Category Archives: The Communists

Articles about the communists involved; Ho Chi Minh, North Vietnam, China, Russia, North Korean, Russian satellites, etc.

This Is What Passes For Logic in the Antiwar Crowd

Counterpunch is a leftist, communist commentary site.  It’s sometimes worthwhile to visit the site to see what the enemies of America are thinking.  This article is a perfect example of the muddled thinking that passes for “logic” among communists.  Of course their goal isn’t truth, so anything can be made to seem logical if one doesn’t think too hard.

Source: Vietnam, Fifty Years After Defeating the US

Begin with the title.  The US was not defeated in Vietnam.  South Vietnam was.  The US military left Vietnam in 1973.  South Vietnam fell in 1975, two years later.  When an article begins with a lie in its title, it’s a good bet that the writer is pushing an agenda rather than exposing the truth.

The article closes with this

We could also learn the lesson of the war — and not treat it as a disease called “the Vietnam syndrome” — the lesson that war is immoral and even on its own terms counter-productive. Recognizing that would be the beginning of health..

One has to wonder what the writer thinks about WWII.  Was it immoral to defeat Germany, which was exterminating millions of people through starvation and murder and had invaded numerous countries?  If that’s your standard of morality, one has to ask.  How many people would have to die before you would be willing to go to war?  Would you even fight for your own life?  Or would you simply lay down and die rather than fight evil?

One thing is certain.  A LOT of good Americans were willing to give their lives to put a stop to Hitler’s rampage.  A LOT of others were as well, many of whose countries had not (yet!) been invaded.  When it comes to moral bearings, those people seem a great deal more honorable than those who argue that war is always immoral.

Of course the communists have never shied away from killing.  They’ve killed millions in  countries they’ve conquered, including Russia, China, Vietnam and Cambodia.  The killing doesn’t stop when they take over, however.  That’s just the beginning of the slaughter.  Doesn’t it seem odd that they always accuse their enemies of committing the crimes that they themselves commit routinely as a matter of policy?

This is not to say that America or its leaders are perfect by any stretch of the imagination.  I recently pointed out some of the gross malfeasance of our leaders during the Vietnam War.  But the idea that America is evil and engages in wars to hurt other people is a recent claim that originated with the North Vietnamese propaganda machine and was repeated faithfully by their fellow travelers, the core of the antiwar movement in the US.

Now they’re angry because (they claim) the history of the war is being somehow covered up or hidden by the Pentagon’s 50th Anniversary Commemoration.

Remember, this was the bad war in contrast to which World War II acquired the ridiculous label “good war.” But the Pentagon is intent on undoing any accurate memory of Vietnam.

On the contrary, the antiwar crowd has held the stage almost exclusively for the past 50 years.  They have beaten the drums of “America is evil” and “communism is good” for so long that they actually believe the nonsense.  While we can’t depend on the Pentagon to tell the truth about Vietnam, we certainly can’t depend on proven liars to tell it.

Leaders of the US antiwar movement traveled to Vietnam, Cuba, Russia, Austria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany and numerous other places to get their marching orders and to assist the communists in fine tuning their propaganda.1  Now it’s all unraveling as archives all over the world get opened up and researched.  For example, the fiction that the Viet Cong was an indigenous revolutionary movement has been completely obliterated by the North Vietnamese records proving control of the southern forces from the beginning.

It’s time for Americans to learn what really happened in Vietnam rather than the grossly distorted version promulgated by agenda-driven communists and their sympathizers.  That’s why we exist, and that’s what we intend to do.

The SACEI Forum

If you’re interested in all things Vietnam, you may already be familiar with the Saigon Arts, Culture and Education Institute.  If you’re not, you may want to pay them a visit.  I’ll bet you end up bookmarking the site.  Filled with interesting articles about Vietnam, many of them concerning the view of the 2nd Indochina War and its aftermath from the perspective of the Vietnamese, the site provides a unique, South Vietnamese perspective of that fateful time in history.

The South Vietnamese, more than anyone else, are painfully aware of what being “liberated” by communists means.  They suffered the loss of many loved ones, the lengthy imprisonment of others and the tragic loss of their freedom under the iron hand of their rulers.  Many have died, and continue to die, in their struggle to free their country from the yoke of tyranny.

Their mission is “1. to collect songs, tapes, books, artworks and memorabilia related to the diasporic society, 2. to promote Vietnamese arts and culture through workshops, discussions, exhibitions and shows, 3. and to research, publish articles and books about the diaspora.”  They do it quite well.  There is a cornucopia of arts and culture at the site, and the interested visitor can spend days wandering through the site enjoying what it has to offer.

The site also offers newsletters, the most recent one being #81, and a forum which is their official journal, published quarterly.   Some of our members have been honored as Man of the Year.

Visiting the site will fill you with pride and a sense of melancholy for what was lost in Vietnam.

Vietnam War Ended 40 Years Ago

Dr. William Lloyd Stearman, Founding VVFH Member

A poll taken on this 40th anniversary would no doubt reveal that most Americans believe we should not have fought in this small obscure country half a world away, and do believe that the war there was unwinnable and that our huge expenditure of blood and treasure there was totally in vain. Most people are nonplussed at hearing that we got into World War II because of what is now Vietnam. In the 1930s, we somewhat tolerated Japan’s rampaging all though China. However, when Japan invaded what is now Vietnam, we saw this as a threat to Southeast Asia and took the strong measure of promoting a boycott of critical oil, scrap iron and rubber deliveries to Japan. Japan, then realizing a now hostile US would try to prevent its planned invasion of Southeast Asia, sought to disable our fleet at Pearl Harbor as a preventative measure. Japan then proceeded to use its new-found base to invade and conquer most of Southeast Asia. President Eisenhower must have had this mind when he was asked, at April 7, 1954 press conference, about “the strategic importance of Indochina [Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia] for the free world.” He then described the “falling domino” principle whereby “the beginning of a disintegration [in Vietnam] would have the most profound influences” leading to “ the loss of Indochina, of Burma, of Thailand, of the [Malay] peninsula and Indonesia.” He added that Japan, Formosa [Taiwan], the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand “would also be threatened.” (He could also have added India.)

Eisenhower’s “domino theory” was pooh-poohed by a number of people in the U.S., but, given the parlous unstable conditions in Southeast Asia, it was taken seriously by leaders there as well as in Australia and India and by leaders in Hanoi and (then) Peking. For example, China’s famed Marshal Lin Piao stated in September 1965 that the defeat of “U.S. imperialism” in Vietnam would show the people of the world “that what the Vietnamese people can do, they can do too.” In the late 19­60s, Indonesian leaders Suharto and Malik (not great friends of the U.S.) told U.S. officials that our first introduction of U.S. combat troops (Marines) in Vietnam in March 1965 helped embolden them to resist the October 1, 1965 Communist coup supported by China, which came very close to succeeding. (The two later told columnist Robert Novak the same thing.) Had this coup succeeded, the Philippines would have soon been threatened which could well have triggered our intervention under a 1954 treaty. Then we would have been facing a far more threatening adversary than in Vietnam. The 1965 introduction of US Marines apparently had a generally bracing effect in Southeast Asia. For example it also encouraged the British defense of Malaysia against a Communist invasion from Indonesia. By the end of the Vietnam War, even the victorious Communist side that lost over two million dead was too weakened to pose a threat to any country save nearby Laos and Cambodia. The war also bought precious time to enable the countries of Southeast Asia to strengthen their positions. In essence, we basically got into the war to prevent the toppling of dominoes in Southeast Asia and we succeeded. One could say that this was a strategic victory while the loss in Vietnam was a tactical defeat.

Was the war in Vietnam truly unwinnable? After “Vietnamization” had removed all U.S. combat troops from Vietnam, Hanoi, on March 30, 1972, launched its “Easter Offensive” with largest conventional attack of the war consisting of the equivalent of 23 divisions equipped with hundreds of Soviet tanks, long-range artillery, rockets and surface to air missiles. The brunt of the fighting fell on the South Vietnamese ground forces with massive U.S. air support as well as naval and logistical support. The only American ground forces left were advisors and forward air controllers. South Vietnam forces eventually moved from the defensive to counter offensives and by mid-September 1972 were clearly winning. The Communist forces had lost about 100,000 killed in action, twice as many as the U.S. had lost in the entire war. Sometime after Hanoi’s final 1975 victory, a former top commander in the South, General Tran Van Tra stated in the Party organ Nhan Dan that his troops had eventually reached the verge of defeat. Had the war continued some months further, the South could have emerged victorious by evicting all enemy forces from Vietnam. Facing defeat, Hanoi saved the day by offering substantial concessions sought by Henry Kissinger in previous negotiations. With the best of intentions, Kissinger took this bait and the resulting negotiations process brought South Vietnamese military operations to a halt. The 1973 Peace Accords broke down. The U.S. drastically reduced aid, and then Congress banned all U.S. military operations in Indochina sealing Vietnam’s doom.

William Lloyd Stearman, PhD, Senior U.S. Foreign Service officer (Ret.)

National Security Council staff under four presidents, director NSC Indochina staff, Jan. ’73 to Jan. ’76, Adjunct Professor of International Affairs Georgetown University (1977 to 1993), author of memoir An American Adventure, From Early Aviation Through Three Wars to the White House (Naval Institute Press, 2012)

40 Years After – How Did They Fare?

Col. Andrew Finlayson, VVFH Founding Member

In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, there were seven ongoing communist insurgencies in SE Asia – Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines all had active communist insurgencies. Three of those insurgencies were successful in 1975 (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia). When one considers the question of whether or not the successful communist insurgencies lived up to the promises they made to their respective populations to provide peace, social justice and economic well-being, it is instructive to look at the records of those seven countries with communist insurgencies and see how they fared over the past 40 years.

Peace: Many in the West thought that once the communists came to power and all of the US and allied forces left Vietnam, a new era of peace and harmony would exist. At least that is what the communists promised. Unfortunately, it was not to be. The communist government of the united Vietnam fought two wars with their neighbors, China and Cambodia, and tensions still persist with China over the East China Sea. A little known fact that is often overlooked by some in the West is more SE Asians died in war and the results of war in the 14 years after the last American left Vietnam than during the years when US forces were in South Vietnam. Although exact figures for the number of SE Asians who died after the communist victories in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia vary, even the conservative estimates are mind-boggling. There were 65,000 executions in Vietnam between 1975 and 1982 (Desbarats and Jackson, “The Cruel Peace,” Washington Quarterly, Fall 1985: also US Dept. of State Bulletin, Sept. 1985). The UN High Commissioner on Refugees estimated that 250,000 people fleeing Vietnam by boat died at sea. Another 165,000 died in Vietnam’s infamous “re-education camps” (Desbarats, Jacqueline. “Repression in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam: Executions and Population Relocation,” The Vietnam Debate, 1990).

According to Lt. Gen. Le Kha Phieu, the commander of Vietnamese forces in Cambodia, the Vietnamese military suffered 55,000 deaths between 1978 and when the Vietnamese ended their occupation of Cambodia (Reaves, Joseph. “Vietnam Reveals Cambodian Death Toll,” Chicago Tribune, July 1, 1988). There are no accurate figures for the number of Cambodian deaths suffered in the war, but it is safe to assume they suffered heavier casualties than the Vietnamese.

Although the claims of the Vietnamese and Chinese differ widely on the casualties produced by their 1979 war, a conservative estimate provides a range of Chinese military deaths at 7,000 to 26,000 and approximately 30,000 Vietnamese military deaths, with an additional 100,000 Vietnamese civilian deaths (Zhang Xiaoming, “China’s 1979 War with Vietnam,” China Quarterly, No. 184, December 2005, pp. 851-874). The Communist Lao government continues to this day to inflict casualties on the Hmong minority in that country with the figure of 100,000 killed since 1975 (Rummel, Rudolph. Statistics of Democide, University of Hawaii; also, “Forced and Forgotten” Lawyers’ Committee on Human Rights, 1989, p. 8). And, according to the Yale Genocide Program, the communist party in Cambodia killed approximately 1.7 million of that country’s citizens when it came to power, one of the most horrific genocidal crimes ever committed.

Social Justice: By just about any objective standard, the communist governments that came to power after 1975 have had a truly dismal record on human rights. All three have been identified by numerous impartial human rights organizations as among the worst countries in the world for human rights abuses. Vietnam, in particular, has been singled out consistently for denying its citizens basic human rights. The Committee to Protect Journalists ranks Vietnam as “one of the worst countries in the world” for censoring the press, noting that during the Vietnam War over 100 newspapers were printed in South Vietnam but only a handful exist today and all of them are tightly under government control. Freedom House noted as recently as 2014 that Vietnam was, “among the countries with the worst scores for political rights and civil liberties,” and they have reported that “Vietnam is among the ten worst abusers of internet freedom” (“If a Tee Falls,” The Economist, April 18-24, 2015. p.34). The Worker Rights Consortium reported in 2013 that Vietnam had a dismal record on such things as “forced and child labor.” The Pew Research Center has consistently ranked Vietnam among the thirty worst countries in the world for religious oppression, noting that Vietnam had, “very high government restrictions on religion.” Human Rights Watch wrote a withering appraisal of the sorry state of human rights in current day Vietnam in their 2013 “World Report,” and John Sifton of that non-partisan human rights watchdog wrote, “Vietnam is a non-democratic, one-party state, with an abysmal human rights record.”

Economic Freedom: When the communists came to power in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, they all promised a new era of economic prosperity free from the shackles of capitalism. Let’s see how that turned out 40 years later and compare the economic performance of the communist and non-communist governments of SE Asia (Sources: Pocket World in Figures, 2015 Edition, The Economist: and The World Bank).

Country GDP per head Economic Freedom Index Avg. Annual Inflation
Vietnam $1,760 50.8 10%
Laos $751 51.4 21.31%
Cambodia $709 57.5 5.26%
Thailand $5,480 63.3 2.3%
Malaysia $10,430 69.6 1.8%
Indonesia $3,560 58.5 5.2%
Philippines $2,590 60.1 3.8%

As the economic statistics above show, the countries that had successful communist insurgencies lag behind their capitalist neighbors in GDP per person, economic freedom, and inflation rates. One would think that a communist government would have solved the problem of income inequality, but the facts prove otherwise. The GINI index which the UN and the World Bank assign to countries based upon their income distribution within households shows that Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia are ranked far below such capitalist countries as Germany, Denmark, Ireland, Canada, and Norway. When one considers the endemic corruption, one party rule, income inequality, political repression, and poor management of their economies, it is difficult to make a convincing argument that communism has benefitted the people of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

The Vietnam War was Winnable

Paper presented by Col. Andrew R. Finlayson, USMC (Ret.)*

“Amateurs talk about tactics; professionals talk about logistics.”

                                                                                    An old military proverb 

One day in the spring of 1985, fifteen years after I had left South Vietnam for the last time, I was having lunch with my faculty advisor at the Naval War College, Professor Robert Megagee, when another faculty member joined us and asked what we were talking about. Professor Megagee, who had taught me diplomatic history at the U.S. Naval Academy as an undergraduate, told this distinguished academic that we were discussing the Vietnam War. Professor Megagee’s colleague immediately blurted out, “There is no practical use in such a discussion because there was nothing we could have done to win that war.” This comment caused me to challenge our table mate. I told him that wars are not deterministic or ordained by some immutable truth—they are won or lost based on many factors that can be modified and adjusted to affect an outcome. The historian, who was on leave from Harvard University to the Naval War College, looked me straight in the eye and said, “I challenge you to prove that. Tell me how the U.S. could have won the Vietnam War, given the constraints imposed on it and the superior will and strategy of the North Vietnamese.”

This challenge led me to begin a life-long study of the war and why the U.S. lost it. An intermediate analysis three years later resulted in the publication of an article for the Marine Corps Gazette in which I laid out the basic reason for out failure to win the war (Finlayson, Andrew R. “Vietnam Strategies,” Marine Corps Gazette (August 1988), pp. 90-94). Additional study and the publication of new materials, especially those from North Vietnamese sources, have served to reinforce my original conclusion.

For any person who has participated in a war, the experience is unique and they see the war through the eyes of their own experience. This often makes it exceedingly difficult to be objective about the general conduct and outcome of any war. Each veteran of a war tends to analyze the overall reasons for success or failure in that war through a very narrow range of vision, one that is often clouded by emotion and trauma. I realize I am not immune to this constraint on objectivity and any analysis I might offer should be viewed with skepticism since there can be little doubt that the Vietnam War had a deep and lasting effect on me. Because I was so affected by the war, I spent many years studying it, primarily with the hope that I might find a cogent answer to the central question that plagued me: Why did the U.S. lose the war? I have examined every reason put forth by a host of writers, carefully examining their arguments, discussing them with other military analysts and veterans, and revising my findings in the light of my own experience in South Vietnam. From North Vietnamese officers, former VC politicians, and international journalists to military historians and U. S. and ARVN veterans of the war, I have attempted to find the root cause for the defeat of my country.

One may question the utility of even attempting to ascertain why the U.S. lost the Vietnam War; after all, it is over and done with and the strategic balance of power in the world has been little affected by its outcome. Although historians continue to this day to argue about why the U.S. lost this war, few other people give it any thought. I would count myself among the latter, if the war had not had such a profound effect on me and I thought the U.S. would never again make the same mistakes it made in South Vietnam. However, after over four decades of study, I am concerned about the “lessons learned” that many historians and other analysts have drawn from the Vietnam War. I see many of these “lessons learned” as false and dangerous, especially when applied to many of the challenges facing my country today. I have seen some of these “lessons learned” applied with disastrous results by well-meaning and intelligent men and women serving my country today. For this reason, I offer my personal assessment of the primary reason why we lost the war in South Vietnam in the hope that future political and military leaders will not pursue a path that leads to defeat.

To be as succinct as possible, the U.S. lost the war because its national leadership pursued a fatally flawed strategy based upon wishful thinking, hubris, and incorrect assumptions. They did not do so because they were fools or lacked the necessary information needed to formulate a winning strategy. No, the requisite information for the proper strategic analysis was available as early as the end of the First Indo-China War in 1954, but a combination of factors caused our strategic planners to overlook or dismiss the analysis. Unfortunately, the North Vietnamese had a far greater appreciation for these factors than our own leaders, which resulted in the communists forging a far more effective strategy for the achievement of their goals—and to do so despite some extremely burdensome and potentially lethal constraints.

I will not address the reasons for our intervention in South Vietnam or why we continued to remain there long after it became apparent our strategy was seriously flawed. I think the historians have drawn the correct conclusions for the rationale our leaders used in both cases. Whether those reasons were correct or necessary, I leave to the historians to settle. What I will do is identify the objectives of the major protagonists, their respective strategies, the root cause for failure of the American strategy, and finally an alternative American strategy that would have been far more effective than the one pursued.

For the North Vietnamese, or more accurately for the Lao Dong Party, the goal they set for themselves and one they never abandoned or modified was the complete unification of Vietnam and the domination of the Indo-China peninsula, to include Laos and Cambodia (Turner, Robert F, Vietnamese Communism: Its Origins and Development, Stanford: Hoover Institution Press 1974, pp. 18-19, 78-79). This goal, which was clearly and openly pronounced by the Lao Dong Party during the First Indo-China War, became feasible when the Chinese Nationalists were defeated by the Chinese Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) in 1949, giving the Lao Dong Party’s Viet Minh a secure border with China, bases and sanctuaries on that border, and massive amounts of captured Kuomintang weapons and ammunition, to include the artillery used with such effectiveness at the decisive Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Using doctrine developed by the Chinese communists, secure bases in southern China, and fire power that could match the French, the Lao Dong Party led the Viet Minh forces to victory, expelling the French from the Red River Delta and all of the northern part of Vietnam.

