Nixon's War (1969–70)
Nixon's War (1969–70)
When Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994; president 1969– 1974) became president of the United States in January 1969, he promised to guide America out of the Vietnam War by pursuing a policy of "peace with honor." This meant that the withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam would have to take place in a way that avoided any appearance of defeat.
After assuming office, Nixon and his advisors first considered a strategy of intensified attacks on North Vietnam. But the president reluctantly decided that escalation [increased military operations] would probably not bring about a negotiated peace agreement. Instead, the Nixon administration pursued a plan called "Vietnamization," in which primary responsibility for fighting the North shifted from the U.S. military to South Vietnamese armed forces. As a result of this strategy, American troop commitments in Vietnam began to drop for the first time since 1965.
But events in Indochina continued to produce angry divisions throughout America. Reports of U.S. war crimes surged upward, creating serious questions about the conduct of American soldiers in Vietnam. In addition, American involvement in neighboring Cambodia began to increase. This development sparked widespread fears that the Vietnam War might spread beyond its borders. America's domestic turmoil did not peak until mid-1970, when four college students were shot to death on the campus of Kent State University during an antiwar rally.
Frustrating negotiations with the North
Upon assuming office, President Nixon repeatedly told members of his administration that he would not let the Viet nam War ruin his presidency. "I'm not going to end up like [President] Lyndon Johnson, holed up in the White House, afraid to show my face on the street," said Nixon. "I'm going to end the war in Vietnam. Fast." With this in mind, Nixon indicated that he was willing to end the war if North Vietnam's Communist government would agree to what he called a "fair negotiated settlement that would preserve the independence of South Vietnam." At a minimum, Nixon wanted to negotiate a treaty that would give the South a chance to hold off the North after American troops left the region.
At first, Nixon tried to convince North Vietnam's Communist leaders that the United States might initiate a ruthless and punishing military offensive against the North if an acceptable peace agreement was not reached. This strategy was based in part on the president's genuine belief that the United States had used its military ineffectively over the previous few years in Vietnam. "Nixon felt that military pressure had failed thus far because it had been employed in a limited, indecisive manner," writes George C. Herring in America's Longest War. The president abandoned plans for a major increase in American military operations only after being persuaded that it would not produce a quick victory.
Still, Nixon, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger (1923–), and other administration officials continued to discuss options for expanding the war. In addition, they came to see the threat of escalation as a weapon that could be used against the Communists. At one point they even resorted to a so-called "madman strategy" in an effort to drag North Vietnam to the negotiating table. In this scheme, Nixon administration officials quietly told reporters that the president was considering the use of nuclear weapons against the North. The administration hoped that rumors of nuclear attack might convince North Vietnam to end the war.
The North did agree to hold peace talks with the United States. For the most part, however, the Communists showed little interest in compromise at the negotiations. The negotiators for the North believed that sooner or later the domestic unrest in the United States would force the Americans to abandon South Vietnam, leaving the Saigonbased government defenseless against the North. This belief gave them the strength to continue the war, even though the conflict had produced great devastation and loss of life in both the North and the South. As North Vietnamese Premier Pham Van Dong said, "Americans do not like long, inconclusive wars—and this is going to be a long, inconclusive war. Thus we are sure to win in the end."
After rejecting military options that required increased U.S. commitments of troops and weaponry in Vietnam, the Nixon administration turned instead to a strategy called "Vietnamization." Under this new policy, American forces would gradually transfer responsibility for Saigon's defense to the South Vietnamese military, freeing U.S. troops to return home. "The key new element in our strategy was a plan for the complete withdrawal of all American combat forces from Vietnam," Nixon explains in No More Vietnams. "Americans needed tangible evidence that we were winding down the war, and the South Vietnamese needed to be given more responsibility for their defense .... As South Viet namese forces became stronger, the rate of American with drawal could become greater." Nixon launched this policy in the spring of 1969 without consulting the South Vietnamese government of President Nguyen Van Thieu (1923– ). Thieu and many other South Vietnamese reacted bitterly to the decision. They resented the suggestion that the South Vietnamese had been nothing more than bystanders in the war over the previous several years. They also worried that the United States was using Vietnamization as a way to exit the war with its pride intact, without regard for the future of the South. Thieu and other South Vietnamese leaders recognized that when the United States departed, their government would be more vul nerable to the Communist forces of North Vietnam.
