For several thousand years, Vietnamese Lunar New Year has been a traditional celebration that brings the Vietnamese a sense of happiness, hope and peace. However, in recent years, It also bring back a bitter memory full of tears. It reminds them the 1968 bloodshed, a bloodiest military campaign of the Vietnam War the North Communists launched against the South.
The “general offensive and general uprising” of the north marked the sharp turn of the Vietnam War. Today there have been a great number of writings about this event. However, it seems that many key facts in the Communist campaign are still misinterpreted or neglected.
In the mid-80, living in Saigon after being released from the Communist “re-education camp,” I read a book published in the early 1980’s in America about the story of the 1968 Tet Offensive. It said that the North Vietnamese Army supreme command had imitated one of the greatest heroes of Vietnam, King Quang Trung, who won the most spectacular victory over the Chinese aggressors in the 1789 counter-attack – in planning the 1968 operations.
The book quoted King Quang Trung’s tactic of surprise. He let the troops celebrate the 1789 Tet Festival one day ahead so that he could launch the attacks on the first three days of the lunar new year while the Chinese troops were still feasting and not ready to organize their defense.
Those who claimed the similarity between the two campaigns certainly did not know the whole truth, but jumped into conclusion with wild imagination after learning that the North Vietnamese attacking units also celebrated Tet “one day ahead” before the attacks.
In fact, the Tet Offensive broke out on the Tet’s Eve – in the early morning of January 30, 1968 at many cities of Central Vietnam, such as Da Nang and Qui Nhon, as well as cities in the central coastal and highland areas, that lied within the Communist 5th Military Region.. The other cities to the south that included Saigon, were attacked 24 hours later at the small hours of January 31. Thus the offensive lost its element of total surprise that every tactician has to respect.
But It surprised me that some in the American media were still unaware of such tragic story.
The story started some 5 months previously. On August 8, 1967, the North Vietnam government approved a lunar calendar specifically compiled for the 7th time zone that covers all Vietnam, replacing the traditional lunar calendar that had been in use in Asia for hundreds of years.
That old calendar was calculated for the 8th time zone that Beijing falls right in the middle. It was accepted in general by a few nations such as China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Hong Kong and somewhat in Japan and Korea, mostly for traditional celebrations and religious purposes. South Vietnam used this calendar. With common cultural origin, these countries needed not have their own calendar, particularly it has not been used for scientific and administrative activities.
The North Vietnam new lunar calendar differs from the common calendar about some dates, such as the leap months of certain year (1984 and 1987) and the Tet’s Eve of the three Lunar New Years: Mau Than (1968), Ky Dau (1969) and At Suu (1985). South Vietnam celebrated the first day of the Mau Than lunar year on January 30, 1968, while North Vietnam celebrated it on Jan 29, 1968.
It was obviously that the North Vietnamese leaders had ordered the offensives to be launched on the night of the first day of Tet to take the objectives by total surprise. By some reason, the North Vietnamese Army Supreme Command was not aware of the fact that there were different dates for Tet between North and South Vietnam. Therefore, most NVA units in the Communist 5th Military Region – closer to North Vietnam – probably used North Vietnamese calendar, and conducted their attacks in the night between Jan 29 and 30, while their comrades farther to the south attacked in the night from Jan 30 to 31.
Many in the intelligence branch of the South Vietnamese Armed Forces were well aware of the reason why the Communist forces launched their attacks at two different dates. Information from sources among NVA prisoners of war and ralliers about the new calendar of North Vietnam should have been neglected by the American side. The information was also available in broadcast from Hanoi Radio.
In military operations, nothing is more important than surprise. So the Communist forces lost their advantage of surprise on more than half of the objectives. Had the Vietnamese Communists conducted their coordinated attacks at the same H-hour, South Vietnam would have been in much more troubles.
The large scale offensive resulted in drastic human and morale losses of the Communist forces. However, the offensive caused an extreme negative effect in the American public opinion and boosted the more bitter protests against the war.
Until lately, the Ha Noi propaganda and political indoctrination system has always claimed the Tet offensive their military victory, and never insisted on their victory over the morale of the American public.. Obviously, Ha Noi leaders won a priceless victory at an unintended objective.
In South Vietnam, on the contrary, the offensive created an unexpected attitude among the people.
After the first few hours of panic, the South Vietnamese armed forces reacted fiercely. There were hundreds of stories of brave soldiers and small units who fought their enemies with incredible courage..
A large number of those who were playing fence-sitters especially in the region around Hue City then took side with the nationalist government.
