The NewYork Times | Opinion | VIETNAM ’67
The Viet Cong Committed Atrocities, Too – By Heather Stur
Under the cover of night on Dec. 5, 1967, a coalition of Viet Cong guerrillas and North Vietnamese troops set the village of Dak Son on fire as its inhabitants slept. The assailants used flamethrowers and grenades, and they had their rifles ready for anyone who tried to escape. Villagers who awoke to find the roofs of their thatched huts aflame tried to run, and many of those who managed to scurry into earthen tunnels and caves before bullets mowed them down were washed in the fire blasts of the flamethrowers or asphyxiated in their bunkers. When morning arrived, the survivors stumbled out to survey the damage, and they found more than 200 dead bodies, most of which were corpses of women and children. Other villagers were missing, presumed kidnapped by the attackers.
Dak Son was a government-controlled hamlet in Phuoc Long Province, about 75 miles northeast of Saigon near the Cambodian border. Its 2,000 residents were Montagnards, an ethnic minority tribe that had long resisted Viet Cong incursions in the Central Highlands. Some 800 additional Montagnard refugees had fled to Dak Son from villages that the Viet Cong had taken, and so the guerrillas decided to make an example of Dak Son to try and prevent subsequent escapes from Viet Cong-controlled territories. Montagnards also served in local militias known as Regional and Popular Forces, or “ruff-puffs,” providing security and defending their villages against Viet Cong incursions. American and South Vietnamese military troops trained the local security forces, which made the Viet Cong despise them even more. According to a Time magazine reporter who wrote about the Dak Son massacre, Viet Cong guerrillas shouted “Sons of Americans!” as they launched their assault on the village.
Seldom included in general histories of the Vietnam War, the Dak Son massacre represents the no-win situation ordinary Vietnamese villagers were in during the conflict. Vietnamese civilians were besieged on all sides by violence and the threat of violence. Allan Lavelle, a retired American Navy and Air Force pilot, worked for U.S.A.I.D. in Vietnam as director of refugees and war victims in the area where Dak Son was located. He wrote in an unpublished memoir that Montagnards spent much of their days in trenches to avoid getting caught up in Viet Cong and South Vietnamese military operations. At night, North Vietnamese troops and Viet Cong cadres harassed and intimidated them. Lavelle, who passed away in 2008, compared the Montagnards’ standing in Vietnam to that of African-Americans in Mississippi in the 1920s. When I lived in Vietnam as a Fulbright fellow in 2013 and 2014, rural Vietnamese friends and acquaintances of mine confirmed that peasants faced harassment and violence during the day from South Vietnamese troops and then again at night from the Viet Cong.
Lavelle was in an Air America helicopter on his way to Dak Son to check on refugees the morning after the massacre, and he was one of the first outsiders to survey the aftermath. He then spent several weeks in the village helping survivors recover bodies and bury the dead. Decomposition began quickly in the thick, wet, tropical heat, and Lavelle described wearing a handkerchief over his nose and mouth to diminish the stench and keep from inhaling flies. Several weeks later, he traveled to other Montagnard villages in the area, and he learned that villagers had not heard of the Dak Son massacre. If the goal of the attack was to scare Montagnards into remaining in Viet Cong territory, it was not wholly successful. The massacre had not even sapped the will of Dak Son’s survivors. They began rebuilding almost immediately.
Terrorism was a central component of Viet Cong strategy. The historian Douglas Pike made this argument in his studies of the Viet Cong, which were grounded in more than a decade’s living in South Vietnam as an employee of the United States Information Agency. Pike, a World War II veteran of the Pacific Theater, documented Viet Cong uses of terrorism, including the massacre of several thousand civilians at Hue during the Tet offensive. The seeming randomness of a car bomb here and an explosion in a market there belied the calculated, rational nature of the Viet Cong’s terrorism as a primary tactic in its war strategy.
Terrorists carried out assassinations, planted explosives and launched grenades into crowded spaces. Skilled technicians from provincial and zone headquarters built and detonated explosives and provided leadership to the cells. The Viet Cong mainly targeted villages, especially hamlets it considered to be pro-Saigon, and the goal of an attack was typically to cause confusion and fear rather than to kill a large number of civilians. When targeting individuals in rural areas, guerrillas focused on village and hamlet chiefs, government employees, teachers and suspected “informants” and other “traitors,” as well as foreigners including priests and other missionaries, humanitarian aid workers and American government employees.