Still, Thieu and South Vietnam's military leadership had no choice but to accept Nixon's Vietnamization policy. The Vietnamization process began over the next several months. U.S. military personnel scrambled to prepare the South's armed forces to take on increased responsibilities for the war effort. American advisors strengthened and modern ized many aspects of South Vietnam's army, navy, and air force. Their efforts helped improve the performance of South Vietnam's military in several critical areas, although high rates of desertion (soldiers leaving the military illegally before their term of services has ended), corruption in the officer corps, and other problems remained.
In addition, U.S. ships transported huge quantities of rifles, helicopters, planes, ships, grenade launchers, boots, and other supplies to South Vietnam to outfit its armed forces. Finally, U.S. troops launched a series of attacks on North Viet namese supply lines and military bases in order to keep the enemy from taking advantage of this transition period. By mid-1969, the process of "Vietnamization" was in full swing.
The secret bombing of Cambodia
But even as the Nixon administration moved to reduce America's presence in Vietnam, it expanded its wartime activities into Cambodia, Vietnam's neighbor to the southwest. Ever since the early stages of the Vietnam War, Cambodia had adopted a neutral position in the conflict. But as the war progressed, the jungles of Cambodia became an important base for Communist Vietnamese activity. Many of the North's main supply routes and military roads—including the famous Ho Chi Minh Trail—ran through eastern Cambodia.
In addition, many Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) units used the thick forests of Cambodia for secret bases in their war against the South. Finally, North Vietnam provided significant assistance to Cambodian Communists, who were fighting to overthrow Cambodian leader Prince Norodom Sihanouk (1923–) and his government. By the late 1960s, these Communist rebels—known as the Khmer Rouge—had grown into a major threat to Sihanouk's rule.
In early 1969, Sihanouk appealed to the United States for help in dealing with the Khmer Rouge and their NVA allies. Nixon responded by authorizing a major bombing campaign against North Vietnamese sanctuaries in eastern Cambodia. He and his advisors believed that they could accomplish many goals by targeting key NVA bases in Cambodia. They could disrupt Communist supply routes, prevent the North from taking advantage of future U.S. troop withdrawals, and help Sihanouk fight off the Khmer Rouge. But Nixon knew that the American people would view his decision to bomb Cambodia as an escalation of the war. After all, the U.S. military had not operated in neutral Cambodia in the past. To avoid creating an uproar, the president concealed this bombing campaign from both the U.S. Congress and the American public.
During the course of the bombing campaign, which lasted from March 1969 to August 1973, American planes dropped an estimated 110,000 tons of bombs on Cambodia. The air strikes continued even after Sihanouk's prime minister, Lon Nol (1913–1985), displaced Sihanouk as the nation's ruler in a 1970 coup (overthrow of the government). After seizing power, Lon Nol tolerated the continued U.S. air strikes because his government was very dependent on American military and economic aid. Many historians, however, believe that the bombing campaign merely pushed the Communists deeper into Cambodian territory, where they became an even greater threat. In the meantime, Sihanouk joined with the Khmer Rouge—his former enemies—in hopes of regaining power.
The death of Ho Chi Minh
On September 2, 1969, longtime North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh (1890–1969) died. His death attracted worldwide attention and triggered a period of national mourning in the North. The government in Hanoi remained strong, however. In fact, veteran revolutionaries like Le Duan, Pham Van Dong, and Vo Nguyen Giap (1911– ) had assumed responsibility for many of North Vietnam's domestic and war policies during the mid-1960s. "Like Ho, they regarded the defeat of the United States and its South Vietnamese allies to be a sacred duty," writes Stanley Karnow in Vietnam: A History.
Despite the unyielding reputation of North Vietnam's political leadership, some members of the Nixon administration privately expressed hope that the death of Ho—the most famous revolutionary leader in Vietnamese history—might produce a change in North Vietnam's negotiating position. After all, the war had taken a heavy toll on Communist positions throughout the South, as well as the cities and towns of the North, over the previous few years. Moreover, Nixon's decision to approve secret bombing runs in Cambodia showed the North that the United States remained a dangerous enemy that remained willing to use punishing force.
But the North's leadership did not budge from its two longtime conditions for peace: 1) unconditional withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam, and 2) formation of a new government in South Vietnam with Communist representation. The North never wavered from these positions because it continued to believe that it could outlast the United States in the war. In fact, North Vietnamese confidence in an eventual American withdrawal was so great that Northern diplomats admitted that they were willing to sit at the negotiation table "until the chairs rot" before they would compromise on their basic goals.
