Massacre at Huế - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


Massacre at Huế


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The Massacre at Huế is the name given to describe the summary executions and mass killings that occurred during the Viet Cong and North Vietnam's capture, occupation and withdrawal from the city of Huế during the Tet Offensive, considered one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War. During the months and years that followed the battle, dozens of mass graves were discovered in and around Huế containing 2,800 civilians and prisoners of war. In some of the graves victims were found bound together; some appeared tortured; others were even reported to have been apparently buried alive. Estimates vary on the number executed, with a low of two hundred to a high of several thousand.

A number of U.S. and South Vietnamese authorities as well a number of journalists who investigated the events took the discoveries, along with other evidence, as proof that a large-scale atrocity had been carried out in and around Huế during its four-week occupation. Some of these same sources also contended these killings were premeditated, and part of a large-scale purge of a whole social stratum. The opposition to the war contended that the numbers and circumstances of the casualties were exaggerated or fabricated for war propaganda reasons.




In the early morning hours of January 31, 1968, during the Lunar New Year celebrations, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and National Liberation Front (NLF), or "Viet Cong" (VC), troops simultaneously attacked 70% of the major cities and villages in South Vietnam, including Saigon and Huế. While the Communist forces saw initial success, their assaults were quickly turned back in all areas except Huế. Commonly referred to as the Tet Offensive, this period of several weeks is generally regarded as a military disaster, but a psychological and propaganda victory for the NLF and Northern forces, as this marked a sharp turning point in American sentiment and support for the war effort.

During the initial battle, occupation and retaking of Huế, forty percent of the city was destroyed during 26 days of intense combat, and 116,000 of Huế's 140,000 population were left homeless. The U.S. and South Vietnamese forces claimed over 5,000 enemy forces were killed within the city, and another 3,000 in the immediately surrounding area.


Executions during Tet occupation and withdrawal

 Interment of 300 unidentified victims

 Interment of 300 unidentified victims


The NLF set up provisional authorities shortly after capturing Huế, and was charged with removing the existing government administration from power within the city and replacing it with a revolutionary administration. Working from lists of "cruel tyrants and reactionary elements" previously developed by VC intelligence officers, many people were to be rounded up following the initial hours of the attack. These included Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) soldiers, civil servants, political party members, local religious leaders, American civilians and other foreigners. These individuals, according to VC documents captured during and after the siege, were to be taken out of the city and held and punished for their “crimes against the Vietnamese people”. The disposition of those who were previously in control of the city was carefully laid out, and the lists were detailed and extensive. Those in the Saigon-based state police apparatus at all levels were to be rounded up and held outside the city. High civilian and military officials were also removed from the city, both to await study of their individual cases. Ordinary civil servants working for "the Saigon enemy" out of necessity, but did not oppose the revolution, were destined for reeducation and later employment. Low-level civil servants who had at some point been involved in paramilitary activities were to be held for reeducation, but not employed. There are documented cases of individuals who were executed by the NLF when they tried to hide or otherwise resisted during the early stages of Huế's occupation.

Within days of the capture, US Marine Corps (USMC) and US Army as well as ARVN infantry units were dispatched to counterattack and recaptured the city after weeks of fierce fighting, during which the city and its outlying areas were exposed to repeated shelling from US Navy ships off the coast and numerous bombing runs by U.S. aircraft. It was inferred that during the USMC and ARVN attack, North Vietnam's forces had rounded up those individuals whose names it had previously collected and had them executed or sent North for re-education.

It was determined by piecing together bits of information from several sources that a large number of people had taken sanctuary from the battle in a local church. Several hundred of these people were ordered out to undergo indoctrination in the "liberated area," and told afterwards they would be allowed to return home. After marching the group south 9 kilometers, 20 of the people were separated, tried, found guilty, executed and buried. The others were taken across the river and turned over to a local Communist unit in an exchange that even included written receipts. Douglas Pike notes that while “'It is probable that the Commissar intended that their prisoners should be re-educated and returned, but with the turnover, matters passed from his control.” Sometime within the following several weeks, the Communists decided to kill the individuals under their control. After being informed of this by VC defectors, local authorities released a list of 428 names of people they claimed were identified from the bones found over a 100 yard area of the Da Mai creek bed.

Philip W. Manhard, a US province senior advisor in Huế, was taken to a POW camp by the NVA and held until 1973. Manhard recounted that during the NVA withdrawal from Huế the NVA summarily executed anyone in their custody who resisted being taken out of the city or who was too old, too young, or too frail to make the journey to the camp.

Don Oberdorfer spent five days in late 1969 with Paul Vogle, an American English professor at the local Huế University, going through Huế interviewing witness of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong occupation. Oberdorfer classified all the killings into two categories: the planned execution of government officials and their families, political and civil servants, and collaborators with Americans; and those civilians not connected to the government who ran from questioning, spoke harshly about the occupation, or the occupiers believed “displayed a bad attitude” towards the occupiers. While unable to confirm this with first-hand accounts, Oberdorfer reported that in the Catholic area of Huế, Phucam, virtually every able bodied man over the age of 15 who took refuge in the cathedral was taken away and killed. In an interview with Ho Ty, a Viet Cong commander who took part in the advanced planning of a general uprising, Oberdorfer reported Ty's statement that the Communist party "was particularly anxious to get those people at Phucam... The Catholics were considered particular enemies of ours."


