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How to Lose A War: The Press and Viet Nam

By Robert Elegant
Reprinted from Encounter (London), vol. LVII, No. 2, August 1981, pp. 73-90
Republished with permission from the author

IN THE EARLY 1960s, when the Viet Nam War became a big story, most foreign correspondents assigned to cover the story wrote primarily to win the approbation of the crowd, above all their own crowd. As a result, in my view, the self-proving system of reporting they created became ever further detached from political and military realities because it instinctively concentrated on its own self-justification. The American press, naturally dominant in an “American war,” somehow felt obliged to be less objective than partisan, to take sides, for it was inspired by the engagé “investigative” reporting that burgeoned in the United States in these impassioned years. The press was instinctively “agin the government”—and, at least reflexively, for Saigon’s enemies.

During the latter half of the fifteen-year American involvement in Viet Nam, the media became the primary battlefield. Illusory events reported by the press as well as real events within the press corps were more decisive than the clash of arms or the contention of ideologies. For the first time in modern history, the outcome of a war was determined not on the battlefield but on the printed page and, above all, on the television screen. Looking back coolly, I believe it can be said (surprising as it may still sound) that South Vietnamese and American forces actually won the limited military struggle. They virtually crushed the Viet Cong in the South, the “native” guerrillas who were directed, reinforced, and equipped from Hanoi; and thereafter they threw back the invasion by regular North Vietnamese divisions. Nonetheless, the war was finally lost to the invaders after the U.S. disengagement because the political pressures built up by the media had made it quite impossible for Washington to maintain even the minimal material and moral support that would have enabled the Saigon regime to continue effective resistance.

Since I am considering causes rather than effects, the demoralization of the West, particularly the United States, that preceded and followed the fall of South Viet Nam is beyond the scope of this article. It is, however, interesting to wonder whether Angola, Afghanistan, and Iran would have occurred if Saigon had not fallen amid nearly universal odium—that is to say, if the “Viet Nam Syndrome,” for which the press (in my view) was largely responsible, had not afflicted the Carter Administration and paralyzed American will. On the credit side, largely despite the press, the People’s Republic of China would almost certainly not have purged itself of the Maoist doctrine of “worldwide liberation through people’s war” and, later, would not have come to blows with Hanoi if the defense of South Viet Nam had not been maintained for so long.

The Brotherhood

“You could be hard about it and deny that there was a brotherhood working there, but what else could you call it?” This is a question that Michael Herr asked in his Dispatches,1 a personally honest but basically deceptive book.

“But . . . all you ever talked about was the war, and they would come to seem like two different wars at the same time. Because who but another correspondent could talk the kind of mythical war you wanted to hear described?”

I have added the italics, for in the words “mythical” and “wanted” the essential truth is laid bare. In my own personal experience most correspondents wanted to talk chiefly to other correspondents to confirm their own mythical vision of the war. Even newcomers were precommitted, as the American jargon has it, to the collective position most of their colleagues had already taken. What I can only call surrealistic reporting constantly fed on itself, and did not diminish thereby, but swelled into ever more grotesque shapes. I found the process equally reprehensible for being in no small part unwitting.

John le Carré (whose extravagant encomium adorns the cover of the Pan edition of Dispatches: “The best book I have ever read on men and war in our times”) is, I feel, too clever a writer to believe he painted an even proximately accurate picture of Southeast Asia in The Honourable Schoolboy (1972). But he brilliantly depicted the press corps and the correspondents’ Asia, an encapsulated, self-defining world whirling in its own eccentric orbit. Correspondents, briefly set down in the brutally alienating milieu called Viet Nam, turned to each other for professional sustenance and emotional comfort. After all, there was nowhere else to turn, certainly not to stark reality, which was both elusive and repellent.

Most correspondents were isolated from the Vietnamese by ignorance of their language and culture, as well as by a measure of race estrangement. Most were isolated from the quixotic American Army establishment, itself often as confused as they themselves were, by their moralistic attitudes and their political prejudices. It was inevitable, in the circumstances, that they came to write, in the first instance, for each other.

To be sure, the approbation of his own crowd gave a certain fullness to the correspondent’s life in exile that reached beyond the irksome routine of reporting and writing. The disapprobation of his peers could transform him into a bitterly defensive misanthrope (I think here of one industrious radio and newspaper stringer who was reputed to be the richest correspondent in Viet Nam, except, of course, for the television stars). Even the experienced correspondents, to whom Asia was “home” rather than a hostile temporary environment, formed their own little self-defensive world within the larger world of the newcomers.

It was no wonder that correspondents writing to win the approbation of other correspondents in that insidiously collegial atmosphere produced reporting that was remarkably homogeneous. After each other, correspondents wrote to win the approbation of their editors, who controlled their professional lives and who were closely linked with the intellectual community at home. The consensus of that third circle, the domestic intelligentsia, derived largely from correspondents’ reports and in turn served to determine the nature of those reports. If dispatches did not accord with that consensus, approbation was withheld. Only in the last instance did correspondents address themselves to the general public, the mass of lay readers and viewers.

[Illegible] conclusion, most correspondents were in one respect, very much the ambitious soldiers they derided. A tour in Viet Nam was almost essential to promotion for a U.S. Regular Army officer, and a combat command was the best road to rapid advancement. Covering the biggest continuing story in the world was not absolutely essential to a correspondent’s rise, but it was an invaluable cachet. Quick careers were made by spectacular reporting of the obvious fact that men, women, and children were being killed; fame or at least notoriety rewarded the correspondent who became part of the action—rather than a mere observer—by influencing events directly.

Journalists, particularly those serving in television, were therefore, like soldiers, “rotated” to Viet Nam. Few were given time to develop the knowledge, and indeed the intellectual instincts, necessary to report the war in the round. Only a few remained “in country” for years, though the experienced Far Eastern correspondents visited regularly from Hong Kong, Singapore, and Tokyo. Not surprisingly, one found that most reporting veered farther and farther from the fundamental political, economic, and military realities of the war, for these were usually not spectacular. Reporting Viet Nam became a closed, self-generating system sustained largely by the acclaim the participants lavished on each other in almost equal measure to the opprobrium they heaped on “the Establishment,” a fashionable and very vulnerable target.

