Olga Dror, an associate professor at Texas A&M University, has published a study and translation of Nha Ca’s “Mourning Headband for Hue.” She is the author of the forthcoming monograph “Making Two Vietnams: War and Youth Identities, 1965-1975.”
Originally posted here.
The Battle for Hue, part of the Tet offensive, started with an assault by communist forces in the wee hours of Jan. 30, 1968. The former imperial capital of Vietnam, Hue was defended by the Army of the Republic of (South) Vietnam, local militia units, the United States Marines and the United States Air Force. The core of the communist forces in Hue was the North Vietnamese Army with support from southern communist forces — the National Liberation Front, also known as Viet Cong, and from communist sympathizers, many of whom were former members of the defunct Struggle Movement, organized in Hue in 1965 by Buddhist monks and students, which had led the Buddhist Uprising that was suppressed by the ARVN in 1966. Many Struggle Movement activists fled to the mountains and joined the communists; during the Tet Offensive, they returned to Hue with the communists.
The fighting, which lasted until Feb. 24, was the largest urban engagement of the war. The communists lost an estimated 5,000 combatants, ARVN losses stood at around 400, and the Americans had 216 killed in action. Some 80 percent of the city of Hue was destroyed. But the battle toll also included the sufferings and deaths of civilians.
During the communist takeover, the southern communists and the N.V.A. forces organized so-called liberated zones, conducted indoctrination sessions, rationed food, conscripted youth for labor and combat, and identified enemies, and sometimes their family members, in the local population for denunciation and death. Former members of the Struggle Movement who had fled Hue in 1966 and returned with the communists in 1968 were intimately familiar with the city and became instrumental in marking people for execution.
Not only were government and military officials massacred, but so were innocent civilians, including women and children, who were tortured, executed or buried alive. After the battle, thousands of people were missing. People did not know where their loved ones were; they roamed the streets, searching, digging and finding bodies. The people of Hue even found corpses in the Citadel and around the emperors’ mausoleums outside of the city.
Within a few months, people started to find mass graves. The body count continued to rise with the discovery of more graves through the fall of 1969. By then, the total number of bodies unearthed around the city had risen to some 2,800. The massacre of unarmed civilians on such a scale left a deep scar in the memories of survivors.
In the decades since, the massacre at Hue has become a touchstone and a flash point for debates about the war, both within Vietnam and in the United States. It began a few months after the battle when Nha Ca, a well-known South Vietnamese writer, wrote an account of the battle, “Mourning Headband for Hue.” It was first serialized in a newspaper and then published as a book in 1969. On the eve of the Tet offensive, Nha Ca had come to her hometown Hue from Saigon for the burial of her father, and she remained there during the battle.
In the book, she described the atrocities committed by the communists, but also gave examples of their humanity. She showed the dark and bright sides of American and ARVN soldiers, creating a vivid picture of the terrible plight of the civilians. Describing the atrocities committed by the communists, she lamented the plight of her country, the fate of all Vietnamese who found themselves pawns in the power play between the communist and anti-communist blocs. This book was translated and published in English in 2014 (I provided the translation).
For many Vietnamese, “Mourning Headband for Hue” remains one of the key commemorations of the massacre and their loved ones. But not everyone sees it this way. When she wrote in 1969, Nha Ca called on her readers to share responsibility for the destruction of their country. But many former South Vietnamese disagree with her willingness to attribute to her compatriots a shared responsibility for the war, which they see as a result of communist aggression by the former North Vietnam.
While the discoveries of mass graves unfolded in Hue, the attention of Americans was diverted to the shocking domestic events of 1968: On March 31, President Johnson announced that he would not run for reelection; on April 4, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, an event that provoked days of rioting in American cities; on June 6, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated; in August, violent clashes between police and protesters accompanied the national convention of the Democratic Party in Chicago; finally, the presidential campaign resulted in the election of Richard Nixon. The fate of the Hue victims did not break through these headlines.
Then, even though in Hue local people continued to unearth corpses of missing people and the number of uncovered bodies was rising into the thousands, the news of another tragedy overshadowed Hue again. On March 16, 1968, less than a month after the events in Hue, American soldiers entered the hamlet of My Lai and killed between 300 and 400 of its inhabitants, including children, old men and women. When they found out, Americans were rightly appalled by the actions of their countrymen in Vietnam, and the My Lai victims and the American perpetrators pushed the Hue victims and the communist perpetrators out of the American media and, by extension, out of the attention of the American public and of world opinion.
To the extent that Americans paid any attention to the massacre, it was through a partisan, politicized lens. Douglas Pike, a journalist who joined the U.S. Information Agency in Vietnam and later as a State Department employee, was one of the first Americans to call attention to the massacre, and cited it as evidence of the dangers of a communist takeover of South Vietnam. Pike’s view was adopted by President Nixon and hawkish members of Congress to justify avoiding a sudden withdrawal from the war.