However, their goal of unifying all of Vietnam under their control was thwarted by the 1954 Geneva Accords which the Soviet Union and the PRC imposed upon them. These accords, which the U.S. was not a signatory to, called for elections in 1956 to determine the political future of a united Vietnam. The Lao Dong Party was confident that it could win a nationwide election in 1956 and most observers agree with that assumption. However, it is highly unlikely that a truly fair election could have been carried out in either North or South Vietnam at that time, even if proper monitoring had been available and approved by either country. The U.S. decided that any election held in 1956 would result in a unified country dominated by the communists, a situation that threatened to destabilize their allies in Southeast Asia and lead to communist regimes in most, if not all, of the countries in the region. Given that there were active communist insurgencies in eight Southeast Asian countries in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it was correct to assume many of these countries might succumb to these insurgencies if the U.S. allowed South Vietnam to fall to the communists.

At this time, the U.S. grand strategy was one articulated by George Kennan in his famous “long telegram” which called for the containment of the Soviet Union and later the PRC. This grand strategy called for the U.S. to resist any further expansion of communism, a strategy that led to the Marshall Plan for Europe, the Korean War, numerous other conflicts on the periphery of the Eurasian land mass, and the Vietnam War. While Mr. Kennan would later dispute that his grand strategy for the containment of the Soviet Union should have been applied to the U.S. decision to intervene in South Vietnam, U.S. policy makers in the early 1960s were definitely thinking in terms of containment when the policy discussions concerning South Vietnam were being conducted. Therefore, the U.S. objective was to prevent South Vietnam from falling under the control of a communist government allied with the Soviet Union and the PRC. For domestic and international political reasons, the U.S. articulated several other goals, most of which were irrelevant or impractical, such as fostering liberal democracy and protecting human rights.

For the South Vietnamese Government, their goal was to avoid defeat by both the internal and external threat posed by the Lao Dong Party and to remain in power. From time to time, the GVN would also echo the goals of the U.S., but the GVN endorsement of these goals was always tepid at best and done more to mollify the Americans than to be taken seriously. For the GVN, their paramount interest was survival in the face of aggression from North Vietnam. Unlike the Americans, the GVN had a more realistic appreciation of the threat and often rejected the advice given by the Americans who they knew were proposing actions that were either irrelevant or infeasible, given the cultural, political and strategic realities in their country. While the GVN had many weaknesses, their military leadership understood the strategic dynamics better than their American allies, who persistently clung to the mistaken belief that tactical brilliance and technological superiority could compensate for strategic incompetence.

The strategy employed by the North Vietnamese to achieve their goal of unification of all of Vietnam and control of Laos and Cambodia was no mystery to the U.S. Lao Dong Party documents obtained by the French in the early 1950s laid out the communist strategy clearly. The North Vietnamese knew by 1956 that any hope of achieving their goal through elections in South Vietnam was impossible given the decision of President Diem and the Americans not to hold elections in South Vietnam. They recognized they must resort to violent means to achieve their goal and they – quite logically – adopted a strategy that was based upon their successful experience in the First Indo-China War. Initially, this strategy called for the Lao Dong Party to build a modern military force capable of defending North Vietnam using equipment and munitions provided by the Soviet Union and the PRC, while at the same time using southern Lao Dong cadres to organize the rural population of South Vietnam and lay the groundwork for future military actions. The Lao Dong Party understood that they could not rely alone on a southern insurgency to achieve their goal, although they hoped the insurgency would so weaken the GVN that a coalition government that included the communist front organization, the National Liberation Front, would come to power and set the stage for eventual control of the entire south. The Lao Dong Party planned to use their southern main force and guerrilla units to weaken and distract the GVN while it built up a modern, mobile army in North Vietnam, an army that could intervene at the decisive moment when the situation in South Vietnam made it possible to use this modern army to achieve a decisive result (Pribbenow, Merle L (Trans.), Victory in Vietnam: The Official History of the People’s Army of Vietnam, 1954-1975, pp. 20-48). While the North Vietnamese model included the three types of military forces —local, regional and main force units— one modeled on the system used by the Chinese communists in their successful campaigns against the Japanese and the Kuomintang in China, they placed a greater emphasis on conventional forces for striking a decisive blow. This model was not endorsed by the PRC, and it often led to theoretical conflicts with the Chinese during the Second Indo-China War (Jian, Chen, “China’s Involvement in the Vietnam War, 1964-69,” The China Quarterly, No. 142 (June 1995), pp. 380-387).

The North Vietnamese were always concerned about military intervention by the U.S. and so they developed a strategy that would take into account that intervention. They realized that the U.S. possessed a huge material advantage over their forces, especially in terms of naval and air power, but they had fought a modern army during the First Indo-China War and they knew that they could defeat such an army if they employed a strategy similar to the one they used against the French. Although there were some variations to their strategy to take into account changing events in South Vietnam, the North Vietnamese strategy was remarkably similar to the one they used to drive the French out of North Vietnam during their campaigns from 1950 to 1954. Fortunately for the North Vietnamese, few Americans understood how the Viet Minh strategy worked or why it was successful; and those who did were either ignored or dismissed as pessimists. I was an operations analyst at the Marine Headquarters from 1970 to 1972 and I was an action officer for several national-level war plans at that time. At meetings in the Pentagon, I listened to many frustrated senior officers with extensive war-planning experience express their concerns about how the strategy in South Vietnam was not working because the use of airpower and unconventional means in Laos were not producing the expected results for limiting the infiltration of men and supplies from North Vietnam. These same officers told me that they had sent numerous recommendations to change the US strategy to their civilian leaders but their recommendations were either ignored or dismissed. (For just one example of this problem, see McMaster, H. R., Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Lies that Led to Vietnam, New York: Harper Collins, 1997, p. 86). When I asked one of them, a US Army general officer with experience in both World War II and Korea, why the views of his war-planners were not being acted upon, he told me there were various “lobbies” in the US government who were opposed to them. When I asked him to explain what he meant by “lobbies,” he said the “lobbies” were, “the counterinsurgency and airpower proponents in the Department of Defense, and the civilian analysts in the State Department and the CIA.” According to him, “they thwarted every recommendation based upon military logic.”

During the First Indo-China War, the Viet Minh had few successes until the Chinese communists came to power in late 1949, giving them the sanctuaries and the equipment they needed to achieve success. The Viet Minh had been using the Chinese communist model of revolutionary war with its three stages as their theoretical model ever since Ho Chi Minh returned from China to lead the communist revolution in Vietnam. These three stages of revolutionary war are: Stage One, which entails “organization, consolidation and preservation”; Stage Two, which calls for “progressive expansion”; and Stage Three, the “decisive engagement and destruction of the enemy.” (Mao Tse-Tung, On Protracted War, Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1967, pp. 34-46). Since this three stage model for revolutionary warfare had worked so well for the Chinese communists, it was logical that it be adopted by the Viet Minh.

From 1945 to 1950, the Viet Minh were unable to progress from Stage One to Stage Two, and, in fact, had suffered several severe losses when they attempted to expand their military operations into the Red River Delta of North Vietnam. This all changed when southern China fell to the communist forces of Mao Tse-tung in late 1949. This development spelled disaster for the French because it created all of southern China as a sanctuary and a base for training and logistical support for the Viet Minh. It also meant that the French now had a hostile border with China that was 1,306 kilometers long, a border that they did not have the forces to defend. Since such a long border was impossible for them to defend, they were forced to give up much of the territory north and west of the Red River Delta. The French knew they could not attack the PRC, so the Viet Minh bases in southern China were beyond their reach. The Viet Minh were quick to take advantage of this strategic windfall and began developing a system of supply routes that led from southern China into North Vietnam. The strategic initiative passed from the French to the Viet Minh once the PRC provided the Viet Minh with safe havens for their forces and provided them with an abundant source of military equipment and supplies, which enabled the Viet Minh to conduct sustained operations against the French inside North Vietnam. Compounding the French dilemma, the Korean War reached a negotiated stalemate in 1953, freeing up vast quantities of military weapons and equipment from the PRC, which the Viet Minh put to good use immediately and to telling effect at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.

Some prescient American strategists, like Generals Eisenhower and Marshall, understood the situation clearly and cautioned against involving U.S. forces in the war between the French and the Viet Minh. They understood that the French were doomed in Indo-China as long as the Viet Minh had sanctuaries in China and an unlimited supply of weapons and ammunition from their Chinese comrades to carry on their war against the French. Despite local victories by the French, it was inevitable that the balance of forces would always favor the Viet Minh as long as they had access to secure bases in China and the material support of the PRC. It is for this reason President Eisenhower rejected the French request for U.S. air support at Dien Bien Phu, the decisive battle in the First Indo-China War. He knew that even if U.S. air power saved the French at Dien Bien Phu, the French would never overcome the problem of the Viet Minh sanctuaries in China and the almost inexhaustible supply of manpower the Viet Minh could devote to the war. As a result, the U.S. attempted to limit the Viet Minh gains to North Vietnam by using diplomacy while it built up an anti-communist regime in the southern part of Vietnam.

With the defeat of the French at Bien Dien Phu, the diplomats took over from the generals. A conference was convened in Geneva, Switzerland to end the hostilities and the Vietnamese communists expected they would achieve their goals of removing all foreign troops from Indo-China and establishing themselves as the masters of a united Vietnam. Unfortunately for them, the diplomats did not give them the victory they thought they had won on the battlefield. Instead, the Chinese and the Soviet delegates forced them to accept an agreement that left the southern half of Vietnam outside of their political control with the understanding that free elections would be held in 1956 throughout Vietnam to determine what kind of Government a united Vietnam would have. The U.S. and the South Vietnamese did not sign the Geneva accords and, therefore, they were not obligated to hold elections in 1956. The U.S. realized that any election held in 1956 would most likely result in a unified and communist-dominated government in Vietnam and would eventually lead to communist dominated governments in Laos and Cambodia. This expansion of communism ran counter to the U. S. national strategy of containment and threatened several other countries in the region who were dealing with communist insurgencies, such as Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia. The U.S. had just finished fighting a costly war on the Korean peninsula against the communist regimes of China and North Korea, so it was not about to let three more countries fall under communist domination and possibly fuel a series of additional “wars of national liberation” in other countries in the region, some of which were strong allies of the U.S.

So the stage was set for a confrontation between North Vietnam and the U.S. which could only be resolved by force. In sum, the North Vietnamese communists wanted to expand their control over South Vietnam and their influence, if not outright control, over Laos and Cambodia; while the U.S. was committed to a policy that called for resisting any further communist expansion anywhere in the world. Neither side was willing to compromise. These two conflicting goals would collide with catastrophic results for both countries.

When elections were not held in 1956, the Lao Dong Party leadership decided to use military force to achieve their goal of national unification. Like most strategies their plan was simple, but difficult to execute and based upon many assumptions, some of which proved to be false. It called for the organization of a mass-based party infrastructure in South Vietnam whose purpose was to provide three things: intelligence, manpower, and logistical support for mobile military forces. In effect, it called for the Lao Dong Party to establish itself in every village and hamlet of South Vietnam so the rural peasantry could be mobilized and controlled in support of the revolutionary military forces. The Lao Dong Party knew from its experience during the First Indo-China War that guerrilla forces alone were incapable of achieving a decisive result against a well-armed and technologically advanced military force like the one the Americans had. To achieve victory over a foe as strong as the U.S., they knew they would have to avoid decisive engagement while at the same time inflict heavy casualties on the Americans and their GVN allies in order to erode the national will of both governments and their respective populations. In essence, they embarked on a protracted war of attrition, but one that allowed them to modulate the level of violence so as not to risk defeat. To achieve this, they first needed to make sure they maintained the support of the three elements identified by Carl von Clausewitz in his classic of military strategy, On War, which are essential if a country decides to wage war. Those three essential elements of support are: the people, the government, and the military. The North Vietnamese clearly understood this dictum for the foundation of a successful strategy, and took the necessary steps to ensure this support was secure.

Since the Lao Dong Party ruled unopposed in North Vietnam, had complete control over the sources of information their population received, had a system of government that made internal security tight and comprehensive, had a military that was under the complete control of the Party, and had a recent tradition of victory over a superior foreign military force, these three pillars of support were firmly in place. Their next step in the formulation of their strategy was to take into account every possible action their opposition might take and to develop a strategy that could successfully counter these actions. During the initial stages of the development of their strategy, they hoped that the U.S. would not intervene militarily in South Vietnam, but they planned for that eventuality from the beginning. As early as 1959 they decided that it was highly likely the U.S. would use military force to thwart their plans; so they developed a strategy that was highly flexible and could be changed rapidly to adjust to any level of U.S. military intervention (Victory in Vietnam, pp. 73-77).

This Lao Dong strategy was based on their experience in their war against the French, but adapted to the reality that the Americans possessed far more economic and military power than the French had. The specifics of their strategy of attrition involved a combination of political and military actions that would erode the will of their adversaries and cause their opponents’ governments, militaries, and populations to accede to the goals of the Lao Dong Party. It was a strategy that was not dependent upon time tables or assumptions about the motivations of their opponents; instead, it was a carefully crafted strategy that capitalized upon their opponents’ weaknesses and minimized their own vulnerabilities with an open ended commitment to persevere no matter how long it took.

What then was the strategy the Lao Dong Party employed against the GVN and the Americans? In its broadest terms, their strategy consisted of several actions that had the aggregated effect of neutralizing their adversaries’ advantages and preventing them from taking the steps needed to defeat them. These were:

First, the primary concern of the Lao Dong Party was to secure North Vietnam from invasion. This was done by aligning themselves with the Soviet Union and the PRC, making any attack on the territory of North Vietnam by GVN or American ground forces a potential cause for war between the U.S. and these two countries. It also ensured that these two communist allies would provide the military equipment and economic aid needed to withstand any attack on its soil and to sustain its attack against South Vietnam. In addition, the Lao Dong Party embarked on a sustained program to build a modern military defense force capable of withstanding a conventional attack on their homeland. This effort included the acquisition of modern aircraft, sophisticated armored vehicles, mobile artillery, and technologically advanced air defense and communications systems, almost all provided at no cost by their communist allies.

Second, they appealed through the extensive worldwide propaganda system of communist, socialist, and other leftist organizations to influence public opinion against the GVN and the U.S. The formation of the National Liberation Front (NLF) and other front groups to hide the actual identity of the leadership of the insurgency in South Vietnam and provide a patina of non-communist participation in the leadership of the insurgency was an example of how the Lao Dong Party attempted to influence external observers. This was part of their “dau tranh” campaign on a worldwide scale to promote the Lao Dong Party’s position and gain support for their cause outside of Vietnam (Hanoi’s War, p. 52). They found a ready audience for their propaganda among leftist groups throughout Western Europe and the U.S. As with most of their strategy, this implementing action was based upon the success of the Viet Minh to influence French public opinion during the First Indo-China War and erode support for the war, which lead to the election of the a Socialist Government in France that ran on a platform calling for an end of that war.

Third, they built a modern military capable of regional power projection, using extensive support from the Soviet Union and the PRC. Certain units were designated for special training in mobile warfare and supplied with equipment that would enable these units to operate far from North Vietnam in Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam. This military buildup was begun shortly after the end of the First Indo-China War and was largely completed by 1964 (Victory in Vietnam, pp. 1-123).

Fourth, the Lao Dong Party began to build an extensive political infrastructure in South Vietnam with its primary focus on organizing the rural areas of that country. Using cadres from the First Indo-China War, the Lao Dong Party created the Viet Cong Infrastructure (VCI) in these rural areas using the same organizational techniques they had employed against the French. This model had a long history beginning with the system perfected by Chinese communist cadres who spent several decades building their powerful rural political base in their war with the Kuomintang. The Lao Dong Party adapted the Chinese communist model of political organization to Vietnam but strengthened this system by integrating the lessons they had learned from their experience during the First Indo-China War. The purpose of the VCI was to mobilize the peasants of South Vietnam to create a mass-based political organization that paralleled the Government of the GVN but extended down into the village and hamlet levels. The primary objective for this mass-based political organization was the provision of three basic requirements for mobile military warfare: intelligence, recruits, and logistical support. The strategy of the Lao Dong Party was highly dependent on the VCI in South Vietnam for these three requirements, especially the logistical support needed by North Vietnamese military units. The Lao Dong Party realized that without the logistical support of the VCI in South Vietnam, their ability to conduct large-scale, sustained, mobile military operations was severely curtailed, if not eliminated. While not the only reason for their concern about any successful GVN pacification program, it was their primary concern because the degradation of the VCI, especially the finance-economy cadres, threatened their ability to conduct mobile warfare.

Fifth, the Lao Dong Party needed a secure logistical system to support mobile warfare in South Vietnam. Phase III of their doctrine of revolutionary war called for the defeat of the conventional forces of their enemy using modern, conventionally armed, mobile main force units. To do this, they needed a means of supplying such units. This entailed maintaining the VCI in every strategically important part of South Vietnam and establishing a system of resupply and reinforcement external to South Vietnam. This logistical system was managed by Unit 559, which received its designation from the date of its inception, May 1959 (Victory in Vietnam, pp. 50-54). Unit 559 was given the mission of establishing an extensive and sophisticated system of transportation routes, supply depots, training areas, and medical facilities running for over 3,500 miles in length from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia to Saigon. This system was known to the Americans as the Ho Chi Minh Trail and to the North Vietnamese as the Troung Son Strategic Supply Route. The system was truly massive; in Laos alone it covered 1,700 square miles. All along the Ho Chi Minh Trail system were multiple roads and trails, some of them all weather and hard-surfaced. Along these trails and roads were numerous staging areas, truck parks, petroleum pipelines, bivouac sites, hospitals, farms, supply depots and command and control hubs, all carefully camouflaged to prevent detection by U.S. aircraft and CIA and U.S. Special Forces reconnaissance teams. Providing maintenance and protection for this huge and long logistical system were over 100,000 North Vietnamese troops in Laos and Cambodia and an additional 15,000 Chinese in Laos (For a very detailed and rigorous analysis of the use of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and its impact on military operations in South Vietnam, see Hunt, Ira A, Jr. Losing Vietnam: How America Abandoned Southeast Asia, Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2013, pp. 12-20, 29, 32, 75-76, 113, 124, 146, 168-169; also see Victory in Vietnam, pp. 52, 89, 114-115, 127, 138, 144, 168-171,175, 182, 208-209, 211, 215, 227, 243, 264, 285-286, 301, 321-322, 338-339, 350, 363, 398, and 401-402).

This supply system was in complete violation of the 1962 Geneva Accords which called for the neutrality of Laos and Cambodia, but the North Vietnamese were left with no viable choice for an alternative means of supplying their military forces fighting in South Vietnam. Their early attempts to infiltrate men and supplies through the DMZ were largely unsuccessful and costly after 1965. Besides, the North Vietnamese military strategy called for cutting South Vietnam in two in the Central Highlands of Military Region II and this plan necessitated a secure infiltration route to base areas in eastern Cambodia. They also realized that any final push against the capital of South Vietnam, Saigon, necessitated secure supply bases farther south in eastern Cambodia. Given their military strategy, it was only logical for the North Vietnamese to use the eastern regions of both Laos and Cambodia to build the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Since the trail was essential to their strategy, they viewed any attempt to successfully cut it as an existential threat to their overall strategy for the conquest of South Vietnam. Many Western historians have tended to ignore or play down the vital importance of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but the North Vietnamese communists do not share these views (Victory in Vietnam, pp. 261-265). In fact, some among the victors of the war have openly admitted that the failure of the Americans to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail in southern Laos was the biggest mistake the Americans made during the war. For the North Vietnamese, the Ho Chi Minh Trail was both their biggest advantage and their most significant vulnerability—and they knew it. They considered the Ho Chi Minh Trail their “linchpin” for their ability to wage war in South Vietnam (Hanoi’s War, p. 201)

Finally, once the Lao Dong Party had accomplished the steps mentioned above, they were ready to embark on the final phase of their strategy to defeat the Americans and to overthrow the GVN. I will not go into the specifics of their strategy inside South Vietnam, but only broadly explain that it entailed the conduct of an attrition intensive campaign designed to inflict casualties on American and South Vietnamese forces, disrupt the GVN’s pacification programs, and protect their infiltration routes and bases inside South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. As long as the North Vietnamese had secure sanctuaries, a secure supply route from North Vietnam to South Vietnam, and a secure rural political infrastructure capable of providing intelligence, recruits, and logistical support, their success was assured. Even with over 500,000 American troops, it was impossible for the U.S. to secure the 1400 mile border that ran from East China Sea west along the DMZ and then south through Laos and Cambodia. The Americans surrendered the initiative to the North Vietnamese when they steadfastly refused to invade Laos to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail. All the North Vietnamese had to do was maintain pressure on the Americans and the GVN by waging a war of attrition and avoiding a decisive engagement. They knew they could bleed the Americans and South Vietnamese indefinitely and simply withdrawal to their sanctuaries to avoid decisive engagement or intolerable casualties. They felt confident that the U.S. would weary of the endless list of casualties and withdrawal, allowing the regular NVA conventional divisions to quickly attack a weakened and demoralized South Vietnam. With their carefully crafted strategy, they were assured of eventual victory; but only as long as they protected their supporting political infrastructure inside South Vietnam, their bases and supply depots in Laos and Cambodia, and their means of moving men and supplied south along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

If the above was the North Vietnamese strategy, what was the American strategy? Sadly, it was a fatally flawed one, doomed from the very beginning once the U.S. rejected the idea of invading the panhandle of Laos and cutting the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Despite warnings from the South Vietnamese military and the American Joint Chiefs of Staff as early as 1956 and a very direct and prescient warning from Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to President Kenney in 1961, this key strategic decision not to deal with the North Vietnamese use of the trail and road system in eastern Laos did not appear to deter President Kennedy from confronting the North Vietnamese militarily or President Johnson from escalating the war after he took office (Memorandum for the President, November 11, 1961 Pentagon Papers, p. 110).

