My Lai Massacre

views updated Jun 08 2018

My Lai Massacre

On March 16, 1968, in the wake of the Tet Offensive, American soldiers committed perhaps the most brutal, and certainly the most infamous, atrocity of the Vietnam War. The tragedy occurred in My Lai 4—one of several hamlets in Song My village in Quang Ngai province, a historic stronghold of the National Liberation Front. During an uneventful search-and-destroy mission, members of Charlie Company, First Battalion, 20th Infantry Division, commanded by Lieutenant William Calley Jr., massacred from 300 to 500 unarmed, unresisting Vietnamese women, children, and elderly men. They raped, sodomized, and mutilated many of their victims. Once the full story of My Lai reached the American public, it reshaped how they viewed the war, and, in no small way, how they understood their own hallowed history. My Lai seared America's collective memory with seemingly indisputable proof that American behavior often failed to live up to its self-righteous rhetoric.

Remarkably, initial press reports presented the "battle" of My Lai in a positive light. Misled by army publicity reports, one news agency even spoke of an "impressive victory" by American soldiers. The army's misinformation represented only part of a systematic cover-up. The entire chain of command related to the massacre, from Capt. Ernest Medina of Charlie Company through the division commander, Maj. Gen. Samuel Koster, imposed neither corrective nor punitive measures despite their awareness of the events at My Lai. Not until a year later, when in the spring of 1969 ex-GI Ronald Ridenhour requested the House Armed Services Committee to explore rumors of mass killings, did the army initiate an investigation. Even then, however, the army conspired to downplay the massacre.

If not for Seymour Hersh, a freelance investigative reporter, the army's indictment of a single soldier would have been the last Americans ever heard about My Lai. Pursuing the army's low-key announcement of Lt. William Calley's indictment, Hersh uncovered the full story of the massacre, which the New York Times published on November 13, 1969. For weeks thereafter, My Lai dominated news reports across the nation. CBS and other networks aired confessions by soldiers who had participated. Life magazine, calling My Lai "a story of indisputable horror," published ten pages of gut-wrenching photographs of the massacre in process.

Although it had taken over a year and a half, the massacre of My Lai, in all its graphic detail, had become a household topic of conversation. Never before had ordinary Americans directly confronted the brutality of their own soldiers. For some, My Lai con-firmed their worst fears about America's war in Vietnam. For others, My Lai contradicted not just their vision of the war in Vietnam, but also a longstanding American tradition of depicting the enemy, whether Indians, Nazis, Japanese, or Vietnamese, as the perpetrators of heinous atrocities—not typical American "boys."

Either way, Hersh's story set off a maelstrom of controversy. Americans responded with both denial and outrage. Despite the evidence, many Americans refused to accept that American soldiers, and by extension, America itself, could commit such barbarous crimes. A December 1969 poll, for instance, found that 49 percent of Minnesotans felt the story was false. Congressman John R. Rarick from Louisiana dubbed My Lai a "massacre hoax." Even President Nixon referred to My Lai as an "isolated incident." Others, however, charged that My Lai typified a brutal war of muddled tactics and flawed strategy. Many veterans of the war, welcoming the opportunity that My Lai presented, came forward with other similar stories, suggesting that civilian killings typified the fighting. Spurred by this controversy, the Army appointed Lt. Gen. William R. Peers to head a full-scale investigation of My Lai. The Peers Commission indicted 25 Americans: 13, including Calley, for war crimes; 12 for the cover-up. Sentenced to life imprisonment for murder, only Calley was convicted. Legal appeals on his behalf lasted for years afterwards.

