On Oct 31, 2005, M. Philippe Douste-Blazy, Minister of Foreign Affairs, at the
60th United Nations General Assembly said:
“The duty to remember, 60 years after the tragedy, must now be directed to new generations. The last Holocaust survivors are leaving us. Only a handful of them now remain. If the duty to remember is to be passed on today, then our duty is to educate – and this will be even more true for the future. If a crime analogous to genocide is not to happen again in the future, the flame of memory must not be extinguished and must be passed on from generation to generation.(1)
Thus duty applies to genocide and crime against humanity committed by any individual or group against any group of people of any race, creed, ethnic or national, anywhere in the world. This duty cannot be selective. Impartiality and universality must go hand in hand.
We commemorate this year the 40 anniversary of the New Year of Infamy: a nation was attacked by surprise. Not an attack on another nation without declaration of war. It was a vicious and treacherous attack during a ceasefire on the occasion of Tết which is the traditional Vietnamese lunar calendar New Year. An atrocious mass killing followed the battle of Huế. In the aftermath of the battle, mass graves were discovered around the city area. For several months after, local TV showed days in and days out, exhumation of bodies of victims who had been tied or chained with telephone or electrical cords, with wounds described as shot guns in the back of the head. Others had skull fracture. An enemy who was captured later said that bullets were saved for fighting and should not be wasted on “collaborators”. Other victims did not have any obvious wound: they might have been buried alive.
Among foreigners who reported those atrocities was Douglas Pike who came to see and to talk to people. He reported the events of those days:
In the chaos that existed following the battle, the first order of civilian business was emergency relief, in the form of food shipments, prevention of epidemics, emergency medical care, etc. Then came the home rebuilding effort. Only later did Hue begin to tabulate its casualties. No true post-attack census has yet been taken. In March local officials reported that 1,900 civilians were hospitalized with war wounds and they estimated that some 5,800 persons were unaccounted for.
The first discovery of Communist victims came in the Gia Hoi High School yard, on February 26; eventually 170 bodies were recovered.
In the next few months 18 additional grave sites were found, the largest of which were Tang Quang Tu Pagoda (67 victims), Bai Dau (77), Cho Thong area (an estimated 100), the imperial tombs area (201), Thien Ham (approximately 200), and Dong Gi (approximately 100). In all, almost 1,200 bodies were found in hastily dug, poorly concealed graves.
At least half of these showed clear evidence of atrocity killings: hands wired behind backs, rags stuffed in mouths, bodies contorted but without wounds (indicating burial alive). The other nearly 600 bore wound marks but there was no way of determining whether they died by firing squad or incidental to the battle.
The second major group of finds was discovered in the first seven months of 1969 in Phu Thu district-the Sand Dune Finds and Le Xa Tay-and Huong Thuy district-Xuan Hoa-Van Duong-in late March and April. Additional grave sites were found in Vinh Loc district in May and in Nam Hoa district in July. The largest of this group were the Sand Dune Finds in the three sites of Vinh Luu, Le Xa Dong and Xuan 0 located in rolling, grass tufted sand dune country near the South China Sea. Separated by salt-marsh valleys, these dunes were ideal for graves. Over 800 bodies were uncovered in the dunes.
In the Sand Dune Find, the pattern had been to tie victims together in groups of 10 or 20, line them up in front of a trench dug by local corvee labour and cut them down with submachine gun (a favourite local souvenir is a spent Russian machine gun shell taken from a grave). Frequently the dead were buried in layers of three and four, which makes identification particularly difficult.
In Nam Hoa district came the third, or Da Mai Creek Find, which also has been called the Phu Cam death march, made on September 19, 1969. Three Communist defectors told intelligence officers of the 101st Airborne Brigade that they had witnessed the killing of several hundred people at Da Mai Creek, about 10 miles south of Hue, in February of 1968. The area is wild, unpopulated, virtually inaccessible. The Brigade sent in a search party, which reported that the stream contained a large number of human bones. (2)
In 1969, Washington Post reporter and Johns Hopkins professor Don Oberdorfer
went to Huế to interview witnesses. He saw two patterns of killing: the
officials, their families and the people working with and for the Americans on
one hand, and the people who were considered not friendly, who ran away from the
Việt-cộng or who “displayed bad attitude”. (3)
If Douglas Pike was the main reporter of Tết massacre, Gareth Porter provided the main rebuttal. By that time, the credibility gap of the government was enlarging and every piece of information coming from it was received with skepticism. Porter reviewed various reports, look for discrepancies and found several: different numbers of sites and of recovered bodies given by various “officials” during that initial periods of confusion; several pieces of information were reported by political warfare units who might not have been straightforward or unbiased.
ARVN’S Political Warfare Department issued contradictory reports on how many bodies were actually uncovered. At the Gia Hoi High School sites, for example, the official American report, based on information furnished by the Tenth Political Warfare Battalion, gave a total of 22 mass graves and 200 bodies, for an average of nine bodies per grave. But when Stewart Harris was taken to the site, he was told by his Vietnamese escort officer that each of the 22 graves held from three to seven bodies, which would have put the total somewhere between 66 and 150. At about the same time, the Tenth Political Warfare Battalion published a pamphlet for Vietnamese consumption which said there were 14 graves at the high school instead of 22, which would have reduced the total still further. (4)
Porter went so far to play the semantic card: when a report from the enemy saying it had “diệt” 1,892 official of the government, the translation read “eliminated” and Porter said no, it could mean “destroy”, like “neutralize” or “liquidate”. This line of explanation does not fly with native speakers.(5)
Porter did not take into account the discovery of bodies; he dismissed videos of long exhumation sessions shown on TV and the obvious grief of family members because of the sole reason: the absence of Western witnesses!
