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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Vol. 38, No. 6 April 10, 1975

Death in Hue 1969: Who Pulled the Trigger?

page 6

Death in Hue 1969: Who Pulled the Trigger?

Just after the My Lai massacres were discovered came reports in the papers of a massive communist massacre in Hue which supposedly occurred during NLF occupation during the 1968 Tet offensive. The truth or otherwise of this Massacre' is important to know today if we are to understand why people are fleeing from the current PRC advances. The Hue 'massacres' have been the only real US 'proof of the terror of communist occupation.

But a recent article in the International Herald-Tribune (27 March 1975 based on hundreds of interviews with refugees asking them why they were fleeing noted that 'not one said it was because he or she reared communism as such' and that most of them were fleeing 'because everyone else is going.' In the city of Hue where fear of the PRG should have been highest 'close to one-third of the population of Hue chose to stay.' In fact fear of Saigon bombing raids and being caught in the crossfire of war predominated as reasons for fleeing: 'It's better to go to the Saigon side, because the communists have no airplanes,' said one refugee summing up a common feeling.

A recent article by D. Gareth Porter looks at the facts behind the Hue 'massacre' and finds that the official story of Hue, for so long unchallenged, is not based on reality:

'The official version of what happened in Hue has been that the National Liberation Front (NLF) and the North Vietnamese deliberately and systematically murdered not only responsible officials but religious figures, the educated elite and ordinary people, and that burial sites later found yielded some 3000 bodies, the largest portion of the total of more than 4700 victims of communist execution.

'Although there is still much that is not known about what happened in Hue, there is sufficient evidence to conclude that the story conveyed to the American public by the South Vietnamese and American propaganda agencies bore little resemblance to the truth, but was on the contrary, the result of a political warfare campaign by the Saigon government, embellished by the United States government and accepted uncritically by the US press. A careful study of the official story of the Hue 'massacre' on the one hand, and of the evidence from independent or anti-communist sources on the other, provides a revealing glimpse into efforts by the US press to keep alive fears of a massive 'bloodbath'. It is a myth which has served US administration interests well in the past, and continues to influence public attitudes deeply today."

This photo was taken at Hue in 1968 by Donald McCullin

This photo was taken at Hue in 1968 by Donald McCullin

First news of the 'massacre' was given by the Tenth Political Warfare Battalion of the Thieu army. "It is on the word of this body, whose specific mission is to discredit the NLF without re regard to the truth, that the story of the 'massacre' reported in the US press in 1968 and 1969 was based." Despite the fact that no independent confirmation had been made of the claims of 1,000 killed and almost half half buried alive the US Mission repeated the story to the US press.

In the March and April as the alleged victims were being dug up "the Saigon government did not allow any journalists to view the grave sites or the bodies, depite the fact that many foreign journalists were in Hue at the time." Meanwhile announcements were made by Saigon officials that; 300 bodies had been discovered southeast of the city - a french journalist asked to see them but was repeatedly refused permission; 400 bodies were being uncovered in the area of the Imperial tombs south of Hue — a London Times correspondent asked to see them but was not taken there.

Also official estimates of numbers varied widely: at the Gia Hoi High School sites the official US report cited 22 graves and 200 bodies, while a Vietnamese officer guiding a reporter over the site said that there were 22 graves holding 3 to 7 bodies each (66 to 150 in total) while a leaflet produced by the Political Warfare Battalion for Vietnamese consumption said that there were only 14 graves reducing the total once again.

A Canadian doctor, who was in the Hue hospital during the offensive, said there were 14 graves but only 20 bodies all told. The doctor, Alje Vennema, also questioned official figures on other sites. He said that one site contained only 19 bodies but the [unclear: official] figure was 77 while the Imperial tombs site contained 29 bodies as opposed to the 201 claimed by the official report.

Vennema's estimate for the four main sites discovered immediately after Tet was 68 bodies while the official report claimed 477. Vennema questioned other aspects of the report. Many bodies were not those of civilians but of soldiers still in uniform. Also the bodies all showed wounds which made it unlikely that they were buried alive.

