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Interview with Pham Thi Xuan Que, 1981

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Dr. Pham Thi Xuan Que lived in a village in South Vietnam under the leadership of Ngo Dinh Diem. She describes many of the repressive tactics used by Diem’s secret police, including various forms of torture. Dr. Que tells of how the National Liberation Front enjoyed widespread support within Hue, and of the events surrounding the NLF’s capture and subsequent evacuation of Hue during the Tet Offensive.
United States--History--1945-, Vietnam--History--1945-1975, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Personal narratives, Vietnamese, National liberation movements, Colonization, Geneva Conference (1954), Vietnam War, 1961-1975, United States--Politics and government, Mat tran dan toc giai phong mien nam Viet Nam, Vietnam--Politics and government, France--Politics and government--1945-1958
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Diem's Communist Denunciation Campaign in Ha Thanh

SR 2065/1. Roll 65 of Vietnam Project. 495, Take 1. Clapstick.
Interview with Dr. Pham Thi Xuan Que in Hue.
Please tell us about the situation in your village from 1954 until the day you left for the city of Hue.
Pham Thi Xuan Que:
Yes. My native village was Ha Thanh , in the district of Dien Ban, the province of Quang Nam. After the Geneva Agreement was signed, the Diem regime not only did not implement the clauses of the agreement but also carried out repression against families who had members who regrouped to the north.
The relatives of these people in the south were arrested, jailed and tortured in the most barbaric ways. As far as daily life was concerned, there was less physical hardship than psychological torments. This was because the manners of tortures inflicted upon these people by Ngo Dinh Diem and his hound dogs—this was our term for the secret police—were extremely inhumane. We were not Catholics, we only worshipped our ancestors. And so they forced us to throw the altar to the ancestors away and to become Catholics and to denounce the Communists.
Even if a father had regrouped to the north, his children had to publicly denounce him. And the thing that I got very angry at and could not put up with was the forcing the married women whose husbands were with the revolutionary armed forces which had regrouped to the north to divorce their husbands. Those women who refused to do so were arrested and tortured. I could not put up with this because I felt the dignity of women had been violated. This is because we Vietnamese women strongly believe in faithfulness to our husbands.
But this was precisely what the enemy was forcing us to abandon, using torture and terror tactics. Therefore, many inhabitants of Quang Nam had to flee as a result of the terrible repression. A number of cadres had to go underground. The Geneva Agreement allowed us to remain in the south. But after that we had to go underground; that is to say, to live in tunnels. But in spite of the repression, the population really loved the cadres and took care of them. And a number of families who had members or relatives in the north and who could not survive if they remained in the province, left for Saigon.
And I myself also could not remain in the province and had to go to Hue to study there. The most repressive years were from 1955 to 1957. In the summer of 1957, I left for Hue to continue with my education. The situation was equally bad in Quang Nam, Danang, Hue and other areas in the South. In prisons, the tortures were more barbaric than in any previous period. As far as Quang Nam was concerned, let me tell you a typical situation. Women who were faithful to their husbands were stuffed into rice sacks along with rocks.
Then they tied these sacks up and threw them down into the river. The infamous Vinh Trinh incident involved 40 women who were stuffed into the rice sacks with rocks and thrown down the Vinh Trinh (Forever Faithful) dam. There were many other massacres. Therefore, I could not remain in the province and had to flee to Hue to continue with my education. And my relatives in my native village fled in large number to Saigon. They did not return to their native village until after liberation.
These are the special features of the so called Communist Denunciation Campaign in which they forced the loved ones of those who had regrouped to the north to denounce them. Those who refused to denounce their fathers and their husbands were horribly tortured. It must be stated that the forms of tortures at that time were even more barbaric than during the Thieu Ky period and the Khanh Huong period.
496, Take 1. Clapstick.
Could you tell us the things that the secret agents and the police did at that time?
Pham Thi Xuan Que:
Let me tell you a typical situation which I witnessed with my own eyes. This was during the period of October 23rd to October 26th (1955) when Diem organized the referendum to unseat Bao Dai and to elect Diem as President. In my village Diem’s henchmen organized the referendum. They said that the election was free and fair. But I was forced to go to cast my ballot on that day because everyone was forced to the poll to cast their ballots.