The Rusk-McNamara memorandum, in particular, should have given pause to the framers of the U.S. strategy for engaging the North Vietnamese. One can only assume that President Kennedy’s advisors, many of whom also served President Johnson, thought the danger of not dealing with the road system developed by the French in Laos was minimal or the North Vietnamese would abide by the 1962 Geneva Accords on Laos and not use Laotian territory to move troops and supplies to South Vietnam. In the joint memorandum to President Kennedy, Rusk and McNamara wrote, “It will probably not be possible for the Government of (South) Vietnam to win the war as long as the flow of men and supplies from North Vietnam remains unchecked and the guerrillas enjoy a safe sanctuary in neighboring territory” (Memorandum for the President, November 11, 1961, Pentagon Papers, Vol. II, p. 110). At the time, there were advisors in the Kennedy Administration who recognized the strategic importance of the road and trail system in eastern Laos, but their advice was largely dismissed. Advocates for adhering to the 1962 Geneva Accords on Laos, primarily Averill Harriman and Roger Hilsman in the State Department, convinced President Kennedy that it was imperative for the U.S. to keep U.S. ground troops out of Laos. Their advice was based upon the importance of the U.S. keeping its international agreements and the fear that any U.S. military presence in Laos would have an adverse effect on U.S.-Soviet relations. They also feared a military incursion into Laos might even result in China taking military action against the U.S. in Laos and, possibly, South Korea. While there was no firm intelligence that military action by the U.S. in southern Laos or Cambodia would trigger a military reaction from either the Soviet Union or China, President Kennedy’s advisors assumed the worse and decided to attempt to solve the problem of South Vietnam by treating it as a problem solely restricted to that country and North Vietnam. Many of the President’s advisors were rightly worried about the nuclear threat posed by both the Soviet Union and the PRC and they did not want to precipitate armed conflict with either of these countries, fearing such an escalation could necessitate the use of strategic nuclear weapons. Because of this well-founded fear, they had developed the concept of the “graduated response” to any aggression launched by either of these adversaries. Ironically, one of the principle architects of gradually escalating military action against North Vietnam, primarily through the use of bombing, was Walt Rostow who recognized the importance of eastern Laos to the North Vietnamese strategy. This strategic concept, often referred to as the “Rostow Thesis,” called for a gradual escalation of violence against North Vietnam until the leadership of the Lao Dong Party in Hanoi decided their continued aggression in South Vietnam was not worth the punishment inflicted upon them. It assumed a “rational player” would desist once they saw the continued escalation of the violence was not worth the price. While not abandoning the U.S. strategy of containment of communism, the U.S. adopted a strategy of “graduated response” to any communist expansion on the periphery of the Eurasian landmass in order to reduce the likelihood of either Soviet or the PRC use of nuclear weapons. Despite some very sound advice from Walt Rostow that warned of the problem of North Vietnamese sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia, President Johnson continued to adhere to the flawed strategy of “graduated response” developed by President Kennedy’s national security staff.

Unfortunately for South Vietnam, the idea of “graduated response” caused the U.S. to employ a strategy in Southeast Asia that was not based upon any hard intelligence that it would have the desired effect on the leadership of the Lao Dong Party in North Vietnam. The U.S. national security advisors simply assumed that the North Vietnamese were “rational players” and they would abandon their goal of unifying Vietnam once they saw that U.S. will was firm and that the U.S. could ratchet up the level of violence to a degree that would break their will to resist. It all made very good sense to the President’s advisors who assumed the North Vietnamese thought as “rational players.” In their minds it made perfectly good sense that if the U.S. showed resolve and escalated the violence in a gradual and sustained manner, the North Vietnamese would come to their senses and reach a settlement that allowed the pro-Western GVN to remain in power in South Vietnam. By telling the world that the U.S. had no interest in overthrowing the regime in North Vietnam, had no interest in territorial acquisition in Southeast Asia, or had no intention of “expanding” the war into Laos and Cambodia, the U.S. national security advisors believed this benign and reasonable approach would be accepted by America’s allies and the American people. As for the North Vietnamese and their allies, such a statement of U.S. goals only served to convince them that U.S. interests were limited to South Vietnam alone and; therefore, there would be no serious threat to their strategy of using the Ho Chi Minh Trail and their bases in Laos and Cambodia.

Many commentators have offered a wide variety of reasons for our failure to win the Vietnam War. There are those who say we should have mined the harbor of Haiphong, we should have unleashed the full might of our air power against North Vietnam, we should have pursued a more enlightened or more aggressive pacification program inside South Vietnam, or we should have tried to turn South Vietnam into a Jeffersonian democracy by a combination of political, social, and economic reforms. While we will never know if any of these proposals would have brought victory, none of them address the central reason for our failure to win the war—our inability to prevent North Vietnam from moving troops and equipment to South Vietnam using the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Our political and military leaders failed to ask the most critical question effecting their strategy—What if the enemy’s will is stronger than ours and, if so, what can we do that will thwart their ability to carry on the war in South Vietnam, regardless of their will to do so?

The only plausible answer to the question above is the one that General Westmoreland and his staff came to in 1967 when they began to plan for the occupation of the Panhandle of Laos. Instead of relying on air power and indigenous special operations teams, which failed to stem the flow of troops and equipment to South Vietnam through Laos, General Westmoreland planned to use U.S. ground troops to block and hold the terrain between Dong Ha in South Vietnam and Savannakhet on the Mekong River in Laos. This obvious plan, which was studied as early as 1964, was delayed initially by the U.S. State Department which did not want to threaten the neutrality of Laos or give up their primary role for management of American affairs in that country. Later the implementation of the plan was thwarted by the CIA which did not want to give up its mission of conducting the “Secret War” in Laos, or to diminish the importance of the Agency’s responsibility for pacification programs in South Vietnam. Even the U.S. military was not uniformly in favor of the plan, citing that it was logistically risky or the North Vietnamese would simply go farther west to get around it (Collins, John M., “Going to Tchepone: Oplan El Paso,” Joint Forces Quarterly, Autumn/Winter 1997-98, pp.128-129).  A leading opponent of the plan was the U.S. Marine Corps which did not like the idea of any barrier defense inside South Vietnam, let alone stretching to the Mekong River. In fact, the U.S. Marine Corps did everything possible to prevent their forces in I Corps from being used for any form of static defense, a position that often put them at odds with General Westmoreland and the MACV headquarters. The Marine Corps’s insistence on the primacy of mobile defense and their attachment to an “ink spot” counter-insurgency strategy, along with their dislike for any form of warfare that involved occupying static positions, delayed the implementation of the attack into Laos until the TET offensive of 1968 made such an attack by U.S. ground forces politically impossible.

An Alternate Strategy

Of all the possible strategies proposed for an American victory in Vietnam, the strategy of cutting the Ho Chi Minh Trail in southern Laos offered the best chance for success, for the following reasons:

First, the use of U.S. ground troops along the Dong Ha-Savannakhet axis would physically cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail, making it impossible for North Vietnamese troops and equipment to move into South Vietnam. Geography favored the US since the Ho Chi Minh Trail had to pass through two “choke points” in Laos that were easily defended. All of the trails and roads built by the North Vietnamese in Laos came together within a ten mile corridor at Tchepone and again farther south in the “Four Corners” area near the village of Muong Nong. By choking off the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos, U.S. and ARVN forces would no longer need to protect a border with North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia that stretched for nearly 1400 miles. They would be able to concentrate their forces along a frontage of only 225 miles, the distance from the East China Sea to the Mekong River. In order for North Vietnamese supply columns to move south, the North Vietnamese would need to breach this barrier using large numbers of conventional forces fighting in terrain that heavily favors the defense. Even if they broke free, they would have to maintain the breach continuously or face isolation of their forces moving south through mountainous terrain. If, as some unsophisticated commentators have asserted, the North Vietnamese were able redirect the Ho Chi Minh Trail further west into Thailand to avoid the barrier, they would be forced to extend the trail across the Mekong River, a significant physical obstacle easily covered by U.S. air and riverine forces and screened by a force like the US First Air Cavalry Division using bases on the Thai side of the river. Since the bulk of supplies sent south by Unit 559 came by truck, the Mekong River posed an almost impossible logistical obstacle for them since they would not be able to bridge it or move their trucks across it using boats without being easily detected. Also, moving the trail across the Mekong River would mean they would be transiting the sovereign country of Thailand, a SEATO ally of the United States. Such a move into Thailand, which was not a “neutral” country like Laos, would certainly destroy any claim by the North Vietnamese that they were not sending troops to South Vietnam. What’s more, if the North Vietnamese were able to move their troops and supplies across the Mekong River into Thailand, they would be confronted with a hostile population in a country that did not have the communist infrastructure needed to create a system of bases and sanctuaries, not to mention adding nearly 500 more miles to any trip south. A further complication for the North Vietnamese would be the the terrain in Thailand. Unlike the terrain in eastern Laos, which is mountainous and jungle clad, the terrain the North Vietnamese would have to transit in Thailand is flat and open, making it relatively easy to detect their movement and attack them. Furthermore, any North Vietnamese units that were able to get to the Mekong River would have to abandon their vehicles on the Laos side, and they would not be able to maintain any petroleum pipelines once they were in Thailand. It is hard to imagine that the North Vietnamese would be able to maintain their infiltration figure of 8,000 men per month and 5,000 tons of equipment and ammunition per month just to make up for their losses in South Vietnam if U.S. forces were occupying defensive positions from Dong Ha to Savannakhet.

To gain some perspective on the logistical challenge to the North Vietnamese, consider the statistics provided by them in their official history of the war. They were using 5,372 trucks on over 3,959 kilometers of vehicle-capable roads in Laos in 1967 to send a total of 61,000 tons of supplies to South Vietnam that year (Victory in Vietnam, p. 208). By 1969, the North Vietnamese were sending 170,000 tons to South Vietnam per year via truck along the Ho Chi Minh Trail road system (Victory in Vietnam, page 243). In 1970, the Group 559 reported that the US Air Force had destroyed 2,432 of their trucks on the trail during the dry season in Laos (Victory in Vietnam, p 262). In 1974, the second year of the Paris peace accords and the year before the final communist offensive, the North Vietnamese had built over 400 miles of new hard surface roads in Laos and installed two petroleum pipelines, which allowed them to move a substantial numbers of tank, artillery, and mobile air defense systems into South Vietnam (Losing Vietnam, p. 168). It is simply inconceivable that infiltration levels like those reported by the North Vietnamese for the years 1966 to 1974 could have been maintained if the road systems in Laos were physically blocked.

Second, the force levels needed to defend the Dong Ha-Savannakhet axis would have been less than those that were employed by the U.S. pursuing their attrition-based strategy in South Vietnam. By 1969 the U.S. employed eleven division equivalents in South Vietnam with over 500,000 troops. The plan to establish the Dong Ha-Savannakhet defensive barrier would require only two U.S. Marine divisions in Quang Tri Province, South Vietnam, and four U.S. Army divisions in southern Laos, with an additional U.S. Army division positioned in the vicinity of either Paksane, Laos or Nakhon Phanom, Thailand where it could screen the Mekong River north of Savannakhet and threaten the right flank of any North Vietnamese force moving against the barrier to the south. As a SEATO ally, Thailand could be called upon to employ their military and border police units along the Mekong River and in depth along any potential infiltration routes the North Vietnamese might try to establish in Thailand. The large brown water fleet of the US Navy could also be employed to screen the Mekong River north of Savannakhet and provide security for allied logistical use of the river. South Vietnamese units such as the Rangers and the elite 1st ARVN Division could serve as a second line of defense for the barrier and used to hunt down any NVA units that penetrated the barrier. Such an alignment of forces would require the North Vietnamese to fight a conventional battle against an American, South Vietnamese, and Thai force that enjoyed a considerable advantage in terms of fire power, mobility, logistics, and terrain.

Third, by concentrating the U.S. military in only one province of South Vietnam and southern Laos, the bulk of the South Vietnamese forces could be devoted to dealing with the VC military units and the VCI in the remaining 43 provinces of South Vietnam, thus allowing them to concentrate on pacification and nation building, two tasks better suited to indigenous forces. In addition to using both the U.S. and ARVN forces in a more appropriate manner, it would effectively remove the presence of American forces from the South Vietnamese countryside where their presence often took on the appearance of an occupying army. It would also end the sometimes profligate use of American supporting arms in the populated areas of South Vietnam and concentrate that immense destructive firepower against the North Vietnamese Army inside North Vietnam and southern Laos. By reducing South Vietnamese civilian casualties from American supporting arms and employing American military forces in the largely sparsely inhabited regions of southern Laos and the DMZ of South Vietnam, a far more humane and moral military strategy would be employed.

Fourth, while logistically challenging, the Dong Ha-Savannakhet defensive barrier was far easier to establish and maintain than its detractors claimed at the time, and still claim today. The port of Danang in northern I Corps could easily support two U.S. Marine divisions while the ports of Thailand and the road system running from those ports to Savannakhet along the Thai side of the Mekong River are adequate to support five U.S. divisions, with only modest improvements. U.S. Air Force bases already existed in eastern Thailand and would only need some expansion to support the U.S. forces in Laos, and the C-130 capable Laotian airfields at Ban Houei Sane and Tchepone and a C-23 capable airfield at Muong Nong could be made operational by military engineers in two weeks’ time (Collins, p123). The argument made by military planners on the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the need to activate the US reserves to support the engineering requirements for the barrier does not stand up to scrutiny. Private U.S. and other Western engineering contractors, already active in both Thailand and South Vietnam using local labor, could have handled this requirement easily without the political cost in the U.S. incurred by calling up reserve military engineer units. If the North Vietnamese could build and maintain roads under the pressure of constant bombing by U.S. aircraft using coolie labor, it is safe to assume that South Vietnamese and Thai laborers could do it under the threat of North Vietnamese attack. Using local labor to build roads and defensive positions would be cheaper than using U.S. military engineers and would help the local rural economies by providing a large number of local people with better wages than they would have received tilling the land. Such road building and maintenance jobs would also reduce the demand for farmland redistribution, a key communist propaganda theme.

Finally, with the U.S. strategy of fighting the North Vietnamese along the DMZ in South Vietnam and in the Panhandle of southern Laos, U.S. aircraft and U.S. airfields would no longer be spread throughout South Vietnam and vulnerable to attack. Instead, U.S. air power could be concentrated at just a few airfields in South Vietnam, such as the ones at Danang, Chu Lai and Phu Bai, with the bulk of US aircraft stationed in eastern Thailand or at sea on U.S. Navy aircraft carriers, thus obviating the need for so many US infantry units protecting airfields in South Vietnam.

Some Western critics of the “barrier defense” explained above, point to the failure of the “McNamara Line” electronic surveillance system in southern Laos to stem the flow of men and supplies from North Vietnam. These critics point out, quite correctly, that the North Vietnamese were able to adapt to the system of electronic intrusion devices used to monitor foot and vehicle traffic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and still move sufficient men and tonnage to support the insurgency in South Vietnam. While the electronic intrusion devices made the North Vietnamese pay a high price for their continued use of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, they did not pose a significant enough obstacle to them, and they overcame this technological system through ingenuity and perseverance. The barrier system explained above is entirely different from the electronic one devised by the Whiz Kids in the Pentagon since that system relied on technology to stem the flow of North Vietnamese troops and equipment moving down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The barrier system proposed in this paper would be significantly different since it would be permanently manned by U.S. troops occupying strong defensive positions similar to those found along the DMZ in Korea and defended in depth with mobile forces. It would not rely on technology and air power alone to attack traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but instead would use a system of strong points manned by infantry, backed up by artillery in hardened fire support bases with mobile reaction forces and on-call, concentrated air power. It would also entail ground and aerial reconnaissance units prowling the terrain north of the barrier, providing advance warning of any enemy movement towards it and using air strikes and artillery to harass and attrite North Vietnamese formations before they reached the barrier. The efficacy of such an arrangement could be found in the defensive system that was used along the DMZ in South Vietnam from Dong Ha to Khe Sanh near the Lao border. This barrier system effectively stopped the North Vietnamese from moving men and supplies into South Vietnam through the DMZ after 1965 and forced them to use the Ho Chi Minh Trail system in eastern Laos to infiltrate into South Vietnam. Unlike the reconnaissance in force operations, such as Lam Son 719 or the Oplan El Paso raid, where the choke points along the Ho Chi Minh Trail would only be temporarily occupied by American or SRVN forces during a few months, this barrier would be permanently occupied.

Some critics accept the fact that a barrier from Dong Ha to Savannakhet would have prevented North Vietnamese infiltration into South Vietnam using a land route, and argue the North Vietnamese would only increase seaborne infiltration using the East China Sea and the port of Sihanoukville in Cambodia. The U.S. and South Vietnamese navies were able to prevent the use of the South Vietnamese coast for infiltration after 1965 and the North Vietnamese never considered this avenue a serious means of moving the quantities of men and supplies needed to sustain their military operations in South Vietnam. Most of their seaborne attempts at infiltration were quite small and met with disaster since the movement of their infiltration vessels could be easily observed using U.S. surveillance means. Bad weather often disrupted or delayed seaborne infiltration and the distances from likely landing places to the North Vietnamese bases in western South Vietnam were great and covered areas that were populated and controlled by GVN forces. For these reasons, the North Vietnamese never used any seaborne route to infiltrate their units, relying exclusively on the Ho Chi Minh Trail for that purpose. Even if they were forced to use seaborne infiltration because the Ho Chi Minh Trail was blocked, they would constantly have to change their offload sites, storage sites, and transport system to take into account the American and GVN sea control and surveillance superiority, thus complicating their logistics system to the point of absurdity. Proof of the North Vietnamese rejection of the feasibility of seaborne infiltration can be found in the paucity of material devoted to it in their official history of the war, and then only to point out its difficulties and miniscule tonnage of supplies provided (Victory in Vietnam, pp. 97).  As for the use of Sihanoukville, they did use third country shipping to deliver supplies to that port and their Hak Lee Transportation Company in Cambodia to move those supplies to their divisions in eastern Cambodia, but this route was only viable as long as Prince Sihanouk agreed to its use and it would never be capable of covertly introducing the 8,000 or more North Vietnamese troops needed each month to maintain their force levels inside South Vietnam. It was out of the question to bring over 90,000 NVA troops each year through Sihanoukville since it would be easy to verify and thus make a mockery of Prince Sihanouk’s contention that his country was truly neutral. He was sensitive to the issue of sovereignty and he had to maintain the fiction of neutrality for both international and internal political reasons. He knew the use of Sihanoukville for the infiltration of North Vietnamese troops would be an open and easily verifiable violation of his country’s neutrality and would give the U.S. and South Vietnam ample justification to blockade Sihanoukville or to invade his country (The author saw several classified reports from a CIA spy inside the Hak Lee Transportation Company who provided all of the company’s invoices for the transportation of supplies from North Vietnam and China to eastern Cambodia). In any event, his regime was overthrown in 1970, putting paid to any idea of using a seaborne infiltration route in Cambodia.

