NEFARIOUS AND MYTHICAL BLOODBATHS
Revolutionary Terror in Theory and Practice
The Vietnamese revolutionaries have shed considerable blood over the years in individual acts of terror, some deliberate and calculated, others reflecting sporadic breakdowns in the discipline of cadres under enormous pressure, along with occasional sheer vengeance killing. There are very few authenticated cases, however, in which the insurgents have killed significant numbers of unarmed civilians in deliberate acts of mass murder. (180) This appears to be a result of a long standing revolutionary philosophy and strategy, their relationship to the underlying population, and superior discipline.
Despite the widely held belief to the contrary, a product of decades of officially inspired propaganda, the Vietnamese revolutionary movement has always given force and violence a lower rating in the spectrum of means than have the Diem government and its successors or their American sponsors. This is in close accord with classical Maoist principles of revolutionary organization, strategy and behavior. The NLF view in early 1960 was: (181)
Armed activities only fulfill a supporting role for the political struggle movement. It is impossible to substitute armed forces and armed struggle for political forces and political struggle. Formerly we erred in slighting the role of armed activity. Today we must push armed activity to the right degree, but at the same time we must not abuse or rely excessively on armed activity. Douglas Pike, the official American government propagandist on the NLF, confirms the great weight given by it to the political struggle as opposed to “violence:” (182) It maintained that its contest with the GVN and the United States should be fou ght out at the political level and that the use of massed military might was itself illegitimate. Thus one of the NLF’s unspoken, and largely unsuccessful, purposes was to use the struggle movement before the onlooking world to force the GVN and the United States to play the game according to its rules: The battle was to be organizational or quasi-political, the battleground was to be the minds and loyalties of the rural Vietnamese, the weapons were to be ideas; .. and all force was automatically condemned as terror or repression. The United States and the Diem regime would not play by any rules of the game that excluded the use of force; and as Pike states, in the end “armed combat was a GVN-imposed requirement; the NLF was obliged to use counter-force to survive.” (183)
According to Jeffrey Race, before 1960 the South Vietnamese revolutionaries carried out an official policy of “non-violence” which led to a serious decimation of their ranks, with violence monopolized almost entirely by the American sponsored Diem regime. Race contends: (184)
By adopting an almost entirely defensive role during this period and by allowing the government to be the first to employ violence, the Party -- at great cost -- allowed the government to pursue the conflict in increasingly violent terms, through its relentless reprisal against any opposition, its use of torture, and, particularly after May 1959, through the psychological impact in the rural areas of the proclamation of Law 10/59. (185)
The idea that the success of the Vietnam revolutionaries was based on “terrorizing” the population is shown by Race to be a gross misperception; in fact, it was the American-sponsored and-advised Saigon government that in the end helped destroy itself by its inability to respond to problems and threats except by gross terror. Race’s discussion is worth quoting at length: (186)
The lessons of Long An are that violence can destroy, but cannot build; violence may explain the cooperation of a few individuals, but it cannot explain the cooperation of a whole social class, for this would involve us in the contradiction of “Who is to coerce the coercers?” Such logic leads inevitably to the absurd picture of the revolutionary leader in his jungle base, “coercing” millions of terrorized individuals throughout the country.... The history of events in Long An also indicate that violence will work against the user, unless he has already preempted a large part of the population and then limits his acts of violence to a sharply defined minority. In fact, this is exactly what happened in the case of the government: far from being bound by any committments to legality or humane principles, the government terrorized far more than did the revolutionary movement..(and) it was just these tactics that led to the constantly increasing strength of the revolutionary movement in Long An from 1960 to 1965. Race indicated that official Communist executions “actually were the consequence of extensive investigation and approval by higher authority.” Furthermore, many careless executions during the Resistance prior to 1954 had had adverse effects on the Party, so that after it became stronger it “exercised much tighter control over the procedures for approving executions...” (187) This concern for the secondary effects of unjust executions sharply contrasts with the policies of the Saigon regimes under U.S. sponsorship, and even more with the policies of the United States itself from 1965-73.