The Cloud of Unknowing

For some journalists, perhaps most, a moment of truth through self-examination was never to come. The farther they were from the real conflict, the more smugly self-approving they now remain as commentators who led the public to expect a brave new world when the North Vietnamese finally “liberated” South Viet Nam. Even those correspondents who today gingerly confess to some errors or distortions usually insist that the true fault was not theirs at all, but Washington’s. The enormity of having helped in one way or another to bring tens of millions under grinding totalitarian rule—and having tilted the global balance of power—appears too great to acknowledge. It is easier to absolve one’s self by blaming exclusively Johnson, Nixon, and Kissinger.

I found few American correspondents to be as tough-minded as one Briton I knew who was very close to the action for many years in the employ of an American wire-news service. “I’m ashamed of most of what I wrote in Viet Nam,” he told me recently. “But I was a new boy, and I took my lead from the Americans, who were afire with the crusading spirit of ’60s journalism—the involvement, man, in the good fight. When I look at what’s happened now, I’m ashamed of my ignorance—and what I helped to do to the Vietnamese….”2

As one West German correspondent has confessed (Uwe Siemon-Netto in the International Herald Tribune, reprinted in Encounter, October 1979): “Having covered the Viet Nam war over a period of five years for West German publications, I am now haunted by the role we journalists have played over there.

Those of us who had wanted to find out knew of the evil nature of the Hanoi regime. We knew that, in 1956, close to 50,000 peasants were executed in North Viet Nam. We knew that after the division of the country nearly one million North Vietnamese had fled to the South. Many of us have seen the tortured and carved-up bodies of men, women, and children executed by the Viet Cong in the early phases of the war. And many of us saw, in 1968, the mass graves of Hue, saw the corpses of thousands of civilians still festively dressed for Tet, the Vietnamese New Year.

Why, for heaven’s sake, did we not report about these expressions of deliberate North Vietnamese strategy at least as extensively as of the My Lai massacre and other such isolated incidents that were definitely not part of the U.S. policy in Viet Nam?

What prompted us to make our readers believe that the Communists, once in power in all of Viet Nam, would behave benignly? What made us, first and foremost Anthony Lewis, belittle warnings by U.S. officials that a Communist victory would result in a massacre?

Why did we ignore the fact that the man responsible for the executions of 50,000 peasants, Truong Chinh, was—and still is—one of the most powerful figures in Hanoi. What made us think that he and his comrades would have mercy for the vanquished South Vietnamese? What compelled, for example, Anthony Lewis shortly after the fall of Saigon to pat himself on the shoulder and write, “so much for the talk of a massacre”?

True, no Cambodian-style massacre took place in Viet Nam. It’s just that Hanoi coolly drives its ethnic Chinese and opponents into the sea.

Are we journalists not in part responsible for the death of the tens of thousands who drowned? And are we not in part responsible for the hostile reception accorded to those who survive? Did we not turn public opinion against them, portraying them, as one singularly ignoble cartoon did in the United States, as a bunch of pimps, whores, war profiteers, corrupt generals, or, at best, outright reactionaries?

Considering that today’s Viet Nam tragedy may have a lot to do with the way we reported yesterday’s Viet Nam tragedy, considering that we journalists might have our fair share of guilt for the inhuman way the world treats those who are being expelled by an inhuman regime which some of us had pictured as heroic, I think at least a little humility would be in order for us old Viet Nam hands. . . .”

Journalistic institutions are, of course, rarely afflicted by false modesty. They have not disclaimed credit for the outcome of the war, and their representatives have taken public bows for their successful intervention. The multitude of professional prizes bestowed upon the “big-story” coverage of Viet Nam certainly implied approval of the general effort.

However, the media have been rather coy; they have not declared that they played a key role in the conflict. They have not proudly trumpeted Hanoi’s repeated expressions of gratitude to the mass media of the non-Communist world, although Hanoi has indeed affirmed that it could not have won “without the Western press.” The Western press appears either unaware of the direct connection between cause (its reporting) and effect (the Western defeat in Viet Nam), or strangely reluctant to proclaim that the pen and the camera proved decisively mightier than the bayonet and ultra-modern weapons.

Nor have the media dwelt upon the glaring inconsistency between the expectation they raised of peaceful, prosperous development after Saigon’s collapse and the present post-war circumstances in Indochina. Unquestionably, a number of those approvingly characterized by the New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis as “critics of the American war” have protested against brutal repression in Cambodia. Some (including Lewis, and the French journalist Jean Lacouture3) even confessed that their expectations of the consequences of a Communist victory in Cambodia were mistaken. But none, to my knowledge, has suggested that he might have erred fundamentally in his vehement and total opposition to the U.S. role in Indochina. Instead, most partial confessions have concluded with renewed denunciations of American actions.

Jean Lacouture did offer a public mea culpa for having championed the Khmer Rouge. Reviewing a book on “Democratic Kampuchea,” he confessed:

“Francois Ponchoud’s Cambodia, Year Zero can be read only with shame by those of us who supported the Khmer Rouge cause. . . . And it will cause distress to those of us journalists who, after the massacre of seventeen of our colleagues in April and May 1971, tried to explain these deaths as part of the hazards of covering a disorganized guerrilla war. In fact, our poor comrades were assassinated—some, we know, clubbed to death—by the valiant guerrillas of Khieu Samphan, the ‘socialist’ Khmer who now bars foreign observers from Cambodian soil. His people remain in terror-stricken confinement, one of his regime’s more rational decisions: for how could it let the outside world see its burying of a civilization in prehistory, its massacres? . . .”

An illuminating example is Anthony Lewis, whose horror over abuses of American power apparently led him to the conclusion that similar abuses by America’s opponents were not worth noting. Having earlier found almost as much to praise in Hanoi as to condemn in Saigon, Lewis was belatedly moved to outrage by Lacouture’s observations—Jean Lacouture’s chief qualification was apparently his having been so spectacularly wrong about the consequences of a Khmer Rouge victory.

“. . . Those of us who had been critics of the war [Lewis wrote] may have felt skeptical about some of the Cambodian reports because they came from right-wing4 quarters that had been indifferent to the misery inflicted on Cambodia by American bombers. But these explanations wither in the presence of Jean Lacouture. He is a leading French expert on Indochina. And he was a profound critic of the American war.”