In 1969 the Saigon propaganda machine went into action again. In villages surrounding Hue more bodies had been dug up by the "Committee for search and burial of Communist victims". Newsmen were once again banned from the diggings [unclear: before the] of the finding of 400 odd bodies.

All the actual sites were close to areas that had suffered from long periods of bombing and shelling and in an area where 357 bodies were found there had been reported in the Political Warfare Department's newspaper Tien Tuyen that 250 NLF soldiers had been killed in just one all day battle over Tet. The Saigon Minister of Health visited the sites in April and said that it was quite likely that the supposed victims of communist assassination were actually the bodies of NLF soldiers killed in battle.

The basic figures used to prove the case for a massive slaughter in Hue by the NLF are as suspect in the other areas bodies were dug up. About the body count at one site the Pentagon said that there were 250 bodies recovered in total and two months later the US Information Agency said 428 was the total. 'Eyewitness' accounts varied from one day to the next and from one newspaper to the next. The Baltimore Sun had a witness to 600 people being turned over to the NLF to be murdered. This same witness said to Tien Tuyen that 500 people had been taken not to be killed but to be reformed.

"In short, the inconsistencies of the various official documents, the lack of confirming evidence, and the evidence contradicting the official explanation all suggest that the overwhelming majority of the bodies discovered in 1969 were in fact the victims of American air power and of the ground fighting that raged in the hamlets, rather than of NLF execution.'

The undeniable fact was that American rockets and bombs, not communist assassination, caused the greatest carnage in Hue .... Don Tate of Scripps-Howard Newspapers described bomb craters 40 ft wide and 20 ft deep staggered in the streets near the walls of the citadel and 'bodies stacked into graves by fives - one on top of the other.' Nine thousand seven hundred and seventy-six of Hue's 17, 134 houses were completely destroyed and 3169 more officially classified as 'seriously damaged'... The initial South Vietnamese estimate of the number of civilians killed in the fighting of the bloody reconquest was 3776.'

It was a writer for the US Information Agency, Douglas Pike however, that created the story that hit the western press in such a big way. He contradicted Pentagon figures, Saigon figures and independent figures on just about everything to do with Hue but he succeeded in getting headlines like 'Communists admit Murder' and 'Reds killed 2900 in Hue' into major US papers. He used two main methods: firstly he indulged in 'creative' translations of captured NLF documents and so-called confessions of captured NLF soldiers which even the western press usually ignored and secondly he cooked figures. An example of the second is how Pike arrived at his figure for the number of victims of the 'communist massacre'. An initial estimate by Saigon of the number of civilian casualties in the Hue fighting was 3776 but this figure was mysteriously whittled down to 944 by the Political Warfare Battalion. Pike worked from this basis:

'In a chart which he calls a Recapitulation' of the dead and missing, Pike begins not by establishing the number of casualties from various causes, but with a total of 7600, which he says is the Saigon government's 'total' estimated civilian casualties resulting from the Battle of Hue.' The original government estimate of civilian casualties, however, again supplied by the provincial Social Services Office, was just over 6700 - not 7600 - and it was based on the estimate of 3776 civilians killed in the battle of Hue. Instead of using the Social Services Office's figure, Pike employs the Political Warfare Battalion's 944 figure. Subtracting that number and another 1900 hospitalised with war wounds. Pike gets the figure of 4756, which he suggests is the total number of victims of communist massacre, including the 1945 'unaccounted for' in this strange method of accounting. In short, the whole statistical exercise had the sole purpose of arriving at a fraudulent figure of 4756 victims of a 'massacre'.'

D Garet Porter's investigation destroys forever the myth of wholesale slaughter in Hue during Tet 1968. It also exposes the role of the US and Saigon propaganda machines in creating fear among Vietnamese and other people of the intentions and methods of the PRG. It is interesting that according to the news report quoted at the beginning of this story that these fears aren't as rife among Vietnamese as they are in western countries.