My Lai Massacre

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Photographs of the My Lai massacre provoked world outrage and became an international scandal.
Photographs of the My Lai massacre provoked world outrage and became an international scandal.

The My Lai massacre (pronounced ) was a massacre by American soldiers of hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians, mostly women and children, on March 16, 1968, during the Vietnam War. Becoming a symbol of US-American war crimes in Vietnam, it prompted widespread outrage around the world and reduced public support for the war in the United States.



During the Vietnam War, the Quang Ngai Province of South Vietnam was suspected of being a haven for guerrillas of the People's Liberation Armed Forces and other cadres of the National Front for the Liberation of Vietnam, also known as the "Viet Cong" or "VC". Informally renamed Pinkville by the U.S. military, the province was frequently bombed and shelled. By 1968 almost all homes in the province had been destroyed or damaged.

It was seen by the military to be of primary importance that VC operatives be eliminated. Accordingly, rather than measuring success by the acquisition of territory or strategic locations (for example), missions were evaluated based on their "body count" - the number of VC operatives killed. Soldiers were encouraged by higher command to exaggerate body counts in order to give the impression of military success. Owing to that pressure, and to the fact that it was often very difficult for a VC operative to be distinguished from a non-combatant, there was often a very broad discrepancy between the declared body count for a particular mission, and the number of enemy weapons recovered. According to University of Missouri-Kansas City law professor Doug Linder, GIs joked that "anything that's dead and isn't white is a VC" for body count purposes. There is no doubt that many civilians had been killed in the province, fueling existing Anti-American sentiment in the region.

Insurgents were sometimes housed and sheltered by civilians in the area. However, American soldiers were frustrated with the complicity of the local people. Together with their inability to close with an elusive enemy, pervasive fear of ambush, and suspicion that the war was being lost, this resentment made violent reprisals against civilians more likely.

The massacre

Charlie Company, 11th Brigade, Americal Division arrived in Vietnam in December of 1967. Their first month in Vietnam passed without any direct enemy contact.

During the Tet Offensive of January 1968, attacks were carried out in Quang Ngai by the 48th Battalion of the Viet Cong. Subsequently, US military intelligence formed the view that the 48th Battalion, having retreated, was taking refuge in the Son My village. A number of specific hamlets within that village - known to the US as My Lai 1, 2, 3 and 4 (and informally as "Pinkville") - were suspected of harbouring the battalion. A major offensive on those hamlets was planned.

Immediately prior to the offensive, Charlie Company had lost a well-liked sergeant to a VC booby trap. They were shaken, angry, and frustrated that they were unable to take revenge against an enemy they could never find.

On the eve of the attack, Charlie Company was advised by military command that any genuine civillians at My Lai would have left their homes to go to market by 7am the following day. They were told that they could assume that all who remained behind were either VC or active VC sympathisers. They were instructed to destroy the village. At the briefing, Captain Ernest Medina was asked whether the order included the killing of women and children; those present at the briefing later had different recollections of Medina's response.

The soldiers found no insurgents in the village on the morning of March 16, 1968, although they had been psychologically prepared for a major attack. The soldiers, one platoon of which was led by Lt. William Calley, killed hundreds of civilians – primarily old men, women, children, and babies. Some were tortured or raped. Dozens were herded into a ditch and executed with automatic weapons. At one stage, Calley himself turned a machine gun on a ditch full of villagers. The precise number reported killed varies from source to source, with 347 and 504 being the most commonly cited figures. A memorial at the site of the massacre lists 504 names, with ages ranging from as high as 82 years to as low as 1 year. According to a South Vietnamese army lieutenant to his superiors, it was an "atrocious" incident of revenge.

A US Army scout helicopter crew famously halted the massacre by landing between the American troops and the remaining Vietnamese hiding in a bunker. The 24-year-old pilot, Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, Jr., confronted the leaders of the troops and told them he would open fire on them if they continued their attack on civilians.

While the other two members of the helicopter crew — Spc. Lawrence Colburn and Spc. Glenn Andreotta — brandished their heavy weapons at the men who had participated in the atrocity, Thompson directed an evacuation of the village. The crewmembers have been credited with saving at least 11 lives, but were long thereafter reviled as traitors. On April 8, 1968, Glenn Andreotta and Charles Dutton, crewmen on an OH-13 (62-03813) "Warlord" scout were killed when their aircraft was shot down, crashed and burned. It was not until exactly thirty years later, following a television report concerning the incident, that the three were awarded the Soldier's Medal, the army's highest award for bravery not involving direct contact with the enemy.


Initial investigations of the My Lai incident were undertaken by the 11th Light Infantry Brigade's Commanding Officer, Colonel Oran Henderson, under orders from Americal's Assistant Commanding Officer, Brigadier General Young. Henderson interviewed several of the soldiers involved in the incident, then issued a written report in late April claiming that approximately 20 civilians were inadvertently killed during the military operation in My Lai. The army at this time was still describing the event as a military victory resulting in the death of 128 of the enemy.