The reporters—and even the contrite Jean Lacouture—have continued to disregard the testimony regarding earlier North Vietnamese coercion offered by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia’s former chief-of-state. Sihanouk complained in 1973 that he had been forced to tolerate North Viet Nam using Cambodia as a supply route, training camp, and proving ground for its forces in South Viet Nam, although he knew the massive incursion was destroying his country. Preoccupied with their condemnation of U.S. intervention in Indochina, the “critics of the American war” have virtually ignored Sihanouk’s indictment of the North Vietnamese just as they have ignored the fact that Sihanouk had, albeit under duress, tolerated American bombing of North Vietnamese strongholds in Cambodia, the “unilateral action” for which those critics still pillory Henry Kissinger.5

The same critics were not outraged at the final conquest of South Viet Nam in 1975 by columns of Russian-built tanks supported by batteries of Russian-made artillery. (That was Hanoi’s second try; the first, in 1972, failed because the Saigon régime was still supported by U.S. air power and was still receiving adequate U.S. war matériel.) These righteous critics have taken little note of the detailed description of that final conquest published by North Viet Nam’s Senior General Van Tien Dung in the spring of 1976. General Dung’s account (128 single-spaced pages in English translation) proudly affirmed that the assault was ordered by the Political Bureau of the Labor (Communist) Party of North Viet Nam, planned by the Labor Party’s Central Military Affairs Committee, commanded by Northern generals, supplied from the North, and mounted by regular divisions of the People’s Army of the Democratic Republic of North Viet Nam.

Even before General Dung’s report, it should have been clear that the remnants of the Viet Cong—the southern “guerrilla force” made up primarily of Northerners—were inherently capable neither of maneuvering 700 tanks in conventional formations nor, for that matter, of building and operating the double pipeline that fueled those tanks with petroleum from the North. Just as they subsequently passed over General Dung’s explicit revelations, the “critics of the American war” ignored such empirical evidence that Saigon fell, not to an indigenous people in arms, but to an external invasion mounted by vanguard cadres who consider themselves ideologically superior to their Southern compatriots.

To take note of these obtrusive facts would have called into question the very nature of the war in Indochina—as it would to have taken note of them during the conflict. Any searching analysis of fundamental premises has remained as unthinkable to “the critics” as it was during the fighting. They have remained committed to the proposition that the American role in Indochina was totally reprehensible and inexcusable, while the North Vietnamese role—and, by extension, the roles of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the Pathet Lao in Laos—was righteous, magnanimous, and just. Even the growing number who finally deplored the repressive consequences of the totalitarian victory could not bring themselves to re-examine the premises that led them to contribute so decisively to those victories. Thus William Shawcross, before his sententious book, Sideshow,6 wrote of the Communists’ reshaping of Cambodian society: “The process is atrociously brutal.” Although “the Khmer people are suffering horribly under their new rules,” this is how Shawcross unhesitatingly assigned the ultimate blame:

“They have suffered every day of the last six years–ever since the beginning of one of the most destructive foreign policies the United States has ever pursued: the ‘Nixon-Kissinger doctrine’ in its purest form. . .”

The Eye of the Beholder

Most correspondents on the scene were not quite as vehement. But they were moved by the same conviction of American guilt, which was so fixed that it resisted all the evidence pointing to a much more complex reality. Employed in the service of that crusading fervor was, for the first time, the most emotionally moving medium of all.

Television, its thrusting and simplistic character shaping its message, was most shocking because it was most immediate. The Viet Nam War was a presence in homes throughout the world. Who could seriously doubt the veracity of so plausible and so moving a witness in one’s own living room?

At any given moment, a million images were available to the camera’s lens in Saigon alone—and hundreds of million throughout Indochina. But TV crews naturally preferred the most dramatic. That, after all, was their business—show business. It was not news to film farmers peacefully tilling their rice fields, though it might have been argued that nothing happening was news when the American public had been led to believe that almost every Vietnamese farmer was regularly threatened by the Viet Cong, constantly imperiled by battle, and rarely safe from indiscriminate U.S. bombing.

A few hard, documented instances. A burning village was news, even though it was a deserted village used in a Marine training exercise—even though the television correspondent had handed his Zippo lighter to a non-commissioned officer with the suggestion that he set fire to an abandoned house. American soldiers cutting ears off a Viet Cong corpse was news—even if the cameraman had offered the soldiers his knife and “dared” them to take those grisly souvenirs. (Since the antics of the media were definitely not news, the network refrained from apologizing for the contrived “event” when a special investigation called the facts to its attention.) Cargo-nets full of dead South Vietnamese soldiers being lowered by helicopters were news—even if that image implicitly contradicted the prevailing conviction that the South Vietnamese never fought but invariably threw away their weapons and ran.

The competition in beastliness among the networks was even more intense than the similar competition among the representatives of the print media. Only rarely did television depict peaceful fields in which water buffaloes pulled ploughs for diligent farmers—undisturbed by air-bursts, rockets, infantrymen, or guerrillas. One special report was, however, devoted largely to depicting bucolic scenes and untraveled roads when Prince Norodom Sihanouk invited a television correspondent to tour the border areas of Cambodia to prove that his country was not being used by the North Vietnamese as a base for operations against South Viet Nam. A few years later, Sihanouk of course acknowledged that the North Vietnamese had at the time been—and had remained—intensely active in precisely those areas. But television could “prove” either a negative or a positive proposition—depending on where the camera pointed and upon the correspondent’s inclination.7

In fairness, a number of newspaper correspondents also endorsed Sihanouk’s contention that there were no North Vietnamese soldiers in Cambodia. Since the correspondents had seen no invaders, there were, patently, no invaders to be seen. The assumption of omniscience that lay behind so much of the coverage of Indochina remains awe-inspiring.

One tale involving the aerial jeep of Viet Nam was so magnified that it lost any connection with actual events. That was the story of unwounded Vietnamese soldiers bandaging themselves in order to swarm on to helicopters for evacuation from their raid into Laos in 1971.

That raid on the North Vietnamese installations and supply routes that were called the “Ho Chi Minh Trails” was no great success. But, as I found after two weeks of my own intensive investigation, it was hardly the debacle described by most of the press. South Vietnamese planning for their command’s first major independent military operation was faulty; some units deported themselves badly; but others fought well. Nonetheless, descriptions of a “South Vietnamese rout” were made graphic by repeated reports of soldiers bandaging imaginary wounds.

On close questioning, one Western journalist (a wire-service man), who was shaking with indignation at South Vietnamese pusillanimity, admitted that: (1) he had seen no soldier bandaging unbroken skin; but (2) he had seen soldiers bandaging “mere scratches.” He finally conceded that: (1) he had seen no soldier bandage a scratch and then “swarm aboard a helicopter”; and (2) having never marched through a jungle, he did not know how rapidly untreated “scratches” could become severe infections in that malignant environment. However, his stories of South Vietnamese cowardice had already been widely published, and he, quite naturally, did not wish to provoke his home office by filing a correction. If he had, the correction might have been filed to the wire-service’s world-wide clients. If it had been “moved on the wire,” it might not have been printed widely or conspicuously. What had not happened was simply not news . . . even if it had already been reported as having happened.

