The My Lai massacre was one of the worst incidents of violence committed against unarmed civilians during the Vietnam War. A company of American soldiers brutally killed the women, children and old men in the village of My Lai on March 16, 1968. More than 500 people were slaughtered in the massacre, including young girls and women who were tortured, raped, and then killed. However, U.S. Army officers covered up the carnage for a year before it was reported in the American press which created international outrage. The brutality of the My Lai massacre and its cover-up fueled the fight to withdraw troops and further divided the United States over the Vietnam War.
What happened before?
The Vietnam War produced many unjust killings, civilian casualties and war crimes. Charlie Company of 1st Battalion 20th Infantry Regiment had arrived in Vietnam at the end of 1967. By March of the following year, it was already under lots of siege. In its first three months, Charlie Company had been involved in simple patrols rather than major combat operations, yet it had lost more than a dozen men to the Viet-Cong.
In March 1968, Charlie Company and two other companies, received orders to investigate a number of villages in Quang Ngai. There had been Viet-Cong activity in the area, and intelligence thought there was Viet Cong activity in the area. The Company was ordered to engage with the enemy and destroy wells, livestock and food stores being used to supply the Viet Cong. One commander, Medina, interpreted those orders, and he thought it meant to kill every living thing there at My Lai.
My Lai was located in the province of Quang Ngai; the area had been dubbed “Pinkville” by U.S. soldiers because of the reddish color used to indicate the densely populated My Lai area on military maps. “Pinkville” had earned a reputation as a heavily mined hotbed of Viet Cong activity (The My Lai Massacre).
What happened during the massacre?
In March 1968, soldiers from Charlie Company deployed in the coastal province of Quang Ngai were sent into areas believed to have Viet Cong activity. Operating under stress and with questionable intelligence and unclear orders, the soldiers entered My Lai and began firing on people and buildings. When they left at dusk, hundreds of Vietnamese innocents lay dead, the vast majority of them women, children and the elderly.
Shortly before 7:30 AM on March 16, 1968, the village was shelled by U.S. artillery. The preparatory barrage was intended to clear a landing area for Charlie Company’s helicopters, but its actual effect was to force those civilians who had begun leaving the area back to My Lai in search of cover (Ray, Michael). They found no armed personnel; the village was entirely occupied by women, children and elderly men. This discovery did not stop the shooting, which began to escalate into a frenzy. Calley and his men rounded up a group of 80 civilians and machine-gunned them in the village square. Villagers found hiding in buildings and bunkers were also murdered, either with gunfire or hand grenades. Livestock and pets were also shot or bayoneted. Unconfirmed reports claimed that soldiers even raped women and young girls.
By mid-morning, Charlie Company’s 2nd and 3rd Platoons had entered the fray, sweeping through outlying villages and killing every human being and animal they could find. According to one eyewitness, when a small boy emerged from one of the ditches and fled across a field, Calley chased him and gunned him down. By dusk, the operation had come to an end, and the men of Charlie Company returned to their base. Reports of the death toll in the My Lai vary. American reports think that 347 people were killed; Vietnamese government reports put the dead toll at 504.
The slaughter at My Lai had proceeded without challenge (The My Lai Massacre).
What was the aftermath?
Later investigations found that some individual soldiers from Charlie Company refused to participate in the killing of civilians. Some even challenged the orders given by superior officers. A US helicopter crew even actively intervened to save the lives of several villagers.
The incident was concealed for several months, until revealed by American soldiers and journalist Seymour Hersh. The My Lai massacre caused horror and outrage in the United States and around the world. It raised questions about the methods being used in Vietnam and whether American soldiers were doing more harm than good.
1st Battalion’s official report into the My Lai operation portrayed it as a heated gun battle between the Americans and Viet Cong. According to this report, 128 Viet Cong had been killed, and 22 civilians were killed in the crossfire. The men of Charlie Company were congratulated for the My Lai operation, which was thought as a success, both by American generals and in the press. This cover-up did not last long.
Two young American servicemen, Tom Glen and Ronald Ridenhour, were not present at My Lai but heard of the atrocities there through word of mouth. Glen and Ridenhour wrote letters calling for an investigation into the events of March 16th. Ridenhour pushed the case further. Though not present at My Lai, Ridenhour was a member of Charlie Company, so he talked with the soldiers who were in the company. Ridenhour spoke to as many men as he could, later making many notes. He said:
“I’d ask them, “Hey, man what happened at Pinkville?” And it would be like lancing a boil. I mean, if you asked them, they were compelled to talk. They couldn’t stop talking. They were horrified that it had occurred, that they had been there, and in the instances of all of these men, that they had participated in some way,” (The My Lai Massacre).
On March 29, 1969, Ridenhour mailed a report of his findings on the “Pinkville incident” to members of Congress, the Pentagon, and others in Washington. This letter sparked official investigations of both the massacre itself and the cover-up (Ray, Michael).
By the early 1970s, the American war effort in Vietnam was winding down, as the Nixon administration continued its “Vietnamization” policy, including the withdrawal of troops and the transfer of control over ground operations to the South Vietnamese.
The American public did not learn of the My Lai massacre until November 1969, a full 18 months after it had occurred. The story was broken by investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, who was later awarded a Pulitzer Prize. The My Lai affair was a disaster for the Nixon administration, which was already under fire from the press and the anti-war movement. Calley went to trial in November 1970, charged with giving orders that led to the murder of 109 Vietnamese civilians. In March 1971, Calley was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. He remains the only American convicted in relation to the atrocities at My Lai. However, a presidential pardon set him free. He had served less than four years for what was arguably the worst war crime of the Vietnam War. Few historians believe that Calley was solely or even mostly responsible for the events at My Lai (My Lai Massacre).
“Calley Apologizes for Role in My Lai Massacre.” NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, 22 Aug. 2009, www.nbcnews.com/id/32514139/ns/us_news-military/t/calley-apologizes-role-my-lai-massacre/#.W-M1u4FKjnE.
Ridenhour, Ron. “Ron Ridenhour Letter.” Digital History, www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/active_learning/explorations/vietnam/ridenhour_letter.cfm.
“My Lai Massacre.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 29 Nov. 2009, www.history.com/topics/vietnam-war/my-lai-massacre-1.
Ray, Michael. “My Lai Massacre.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 24 Oct. 2018, www.britannica.com/event/My-Lai-Massacre.
“The My Lai Massacre.” Vietnam War, 18 Aug. 2018, www.alphahistory.com/vietnamwar/my-lai-massacre/.