Nixon's promise to begin withdrawing American troops from Vietnam in 1969 quieted some of the antiwar protests that had rocked the United States during the final years of the Johnson administration. In addition, disputes within the antiwar movement over strategy and goals decreased its effectiveness during this time. But the antiwar movement remained a potent force in the United States. As the weeks passed, its membership argued that Nixon was withdrawing American soldiers too slowly. They noted that between the time Nixon took office in January 1969 and the first withdrawal of American troops in August 1969, another 7,000 U.S. soldiers had been killed in Vietnam.
In an effort to push Nixon to end the war more quickly, members of the antiwar movement organized the first of a monthly series of nationwide protests on October 15, 1969. During this protest, which came to be known as Moratorium Day, Americans signaled their antiwar feelings in a variety of ways. Millions of American workers and students took a day off from work or classes to demonstrate against the war. Huge antiwar crowds assembled in New York, Boston, and other large cities, and smaller rallies were held in dozens of other cities and towns across the nation. One of the most publicized of these rallies took place in Washington, D.C., as Coretta King (1927–)—wife of murdered civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968)—led 30,000 people in a silent candlelight vigil past the White House.
Nixon's "Silent Majority"
The Moratorium Day demonstrations alarmed and angered the Nixon administration. Some members of the Nixon White House privately shared the antiwar sentiments of the demonstrators. But most others, including the president himself, viewed the antiwar movement with great hostility. As Jeffrey Kimball writes in Nixon's Vietnam War, "the president worried a great deal about the impact of protest on the 'condition of the country' and on his ability to wage the war effectively." As a result, the Nixon administration decided to launch an all-out public relations campaign to reduce the strength of the antiwar movement in the weeks following the Moratorium Day demonstrations.
The first and most important element of the administration's new campaign was a speech delivered by Nixon. This speech—later dubbed his "Silent Majority" speech—proved to be a very effective weapon in the war to win the support of America's confused and war-weary population.
Nixon's speech, delivered to a national television audience on November 3, 1969, was designed to rally public support for his policies in Vietnam. During this speech, the president insisted that the war in Vietnam was of great importance to America's future. "For the United States, the first defeat in our nation's history would result in a collapse of confidence in American leadership, not only in Asia, but throughout the world," he said.
Nixon also defended his strategy for ending the war. He explained his Vietnamization policy in appealing terms, describing it as a plan that would reduce American casualties and eventually end U.S. involvement in the conflict, while also preserving American pride. In addition, he tried to enlist the support of average Americans by describing the war as a patriotic struggle to defend American ideals. He assured listeners that he could bring the war to a satisfactory conclusion with the support of the nation's patriotic "Silent Majority." Finally, he denounced the antiwar movement as a noisy minority intent on leading the nation down the path of ruin. Nixon urged the American public to resist the demonstrators. "North Vietnam cannot humiliate the United States," he declared. "Only Americans can do that."
In the days following Nixon's "Silent Majority" speech, the White House followed up with a series of demonstrations, speeches, and other activities meant to generate additional support for the president and his Vietnam policies. "Primarily targeted at energizing the Silent Majority, the campaign's major themes were support for the war, the president, the country, veterans, and POWs," writes Kimball. "The icon [symbol] of the effort was the American flag, which was waved, raised, reproduced on automobile bumper stickers, and worn as a political button or lapel pin. Associating his Vietnam policies with the flag, America's only universal symbol of patriotism, Nixon identified the opponents of the war as unpatriotic scoundrels."
The Nixon administration's attacks on the American antiwar movement proved effective in some ways. The "Silent Majority" speech and other actions produced greater support for Nixon's policies in Vietnam. The campaign also succeeded in increasing negative public opinion of antiwar demonstrators. But the administration's efforts failed to silence the movement or erase the doubts that millions of other Americans continued to hold about the war.
Nixon approves invasion of Cambodia
In March 1970, Nixon delighted the American public by announcing his intention to withdraw 150,000 U.S. soldiers in Vietnam by the end of year. To many Americans, his announcement seemed to be the surest sign yet that U.S. involvement in the nightmarish war was finally drawing to a close. Even veteran antiwar activists reacted favorably to Nixon's withdrawal notice. But one month later, on April 30, Nixon told the American people that he had authorized a major military operation into Cambodia, Vietnam's neighbor to the west. This decision stunned the war-weary American public.