Antiwar politicians, in contrast, drew on the work of Gareth Porter, a political scientist and journalist, who argued that the killings in Hue were committed on a smaller scale than reported, merely acts of revenge by an army in retreat. Drawing on Porter’s work, Senator George McGovern accused the Nixon administration of using the events in Hue as a pretext to continue American involvement there. He went as far as to refer to the killings in Hue as the “so-called Hue massacre.”
Lack of attention to events in Hue continued after the war. Unlike the My Lai massacre, which is mentioned in most general books about the war and is analyzed in dozens of specialized books published from the 1970s to the present, the events in Hue have not received any serious study and have largely, if not completely, faded from American memory and scholarship.
The politicization of the Hue massacre extends beyond Vietnam and the United States. No mention of the massacre occurred in the Soviet press or in any other public forum in 1968 or in later years. The only concerned voice on the Soviet side came from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Soviet dissident. The situation has not changed in the Soviet Union’s successor state of Russia.
In 2012, while giving a presentation on the Hue Massacre and Nha Ca’s account of it at an academic conference in Moscow, I was told that we must focus on the atrocities committed by Americans and by their South Vietnamese “puppets.” I expressed agreement that we must and will discuss American atrocities, but that we should not overlook what the other side did. No, I was told, the communists fought for the right cause and we must focus on the American perpetrators, an exchange that was reported in the conference’s proceedings. Out of 50 or so people in the room, no one voiced support for my view; later, it was related to me that there was no need for my “Western objectivity.”
As a historian, I’ve seen an odd confluence of American and Soviet/Russian academic perspectives on the massacres and a Soviet/Russian-American alliance, if not intentional, in accepting Hanoi’s version of the war. American scholarship has focused largely on either the American side of the war or the North Vietnamese perspective; either way, America’s erstwhile ally has been largely ignored. South Vietnam, whose many citizens fled Vietnam and found a new home in the United States, was pushed to the margins, if not completely off the pages, of postwar narratives, and meanwhile the former enemy was romanticized.
Putting the United States front and center as the only perpetrator of the war denies agency to the South Vietnamese who did not want to live under communists and who fought for this cause, and it simultaneously conceals the fact that expelling Americans was only the first step of bringing the South under the sway of the North. Hanoi always insisted that the unified Vietnam would be a socialist country. Thus, even in the context of the Cold War, it was a civil war between North and South Vietnam for the future of their states.
The American appropriation of the war translated even to the analysis and representation of atrocities and other wrongdoings. But without discussing the wrongs committed by all sides, no true reconciliation or study of history is possible. To be fair, the situation in the United States has started to change, however slowly, as a new generation of scholars trained in the Vietnamese language and having genuine interest in all sides of the conflict are developing the field beyond the America-centric focus.
This is a much-needed change for the Vietnamese sides as well. As the United States and Vietnam pursue their reconciliation agenda, it is incumbent on American scholars to probe more deeply the experience of southern Vietnamese during the war. Nor can reconciliation come from the victor’s syndrome as currently practiced by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam — namely, we won, so let’s celebrate our victory and forget about the losers. It can come only through a dialogue and discussion of crimes committed by both sides.
Many Vietnamese in Vietnam and in the Vietnamese diaspora still want and need to mourn their loved ones lost in the Hue massacre. They cannot do it in Vietnam. During the war, North Vietnam and the communist forces in the South did not recognize the massacre and did not punish any of the perpetrators. Neither has postwar Vietnam recognized the massacre, preferring to ignore it or call it a fabrication. During commemorative events of the Tet offensive in Vietnam, the Hue massacre does not appear.
The monopolization of the “crime zone” by the United States contributes to modern Vietnam’s obliteration of the communists’ own wrongdoings. A sense of history is an important factor in forming a country and maintaining one’s identity, but many students in Vietnam dismiss the study of their own history, at least in part because they understand how limited they are in their access to documents and other resources and how constrained they are in their interpretations of it. This encourages distrust of the government, which will grow as more materials challenging the party-line version of history appear. I grew up in the Soviet Union, and I know firsthand how damaging it was for us to maintain a mandatory veneer in which we could not believe. Given technological advancements, Vietnam faces a more formidable task than did the Soviet Union in keeping its population at bay.
Reconciliation and inclusive historical narratives are also necessary for Americans. Many Vietnamese who lost their relatives in Hue and then lost their country are now an integral part of American society. Mourning what happened in Hue reminds us Americans of our self-absorption in how we think about our role in the war and our unwillingness to learn more about “others,” which even today haunts American policies toward other countries.