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My Lai Massacre (16 March 1968)

U.S. military atrocity during the Vietnam War. On 16 March 1968, in My Lai 4, a cluster of hamlets in Son Tinh District in Quang Ngai Province, I Corps Tactical Zone, soldiers of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, 11th Infantry Brigade (Light) of the 23rd (Americal) Division killed between 200 and 504 unarmed Vietnamese civilians. Charlie Company was at the time part of Task Force Barker, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Frank A. Barker Jr. Major General Samuel H. Koster commanded the 23rd Division.

The events of My Lai must be set in the circumstances of the Vietnam War. Although in no way justifying the action taken, it was often impossible to tell friend from foe, and communist forces were waging a guerrilla war and committing atrocities of their own against U.S. and Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN, South Vietnamese Army) forces as well as Vietnamese civilians. In addition, members of Charlie Company were frustrated by recent casualties sustained in the area—which they knew as "Pinkville" for its pronounced communist sympathies—from snipers, mines, and booby traps. Attacking the hamlet seemed a chance for payback for casualties sustained. Poor leadership, and not only at the junior level, certainly contributed to the events that followed. It is unclear what precise orders Charlie Company commander Captain Ernest Medina gave to his platoon leaders, including 1st Platoon commander Lieutenant William Calley, but Calley's men were under the impression that anyone left in the village was presumed to be an enemy.

On 16 March the platoon proceeded into the hamlet and there executed all civilians they encountered. The killing stopped only when Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, whose helicopter was supporting the operation, landed his craft between Calley's men and fleeing Vietnamese survivors and threatened to open fire on the U.S. soldiers if they did not cease fire. The government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam claims that 504 Vietnamese perished that day.

Shamefully, the army engaged in a coverup of the affair at both the brigade and division levels. GI journalist Ronald Ridenhour, who had heard stories of a massacre, investigated and tried to get the army to conduct an inquiry. When the army failed to take action, Ridenhour brought the incident to the attention of the secretary of defense and other government officials. In March 1969, he sent written evidence to several dozen people, including President Richard M. Nixon and sixteen congressmen. Only two of these, House member Morris K. Udall and Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee L. Mendel Rivers—took action, demanding a Pentagon investigation.

Lieutenant General William Peers headed the investigation into the My Lai events. By that time, Lieutenant Colonel Barker had died in Vietnam. Only the most junior officer involved, Lieutenant Calley, was ever charged and convicted. He received a sentence of life in prison, later reduced to ten years. Still, there was a great outcry on the part of many Americans who believed that Calley had been made a scapegoat and that the verdict rendered had been unjust. President Nixon later pardoned Calley. General Koster, however, was forced to retire from the army.

The My Lai Massacre and events flowing from it did much to turn public opinion in the United States against the war. In March 1998 the army recognized Thompson and his two crewmen (one of whom was killed in Vietnam in April 1968) with the Soldier's Medal for gallantry.

Spencer C. Tucker

Further Reading
Hersh, Seymour M. Cover-Up: The Army's Secret Investigation of the Massacre at My Lai 4. New York: Random House, 1972.; Hersh, Seymour M. My Lai 4: A Report on the Massacre and Its Aftermath. New York: Random House, 1970.; Peers, William R. The My Lai Inquiry. New York: Norton, 1979.

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