Several mass graves were found where thousands unarmed soldiers, civil servants and civilians were shot, stabbed, or with skulls mashed by clubs and buried in strings of ropes, even buried alive. A large number of VC-sympathizers who saw the horrible graves, undeniable evidence of the Communist barbarian crimes, changed side.
The most significant indication of such attitude could be observed from the figures of young volunteers. to join the army. After the first wave of Communist attacks, a great number of youth under draft age – below 20 years old – voluntarily enrolled in the army for combat units, so high that thousands of young draftees were delayed reporting for boot camps.
On the Communist side, the number of ralliers known as “chieu hoi” increased about four times. The offensive planners apparently expected the so-called “people upraising,” so most secret cells were ordered to emerge. When the attacking units were crushed, cell members had to flee to the green forests. Thus the Tet offensive helped South Vietnam neutralize much of the Communist infrastructure before the Phoenix Campaign got rid of many others.
Unfortunately, such achievements were nullified by the waves of protests in America. As in any other developing countries, nobody takes heed of a speech from a Vietnamese official. But the same thing from an American statesman or even a protester could be well listened to and trusted. So information from the Western media produced rumors that the USA was about to sell off South Vietnam to the Communist blocks.
The rumors were almost absolutely credible to the Vietnamese – particularly the military servicemen of all ranks – because of another hearsay that until now have a very powerful impact on the mind of a great number of the South Vietnamese. There have been no poll on the subject, but it was estimated that more than half of the soldiers strongly believed that “it was the Americans who helped the Communist attack the South Vietnamese cities.”
Hundreds of officers from all over South Vietnam asserted that they “saw” NVA soldiers moving into the cities on US Army trucks, or American helicopters transporting supplies to NVA units. In Saigon, most people accepted the allegation that the Americans deliberately let the Communists infiltrate the capital city because the American electronic sensor defense system around Saigon was able to detect things as small as a mouse crossing the hi-tech fences.
Another hearsay among the South Vietnamese military ran that “none of the American military units or installation and agencies – military or civilian – was under Communist first phase of the offensive (February) except for the US Embassy. And only after nearly three weeks did the US Marines engaged in the battle of Hue, in the old Royal Palace” The allegation seemed to be true. The American combat units, however, were fighting fierce battles in phase 2 (May 1968) and phase 3 (September 1968).
Similar rumors might have been of no importance if they were in America.But in Vietnam, they did convince a lot of people. In the military, they dealt deadly blows on the soldiers’ morale. Their impacts still lingered on until the last days of April 1975.
The truth in the rumors did not matter much. But the fact that a great numbers of the fighting men strongly believed the rumors turned them into a deadly psychological weapon which very few or maybe none has ever properly treated in writings about the Vietnam War. Most authors studied the war at high echelons, but neglected the morale of the buck privates and the effect of the media in the Vietnam War. No military plan even by top strategists in the White House could succeed if half of the privates believed that they would be defeated before long. So why should they go on fighting?
For years, I have been wondering how much the American public was uninformed about the Vietnam War.
The Silent Tears in Hue City
Commemorating deceased ancestors and family members who were dead has been a tradition in Vietnam since time immemorial. On the date of their death on the lunar calendar, their living descendants or members of their families hold service in commemoration of them at home or sometimes at pagoda. Offerings — usually food, fruit, wine along with flowers and incense sticks – are presented to them on the altar. The relatives pray for them and show their love, respect and gratitude prostrating in front of the altar.
The tradition also goes beyond the limit of family members and ascendants. On the 15th day of the 7th month every lunar year, Vietnamese Buddhists conduct rites that are more elaborated at pagodas. The congregation prays for the dead in general, particularly for the dead without offspring, soldiers killed in action, war victims… The rites may last a week or even 15 days in pre-war time.
Such tradition is the same in Hue City, the ancient royal capital of Vietnam. People in this city, however, have more to do with the war dead. In the 5th moon each lunar year (around late June to early July), every Buddhist family in the city holds commemorating services at the family altar as well as in all pagodas with offerings, to pray for innocent civilians killed by the French invaders in the late 19th century. On the 23rd day of the fifth month, the year At Dau (or the Year of the Rooster 1885), the French forces conducted a fierce counter attack against the Vietnam royal army who defended the capital city. Unscrupulous French fire power killed about 2,000 to 3,000 soldiers and residents.
Although the date is the 23rd day of the 5th month, people are free to hold service for the dead on any date to their family’s convenience, providing that it is within the 5th month. If you visit someone in Hue during the 5th month, you will certainly be invited to such feasts, probably every day if you have a lot of friends and relatives living in this beautiful city.
Besides the Fifth Month Commemoration, for the last 28 years, Buddhists in Hue have also held services in the first month of the lunar year for war victims in the 1968 Tet Offensive. (Tet is the Lunar New Year celebration in Vietnam).