As we arrived at the polling station, they told us to stuff the red ballots into the envelopes and throw the green ballots into the waste basket (trans. The original Vietnamese phrase had internal rhymes to make it easy for people to remember: “Xanh thi bo gio, do thi bo bi.”) This was because Bao Dai portrait was printed on the green ballot and Diem’s portrait on the red one. And they asked every voter to stuff the ballot box with the red ballot. The secret agents and secret police were everywhere at the polling stations.
But there were a few people who were very faithful to Bao Dai and so they put the green ballots into the envelopes and threw the red ballots with Ngo Dinh Diem picture on them into the waste baskets. As soon as these voters stepped out of the voting booths, the secret agents arrested them and tortured them right there in the room next to the polling booths. They roughed these people up very badly and poured red pepper sauce down their nostrils. They also poured water down the throats of these victims until their bellies became fully extended.
Then they jumped on the bellies of these people, causing water to spurt out of their mouths. These were the things that happened at the polling station in my village. The very next day, right in front of my parents’ house, dogs were barking noisily. I was living with my parents then and I saw a middle aged man who was also a relative getting roughed up and tortured very sadistically right in front of the house. My relative was moaning out loud very tragically: “Father, Mother!” The soldiers were just like hound dogs tearing at their victim.
My relative was just a bloody mess and did not look like a human being anymore. So during this referendum to elect Ngo Dinh Diem, even those who refused to denounce Bao Dai were maltreated.
Two month later I went to Vinh Dien, which was the provincial town of Dien Ban, and, together with other people, demanded the implementation of the Geneva Agreement. Because the Diem regime refused to implement the Geneva Agreement and because anybody who did not support Ngo Dinh Diem wholeheartedly would be arrested and tortured, we therefore demanded the implementation of the Geneva Agreement. There were about one thousand demonstrators marching to the district headquarters.
497, Take 1. Clapstick.
Pham Thi Xuan Que:
That relative of mine who was tortured had been a village guerrilla fighter during the Resistance against the French. But after that he did not regroup to the north because he had an old mother and a very young sister. But although he remained behind, he did not continue doing revolutionary work at all. He only tilled his land.
But when they found out that he had participated in guerrilla activities in the past during the French colonial period, they arrested him and dragged him out to in front of my house where they beat him up with the butts of their rifles and stabbed at him with their bayonets. They kicked at him and and stamped on him with their studded boots. And they went into my house to get water and mixed soap into it.
Then they poured this soap water down my relative’s nostrils and throat and, subsequently, they placed a board on his stomach and had two soldiers jumped on the board at both ends. Soap water and blood spurted out of the mouth and nose of my relative. He yelled out. But they just took him by the arms and dragged him along on the ground to the front doors of many houses in order to intimidate the village inhabitants. Finally, they took this man away and imprisoned him. Two years later, they released him. But he had to leave the village for Saigon to find a living and to avoid the repression in the village.
498, Take 1. Clapstick.
Pham Thi Xuan Que:
I personally am very fond of peace. I like a peaceful life. After the victory at Dien Bien Phu and the signing of the Agreement, I and my family were very happy and were fully supportive of the Geneva Agreement because we believed that there would not be any reprisal against the families of people who regrouped to the north and those who remained behind. And we thought that in two years we would have a free and fair election in which the people could freely choose their own government.
But in reality the Geneva Agreement was not implemented, and the Diem regime immediately carried out repression against those innocent people who had no reason to go up north. And I just could not accept the means of tortures I mentioned since they were so inhumane. The one thing which I could not accept was the forcing of married women whose husbands had regrouped to the north to denounce their husbands and take new husbands, especially their hound dogs, their secret agents. And then there were terroristic acts against women and children.
As I have told you, after the election the population realized that the regime was tyrannical and did not want to maintain peace. So the people demanded the implementation of the Geneva Agreement. The authorities rained bullets on the crowd of demonstrators during that demonstration I mentioned. I was there and I saw that they showered bullets on this crowd of largely women. This was because the males who had participated in the guerrilla activities against the French were afraid of retaliation.
Several dozens of these women who demanded the implementation of the Geneva Agreement and an end to the reprisal against people whose relatives were now living in the north were killed. This was something that I could not put up with. And it was because of all these that I was determined to do something to fight back and to demand the implementation of the Geneva Agreement.
