Vietnam, My Lai, and U.S. Involvement

Historical Notes

§ On March 16, 1968, Lt. William Calley led his platoon into the hamlet of My Lai in the Quang Ngai Province of Vietnam. They raped women and girls and shot indiscriminately at civilians as they ran from their huts. Survivors were rounded up and executed in a ditch. Over several hours, more than 500 civilians were massacred. Only Lt. Calley was found guilty of any crime. Convicted of premeditated murder, he was sentenced to life in prison at hard labor but was pardoned by President Richard Nixon after serving five months in prison and 35 months under house arrest.

§ “I was ordered to go in there and destroy the enemy. That was my job that day. That was the mission I was given. I did not sit down and think in terms of men, women, and children. They were all classified as the same, and that’s the classification that we dealt with over there, just as the enemy. I felt then and I still do that I acted as I was directed, and I carried out the order that I was given and I do not feel wrong in doing so.” Lt. William Calley

§ At Calley’s trial, one defense witness testified that he remembered Captain Ernest Medina ordering the soldiers to destroy everything in the village that was “walking, crawling or growing”.

§ “Hugh Thompson was the helicopter pilot who tried to halt the My Lai massacre…. [H]e rescued 15 defenseless civilians while training his machine guns on US infantrymen…threatening to shoot if they did not stop the slaughter.” — “Hugh Thompson: US pilot who tried to stop the My Lai massacre of civilians in the Vietnam war,” The Guardian

        See also “Helicopter Pilot Who Stopped My Lai Massacre Was Called A Traitor In America & Almost Court-Martialed,” Sharon Russell, War History Online.

§ Due to immense pressure to produce significant “body counts” as evidence of U.S. success in Vietnam, during the war the policy effectively became “If it’s dead and Vietnamese, it’s VC [Viet Cong].” In the aftermath, an entry on the Pentagon’s official Vietnam War Commemoration website for My Lai, which describes the massacre as an “incident,” initially underreported the casualties as 200, not 500, and now says simply “hundreds.” A whistle-blower contacted U.S. Army Chief of Staff William Westmoreland, pleading for an investigation of civilian casualties. The resulting study revealed that the body count was equivalent to “a My Lai each month.” —Nick Turse, “Was My Lai just one of many massacres in Vietnam war?” BBC News

§ It took 19 months for the truth of what happened at My Lai to be exposed, by independent investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, on November 12, 1969, on the Associated Press wire service.

§ “We intend to tell who it was that gave us those orders; that created that policy; that set that standard of war bordering on full and final genocide. We intend to demonstrate that My Lai was no unusual occurrence, other than, perhaps, the number of victims killed all in one place, all at one time, all by one platoon of us. We intend to show that the policies of Americal Division, which inevitably resulted in My Lai, were the policies of other Army and Marine divisions as well. We intend to show that war crimes in Vietnam did not start in March 1968, or in the village of Son My or with one Lieutenant William Calley. We intend to indict those really responsible for My Lai, for Vietnam, for attempted genocide.” 1st Lt. William Crandell, 199th Light Infantry Brigade, Americal Division, at the 1971 Winter Soldier Investigation organized by Vietnam Veterans Against the War

§ “Many in the United States were outraged by Calley’s sentence…. After the conviction, the White House received over 5,000 telegrams; the ratio was 100 to 1 in favor of leniency. In a telephone survey of the American public, 79 percent disagreed with the verdict, 81 percent believed that the life sentence Calley had received was too stern, and 69 percent believed Calley had been made a scapegoat.”

§ “On August 19, 2009, while speaking to the Kiwanis Club of Greater Columbus, Calley issued an apology for his role in the My Lai massacre: ‘There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai. I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry…. If you are asking why I did not stand up to them when I was given the orders, I will have to say that I was a 2nd Lieutenant getting orders from my commander and I followed them—foolishly, I guess.’”

§ “In war, these sorts of horrible things happen every now and again.” Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, speaking in 2004 of the time that he, as an Army major in Vietnam, was assigned the task of investigating reports of the My Lai massacre. His report concluded “relations between [U.S. troops] and the Vietnamese people are excellent.”

§ The Pentagon Papers, a top-secret study of the history of U.S. involvement in Indochina commissioned in 1967 by then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and leaked in 1971 by Marine veteran and Pentagon defense analyst Daniel Ellsberg, contains a Defense Department memo under the Johnson Administration listing three pro-rated reasons for continuing prosecution of the war in Vietnam:

        •70% – To avoid a humiliating defeat.

        •20% – To keep South Vietnam and the adjacent territory from Chinese hands.

        •10% – To permit the people of South Vietnam to enjoy a better, freer way of life.

§ Because of the Vietnam War, “The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.” —Martin Luther King Jr., “Beyond Vietnam” speech, April 4, 1967

§ For more about U.S. involvement and deception regarding Vietnam, see the PBS documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. The Post, a 2018 commercial film, is a riveting portrayal of The Washington Post’s conflicted decision to print a portion of “The Pentagon Papers.”

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Compiled by ©ken sehested @