Television reports had one distinct advantage. A picture of nothing was, obviously, more convincing than a printed report of nothing.

One of the most persistent “horror stories” was retailed by the Western newspapers and magazines because television could not, obviously, take pictures of torture. Did interrogators ever push an uncommunicative prisoner out of a helicopter to encourage his fellows to talk? No such atrocity has ever been confirmed, despite the swarms of investigative reporters and the many eager informants among officers and diplomats, whose indignation against stupid and inefficient policies was transmuted by the press into indignant protest against the war itself.

One such “incident,” staged with a corpse, was turned up by the meticulous research of Günter Lewy for his book America in Vietnam,8 which should be required reading for all war correspondents. A U.S. soldier acquired a photograph of that grisly incident, and went on to invent an account of how a prisoner was killed by being hurled from a helicopter. The imagined event was given wide coverage.9

Interrogation by macabre example did make a great story, though it probably never happened and, certainly, has never been proved.

The Imaginary General

Such skewed reporting occurred frequently; it was sometimes major and sometimes trivial. Since I am discussing motivations, not drawing up any kind of indictment, a catalogue of such incidents would be superfluous. But a few striking examples may help to make the general point. First, the case of the imaginary general told by a British colleague.

An American correspondent who was later to write a highly praised book on Viet Nam was chuckling over a telegram in the terrace cafe of the Hotel Continental, known to habitués as “the Continental Shelf.” His editors had asked him to confirm that it would be neither libelous nor vexatious to quote the U.S. general who had in the correspondent’s last dispatch been highly critical of the entire American effort—on the Continental Shelf (which generals, by the way, did not frequent).

“Of course,” he told his questioner, “1 cabled them to go ahead and not worry. Why should they? After all, I made that general up.” The imaginary general in the dispatch made a repeat performance in the correspondent’s book.

Sgt. John Ashe (brother of the world-famous tennis player) was a Marine assigned to public relations duties. He delivered a biting indictment of the young wire-service correspondents and the “war freaks” who frequented Da Nang (which was a remote outpost to the media, though not to the military). They would, he recalled, rarely go into the field and never spend the night when they did; would deport themselves as if they had never heard a shot fired with intent to kill before that moment—to their own and the Marines’ peril; and then file stories that “bore little or no relation” to what he—and they—had seen. They didn’t want to know, Ashe added, what was really happening in the First Corps Area, where the Marines had winkled out the Viet Cong by stationing squads in villages.

Instructive on a larger scale is the contrast between the coverage of the American massacre at My Lai and the Viet Cong massacre at Hue. At My Lai, a junior American officer allowed his men to kill dozens of presumably uninvolved farmers in full violation of standing orders. At Hue, the former imperial capital, the Viet Cong killed several thousand community leaders, including a number of Europeans, in accordance with standing orders to “destroy the bourgeoisie.” The U.S. military’s attempt to suppress reports of the My Lai massacre, of course, made it even worse when the story was finally released by the Dispatch News Agency, a curious organization that came into existence in Viet Nam with unknown financial backing and vanished once its purpose of opposing the war had brought Hanoi victory. But the Hue massacre was, somehow, uninteresting. Few correspondents reported that clear signal of the real policies the North Vietnamese would pursue once they had conquered the South.

By the same token, American restraint was not news, even to the experienced correspondents, because it was a “non-event.” Flying in a command helicopter of the Ninth Division over the Mekong Delta, another U.S. correspondent and I heard the brigade commander countermand his battalion commander’s order to the infantry and the helicopter gunships to attack some 100 enemy who were pouring out of a surrounded village, still firing.

“Do not, repeat do not, attack,” the colonel directed. “They’re using women and children as shields.”

Neither my colleague nor myself thought the incident worth reporting; that was a palpable error of judgment induced by the atmosphere in which we were working. If the Ninth Division had killed the civilians, we would have filed copiously.

Equally lamentable was the failure of the Western press to cover with any thoroughness the Army of the Republic of South Viet Nam, which over the long run was doing most of the fighting. Correspondents were reluctant to commit their safety to units whose resolution they distrusted—sometimes for good reason, more often because of a kind of racist contempt—in order to get stories that interested their editors so little. Coverage of Vietnamese politics, as well as social and economic developments, was sporadic—except for military coups and political crises, and those were often misreported.

Examples of misdirected or distorted reporting could be amassed almost indefinitely. The war, after all, lasted some twenty years. A former Washington Post and New York Times correspondent, Peter Braestrup, has published a two-volume study of the coverage of the Tet Offensive of 1968.10 Quite significantly, it attracted little interest compared to, say, William Shawcross’s Sideshow or Michael Herr’s Dispatches.

The Power of Self-Deception

Nowadays, Jean Lacouture, Anthony Lewis, and William Shawcross (among some other “Viet Nam veterans”) clearly feel deceived or even betrayed by the Communists of Indochina; yet surely, they voluntarily adopted the ideological bias that allowed Hanoi to deceive them. The Vietnamese Communists—unlike their Cambodian confreres—had, after all, openly declared their intention of imposing totalitarian rule upon the South. Why, then, were the “critics of the American war” so genuinely surprised by the consequences? More crucially, why did a virtual generation of Western journalists deceive itself so consistently as to the nature of the “liberation” in Indochina? Why did the correspondents want to believe in the good faith of the Communists? Why did they so want to disbelieve the avowed motives of the United States? Why did so much of their presumably factual reporting regularly reflect their ideological bias?

The obvious explanation is not as ingenuous as it may appear: the majority of Western correspondents and commentators adopted their idiosyncratic approach to the Indochina War precisely because other journalists had already adopted that approach. To put it more directly, it was fashionable (this was, after all, the age of Radical Chic) to be “a critic of the American war.”

Decisive in the case of the Americans, who set the tone, was the normally healthy adversary relationship between the U.S. press and the U.S. government. American newspapermen have often felt, with some justification, that if an administration affirmed a controversial fact, that fact—if not prima facie false—was at the least suspect. As the lies of successive administrations regarding Indochina escalated, that conviction became the credo of the press. The psychological process that began with the unfounded optimism of President John F. Kennedy’s ebullient “New Frontiersmen,” who were by and large believed, ended with the disastrous last stand of Richard Nixon’s dour palace guard, who were believed by no one.