In the darkness of the 1968 Tet’s Eve, North Vietnamese Communist Army units conducted a surprise attack at Hue City, while the two sides were in a truce that had been agreed upon previously. South Vietnamese Army units defending the city were not in good positions to fight as they expected that the enemy would abide by their 4-day cease-fire promise, as they did in the preceding years. On the first day of the new year – the Year of the Monkey – Hue City streets were filled with NVA soldiers in baggy olive uniforms and pithy hats.
The communist cadres set up the provisionary authorities. The first thing they did was call all SVN soldiers, civil servants of all services, political party members, and college students, to report to the “revolutionary people’s committee.” Those who reported to the communist committee were registered in control books then released with promise of safety.
After a few days, they were called to report again, then all were sent home safe and sound. During three weeks under NVA units’ occupation, they were ordered to report to the communist committee three or four times. In the late half of January 1968, the US Marines and the South Vietnamese infantry conducted bloody counterattacks and recaptured the whole city after many days of fierce fighting that forced their enemy to withdraw in several directions.
Meanwhile, those who were called to report the last time to the communist authorities disappeared after the Marines and South Vietnamese Army units liberated Hue. Most of the missing were soldiers in non-combat units and young civilians. No one knew their whereabouts.
In late Feb.1968, from reports of Vietnamese Communist ralliers and POWs, the South Vietnamese local authorities found several mass graves. In each site, hundreds of bodies of the missing were buried. Most were tied to each other by ropes, electric wires or telephone wires. They had been shot or beaten or even stabbed to death.
The mass graves shocked the city and the whole country. Almost every family in Hue has at least one relative, close or remote, who was killed or still missing. The latest mass grave found in the front yard of a Phu Thu district elementary school in May 1972, contained some two hundred bodies under the sand. They had been slaughtered during one-month occupation of an NVA unit. Sand left no sign of a mass grave below until a 3rd-grader dug the ground rather deep for a cricket.
Besides more than two thousand persons whose deaths were confirmed after the revelation of the mass graves, the fate of the others, amounted to several thousands, are still unknown.
The 1968 massacre in Hue brought a sharp turn in the common attitude toward the war. A great number of the pre-’68 fence sitters, anti-war activists, and even pro-Communist people, took side with the South Vietnamese government after the horrible events. After April 30, 1975 when South Vietnam fell into the hand of the Communist Party, it seems that the number of boat people of Hue origin takes up a greater proportion among the refugees than that from the other areas.
Since April 1975, the Vietnamese Communist regime deliberately moved many families of the 68-massacre victims out of Hue City. People in the city however, still commemorate them every year. Because the people are mingling the rites with Tet celebrations, Communist local authorities have no reason to forbid them.
Most Americans knew well about the My Lai massacre of US Army Lieutenant Calley where from 200 to 350 persons were killed. The ’68-massacre in Hue however, has not been covered at the same proportion by the English language media. When a Tet Offensive documentary film by South Vietnamese reporters was shown to the American audience of more than 200 US Army officers in Fort Benning, Ga. in November 1974, almost 90 percent of them hadn’t been informed of the facts. Many even said that had they known the savage slaughter at the time, they would have acted differently while serving in Vietnam.
The US Navy has a warship named “Hue City.” It is not known how many of her sailors realize that the city she carries as a name suffered so much. Would it be a good idea to have a rite once a year in the Tet season on the “Hue City” for the dead whom the US Marines were fighting for in February 1968?
Animosity should not be handed down to younger generations, but our descendants must be taught the truth. War crimes must not be forgotten, and history is not written by one-sided writers.
The most significant cost of all was the more than 4,000 confirmed civilian deaths that occurred during the 25-day battle.
Approximately 1,200 of those fatalities came as a result of errant bombs and bullets, but the remaining citizens perished at the hands of Communist cadres who had orders to execute a long list of government officials and sympathizers.
After the battle, the allies discovered mass graves containing the bodies of approximately 3,000 civilians. Some had their hands and feet tied, and many showed signs of having been shot at close range.
At least 600 had been buried alive. The Communists also abducted several thousand other people to serve as porters during the battle; most were never seen again.
The North Vietnamese never publicly admitted to killing more than a small number of civilians, blaming most of the deaths on the allies or on collateral damage from the battle.
A captured document from April 1968, however, revealed the “elimination” of nearly 3,000 “tyrants and puppet administrative personnel.” Not all Communist officials were pleased that the executions had taken place.
According to one captured document, some cadres in Thua Thien Province believed that the mass killings were inconsistent with Viet Cong policy.