Tet 3

But the most memorable image of the upheaval in Saigon—and one of the most searing spectacles of the whole war—was imprinted the next day on a street corner in the city. General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of South Vietnam’s national police, was the crude cop who had brutally crushed the dissident Buddhist movement in Hue two years earlier. Now his mood was even fiercer: Communist invaders had killed several of his men, including one gunned down with his wife and children in their house—and Loan was roaming the capital in an attempt to stiffen its defenses.
That morning, Eddie Adams, an Associated Press photographer, and Vo Suu, a Vietnamese cameraman employed by the National Broadcasting Company, had been cruising around the shattered town. Near the An Quang temple, they spotted a patrol of government troops with a captive in tow. He wore black shorts and a checkered sports shirt, and his hands were bound behind him. The soldiers marched him up to Loan, who drew his revolver and waved the bystanders away. Without hesitation, Loan stretched out his right arm, placed the short snout of the weapon against the prisoner’s head, and squeezed the trigger. The man grimaced—then, almost in slow mo¬tion, his legs crumpled beneath him as he seemed to sit down back¬ward, blood gushing from his head as it hit the pavement. Not a word was spoken. It all happened instantly, with hardly a sound except for the crack of Loan’s gun, the click of Adams’s shutter and the whir of Vo Suu’s camera.
At the “five o’clock follies,” as correspondents in Saigon called the regular afternoon briefings held in the U.S. information service au¬ditorium, Westmoreland exuded his usual confidence. But his report was smothered the next morning in America’s newspapers, whose front pages featured the grisly photograph of Loan executing the Viet¬cong captive. And the next morning, NBC broadcast its exclusive film of the event—slightly edited, to spare television viewers the spurt of blood bursting from the prisoner’s head.
Meanwhile, the most bitter battle of the entire war was unfolding in Hue, the lovely old town of temples and palaces, reconstructed by the emperor Gia Long in the nineteenth century to replicate the seat of his Chinese patron in Beijing. Communist forces crashed into the city from three directions in the early hours of January 31, meeting little resistance from the government division based there. They ran up the yellow-starred Vietcong flag atop its citadel, an ancient fortress in the center of town, and then their political cadres proceeded to organize the worst bloodbath of the conflict.
Five months before, as they began to prepare for the assault, Com¬munist planners and their intelligence agents inside the city meticu¬lously compiled two lists. One detailed nearly two hundred targets, ranging from such installations as government bureaus and police posts to the home of the district chief’s concubine. The other contained the names of “cruel tyrants and reactionary elements,” a rubric covering civilian functionaries, army officers and nearly anybody else linked to the South Vietnamese regime as well as uncooperative merchants, intellectuals and clergymen. Instructions were also issued to arrest Americans and other foreigners except for the French—presumably because President de Gaulle had publicly criticized U.S. policy in Vietnam.
Vietcong teams, armed with these directives, conducted house-to- house searches immediately after seizing control of Hue, and they were merciless. During the months and years that followed, the re-mains of approximately three thousand people were exhumed in nearby riverbeds, coastal salt flats and jungle clearings. The victims had been shot or clubbed to death, or buried alive. Paradoxically, the American public barely noticed these atrocities, preoccupied as it was by the incident at Mylai—in which American soldiers had massacred a hundred Vietnamese peasants, women and children among them. Revisiting Vietnam in 1981 and again in 1990, I was able to elicit little credible evidence from the Communists to clarify the episode.
General Tran Do, a senior Communist architect of the Tet offensive, flatly denied that the Hue atrocities had ever occurred, contending that films and photographs of the corpses had been “fabricated.” I heard the same line from General Tran Van Quang, who commanded the Communist forces in the region. In Hue itself, a Communist official claimed that the exhumed bodies were mostly of Vietcong cadres and sympathizers slain by the South Vietnamese army after the fight for the city. He also blamed most of the civilian casualties during the battle on American bombing. But he hinted that his comrades had participated in at least a share of the killing—resorting to familiar Communist jargon to explain that the “angry” citizens of Hue had liquidated local “despots” in the same way that “they would get rid of poisonous snakes who, if allowed to live, would commit further crimes.” Balanced accounts have made it clear, however, that the Communist butchery in Hue did take place—perhaps on an even larger scale than reported during the war.
Captured in the home of Vietnamese friends, Stephen Miller of the U.S. Information Service was shot in a field behind a Catholic sem¬inary. Dr. Horst Gunther Krainick, a German physician teaching at the local medical school, was seized with his wife and two other German doctors, and their bodies were found in a shallow pit. Despite their instructions to spare the French, the Communists arrested two Benedictine missionaries, shot one of them and buried the other alive. They also killed Father Buu Dong, a popular Vietnamese Catholic priest who had entertained Vietcong agents in his rectory, where he kept a portrait of Ho Chi Minh—telling parishioners that he prayed for Ho because “he is our friend too.” Many Vietnamese with only the flimsiest ties to the Saigon regime suffered as well.

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