Perhaps the best response to the critics of the Dong Ha—Savannakhet defensive barrier can be found in the statement of Colonel Bui Tin, the North Vietnamese officer who accepted the surrender of the South Vietnamese Government in 1975 and later filled several high level positions in the new communist Government. He was interviewed in Paris in 1995 and asked several questions about how the North Vietnamese viewed the conduct of the Vietnam War. The following statement by Bui Tin should put to rest any lingering doubts as to the efficacy of the Dong Ha—Savannakhet barrier plan:

Question: “How could the Americans have won the war?”

Bui Tin’s answer: “Cut the Ho Chi Minh trail inside Laos. If Johnson had granted Westmoreland’s requests to enter Laos and block the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Hanoi could not win the war.” (Young, Stephen, “How North Vietnam Won the War,” Wall Street Journal, August 3, 1995, p. A8.)

From the very beginning of the U.S. involvement in South Vietnam, the evidence was readily available to justify an invasion and occupation of the panhandle of Laos. The U.S. had the experience, engineering expertise, construction assets, logistical competence, and military forces needed to conduct such an invasion, but the U.S. Government decided against it until it was too late. Because the Americans failed to deal with this essential and vulnerable aspect of the North Vietnamese strategy, they allowed the North Vietnamese to continue to send men and supplies south and to maintain sanctuaries inside Laos and Cambodia, thus allowing the North Vietnamese to modulate the level of violence inside South Vietnam while minimizing their own losses. Without the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the North Vietnamese would never have been able to execute the third phase of their revolutionary war strategy, that of mobile warfare using conventional units and tactics. In sum, the American failure to permanently cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail on the ground was the key to their failure to win the war.

 

*Col. Finlayson spent 32 months in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War (1967-70), working entirely in combat billets (long-range reconnaissance, infantry, and special operations) in four provinces and two different geographic areas of that country (I Corps and III Corps). He was also a national-level war planner during two subsequent tours of duty. As an operations analyst at US Marine Corps Headquarters (1970-72) and as an operations specialist with the Combined Forces Command in South Korea (1981-83), he worked on many of America’s war plans. He possesses three master’s degrees: MS Management Engineering, MA Asian Studies (Chinese), and MS National Strategy and Defense Economics. He is also the author of two books on the Vietnam War and several articles, studies and monographs dealing with the war.

The Domino Theory

Paul Schmehl, Independent Researcher
Apr 19, 2015

The Domino Theory got its name from President Eisenhower, but he was not the inventor of the concept. When World War II ended, the Soviet Union began to extend its influence over Asia and Eastern Europe. This development prompted Winston Churchill to remark in 1946, in a speech at Westminster College in Fulton Missouri, that

“From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an ‘iron curtain’ has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Prague, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia; all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject, in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and in some cases increasing measure of control from Moscow.”1

The British Empire reached its zenith at the start of World War I. Subsequent to that war its influence began to wane. After World War II, Britain was devastated economically and on the verge of bankruptcy. Therefore, Britain granted many of its colonies independence and its influence as a world power subsided. The United States, which had become increasingly more important in world affairs due to its role in World War II, assumed the mantle of a world power.

Beginning in 1919, with the founding of the Soviet Comintern, first Lenin and then Stalin advocated for a worldwide revolution to promote communism. It was Stalin’s belief that the revolution would proceed through Asia and eventually become worldwide. By the end of World War II, there was great deal of instability worldwide, especially in third world countries. The Russians saw that instability as an opportunity to spread communism far and wide.

As the leader of a rising world power, the Truman administration felt the need to articulate a policy to address what Churchill called “the iron curtain”, the disturbing rise of Soviet communism and influence in the world. The Truman administration believed that the growth of communism was a threat to international peace as well as the security of the United States.

In order to resist the growth of communism, a policy of “containment” was devised. Rather than directly confront the Soviet Union (and perhaps provoke World War III), the United States would come to the aid of any country threatened by communist movements. This aid would often be monetary but potentially could involve US military assistance as well. The policy became known as the Truman doctrine.

In a speech before Congress in 1947, Truman articulated this new doctrine.

” I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.

I believe that we must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way.

I believe that our help should be primarily through economic and financial aid, which is essential to economic stability and orderly political processes.”2

This policy, though well intentioned, would lead America into some strange alliances, supporting dictators and totalitarian regimes in an effort to stem “the red tide”. It would also lead to the flawed effort often known as the Vietnam War, or, as we prefer to call it, the 2nd Indochina War, because it involved not only Vietnam but Cambodia and Laos as well.

The question for historians is, was Truman correct? If he was, then his policy would make sense. Unchecked, communism might have taken over much of the world, isolating the United States and perhaps eventually even defeating it. To determine whether there was any merit to the belief, one need only look at the words of the Marxists.

Karl Marx articulated the concept of world domination at the close of his Communist Manifesto, published in 1848.

“The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE! “3

One might ask, in a practical sense, what did Marx mean by this? Marx explained it clearly and concisely.

“You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths. You reproach us, therefore, with intending to do away with a form of property, the necessary condition for whose existence is the non-existence of any property for the immense majority of society.

In one word, you reproach us with intending to do away with your property. Precisely so: that is just what we intend.” 4

How did Marx thing private property could be abolished? Through the only means thought possible to do so – armed revolution to overthrow the existing order.

“In depicting the most general phases of the development of the proletariat, we traced the more or less veiled civil war, raging within existing society, up to the point where that war breaks out into open revolution, and where the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie lays the foundation for the sway of the proletariat.”5

It’s not difficult to see why an American might be troubled by these declarations. After all, the rights of private property have been held in very high esteem in America. In fact America was founded because its people did not take kindly to the government confiscating their property. Furthermore, the idea that the existing society would be overthrown through a violent civil war reminded Americans of their own painful experience in their Civil War.

As others sought to put Marx’s theory into practice, they actively sought the overthrow of weak regimes and worked to undermine the political nature of healthy regimes. In 1901, Vladimir Lenin expressed it thus:

“History has now confronted us with an immediate task which is the most revolutionary of all the immediate tasks confronting the proletariat of any country. The fulfilment of this task, the destruction of the most powerful bulwark, not only of European, but (it may now be said) of Asiatic reaction, would make the Russian proletariat the vanguard of the international revolutionary proletariat. And we have the right to count upon acquiring this honourable title, already earned by our predecessors, the revolutionaries of the seventies, if we succeed in inspiring our movement, which is a thousand times broader and deeper, with the same devoted determination and vigour.”6

In 1920 Russia annexed Armenia and Kazakhstan, and two years later eastern Belarus, Georgia and Azerbaijan. In 1924 Russia annexed Moldavia and Mongolia. Recovering from World War I, the world took little notice. In 1944, while World War II was ongoing, Albania became a communist state.7 The Soviet Union was on the march, expanding into more and more territories.

In 1946 Stalin stated that the primary purpose of his Five Year Plan was “to assure the increasing defensive capacity of the U.S.S.R., and to equip the armed forces of the Soviet Union with the most up-to-date military techniques.”8 Since World War II had recently ended world leaders wondered what the Soviet Union was preparing to defend itself against. Victor Kravchenko, a recent defector from Soviet communism, stated that Stalin was planning on conquering the world.

Another defector, former KGB agent Anatoly Golitsyn, said he defected to

“warn the American Government about the adoption of the current grand strategy for Communism and the political role of the KGB and the use of disinformation and controlled political opposition which the strategy entailed, and…help the West neutralise KGB penetration of their governments.”9

A few years later General Jan Sejna of Czechoslovakia defected. Before his death under suspicious circumstances he testified before a US House committee.

“To understand the events of interest today, it is essential to understand that back then the main mission of all organizations in the Soviet empire was to destroy democracy and bring people everywhere under the yoke of communism.

Two wars dominated our planning.

First, there was the General nuclear war, which was the responsibility of the military. Even civilian construction projects had to be approved by the Defense Council to make certain they all contributed to the war effort.

Second, there was the political and intelligence wars, the world revolutionary war, as it was originally called. This war was also waged according to a very detailed and complex strategic plan. This war involved infiltration of the government and press, sabotage, subversion, deception, narcotics trafficking, organized crime, terrorism, compromise of political and business leaders, and many other activities, all designed to destroy competing social systems. The primary targets were all industrialized countries and the most important enemy was the United States.

I want to point out that in these and other activities, the Soviets ruled their empire with an iron hand. All directions and controls came from Moscow. People undertook independent actions at their own risk, and the penalties were without any regard for human rights or dignity.

I know, because I was there.”10

Is it any wonder then that American political leaders might seek a policy to combat a political philosophy so counter to the one on which our nation was founded?

The seeds for rebellion and communism in Southeast Asia had been planted centuries before by European colonization of several Southeast Asian countries; the British in Malaysia, Burma and Hong Kong, the Dutch in Indonesia, the Spaniards (and later America) in the Philippines and the French in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. By the outbreak of World War II, the communists had already been organizing in Southeast Asia for more than a decade.

As the Japanese swept through the area, communist organizers took advantage of the Japanese occupation to organize armies of resistance, convincing the fighters that they were fighting for their own independence. Behind the scenes they worked assiduously to eliminate, by cooption, subterfuge and assassination, the true nationalist leaders in each country.

At the beginning of World War II Russia annexed, by agreement with Germany, several Eastern European countries, including eastern Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, part of Finland and part of Romania. Shortly after the war the rest of Poland, the rest of Romania, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Belarus and eastern Germany all fell to communism and became part of the U.S.S.R. Russia wasn’t done, however. She began fomenting revolutions in Africa, South America and Southeast Asia.

After World War II the new American policy of containment would be severely tested. In 1945 a communist rebellion in the Philippines was put down, only to flare up again in 1971. It is still ongoing today. Around the same time war between the French and the Vietnamese broke out, led by the communist Viet Minh. In 1948 the British faced a communist rebellion in Malaysia that wasn’t put down until 1960, and the US had to create the Berlin Airlift to keep Berlin free from takeover by the Soviet backed East Germans. In 1949 China fell to the communists.

Two of the world’s largest nations were now firmly in the grip of Marx’s utopia and the Soviet sphere of influence was expanding rapidly. A year later, with the full support of China and the Soviet Union, North Korea invaded South Korea. Meanwhile communist “revolutions” were popping up all over, including Southeast Asia.

In 1953 the Cuban revolution broke out. By 1959 Cuba, just 90 miles from the US, was a communist country. In Southeast Asia, communism was on the march in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand. The future of Southeast Asia hung in the balance.

Dwight Eisenhower, the victorious Supreme Allied Commander of World War II, was elected in 1953, as the Korean War was nearing its end. Trouble was brewing all over the world, but particularly in Southeast Asia. In a press conference in 1954, shortly before the fall of Dien Bien Phu, which marked the end of French rule in Cochinchina, Eisenhower spoke of his concerns regarding communism. He was asked, at a press conference, to comment on the strategic importance of Indochina to America.

“You have, of course, both the specific and the general when you talk about such things. First of all, you have the specific value of a locality in its production of materials that the world needs.

Then you have the possibility that many human beings pass under a dictatorship that is inimical to the free world.

Finally, you have broader considerations that might follow what you would call the “falling domino” principle. You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences.”11

What became known as the domino theory was nothing more than a strategic description of the consequences of not implementing the Truman Doctrine. In other words, if we don’t employ the policy of containment, communism will spread throughout Southeast Asia. This policy would later become the subject of intense ridicule by the antiwar movement, parroting the Marxist propaganda line that communism presented no threat whatsoever, and those who thought it did were delusional or paranoid.

This, of course, was what the communists wanted the world to believe about them. It was not, however, what they themselves believed. Che Quevara, writing at a conference in Havana in 1967, stated:

“Let us sum up our hopes for victory: total destruction of imperialism by eliminating its firmest bulwark: the oppression exercized by the United States of America. To carry out, as a tactical method, the peoples gradual liberation, one by one or in groups: driving the enemy into a difficult fight away from its own territory; dismantling all its sustenance bases, that is, its dependent territories.

This means a long war. And, once more we repeat it, a cruel war. Let no one fool himself at the outstart and let no one hesitate to start out for fear of the consequences it may bring to his people. It is almost our sole hope for victory. We cannot elude the call of this hour. Vietnam is pointing it out with its endless lesson of heroism, its tragic and everyday lesson of struggle and death for the attainment of final victory.

There, the imperialist soldiers endure the discomforts [sic] of those who, used to enjoying the U.S. standard of living, have to live in a hostile land with the insecurity of being unable to move without being aware of walking on enemy territory: death to those who dare take a step out of their fortified encampment. The permanent hostility of the entire population. All this has internal repercussion in the United States; propitiates the resurgence of an element which is being minimized in spite of its vigor by all imperialist forces: class struggle even within its own territory.”12

Referring specifically to Vietnam he wrote:

“How close and bright would the future appear if two, three, many Vietnams flowered on the face of the globe, with their quota of death and their immense tragedies, with their daily heroism, with their repeated blows against imperialism, forcing it to disperse its forces under the lash of the growing hatred of the peoples of the world!”

In 1962, while Vietnam was drawing more and more of the Kennedy Administration’s attention, the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred. School children all over America were being taught to duck under their desks to avoid a nuclear blast, and the world was breathless with anticipation of a nuclear confrontation between Russia and the US.

With all of these events taking place, and the communists talking of a worldwide revolution, it was hardly inconceivable that the next shoes to drop would be in Southeast Asia. Only a fool would have thought otherwise, and only a communist would argue that it was a ridiculous policy. All of Southeast Asia looked to the US to see how they would react to the threat. Yet just a few years later, the antiwar movement in America would claim that the domino theory was silly, just as the communists wanted them to.

The argument made today is that “the dominos didn’t fall, therefore the theory was wrong”. Very few ever seem to ask the question, why didn’t the dominos fall?

Had Ho succeeded, in 1954, in turning Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos into communist countries (as he did twenty years later), Thailand would have been surrounded by communist countries on its northern and eastern borders as well as part of its southern border. Had the British not succeeded in putting down the communist “revolution” in Malaysia, she would have been completely surrounded on her southern border as well. Had the Philippines fallen, ocean access to all of Southeast Asia would have been in the hands of the communists.

This reality was not lost on the Thais. They asked for, and received, US help. Military and CIA advisors were sent to Thailand to shore up the regime and train the Thai troops. In 1965 fighting broke out in Thailand between communists and the state. However, the communists couldn’t commit the necessary forces to defeat Thailand because they were still needed elsewhere – in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam – and they were defeated.

The Thai government formed two groups to combat the communists, the Communist Suppression Operation Command (CSOC) under command of Gen. Saiyud Kherdpol and the Police Aerial Reinforcement Units (PARUs). The CIA worked closely with both, providing training and support as they staved off an invasion of North Vietnamese troops supporting local “guerillas”.13

About the same time the communists in Indonesia attempted a coup. Their attempt was put down by the Indonesian military. An estimated 500,000 people were killed, and the Indonesian Communist Party was effectively destroyed. Had the US not entered Vietnam, these events might have turned out quite differently. In 1965, South Vietnam was on the verge of collapse, thanks in no small part to the foolhardy US support of the Diem coup.

Had Thailand fallen, there would have been nothing to stop the advance of communism throughout Southeast Asia. Had Indonesia also fallen, water access to the Straits of Malacca would have been unavailable to allied forces. However, rather than reinforce the fighting in Thailand or support the coup attempt in Indonesia, the bulk of communist forces were tied up in Vietnam. South Vietnam, with the assistance of her allies, successfully tied up the North Vietnamese sufficiently to buy time for the rest of Southeast Asia to establish stable non-communist governments. Americans, both military and CIA worked in all of these countries assisting to stave off the many communist invasions.

Indonesia’s longtime Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, wrote in his book, From Third World to First:

“Although American intervention failed in Vietnam, it bought time for the rest of Southeast Asia. In 1965, when the US military moved massively into South Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines faced internal threats from armed communist insurgents and the communist underground was still active in Singapore. Indonesia, in the throes of a failed communist coup, was waging konfrontasi, an undeclared war against Singapore. The Philippines was claiming Sabah in East Malaysia. Standards of living were low and economic growth slow.”14

“America’s action enabled non-communist Southeast Asia to put their own houses in order. By 1975 (when the Vietnam war ended) they were in better shape to stand up to the communists. Had there been no US intervention, the will of these countries to resist them would have melted and Southeast Asia would have most likely gone communist. The prosperous emerging market economies of Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) were nurtured during the Vietnam War years.”15

The evidence shows that not only was the domino theory valid, but that America’s intervention in Vietnam bought the time necessary for democracy to plant seeds in Southeast Asia, effectively stemming the tide of communism with the tragic loss of three countries and millions of lives. Many, many lives were saved due to the failure of communism to spread past Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

None of this excuses America’s shameful abandonment of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to the communist butchers. Had America lived up to her promises, perhaps no dominos would have fallen. (In Cambodia alone, the communists murdered 1.7 million people.16 In Vietnam, an estimated 1 million died as a result of communist suppression after the war. In Russia and China, almost 100 million have died due to communism. Scholars will argue about the precise numbers, but there is no disputing the fact that communism has caused millions and millions of deaths.)17

D. Gareth Porter’s Deceptions on the Hue Massacre

Paul Schmehl, Independent Researcher

Feb 1, 2015

In academics it’s considered bad form to be directly critical of a fellow academe. Rather than criticize the scholar, criticism should be confined to his or her work. This convention works well when scholars have honest disagreements or differ over the meaning of the evidence.

However, when a scholar chooses deliberately to lie to further an agenda, the convention should no longer apply. Unless scholarship is based on evidence that is made freely available to other scholars, it’s impossible for an independent observer to know the truth. That’s why a scholar’s reputation for open and impartial handling of data is so crucial. The public depends upon it.

When a scholar is dishonest, the consequences can be far-reaching. In the case of the Hue Massacre, D. Gareth Porter successfully hid a major massacre from the American public and by doing so may have changed the course of the war. Had the news of the massacre, in its full depth, been made common public knowledge, the American people may have rallied behind the effort to maintain a free South Vietnam rather than becoming disheartened and willing to abandon our ally. (Had the media accurately reported the massacre with fervor akin to that with which they reported on My Lai – that occurred two months after the Hue massacre, the same might be true. Porter gave them the out they needed to ignore it.)

There are some hints that point to the reasons for Porter’s deceit. While attending college pursuing graduate work, Porter joined a group named The Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars. He eventually became its Chairman. The Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars was a communist front group that was formed for the express purpose of opposing the brutal aggression of the United States in Vietnam” and to encourage “anti-imperialist research.”1 It’s successor organization, Critical Asian Studies has made plain its admiration for socialism – “the historical tradition of socialist thought remains a source of inspiration for some of us…”2

By 1972 Porter was the Chairman of CCAS3 and had been actively involved in its anti-war activities for four years. His admiration and advocacy for communism would eventually lead to his embarrassment when he was forced to admit that he was wrong about the Cambodian holocaust.4 He still adamantly insists that he was right about Vietnam, however, despite manifest evidence that he was wrong.5 (This article will focus on his “errors” regarding the Hue Massacre. A future article will deal with his handling of the North Vietnam land reform.)