During the months of March and April (1968 that is right after the re-occupation of Huê by end of Feb), when the alleged victims of communist execution were being uncovered, the Saigon government did not allow any journalists to view the grave sites or bodies, despite the fact that many foreign journalists were in Hue at the time.
During 1969, as more bodies were uncovered in the villages surrounding Hue, another phase of the Saigon government campaign was launched by ARVN’s political warfare officers. The first bodies were found southeast of Hue, where digging was carried out under the supervision of a “Committee for Search and Burial of Communist Victims” headed by the district chief, Major Trung. Again newsmen were not invited to watch the work while it was going. (4)
Porter did not think of attributing those discrepancies to the confused and chaotic state right after the battle or to the extent of the killing—which required time and effort to sort out little by little; this could explain in part the increasing reported number of recovered bodies. He expected the village local official to know the overall picture and to give an exact number on the body count of mass graves not only in his village but also in the whole province. His complaint that no foreign newsmen were invited to watch the exhumations—which were public in general with family searching for missing relatives—underlined the arrogance of western centrist minds.
Other recognized rebuttals were formulated by Chomsky and Edward Herman but those two authors mainly mirrored what Porter had written. (6)
In 1983, Stanley Karnow revealed many details of the Huế massacre.
Five months before, as they began to prepare for the assault planners and their intelligence agents inside the city compiled two lists. One detailed nearly two hundred targets ranging from such installations as government bureaus and posts to the home of the district chief’s concubine. The other contained the names of “cruel tyrants and reactionary elements,” a rubric covering civilian functionaries, army officers, and nearly anybody else linked to the South Vietnamese regime as well as uncooperative merchants, intellectuals and clergymen. Instructions were also issued to arrest Americans other foreigners except for the French-presumably because President de Gaulle had publicly criticized U.S. policy in Vietnam.
Vietcong teams, armed with these directives, conducted house to house searches immediately after seizing control of Hue, and they were merciless. During the months and years that followed, the remains of approximately three thousand people were exhumed in beds, coastal salt flats, and jungle clearings. The victims had been shot or clubbed to death, or buried alive. Paradoxically, the American public barely noticed these atrocities, preoccupied as it was by the incident at Mylai - in which American soldiers had massacred a hundred Vietnamese peasants, women and children among them. Revisiting Vietnam in 1981, I was able to elicit little credible evidence from the Communists clarify the episode. (7)
By 1987, 19 years later, the media still reported the Huế massacre as only a reportedly possible fact. Reed Irvine, the founder and chairman of Accuracy in Media (AIM) rebutted the article in a letter to the editor:
To the Editor:
An Aug. 26 story from Hue, Vietnam, where some of the fiercest fighting of the Vietnam War took place in the 1968 Tet offensive, states, ‘’Hundreds, possibly thousands, of people were reportedly killed by Communist forces during the Tet offensive because they refused to cooperate, or had been singled out earlier as potential obstructions. Officials here deny the charge, or refuse to discuss it, as do ordinary Vietnamese, who say only: ‘The people know what happened.’ ‘’
This is like a story from Auschwitz saying that ‘’thousands, possibly millions, of Jews were reportedly killed by the Nazis during the war.’’
The massacre of thousands of civilians by the Communists during the 25 days they occupied Hue in February 1968 is well established. By the mid-1970’s, 2,810 bodies had been found in mass graves in the vicinity of Hue, and 1,946 people were still missing
To which, Garrett Porter quickly repeated his doubt on the veracity of the
massacre in another letter to the editor.
To the Editor:
Reed Irvine suggests it is ‘’well established’’ that 2,810 bodies found in mass graves and 1,946 people missing from Hue after the 1968 Tet Offensive were victims of Communist ‘’massacre’’ (letter, Sept. 22)
There is evidence of several hundred political executions carried out by the Communists toward the end of the occupation in Hue. Many of these were apparently revenge killings by Buddhist activists and the former Hue police chief, who fled from the military suppression of the Buddhist struggle movement in 1966 and returned with Communist forces at Tet.
Oct 11, 1987 (9)
So, Porter recognized that there had been massacre only toward the end but a)
not at the reported scale and b) it was the work of Buddhist zealots.
In 1991, Marilyn B. Young, professor of history in New York concurred that at the Tết offensive in Huế, there had been massacre, not only toward the end
“In the early days of the occupation, there were indeed summary executions ... and as the occupation ended in the firestorm of artillery and aerial bombardment, retreating NLF troops executed many of those they held in custody (rather than either releasing them or keeping them prisoner), not in the numbers Saigon and Washington charged, but certainly enough to have posed troubling questions for the people of Huế who survived...”
In 2008, 40 years after the infamous Tết offensive and Huế massacre, it is appropriate to echo what French Foreign minister said. The duty of remember is true for the Holocaust in Europe as well as for the one in Cambodia or the one in Huê.
The duty to remember, long time after the tragedy, must be directed to new generations. If the duty to remember is to be passed on today, then our duty is to educate – and this will be even truer for the future. If a crime analogous to genocide is not to happen again in the future, the flame of memory must not be extinguished and must be passed on from generation to generation.