Varying statistics

The interpretation of the findings as a communist mass slaughter against political opponents has been disputed, and the credibility of the initial reports questioned. A first summary was published for the U.S. Mission in Vietnam by Douglas Pike, then working as a Foreign Service Officer for the U.S. Information Agency in 1970. Pike identified three distinct phases for the executions in Huế. Phase one was a series of "kangaroo courts" of local ARVN officials. The highly publicized trials lasted anywhere from five to ten minutes and the accused were always found guilty of “crimes against the people”. Phase two was implemented when the communists thought that they could hold the city long term, and consisted of a campaign of “social reconstruction” along Maoist dogma. Those who the Communists believed to be counterrevolutionaries were singled out in this phase. Catholics, intellectuals, prominent businessmen and other “imperialist lackeys” were targeted to “build a new social order”. The last phase began when it became evident that the communists could not hold the city and was designed to “leave no witnesses”. Anyone who could identify individual VC members who participated in the occupation were to be killed and their bodies hidden.

In retrospect Pike's credibility has been acknowledged as better than Porter's. Many later authors relied on his account, eg Stanley Karnow in Vietnam, A History and Michael Maclear in The Ten Thousand Day War, while some still regard it as a piece of propaganda intended to support the U.S. war effort. Other early sources include front line reporters serving under a strict code of reporting conduct imposed by U.S. forces and agencies. Later studies contending with these earlier accounts, most prominently the D. Gareth Porter's examination, were highly critical of the initial reports and sought to defend North Vietnam against the impact of the alleged propaganda. On the other hand, Porter admitted that there were executions in Huế during the occupation. Porter alleged, without proof, that the executions were the actions of individuals rather than the policy of the NLF. Shortly thereafter one of Porter's leading witnesses, Alje Vennema, published a book about the massacre supporting Pike's version. In the end, Porter's case was more based on undermining the evidence for a massacre rather than proof that one did not happen.

Marilyn B. Young in The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990 contends, "In the early days of the occupation, there were indeed summary executions ... and as the occupation ended in the firestorm of artillery and aerial bombardment, retreating NLF troops executed many of those they held in custody (rather than either releasing them or keeping them prisoner), not in the numbers Saigon and Washington charged, but certainly enough to have posed troubling questions for the people of Huế who survived..."

Douglas Pike's account referencing the government of So. Vietnam's estimated civilian casualties states: "The story remains uncompleted. If the estimates by Huế officials are even approximately correct, nearly 2,000 people are still missing. Recapitulation of the dead and missing:

Total estimated civilian casualties:
7,600   -  Combined dead and missing (estimated)
Battle related:
1,900  -  Wounded (hospitalized or outpatients) with injures attributable to warfare
  944  -  Estimated civilian deaths due to accident of battle
Partly or wholly related to mass killings:
1,173  -  First finds-bodies discovered immediately post battle, 1968
  809  -  Second finds, including Sand Dune finds, March-July, 1969 (estimated)
  428  -  Third find, Da Mai Creek find (Nam Hoa district) September, 1969
  300  -  Fourth Finds-Phu Thu Salt Flat find, November, 1969 (estimated)
  100  -  Miscellaneous finds during 1969 (approximate)
1,946  -  Unaccounted for (as of late 1970)"



In November 1974, when a documentary film produced by South Vietnamese reporters about the Tet Offensive was shown to an American audience of more than 200 US Army officers in Fort Benning, Georgia, almost no one in the audience had ever heard of the full details of the atrocity. Many afterwards said that had they known the savage slaughter at the time, they would have acted differently while serving in Vietnam.

Former UPI correspondent Uwe Siemon-Netto reflecting on the media’s coverage of the Vietnam War pointed to the events in Huế as evidence that the media did not accurately reflect the true nature of the North Vietnamese “reign of terror” it unleashed after the fall of Saigon.

Since April 1975, the Vietnamese Communist government has moved many families related to the victims out of Huế City. Some people in the city, however, still commemorate them every year. Because the people are mingling the rites with Tet celebrations, Communist local authorities have little ability to forbid them.


Further reading

  • Arnold, James R., Tet Offensive 1968: Turning Point in Vietnam, London: Osprey 1990

  • Bullington, James R. "And Here, See Huế," Foreign Service Journal, November 1968.

  • Christmas, G. R. "A Company Commander Reflects on Operation Huế City," Marine Corps Gazette, April 1971.

  • Davidson, Phillip B. Vietnam at War: The History, 1946-1975. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1988.

  • Hammel, Eric. Fire in the Streets: The Battle for Huế, Tet 1968. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1991.

  • Harkanson, John, and Charles McMahon. "USMC & Tet ’68: There’s a Little Trouble in Huế …," Vietnam Combat, Winter 1985.

  • Krohn, Charles A., The Lost Battalion: Controversy and Casualties in the Battle of Huế, Praeger Publishers, 1993

  • Nolan, Keith William. Battle for Huế: Tet 1968. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1983.

  • Oberdorfer, Don. Tet!: The Turning Point in the Vietnam War. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1971.

  • Palmer, Dave Richard. Summons of the Trumpet: U.S.-Vietnam in Perspective. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1978.

  • Phan Van Son. The Viet Cong Tet Offensive (1968). Saigon: Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces, 1969.

  • Pike, Douglas. PAVN: People’s Army of Vietnam. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1986.

  • Secrets of the Vietnam War. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1990.

  • Smith, Captain George W., USA. "The Battle of Huế," Infantry, July-August 1968.

  • Stanton, Shelby L. Anatomy of a Division: 1st Cav in Vietnam. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1987.

  • Tolson, Major General John J., 3rd. Airmobility: 1961-1971. Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 1973.

  • Truong Sinh. "The Fight to Liberate the City of Huế During Mau Than Tet (1969)," Hoc Tap, December 1974.

  • Tucker, Spencer, Vietnam. London: UCL Press, 1999

  • Vietnam Order of Battle. New York: U.S. News and World Report, Inc., 1981.

  • Young, Marilyn B., The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990 (New York: Harper Perennial, 1991)

  • Vennama, Alje, The Viet Cong Massacre at Huế. New York, Vantage Press, 1976.

See also

External links