In 1972 a problem confronted the communists. American officials, in order to promote support for South Vietnam (after America began withdrawing its combat troops), began pointing out the disastrous consequences that would befall South Vietnam if the communists won. A bloodbath was predicted. It was said that millions of lives would be lost. The administration cited the North Vietnam land reform and the Hue massacre as evidence of an impending bloodbath if the communists won. (In the end, that’s exactly what happened, but that was irrelevant to the communists. They had to win the propaganda war in order to further weaken the already dissolving American support for South Vietnam.)

To combat the warnings of a bloodbath, the communists needed an American champion to grant them plausible deniability. D. Gareth Porter rose to the occasion, penning articles and letters to the editor and testifying before Congress. It wasn’t long before he was being widely quoted6 by the American media and some members of Congress. The fact that he was an anti-war activist and pro-communist was conveniently left out of his bio. (To be sure, Porter was not the only tool of the communists.7 Marilyn Young and Noam Chomsky were two of the more notable ones.)

Some of Porter’s writings dealt with the North Vietnamese land reform, a program that was hotly debated. Some claimed deaths in the millions. Others claimed as few as 5000. Porter stated that “800 to 2500 executions” would be a “reasonable estimate”.

To understand the depth of Porter’s deceptions, it is necessary to understand what happened in Hue during Tet in 1968. An in depth examination has already been done8, so a summary here should suffice.

The Tet offensive in Hue began January 30, 1968 and ended February 26, 1968. During the offensive the communists maintained complete control of some areas of Hue. Within hours of the attack’s beginning, communists began executing civilians. By the time they were driven out the death toll of executions surpassed 5000.

Porter first wrote (to my knowledge) about Hue in a Christian Century article co-authored with Len Ackland entitled “Vietnam: The Bloodbath Argument”.9 In the article, Porter relied on Ackland’s firsthand knowledge of the situation in Hue. Ackland traveled to Hue and interviewed Vietnamese there. However, his account departs dramatically from the known facts.

The story of Gia Hoi’s occupation reveals that the mass executions perpetrated there were not the result of a policy on the part of a victorious government but rather the revenge of an army in retreat.

Note how Porter admits here that there were mass executions, a claim he would later state was false. In fact, he later called the Hue massacre a “myth”. His lies about what happened in Hue developed over time as his arguments became more accepted by the media.

In contrast to this account, Buddhist priests who were in Gia Hoi during the siege reported hearing pistol and automatic weapon fire and the screams of victims every day and every night.10 The reporter’s account also includes details that refute Ackland’s claim.

Many of the victims whose bound and mutilated bodies this writer saw exhumed from the field and from the nearby school yard had been sentenced to death by communists people’s courts because they worked for the local government.

Others received the death penalty because the communists consider them “social negatives” – their influence and standing in the community regarded as a potential threat to communist domination.

Still others were picked at random and sentenced to death on flimsy charges. The Hue city files are filled with the names of people “convicted” of such crimes as having a brother or son in the South Vietnamese Army, refusing to surrender a radio, hiding away to avoid impressment into the liberation forces, failure to attend a political re-education meeting, protesting when a family member or friend was arrested or simply showing a bad attitude.

Extensive documentation of the deliberate nature of the communist executions is also provided in my previous article, The Hue Massacre: A Study of Communist Policy and Tactics. Suffice it to say that Len Ackland’s account and the evidence do not agree at all. Whether Porter was inclined to believe Ackland because of his bias or was well aware of Ackland’s inaccuracy but found it useful is an unanswered question.

Porter’s next article on Hue was a monograph entitled “The Administration’s Bloodbath Argument”. Co-authored with Porter’s academic advisor, George Kahin, the monograph was published in July, 1970.11 Here Porter began to attack Douglas Pike’s account of the massacre in Hue.12 He began as he often did, by insinuating that Pike’s account was biased because he was a US government employee. (Denigration of his opponents is a common theme in Porter’s work.)

He then referred to Ackland’s account to claim that nothing Pike had reported could possibly be true. Having recounted the basics of Ackland’s account, he went on the offensive against Pike.

The U.S.I.A. “hypothesis” betrays ignorance of the military and political situation which existed in Hue at that time.

Accusing the foremost scholar on Vietnam of ignorance reveals an aspect of Porter’s personality. As he himself later admitted, he suffers from, “intellectual arrogance”.13 Once Porter sinks his teeth into an opponent, he continues to savage them.

The assertion that the Front wished to “eliminate” religious and intellectual leaders in order to “reconstruct the social order” is absurd.

Never mind that Pike documented this absurdity in detail from captured communist documents. In Porter’s mind, it’s an absurdity. This is another aspect of Porter’s work – ridicule the opponent’s evidence as if it’s not even worthy to be addressed.

Porter summarized his argument with this.

United States officials have recently publicized a statement by Tran Van Dac, a former Colonel in the People’s Liberation Army, who defected to the Saigon Government in 1968, to the effect that there are “three million South vietnamese on the Communist blood debt list.” But while Dac made this vague and sweeping statement in a Saigon-sponsored press conference in 1969, in an earlier private interview with U.S. officials the previous year,
he had given a very different account of the Communist plan for dealing with former enemies. Asked what would happen to officials of the Saigon government if the Communists succeeded in South Vietnam, Dac’s answer in May 1968 was, “They would imprison them,
send them to concentration camps under this or that pretext …. to reeducate them…so that they can adapt themselves better to the new social order …. former high Officers, educated people, land- lords, or property owners … are carefully watched.” He made no suggestion that there would be a “bloodbath.”* If “reeducation” seems harsh as a postwar policy, it should be borne in mind that it represents an effort to consolidate power without a liquidation of former enemies.

No definitive study has ever been done regarding deaths of South Vietnamese after the communist takeover. Estimates have ranged from a few thousand to several hundred thousand. The words of Col Dac, however, came true; many were imprisoned or sent to re-education camps, some for twenty years or more and many are still “carefully watched” even now, forty years later. Porter’s minimizing of the impact on human lives from this sort of totalitarian treatment is disgusting.

It is also part and parcel of his articles. Those things he can’t wave away with the sweep of his hand he deals with by minimizing their impact and claiming inconsistencies that do not exist.

There is no conflict between Dac’s “blood debt list” and his earlier statements regarding the details of what would happen to those on the list. Porter seeks to imply a difference with his “very different account” statement, another of his favorite tactics. At this point, Porter was just getting warmed up.

His next article “The 1968 ‘Hue Massacre’” was published in the June 24, 1974 edition of the Indochina Chronicle. In this article Porter begins by calling the massacre a myth.

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.

By this time Porter had assembled what appeared to be hard evidence of the “myth”.

“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 (Note 12 reads Alje Vennema, “The Tragedy of Hue,” unpublished manuscript, 1968, pp. 19-23. )

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.”

The falsity of Porter’s statements is breathtaking. He departs completely from reality and makes up numbers and draws conclusions from those falsehoods that have no relation to what took place in Hue. (Since he is citing Vennema’s unpublished manuscript, perhaps he thought it would never be published and therefore his lies would never be uncovered.)

On page 129 of his book, The Vietcong Massacre at Hue,14 Vennema wrote, “At the front of the school there were fourteen trenches containing 101 bodies.” (Not 20!) However, Vennema also wrote of bodies in graves beside and behind the school. Although he does not state how many graves there were, he places the total bodies (front and back) at 203, more than ten times the number Porter claims he wrote! Apparently what Porter did was take Vennema’s numbers and divide them by ten.

The first site to be discovered was in the city district of Gia Hoi at the Gia Hoi Secondary School, located on the edge of the populous district. The people who lived near here were aware of its existence for they had heard shots, and had known of the existence of the tribunal’s holding court. Some had even managed to hide after their first appearance at the tribunal and subsequently survived. Others had escaped across the river. At the front of the school there were fourteen trenches containing 101 bodies. During the ensuing three days, however, other bodies were found in front, to the side, and behind the school. The whole school site eventually yielded 203 bodies of young men, older men, and women. Among the younger men were eighteen students, a number of whom had joined the Front after the anti-government struggle and had retreated to the mountains. This time they had returned and were joined by other students forced to participate by the Front. When the Front prepared to leave, the students were given the choice of returning with the Front to the mountains or staying behind. Those who chose to stay behind were shot and buried in the yard. Other students from Gia Hoi, not associated with the Front suffered a similar fate. Some graves were two, some three weeks old; others were fresh. It fell to South Vietnamese marines to uncover the first bodies on February 26, 1968.

In toto Vennema accounts for 2397 bodies, well over a number that would bespeak of a myth. In fact, Vennema’s account essentially agrees with Pike’s, a man Porter excoriates as “ignorant” and a “media manipulator par excellence”. In the first three of the four phases of discovery, Pike lists 2152 bodies, but he inexplicably “loses” 285 bodies in the first phase. If those were added to his 2152, his total would be 2437, just 40 more than Vennema’s.

Vennema left Vietnam before the fourth phase of discoveries, which took place in November of 1969. Porter, writing of these later finds (like Da Mai Creek), dismissed them as battle deaths.

An eyewitness told a different story.15

A repulsive odor in the sea breeze could be smelled miles away. The group walks towards the mass grave, at a distance of 500 meters, a horrific view appeared. It was visibly an evil painting found in fiction stories. Along the shore were the dead people. They were dead standing, where bamboo stick pierced from the butt through the throat. Around 40 groups, each group comprises 5 to 10 cadaves. Beneath them were other’s bodies. The head chopped off, their legs hacked, and their tummy slashed, ..

Underneath the sand dunes, sipping wet (it was raining for the whole month), were those buried alive. Both hands tied tightly at their back, their faces faced to each other just like they were chatting. Some still had their hat on. Another with a cigarette butt stuck to the cap. All bodies turned dark purple, dripping and oozing with yellowish, horrendously smelt. Lastly found shallow graves, all shallowly covered with sand. Legs and hands sticking out. There were 4 to 5 dead people in each grave. Their hands were pierced with barbed wire. Victims seemed being bludgeoned to death. The faces were smashed; all decomposing badly, it’s hard to identify.

These could hardly be described as battle deaths. Nor could the 500 who died at Dai Mai Creek. Eventually 428 were identified, yet Porter claims there were 250 and that they were killed by American bombs. The eyewitnesses who escaped disagree with him.16

They tied our hands at the back with telephone lines, one by one. Then 20 persons were chained up together to make a group. There were more than 25 groups, I counted. One local went around looking at each of us then said to them (VCs): “Can’t find Trong He and Phu Ro”. Trong, Mr. He’s son, and Phu were 2 young men at Phu Cam, well trained in martial art and being looked-up by the bad guys (trouble makers) around Hue. Trong and Phu followed the popular soldiers retreated when the cathedral was invaded by these VC forces.

All the detainees were innocent civilians.

They ordered us to go through the road, left of Dan Nam Giao, round Thien An monastery, to Khai Dinh’s tomb, around the back of Nam Hoa district office, out to the river Ta Trach, the up stream of Perfume river. When reaching the river bank, VC asked us to cut down the bamboos making rafts to cross the river, to gather again near by King Gia Long’s tomb, in the Dinh Mon and Kim Ngoc range. From there, we started to get deep into the jungle. Night falls. It’ s very cold, … climbing up, going down hill, wading across creeks, … Taking us were about 30 VC cadres, they used torches to lead the way, we walked through thick and dense jungle of bamboo and old trees.

By mid night, the communist soldiers made us stop, for a rest. Each of us was given a handful of rice. We guessed that we had traveled for over 10 kms. Coiled up, head down, under the rain, we tried to get some sleep to have energy to continue. Suddenly, I overheard two VC cadres talking to each other:
”In 15, 20 minutes, we’ll kill them all”

I was trembling. Reaching close to my friend sitting right in front of me:
”Try to get loose and escape! In 15 minutes we’ll all be shot dead!
It rains. The wire was slippery, after a while, we managed to free ourselves but stayed still, scared of being found out. I whispered:
”When I tap gently on your back, let’s run!”

The VC woke us up, in a loud voice to make all of us heard, one of them said: “We are arriving to the reform camp. Those who have jewellery, money, watches, cigarette lighters, … give them all to us, you are not allowed to keep them. You will have them back once you have been reformed and completed the learning.”

So they robbed us of everything and put all into the knapsacks. The one who stood close to me had on him a dozen of radios taken from those in the city (down town). The rifle on one hand, things taken on the other, he slowed down, walked behind the others by a distance. When we started going down hill, hearing the running water, I tapped gently on the shoulder of my friend. Both of us, pulled out our hands, threw ourselves out of the line. I gave the communist cadre (carrying the radios) a hell kick. He tumbled over! We hurled into the jungle …

It was dark, in the middle of the jungle; the VC did not chase us.

Once the group had gone away for a while, we crawled out, walked back to the other direction. In about 15 to 20 minutes, we heard from the creek down below the resounding of AK gun fire, explosions of grenades, which were thundering, flaring up a corner of the jungle. Crying, screaming and howling voice were heard from far away … horrible!

It was around midnight or half past 12, on the 8th day of Tet.

The eighth day of Tet would be February 6th. The communists fought in Hue for three more weeks after that. Claiming, as Ackland did, that these deaths occurred at the end by retreating Viet Cong exacting revenge defies logic.

One could quibble over the numbers. The extant records are imprecise and lacking in detail. But one cannot quibble that mass executions at the hands of the communists took place, that those executions were planned in advance or that they included many people whose only crime was being a southerner.

Porter did not quibble. He doubled down. He next wrote The Myth of the Hue Massacre.17 Porter began by calling the story of the Hue massacre the “triumph of propaganda over journalistic professionalism”. He had turned the story on its head. Truth was now propaganda and propaganda was now journalism.

Porter then attacks what he claims is the evidence.

The basic documentation supporting the myth consists of a report issued by the Saigon government in April 1968, a captured document made public by the U.S. Mission in November 1969, and a long analysis published in 1970 by USIS employee Douglas Pike.

Like Porter’s other claims, this one doesn’t withstand scrutiny either. In addition to the documents Porter cites, there are the following:

  1. A 3500-page document issued on Jan 26th, 1968 by the Tri-Thien-Hue Political Directorate (cited in Pike’s study).
  2. A directive issued by the provincial administration on 2/1/68 (cited by Vennema)
  3. A liberation radio announcement released the same day (cited by Vennema)
  4. A Radio Hanoi announcement released the same day (cited in Pike’s study)
  5. The testimony of a VC commander in June 1969 about the Da Mai Creek massacre (cited in Pike’s study)
  6. A statement by the Thua Thien-Hue People’s Revolutionary Committee issued on Feb 14th (cited by Vennema)
  7. A captured communist document dated Feb 22nd (cited by Pike)
  8. A captured communist document dated Feb 25th (cited by Pike)
  9. A report written by a political officer of the People’s Revolutionary Party immediately after the battle (cited by Pike)
  10. A document written by a senior political officer and marked “ABSOLUTE SECRET” (cited by Pike)
  11. A March 68 book released by the official Hanoi press (cited by Vennema)
  12. A captured communist document dated Mar 13th (cited by Pike)
  13. A report written by the commander of the 6th Regiment on March 30 (cited by Stephen Hosmer in a Rand report)
  14. An Apr 68 liberation radio broadcast (cited by Vennema)
  15. A Dec 68 report issued by the Hue City People’s Revolutionary Party Central Committee (cited by Pike)
  16. An April 69 Radio Hanoi broadcast (cited by Vennema)
  17. A communist diary captured by US Army troops (cited by Hosmer)

With this much evidence, it is necessary to employ sophism to hide the truth. Porter does it quite well, citing unnamed people who supposedly told some third party something that supports his claims and ridiculing everyone who disagrees with him.

Porter also cites Vennema again, making the following claim:

according to Vennema most of the bodies were clothed in military uniforms and had wounds suggesting that they were victims of the fighting.

Vennema says nothing of the kind.  For example:

Her body was found with legs and hands tied, a rag stuffed into her mouth; she had no obvious wounds. (p.129)

His body was found, arms tied, shot through the head, in a trench with seven others at the pagoda. (p. 131)

Some of the corpses had wounds, some had their arms tied behind their backs with barbed wire, and some had their mouths stuffed with rags. (p. 132)

All had their hands tied. (p. 133)

It contained 25 bodies; all had been shot in the head, hands tied behind the back, and were noted when a hand was sticking halfway out of the ground. (p. 133)

His hands were tied, as stated by South Vietnamese villagers who uncovered the corpse, there were no wounds to his body, hence it was supposed that he had been buried alive. (p. 134)

The fact that no graves of women and children were found in the area would substantiate the allegation that the victims were killed in cold blood and not during military activity. If they had been caught during a shelling, strafing, or bombing raid some would have been wounded and had survived; others would have been dismembered. (p. 135)

His body showed no sign of injury; his hands were tied behind his back. (p. 135)

Some of the bodies were of uniformed men, but four were definitely civilians, one of whom was a student. (p. 136)

His body was found on March 1st; his hands were tied, and he had a bullet wound through his neck which had come out through the mouth. Of the many others, most had been shot and tied; there were several women among them, but no children. (p. 136)

Here lay the bodies of their loved ones; their hands had been tied behind the back, and they had been shot through the head with the bullet having exited at the mouth. (p. 136)

At this site 110 bodies were uncovered; again most had their hands tied and rags stuffed into their mouths. All were men, among them fifteen students, several military men, and civil servants, young and old. (p. 137)

Among them were civil servants and uniformed personnel with bullet wounds of head and neck. Most bodies were of the male sex. There were a few women and children, and a few exhibited more than one type of wound. Others included were those of Vietnamese Catholic priests, brothers, and novices of the surrounding villages missing for over twenty months since the events of February, 1968. (p. 138)

Over seventy bodies were found, most of them beyond recognition, mostly males with some women and children. Identification showed that they came from the surrounding villages and that some had died presumably during warfare as they had various types of wounds and dismemberments; others exhibited a single wound to the head and neck, the victims of execution. (p. 139)

This brief exposition of the many vivid descriptions in Vennema’s book should prove conclusively that Porter lied about what Vennema wrote. A cynical person might ask Porter how a victim of warfare would end up with their hands and feet tied or with a rag stuffed in their mouth and no visible wounds. I’m certain Porter would explain it as an anomaly and ignore the fact that over 5000 people dead this way is no anomaly.

As Porter is closing his argument, he writes this:

Not only the warmakers, but many other leaders and intellectuals want the Communists to be nefarious,

This smacks of the childish complaints of a youngster who has been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. No one wants the communists to be nefarious. They just are. It’s incredible that a man as educated as Porter can dismiss, with a wave of his hand, the deaths of 1.7 million in Cambodia, 20 million in the Soviet Union and 40 million in China as if they were of little consequence. Is it any wonder he can dismiss a mere 5000 in Hue?

Download a Word 2011 copy of this article.

The Hue Massacre: A Study of Communist Policies and Tactics in Vietnam

Paul Schmehl, Independent Researcher
Jan 24, 2015

One of the most persistent myths about the Vietnam War is that PAVN (People’s Army of Viet Nam) and PLAF (People’s Liberation Armed Forces) troops were Vietnamese patriots fighting for their independence. While there is no doubt that some of those who fought on the North Vietnamese side believed that wholeheartedly, that was never the goal of their leadership. The goal of the North from the very beginning was a communist tyranny.1 They pursued that goal to the exclusion of all else.

PAVN troops were North Vietnamese regulars (known as NVA by American troops). Many were conscripts. Some were chained to their weapons2 3 to force them to fight.4 Perhaps as many as 20% of them succumbed to disease on the Ho Chi Minh trail before they ever fired a shot.

PLAF troops were South Vietnamese “Viet Cong” regulars and National Liberation Front irregulars. Many were volunteers, but some were conscripted. Both forces were under the direct command and control of North Vietnam throughout the war. They followed the policies, strategies and tactics provided to them by the communist leadership.

A massacre occurred in Hue that never received the attention it should have in the US media or in academia. It involved both PAVN and PLAF troops. Unlike the My Lai massacre, which was front-page news for months and is still talked about today,5 the massacre in Hue, which was ten times larger than My Lai, was covered briefly, inaccurately and then promptly ignored.6 More to the point, the Hue massacre was symptomatic of a much larger problem that was ignored by the US media.

