My Lai was the site of a massacre of hundreds of civilians during the Vietnam War. Disclosure of the incident months after its occurrence raised questions about the honesty of the military and the U.S. government regarding their actions in Vietnam. It also seemed to call into question what the United States was doing in Vietnam in the first place.
The village of My Lai is located in Quang Ngai Province in northeast South Vietnam. The province was regarded as a Vietcong stronghold and had been targeted by the U.S. Army in several search-and-destroy operations. One of those operations, dubbed Task Force Oregon, began in the spring of 1967. In September the 23rd Division, also known as the Americal Division, was deployed to assist in the operation. The Americal consisted of three brigades; the 11th, the 196th and the 198th. Charlie Company, 11th Brigade, 23rd Division, commanded by Captain Ernest Medina, was part of the relief effort. Lieutenant William Calley commanded Charlie Company's 1st Platoon.
Charlie Company saw no direct action against the Vietcong during the early stages of its deployment. However, it suffered significant casualties as a result of ambushes and booby traps. The Vietcong used a number of devices, including punji-pits containing sharpened bamboo stakes dug along a trail and covered with dirt and toe poppers (bullets buried straight up with its firing pin on a bamboo stub), poised to detonate when a soldier stepped on it. These attacks offered Charlie Company no opportunity to retaliate as the Vietcong managed to disappear either into the jungle or hide among the local population. The attacks may have contributed to the growing frustration and anger within Charlie Company, which may have helped to set the stage for the events at My Lai.
On the morning of March 16, 1968, Charlie Company was sent into My Lai to sweep the village and root out suspected Vietcong who might have been hiding there. First Platoon under Lt. Calley's command reached the village first. The remaining platoons stayed behind to support Calley. Charlie Company's commander, Captain Medina, was also present to direct operations. The sweep was also supported by helicopter gun-ships. When Calley's platoon found no enemy soldiers, he ordered that the civilians be rounded up and brought to the center of the village. At this time the order was given to open fire. Between 400 to 500 civilians were shot and killed by Calley's platoon. Calley himself was said to have killed a number of villagers by ordering them into a ditch and shooting them. The situation might have gotten worse if one of the helicopter gun-ships had not intervened. The pilot, Hugh Thompson, landed between Calley's men and the surviving villagers. While the door gunner kept his machine gun at the ready, Thompson managed to pull a few of the villagers to safety. He also radioed his section leader about what he saw, and eventually Charlie Company was told to order Calley and 1st Platoon out of the village.
It took nearly two years for the news of My Lai to reach U.S. officials. The army had tried to cover up the incident by referring to it as a combat operation in which twenty civilians had accidentally been killed. Ron Riden-hour, a Vietnam veteran who had heard about the massacre from friends who were in Charlie Company, wrote to his congressman about My Lai, setting a full-scale investigation into motion. My Lai received further attention when journalist Seymour Hersh published an article detailing his conversations with Ridenhour.
William Calley, Ernest Medina, and twenty-three officers and enlisted men were indicted for their actions at My Lai. Only Calley, Medina, and four other persons were ever court-martialed. Of those, there was only enough evidence to convict Calley of murder, and in 1971 he was sentenced to life in prison. His sentence was later reduced, first to twenty and then to ten years. In 1974 he was paroled and separated from the army with a dishonorable discharge. At last report he was living in Georgia and working in the insurance business.
The events at My Lai heaped more negative publicity on a war that in 1971 was continuing to lose public support. Earlier that year the Vietnam Veterans Against the War organization, led by John Kerry, later a Democratic senator from Massachusetts, sponsored hearings in Detroit where veterans testified they had participated in or heard of other atrocities. In April, shortly after Calley's conviction, the VVAW staged five days of demonstrations in Washington, D.C. Many veterans went to the steps of the Capitol and returned their medals. To opponents of the conflict, My Lai served to underscore their belief that the war was not only wrong, but now criminal, as it seemed that the United States was targeting innocent civilians as well as enemy troops. Other critics wondered if there were more events like My Lai waiting to be uncovered. Supporters of the war argued that Calley and the others convicted for their roles at My Lai were scapegoats, forced to pay the price for a war gone bad. They had only been following orders; those truly responsible had yet to face justice.
My Lai and the deception around it clearly contributed to the government's credibility gap and drove support for the war to an all-time low. That same year the New York Times began publishing secret documents outlining the U.S. role in Vietnam. The Pentagon Papers, as they came to be known, revealed further coverups and deceptions and accelerated demands that American forces be brought home.
Belknap, Michael R. The Vietnam War on Trial: The My Lai Massacre and Court-Martial of Lieutenant Calley. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002.
Olson, James, ed. Dictionary of The Vietnam War. New York: Bedrick Books, 1987.
Olson, James Stuart, and Roberts, Randy. My Lai: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford Books, 1998.
"The American Experience: Vietnam Online." PBS Online. Available from <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/Vietnam>.