Revolutionary success in Vietnam both in theory and practice has been based primarily on understanding and trying to meet the needs of the masses. Jeffrey Race notes that government officials were aware of the fact that “communist cadres are close to the people, while ours are not,” (188) yet they appeared to be unaware of the reasons, which are traceable to a recruitment pattern for government office that systematically “denied advancement to those from majority elements of the rural population.” The reasons also are related to a total failure to meet the real needs of the rural masses, in contrast with the revolutionary forces who “offered concrete and practical solutions to the daily problems of substantial segments of the rural population...” (189) A movement geared to winning support from the rural masses is not likely to resort to bloodbaths among the rural population. A government recruiting wholly from an elite minority centered in the cities and admittedly “out of touch” with its own people, dependent on a foreign power for its existence and sustenance, generously supplied with weapons of mass destruction by its foreiqn sponsor -- this type of government both in theory and practice can be expected to try to “pacify” its own people, and is capable of bringing in an outside power to help to do so, while both talk of protecting the rural masses from “revolutionary terror.”
Mythical Bloodbaths in Vietnam
Numerous cases of atrocities have been attributed to the NLF or DRV (190), and several have been nurtured by U.S. government propaganda as cornerstones of the justification of American intervention. We focus briefly on the two most important mythical bloodbaths: that associated with the North Vietnamese land reform of the mid-1950s and the Huemassacres of 1968.
Land Reform in the Mid-Fifties
In an address on November 3, 1969, President Nixon spoke of the DRV Communists having murdered more than 50,000 people following their takeover in the North in the 1950s. Six months later, in a speech given on April 30,1970 he raised the ante to “hundreds of thousands” who had been exposed in 1954 to the “slaughter and savagery of the DRV leadership. Then, one week later, on May 8, 1970, apparently in some panic at the public’s response to his invasion of Cambodia, Mr. Nixon invoked the image of “millions” of civilians who would be massacred if the North Vietnamese were ever to descend into South Vietnam. Subsequently, in the calm of a press interview on April 16, 1971, President Nixon reported that “a half a million, by conservative estimates ... were murdered or otherwise exterminated by the North Vietnamese.”
It is obvious that a credibility problem exists with weekly variations in numbers of alleged victims, but there are three elements in this particular bloodbath myth worthy of discussion. First, whatever the numbers involved in the DRV land reform abuses, they had little or nothing to do with retaliatory action for collaboration with the French. Even in the sources relied on by official propagandists the victims were identified primarily as landlords being punished for alleged past offenses against their dependent tenants, rather than wartime collaborators. Thus the attempts to use this episode as a proof of a probable bloodbath of retaliation for collaboration with the Americans or noncooperation during the continuing fighting is strained.
Second, the North Vietnamese leadership was upset by the abuses in the land reform, publicly acknowledged its errors, punished many officials who had carried out or permitted injustices, and implemented administrative reforms to prevent recourrences. In brief, the DRV leadership showed a capacity to respond to abuses and keep in touch with rural interests and needs. (191) It is a “bitter truth” for Professor Samuel Huntington that the “relative political stability” of North Vietnam, in contrast with the South, rests on the fact that “the organization of the Communist party reaches out into the rural areas and provides a channel for communication of rural grievances to the center and for control of the countryside by the government.” (192) What Huntington misses is that class interest does not prevent the DRV leadership from responding constructively to rural grievances. In the South, as Jeffrey Race points out, even when the reactionary elites have come into possession of captured documents that stress rural grievances which the insurgents feel they can capitalize on (and for which they offer programs) “the government did not develop appropriate policies to head off the exploitation of the issues enumerated in the document.” (193)
Third, and perhaps most important for present purposes, the basic sources for the larger estimates of killings in the North Vietnamese land reform were persons affiliated with the CIA or the Saigon Propaganda Ministry. According to a Vietnamese Catholic now living in France, Colonel Nguyen Van Chau, who was head of the Central Psychological War Service for the Saigon Army from 1956 to 1962, the “bloodbath” figures for the land reform were “100% fabricated” by the intelligence services of Saigon. According to Colonel Chau, a systematic campaign of vilification by the use of forged documents was carried out during the mid-1950s to justify Diem’s refusal to negotiate with Hanoi in preparation for the unheld unifying elections of 1956. According to Chau the forging of documents was assisted by U.S. and British intelligence agencies, who helped gather authentic documents that permitted a plausible foundation to be laid for the forgeries, which “were distributed to various political groups and to groups of writers and artists, who used the false documents to carry out the propaganda campaign.” (194)
