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

By | April 16, 2019

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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

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Map of Vietnam. Source: (

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.