The reaction against official mendacity was initially healthy but later became distorted, self-serving, and self-perpetuating. A faulty syllogism was unconsciously accepted: Washington was lying consistently; Hanoi contradicted Washington; therefore Hanoi was telling the truth.

The initial inclination to look upon Hanoi as a fount of pure truth was intelligently fostered by the Communists, who selectively rewarded “critics of the American war” with visas to North Viet Nam. A number of influential journalists and public figures (ranging from former cabinet officers to film actresses) were feted in North Viet Nam. They were flattered not only by the attention and the presumed inside information proffered by the North Vietnamese but by their access to a land closed to most Americans. The favored few—and the aspiring many—helped establish a climate in which it was not only fashionable but, somehow, an act of courage to follow the critical crowd in Saigon and Washington while praising Hanoi. The skeptical correspondent risked ostracism by his peers and conflicts with his editors if he did not run with “the herd of independent minds,” if he did not support the consensus.

The larger reason for the tenacity of the consensus went much deeper. It welled from a new view of this war, which was quite different from the press’s view of other wars—and from a new messianic approach to the role of the press in wartime. The alteration occurred in three stages, beginning with World War II, proceeding through the Korean War, and culminating in Viet Nam.

Three Wars

World War II was generally considered a crusade against evil. Allied and Soviet atrocities normally went unreported, since their publication to the world would have besmirched the anti-Nazi crusade. The bestial aims and deeds of the Nazis, reinforced by the bestial deeds of the Japanese, compelled correspondents and officials to agreement on the nature of the war and, therefore, to substantial agreement on the way it was fought. The press might criticize tactical errors; it might even cavil at certain strategic decisions. But it was bent neither upon revealing every possible error or mis-statement made by the authorities nor upon questioning their fundamental purposes.

The Korean War was not a universal crusade. A few correspondents questioned the wisdom of committing U.S. troops to the peninsula, while many questioned the strategic decisions of General Douglas MacArthur (particularly his dash to the Yalu, which directly challenged the Chinese, whose industrial plexus lay in Manchuria just across that river). The character and administration of President Syngman Rhee of the Republic of Korea were often criticized by those correspondents whose interest extended beyond military hostilities. Nonetheless, a limited consensus did exist. No one—except the Stalinists—doubted seriously that North Korea had attacked South Korea. Aside from those ideologues, no one contended that the Pyongyang régime was an exemplar of virtue simply because it opposed the Seoul régime, whose faults were manifest. Moved neither by basic antagonism towards official aims nor by unthinking commitment to those aims, a surprisingly youthful press corps offered surprisingly objective reports. Aside from a marked weakness in covering internal politics in both the South and the North—a weakness that presaged a disastrous disability in Indochina—Korea was, in my view, the best-covered American war of modern times. Besides, the conflict was, by and large, straightforward and simple to understand.

Indochina was never simple or straightforward but was arcane even before the commitment of U.S. ground forces. Afterwards, it became so complex that it was virtually impossible to understand it in all its ramifications; and, I must add, it was absolutely impossible to convey those ramifications to the public. Today I recall with chagrin my rather condescending amusement when a television producer argued in the mid-1960s: “We shouldn’t be in Indochina because the American people can’t understand the war—and the people won’t support a war they can’t understand.” He was, of course, right (even if the American press helped to prevent any proper understanding).

Though simplistic television coverage accelerated and intensified popular disillusionment, it was not the decisive factor in determining the collective opinion of the press. The television people went along with the fashion; they did not set the fashion or formulate its conventional wisdom. In any event, Viet Nam was covered by a press corps that was bitterly distrustful of Washington and harshly antagonistic towards Saigon. The press consistently magnified the allies’ deficiencies—and displayed almost saintly tolerance of those misdeeds of Hanoi it could neither disregard nor deny.

It is possible that the “Viet Nam Syndrome” will recur; it is not unlikely that Western foreign policy, with the United States as its faltering—or even resurgent—leader, will again be forced to operate in an environment dominated by a hostile press. The personal experience of one journalist is not normally pertinent to such a high political question. However, I was, as a correspondent and commentator, perforce a participant as well as an observer in the Viet Nam imbroglio from 1955 to 1975. When “the media became the war,” everyone associated with the media became part of the war, however reluctantly. An account of my experience, therefore, may illuminate this discussion and help the reader weigh my historical assessments.

From 1955 through 1965 I was opposed to U.S. military intervention despite my personal sympathy for the Indochinese peoples. Having in 1955 sailed from Haiphong in the North to Saigon with several thousand among almost a million refugees from the Democratic Republic, I was moved by their justified fears. Besides, I detested Hanoi’s Stalinist repression. Nevertheless, I felt that Indochina was a strategic backwater that should not be transformed into a vital interest by committing regular American troops to a disadvantageous Asian battlefield. Because of my concern with the effect of events in Indochina upon developments in China and elsewhere in Southeast Asia I did, however. feel that the West should not turn its back on Indochina, though it should avoid entrapment.

Such reservations made me popular neither with official Americans nor with those journalists who urged deeper involvement. Many correspondents and commentators were enthusiastic about the creeping U.S. commitment, while the administration of President Kennedy reacted strongly to my judgment (in Newsweek in late 1961) that President Ngo Dinh Diem could not preserve South Viet Nam. In December 1962, when I was stationed in Europe, a Newsweek cover story concluded that Diem was doing well and that the Kennedy commitment to Indochina was fundamentally sound. That replay of the optimistic Washington view was published over my editorial opposition. (I was, incidentally, not in Indochina during the battles between Diem and the dissident Buddhists, or during the succession of short-lived regimes that followed Diem’s murder.)

When I returned early in 1966, matters were radically altered. The United States had in 1965 brought in major armed units to prevent the South’s collapse under the North’s intensified subversion. Despite the U.S. intervention, that collapse had clearly only been forestalled, not averted. Direct involvement had, moreover, made Indochina an area of primary strategic interest to the United States in the eyes not only of apprehensive allies but of potential enemies as well. The United States was committed to the enterprise that had earlier broken the French will, that is, preventing Communist conquest of Indochina.