Much of the cultural response to My Lai cut across ideological lines, focusing more on how the war had corrupted typical American "boys" than on the massacre's real victims. A Time poll showed that events like My Lai concerned only 35 percent of Americans. Calley's plight, however, became a cause celebre, especially among those who saw him as a scapegoat for the Army and U.S. government. Veterans groups called for leniency. State legislatures passed resolutions of support. "Free Calley" bumper stickers appeared. A pro-Calley song, "The Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley," sold 200,000 copies in three days. Sensing the political winds, President Nixon intervened on Calley's behalf. The public sympathy for Calley, who was released on parole in 1974, epitomized Americans' obsession with what the war had done to them—as well as their general disregard for what the U.S. had inflicted upon Vietnam. The theme of the exploited or psychologically scarred Vietnam veteran became a narrative fixture in later cinematic treatments of the war, common to both anti-war films like the Deerhunter (1978) and Coming Home (1978) as well as to conservative films like Rambo.

My Lai and American war tragedies in Vietnam also found their way into popular culture, but at first only through analogy. Two movies—Little Big Man (1970) and Soldier Blue (1970)—recreated U.S. army massacres of native Americans during the nineteenth century. While such movies clearly emerged in response to the war in Vietnam, they seemed to open all of American history to reinterpretation. Eventually, more direct treatment of American atrocities became a common, if often secondary, feature of Vietnam films. Not until Brian De Palma's Casualties of War (1989) did a My Lai-type atrocity become the driving story of a film. The film, which refueled the debate on the legacy of the war, recounts the story of an American platoon that kidnaps, gang-rapes, and murders a Vietnamese woman during a search-and-destroy mission. The film is perhaps best understood as rebuke to conservative revisionism of the Reagan era, calling into question Reagan's claim that the war should be considered a "noble crusade." After My Lai, Americans had to work harder to convince themselves that they were indeed the same shining "City upon a Hill" that John Winthrop spoke of in 1630 as he led anxious Puritans towards life in the new world.

—Tom Robertson

Further Reading:

Anderson, David L., editor. Facing My Lai: Moving beyond the Massacre. Lawrence, Kansas, University Press of Kansas, 1998.

Bilton, Michael, and Kevin Sim. Four Hours in My Lai. New York, Viking, 1992.

Engelhardt, Tom. The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusion of a Generation. New York, Basic Books, 1995.

Hersh, Seymour. My Lai 4. New York, Random House, 1970.

Peers, William R. The My Lai Inquiry. New York, Norton, 1979.

My Lai Massacre

views updated Jun 11 2018

My Lai Massacre (1968).In South Vietnam on 16 March 1968, American soldiers of Company C (Charlie) of Task Force Barker, Americal Division, assaulted the hamlet of My Lai (4), part of the village of Son My in Quang Ngai province. The entire Son My area was a stronghold of the Viet Cong and American units there had taken repeated casualties from snipers, land mines, and booby traps, without making any significant contact with the enemy. During a briefing prior to the assault, the commander of Charlie Company, Capt. Ernest L. Medina, had ordered his men to burn and destroy the hamlet of My Lai (4), which was said to be fortified and held by the 48th Viet Cong Battalion.

Contrary to expectations, no enemy forces were encountered during the assault on My Lai (4), yet the men of Charlie Company swept through the hamlet and systematically killed all the inhabitants—almost exclusively old men, women, and children. There were several rape killings and at least one gang rape. The total number of Vietnamese civilians killed could not be determined: it was at least 175 and may have exceeded 400.

The massacre at My Lai was successfully concealed within all command levels of the Americal Division for more than a year. In 1969, a letter sent by a serviceman not connected with the division, who had heard stories of a massacre, brought the incident to the attention of the secretary of defense and other government officials. A commission of inquiry, appointed by the secretary of the army and headed by Lt. Gen. W. R. Peers, eventually listed thirty individuals as implicated in various “commissions and omissions” related to the Son My operation. Criminal charges were proferred against sixteen of these. Five were tried by court‐martial, but only one individual, 1st Lt. William L. Calley, was found guilty.

