The Massacre at Huế (Thảm sát tại Huế Tết Mậu Thân) is the name given to describe the summary executions and mass killings conducted by the Viet Cong and North Vietnam during their capture, occupation and later withdrawal from the city of Huế during the Tet Offensive, considered one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War.
Estimates vary on the number executed, with a low of 200 to a high of several thousand. During the months and years that followed the battle, dozens of mass graves were discovered in and around Huế containing 2,800 to 6,000 civilians and prisoners of war. In some of the graves victims were found bound together. Some appeared tortured; others were apparently buried alive.
A number of U.S. and South Vietnamese authorities as well a number of journalists who investigated the events took the discoveries, along with other evidence, as proof that a large-scale atrocity had been carried out in and around Huế during its four-week occupation. Some of these same sources also contended these killings were premeditated, and part of a large-scale purge of a whole social stratum. Those in opposition to the war alleged that the numbers and circumstances of the casualties were exaggerated or fabricated for war propaganda reasons.
The Viet Cong, or VC, set up provisional authorities shortly after capturing Huế, and was charged with removing the existing government administration from power within the city and replacing it with a "revolutionary administration." Working from lists of "cruel tyrants and reactionary elements" previously developed by VC intelligence officers, many people were to be rounded up following the initial hours of the attack. These included Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) soldiers, civil servants, political party members, local religious leaders, American civilians and other foreigners. These individuals, according to VC documents captured during and after the siege, were to be taken out of the city and held and punished for their “crimes against the Vietnamese people”. The disposition of those who were previously in control of the city was carefully laid out, and the lists were detailed and extensive. Those in the Saigon-based-state police apparatus at all levels were to be rounded up and held outside the city. High civilian and military officials were also removed from the city, both to await study of their individual cases. Ordinary civil servants working for "the Saigon enemy" out of necessity, but did not oppose the revolution, were destined for reeducation and later employment. Low-level civil servants who had at some point been involved in paramilitary activities were to be held for reeducation, but not employed. There are documented cases of individuals who were executed by the VC when they tried to hide or otherwise resisted during the early stages of Huế's occupation.
Within days of the capture, US Marine Corps (USMC) and US Army as well as ARVN infantry units were dispatched to counterattack and recaptured the city after weeks of fierce fighting, during which the city and its outlying areas were exposed to repeated shelling from US Navy ships off the coast and numerous bombing runs by U.S. aircraft. It was inferred that during the USMC and ARVN attack, North Vietnam's forces had rounded up those individuals whose names it had previously collected and had them executed or sent North for reeducation.
It was determined by piecing together bits of information from several sources that a large number of people had taken sanctuary from the battle in a local church. Several hundred of these people were ordered out to undergo indoctrination in the "liberated area," and told afterwards they would be allowed to return home. After marching the group south 9 kilometers, 20 of the people were separated, tried, found guilty, executed and buried. The others were taken across the river and turned over to a local Communist unit in an exchange that even included written receipts. Douglas Pike notes that while “It is probable that the Commissar intended that their prisoners should be re-educated and returned, but with the turnover, matters passed from his control.” Sometime within the following several weeks, the communists decided to kill the individuals under their control. After being informed of this by VC defectors, local authorities released a list of 428 names of people they claimed were identified from the bones found over a 100 yard area of the Da Mai creek bed.
Philip W. Manhard, a U.S. senior advisor in Huế province, was taken to a POW camp by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and held until 1973. Manhard recounted that during the NVA withdrawal from Huế the NVA summarily executed anyone in their custody who resisted being taken out of the city or who was too old, too young, or too frail to make the journey to the camp.
Don Oberdorfer spent five days in late 1969 with Paul Vogle, an American English professor at the local Huế University, going through Huế interviewing witnesses of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong occupation. Oberdorfer classified all the killings into two categories: the planned execution of government officials and their families, political and civil servants, and collaborators with Americans; and those civilians not connected to the government who ran from questioning, spoke harshly about the occupation, or the occupiers believed “displayed a bad attitude” towards the occupiers. While unable to confirm this with first-hand accounts, Oberdorfer reported that in the Catholic area of Huế, Phucam, virtually every able bodied man over the age of 15 who took refuge in the cathedral was taken away and killed. In an interview with Ho Ty, a VC commander who took part in the advanced planning of a general uprising, Oberdorfer reported Ty's statement that the Communist party "was particularly anxious to get those people at Phucam... The Catholics were considered particular enemies of ours."
Three professors, members of the West German Cultural Mission who taught at the Hue Faculty of Medicine, and the wife of one of the professors, were abducted and murdered by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong during their attack on Hue during the Tet Offensive (Feb. 1968). Their bodies, along with those of scores of Vietnamese civilians, who also were slain by the Communist attackers, were found April 5 in mass graves near Hue. The slain Germans were Professor and Mrs. Horst Krainick, Dr. Alois Altekoester, and Dr. Raimund Discher.
Many later authors relied on his account, e.g. Stanley Karnow in Vietnam, A History and Michael Maclear in The Ten Thousand Day War, while some still regard it as a piece of propaganda intended to support the U.S. war effort.
Other early sources include front line reporters serving under a strict code of reporting conduct imposed by U.S. forces and agencies. Later studies contending with these earlier accounts, most prominently Gareth Porter's examination, were highly critical of the initial reports and sought to defend North Vietnam against the impact of the alleged propaganda. On the other hand, Porter admitted that there were executions in Huế during the occupation. Porter argued that the executions were the actions of individuals rather than the policy of the NLF. Shortly thereafter one of Porter's leading witnesses, Alje Vennema, published a book about the massacre supporting Pike's version.
Marilyn B. Young in The Vietnam Wars, 1945-1990 contends,
"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 Vietcong 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..."
Douglas Pike's account referencing the government of South Vietnam's estimated civilian casualties states:
"The story remains uncompleted. If the estimates by Huế officials are even approximately correct, nearly 2,000 people are still missing (as of late 1970)."