When most Americans think of the Vietnam War, which resulted in hundreds of thousands of soldiers in combat from 1965-1973, they tend to think about the central goal of the war and portray America as the country fighting communism.
However, as tensions grew over America’s involvement, the revelation of shocking incidents such as the My Lai massacre of 1968 fueled anti-war sentiments.
American helicopters fire into the forest
The Beginning of the War
The US government initially entered the war without much criticism by keeping numerous Vietnam War issues a hidden secret, and very rarely would share the news with the general public due to liberal Americans’ general dissent for involvement in yet another war.
The Northern communists (also known as the Viet Cong) had been attempting to invade and seize the South and transform them into a communist system as well. The 1968 Tet Offensive, three years into the war, awakened the public. It was a huge military campaign to escalate the war which failed and resulted in thousands of casualties of both American soldiers and South Vietnamese citizens.
Anger amongst Americans on the homefront grew as citizens became overwhelmingly concerned that US military officials were lying about how long the war would truly last. At this point, many Democrats began to express calls for de-escalating the war due to homefront uneasiness and the South Vietnamese losing faith in America, their promised ally.
Even with such mistrust of government officials, no American could have prepared themselves for the horrific atrocities committed by the American troops who were a part of the My Lai massacre of 1968.
On March 16, 1968, troops that were members of America’s “Charlie Company” were told to station themselves in the village of My Lai, located in the Quang Ngai province of Vietnam.
The area was supposedly under Viet Cong control so American troops were ordered to burn the village down in order to decrease the threat and influence of the Viet Cong. When the soldiers arrived early that morning, there were no Viet Cong to be seen - instead, they found a quiet village whose inhabitants consisted of younger women, children, and the elderly.
Still, Lieutenant William Calley led his group of soldiers into the village and forced them to round up the innocent villagers, and then ordered them to begin the violence. Soldiers fired shots at women and children first and then resorted to throwing grenades at the survivors and setting huts (with people trapped inside) on fire.
The villagers of My Lai were unarmed and didn’t fire a single shot back at the American troops as their friends and family were murdered. A number of women and children were also sexually assaulted by the soldiers. For four hours, the soldiers relentlessly tortured and brutally murdered the helpless civilians. The violence only stopped when helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson landed his chopper and ordered the murder to stop once he noticed piles of bodies in the ditches.
But by then, almost all of the My Lai villagers were already dead. 504 civilians had been murdered, a majority of them women and children. Survivors were taken by Thompson and his soldiers to receive medical care, but by then he had come too late. American soldiers, who had been hailed as heroes in earlier battles, had truly killed 504 innocent people without justifiable reason.
Soldiers burn down a house in the village
When the US Army became aware of the horrific event, top officials did their best to cover up the story to avoid being held accountable by the anti-war Americans on the homefront.
They managed to keep it a secret for over a year until finally, one soldier cracked. He had not been directly involved in the massacre but had heard plenty of details. He wrote letters to Congress as a whistleblower and publicly told the story in an interview with an American journalist. The news officially broke to the public in fall 1969, a year and a half after the bloodshed.
Outrage erupted from Americans, many of whom could not wrap their heads around the fact that their own soldiers were capable of committing such atrocities. The massacre acted as a turning point for the anti-war movement. Public outrage was further amplified because the news had been hidden from the public for so long.
News articles in 1969 expose the truth
A year later, a trail began to hold the soldiers who had murdered the villagers accountable. While 14 soldiers were charged, unfortunately, only William Calley was actually found guilty. The rest were acquitted without any kind of punishment whatsoever.
Calley was sentenced to life in prison for premeditated murder, but his sentence was then shortened to 10 years, and he was able to get out on parole after a mere 3 years of being incarcerated. A majority of American adults were initially opposed to Calley’s life sentence.
In a telephone poll conducted in 1971, 78% of the 1,070 adults surveyed said they disagreed with the court’s life sentence for Calley, while only 7% agreed. In that time, it was more common for people to be so patriotic to the point that they were unable to admit that their own soldiers could commit such acts.
Justice was never properly given to the 504 innocent people who lost their lives at the hands of the violent soldiers. The brutality ultimately led to a public push for de-escalation, with protest often led by college students, as many began to wonder what other secrets the military was hiding. The lingering effects of the massacre, and the lack of responsibility taken by the soldiers after it occurred, will forever be etched in Vietnam War history. The massacre has left a legacy in American history that has come to urge citizens to hold the military and government accountable for horrific situations like these.
Since then, a majority of Americans, especially those who were young during the Vietnam War, have continued to hold the military accountable, rather than turning a blind eye to war atrocities.
Written by Kareena Agni