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My Lai And The Trial Of Lt. Calley: Vietnam's Darkest Hour

Culture | April 22, 2019

American 'Huey' helicopters in flight during the My Lai massacre on March 16, 1968 in My Lai, South Vietnam; the controversial cover of Esquire, November 1970, featuring Lt. Calley. (Photo by Ronald S. Haeberle/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

In 1968, well before anyone in the States had heard of William Calley or My Lai, the Vietnam War was unpopular, and had been for some time. It was a different kind of war for many reasons. Americans often did not understand why it was happening, or didn't believe the premise. It was fought by working-class kids, essentially, with an unusually young age of American soldier and exemptions for college (and other things) frequently invoked by anyone who could. Vietnam was televised, with scenes of danger and the aftermath of violence invading American living rooms on the nightly news. Another of the fundamental problems in Vietnam was that American soldiers couldn't tell who was the enemy and who wasn't. The enemy didn't wear uniforms, and they might be friendly to the Americans one day and then try to kill them the next. This constant, life-threatening uncertainty set up incidents like My Lai, and others.

In stark contrast to the "good war" of World War II, or even perception of the Korean War, Vietnam was known to be hell on Earth. Civilians at home in the U.S., whether they supported the war or protested it, had trouble learning of the scope of the violence, or if they did hear, tried not to think about it. How bad is it in Vietnam?

The incident at My Lai, also known as the My Lai Massacre, gave an extreme answer. It was a shocking national news story -- it involved unbelievable, stomach-turning violence and brutality, as well as a coverup. For those protesting the war -- which was already entering a drawing-down phase -- My Lai was a galvanizing tragedy that spurred renewed action. For those who supported the war, or at least supported the troops, My Lai was cause for serious soul-searching.

Events Leading Up To The Massacre

Map of Vietnam. Source: (britannica.com)

In the middle of the night on January 30, 1968, the Viet Cong and soldiers from the North Vietnamese People’s Army of Vietnam launched the Tet Offensive (named after the most important holiday on the Vietnamese calendar) in an effort to incite a general uprising. They infiltrated around 100 towns and five major cities in South Vietnam. This surprise attack may have been a defeat for the Viet Cong, because it failed to bring about the uprising, but it was psychologically damaging for the South Vietnamese and Americans.  As the American troops moved to protect the cities, the Viet Cong moved into the rural areas.  American soldiers had witnessed atrocities committed against their fellow soldiers and were under orders to destroy villages and defoliate forests.

The Massacre Of Civilians

Source: (wikipedia.org)

After receiving notice that Viet Cong (VC) soldiers had taken cover in the village of Son My, Charlie Company of the 1st Battallion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade, 23rd Infantry Division of the U.S. Army, entered My Lai 4, one of the village’s four hamlets on March 16, 1968. Under the instructions that everyone in My Lai was VC, the soldiers killed hundreds of unarmed villagers, and additionally raped and tortured many, including women and children, prior to executing them.

The End Of The Massacre

Hugh Thompson Jr. Source: (Wikipedia)

The massacre ended when Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson Jr. landed his helicopter between the soldiers and the villagers and threatened to shoot the U.S. soldiers if they did not cease. More than 500 South Vietnamese villagers were killed during the massacre. Thompson then flew many survivors to get medical help. After Thompson shared his story, he told 60 Minutes that he received death threats.

The Coverup And Investigative Journalism

Unidentified Vietnamese women and children before being killed in the My Lai Massacre. Photo by Ron Haeberle. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The army covered up the incident at first, claiming that they had killed 128 Viet Cong. Ron Ridenhour, a soldier who had heard stories of the massacre, sent a letter to 30 Washington officials, and after getting no response, contacted Seymour Hersh, the investigative journalist. Hersh interviewed Lt. William Calley who claimed that the massacre was a fight with the Viet Cong. Hersh then broke the story in November 1969.

As the My Lai would become the incident that defined the Vietnam War, Lt. Calley became the face of My Lai. An investigation that would result in Calley’s indictment and trial. The soldiers were reluctant to testify against Calley; at first, only one, Paul Meadlo testified after being found in contempt of court. Meadlo stated that he was standing guard over the citizens when Calley ordered him to shoot them all. Meadlo stated that he did not immediately obey Calley’s orders, but began shooting after Calley did. Other soldiers eventually testified.

Calley's Indictment

Political cartoon after the massacre. Source: (vietnamarchive.wordpress.com)


Calley’s original defense was that the civilians were the victims of an accidental airstrike. He then claimed the Nuremberg Defense, stating that he was acting under orders of his superior, Captain Ernest Medina. He stated that the orders indicated he was to kill the enemy. Despite the fact that 21 other members of Calley’s Company corroborated Calley’s story, Medina denied it. Calley was the only person in the chain of command who was found guilty.

Calley received a life sentence for the premeditated murder of 22 citizens. The public was outraged, not only at the horrific events but also at the fact that Calley was the only soldier found guilty; many saw him as a scapegoat. Calley had supporters, too, who argued that he was, after all, a soldier in wartime, and was following orders as he understood them. Some Calley supporters saw a fairly normal and harmless American kid -- someone's son or neighbor -- who'd become a monster because of the particular savagery of Vietnam.

Calley's life sentence was reduced to house arrest and he served it in his quarters at Fort Benning for only three and a half years.

The Outcome

At the My Lai Peace Park. Source: (thingsasian.com)

After the truth about My Lai was revealed, other atrocities in Vietnam were gradually revealed, including an operation called Speedy Express, where thousands of Vietnamese citizens were killed.

With the failing support for the war, and Nixon’s election after campaigning on the platform of ending the war, the war came to an end by 1975.

Exactly 30 years after the massacre, there was a groundbreaking for the My Lai Peace Park, one mile away from the site.

Tags: 1960s News | 1970s News | My Lai | The Vietnam War

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Cyn Felthousen-Post

Writer

Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!