The primary source of information on the land reform for many years has been the work of Hoang Van Chi, formerly a substantial landholder in North Vietnam, and employed and subsidized by the Saigon Ministry of Information, CIA, and other official U.S. sources for many years. (195) Recently, D. Qareth Porter has undertaken the first close analysis of his work and has demonstrated that Chi’s conclusions were based on a series of falsehoods, nonexistent documents, and slanted and deceptive translations of real documents. For example, Chi states that the DRV authorities fixed a minimum quota of three landlords to be executed in each village, when in fact they placed an upper limit of three who could be denounced and tried, not executed. (196) In another passage Chi quotes Giap as saying, “Worse still, torture came to be regarded as normal practice during Party reorganization,” when in fact Giap actually said: “Even coercion was used in carrying out party reorganization.” Other passages cited by Chi as evidence of a plan for a “deliberate excess of terror” are shown by Porter to be “simply cases of slanted translation for a propaganda purpose.’ (197)
The estimate of 700,000, or 5% of the population of North Vietnam, as victims of the land reform Chi now claims to be merely a “guess,” based largely on experience in his own village where ten of 200 persons died, although only one was literally executed. (198) Given Chi’s proven willingness to lie, his figure often deaths attributable to the land reform can hardly be taken at face value, (199) but his extrapolation of this sample to the entirety of North Vietnam, which even Chi explicitly recognizes as nonhomogeneous, is not even worth discussing. Although scientifically worthless, and surely fabricated for propaganda purposes, Chi’s “guess” served well for many years in providing authoritative and “conservative” estimates, not only for political leaders and their media conduits, but even for serious students of the war. Bernard Fall was taken in by Chi, and Frances FitzGerald in her influential Fire in the Lake follows Fall in giving a “conservative estimate” that “some fifty thousand people of all economic stations were killed” in the course of the land reform. (200) Because of their reputations as opponents of the war, Fall and FitzGerald have played an especially important role in the perpetration of a myth that still flourishes in its third decade of life. (201)
On the basis of an analysis of official figures and credible documents, plus an estimate made by the Diem government itself in 1959, Porter (202) has concluded that a realistic range of executions taking place during the land reform would be between 800 and 2500. These are significant figures, although the upper limit of executions in the Porter estimate is far lower than the indiscriminate massacre in the single Operation Speedy Express described above - and the North Vietnamese did not honor the parties responsible for their excesses.
The Hue Massacres of 1968
As in the case of the land reform bloodbath myth just discussed, official estimates of alleged NLF-DRV killings of civilians at Hue escalated sharply in the fall of 1969 coincident with the Nixon administration’s attempt to offset the effects of the October and November surge of organized peace activity and to counteract the exposure of the My Lai massacre in November 1969. Shortly after the Tet offensive itself, Police Chief Doan Cong Lap, of Hue, estimated the number of NLF-DRV killings at about 200, (203) and the mass grave of local officials and prominent citizens allegedly found by the Mayor of Hue contained 300 bodies. (The authenticity of these numbers and responsibility for these bodies is highly debatable, as is discussed below.) But in the fall of 1969 a “captured document” was discovered that mysteriously had been mislaid in the official files for 19 months, in which the enemy allegedly boasts of 2748 persons having been ‘eliminated” during the Hue campaign. This document, as the Chi fabrications, served an important public relations need. It was taken at face value by many reporters (e.g., Don Oberdorfer, in his book Tet, Doubleday, 1971) despite the curious circumstances of its discovery immediately after the My Lai exposure. Frances FitzGerald here also accepted uncritically the official tale that “the Front and the North Vietnamese forces murdered some three thousand civilians’’ in their month of terror at Hue in 1968, and she took at face value all GVN allegations of grave findings as well as the “piecing (of) various bits of evidence together” by official U.S. propagandist Douglas Pike. (204) In the hysterical propaganda effusions of Robert Thompson (205), the number of people executed by the Communists was escalated to 5700, and we learn that “in captured documents they gloated over those figures and only complained that they had not killed enough.” No documents were identified.