At that time the revolutionary side was very moderate and only demanded that the Ngo Dinh Diem regime implement the things which had been signed. They did not have any weapons in their hands at all. So they only rallied the people and carried out political struggles. But many people were shot at and killed in the process. And so other means had to be found in order to deal with this situation.

Rebellion of the National Liberation Front

499, Take 1. Clapstick.
Pham Thi Xuan Que:
Before talking about the situation during the 1968 Tet Offensive, I would like to say that although the movement of the people was severely smashed during the 1957, 1958 period, from 1960 on, after the birth of theNational Liberation Front and the creation of armed forces, most of the people in this area placed their trust in the revolution.
The urban movement was also being rebuilt. During the repressive years, people had to lie low and put up with the situation. People were filled with hatred but they had to lie low and silently endured the whole thing. From 1960 on, the movement was rebuilt. In 1963 it exploded. And by the 1965 1966 period, the revolutionary movement in Hue was very strong. It can be stated that about 90% of the population was supportive of the revolution. They only waited for the opportunity to take an active part.
Therefore, 1968 presented itself as a good opportunity for the population. We received communications that there would be strong offensives against the cities. And, as far as Hue was concerned, because there were a lot of revolutionary infrastructures, because many of the city inhabitants were supportive of the revolution and because there was a good inner city organization composed of people who were engaging in clandestine activities and of people who participated in public and legal activities such as students, intellectuals, small merchants and working class people, from the 23rd to the 29th of the 12th month, we already went to the outskirts of the city to carry weapons into the city.
We did this by having women who were trading at the Dong Ba market put the weapons in their baskets and cover them up with greens and vegetables. The enemy was caught unaware at this time, especially during the Tet occasion when there were a lot of people going about buying and selling things to celebrate Tet. They did not inspect the baskets carefully, and so the women were able to sneak the weapons into the city. At that time I was at the nursing school, which is now the secondary school for nursing. I was with the students there, and weapons were smuggled in to us.
At the nursing school we also managed to print a number of leaflets and the notices of the National Liberation Front calling on the population to remain calm when the Liberation Forces entered the city and not to carry out reprisals. We also made lithographic copies of the National Liberation Front’s clemency program so that when the liberation forces came into the city the population would know how to deal with the enemy.
For example, when they arrested an enemy agent, they had to turn him over to the cadres. In addition, we also cooked a lot of rice cakes to supply the soldiers with. These were the things we did. And I personally was responsible for making the lithographic copies of the notices and the clemency program of the Liberation Front so that once the revolutionary forces entered the city we could distribute these things to the city inhabitants. I also had to be responsible for emergency medical treatment because I had just graduated from the medical school then.
I graduated in July, and it was then the 12th month of the lunar year. On the night of the 29th (of the lunar month) and on the 30th, we bought fabric and sewed a lot of National Liberation Front Flags so that when the troops entered the city we could have these flags put up. Although other women and I were responsible for all these things, the order was that only one third of the infrastructures in the city should surface. The rest should remain underground and should lie low so that in the event of a withdrawal from the city, they would not be exposed. This was because any person working in the city who became exposed had to leave the city or be arrested and killed by the enemy.
I was one of those people who were asked to lie low and not to surface. Therefore, we sewed the flags and made the lithographic copies surreptitiously at night. But I was not known publicly as a supporter of the NLF. On the first of the year (lunar), the armed forces entered the city at different places. The enemy soldiers were either celebrating Tet and playing cards or were at home with their families although the enemy High Command had ordered a full alert.
But the soldiers did not follow the order and most of them had left for home. The remaining troops were drinking alcohol and so when the Liberation Forces entered the city they were caught completely unaware. On the morning of the first the NLF forces were already occupying most places in the city. But there was no unit occupying my school since it was only a nursing school.

The Battle of Hue

SR 2066/1. Beep tone. Roll 66 of Vietnam Project, 29th of Feb., 1981. 500, Take 1. Clapstick.
Interview with Dr. Pham Thi Xuan Que continues.
Would you please tell us of the atmosphere in Hue during the first days of liberation and what happened after that? What happened when the American bombed the city?
