Gareth Porter, "The 1968 Hue Massacre", Part Two


The 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

When 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."

In a 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 "massacre."


The 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 city.55

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

As 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 arise.

The 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

This 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.


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 University professor.

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

The "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."

As 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.

The 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.

In 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

Pike 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.


The 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.

The 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.


D. 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 23, 1968.
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 29, 1968.
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, February 1970.
8 New York Times, March 28, 1968.
9 "Chronology of Graves Discovered."
10 New York Times, March 28, 1968.
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, 1969.
17 Tien Tuyen, May 3, 1969.
18 Ibid.
19 Vietnam Press, April 12, 1969.
20 Washington Post, May 5, 1969.
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, 1969.
24 Tien Tuyen, October 17, 1969.
25 Pike, op. cit., pp. 28-29.
26 "Chronology of Graves Discovered."
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.
29 Ibid.
30 Vietnam Bulletin, loc. cit.
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 25, 1969.
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 consumption.
35 Nhan Dan, February 28, 1968.
36 Tu Dien Tieng Viet (Vietnamese Language Dictionary) (Hanoi: Nha Xuat Ban Khoa Hoc, 1967), p. 927.
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.
41 "Repressing 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."
44 Ibid.
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, 1968.
52 VC Carnage in Hue, Tenth Political Warfare Battalion, 1968, p. 8.
53 Pike, op. cit., pp. 30-31.
54 Saigon Post, March 17, 1968.
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, June, 1971.
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.

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