On 29, March 1971, after a court‐martial of over four months, Calley was convicted of three counts of premeditated murder of not less than twenty‐two Vietnamese; he was sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor. During several stages of review, Calley's life sentence was reduced to ten years' imprisonment; he was granted parole effective 19 November 1974. Captain Medina, Calley's company commander, was charged with involuntary manslaughter—failure to exercise proper control over his men engaged in unlawful homicide of at least 100 unidentified Vietnamese. He was acquitted because of the military judge's faulty instructions on the issue of command responsibility. Altogether, the legal consequences of the My Lai incident left much to be desired. General Peers on 2 December 1974 called it a “horrible thing, and we find we have only one man finally convicted and he's set free after doing a relatively small part of his sentence.”

Many Americans disagreed with this conclusion. President Nixon had been deluged with letters protesting Calley's conviction. The young lieutenant and his men, it was argued, had acted out of frustration and hatred of the Vietnamese who had killed and wounded their comrades. Calley's supporters on the right wing of the American political spectrum were sometimes joined by those in the Vietnam antiwar movement who regarded My Lai as merely a particularly horrible example of everyday American military tactics.

The environment of guerrilla warfare, a war without fronts, undoubtedly created a setting conducive to atrocities. Some apparent civilians were actually combatants who tossed grenades or planted booby traps. Yet these facts cannot provide legal exculpation for the cold‐blooded slaughter of old men, women, and children. Despite pressure for a high enemy casualty toll, most U.S. soldiers in Vietnam did not intentionally shoot unarmed villagers. Indeed, some U.S. soldiers tried to stop the slaughter at My Lai, notably the helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson. The My Lai massacre was not a typical occurrence. The openness of the fighting in Vietnam to journalistic coverage and the encouragement which the My Lai affair gave to other service people to come forward with reports of atrocities made it quite unlikely that any other massacre could escape attention. True, villagers were regularly killed in combat assaults on defended hamlets; but the rounding up and shooting of civilians was an unusual event, and the men involved in the massacre at My Lai knew it.

The final report of the Peers Commission listed perfunctory instruction in the laws of war in U.S. Army training as a contributory cause of the My Lai massacre. Since then, this aspect of training has been thoroughly revised. Service people are instructed that acting under superior orders is no defense to a charge of murder or other war crimes. New channels have been set up for the reporting of violations of the laws of war. It is to be hoped that these changes will prevent a recurrence of a dark chapter in the history of the U.S. Army.
[See also Army, U.S.: Since 1941; Leadership, Concepts of Military; Morale, Troop; Training and Indoctrination; Vietnam War: Military and Domestic Course; Vietnam War: Changing Interpretations.]


Joseph Goldstein, et al., eds., The My Lai Massacre and Its Cover‐up: The Peers Commission Report with a Supplement and Introductory Essay on the Limits of Law, 1976.
Guenter Lewy , America in Vietnam, 1978.

Guenter Lewy

My Lai Massacre

views updated May 17 2018


The event known as the "My Lai Massacre" was one of the darkest moments of the vietnam war, and further fueled the already growing anti-war movement in the United States. On March 16, 1968, U.S. Army troops murdered more than 300 unarmed Vietnamese women, children, and elderly persons. When the facts of the massacre became known, war crime charges were brought against 30 soldiers, and there was a marked increase in both domestic and foreign pressure to end the war.

The Vietnam War began in the 1940s as a war of liberation between Vietnamese nationalists called the Viet Minh and the French who controlled Vietnam. The Viet Minh sought help from Communist China in the mid-1950s, bringing the conflict to the attention of the United States. In 1954 the French were decisively defeated, and the country was temporarily divided into North Vietnam and South Vietnam. Most of the Viet Minh and their supporters relocated to North Vietnam. When the provisional head of South Vietnam refused to hold reunification elections, hostilities resumed.

Fearing a communist takeover if the North Vietnamese won, the United States provided economic and military aid, and by 1967 the United States had almost 400,000 troops in the country. Viet Cong, Vietnamese soldiers who had trained in the North and moved back to the South to conduct guerilla warfare, were especially feared. Dressed to blend in with the peasants who populated South Vietnamese villages, the Viet Cong carried on a stealthy campaign of sabotage and murder. American soldiers, who did not speak Vietnamese and were unable to distinguish between Viet Cong combatants and the general population, were anxious and wary whenever they traveled into the rural countryside. Knowing that many villagers were sympathetic to the Viet Cong added to their stress.