Apologists for the Vietnamese communists7 have exploited this silence to argue that a massacre did not occur, that there was no communist policy to murder thousands of people and that what murders did occur were the result of revenge attacks and the passions of battle. Frances Fitzgerald, the author of the Pulitzer Prize winning study of the Vietnam war, Fire in the Lake, wrote, “Nothing like this reverse My Lai ever occurred in the recorded history of the war.”8

Once the graves were unearthed in Hue the evidence was irrefutable. Many of the bodies had their hands, and sometimes legs, tied. More than a few had been buried alive and had no wounds at all. Many had been bludgeoned to death or shot in the back of the head. A few were beheaded. Rather than battle damage, the bodies provided incontrovertible proof that a massacre had occurred.

This didn’t stop the apologists, however. They worked hard to minimize the evidence. They argued that the dead civilians were the result of allied bombings, napalm attacks and the heavy shelling that they claimed was excessive. They misrepresented and lied about the evidence in an effort to “prove” that the RVN was lying about the massacre.9 Eventually, the public was led to believe that the bulk of the civilian casualties in Hue were due to Allied bombings and artillery10 and Hue was forgotten.11

The purpose of this article is to examine the orders, the after action reports and the results of the attack by PAVN and PLAF troops in Hue during the Tet offensive to determine whether the massacre was the result of official communist policy or not and what the magnitude of the massacre was.

The information contained in this article comes from a number of sources. Primarily four were used; a book on the Massacre written by Alje Vennema, a Dutch-Canadian doctor who lived in Hue and witnessed the battle and the massacres and interviewed a number of victims’ relatives, a report written by Douglas Pike for US AID, a report compiled by the Government of South Vietnam and a US press release that included map coordinates as well as grave and body counts.

Vennema is an interesting case. D. Gareth Porter cites him (falsely)12 in his articles claiming the massacre is a myth. Vennema was opposed to the war and believed the communists were the answer to Vietnam’s struggles.13

“By 1967 after spending five years in South Vietnam as a medical volunteer running a provincial hospital, I had become so appalled by the war and the American involvement that I longed for its end with ever-increasing speed. To that end I became involved in the war’s controversies. At that time I felt that the National Liberation Front offered the only solution to the corruption and incessant warfare.”

Despite his favorable feelings toward the Viet Cong, Vennema could not get the thoughts of what happened out of his head.14

“After leaving Vietnam in April 1968, I was caught up by the anti-war fever, gave public speeches, and was asked question about the city of Hue, as to what exactly happened. When asked to write an article on the city of Hue by the New York Review of Books disclaiming allegations of the South Vietnamese government that an efficient slaughter had taken place, I started to reflect, and more and more incidents and names of friends came to mind. The obsession to find out what really had happened would not let me go, and as a result I returned to Hue several times, again and again looking, searching, tracing contacts, visiting villages and families of the bereaved. Bit by bit I became aware of the real impact of the tragedy that had taken place and felt that the truth about the city of Hue should be made known, to be inscribed in the annals of history alongside the names of Lidice, Putte and Warsaw.”

Vennema’s article was never published. Apparently the truth was of no interest to the New York Review of Books. Vennema was forced to self-publish in order to get his story told. Today the book is hard to find, only available in a few libraries, out of print and unavailable for sale anywhere.

The value of Vennema’s book cannot be overestimated. It is a clear admission against interest, as he admits in his Preface. There is no more valuable evidence of the truth of a matter. Yet, contra Porter’s claims, Vennema’s book supports not only Pike’s study (which Porter concludes “must be judged unworthy of serious consideration”15) but the other studies in many respects as well.16

The Orders

The battle of Hue lasted from Jan 31st, 1968 to Feb 25th, 1968. The PAVN and PLAF had several missions;17 Conduct a general attack and uprising, overthrow the governmental apparatus in the City of Hue and the Province of Thua Thien, establish a revolutionary administration and continue to pursue and counterattack ARVN and Allied forces to protect the gains that they had made.

These missions were described in tremendous detail in a 3500-page document issued on Jan 26th, 1968 by the Tri-Thien-Hue Political Directorate.18 The political cadres’ job was spelled out as follows:

‘Operating in close support of the regular military and guerrilla
elements, the political cadre were to:
— destroy and disorganize the Republic of Viet-Nam’s (RVN) administrative machinery “from province and district levels to the city wards, streets, and wharves;”
— motivate the people of Hue to take up arms, pursue the enemy, seize power, and establish a revolutionary government;
— motivate (recruit) local citizens for military and “security” forces .. transportation and supply activities, and to serve wounded soldiers . . . ;”
“pursue to the end (and) punish “spies, reactionaries, and “tyrants” — i. e . , government administrators, civil servants, police, and others employed by or notable adherents of the Republic of Viet-Nam; and
— “maintain order and security in the city” — i. e . , control the population’

This mission for one area of the city, the Phu Ninh ward, included the following instructions:19

“Annihilate all spies, reactionaries, and foreign teachers (such as Americans and Germans) in the area. Break open prisons. Investigate cadre, soldiers and receptive civilians imprisoned by the enemy. Search for tyrants and reactionaries who are receiving treatment in hospitals.

The orders for Target Area 2 (“the Phu Vinh ward”) were similar;

“Annihilate the enemy in the area…Rally the Buddhist force to advance the isolation of reactionaries who exploit the Catholics of Phu Cam”. The orders for Target Area 3 (“the wharves along the An Cuu River and from Truong Sung to the Kho Ren Bridge”) followed the same pattern; “Search for and pursue spies, tyrants and reactionaries hiding near the wharf…Motivate the people in the areas along the River to annihilate the enemy.” For Target Area 4 (the district including Phu Cam and the Binh Anh, Truong Giang, Truong Cuu and An Lang sections) the orders were; “Search for and pursue spies and reactionaries in the area…Destroy the power and influence of reactionary leaders…” For Area 1, Cell 3 was assigned the job of “Annihilation of tyrants and the elimination of traitors.”

Similar “security” cells would fan out throughout Hue tracking down “spies” and “reactionaries” and “tyrants”. The daughter of the deputy district chief of Trieu Phong in Quang Tri province reported that communist troops first came looking for her father at 2:00 AM on the morning of Feb 1st, mere hours after they had entered Hue. Three days later he was gone, taken away for “10 days of re-education”. His body was never found.20

Some Top Secret PAVN documents were captured in June 1968 by US 1st Cav troops operating in the mountains west of Hue. Among the documents was a communist directive written two days before the battle began. It read21,

“For the purpose of a lengthy occupation of Hue, we should immediately liberate the rural areas and annihilate the wicked GVN administrative personnel.

Specific Mission …. We must attack the enemy key agencies, economic installations, and lines of communications. We must also annihilate the enemy mobile troops, reactionary elements and tyrants.”

On Feb 1st, the provincial administration, having taken control of Hue, issued a directive that ordered the troops, in part22,

“To wipe out all puppet administrative organs of the puppet Thieu-Ky (President Thieu, Vice President Ky) clique at all levels in the province, city and town down to every single hamlet.”

On the same day, the Liberation Front radio announced23,

“We tell our compatriots that we are determined to topple the regime of the traitorous Thieu-Ky clique and to punish and annihilate those who have been massacring and oppressing our compatriots…we ask our compatriots to…help us arrest all the U.S.-puppet cruel henchmen.”

A VC commander who defected in June 1969 and revealed the massacre of 500 people at Da Mai Creek stated that24

“the Viet Cong district chief told him the mass murder was specifically authorized by the South Vietnamese Communist command on grounds that the victims had been traitors to the revolution.”

It is clear from their orders and the careful planning that went into their attack that along with a military victory, the High Command in Hanoi also expected the PAVN and PALF to “annihilate” and “punish” the city leadership, civil servants and anyone else who supported the RVN. Precisely what that meant in practical terms would be revealed over the next 19 months.

The After Action Reports

On Feb 4th, Radio Hanoi announced25,

“After one hour’s fighting the Revolutionary Armed Forces occupied the residence of the puppet provincial Governor (in Hue), the prison and the offices of the puppet administration . . . . The Revolutionary Armed Forces punished most cruel agents of the enemy and seized control of the streets . . . rounded up and punished dozens of cruel agents and caused the enemy organs of control and oppression to crumble.”

Communist troops, in concert with the local communists, roamed through the city with lists of people who were to be eliminated. A 70-year-old man was summarily executed in the street simply for refusing to obey the troops.26 Some were executed in front of their families and left lying on the lawn for the family to bury. In some cases the entire family was murdered.27

On Feb 14th, the Thua Thien-Hue People’s Revolutionary Committee issued a statement that read in part28,

“Concerned over the country’s survival and their own fate, on 31 January 1968, the Thua Thien-Hue people rose up holding weapons in their hands, smashed the puppet ruling apparatus from the provincial to the village and hamlet levels, and completely liberated the rural areas and the city of Hue. The enemy has suffered disastrous defeats. A number of ringleaders of the puppet administration have surrendered to the people or have been arrested and have been detained by the revolutionary forces. Except for some localities and scattered guard posts which have not yet been liquidated, the Thua Thien-Hue puppet administration has basically disintegrated.”

An entry in a captured communist document dated Feb 22nd stated29,

“Troop proselyting by the VC/NVA forces was not successful because the troops had to devote themselves to combat missions. Moreover, they were afraid of being discovered by the enemy. It was very difficult for them to handle POW’s so they executed the policy of “catch and kill.”

A February 25th captured communist document detailed some of the successes of the Special Action Company of the NVA 6th Regiment.30

“We captured and exterminated thousands of people of the revolutionary network. From province to village we broke the enemy’s administrative grip for the people to rise.”

A report written immediately after the battle by a political officer of the People’s Revolutionary Party listed 2,826

“administrative personnel, nationalist political party members, ‘tyrants’ and policemen that were killed by their troops.”31

That would turn out to be less than 50% of the total murdered, abducted and missing. 4062 civilians murdered or abducted were identified32, some as young as 1-year-old and others as old as 90-years-old. Approximately 1800 disappeared and were never found. Many bodies were never identified.

Another document, undated but written by a senior political officer and marked “ABSOLUTE SECRET” 33 34 reported on the results of the political operation.

“Huong Thuy District: …We also killed one member of the Dai Viet Party Committee, one senator of South Vietnam, 50 Quoc Dan Dang Party members, six Dai Viet Party members, 13 Can Lao Nhan Vi Party members, three captains, four first lieutenants, and liberated 35 hamlets with 32,000 people.… Phu Vang District…We eliminated 1,892 administrative personnel, 38 policemen, 790 tyrants, six captains, two first lieutenants, 20 second lieutenants, and many NCOs.”35

The same document contained a passage that read:36

“The people joined our soldiers in their search for tyrants, reactionaries and spies. For instance, Mrs. Xuan followed our soldiers to show the houses of the tyrants she knew, although she had only six days before giving birth to a child.”

In March 1968, in the official Hanoi press, the North reported,37

“Actively combining their efforts with those of the People’s Liberation Armed Forces and population, other self-defense and armed units of the city of Hue arrested and called to surrender the surviving functionaries of the puppet administration and officers and men of the puppet army who were skulking. Die-hard cruel agents were punished.”

A March 13th, 1968 entry in captured documents reviewed the successes of the attack on Hue.38

“Enormous victory: We annihilated more than 3,000 tyrannical puppet army and government administrative personnel, including the Deputy Province Chief of Thua Thien.”

A report written by the commander of the 6th Regiment on March 30 stated that they had captured thousands of:39

“local administrative personnel, puppet troops, and cruel tyrants” and successfully “annihilated members of various reactionary political parties, henchmen, and wicked tyrants.”

It also stated that they had “killed 1,000 local administrative personnel, spies and cruel tyrants.”

On April 26, 1968, Hanoi, reacting to the discovery of mass graves in Hue, announced that the people murdered by their troops were,40

“hooligan lackeys who had incurred blood debts of the Hue compatriots and who were annihilated by the Front’s Armed Forces in the early spring of 1968.”

This is an official admission by the government of North Vietnam that their troops committed murders in Hue under orders from High Command. In other words, it was the official policy of the communists to murder people.

On April 27, 1969, Radio Hanoi criticized authorities in Hue and South Vietnam, stating,41

“In order to cover up their cruel acts, the puppet administration in Hue recently played the farce of setting up a so-called committee for the search for burial sites of the hooligan lackeys who had owed blood debts to the Tri-Thien-Hue compatriots and who were annihilated by the Southern Armed Forces and people in early Mau Than spring.”

Here the communist command, probably realizing that they had implicated themselves in the murders, attempted to cover up their crimes by blaming them on “the Southern Armed Forces and the people”. The subterfuge wouldn’t work, however, because it was well known that Hanoi had complete command and control of all Southern forces.

A cadre diary captured by 1st US Air Cavalry Division troops contained an entry that read:42

“The entire puppet administrative system from hamlet to province was destroyed or disintegrated. More than 3,000 persons were killed. The enemy could never reorganize or make up for his failure. Although he could immediately use inexperienced elements as replacements, they were good for nothing.”

In December 1968 the Hue City People’s Revolutionary Party Central Committee released a summary of the Party’s accomplishments during Tet. The summary included the following statement:43

“Thousands of tyrants were killed. Many reactionary factions and organizations were exterminated.”

That same month, Don Oberdorfer reported in the Washington Post,44

“Ho Ty was arrested by the government police on Sept. 4 this year. At the time of his arrest, he was party secretary for a section of Hue city…Ho Ty reported that the part of the plan from higher headquarters was to destroy the government machinery of Hue and the people who made it work…..He said the killings were planned and executed by a separate group in charge of security.”

In January 1970, NLF Liberation Radio, referring to the events in Hue two years previous announced: “The people of Hue dealt the enemy proper punishing blows, and wicked agents paid for their sins. Many of them were tried by people’s courts.” The broadcast also criticized the Hue authorities for “opening up the graves of the wicked agents punished by our people during the Mau Than Tet.”45

In 1987, at a Hanoi conference to discuss the history of the Tet offensive, Colonel General Tran Van Quang, one of the commanders for the Hue operation, assessed the strengths and weaknesses of his forces, citing as one of their strengths:46

We resolutely carried out the orders and fulfilled the requirements set out for us by the High Command. We motivated our cadre, soldiers, and the civilian population through the use of the slogans, ‘Tri-Thien fights for Tri-Thien and for the entire nation,’ and ‘Heroically and resolutely conduct attacks and uprisings.’”

In February 1988 Vietnamese Communist leaders admitted “mistakes” were made in Hue. Col Nguyen Quoc Khanh, commander of part of the forces that took over Hue stated that “There was no case of killing civilians purposefully…..Those civilians who were killed were killed accidentally, in cross fire.” But he admitted, “some rank and file soldiers may have committed individual mistakes.”47

It’s doubtful that the Vietnamese Communist leaders will ever admit to the crimes they committed in Hue, but the evidence shows that they not only knew about it, they planned and ordered it and proudly reported it afterwards.

Given the consistent nature of the orders that they were given, the enthusiastic reports of murders contained in the after action reports and the statement from a commander that they fulfilled the requirements set out for them by the High Command, it’s hard to come to any other conclusion than that the PAVN and PLAF troops in Hue were doing exactly what they had been ordered to do by Hanoi; murder thousands of civilians.

The Results

As the manifest evidence shows, eliminating “puppet administrative organs”, “reactionary elements”, “cruel agents” and “tyrants” was one of the missions of the PAVN and PLAF troops in Hue. They carried it out with discipline and precision. Bernard Weinraub, reporting in the New York Times on March 1st, wrote that 25% of the civil servants had shown up for work. Many of the others would be found in graves.48

On Feb 5th, Stephen Miller, a 27-year-old American Quaker serving with the US civil affairs office, was marched to a Catholic seminary at gunpoint and savagely beaten to death along with 4 Vietnamese civilians.49 Catholic priests buried their bodies in the seminary yard. Six of his co-workers were also killed, and three were abducted. The body of one of them, Thomas W. Ragsdale, was found in a shallow grave in the Au Shau valley more than a year later.50 The bodies of the other two abductees were never found.

That same day, three German professors from the medical mission of the University of Hue and one of the professor’s wives were abducted by communist troops. Their bodies were found in a shallow grave on Apr 2nd. All four bodies had their hands tied behind their backs with barbed wire and a single gunshot wound to the back of the head.51

On February 8th Le Van Phu, a 47-year-old policeman was arrested at his home. His wife and children pleaded with the troops to no avail. He was shot in the head. Ngo Thong, a 66-year-old retired civil servant was arrested as well. He was found in a trench with 10 other victims. Some of them had been buried alive.52

On February 9th troops entered the house of Major Tu Ton Khan, Chief of the Rural Development Service in Hue. When his wife wouldn’t tell the troops where he was they threatened to burn the house down. The Major came out of hiding and was marched out of the house. His body, hands tied behind the back and riddled with bullets, was found on Feb 28th.53

On February 17th Nguyen Van Dong, a 42-year-old policeman was rounded up. He was buried alive.54

On February 22nd troops came for Hoang Thi Tam Tuy, a 26-year-old market vendor and took her away for “re-education”. Her body was found with legs and arms tied, a rag in her mouth and no wounds. She had been buried alive.

In one documented case55,

“…a squad with a death order entered the home of a prominent community leader and shot him, his wife, his married son and daughter-in-law, his young unmarried daughter, a male and female servant and their baby. The family cat was strangled; the family dog was clubbed to death; the goldfish scooped out of the fishbowl and tossed on the floor. When the Communists left, no life remained in the house.”

In response to a recent inquiry regarding military eyewitnesses of the massacre, LTC Ronald Bower AUS (ret) told me the following56:

We found another grave not long after the May 5th attack, of four Marines who had been in the City and were playing cards in a house when they were captured by the VC. They had their hands tied behind their backs and had each been shot in the head and buried in a grave not far from this one.”

The area LTC Bower refers to is in the Phu Thu district where about a thousand bodies were found. No record that I have access to refers to the murder of these four Marines. It should not be a surprise, then, to find discrepancies between accounts. It’s doubtful that every grave was found or every body uncovered or every person accounted for. It’s equally doubtful that any one account would report every grave found, unless it was an official governmental record.

These grisly scenes would be repeated over and over again hundreds of times every day. Once the battle was over, the civilian government of Hue reported that 1214 civilians were determined to be battle casualties; their locations and wounds testified to the fact that artillery shells, bombs, napalm or bullets killed them. 1260 were hospitalized and survived.57 They also estimated that 5800 civilians were missing.58 59

Numerous eyewitness accounts testified to the brutal efficiency and deliberate planning of the murders. Four eyewitnesses escaped from certain death to tell their stories, two of them from the Da Mai creek slaughter.60 Their story is chilling.

Suddenly, I overheard two VC cadres talking to each other:
“In 15, 20 minutes, we’ll kill them all”

I was trembling. Reaching close to my friend sitting right in front of me:
“Try to get loose and escape! In 15 minutes we’ll all be shot dead!

It rains. The wire was slippery, after a while, we managed to free ourselves but stayed still, scared of being found out. I whispered:
“When I tap gently on your back, let’s run!”

The VC woke us up, in a loud voice to make all of us heard, one of them said: “We are arriving to the reform camp. Those who have jewelry, money, watches, cigarette lighters, … give them all to us, you are not allowed to keep them. You will have them back once you have been reformed and completed the learning.”

So they robbed us of everything and put all into the knapsacks. The one who stood close to me had on him a dozen of radios taken from those in the city (downtown). The rifle on one hand, things taken on the other, he slowed down, walked behind the others by a distance. When we started going down hill, hearing the running water, I tapped gently on the shoulder of my friend. Both of us, pulled out our hands, threw ourselves out of the line. I gave the communist cadre (carrying the radios) a hell kick. He tumbled over! We hurled into the jungle … It was dark, in the middle of the jungle; the VC did not chase us.

Once the group had gone away for a while, we crawled out, walked back to the other direction. In about 15 to 20 minutes, we heard from the creek down below the resounding of AK gunfire, explosions of grenades, which were thundering, flaring up a corner of the jungle. Crying, screaming and howling voices were heard from far away … horrible! It was around midnight or half past 12, on the 8th day of Tet.

