March 16, 1968 — Considered by many to be one of the most shameful episodes in American military history, the My Lai massacre in Vietnam took place on this day. Hundreds of defenceless civilians – mainly women and children – were shot dead by US soldiers.
My Lai will forever remain a haunting event in America’s conscience and will burn to the surface in any discussion or appraisal of this prolonged conflict.
The Vietnam War, as America knows it, or the “War Against the Americans to Save the Nation” as Washington’s former enemies called it, began in 1954 and lasted until 1975, although direct American involvement ended in 1973.
But there had been fighting in the country for decades, with the Vietnamese rebelling against French colonial rule.
In 1954, France decided to pull out and at the Geneva Conference that year it was agreed the country would be “temporarily” divided along the 17th parallel – thus creating communist North Vietnam and non-communist South Vietnam. Much to the anguish of the United States.
The White House, fervently opposing communism, supported the “domino theory” which basically stated that if one country fell to communism, its neighbour would follow, then its neighbour, and so on.
Richard Nixon, vice-president at the time to President Eisenhower, explained the theory in more detail: “If Indochina falls, Thailand is put in an almost impossible position. The same is true of Malaya with its rubber and tin. The same is true of Indonesia.
“If this whole part of South East Asia goes under communist domination or communist influence, Japan, which trades and must trade with this area in order to exist, must inevitably be oriented towards the communist regime.”
True or not, North Vietnam had a single aim – to unify the country under a communist regime modelled on those of Russia and China. South Vietnam preferred to align with the West.
The result was that the Soviet Union and China poured weapons, supplies and advisers into the North, while America supplied military advisers to the South. By 1959 there were about one thousand of them there, but President John F Kennedy, elected in 1960, had increased the number to 16,000 by the time of his death in 1963.
That same year North Vietnam sent 40,000 soldiers to fight in the South. In response, President Lyndon Johnson was to send in combat units for the first time. By 1964 there were 184,000 American troops in Vietnam – a figure that would climb significantly year by year. By 1969 it had risen to more than 500,000.
As the vicious and ugly war wore on, shortly after dawn on March 16 1968, three platoons of US troops belonging to “Charlie Company” were dropped from helicopters into the Son My area. They were on a search-and-destroy mission with orders to kill National Liberation Front (North Vietnamese) soldiers – called Viet Cong or VC by the US troops – who were reported to have been active in the area.
US Army commanders had advised that all who were found in the area could be considered Viet Cong or active sympathisers, and the troops were ordered to destroy their village.
1 Platoon, commanded by Lieutenant William Calley, was sent to My Lai – home to about 700 people. Calley was told he could expect to find members of the NLF in the area.
In fact, they found a village occupied only by women, children and old men – all of whom were rounded up into groups. After a search of their huts revealed only three or four weapons and no sign of the enemy, Calley ordered his men to open fire on the villagers, he himself shooting indiscriminately into the groups.
Mothers tried to shield their children but were shot, and the little ones also gunned down as they tried to run away. Calley was reported to have dragged dozens of people, including young children, into a ditch before executing them with a machine gun. Many women were raped and the village was burned to the ground.
US soldier Varnado Simpson testified in December 1969: “Everyone who went into the village had in mind to kill. We had lost a lot of buddies and it was a VC stronghold. We considered them either VC or helping the VC.”
However, not a single Viet Cong combatant was found there. "As a matter of fact," Private Michael Bernhardt would testify, "I don't remember seeing one military-age male in the entire place, dead or alive.”
None of this became known to the outside world until November 1969 when a US soldier, Paul Meadlo, was interviewed on television and admitted killing “ten or fifteen men, women and children” at My Lai. The full horror of the event then began to emerge and it soon became clear that many hundreds of villagers had been killed.
A number of US soldiers were charged with the killings but all – except for Lieutenant William Calley – were acquitted or had the charges against them dropped.
Calley, who had spoken earlier of “my troops getting massacred and mauled by an enemy I couldn’t see, an enemy I couldn’t feel, I couldn’t touch. . .” put forward the defence that he was in My Lai to hunt out communists and to destroy communism and that he was “only carrying out my orders, which were to hunt out the NLF.”
It was true that “Charlie Company,” to which Calley belonged, had earlier lost five men killed by booby traps and others had been wounded by these unseen weapons.
But Calley was found guilty of killing 109 civilians and sentenced to life imprisonment. However, after an intervention by President Richard Nixon this prison sentence was changed to house arrest. Three years later, Calley was granted his release by a federal judge.
The number of people killed at My Lai is disputed. A memorial there lists 504 names with ages ranging from one to eighty-two years. An official US army investigation settled on a figure of 347.
After the US withdrew its troops from the country in 1973, fighting continued until South Vietnam surrendered to North Vietnam on April 30, 1975. On July 2, 1976, Vietnam was reunited as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. It resumed diplomatic relations with the US in 1995.
Published: February 12, 2020