China was already launched upon the cataclysmic “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution,” a virtual civil war fought to determine whether Maoists or moderates would rule the world’s most populous country. Foreign policy was already a major Chinese issue, and the collapse of South Viet Nam would have strengthened the extremists, who advocated internal suppression and China’s diplomatic isolation. While continuing to urge U.S. recognition of the People’s Republic, I felt that American firmness in Indochina had to demonstrate to the Maoists that guerrilla warfare could not prevail. Otherwise, the People’s Republic might espouse a wholly Maoist foreign policy, that is, dedicate herself to “world-wide liberation through people’s [guerrilla] wars.”

Moreover, Peking had just exploded its first “atomic device.” The prospect of a messianically Maoist China brandishing an increasing nuclear arsenal appeared a threat to the survival of civilization.

If Hanoi were blocked in South Viet Nam, I contended, the more cautious moderates would in the long term triumph in Peking, and the threat of a holocaust would recede. After all, Mao believed (as he told Edgar Snow) that a nuclear war would “destroy the world . . . but not us.”

China, of course, worked out well. The danger of nuclear war has receded. Today Peking stands against Soviet expansionism—in good part because what happened in Indochina before 1975 intensified the Sino-Soviet conflict and contributed to the destruction of Mao’s strategic doctrine of “the inevitable victory of people’s war.”

But there was, in 1966, no justification for even guarded optimism regarding South Viet Nam’s prospects, and there was to be no such basis until mid-1968. My first report from Saigon after four years of absence described the shocking confusion—in both purpose and execution—of the already bloated American establishment, as well as its isolation from the realities of both the villages and the ministries of Viet Nam. But Washington had forced its own hand; South Viet Nam, defended by the Americans, had become a major piece on the international chessboard. The United States had, I felt, no choice but to remain until the South Vietnamese could effectively defend themselves—or the global balance of power altered radically.

That attitude was not shared by a new corps of foreign correspondents who were newcomers to Asia, though most experienced correspondents agreed. (It did improve my relations with American officialdom, a boon that made me somewhat uneasy.) Having been called a “Communist sympathizer” for advocating recognition of “Red China” in the early 1950s, I was attacked as a “journalistic storm-trooper” for arguing that we could not simply disengage from Indochina in the late 1960s. (Reverse McCarthyism? Perhaps.)11

The Reasons Why

The main question persists. Why was the press—whether in favor of official policy at the beginning or vehemently against the war at the end—so superficial and so biased?

Chief among many reasons was, I believe, the politicization of correspondents by the constantly intensifying clamor over Viet Nam in Europe and America. Amateur (and professional) propagandists served both sides of the question, but the champions of Hanoi were spectacularly more effective. They created an atmosphere of high pressure that made it exceedingly difficult to be objective.

In Korea, senior officers who were incensed by unfavorable reports would sometimes demand: “Who are you for—the Communists or us?” Most correspondents were detached and could answer honestly: “Personally for the U.N. and the United States, but professionally for neither side. Just trying to tell the true story….” In Viet Nam that response was virtually impossible amid growing Western horror at the “dirty, immoral war.” Correspondents were almost compelled to become partisans, and most became partisans for Hanoi, or, at least, against Saigon and Washington.

Revulsion in Europe and America sprang as much from the nature of the correspondents’ reporting as it did from the belligerents’ direct manipulation of public opinion. Some of my senior colleagues had learned wisdom on a hundred battlefields, having covered World War II, the Chinese Civil War, the Viet Minh campaign against the French, and the Indonesian revolt against the Dutch. I had at least been through Korea, the Malayan “Emergency,” and the fighting between Chinese Nationalists and Chinese Communists for Quemoy. But most correspondents had never seen war before their arrival in Indochina. Many confused the beastliness of all war with the particular war in Indochina, which they unthinkably concluded was unique in human history because it was new to them.

This much must be said: the best of their reporting accurately conveyed the horror of war—all war. Yet it presented the suffering, barbarism, and devastation as somehow peculiar to Indochina. It almost made it appear that other wars had been fought by mailed champions on fields remote from human habitation while in Indochina, for the first time, carnage brutally involved both massed military formations and the civilian populace. Since a guerrilla war is inherently not as destructive as a conventional war, human suffering and material devastation had, in reality, been markedly greater in Korea than in Viet Nam—and much, much greater on both Asian and European fronts in World War II.

Because Viet Nam did not attract many senior correspondents for extended tours, at any given time a majority of the correspondents were new to the complexities of Indochina. Some could not even look after themselves in combat, the sine qua non of a successful—and surviving—war correspondent.

One afternoon in May 1968, when the Viet Cong were attacking the outskirts of Saigon, six young correspondents piled into a single mini-taxi to drive to the shifting “front.” They were startled when advised to take two or three taxis so that they could get out faster if they came under fire. A tall, rotund neophyte wearing a scarlet shirt paraded up and down the road the Viet Cong were attacking. He was dismayed by the pained abhorrence with which South Vietnamese paratroops regarded him, until it was explained that he was drawing rocket fire. The six clustered around a twenty-four-year-old U.S. first lieutenant, just out of the Military Academy at West Point, who was struggling to communicate with the Vietnamese major commanding and, simultaneously, to direct the gunships that swooped low, firing their machine-guns. While shells burst around them, the correspondents tried to interrogate the lieutenant on the morality of the U.S. presence in Indochina.

A Naive Expectation

Many newcomers were shocked to find that American and Vietnamese briefing officers did not always tell them the truth even about a minor tactical situation. Despite their pose of professional skepticism, in their naiveté they expected those officers to tell not merely the truth but the whole truth. Far from feeling the deep mistrust of officialdom they affected, the newcomers were dismayed by the briefing officers’ inability (or unwillingness) to confide in them unreservedly. Older correspondents did not expect candor from briefing officers. They had learned several wars earlier that the interests of the press and the interests of the military did not normally coincide. They also knew that the briefing officers were themselves often uninformed—concerned, perhaps sometimes excessively, for military secrecy—and resentful of correspondents’ badgering.

Nevertheless, the candor of U.S. officers astonished experienced correspondents from other nations. Shortly before he was killed in another war, Nicholas Tomalin of The Sunday Times reported with amazement the reception given several British correspondents who arrived unannounced at an American airfield. Though he obviously wished them a thousand miles away, the U.S. colonel in command not only made them welcome but answered all their questions. If it had been a British airfield, Tomalin observed, the group would not have been allowed to land—and if it had landed would have been bustled off within minutes. No supporter of the U.S. endeavor in Indochina, Tomalin marveled at the openness with which the foolish Americans conducted their wars.