My Lai was part of the Song My village located in South Vietnam's Quang Ngai Province. The area had been heavily mined by the Viet Cong, and in the weeks preceding the massacre, numerous members of "Charlie Company," a unit of the U.S. Army's American Division, had been injured or killed by the mines. Under the direction of Captain Ernest Medina, a group of about 120 anxious and angry soldiers from Charlie Company entered My Lai on a mission to "search [out] and destroy" enemy soldiers.

According to later eyewitness reports, the soldiers, under orders from their platoon leader Lieutenant William L. Calley, used rifles, machine guns, bayonets, and grenades to kill the villagers. Old men, women who begged and prayed for mercy, children, and babies were murdered by the soldiers. Several young girls were raped and killed. Estimates of the number of villagers massacred at My Lai ranged from 300 to 500; the final army estimate was 347. Of the 100 soldiers who entered My Lai about 30 participated in the killing. Most of the other soldiers did not participate, but they did not try to stop the killing. Some testified later that they thought their lives would be in danger if they tried to stop their fellow soldiers.

Informed of the incident by Captain Hugh C. Thompson, an army helicopter pilot who had managed to save a few of the villagers, the U.S. Army did nothing. Ron Ridenhour, an army helicopter gunner, was told about the massacre shortly after it took place. After leaving the service, Ridenhour wrote detailed letters to the Pentagon, Congress, and the White House asking for an investigation. In November 1969 the army appointed General William R. Peers to look into Ridenhour's charges.

After a four-month army investigation that included listening to 398 witnesses and collecting thousands of pages of testimony, charges were initially brought against 30 of the participants; that number was subsequently reduced to 13. Nine enlisted men and four officers faced charges ranging from murder to dereliction of duty for covering up the incident.

In November 1969 Seymour Hersh's newspaper story about the events of My Lai and subsequent follow-up reports shocked and horrified people around the world. The stories ignited waves of controversy over U.S. presence in Vietnam and increased pressure to bring an end to the war.

In 1971 five members of Charlie Company including Captain Medina and Lt. Calley were subjected to courts-martial. Captain Medina was represented by prominent defense attorney f. lee bailey and was acquitted of all charges. Lt. Calley was the only soldier convicted. He was found guilty of the premeditated murder of more than 20 Vietnamese civilians and sentenced to life imprisonment. His sentence was later reduced to 10 years and he was paroled in September 1975.

In May 1998 three former U.S. soldiers who had placed themselves at risk to save some of the civilians at My Lai were awarded (one posthumously) the army's prestigious Soldier's Medal.

further readings

Bilton, Michael, and Kevin Sim. 1993. Four Hours in My Lai. New York: Penguin Books.

Karnow, Stanley. 1984. Vietnam: A History. New York: Penguin Books.

Sheehan, Neil. 1989. A Bright and Shining Lie. New York: Vintage Books.


Vietnam War.

My Lai Massacre

views updated May 09 2018

My Lai Massacre

The Vietnam War (1954–75) was one of the longest conflicts in the history of war. It was rife with countless atrocities, but none more brutal than the My Lai Massacre. On March 16, 1968, American soldiers conducted a search-and-destroy mission in the hamlet of My Lai 4, in the Quang Ngai province. Members of Charlie Company, First Battalion, 20th Infantry Division, commanded by Lieutenant William Calley Jr. (1943–), brutally tortured and murdered three hundred to five hundred unarmed, unresisting South Vietnamese women, children, and elderly men. They raped, sodomized, and mutilated many of the victims.