Pham Thi Xuan Que:
On the night of the 30th the NLF forces entered the city and, together with the infrastructures within the city, took over most places. On the morning of the first of the new year it was completely quiet because the enemy could not mount any kind of reaction at all. And the city inhabitants, although realizing full well what happened, were very surprised. It was not until the evening of the first and the morning of the second that...
SR 2066/2. Rolling. 500, Take 2. Clapstick.
Pham Thi Xuan Que:
On the morning of the first, the city was completely quiet because the enemy was still unable to react. The city inhabitants were somewhat surprised because they did not expect the NLF forces to come into the city that fast, that cleanly and that successfully. By noon time and by the afternoon of the first the city inhabitants began to show signs of happiness and joy because they realized that there was no physical damage of any kind at all. There had been little gunfire.
So the inhabitants welcomed the Liberation forces and brought out the rice cakes, the candied fruits and other things to feed the soldiers. At the same time the NLF cadres announced that the puppet soldiers and the officials in the Saigon government should come out and surrender themselves. And the city inhabitants helped the soldiers to dig trenches and tunnels to prepare for counterattacks by the enemy.
But the city inhabitants were so overjoyed that instead of digging the trenches and tunnels diligently, they were mostly either going to see musical performances or to attend meetings. Also, the inhabitants could not see any attempt by the enemy to mount any kind of counterattacks at all. As far as I was concerned, I had been given orders not to expose myself and so I kept quiet although I really wanted to go out into the streets and celebrate with the people.
But I did walk into the streets to see how the people were enjoying themselves and go to see some musical performances and to attend those meetings where the clemency program of the NLF was announced. So this was all that I did. I was just simply going around to see what the reactions of the population were. The one thing which struck me most was that most of the inhabitants commented that the NLF forces were very well behaved and that they were very friendly.
For example, they helped the households with chores in the house such as carrying water. This kind of behavior, said the inhabitants, was completely different than that of the puppet troops who had been treating the population very roughly. The NLF soldiers were also very polite, addressing the older women as “Mother” and the younger ones as “Sister” and made everybody feel very close to them and at home with them.
Also, after the inhabitants welcomed the soldiers and treated them with rice cakes, candied fruits and tea and after the NLF cadres called on the population to dig trenches and shelters in and around their houses, it was actually the NLF forces who did most of the digging for them. This was because the city inhabitants still did not know how to dig trenches and shelters and did not even know how to handle hoes correctly.
It was not until the seventh day of the New Year that the enemy began to mount a counterattack. Before that, most of the soldiers and officials in the city had surrendered themselves. But it was not until the tenth day that a strong counterattack was mounted. That is to say, they began to bomb the city. They also shelled the city from their war boats. It was not until then that the city inhabitants began to get into their shelters. And they were very thankful to the NLF soldiers for having dug their shelters for them.
So it was only beginning on the tenth that there were bombing and shelling. The city inhabitants were somewhat afraid of the bombs and the shells. At that time I made the personal recommendation to the NLF Command in the city that they should take particular measures to protect a number of city inhabitants such as the professors. At that time, at the medical school my professors included Professors Krenit and Dicher [unidentifiable] who were living on No. 2 Le Loi Avenue.
So the NLF Command, upon my personal suggestion, invited all the professors to a particular place where they could be protected. But after that, the enemy dropped bombs which hit this place directly, killing all the professors and the NLF guards who were protecting them. There were also many other people killed elsewhere because of the bombing. This situation continued until the 20th. The NLF soldiers and those who had been released from prisons fought back with different waves of counterattacks. And a number of puppet soldiers who had left for home on the eve of Tet and who, after the liberation of the city, had pretended to be civilians and had gone to see the various musical performances, were now, upon seeing the counterattacks, picking up guns and fighting against the NLF forces.
So there was fighting within the city. As a result, the city inhabitants were running short of food and water supply. By that time, the revolutionary government in the city was very worried. At that time this bridge, the Truong Tien bridge, had been bombed down. There was too much bombing on the other side of the river. So the members of the newly formed revolutionary administration moved their headquarters over to this side. They were then living at the present library. Short of firewood, the city inhabitants simply went to the library and took out the books there to make fires to cook their rice with.
We intervened and told the inhabitants not to burn the precious books. But they just went ahead. They also broke the chairs up to use as firewood. So from the 20th to the 25th the situation had deteriorated to such a degree that the NLF forces were preparing to withdraw from the city. The young people who had participated in the activities during the occupation of Hue also had to leave the city in stages with the revolutionary troops because if they had stayed, they would have been massacred.