Senior U.S. officers did, of course, lie to make a case or extemporized when they did not know the answers. From those practices sprang the bitterness that corroded relations between the press and officialdom. No one likes to be treated as a fool even in the best of causes (and no one thought Indochina was the best of causes). The military were in turn bitter at the unfairness they attributed to correspondents.

Beyond the unremitting drumfire of mutual criticism, two matters rankled particularly: the “Body Count,” which for the press notoriously symbolized the military’s callousness; and the unavoidably misleading maps delineating the areas under the control of Saigon or the Viet Cong. The military said they released estimates of enemy casualties after each action primarily because correspondents demanded concrete evidence of the progress of a war that was not fought along clearly demarcated battlelines. The officers contended that the maps, which could in no wise accurately depict a hazy, fluid situation, were prepared at the correspondents’ request. Officialdom felt there was too much, rather than too little, openness in Viet Nam.

Oscillating between excessive candor and bald falsification, U.S. public-relations policies made the press and the authorities not merely adversaries but enemies. However paradoxically, some of the most popular officials were the most mendacious. A senior public-affairs officer who always had an answer for the press once offered an eloquent analysis of Hanoi’s weakness based on a captured Viet Cong order. Since his projection of a general Viet Cong retreat seemed askew, even on the basis of that document, I checked with .a number of specialists on North Viet Nam available in Saigon. The official, I found, had consulted no specialist but had offered his own off-hand analysis—presumably to hold his credulous audience. Gratuitous contributions to confusion in Viet Nam itself were much surpassed by the egregiously misleading opinions offered in Washington.

Esoterica like “enemy intentions,” however, did not interest one group of correspondents. They were moved primarily by neither the horror nor the portentousness but by the thrills of Indochina. They were nicknamed “the war freaks,” since they were fascinated by the atmosphere rather than the substance of the war. Cambodia was a favorite resort of theirs. It offered a dangerous little war, abundant opium, marijuana, and heroin, as well as the gracious Royale Hotel, its French cuisine unspoiled by the American incursions that had ruined Saigon’s restaurants. Reflecting the delight of the war freaks, Michael Herr wrote in Dispatches that he never went to bed once in Saigon not “stoned,” and added: “Viet Nam was our substitute for a happy childhood.” One’s first war, the veterans could have told him, is usually an extension of—if not necessarily a substitute for—a happy childhood.

Official deceit was thus exacerbated by incompetent journalism.12.] While complaining about the press, many U.S. officials, who knew they were fighting “a media war,” sought to manipulate—rather than inform—correspondents. But they were not skilled at manipulation. While complaining about the government’s duplicity, many editors assigned correspondents who were not qualified to fill a normal foreign post, much less to thread the labyrinthine complexities of the Indochina War. Some editors told their correspondents what they wanted, while many correspondents had made up their own minds before they arrived “in country.” Only a few, I trust, were in the unhappy position of the correspondent of an aggressively liberal U.S. FM-radio station who, as he confided to me, was told: “Not every story has to be anti-war.”

A Crippling Ignorance

Beyond the pressures exerted upon them, most correspondents—serving six-month to two-year tours—were woefully ignorant of the setting of the conflict. Some strove diligently to remedy that crippling deficiency by reading widely and interviewing avidly. Many lacked the time or the inclination to do so—or any real awareness of how crippling their ignorance was to them professionally. Most, as I have noted, knew little about war in general from either experience or study—and less about the theory or practice of guerrilla war. They were untutored not only in the languages but also in the history, culture, ethnography, and economics of Indochina, let alone of China and Asia. Since so many were also untroubled by acquaintance with Marxist theory or practice and were hazy about the international balance of power, they were incapable of covering effectively a conflict involving all those elements.

Not even the “old hands” were necessarily well qualified to cover the conflict—who could have been? Arthur Waley?—but, considering our divergent backgrounds and political convictions, the old hands’ general agreement about the nature of the war was remarkable. Most deplored the ineffectiveness and the corruption of successive South Vietnamese governments, but judged native (i.e., Southern) disaffection incapable of mounting an armed rebellion without direction, reinforcement, and weapons from the North. Most concurred with the thesis Robert Shaplen advanced in The Lost Revolution (1966), agreeing that ineffectual leadership had failed to foster latent nationalistic and reformist enthusiasm in the South, by default ceding those dynamic forces to the North. We did not deceive ourselves that the South enjoyed even marginally good government; but we believed that Northern rule would be much worse for the mass of the people.13 management. Recently the Government in Hanoi has admitted planning effort and introduced incentives for private enterprise in both industry and agriculture The collectivization of agriculture in the south has also been stopped. There it a rice surplus in the south but the Government appears unable to transport it to the north and those who need it in the south cannot afford to buy it….

During the Viet Nam decade a whole American generation of journalists and intellectuals unlearned the experience of Stalinist society—its incomparable inefficiency; its thick-headed, dogmatic compounding of error and miscalculation; and, not least (so obvious in Eastern Europe and the U.S.S.R.), its intolerable burden of a costly military machine superimposed on an old-fashioned, hard-pressed, “underdeveloped” economy. As Shawcross notes, with a vague touch of bitterness:

The other principal cause of Viet Nam’s food shortage—and that which most angers potential Western donors—is its diversion of resources to the military. About 47% of the national budget is now said to be spent on defense.

] We knew that the North and the South, though not necessarily two separate countries, were distinct entities because of the strong regional feelings of the Vietnamese. Although most of us had opposed major U.S. involvement, we saw no way the United States could withdraw unilaterally.

Needless to say, even we old hands were not always accurate in our reporting or correct in our judgments. Reacting against the spate of negative reports, I myself tended to emphasize the positive aspects, sometimes excessively. No more than the newcomers were the old hands immune to irritation at the duplicity of the American establishment, though we were not as dependent upon press officers. That irritation undoubtedly affected our reporting; so did smoldering anger (which sometimes flared into fury) at the Vietnamese, who were always difficult, often unavailable, regularly evasive, and routinely deceitful. But the old hands knew they had to live and work with the Vietnamese, and they understood the insecurity that haunted Saigon officials. After generations of colonial rule and internal conflict, no Vietnamese really trusted any other Vietnamese except those within his immediate family (and them neither invariably nor wholly). The newcomers either could not or would not understand what moved the Vietnamese or why they so often seemed to be behaving so badly.