Initial reports in the press presented the massacre as nothing more than a fierce battle won by heroic American soldiers. The entire chain of command in the U.S. Army that was related to the brutality systematically covered up the events of that day and did nothing to punish the men involved. Instead, false reports and misinformation were fed to the media.

In the spring of 1969, former Charlie Company soldier Ronald Ridenhour (1946–1998) asked the U.S. House Armed Services Committee to investigate rumors of mass killings. He sent this request via letter to President Richard Nixon (1913–1994; served 1969–74), the State Department, the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and several members of Congress. Most recipients ignored Ridenhour's letter. Because the charges were so heinous, the Army was forced to investigate. To satisfy the public, someone had to pay for the massacre, the events of which were seriously downplayed by those involved. Calley was the one to be punished, and he was charged in September of that year with several counts of premeditated murder.

Freelance reporter Seymour Hersh (1937–) did not believe that the whole story behind the events at My Lai was being revealed, and he delved further into the incident. It was Hersh who uncovered the full story, and he published it in the New York Times on November 12, 1969. (In 1970, Hersh's My Lai reports won him the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting.) In the following weeks, the My Lai Massacre dominated newspaper, television, and radio. Life magazine devoted ten pages of heartbreaking photographs documenting the brutality wrought on a civilian village.

The My Lai Massacre could not be ignored. Americans fell into two camps after the publication of the tragedy. They either responded with denial that American soldiers could commit such atrocities, or they expressed outrage. Those who did not want to face the fact that such brutality could be waged on innocent people by the hands of young Americans considered the event a hoax; they believed the story was false. Nixon did nothing to help when he called it an isolated incident. Many war veterans, however, came forward to call the civilian killings typical. According to them, the My Lai Massacre was not a one-time event.

The controversy spurred the Army to create a commission to investigate further. Led by Lieutenant General William Peers (1914–1984), the commission indicted thirteen Americans for war crimes and twelve more for covering up the atrocities. Calley was sentenced to life in prison for premeditated murder in 1971. President Nixon ordered Calley released from prison two days later, pending appeal of his sentence. His sentence was later adjusted, and he served just four years and one-half month in military prison. No one else charged was ever convicted, for various reasons.

When news of the massacre reached the American public, it fueled an already strong and organized antiwar movement . The sheer brutality of the event reinforced what many in the peace movement had been saying all along, and it made those who were on the fringes of the movement more vocal and committed to demanding an end to the war. For some, the massacre proved that the men being drafted into Vietnam military service needed more and better training.

My Lai Incident

views updated May 21 2018


MY LAI INCIDENT. On 16 March 1968, U.S. Army soldiers of Company C, First Battalion, Twentieth Infantry of the Eleventh Infantry Brigade, Twenty-third (Americal) Infantry Division, while searching for a Viet-cong force at My Lai hamlet in Son My Village, Quang Ngai Province, South Vietnam, massacred two hundred to five hundred South Vietnamese civilians. Following revelations of the atrocity a year later, an army investigation headed by Lieutenant General William R. Peers implicated thirty soldiers in the commission and cover-up of the incident. Fourteen soldiers were charged with war crimes. All had their charges dismissed or were acquitted by courts-martial except First Lieutenant William L. Calley Jr., a Company C platoon leader, who was convicted of murdering twenty-two civilians and sentenced in March 1971 to life imprisonment. The public viewed Calley as a scapegoat, and his sentence was eventually reduced to ten years. After serving forty months of his sentence, all but three months confined to quarters, Calley was paroled by President Richard M. Nixon in November 1974. The My Lai incident increased disillusionment with the army's conduct of the Vietnam War, fueled growing antiwar sentiment, and underscored concerns within the army itself regarding the professionalism and ethics of its officer corps.


Hersh, Seymour M. Cover-up: The Army's Secret Investigation of the Massacre at My Lai. New York: Random House, 1972.

Peers, William R. The My Lai Inquiry. New York: Norton, 1979.

Vincent H.Demma

See alsoAtrocities in War ; Vietnam War ; andpicture (overleaf).