The move into eastern Cambodia was undertaken by a joint U.S. and South Vietnamese force. During the invasion (or "incursion," as Nixon called it), American and South Vietnamese units targeted enemy bases throughout the country's remote eastern forests. Their tanks, helicopters, and infantry forces roamed through the region for two months before withdrawing back into Vietnam.
Nixon claimed that he authorized the April advance into Cambodia because of a growing Communist threat within its borders. "A Communist-dominated Cambodia would have placed South Vietnam in an untenable [impossible] military situation and would have endangered the lives of thousands of United States troops," Nixon explains in No More Vietnams. "I therefore decided the time had come to take action against the Communist sanctuaries in Cambodia, both to relieve the pressure on Phnom Penh [the capital of Cambodia] and to reduce the threat these North Vietnamese bases posed to South Vietnam."
After the operation was over, the Nixon administration described it as a big success. In fact, Nixon later says in No More Vietnams that the incursion into Cambodia "was the most successful military operation of the entire Vietnam War." He claimed that the incursion saved Cambodia from falling under Communist control and that it significantly damaged North Vietnam's military operations in the region. Many historians agree with Nixon's view. "From a military point of view, the incursion was a success," writes Harry G. Summers Jr., in Historical Atlas of the Vietnam War. "The pressure on Lon Nol had been relieved and the NVA offensive had been set back for two years, lessening the dangers to the U.S. withdrawal. As President Nixon said on June 30, 'We have bought time for the South Vietnamese to strengthen themselves against the enemy.'"
But other historians claim that Nixon's invasion of Cambodia did not significantly change the situation in Vietnam. They also believe that American involvement in the country helped usher in a horrible civil war that killed millions of Cambodians during the 1970s. "The effect [of the invasion] on the war in Vietnam was nil [zero]," claims Marilyn B. Young, author of The Vietnam Wars: 1945–1990. "The effect on Cambodia was devastating."
Young and other critics charge that the invasion of Cambodia, combined with the U.S. bombing campaign that remained in effect, only drove the NVA deeper into Cambodian territory. They also claim that Nixon's 1970 invasion led North Vietnam to increase its support for the Khmer Rouge Communist rebels who were fighting to overthrow Lon Nol's U.S.-supported regime. "In the particularly brutal civil war that followed [between Lon Nol and the Khmer Rouge], the United States lavishly supported the Cambodian government and unleashed thousands of tons of bombs on Cambodia," states Young. "The ultimate tragedy was that from beginning to end, the Nixon administration viewed its new ally as little more than a pawn to be used to help salvage the U.S. position in Vietnam, showing scant [little] regard for the consequences for Cambodia and its people."
Nationwide protests against Nixon
Nixon's decision to invade Cambodia enraged the antiwar movement and shocked the general public. Only days earlier, the general feeling among the American people was that Nixon was gradually guiding the United States out of Vietnam, just as he had promised. For this reason, the president's decision to charge into Cambodia sparked anger and disillusionment among many Americans. They suddenly became worried that the Vietnam War might spread throughout all of Indochina.
Massive antiwar protests broke out at hundreds of college campuses all across the country in the days following the invasion of Cambodia. Rallies against the war were also organized in dozens of other communities nationwide. These protests triggered angry reactions from Nixon, who referred to the protestors as "bums," as well as millions of Americans who supported the president's Vietnam policies.
The turmoil on American college campuses came to a shocking climax on May 4, 1970. A National Guard unit stationed at Kent State University in Ohio fired into a crowd of student protestors, killing four students and wounding nine others. Two days later, two more student protestors were killed at Jackson State College in Mississippi. The deaths of these students sparked a new explosion of demonstrations at universities and colleges from California to New England. More than 500 campuses were temporarily shut down as a result of the demonstrations, and 51 were closed for the remainder of the academic year.
Anger in Congress
Nixon's decision to send troops into Cambodia also aroused considerable anger in Congress, where antiwar sentiment was growing steadily stronger. In fact, "the Cambodian incursion . . . provoked the most serious congressional challenge to presidential authority since the beginning of the war," writes George Herring in America's Longest War. "The president had consulted with only a handful of legislators [before approving the operation], all of them sympathetic. Many, including Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott, were outraged at having been kept in the dark, and others were infuriated by Nixon's broadening of the war."