The mythology surrounding the image of the Viet Cong as an organic movement masks the planning, training and expertise that shaped and executed its terror strategy. Cadres understood that they walked a thin line between engendering fear in civilians and provoking hate. Viet Cong leaders worked to make it look as though terrorist activity was not connected to the Front’s political struggle. Authorities established “clandestine organizations for sabotage in urban areas” so that they appeared to have “no connection with political organizations.” Viet Cong leaders knew their movement could lose credibility if its commitment to violent revolution became clear.
Viet Cong sources justified the use of terrorism as being the only choice they had given the “warlike and terrorist policies of the enemy.” Not all cadres agreed with the official policy; some believed that the political struggle alone could topple the Saigon government, and terrorism might actually have an opposite effect than what Viet Cong authorities intended. An indoctrination pamphlet explained that violence was an essential ingredient in the recipe of revolution. “The only correct way to organize revolutionary forces and make preparations in all areas to smash the enemy’s machinery of violence is to use the appropriate form of armed struggle,” the pamphlet explained. “Emergence of this new struggle form not only meets an urgent demand, but is an inevitable result of the revolutionary movement. It does not contradict the political struggle, but supplements it and paves the way for the political struggle to develop.” Confidence in the preordained nature of Vietnam’s Communist revolution allowed the Viet Cong to justify its commitment to violent struggle.
Through terrorism, the Viet Cong aimed to instill fear in the citizenry and destabilize Saigon’s political system, undermining efforts to establish democratic society. The violence compounded the disorder in the capital city and other urban areas where students, intellectuals and journalists protested the government’s slow movement in enacting democratic political institutions and allowing citizens to elect a civilian government. Saigon officials responded to terrorist attacks by arresting and imprisoning political dissidents and assuming that anyone who spoke out against the government was a Communist. The stifling of civil liberties in turn validated claims by the Viet Cong and other anti-government groups that Saigon leadership was authoritarian. Terrorism’s mission accomplished.
Vietnamese civilians were under attack from all sides. The Saigon regime and its American allies came at them from one direction; from another, Hanoi and the Viet Cong with Chinese and Russian assistance. Yet scholars of the war have not offered a full accounting of incidents like the Dak Son massacre. For too long, the telling of the history of the conflict has been a zero-sum game in which the Vietnam War was a case study amplifying a broader critique of American foreign policy and intervention in the world. This orthodox view of the war emphasizes the actions of American policymakers, military authorities and troops. Vietnamese actors appear fairly one dimensional, as corrupt puppets controlled by the State Department, romanticized revolutionaries or a faceless mass of peasants caught in the crossfire. The orthodoxy pays little attention to Vietnamese agency, strategy or worldview, and it does not account for the diversity of opinions in North and South Vietnam about what an independent Vietnam should look like.
Historians who are working with Vietnamese sources are leading us to a reckoning of the complexity of Vietnamese attitudes about their country’s future, the politics involved, the impact of international opinion on how the conflict played out, and the nature of the violence perpetrated against Vietnamese civilians. The question of who had the right to determine Vietnam’s future was a fundamental part of the broader conflict that involved the governments in Saigon and Hanoi, the Viet Cong and Vietnamese and foreign citizens across the political spectrum.
The United States, South Vietnam, North Vietnam and the Viet Cong were all complicit in the imprisoning, torturing and killing of Vietnamese civilians. Scrutinizing North Vietnamese and Viet Cong violence and terrorism need not overshadow the bloodshed and destruction Americans caused in Vietnam. Acknowledging Vietnamese decision-making and actions, including violence against fellow Vietnamese, recognizes Vietnamese humanity and magnifies the desperation that motivated brothers to fight brothers in the struggle for freedom after more than a century of colonial subjugation.
Heather Stur is an associate professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi and a fellow at the Dale Center for the Study of War and Society. She is a co-editor of “Integrating the U.S. Military: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation Since World War II” and the author of “Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era.”
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