Six months later a young soldier of the 11th Light Infantry (The Butcher's Brigade) named Tom Glen, wrote a letter accusing the Americal division (and other entire units of the U.S. military, not just individuals) of routine brutality against Vietnamese civilians; the letter was detailed, its allegations horrifying, and its contents echoed complaints received from other soldiers. Colin Powell, then a young US Army Major, was charged with investigating the massacre. Powell wrote: "In direct refutation of this portrayal is the fact that relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent." Later, Powell's refutation would be called an act of "white-washing" the news of the Massacre, and questions would continue to remain undisclosed to the public. On May 4, 2004, United States Secretary of State Colin L.Powell said to Larry King, "I mean, I was in a unit that was responsible for My Lai. I got there after My Lai happened. So, in war, these sorts of horrible things happen every now and again, but they are still to be deplored." [1] (

The carnage at My Lai might have gone unknown to history if not for another soldier, Ron Ridenhour, who, independent of Glen, sent a letter to President Nixon, the Pentagon, the State Department, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and numerous members of Congress. The copies of this letter were sent in March, 1969, a full year after the event. Most recipients of Ridenhour's letter ignored it, with the notable exception of Representative Morris Udall. Ridenhour learned about the events at My Lai secondhand, by talking to members of Charlie Company while he was still enlisted. Eventually, Calley was charged with several counts of premeditated murder in September 1969, and 25 other officers and enlisted men were later charged with related crimes. It was another two months before the American public learned about the massacre and trials.

Independent investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, after extensive conversations with Ridenhour, broke the My Lai story on November 12, 1969 and on November 20 Time, Life and Newsweek magazines all covered the story during November, and CBS televised an interview with Paul Meadlo. The Plain Dealer (Cleveland) published explicit photographs of dead villagers killed at My Lai. As is evident from comments made in a 1969 telephone conversation between National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, revealed recently by the National Security Archive, the photos of the war crime were too shocking for senior officials to stage an effective cover-up. Secretary of Defense Laird is heard to say, There are so many kids just lying there; these pictures are authentic.

Courts martial

On March 17, 1970 the United States Army charged 14 officers with suppressing information related to the incident. Most of these charges were dropped.

U.S. Army Lt. William Calley was convicted in 1971 of premeditated murder in ordering the shootings and initially sentenced to life in prison; two days later, however, President Richard Nixon ordered him released from prison. Calley served 3½ years of house arrest in his quarters at Fort Benning, Georgia and was then ordered freed by a federal judge. Calley claimed that he was following orders from his captain, Ernest Medina; Medina denied giving the orders and was acquitted at a separate trial. Most of the soldiers involved in the My Lai incident were no longer enlisted. Of the 26 men initially charged, Lt. Calley's was the only conviction.


The explosive news of the massacre fueled the outrage of the American peace movement, which demanded the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam. It also led more potential draftees to file for conscientious objector status. Those who had always argued against the war felt vindicated; those on the fringes of the movement became more vocal.

The more pivotal shift, however, was in the attitude of the general public towards the war. People who had not previously been interested in the peace/war debates began to analyze the issue more closely. The horrific stories of other soldiers began to be taken more seriously, and other abuses came to light.

Some of the public's anger was turned towards the soldiers themselves. With vivid media images of this and other atrocities fresh in the minds of Americans, soldiers returning from Vietnam did not always find the warm heroes' welcome that had greeted the returning veterans of other wars. The troubled image of Vietnam veterans greatly increased the difficulties of soldiers struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse and homelessness.

Some military observers concluded that My Lai showed the need for more and better volunteers to provide stronger leadership among the troops. As the Vietnam combat dragged on, the number of well-educated and experienced career soldiers on the front lines dropped sharply as casualties and combat rotation took their toll. These observers claimed that the absence of the many bright young men who did not participate in the draft due to college attendance or homeland service caused the talent pool for new officers to become very shallow. They pointed to Calley, a young unemployed college dropout, as an example of the raw and inexperienced being rushed through officer training.

Further reading

  • Elizabeth Becker. "Kissinger Tapes Describe Crises, War and Stark Photos of Abuse." The New York Times. May 27th, 2004.
  • Michal R. Belknap. 2002. The Vietnam War on Trial: The My Lai Massacre and the Court-Martial of Lieutenant Calley. University Press of Kansas. ISBN 0700612114.
  • James S. Olson and Randy Roberts My Lai A Brief History with Documents Bedford Books, 1998 ISBN 0-312-14227-7

External links

See also

de:Massaker von My Lai fr:Massacre de My Lai it:Massacro di My Lai no:My Lai-massakren pl:My Lai


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