In a careful analysis of the mysterious “captured document,” D. Gareth Porter shows that once again the U.S.-Saigon propaganda machine deliberately misused evidence (even granting the authenticity of the document) in an effort to deceive. (206) In the first place, the Vietnamese word “diet” was translated as “eliminate,” which implies killing, although the word was used by the NLF in the military sense of putting out of action (killing, wounding, capturing, or inducing to surrender or defect). If the NLF had intended to describe plain killing or deliberate executions, they would have used any number of Vietnamese terms, but not “diet.” Second, government propaganda disregarded the fact that the 2748 figure clearly included estimated numbers of enemy troops killed and wounded in combat. This deception was facilitated by mistranslating the word “te” as “administrative personnel” in the version circulated to newsmen when, in fact, according to a standard North Vietnamese dictionary it has the broader meaning of “puppet personnel,” which would include both civilian administrators and the military. Third, the propaganda operation produced a list of fifteen categories of “enemies of the people” allegedly targeted for liquidation, when the documents in question never use the quoted phrase and suggest only that those categories of people should be carefully “watched.” Those targeted for repression, let alone liquidation, were completely different categories. (207) Fourth, it was claimed that the NLF had blacklists for execution which included “selected non-official and natural leaders of the community, chiefly educators and religionists,” when in fact the testimony of Hues chief of secret police contradicts this. According to the latter, the only names on the list of those to be executed immediately were the officers of the secret police of Hue. Other lists were of those who were to be “reeducated.” (208) Porter reports that no captured document has yet been produced which suggests that the NLF and DRV had any intention of massacring either civilians or even the established leaders of Hue. Porter further states that the general strategy of the NLF conveyed in the documents, misrepresented by Douglas Pike and his associates, was to try to mobilize and gain support from the masses, organized religious groups, and ordinary policemen. (209)
The documents uniformly attest to an NLF policy of attempting to rally large numbers with minimum reprisals. Most of those killed by the NLF were on “reeducation lists.” Furthermore, the killings took place after the NLF realized that it would have to evacuate the city, then under a massive U.S. attack, and during that evacuation. In Porter’s words: (210)
The real lesson of Hue, therefore, is that in circumstances of peace and full political control, the basic Communist policy toward those associated with the Saigon regime would be one of no reprisals, with the exception of key personnel in Saigon’s repressive apparatus (and even in these cases, officials can redeem themselves at the last moment by abandoning resistance to the revolutionary forces).
This lesson is the opposite of that which the U.S.-Saigon propaganda machines have succeeded in converting into a myth.
The supporting evidence on the mass graves of alleged massacre victims came belatedly, strictly from official sources, . The numbers game obscures the fact that very large numbers of civilians were killed in the U.S.-Saigon recapture of Hue by the massive and indiscriminate use of firepower. David Douglas Duncan, the famous combat photographer, says of the recapture, that it was “a total effort to root out and kill every enemy soldier. The mind reels at the carnage, cost, and ruthlessness of it all.” (211) Townsend Hoopes, who had special access to information as a high DOD official, states that in the recapture effort 80% of the buildings were reduced to rubble, and that “in the smashed ruins lay 2,000 dead civilians....” (212) This number exceeds the highest estimates of NLF-DRV killings, including official ones, that are not demonstrable propaganda fabrications.
Some of the civilian casualties of this assault were put in mass graves by NLF personnel alongside their own casualties (according to NLF-DRV sources), and a large number of civilians were bulldozed into mass graves by the “allies.” (213) The NLF claim to have buried 2000 victims of the bombardment in mass graves. Oberdorfer says that 2800 “victims of the occupation” were discovered in mass graves, but he gives no reason for believing that these were victims of the NLF-DRV “political slaughter” rather than people killed in the bombardment. He seems to have relied entirely on the assertions of the Ministries of Propaganda.