And that was precisely what happened. On the 25th and 26th (of the lunar year) when the enemy came back into the city, they executed quite a number of people. And after that, after all the Liberation forces had withdrawn completely from the city, they had all those people who had gone out into the streets and participated in the various activities as seen by the enemy secret police and secret agents arrested.
The Liberation forces had captured a number of these secret agents, but it could not arrest all of them. The reason is that they were wearing civilian clothes and were also participating in the various activities during the occupation of the city so there was no knowing who they were. It was lucky that I did not expose myself so they could not point me out. But they arrested the man in the No. 10 house, the man whom I had visited frequently, because he did participate in the public demonstrations.
After that a number of merchants and other inhabitants in this neighborhood who were elderly people and who had families here so they did not want to go away with the revolutionary forces. The central prison here was completely filled with people like these. It was only three to five months later, when these people could produce the necessary bribe money, that they would be released. These people were not revolutionaries. They were simply city inhabitants who happened to become supportive of the revolution during the occupation. So when they could produce the required bribes, they were released.

Revision of the Hue massacre

Pham Thi Xuan Que:
As for myself, a month later I realized that if I remained in Hue I would certainly get into trouble. At that time I was going to present my thesis, and so I left for Saigon to do so. After Tet, when the Liberation forces had been withdrawn, the situation in the city of Hue was a gray one. Many people had been killed.
The atmosphere from the first to the tenth day of the new year was vibrant and joyous. But from the 25th to the 30th, when the NLF troops had already left, many people were nostalgic and sad because of the destruction by the bombing and because their relatives had been murdered for having supported the Liberation Front. As far as the NLF forces were concerned, they had not suffered any casualty when they entered the city.
But afterward a number of them were killed by the bombing. But the majority of the cadres and students who went with the withdrawing forces were safe. But the inhabitants who remained in the city and who had participated in the activities during the occupation suffered some losses. After that, the city inhabitants buried these people in mass graves. When the enemy came back into the city, they used these mass graves for propaganda purposes. They blamed all the deaths on Viet Cong atrocities.
But there is one thing I would like to say. At that time, all those people who were asked to remain in the city wanted to very much to surface and participate in the various activities during the occupation of the city. But some of us, I included, had to bite our lips and kept a very low profile so that we would not be exposed. But many of our comrades were so enthusiastic that they just charged out there and participated in the various activities such as digging shelters and going to meetings, deriding the more reluctant people for being cowards and for not daring to come out into the open and fight.
But I put up with all this and kept silent so that when the NLF forces were withdrawn, I could help in reorganizing things and in rebuilding our infrastructures. Those who had not been exposed either stayed on here and kept a very low profile or fled to other places. Those who stayed behind went about carrying out their tasks quietly. And by 1969, and urban opposition movement was created.
As far as the city inhabitants were concerned, I must state frankly that from the 1st to the 10th they were very happy and very enthusiastic and really welcomed the presence of the NLF forces. But after the enemy mounted the counterattacks, the city inhabitants were somewhat afraid because they were not used to all the bombs and the artillery shells.
And when the NLF forces had withdrawn, it became a very sad city partly because people missed the happy and joyous time during the occupation when they were being protected by the NLF troops, partly because of the fear of reprisals after the NLF forces had withdrawn and partly because there were many close relatives and loved ones who had been killed. So from the 30th of the first month on, the sad atmosphere in the city was due to all the reasons just mentioned.
501, Take 1. Clapstick.
Please go ahead with your story.
Pham Thi Xuan Que:
About this story (of the massacre) in Hue which people have referred to and which I saw a lot of propaganda on on the Saigon television, the reality is as follows: During the first days of the occupation of the city by the NLF forces, there was absolutely no incident at all. The puppet troops and puppet administrative officials who came out to present themselves and to surrender were all protected and nothing happened to them at all.
There were only a few people, at most from three to five in my own estimate, who continued to oppose and resist the revolution and, when all solutions to their situation failed, the Liberation forces had to shoot them. There were at most only three to five people who were executed by the NLF forces for their continued resistance. But most of the people who died were killed during the counterattacks by the enemy. In the confusion during the counterattacks, the various political parties took advantage of the situation to get rid of the members of the opposing parties.
