This Week in History: 16th March 1968 The My Lai Massacre

On 16 March 1968, one of the largest massacres of civilians by United States armed forces occurred in Vietnam. The My Lai Massacre, in South Vietnam, took place during the Vietnam War. In the massacre, the US Army murdered 504 unarmed civilians, including men, women and children.

The massacre took place in two hamlets in South Vietnam. US soldiers from Company C, the 1st Battalion, the 20th Infantry, the 11th Brigade, and the 23rd Infantry Division were involved in the killings.

Sergeant Michael Bernhardt, who had been at the scene, later told independent reporter Seymour Hersh “We met no resistance and I only saw three captured weapons. We had no casualties.” The massacre is reported to have ended when Hugh Thompson, an Army helicopter pilot, landed his helicopter between the soldiers and fleeing villagers and threatened to fire at any soldiers who continued their attack.

The My Lai Massacre was covered up by high-rank Army Officers for over a year, only ending when a soldier, Ron Ridenhour, who had heard reports of the massacre, gave the first interview regarding the massacre to Seymour Hersh. Ridenhour had previously attempted to contact others about the massacre, writing letters to President Nixon, the Pentagon, the State Department, and several senators with no reply from any of them. Hersh broke the story in November 1969, almost a year and a half after the massacre had taken place.

After reports of the massacre had been released, there was a massive public reaction. Fourteen soldiers were charged with criminal offences, but only Lieutenant William Calley Jr. was convicted. He was charged with commanding the divisions involved to open fire on the Vietnamese villagers, and was found guilty of killing 22 villagers.

Calley received a life sentence which was reduced to 20 years, then further reduced to 10 years, and Calley was eventually released after serving only three and a half years under house arrest.

Historian Bernd Greiner, in his book War Without Fronts: The USA in Vietnam, called the incident “the most shocking episode of the Vietnam War.” The discovery and uncovering of the massacre contributed to increasing American domestic opposition to US involvement in the Vietnam War, and this opposition continued until the war’s end in 1975.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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