An interesting feature of the mass graves is that independent journalists never were allowed to be present at their opening, and that they had difficulty locating their precise whereabouts despite repeated requests. (214) One of the authors spoke recently with an American Marine who was present at the first publicized grand opening; he informed us that the reporters present were carefully hand-picked reliables, that the bodies were not available for inspection, and that he observed tracks and scour marks indicative of the use of bulldozers (which the DRV and NLF did not possess). (215) Perhaps the only western physician to have examined the graves, the Canadian Dr. Aije Vennema, found that the number of victims in the grave sites he examined were inflated in the U.S-Saigon count by over sevenfold, totaling only 68 instead of the officially claimed 477; that most of them had wounds and appeared to be victims of the fighting, and that most of the bodies he saw were clothed in military uniforms. (216)
Little attention has been paid to the possibility that massacre victims at Hue may have been killed neither by the NLF-DRV nor U.S. firepower, but rather by the returning Saigon military and political police. Many friends of the NLF “surfaced” after <> a) government formed by the revolutionaries in Hue, or otherwise revealed their sympathies. With the retreat of the NLF and DRV forces from Hue in 1968 many cadres and supporters were left in a vulnerable position as potential victims of Saigon retribution -- and Saigon has never demonstrated the tolerance and faith in “reeducation” shown by the revolutionaries. Evidence has come to light that large-scale retaliatory killing took place in Hue by the Saigon forces after its recapture. In a graphic description by Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci it is concluded that: “Altogether, there have been 1,100 killed (after ‘liberation” by Saigon forces). Mostly students, university teachers, priests. Intellectuals and religious people at Hue have never hidden their sympathy for the NLF.” (217)
In any case, given the very confused state of events and evidence, plus the total unreliability of U.S.-Saigon “proofs,” at a minimum it can be said that the NLF-DRV “bloodbath” at Hue has been grossly exaggerated. It seems fairly clear that U.S. firepower “saving” the Vietnamese killed a great many more civilians than did the NLF and DRV. It is not unlikely that political killings by the Saigon authorities may have exceeded any massacres by the NLF and DRV at Hue. Porter’s analysis of the NLF documents used by U.S.-Saigon propagandists suggests that mass political killings were neither contemplated nor consistent with revolutionary strategy at Hue. The evidence indicates that “the vast majority of policemen, civil servants and soldiers were initially on ‘reeducation’ rather than on liquidation lists, but the number of killings mounted as the military pressure on the NLF and North Vietnamese mounted.” (218) It is also of interest here, as in the land reform case, that the retreating Front forces “were severely criticized by their superiors for excesses which had ‘hurt the revolution.’” (219) We have not yet heard of any such self-criticism coming from U.S. and Saigon superiors for their more extensive impersonal or political killings at Hue.
We have discussed several of the more blatant exercises of the U.S.-Saigon propaganda machines, but it must be emphasized that even their day-to-day reports, which constitute the great mass of information about Indochina, must be treated with comparable skepticism. On the rare occasions when competent reporters have made serious investigations, the information presented by U.S. and Saigon sources has turned out to be no less tainted. The Japanese reporter Katsuichi Honda once undertook to investigate the weekly report of the General Information Bureau of the U.S. Army in Saigon entitled “Terrorist Activities by Viet Cong.” Pursuing “one isolated case” that interested him, he discovered (220) that not only was amazingly brutal and persistent terrorism occurring regularly, it was actually being shielded from public scrutiny by Saigon’s “information control.” It soon appeared that the murders were not done by the National Liberation Front at all. There were, it seemed, innumerable “terrible facts” which had been secretly hushed up behind the scenes of the intensifying Vietnam War.
In the case in question, he discovered that the assassination of five Buddhist student volunteers, officially victims of Viet Cong terror, had apparently been carried out by government forces. In another case, “drunken soldiers of the Government army quarrelling among themselves threw grenades, and some civilian bystanders were killed,” the case again being reported “as another instance of ‘Viet Cong terrorism’.”
In other cases, the facts have emerged only by accident. To mention one particularly grotesque example, the camp where the remnants of the My Lai massacre had been relocated was largely destroyed by ARVN air and artillery bombardment in the spring of 1972. The destruction was attributed routinely to Viet Cong terror. The truth was revealed by Quaker service workers in the area. (221)
These examples, of course, not only point up the fact that in the instances in question the official reports were lies and deceptions, and in some cases were converted into official myths; the more important conclusion is that the official sources have extremely limited credibility. They raise questions, but provide no reliable answers.