We must not go back here again

March 16, 1968 came three years after the biggest American buildup of troops in Vietnam. Vietnamese began fighting for freedom from French colonialism more than 30 years earlier. It was 15 years after the Battle of Dien Bien Phu (when the French left Vietnam). By March, 1968, nearly 40,000 American troops and an unestimated, but far, far greater number of Vietnamese had already died.On that date, Charlie Company of the US Army entered a Vietnam village called My Lai 4 and killed several hundred civilians, including many women and children. The Unified Buddhist Congregation of Vietnam, reported 394 civilians killed, 176 missing and 23 wounded in what came to be known as the My Lai Massacre. The US Army reported about the same number killed.A Vietnam vet, who wasn’t in My Lai, heard about the massacre from a number of sources and after he was discharged wrote a letter to a number of congressmen about it. An army reporter had taken a number of photos of the massacre. When My Lai investigations became public in late 1969, newspapers published stories and some of the photos. Lt. William Calley, was tried in the early seventies for personally murdering 22 Vietnamese civilians and directing the larger massacre. He was convicted by military court and sentenced to life imprisonment. The sentence was soon commuted to 10 years and he was released in 1974.Seymour Hersch, who wrote a book about My Lai, devoted a chapter to some of the public reactions.“It was good,” said a 55-year-old elevator operator from Boston. “ What do they give soldiers bullets for -- to put in their pockets?”“It sounds terrible to say we ought to kill kids, but many of our boys being killed over there are just kids, too,” a Cleveland woman said.“I don’t believe it actually happened. The story was planted by Viet Cong sympathizers and people inside this country who are trying to get us out of Vietnam sooner,” said a man from Los Angeles.“I can’t believe our boys’ hearts are that rotten,” a Philadelphia teletype operator said.Many Americans were outraged at the media for showing the shocking photos of a massacre.“Your paper is rotten and anti-American,” a reader wrote the Cleveland Plain Dealer.“How can I explain these pictures to my children?” another reader asked.Some complained the pictures were obscene because some of the corpses were not clothed.Mike Wallace, who had interviewed a participant in the massacre who had come forth and confessed, was attacked.“Wallace is pimping for the protesters,” one said. American Legion members in Georgia took out an advertisement, accusing the media of trying to “tear down American and its armed forces.” Other Georgia veterans insisted the photographs were fakes, that, “no American would ever kill 109 people like that,” and began raising money for Calley’s defense.A Minneapolis Tribune poll around Christmas reported 49 percent of 600 people interviewed believed reports of the My Lai massacre were false. A Time Magazine poll of 1,600 people found that 65 percent of the American people “believed such incidents were bound to happen in any war; and an even greater percent of the public, asked about news media coverage, complained that the press and TV should not have reported statements by GIs prior to a court-martial.”The American Legion Post in Jacksonville, Fla., raised money for Calley’s defense and its spokesman said, “We are not saying he is guilty or not guilty. We feel Lieutenant Calley has been condemned and vilified for performance of his duties in combat without benefit of the opportunity to defend himself.”George Wallace had Calley to lunch, and said, “I’m sorry to see the man tried. They ought to spend the time trying folks who are trying to destroy this country instead of trying those who are serving their country.”Many army officers were outraged that Calley would be tried. “They’re using this as a goddamned example,” one aid. “He’s a good soldier. He followed orders.”Another was reported to say, “He’s killed and seen a lot of killing ... killing becomes nothing in Vietnam. He knew that there were civilians there, but he also knew that there were VC among them.”A West Point graduate said, “There’s this question -- I think anyone who goes to Nam asks it. What’s a civilian? Someone who works for us at day and puts on Viet Cong pajamas at night?”Congressional hawks intoned on the massacre. The killed “just got what they deserved,” one said. Another wondered if all soldiers who made mistakes in judgment would be tired “as common criminals, as murderers.”“Why have not these money-hungry headline-writing sensationalists written about the brutal Communist murder of thousands of innocent victims -- men, women, children and babies -- in South Vietnam, in Hungary, in Czechoslovakia and elsewhere?” asked another.Politicians complained of a phenomenon they called the “massacre hoax.”“The American people are daily becoming more aware that the news media is being used as a weapon of psychological warfare against them,” one said. Another put in the Congressional Record a letter sent to him by a Vietnam vet. “It is probable you learned enough about the Oriental mind to find nothing incongruous about a Viet Cong woman advancing with a submachine gun on US troops with her baby in her arms. These people are not stupid. They have our number very well ...”Sen. George McGovern saw My Lai differently: “What this incident has done is to tear the mask off the war ... I think that for the first time millions of American are realizing that we have stumbled into a conflict where we not only of necessity commit horrible atrocities against the people of Vietnam, but where in a sense we brutalize our own people and our own nation. I think it’s more than Ltieutenant Calley involved here. I think a national policy is on trial.”Hersch reported that one soldier in Calley’s company, who may have shot himself in the foot to avoid going to My Lai, told him, “I still wonder why human beings claim to be human beings but still conduct themselves as savages and barabians. Th United States is supposed to be a peace-loving country, yet they tell them to do something and then they want to hang them for it.”Quotes from My Lai, Seymour Hersch, 1970.