More than 500 skulls were found at Da Mai Creek. 428 of the victims were identified.

Another eyewitness escapee recounted the following story61:

Nguyen Tan Chau, of the South Vietnamese Armed Medical Corps, was in Hue visiting his family during the Tet holidays when the Communists attacked. He was captured and held with 30 other prisoners. They were started South, bound together in three groups of ten.

He told South Vietnamese investigators later that when the column halted for a rest, he freed his hands and slipped away in the darkness. From a hiding place he witnessed the following scene: “The larger prisoners were separated into pairs, tied together back to back and shot. The others were shot singly. All were dumped into two shallow graves, including those who had been wounded but were not dead,”

Another escapee, hamlet official Phan Duy, got away at the last possible moment. As his grave was being dug (for himself and nine other men), he managed to slip from his bonds and run away, with one of the guards firing at him as he ran.62

“I ran about 300 meters, and I saw a pool. I fell into the water and covered myself with the reeds.”

Asked to recount his experience of being held captive in a house for seven days, Duy responded,

“I remember on the second day I was held in prison in that house, other people from my hamlet told me the Vietcong had entered my home and killed my mother. When I returned I found her body still in the house. I was her only son.”

Several captured enemy identified grave locations that were unknown at the time, including the horrible slaughter at Da Mai Creek where 500 innocent civilians lost their lives.

Unfortunately no precise forensic analysis of the statistics of the murders is extant, to my knowledge. We are left with eyewitness accounts as well as government sponsored reports, news articles and historians’ accounts that attempt to provide varying levels of detail regarding the massacre. The reports are disjointed and imprecise, the dates of production vary greatly, the names of locations of graves don’t always match, and the actual numbers of bodies discovered are difficult to discern at times. I have attempted to sort them out by matching accounts, as much as possible, on a spreadsheet.63

The results show that, at a minimum, about 2,802 bodies were uncovered,64 possibly as many as 3,500. Since the communists boasted of killing 3000 or more, it seems that would be an appropriate bottom number. The maximum would be the entire 5,800 that were determined to be missing. It’s likely that at least a few ended up in prisons in the north, but it’s impossible to know with any precision exactly how many were murdered.

It’s doubtful that all the graves were ever found. The government identified, by name and place of residence, 4026 individuals who were either murdered or abducted.65 1800 were never found, but some of them are almost certainly part of the 4062 that were identified. A significant number of the bodies recovered were unidentifiable due to decomposition or facial damage caused by shots to the head or bludgeoning.

The true extent of the slaughter wasn’t known for more than 18 months, as graves filled with bodies continued to be discovered purely by accident. In one case a farmer found a wire sticking up in his field. When he pulled on it, a hand popped out of the ground.66 In another case, a soldier sitting down for lunch reached for his C-rations and grabbed a foot instead. That’s when he realized he was sitting on a gravesite.67

An ARVN solider on patrol south of Hue noticed a wire sticking out of the ground. Thinking it was a booby trap, he very carefully worked to uncover it. He discovered the body of an old man, his hands tied together with the wire. Two days later 130 bodies had been uncovered.68

In each of the graves victims were found who had been shot in the back of the head, others who had been buried alive and still others who had been beaten to death. A few may have been battle deaths or dead PAVN or PLAF troops, but most of them were obviously murdered. Some were beheaded. Some were tied up to the Citadel gate and left there to be killed by artillery or bombing and strafing runs.69

Some have tried to argue that the murders were few in number, that they were committed by rogue troops or that they were understandable given the circumstances. All these arguments fail in the light of the evidence. (A more comprehensive study of the lies told by apologists will be forthcoming.)

Given the numerous eyewitness accounts, the bodies uncovered with hands tied, shot through the head or buried alive, the communist orders issued and the gloating after action reports, the idea that there was not a massacre in Hue of thousands of people defies logic and is soundly refuted by the preponderance of evidence.

The only question that remains is how many were killed. We will never know a specific number, but it seems the minimum must be the 4062 that have been identified plus the more than 800 bodies that were found but never identified.70 Whether the remaining 1000 were among the unidentified bodies, were murdered, died during the arduous journey through the jungles to North Vietnam or died in prison seems a moot point. They disappeared and were never seen again.71

South Vietnamese Reprisals?

The Italian journalist, Oriana Fallaci, visited Hue in February before the battle was over. In fact, she was shot at by retreating communist troops. She reported that a priest, whom she did not identify, told her that72:

“After the ‘Liberation,’ at least 200 who were suspected of being Vietcong or of having collaborated with the Vietcong were killed by the South Vietnamese. Without even a summary trial, without any exact accusation. Some machine gun bursts and that was that. The massacre began as soon as the Marines had taken the Imperial Palace, and it’s only the corpses of those 200 that have been recovered.. Altogether, there have been 1,100 killed. Mostly students, university teachers, priests. Intellectuals and religious people at Hue have never hidden there sympathy fro the NLF.”

The Fallaci story is confusingly worded, it conflates the communist executions with the purported revenge executions, and I found no corroborating news reports. It also makes an impossible claim – that the supposed assassination began several days after authorities had announced that there would be no executions. Furthermore, there were no Catholic priests in Hue who supported the communists. The communists killed four of them and shot two others while they were in Hue.73

More importantly, the Marines never took the Imperial Palace as the “priest” claims. It had been decided that the South Vietnamese should do that. The 2nd Battalion 3rd Armored Regiment ARVN took the palace on the 24th of February.74 By that time the media had already reported that 200 collaborators were in custody, that there would be no executions without trials and that military tribunals would be held to determine guilt or innocence.

Eyewitnesses testified that people were taken away and never seen again within the first few days, long before U.S. Marines were even able to cross the river. Many of those bodies were later disinterred and identified at the Gia Hoi School and the Tang Quang Tu Pagoda. A Buddhist monk stated that he and his fellow monks “listened nightly to the screams for mercy and the sound of pistol and automatic rifle fire as people were executed in a plowed field behind the pagoda.”75 The bodies were identified as those of students, university teachers and priests (among others) as the priest states, but they were killed by the communists, not by revenge squads.

The Fallaci story was apparently the genesis of a rumor that South Vietnamese hit squads were rounding up civilians who had sided with the communists and executing them. Don Oberdorfer, Stanley Karnow and Marilyn Young all reported the executions.

The first to repeat the story was Don Oberdorfer in Tet!. He wrote76:

It was reliably reported that a South Vietnamese intelligence unit employed the confusion to send out “black teams” of assassins to eliminate some of those believed to have aided the enemy. Some of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong suspects who were brought into Hue in those days mysteriously disappeared, with no record available of what happened to them.

This is an odd report. First he states that the “black teams” were searching for those who “aided the enemy”. Then he writes about communist military people who supposedly disappeared without a trace. Those were the enemy, not those who aided them. Who were the supposed assassins eliminating? Collaborators? Or the enemy? Why would they need to eliminate the enemy? Wouldn’t they already be fighting the enemy and trying to eliminate them?

Oberdorfer, however, adds something not found in the Fallaci report.

On March 14 more than twenty prisoners, including three women and some schoolboys, were brought into provincial military headquarters in the devastated city with burlap bags covering their heads and their hands tightly wired behind their backs. Guards began beating some of the captives with sticks and fists. After one man confessed he had been an economic and finance cadre for the Viet Cong, two guards beat him senseless, one kicking him brutally and the other standing on his face. An American who was present was affected particularly by one of the prisoners, who under the burlap bag was a very pretty girl with long, silky black hair and clear complexion. She was described as a Viet Cong nurse.
The prisoners were taken into a stone building which served as a temporary house of detention and, according to general belief, a place of execution. There was no trace of them in the morning.

Oberdorfer provides no source for the information in the first paragraph, nor does he indicate that he personally investigated the story. It appears that he’s referring to Fallaci’s report (“reliably reported”), but he doesn’t state that. The following paragraph appears to be original reporting and likely reports the facts as he was able to ascertain them.

In Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam A History he wrote77:

“Clandestine South Vietnamese teams slipped into Hue after the Communist occupation to assassinate suspected enemy collaborators; they threw many of the bodies into common graves with the Vietcong’s victims.”

Eight years later, Marilyn Young included a similar account in her book, The Vietnam Wars 1945-1990.78

“At the same time, in the last days of the NLF occupation of Hue, teams of Saigon government assassins fanned out through the city with their own list of targets, underground NLF supporters who had revealed themselves in the course of occupying the city.”

Neither writer provides any attribution for the source of the aside. Both likely trace their genesis to the Fallaci story and the unnamed priest. (I was not able to find any news accounts other than Fallaci’s that related the story.)

Scott Laderman included it in his book, Tours of Vietnam: War, Travel Guides and Memory where he cited Fallaci, Karnow (citing the wrong page) and Young but no other sources.79

I reached out through contacts for accounts from anyone who was in Hue during that time. A source that would have reason to know if the ARVN had any assassination squads executing VC in Hue sent me this account:

The only enemy we captured were VC/NVA snipers firing from the roof of a refugee building (former school house) when someone gave us this information. We captured them and sent them to the Provincial Interrogation Center (PIC).

The only atrocities I learned of were those committed by the VC/NVA. Along with a Marine Captain assigned to us by III MAF to assist the RDC Program, we dug up a common grave based upon reports the VC had executed an American at the Catholic Church. We located the body… which we later identified as Steve Miller, a career State Department officer who was visiting Hue. Steve spoke fluent Vietnamese. He had been tortured with his arms tied behind him with barbed wire and shot in the back of his head while on his knees.

According to secret reports from personnel in Hue, approximately 5,000 soldiers and civilians were murdered by the VC/NVA while they occupied the city. These reports cite the victims as both male and female, adult and children. Most were civilians and included teachers, civil servants, police, religious leaders, politicians, Hoi Chanhs – and the families of these people. They were all killed without a trial or any attempt to justify their murder. Several US civilians were also killed, as were several Germans. These reports are still classified, unfortunately.

Given the slaughter the communists committed, it’s certainly possible (and believable) that the South Vietnamese troops would have wanted to take revenge. Contemporaneous reports, however, indicate that they did not, with the exception of the March 14 report by Oberdorfer.

On February 21, while the battle still raged, the Mayor of Hue, Lt. Col. Phan Van Khoa ordered that looters should be shot on sight and announced that there would be “public executions within two days of some Communist agents arrested recently.”80

The next day the New York Times reported81 that a military tribunal was planned to try the collaborators, that authorities were holding 200 prisoners and that 30 of them were believed to be high-ranking communists. It also reported that

“…on the basis of an order from General Lam, that there would be no executions in the city without military trials. He said yesterday that public executions would be necessary to restore order.”

So while summary executions had been planned and announced by the Mayor of Hue, a higher-ranking official countermanded the order. The following day the Times reported that:82

“…sources said he [Brig. Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, Chief of South Vietnam Police] would interrogate a former Hue police chief, who is alleged to be one of the leaders of a Vietcong attack on the city, and politicians and militant Buddhists suspected of aiding or sympathizing with the Vietcong.”

In late March, Stewart Harris, a London Times correspondent writing in the New York Times discussed the current situation.83

According to the police chief, Doan Cong Lap, the Government has 477 Vietcong and North Vietnamese soldiers in custody.
“What about suspects?” he was asked. “What about officials and civilians who should have supported the Government and either went over to the enemy or went into hiding until they saw the Government would win? How many of these have you taken?”
After three visits to the police chief and one to the new provincial chief, Colonel Than, the figure was given: “Nearly 300.”
They also said that none of these people had been executed and that none had been brought to trial. Colonel Khoa, the provincial chief until two weeks ago, had been given temporary power to execute summarily any traitor holding a senior position. Moreover, six weeks ago the South Vietnamese promised to set up immediately a military tribunal in Hue. Yet no one has been tried.

It’s difficult to imagine how 200 to 1100 prisoners would have been executed by hit squads yet 200 or “nearly 300” would be arrested and detained. Why wouldn’t they have killed them all? And why would 30 high-ranking communists be spared? Why were there no other news reports? Given Col. Than’s obvious desire to kill some of the prisoners, why weren’t some of them publicly executed?

There are several possible explanations for the Fallaci report. Perhaps there was a language barrier between Fallaci and the priest that caused her to write this confusing account. The priest could have been mistaken, basing his belief on the Mayor’s Feb. 21 announcement and then embellishing his account. The priest could have been a communist propagandist. Or the story could be true. If it’s true, there is no evidence supporting it, and there were no other news reports confirming it. It certainly seems there would have been, had it been true.

It seems clear that all the later reports with the exception of Oberdorfer’s account of March 14 relied on Fallaci’s report, but that report has issues that make it questionable at best. The report is at odds with all the other known evidence and, in my opinion, can be discounted as false. The March 14 account appears to be true and may indicate that more than those twenty were executed. Without more evidence, it’s difficult to say how many that could have been. It’s doubtful the number rose to 200 much less 1,100.

Conclusions

The idea that there was no massacre in Hue doesn’t withstand a careful examination of the facts.

1. There were detailed orders given pre-battle that included eliminating pro-RVN people with detailed lists provided.
2. Multiple captured after action reports listed the numbers of people killed, in some cases even who they were by position and stated that the orders had been followed correctly.
3. The numerous eyewitness accounts, both local Vietnamese and journalists, confirm that many people were executed. The manner of their deaths corresponds to the manner of death of the found bodies. Many of the dead also match the captured communist reports of who was killed.
4. Finally, the detailed reports of graves uncovered and bodies counted, corroborated by Pike’s report, the US News release, the GVN report and Vennema’s account confirm that a massacre did take place and provide evidence of its size.

In comparing accounts in Appendix A, it’s clear that at least 3,000 bodies were found. The number of graves and gravesites is less clear for several reasons. Pike’s report is in the form of a summary rather than providing needed detail. Vennema’s account is incomplete, having concluded before all the bodies had been found. The GVN report varies significantly from the others in some sites yet matches others closely. It’s difficult to know if it is more precise or inflated.

For example, in the Gia Hoi area, Vennema reports 203 bodies, Pike 170, the US News Release 200 and the GVN 425. Either the GVN number is incorrect or more bodies were discovered, but the report lists 22 graves, which matches the US News Release. I think it’s likely the number was somewhere around 200. The GVN report may have conflated two different sites.

At the Tang Quang Tu Pagoda, Vennema has 43 bodies, Pike and the US report agree on 77 and the GVN report has 299. Given the other numbers the 299 is probably too high.

However, the GVN report agrees with every other report regarding the Imperial Tombs; 201 bodies were found (Vennema lists 203.) The reports also agree on the number of bodies at the Van Chi School (9) and the Cho Thuong marketplace (100).

Strangely, at ApDong Gi Tay, Vennema reports 110, Pike reports 100 and the GVN report has 75.

Given the numbers in these reports, it’s impossible to say much with any certainty except in certain locations. The totals for each report do display an agreement that indicates that about 3,000 bodies were found.

Vennema has 2397 but is missing the November 1969 finds. Those would increase his total to at least 2637 and perhaps 3047. Pike has 2802 but there’s a problem with his report. He states that 1200 bodies were found in the first phase (Feb-Apr) yet his total is only 915. (The US News Release that only covers the first phase has 1143.) Somehow Pike failed to account for about 240 bodies. Adding those to his total would push his total to 3047, agreeing with Vennema almost exactly on the first three phases (2397 vs 2392). The GVN report has 3373, just 1.4 times higher than Vennama’s lowest possible number (2397 + 240 for the 4th phase — 2637).

Porter’s claim that Vennema’s report “found that the number of victims in the grave sites he examined were inflated in the U.S.-Saigon count by over seven-fold” is obviously false.84 The greatest variance is the GVN report, and the others essentially agree with Vennema in the finds they list.

In the final analysis, it appears that about 5,000 people were murdered; about 3,000 bodies were found and about 2000 of those were identified. The rest were never found. 4,062 of the victims were eventually identified, and about another 1,000 disappeared into history without a trace.

Atrocities are a part of war.  Every nation commits them.  However, there is something decidedly perverse about elevating the My Lai story to a heightened level while ignoring the massacre in Tet, which was at least ten times as large.  If My Lai was a massacre (and it certainly was), then Tet was a mega-massacre.  Yet the media ignored it and so have historians.

Documents Related to this Article

Word 2011 Article
Appendix A: Spreadsheet of Graves
PDF map showing gravesites
PDF combining all three docs

The Vietnam War/Leftist Fly-Paper by Captain Phillip Jennings

A recent letter to Lt. General “Mick” Kicklighter, head of the government funded Vietnam War 50th Commemoration Program, demands recognition for the “peace-activists” who supported the North Vietnamese communist victory over South Vietnam. (One awaits a letter to the Holocaust Museum from the Nazis claiming there could be no Holocaust Museum if not for their efforts in slaughtering six million Jews). Given the popularity of America-bashing among leftists today, no doubt Kicklighter will attempt to appease and ask forgiveness for the oversight in recognizing the usual suspects—Tom Hayden, Bill Ayers, Marilyn Young, Rennie Davis et al as freedom loving patriots, ignoring the cruel irony of honoring people whose efforts assisted the loss of an American ally to a brutal communist tyrannical dictatorship—freedom not being among the largess it provides its servants. The leftist’s efforts are organized in the Vietnam Peace Commemoration Committee (VPCC–Why do communist/leftist organizations always call themselves committees? )

American leftists are drawn to the Vietnam War like silverfish to the bottom of the flower pot. The assumption, supported by the facts of the war, is that they are horribly afraid that those facts will be self-evident in any commemoration of the war and cause them to die in the shame they so richly deserve. The light of truth causes them to scurry around blindly. Some unassailable facts:

North Vietnam in 1959 was a communist nation (whose mentors and suppliers had murdered and caused the death of 75 to 100 million people around the world up to that date) which decreed in the 15th Plenary their intent to conquer the nation of South Vietnam.

South Vietnam existed as a struggling democracy with a central government about as popular as the Obama administration. (Take either side).

America chose to lend support (favored by Truman, Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ and Nixon) to the South Vietnamese battle against the North Vietnamese-supported Viet Cong guerillas. When the depth of support, including the building of a major road system to transport troops and ammunition from the communist north to the free south, revealed a greater threat, America jumped in with both feet. (It was SEATO, not the Gulf of Tonkin which authorized our involvement).

The Russians and Chinese, global leaders in exporting communism, poured tons of armament and billions of rubles/yuan into the bunkers and coffers of the communist north.

And the majority of the signers of the letter demanding recognition of their anti-war efforts chose the Communist Side in the conflict. Vocally supporting the enemy killing American and South Vietnamese soldiers and innocent civilians in South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. It bears repeating—Fonda, Hayden (Mr. Jane Fonda), Ayers, and the rest supported the defeat of America and her allies in South Vietnam.

A few of their ramblings on behalf of the murdering invasion forces of North Vietnam:

Fred Branfman (visiting Hanoi with Zinn and Hayden) “……..if the war continues we hope you will grow up and become valiant combatants and will be able to down U.S. planes.”

Rennie Davis met with the North Vietnamese in Paris where “The Vietnamese….stated they would be interested in having any information…concerning development of new weapons by the US…Such information would be especially helpful…before such weapons were used on the battlefield.”

Bernadine Dohrn (wife of Bill Ayers) bragged of talks with the NLF in Budapest (NLF were the Viet Cong).

Daniel Ellsberg said “We (the U.S.) weren’t on the wrong side. We are the wrong side.”

Jane Fonda once actually proffered that (In Hanoi) if you knew what communism was, you would get down on your knees and pray you were a communist.

Todd Gitlin wrote a “freedom song” which included “And before I’ll be fenced in, I’ll vote for Ho Chi Minh, or go back to the North and be free.”