As far as the city inhabitants were concerned, and especially the young people and the students who participated in political struggles during the years 1955, 1963 and 1966 and who had been tortured by the despots (these despots were known by everybody in the city. I knew them too. They were the cruel police officials at the Police Headquarters, at the Interrogation Center and at the Central Prison, for example) who were now helping the enemy during the counterattacks, they took matters into their own hands and killed some of these local tyrants.
Some NLF troops did participate in this too, but their superiors and the leading cadres did not know about this and hence could not intervene in time. The official policy was total clemency and those who had been arrested were either going to be reeducated or were only temporarily detained. The policy was not to execute anybody. But because many of these people fought back, that was why some of them were killed. But even so, they were small in number.
The majority of the people who died were killed by the bombs, and most of them were city inhabitants. Some of the NLF troops were also killed in the bombing of the city and also afterwards as they were withdrawing from the city and were attacked from the air by the American airplanes. All these people who were killed were subsequently buried by the city inhabitants in mass graves. There were males and females in these graves, and the majority of them were young men and women, high school students and college students and NLF soldiers. Afterwards, the enemy exhumed these mass graves and said that all of these people had been killed by the revolutionary forces.
But there is another reason why there could be a misunderstanding on this issue. For those who remained in the city, I included, whenever the enemy or someone came and asked us about our relatives or children, we would all say that they had been arrested by the Viet Cong. Nobody ever said that his or her children or relatives had followed the Viet Cong.
But in reality, all these people who left did so because they had supported the NLF during the occupation of the city and therefore they were afraid that if they remained in the city they would be arrested, tortured and even killed by the enemy. But as these people were following the NLF troops out of the city, they were killed by the strafing and the bombing. And so we said that our children had been taken prisoners by the Viet Cong and had been killed while on the way out.
This served two purposes: First of all, to protect ourselves. And second, to put the blame on the Saigon government by accusing the Saigon government for having been unable to defend the city and to protect us so that the Viet Cong could come into the city and took our sons and relatives with them and got them killed by the bombing as a result. We, of course, did not dare to say that our brothers and sisters, our husbands and our sons and daughters had willingly followed the Viet Cong.
We had to tell the Saigon authorities that since they failed to defend the city and protect its inhabitants, our children and husbands were taken by the Viet Cong and were killed by the bombing and shelling. But the enemy put all the blame on the Viet Cong, saying that these people were massacred. But I can say to you very sincerely and very factually that only a small number of people were killed as a result of one type of revenge or another, but 99 percent of those people killed were killed by American bombing, strafing and shelling.
The bombing and shelling were really terrible. They bombed and shelled the area of the Citadel, the neighborhood of the small hospital near where the Dong Ba gate is and all the roads leading to and from the city. The NLF forces only had rifles and some very crude anti aircraft guns, and even though they shot at the airplanes they were not able to avoid casualties and losses of lives during the period they were still in the city as well as during the period when they were withdrawing. There were a lot of casualties from the 10th until the 25th.
But every family had to say that their loved ones had been taken prisoners by the Viet Cong and had been killed as a result. Nobody dared to say any differently at that time. This was because that situation could really have caused some misunderstanding if you did not say so. And the enemy, of course, took advantage of this situation to put all the blame on the Viet Cong. And even supporters of the NLF like myself had to put the blame on the NLF for having taken prisoners although we were the ones who arranged the departures of all these people along with the retreating NLF forces.
If we had said otherwise, we would have been immediately arrested and taken to the Central Prison to be tortured. The Viet Cong were then considered outlaws and anybody who had any kind of connection with them would be regarded as criminals and would be subjected to horrible forms of torture. So everyone in the city who supported the revolution or who followed the revolution had to say that their loved ones were taken prisoner by the Viet Cong.
This was a fact that I knew very well, a fact that was proven by the situation in 1975. If in 1968 the enemy, the United States and the puppet regime, did not mount counterattacks, then, just as in 1975, nobody would have been killed. But because of the counterattacks, many people had to die as I have described and, consequently, the enemy used that to propagandize against the NLF as we all know. I went to Saigon a month later, and there the NLF forces had also come into the city and yet there was no killing at all. There was simply no case similar to the situation in Hue as the propaganda would like to have people believe.
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