at the end of the Tet Offensive, said, "We have destroyed [_diet_] a large part of the enemy's force; according to initial statistics, we have killed, wounded and captured more than 90,000 enemy...."35 It should be noted that _diet_ does not mean to "kill" in any ordinary Vietnamese usage, and that the official translation is highly irregular.

Moreover, the word _te_, translated as "administrative personnel" in the version circulated to newsmen, actually has the broader meaning, according to a standard North Vietnamese dictionary, of "puppet personnel," including both civilian _and_ military.36 When the document does refer specifically to the Saigon government's administration, in fact, it uses a different term, _nguy quyen_. Both the context and the normal usage of the words in question, therefore, belie the meaning which Pike successfully urged on the press.


If the misrepresentation of the document may be explained by a combination of bad translation and Pike's own zeal to find evidence to support the official argument, Pike himself must take sole responsibility for a second such case which occurred about the same time. Pike gave to selected reporters a list of 15 categories of what he called -- and were called in the press -- "enemies of the people," which were said to be targeted by the communists for liquidation. The list included two categories which suggests that the communists were out to kill Catholic leaders and landlords or capitalists in particular: "leading and key members of religious organizations still superstitious" and "members of the exploiting class." The document was given prominence in articles in the _Los Angeles Times_ and _Washington Daily News_ on alleged communist plans for a "bloodbath," and was again mentioned in stories dealing with Pike's own pamphlet.37

But again, although the document may have been authentic, the construction put on it was clearly deceptive. First of all, the document itself said nothing about "enemies of the people"38 -- a phrase introduced by Pike himself and repeated by the press as thought it were in the original. And second, it did not say or imply that these 15 categories of people were to be punished, much less liquidated, as Pike suggested to reporters and later wrote in his own booklet on Hue.39

In fact, the document, which bore the title "Fifteen Criteria for Investigation," was simply one local cadre's notion of the kinds of people who should be watched.40 The categories of people who were marked for repression by the NLF were quite different from the ones on the list circulated by Pike, and included neither the "leading and key members of religious organizations" nor "members of the exploiting class." And Pike should have been well aware of this, since a separate document containing the categories of people to be punished was published by the U.S. Mission in October 1967.41

Yet another element of the press offensive inspired by Pike's presence in Saigon was the testimony of a "rallier," or defector, from the NLF on the bloodbath issue. The technique of displaying such defectors before press conferences had been used on many occasions by Saigon's Political Warfare Department in order to make a political point which could not otherwise be convincingly documented. Although the most experienced reporters in Saigon were always skeptical of statements made by defectors put on display by Saigon, there were always journalists who were fascinated by the idea of interviewing genuine ex-communists. Thus, it was arranged for Le Xuan Chuyen, who claimed to have been a lieutenant colonel in the Vietnam People's Army before defecting in August 1966, to be interviewed by _Washington Daily News_ and _Los Angeles Times_ correspondents in order to publicize his views on communist plans for a postwar bloodbath. Chuyen estimated that a communist "blood debt" list included some five million South Vietnamese, of whom some 500,000 would be killed.42

A brief note on Chuyen's background helps to put this testimony in proper perspective. Even in his initial interrogation, this self-proclaimed "lieutenant colonel" (a rank his interrogators were inclined to question) exhibited a notable sense of political opportunism.43 He lost no time in praising Thieu and Ky as leaders who were"daring, patriotic and have a strong sense of nationalism," and he volunteered his desire to work for the Americans or the Saigon government even before he was asked.44 Within a few months, Chuyen was nominated to be director of the government's Chieu Hoi Center for Saigon -- a position which was never mentioned in news accounts of his statement on alleged communist policies.45

A second alleged high-ranking communist defector, Col. Tran Van Dac, was actually Planning Adviser to the General Directorate of Political Warfare of ARVN at the time and this hardly a disinterested witness.46 His 1969 statement that there were three million Vietnamese on the "blood debt" list continues to be relied on by U.S. administrative apologists, including Sir Robert Thompson and Pike himself.47

End of Part One. Click here to go to Part 2; or here to return to the Vietnam Page Table of Contents.

Gareth Porter, "The 1968 Hue Massacre", Part One / HTML'd by Grover Furr 30 Jan 95 / /