Which brings up another fact about the American left—none of them went back to Vietnam to live, work or teach their drivel after their efforts “helped bring the war to an end” with the communist North invading and conquering South Vietnam. Maybe the fact that there was more killing after the ‘war was ended’ than during the ten years of American involvement deferred their travel plans. Or maybe their racist tendencies (Democracy is fine for Caucasians, but the people of Vietnam are not sophisticated sufficiently to know it and want it—many leftists of the era wrote this sentiment) kept them safely on American land enjoying the fruits of others labor.

And the hero of the Vietnam Peace Commemoration Committee—you guessed it, John Kerry. The man who spent about three hours in combat, collected three purple hearts for scratches one might get going over a barbed wire fence, and lit out for the U.S. to testify about his moral superiority to his former ship mates in front of Congress. If you follow Kerry’s “Vietnam War” history, you won’t need to know anything else about the VPCC platform and agenda.

The request to be honored in the program honoring the veterans of the Vietnam War indicates the paucity of honor (and common sense) among them. The American left did NOTHING to stop the war in Vietnam. They contributed only to the final slaughter and internment of countless Southeast Asians by supporting communism and the liberal U.S. congress decision to abandon our allies. They contributed directly to the horror of the hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese boat people fleeing the brutal communist invaders.

It is an obscenity only the liberal/left could conceive—a request to be honored and remembered alongside the Americans who fought and died with their Vietnamese brothers-in-arms to prevent the very thing the Haydens and Fondas, the Ayers and Dohrns demanded and supported with violence and hatred of the American way. The recognition they deserve is that of communist supporters and useful idiots. Let us hope they receive it.

 

[For a near complete list of the anti-war left’s more inane and insane comments and proclamations, see Roger Canfield’s “Comrades in Arms—How the Americong Won the War in Vietnam Against the Common Enemy—America.”]

Phillip Jennings is a Vietnam combat veteran and the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Vietnam War.

Who Was Ho Chi Minh? A Deceitful Mass Murderer.

Millions of words have been written about Ho Chi Minh.  He has been called the George Washington of Vietnam,1 a devoted nationalist who loved his country,2 a brilliant leader who fought for independence with a ragtag army of sandal-clad peasants and defeated the greatest power in the world.3

It all sounds very romantic, but it is also completely false.  Ho Chi Minh was a dedicated communist,4 a member of the inner circle of the Soviet Comintern and a protégé of Dmitry Manuilsky, the right hand man of both Lenin and Stalin.5  His supposedly ragtag army of peasants was trained by the Mao’s Red Chinese Army6 and armed with modern weapons by the Red Chinese and Russians.7

After all this time, why do we still argue about the Vietnam War?  About who Ho Chi Minh was?  As William Duiker wrote,8 “The question of Ho Chi Minh’s character and inner motivations lies at the heart of the debate in the United States over the morality of the conflict in Vietnam.”

As a young man, Nguyen Tat Thanh was a Vietnamese patriot from a patriotic family agitating for independence for their country.  His father refused positions with the government because he disagreed with their policies.  His brother and sister were both imprisoned by the French for supporting Phan Boi Chau’s revolutionary movement.9

Thanh seems to have been a follower of the non-violent Phan Chau Trinh.10  In 1911 he left Vietnam searching for a way to help his countrymen gain their independence.  For a while he lived and worked in France with Phan Chau Trinh.  Eventually they parted, as Ho became an increasingly more militant communist.

When he returned to Vietnam as Ho Chi Minh 30 years later, the patriot was no more.  In his place was a brutal murderer dedicated to spreading communism throughout Asia.  Before he and his followers were done, millions of people were dead in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.11

As the man responsible for the spread of communism in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, Ho Chi Minh is directly and indirectly responsible for the lives of 1.7 million Cambodians,12 2 million Vietnamese and possibly 230,000 in Laos.13  These are not war dead, but people murdered, starved to death and “reeducated” to death.  In 1995 Vietnam revealed that they lost 1.1 million military dead14 during the war.  As a percentage of their populations, Ho is responsible for as many deaths in Indochina as Mao Tse-tung was in China.

To grasp the enormity of the slaughter, one would have to execute more than 26 million Americans to equal the percentage of the populations slaughtered by Ho and his henchmen.  Documenting these deaths is outside the scope of this article.  I encourage readers to survey the literature themselves for the evidence.

Who was Ho Chi Minh?  Ho Chi Minh was a chameleon.  He was a master at appearing to be whatever his interlocutor of the moment was expecting or hoping for (or not expecting at all).  On the inside, where it counted, he never changed after his conversion to communism.  He was a devoted communist whose only goal was the worldwide victory of communism, especially in Indochina,15 no matter how many people he had to kill to achieve it.

Much of Ho Chi Minh’s life was an enigma until recently.16  His birthdate was unknown for many years after his death.  It was variously claimed to be 1890,17 1891,18 1892,19 189420 and 1895.21  His birth name was Nguyen Sinh Cong.22  He was named Nguyen Tat Thanh,23 following Vietnamese tradition, when he achieved adolescence.  He was the son of Nguyen Sinh Sac (Huy).24  He was born in a small village named Kim Lien in the district of Nam Dan, part of the province of Nghe-An, in southern North Vietnam, about half way between Hanoi and Hue.

Concerning the confusion surrounding the details of Ho’s life, Robert Turner wrote, in a footnote in Vietnamese Communism: Its Origins and Development:25

There is considerable confusion as to the date and place of Ho’s birth and even to his given names.  Two versions of the “official” biography prepared by the Committee for the Study of the History of the Viet Nam Workers Party in 1970 gave conflicting information on his native village.   A Vietnamese-language version in Nanh Dan (Hanoi), 17 May 1970, asserted that Ho was born in Kim Lien village “the native village of his maternal grandfather.” An English-language version which otherwise appears to be identical stated that Ho was born in Hoang Tru, the village native to his mother. DRV, Our President Ho Chi Minh (Hanoi: Foreign Languages Publishing House. 1970), p. 59.   A biography by Truong Chinh identified Kim Lien as a hamlet in Nam Lien village.  President Ho Chi Minh, Beloved Leader of the Vietnamese People (Hanoi: Foreign Languages Publishing House,  1966). p. 9.  David Halberstam asserts that “Ho came from the province of Nghe Thinh [sic] ….. Ho (New York: Random House. 1971). p. 17. Nghe Tinh is a region rather than a province: it consists of the provinces Nghe An and Ha Tinh and is well known for having produced many of Vietnam’s revolutionary figures.

Several writers assert that Ho’s first name was actually Nguyen Sinh Cung (or Coong) and that he was ten years old before he became Nguyen Tat Thanh. See Jean Lacouture. Ho Chi Minh: A Politcal Biography (New York: Random House. 19(8). p. 13: Marr. Vietnamese Anticolonialism, p. 153: and N. Khach Huyen. Vision Accompllished? The Enigma of Ho Chi Minh (New York: Collier Books. 1971). pp. 4-5. 

Even the year of Ho’s birth is the subject of some dispute. Both Ellen Hammer and Bernard Fall state that Ho Chi Minh was born in 1892. Ellen Hammer. The Struggle for Indochina 1940-1955 (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. 1966, p. 75; Bernard B. Fall. The Viet-Minh Regime, Government and Administration in the Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam. rev. and enl. ed. (New York: Institute of Pacific Relations. 1956). p. 21, n. 2. In a later book Fall acknowledged that most Communist sources give 1890 as the year of Ho’s birth. The Two Viet-Nams. p. 83.

Ho used several pseudonyms throughout his life (possibly as many as 75),26 at least two of which he appropriated from true Vietnamese patriots, Nguyen Ai Quoc27 and Ho Chi Minh.  Researchers have identified 9 names that he used from official communist documents alone.

Ho has variously been known as Nguyen Sinh Cong, Nguyen Tat Thanh28 (often mistakenly identified as his birth name), Ahn Ba29 (used when he was a kitchen boy aboard ship), Nguyen Ai Quoc (Nguyen the Patriot, which he “stole” from Phan Van Truong30 31), Tran Van Tien,32 T. Lan,33 Lee Swei,34 Lin,35 Sung Man-cho and T. V. Wong,36 Ly Thuy and Vuong Son Nhi37 and finally Ho Chi Minh (which he “stole” from the Vietnamese patriot, Ho Hoc Lam38).  (Throughout this document I will use the name Ho, since it is the name most closely associated with him, except where other names make sense in the context.)

His words were often as fictitious as his names.  He lied about his place of birth.39  He lied about his date of birth.40  He lied about where he lived41 and what he did42 throughout his life.  He lied about who he was and what he believed.  He lied to create mystery, to hide the truth, to confuse authorities and most of all to further the cause of communism.

His life was so filled with deceit and deception that even now, more than 40 years after his death, historians can’t agree who he really was or about some of the details of his life.

As a child, Ho attended the Lycee Quoc Hoc in Hue (but never graduated).  Ngo Dinh Diem’s father, Ngo Dinh Kha, founded the school, and Ngo Dinh Diem (later to become his enemy), Pham Van Dong (later to become his premier) and Vo Nguyen Giap (later to become his military leader) also attended the school.

His father was friends with Pham Boi Chau and earned his pho bang degree the same year as Phan Chu Trinh.  They were the two most prominent patriots of his time, and young Ho was exposed to both of them through his father.

The mood in Vietnam at the time was one of rising anger, a growing desire to shed the yoke of French mastery and forge a new destiny.  Ho, as a young student, was an active part of it, participating in protests and working to stir up the people to oppose the French.  The French colonial police took notice and kept an eye on the young activist student.

In 1911, pursuing his desire to see the world and to escape the watchful eyes of the French colonial police, Ho boarded a French merchant ship,43 using the name Ba,44 and worked as a kitchen boy aboard the ship.  Some accounts claim he lived in London for a while, and even in America, but there is little solid evidence to corroborate residence in either place.45  (The British authorities, at the request of the French searched fruitlessly for Nguyen Tat Thanh in London for several years.)

What he did for the six years from 1911 to 1917 is not known with any certainty.  It’s entirely possible that he was working aboard vessels of Compagnie des Chargeurs Re’unis the entire time, visiting ports all over the world.  That would explain his familiarity with the United States and Britain as well as post cards stamped in those cities.  Both were ports of call, and the young Thanh was eager to disembark and explore the local cultures of each port where they docked.

In 1917, he settled in France and began attending socialist meetings.  He was an avid learner and soaked up everything he could about socialism and activism.  He was also a frequent visitor to the Sorbonne as well as the Bibliotheque Nationale where he is said to have been a “voracious reader”.46

He first showed up in police files in France in 1919, after he had moved in with Phan Chu Trinh and Phan Van Truong and took a job with Trinh retouching photographs.47  Their apartment was the center of activity for a small group of dedicated Vietnamese nationalists known as the Five Dragons48 who met frequently, had animated discussions about Vietnam and published articles advocating for Vietnamese independence.  One of the frequent attendees was also a police informant.

During the Treaty of Versailles conference, Trinh, Truong and Ho worked on a document to present to the conferees advocating for independence for Indochina.  Since the Surete´ was watching them closely, they published the document using a pseudonym, Nguyen Ai Quoc (Nguyen the patriot).  The document was conceived by Ho and written by Truong.

The name Nguyen Ai Quoc had appeared before in articles published in France,49 before Ho is known to have written anything and well before he was capable of writing in French.  The author was most likely Phan Van Truong50 according to French police notes51 since he was a lawyer and spoke and wrote French fluently.  Ho admitted in his biography that he couldn’t write French and depended upon Truong to write the Versailles document for him.52

After Versailles, rumors flew for three months about who Nguyen Ai Quoc might be.  The French investigated, trying to determine who the writer was.  In September, Ho “admitted” he was Quoc during a newspaper interview, stealing the pseudonym so he could appropriate to himself all the previous work done under that name.53  Thus he gained the credentials of a true Vietnamese nationalist that still fools people today.

Ho continued attending political meetings and learning about communism.  His change from a concerned nationalist to a committed communist appeared to happen rapidly.  In less than a year, he changed from begging for help for his Asian brothers54 to promoting Asia as the fulcrum for a worldwide communist revolution.

He wrote55 “…on the day when millions of oppressed Asians wake up, they will form a colossal force capable of overthrowing imperialism, and they will aid their brothers of the West in the task of total emancipation from capitalist exploitation.  Asia would play an active role in carrying out the world revolution.”

One year later he was on his way to Moscow, all expenses paid by the Comintern, to attend the Fourth Congress of the Comintern and enroll in intensive training.56  He had become a committed communist, preparing to bring revolution to Indochina and misery and death to many of his fellow countrymen.

In 1924, fully trained and eager to begin his revolution, Ho traveled to Hong Kong as an agent of the Comintern.  He was now a Comintern insider, dedicated to the worldwide overthrow of capitalism and prepared to do whatever the Comintern asked of him.

He met with Phan Boi Chau in Hong Kong and began working with him to build a revolutionary movement (later named Viet Nam Thanh Nien Cach Mang Dong Chi Hoi [Young Revolutionary Comrades Association]).57

Phan Boi Chau was a popular nationalist who had a large following (the Viet Nam Quang Phuc Ho) and extensive international contacts.58  He had united Vietnamese nationalists of all religions in the early twentieth century, arguing that the traditional anti-Catholicism was counterproductive and that all nationalists should unite in a common cause – to expel the French.59

Chau represented a serious threat to Ho’s dreams of a communist Indochina as well as a rich resource of followers that Ho might tap once Chau was out of the way.  Less than a year after meeting him, Ho facilitated Phan Boi Chau’s arrest by the French60 in exchange for money so that he could fill the vacuum left when Chau was arrested.61  (Although there is some controversy regarding who actually betrayed Chau, there is little question that Ho was involved.)62

He didn’t hesitate to exploit the resource as soon as Chau was arrested.  Those Phan Boi Chau followers who accepted communism were welcomed into Ho’s movement.  Those that did not were betrayed to the French by Ho’s henchman, Nguyen Cong Vien, for money.  Thus Phan Boi Chau’s movement was both destroyed and subsumed through deceit and treachery.63

Consistent with his previous behavior, he stole the name Ho Chi Minh from Ho Hoc Lam, whom he met in China in 1924 when meeting with Phan Boi Chau.64  The name would inure to him the benefits of the real Ho Chi Minh’s legacy.  For the many Vietnamese revolutionaries who came from the Nghe Tinh region, the name would evoke patriotism and nationalism.   His plan was taking shape.  He would use the name Ho when the time was right.

There was a much darker side to Ho than his deceit and treachery however.

In 1930 and 1931, his Indochinese Communist Party conducted an assassination program against competitors, landowners and officials, that was so sweeping it prompted a rebuke from the Comintern.65  It was a harbinger of things to come.  Before he died, the bodies would pile up in a steady stream as he eliminated anyone who appeared to be a threat or simply didn’t agree with him completely.

Through the 1930’s and 40’s, as the ICP worked to gain complete control of Vietnam, thousands of patriotic Vietnamese fell to the sword, were turned over to the French for money or fled to Japan and China to escape the terror.  When it suited Ho’s purpose, some would serve in his government; when it no longer did, they would die or flee the country.

Once he obtained power in North Vietnam, he began systematically eliminating his competition.  He formed alliances with nationalist groups and then proceeded to eliminate their leaders all the while touting his nationalist credentials.

Moderate reformers like Bui Quang Chieu were assassinated as a matter of course,66 to “purify” the Vietnamese people so communism could succeed.  Even personal friends, like Ta Thu Thau, were murdered in his zeal to eliminate all but the most fervent of followers67 and destroy anyone who might challenge his leadership.  Those who were fortunate either escaped to other countries or to South Vietnam, where their luck would run out two decades later.  The rest died.

Ho, when asked about the murder of Ta Thu Thau by a reporter, answered  matter-of-factly, “Anyone who does not follow the line determined by me will be smashed.”68

The last to go were the Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang, a nationalist organization that had risen up against the French in 1930 in Yen-Bai.  (This was the same year Ho created the Indochina Communist Party in Hong Kong and 11 years before he returned to Vietnam after a 30-year absence.)  Ho eliminated them through military action against the areas they controlled as well as arrests of the leadership and confiscation of their assets.69  By the end of 1946 there was no one left to contest Ho for leadership of North Vietnam.

The peasants soon discovered his true nature as well in the brutal land reforms.  Ostensibly they were designed to benefit the peasants.  In reality, they pitted the peasants against the middle class and wealthy and even against each other and resulted in at least 50,000 murders and 450,000 “other” deaths70.

The land reform was so brutal that the peasants revolted.  To maintain order Ho called in an entire division and slaughtered Vietnamese indiscriminately until the revolt was put down.71

It’s no wonder then that many American leaders predicted a bloodbath should the communists take over South Vietnam.72  Nor is it surprising that apologists for the communists insisted that the predictions were wrong.73 74

A bloodbath was exactly what they got.  Research revealed between 84,000 and 240,000 political executions75 in South Vietnam after the communists took over.  Given the ratio of executions to deaths in North Vietnam’s land reform, it’s not unreasonable to postulate a minimum of 840,000 deaths and a maximum of 2.4 million deaths76 in the South.

Ho’s lack of conscience and end justifies the means philosophy was manifested in the international agreements that he made as well.  He never honored agreements that he signed considering them simply a temporary appeasement of his enemies while he strengthened his position.

He signed agreements with the French in 1946 and just eight months later he attacked them.  He signed peace agreements in Geneva in 1954 and 1962, both of which he abrogated before the ink was dry.  (Of course his government followed in his footsteps and abrogated the peace treaty they signed with the US in 1973.)

He infiltrated (and later invaded) South Vietnam in violation of the Geneva Accords in order to destroy the ability of the South Vietnamese government to build confidence and safety among its citizens.  He maintained the fiction that the NLF was an independent organization in order to “negotiate” with the U.S. and South Vietnam from a stronger position.  (Of course he never had any intention of abiding by any accords that were signed.)

He quoted the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen to trick many Americans and the international community into thinking he believed in republican politics.  He did the same to Vietnamese nationalists, lulling them into the false sense of security that was shattered as soon as he could exercise his extreme brutality against his “enemies”.

Referring to the betrayal of Phan Boi Chau, the British scholar P.J. Honey wrote77:

Some of Ho’s followers subsequently reported that he had given them the following reasons for his act of treachery:

(1) Chau was too old to be of any further use to the revolution.

(2) The upsurge of patriotism that would inevitably follow Chau’s trial and condemnation, would create a favorable revolutionary climate in Vietnam.

(3) The reward money would help to finance the training of new recruits

The first of these reasons is an obvious attempt to minimize Ho’s guilt, but the second and third reasons provide a revealing insight into the callous pragmatism that was to become the hallmark of Ho’s later political activities. The ruthlessness, the total disregard for human life and suffering, were always present in Ho’s actions, though he frequently disguised these characteristics behind gentle words and a benign exterior.

Hammond Rolph sums up the contradictions of Ho in one sentence.78

To the Vietnamese people he has presented himself as a figure of avuncular benignity, while his political life has been a model of ruthless and militant dedication to the fulfillment of the national and social goals he has set for the Vietnamese Revolution.”

One of Ho’s favorite slogans can still be seen on billboards all over Vietnam today.  “Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom.”79  Yet in Ho’s lifetime, he had the power to provide that independence and freedom to the people of North Vietnam and never did.

The people of South Vietnam had independence and freedom within the context of an ongoing war.  All the arguments about the corruption, the autocratic nature of the South Vietnamese government or suppression of some press outlets can’t obscure the fact that they had freedom of the press, open elections, opposition parties and open strident political criticism so long as it didn’t promote the Communist version of the truth.  North Vietnam had none of that.  When the North defeated the South, Ho’s mantra of independence and freedom, a reality in South Vietnam, was swept away in a brutal repression of all opposition to Communist rule.

The key to understanding Ho is presentation versus behavior.  A man can appear to be many things, but his actions define who he is.  Ho’s actions define him as a dedicated communist who never swerved from his goal.  Every move he made, every word he spoke was calculated to further that goal.  Millions died because of it.

In the pantheon of dictators who slaughtered millions of their own people, Ho stands proudly beside Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Hitler.  His record speaks for itself.

A pdf copy of this paper is available for download here.