CLARIFICATIONS: An article Feb. 3 about the 1968 battle for the Vietnamese city of Hue did not mean to imply that there were no U.S. military services other than the Marines involved. (Published 2/14/88)
HUE, VIETNAM -- After Vietnamese Communists briefly occupied this picturesque former imperial capital during the 1968 Tet offensive, nearly 3,000 people were found buried in mass graves, the victims of what western accounts said was a systematic massacre. Twenty years later, while Vietnamese authorities continue to deny that charge, there are signs that they are reassessing the Hue killings.
Army officers who helped lead the North Vietnamese assault that led to occupation of this city for 25 days admitted recently that soldiers under their command may have committed what one officer called unspecified "mistakes."
Measured against the accusations, and evidence, of thousands of planned executions by their forces, concessions of "mistakes" may seem small. But for the Vietnamese, who never had officially conceded the slightest fallibility in their fight to "liberate" the south, it seems an unusual shift in the official line.
When two North Vietnamese battalions hoisted their flag over the stone gate of the citadel, they began an occupation that became one of the longest and bloodiest military actions of the Vietnam War. A visitor today is reminded of the violence by the bullet holes visible in the narrow passageways and stone walls of the Forbidden City.
Twenty years later, Vietnam still has not given a full account of what happened during the Communist takeover. The U.S. government and accounts by western journalists who covered the war describe an organized campaign to eliminate the South Vietnamese administrative structure in Hue by executing soldiers and civilian officials of the U.S.-backed regime in Saigon.
According to a contemporary account by Washington Post journalist Don Oberdorfer, an eight-page plan for the assault set as a goal to "destroy and disorganize the enemy's restrictive administrative machinery from the province and the district level to the city wards, streets and wharves."
The account, in a book published in 1971, quoted witnesses as saying that, after the North Vietnamese entered the city, residents targeted by local Communist agents were seen being marched down near-empty streets with their hands tied. They included American diplomats and advisers, a Spanish Jesuit, a German doctor and two French Benedictine priests -- one of whom was shot in the back of the head while kneeling.
In the months after the occupation, close to 3,000 bodies were discovered dumped in mass graves. Many had been shot, bludgeoned or buried alive.
Shortly after U.S. marines retook the city, president Richard Nixon cited the killings as proof of the "nightmare" that would occur if the Communists ever took control of the South.
The Vietnamese have maintained that talk of a massacre was American and South Vietnamese propaganda, since no autopsies were performed. Vietnamese officials maintain that most of the victims were killed by American bombing, or were perhaps caught in the cross fire of street battles. Officials have said all the dead of Hue -- including their own Communist comrades -- were hastily buried in common graves by retreating forces who had no time for proper burials.
"There was no case of killing civilians purposefully," said Col. Nguyen Quoc Khanh, who was then commander of the Army unit that attacked the city from north of the citadel. "Those civilians who were killed were killed accidentally, in cross fire."
Khanh, in an interview, said the goal of the Hue occupation was "to change the balance of forces in Hue." The objective, he said, "was to eliminate or liquidate as many of the enemy forces as possible." The official policy at the time "was to kill only people who carried a gun and pointed it at you," he said. Civilians who worked for the old Saigon regime were to be taken away for "reeducation."
But, he said, "some rank-and-file soldiers may have committed individual mistakes."
Nguyen Van Dieu, a Communist Party foreign liaison officer here, also said that a recent book published by the Hue party Central Committee includes an article by Le Minh, commander in chief of the Hue offensive, who concedes that "some soldiers in the rank-and-file had too much hatred toward the enemy.
"Le Minh admitted that he was guilty because of everything his soldiers did wrong because he was their commander," Dieu said. He added, however, that any "mistakes" were individual and that Le Minh never admitted in the article that any wholesale killing took place.
For citizens of Hue who lived through the occupation, the shift confirms what many already seem to know, but appear reluctant to discuss openly.
The Rev. Nguyen Van Ngoc, a Catholic priest, said in an interview with two government interpreters present that at least two Catholic priests were among those taken away and executed by the Viet Cong during the occupation. "More than 3,000 people were killed all together," he said through the translator. "Some were killed under cross fire, some were killed in the bombing, others were taken away and killed."
He added quickly that when the Vietnamese forces arrived seven years later, in 1975, to "liberate" Hue once again, the Communist forces acted kindly to the civilian population. "It was not so disorderly as before," he said.
Another Catholic priest, interviewed later in French with no government officials present, said about 300 of the dead were executed by North Vietnam's Viet Cong allies during the 1968 occupation. "The official version is that they were all killed in the American bombing," said the priest. "But the people know what happened."