On June 26, 1970, the Senate voted to repeal (abolish) the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. This 1964 resolution had given presidents Lyndon Johnson (1908–1973; president 1963–1969) and Nixon authority to "take all necessary measures" against Communist forces in Indochina. Both presidents had used the broad authority of the resolution to take whatever actions they wanted in Vietnam, without asking the permission of Congress. In December, the House of Representatives voted to repeal the measure as well.
The congressional repeal of the resolution did not strip Nixon of his power to conduct the war as he wanted. After the repeal, he used his constitutional authority as commander in chief to pursue his military goals in Vietnam. But the congressional decision to revoke the resolution did symbolize the nation's deep unhappiness with the war. It was widely interpreted as a way of punishing Nixon for his actions in Cambodia.
The My Lai Massacre revealed
In November 1970, the warweary American public received yet another shock that increased calls for a swift withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Vietnam. The New York Times revealed that in March 1968, a platoon of U.S. soldiers had murdered hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians—mostly women and children—in the hamlet of My Lai. The newspaper also reported that army investigators had known of the massacre for eighteen months but covered it up.
News of the My Lai incident and the army cover-up triggered strong emotions of shame, disgust, and anger among millions of ordinary Americans. They were joined by antiwar activists, who saw the My Lai massacre as a horrible symbol of an immoral and vicious war. They claimed that the incident showed that the war was turning young American men into monsters. But millions of Americans refused to believe that the incident had even taken place. They could not imagine U.S. soldiers taking part in such a terrible slaughter of innocent people.
Ambrose, Stephen E. Nixon. 3 vols. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987–1991.
Garfinkle, Adam. Telltale Hearts: The Origins and Impact of the Vietnam Antiwar Movement. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.
Gibson, James W. The Perfect War: The War We Couldn't Lose and How WeDid. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986.
Herring, George C. America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam,1950–1975. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979.
Kimball, Jeffrey. Nixon's Vietnam War. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1998.
Levy, David. The Debate Over Vietnam. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.
Nixon, Richard. No More Vietnams. New York: Arbor House, 1985.
Schulzinger, Robert D. A Time for War: The United States and Vietnam,1941–1975. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Shawcross, William. Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979.
Summers, Harry Jr. Historical Atlas of the Vietnam War. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995.
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Young, Marilyn B. The Vietnam Wars, 1945–1990. New York: Harper-Collins, 1991.
Words to Know
ARVN The South Vietnamese army, officially known as the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam. The ARVN fought on the same side as U.S. troops during the Vietnam War.
Cambodia Southeast Asian nation located on the western border of South Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, Cambodia experienced its own civil war between its pro-U.S. government and Communist rebels known as the Khmer Rouge.
Communism A political system in which the government controls all resources and means of producing wealth. By eliminating private property, this system is designed to create an equal society with no social classes. However, Communist goverments in practice often limit personal freedom and individual rights.
Escalation A policy of increasing the size, scope, and intensity of military activity.
Indochina The name sometimes given to the peninsula between India and China in Southeast Asia. The term narrowly refers to Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, which were united under the name French Indochina during the colonial period, 1893–1954.
Khmer Rouge Communist-led rebel forces that fought for control of Cambodia during the Vietnam War years. The Khmer Rouge overthrew the U.S.backed government of Lon Nol in 1975.
North Vietnam The Geneva Accords of 1954, which ended the First Indochina War (1946–54), divided the nation of Vietnam into two sections. The northern section, which was led by a Communist government under Ho ChiMinh, was officially known as the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, but was usually called North Vietnam.
NVA The North Vietnamese Army, which assisted the Viet Cong guerilla fighters in trying to conquer South Vietnam. These forces opposed the United States in the Vietnam War.
Saigon The capital city of U.S.-supported South Vietnam. Also an unofficial shorthand way of referring to the South Vietnamese government.
Silent Majority A term used by U.S. President Richard Nixon to describe the large number of American people he believed quietly supported his Vietnam War policies. In contrast, Nixon referred to the antiwar movement in the United States as a vocal minority.
South Vietnam Created under the Geneva Accords of 1954, the southern section of Vietnam was known as the Republic of South Vietnam. It was led by a U.S.supported government.
Tonkin Gulf Resolution Passed by Congress after U.S. Navy ships supposedly came under attack in the Gulf of Tonkin, this resolution gave U.S. President Lyndon Johnson the authority to wage war against North Vietnam.
Viet Cong Vietnamese Communist guerilla fighters who worked with the North Vietnamese Army to conquer South Vietnam.
