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