Massacre at Huế
The Huế Massacre (Vietnamese: Thảm sát tại Huế Tết Mậu Thân or Vietnamese: thảm sát Tết Mậu Thân ở Huế) is the name given to the summary executions and mass killings perpetrated by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army during their capture, occupation and later 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 of Huế, which began on January 31, 1968, and lasted a total of 28 days, dozens of mass graves were discovered in and around Huế. Victims included women, men, children, and infants. The estimated death toll was between 2,800 to 6,000 civilians and prisoners of war. Victims were found bound, tortured, and sometimes apparently buried alive.
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. The killings were perceived as part of a large-scale purge of a whole social stratum, including anyone friendly to American forces in the region.
The Viet Cong set up provisional authorities shortly after capturing Huế in the early hours of January 31, 1968, 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 international people.
These individuals, according to Viet Cong 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 who worked for "the Saigon enemy" out of necessity, but did not oppose the communists, 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 VC 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 implied 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 reeducation.
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 in a kangaroo court, 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 reeducated 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 U.S. senior advisor in Huế province, was taken to a POW camp by the North Vietnamese Army (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.
Captured in the home of Vietnamese friends, American Stephen Miller of the U.S. Information Service was shot in a field behind a Catholic seminary. Courtney Niles, an American civilian working for NBC International, was killed during an attack by communist forces while in the presence of U.S soldiers.
Three professors, members of the West German Cultural Mission who taught at the Huế Faculty of Medicine, and the wife of one of the professors, were arrested and executed by the North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front during their recapture of Huế during the Tet Offensive (Feb. 1968). Their bodies, along with those of scores of Vietnamese civilians, who also were executed, were found April 5 in mass graves near Huế. The slain Germans were Professor and Mrs. Horst Krainick, Dr. Alois Altekoester, and Dr. Raimund Discher.
Don Oberdorfer spent five days in late 1969 with Paul Vogle, an American English professor at Huế University, going through Huế interviewing witnesses 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, who spoke harshly about the occupation, or who the occupiers believed “displayed a bad attitude” towards the occupiers.
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 VC 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."
When Trương Như Tạng was appointed Vietcong justice minister soon after Huế, he understood this to be a critical position because the massacre had, "left us with a special need to address fears among the Southern people that a revolutionary victory would bring with it a bloodbath or reign of terror." This was because, "large numbers of people had been executed" including "captured American soldiers and several other international people who were not combatants." According to Tạng, "discipline in Hue was seriously inadequate" and "fanatic young soldiers had indiscriminately shot people." The massacre was, "one of those terrible spontaneous tragedies that inevitably accompany war."
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 court trials 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 dogmatic lines. Those who the communists believed to be counterrevolutionaries were singled out in this phase. Catholics, intellectuals, prominent businessmen, and other “imperialist lackeys” were targeted in order 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 was to be killed and their bodies hidden.
Many later authors relied on Pike's account, e.g., Stanley Karnow in Vietnam, A History and Michael Maclear in The Ten Thousand Day War. Other early sources include front line reporters serving under a strict code of reporting conduct imposed by U.S. forces and agencies.
North Vietnam officially denounced "the hooligan lackeys who had owed blood debts to the Tri-Thien Hue compatriots and who were annihilated" in the Tet Offensive. Captured Viet Cong documents boasted that they had "eliminated" thousands of people and "annihilated members of various reactionary political parties, henchmen, and wicked tyrants" in Hue. One regiment reported that its units alone killed 1,000 victims. Another report mentioned 2,867 killed. Yet another document boasted of over 3,000 killed. A further document listed 2,748 executions. The truthfulness of the translation of these documents have been disputed by Gareth Porter and Edward S Herman.
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