Vietnamization A policy proposed by U.S. President Richard Nixon that involved returning responsibility for the war to the South Vietnamese. It was intended to allow the United States to reduce its military involvement without allowing the country to fall to communism.
People to Know
Ho Chi Minh (1890–1969) Vietnamese Communist leader who led Viet Minh forces in opposing French rule and became the first president of North Vietnam in 1954. He also led the North during the Vietnam War until his death.
Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973) After serving as vice president under John Kennedy, he became the 36th president of the United States after Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Johnson sent U.S. combat troops to Vietnam. Opposition to his policies convinced him not to seek re-election in 1968.
Henry Kissinger (1923–) U.S. national security advisor (1969–1975) and secretary of state (1973–1977) during the Nixon administration. Represented the United States in peace negotiations with North Vietnam
Lon Nol (1913–1985) Cambodian military and political leader who overthrew the government of Prince Norodom Sihanouk in 1970. Despite U.S. military assistance, he was removed from power by Communist Khmer Rouge forces in 1975.
Nguyen Van Thieu (1923–) President of South Vietnam, 1967–1973.
Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994) Elected as the 37th president of the United States in 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War. Resigned from office during the Watergate scandal in 1974.
Prince Norodom Sihanouk (1923–) Member of the royal family that ruled Cambodia, 1941–70. After his government was overthrown by Lon Nol, he supported the Communist Khmer Rouge forces that were trying to take control of Cambodia.
The My Lai Massacre
The My Lai Massacre was one of the most horrible events of the entire Vietnam War. It took place on March 16, 1968, in My Lai, a small hamlet located in northern South Vietnam. On that day, a squad of U.S. soldiers commanded by Lt. William Calley entered the village. Charged with searching for enemy forces, the soldiers quickly determined that the hamlet and its civilian population— primarily women, children, and elderly people—posed no danger to them.
But rather than move on, the soldiers abruptly went on a murderous killing spree, massacring between 300 and 500 unarmed villagers over a period of several hours. During this time, the soldiers torched houses, raped dozens of women and children, and shot or stabbed terrified villagers who tried to escape. The American troops executed most of the villagers by lining them up in ditches and shooting them in heavy bursts of rifle fire.
The slaughter ended when U.S. helicopter pilot Hugh C. Thompson flew over My Lai during a reconnaissance (information gathering) mission. Alarmed by the scene below, he quickly landed his helicopter in the village. Once he landed, the pilot realized that Calley and his platoon intended to wipe out the entire village. Thompson knew that he could not stop the slaughter by himself. But he immediately loaded a large group of terrified villagers onto his helicopter to evacuate them, instructing his door gunner to shoot Calley if he interfered.
After the slaughter was over, Calley's commander, Captain Ernest L. Medina, covered up the incident in his reports. Thompson submitted his own report on the atrocities (extremely cruel or brutal acts) committed at My Lai, but his account was ignored until March 1969. At that time, an American ex-soldier named Ronald Ridenhour heard rumors about the massacre and sent a series of letters to military authorities. Ridenhour's letters triggered an investigation headed by Lieutenant General William R. Peers.
The investigation was kept quiet until November 1969, when New York Times reporter Seymour Hersh learned of the incident. His report on the massacre, which appeared in the New York Times and other newspapers across the country on November 13, shocked an already warweary American public.
Over the next few months, Calley, Medina, and two dozen other American soldiers received military trials on a variety of charges, from murder to covering up evidence of the atrocity. Calley alone was charged with 102 counts of murder. In the meantime, the U.S. Congress and the American public engaged in a fierce debate over the massacre and Calley's role in it. Many people—including many American soldiers and officials—were horrified by the incident and wanted to see Calley and the others punished for their war crimes. But many other people actually defended Calley as a pawn in the larger debate over the war. "To supporters of the war, Calley was being railroaded by the antiwar protestors [for doing his duty]," explains Harry G. Summers Jr., in Historical Atlas of the Vietnam War. "To the latter, he was being unfairly singled out, for they believed that such atrocities were commonplace, and were condoned [accepted] and even encouraged by the Army itself."
Calley was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of 22 Vietnamese civilians on March 29, 1971. All the other soldiers brought to trial were acquitted (found not guilty) of the charges. But many Americans expressed anger at the sentence imposed on Calley. In August, Calley's sentence was reduced to ten years by Secretary of the Army Howard Calloway. On November 9, 1974, President Nixon ordered Calley released from prison with a dishonorable discharge from the Army.