The atmosphere “in country” was heavily oppressive, as was our awareness that we were writing for a public that had virtually prejudged the war. My Lai was not reported at the time because the military effectively camouflaged that atrocity. Other allied excesses were reported, while many reverse My Lais were not reported; and Viet Cong atrocities were often discounted. Myths flourished because of the journalists’ bias and the contempt they felt for the Vietnamese.

By innuendo and mis-statement the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam was reduced in the public eye to a corrupt rabble, far, far less effective than the Republic of Korea Army during the earlier war. In reality, the ARVN was strikingly more effective than the ROKA had been; but correspondents were friendly to the ROKA and antagonistic to the ARVN.

That tale of hundreds of Vietnamese soldiers bandaging non-existent wounds in order to be evacuated as casualties was just one example. That graphic and erroneous story reinforced the general impression that the cowardly South Vietnamese were unwilling to fight in defense of their own cause. That misleading conclusion undoubtedly encouraged U.S. reluctance to supply Saigon’s forces adequately after the American withdrawal. That reluctance, which contributed decisively to the final collapse, was then “proved” correct.

Despite their own numerous and grave faults, the South Vietnamese were, first and last, decisively defeated in Washington, New York, London, and Paris. Those media defeats made inevitable their subsequent defeat on the battlefield. Indochina was not perhaps the first major conflict to be won by psychological warfare. But it was probably the first to be lost by psychological warfare conducted at such great physical distance from the actual fields of battle—and so far from the peoples whose fate was determined by the outcome of the conflict.

The “Viet Nam Syndrome”

When I drafted this article, I had not intended to dilate upon the possible consequences in the future of the new role of the press in war. Those consequences seemed too obvious. Besides, I did not wish to arouse contention but to evoke dispassionate consideration. After all, the passage of time should by this time have appreciably cooled the intense emotion that moved both the reluctant supporters and the vehement critics of the “American war.”

I felt, moreover, that I had adequately demonstrated that the press acted—and could well again act—as a multiplier of the prejudices of the Western intelligentsia, whose tender conscience moves it to condemn the actions of its own side while condoning related deeds of enemies who are either “immature” or “feel themselves threatened.” It did not, for example, seem necessary to demonstrate at length that World War II could well have been lost by the Allied powers if the press had wished—and been allowed—to denounce almost all the purposes and virtually the entire conduct of that conflict. (Surely, for example; Churchill would have been prevented from helping Greece—because of Metaxas.) It did not seem necessary to labor the obvious point that no Western power can conduct a foreign policy that, of necessity, relies in part on the threat of military power and, upon occasion, on the exercise of military power if the media reflexively denounce almost any use of armed force. I believed it would suffice to offer the brief warning already stated above: Western foreign policy could again be forced to operate most precariously in an environment dominated by a hostile press. It did not, finally, seem necessary to point out that the effective prohibition of limited, conventional war by an inflamed public opinion could lead to either political surrender or nuclear holocaust.

Since the article was written, events have denied me the luxury of refraining from underlining the obvious. The predicament I suggested was likely has already become a reality. It is exemplified in El Salvador, about which, I must acknowledge, I know nothing directly, and indirectly no more than any other reasonably diligent reader of the press. Nonetheless, the recrudescence of the “Viet Nam Syndrome” in the media is not merely unmistakable, but distressingly blatant.14

“Viet Nam” has become not merely an invidious comparison but a magical incantation. The woolly-minded need only declare vehemently that El Salvador is already—or could become—”another Viet Nam” for the enterprise to be condemned and, probably, blighted. Throughout the Western world, commentators and reporters have invoked the specter of Viet Nam to arouse detestation of a Washington initiative. That rush of the journalistic lemmings includes not only the heavyweights of the media but many cartoonists and, as well, humorists like Art Buchwald and Russell Baker, whose satire is often striking and effective. Prominent among the lemmings are television personalities like Jon Snow of Britain’s ITV, who recently presented one film “report” that continually cut from vaguely delineated political and military developments to heart-rending scenes in a refugee camp. In that and a drum beat of subsequent “reports” the conclusion was not implied but hammered home time and again: U.S. policy was, presumably by direct intention, rendering tens of thousands homeless and killing hundreds of women and children. El Salvador, the viewer could not but conclude, was a deliberate replication of Viet Nam. And “Viet Nam” had become synonymous with absolute evil—practiced, of course, by the United States.

The “Viet Nam Syndrome” is compounded of a variety of symptoms, none unique in itself, but unprecedented in combination and devastating in their totality. Wars have been badly reported in the past. Facts have been mis-stated, and their interpretation has been biased. Emotions have been deliberately inflamed, and reporters have ridden to fame on waves of misrepresentation. But never before Viet Nam had the collective policy of the media—no less stringent term will serve—sought by graphic and unremitting distortion the victory of the enemies of the correspondents’ own side. Television coverage was, of course, new in its intensity and repetitiveness; it was crucial in shifting the emphasis from fact to emotion. And television will play the same role in future conflicts—on the Western side, of course. It will not and cannot expose the crimes of an enemy who is too shrewd to allow the cameras free play.

As long as the “Viet Nam Syndrome” afflicts the media, it seems to me that it will be virtually impossible for the West to conduct an effective foreign policy. It is apparently irrelevant that the expectations of paradise after Hanoi’s victory evoked by “the critics of the American war” became the purgatory the Indochinese people have suffered. Just as many denizens of the antebellum American South did not know that “Damyankee” was really two words, an entire generation in Europe and the United States behaves as if “the dirty, immoral war in Viet Nam” were an irrefutable and inseparable dogma. Merely equate El Salvador (or any other American intervention) to Viet Nam—and not only the American public but all “liberal” Europeans will condemn it without reservation. That is all they need to know. In its final effect—what has over the last decade been called “the paralysis of political will”—it will make it especially difficult for the United States to honor any political commitment anywhere in the world where small and threatened nations may expect American support for their independent existence. Before they fall to an aggressor, they will have been victimized by “the Viet Nam Syndrome.”

It has long appeared to me that the medical and legal professions enjoy one enormous advantage. If they err, doctors and lawyers may be blamed. Yet, except in the most flagrant cases, the client or the patient pays them again for correcting their mistakes—if they can, and if he can. But the media on Viet Nam, it has become blatantly obvious, have enjoyed even greater advantages. Even in the most flagrant cases, they have not been blamed. They have, rather, been acclaimed for their errors. Who can, ultimately, prove it otherwise? The peoples of the non-Communist world have paid dearly for these errors—and may well continue to pay.

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.

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

5Paul 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, 4062 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