My Lai Massacre

My Lai Massacre

The My Lai Massacre was the most infamous incident of violence against civilians during the Vietnam War and one of the darkest chapters in the history of the US military. On March 16, 1968, a company of American soldiers murdered over 500 civilians in the small village of My Lai in the Quang Ngai province of South Vietnam [1]. The village was believed to be a stronghold of the Viet Cong during the war.

The Charlie Company of the US Army, led by Lieutenant William Calley, was ordered to destroy the village. When the unit arrived at the village, they found no Viet Cong guerrillas and only women, children, and older men eating breakfast. Despite capturing only three weapons from the village, Lt. Calley ordered for the entire population of the village to be shot. In addition to slaughtering over 500 men, women, and children, US soldiers also raped many Vietnamese women and razed the village to the ground [1].

The My Lai massacre was finally stopped by Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, an Army pilot who landed his helicopter between the soldiers and villagers and threatened to fire at Lt. Calley’s troops if they did not stop the massacre. When the violence ended, 504 Vietnamese were killed without firing a single shot at US soldiers. One soldier at the scene remembered the gruesome actions of the troops such as cutting the throats of victims and chopping their hands and limbs off and described how he “lost all sense of direction” in following his fellow soldiers [2].



After the massacre, senior military officials acted quickly to silence any individuals such as Hugh Thompson who experienced the event firsthand. The Public Information Office of the US Army released a statement claiming that 128 Viet Cong militants were killed and made no mention of innocent civilians or the fact that the Charlie Company faced no resistance. Lt. Col. Frank Barker bragged that “the combat assault went like clockwork” [2].  Additionally, a United Press International account published on March 16, 1968 described the event as “bitter fighting” [3].

Cover-Up Exposed

Ron Ridenhour, a US soldier stationed in Vietnam but who was not at My Lai, heard rumors of the massacre that were corroborated by numerous soldiers and wrote letters to 30 government officials, including President Nixon, asking for an investigation into the events of March 16, 1968 [1]. In his letter, Ridenhour expresses shock that “not only had so many young American men participated in such an act of barbarism, but that their officers had ordered it” [4]. Ridenhour’s graphic vernacular account of the massacre deeply contrasted with the official narrative and sparked an internal investigation by the US Army. Lt. Calley was charged with the premeditated murder of 109 Vietnamese civilians but the military only released that Calley was charged with murdering an unspecified number of people. A New York Times story from September 7, 1969 stated that that charge against Calley “involves the deaths of more than one civilian”[3]. The subsequent investigation into the atrocities committed at My Lai resulted in 13 US soldiers accused of rape, 30 accused of murder, but only a lone conviction: Lt. William Calley, who only served 3 ½ years under house arrest [2].

Hugh C. Thompson Army helicopter pilot, meeting with newsmen after appearing before an Army hearing at the Pentagon into the original investigation of the massacre at My Lai, 1969. (Credit: AP Photo) [2]

Effect on War Effort

When the horrors and images of the My Lai Massacre finally became available to the public in November 1969, anti-war critics pointed to My Lai as an example of America’s loss of morality in fighting the war and the irony of the American government describing the “evil” and “cruel” communist North Vietnamese. The war crimes committed at My Lai helped to undermine American confidence in political and military institutions . Michael Uhl, a US military veteran who returned to My Lai 50 years later, described My Lai as the “tip of the iceberg” that allowed anti-war activists to give their version of what was actually happening in Vietnam as anti-war sentiment grew at home [5].

Vietnamese children about to be shot by US Army soldiers during pursuit of Vietcong militia, as per order of Lieutenant Calley Jr. (later court-martialed), an incident which became known as the My Lai Massacre, on March 16, 1968 in My Lai, South Vietnam. (Credit: Ronald S. Haeberle/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images) [2]

Effect on Vietnamese

While the discussion about the My Lai massacre is often centered on the mistakes made by the US military, the perspective of the Vietnamese civilians from My Lai is not often considered. This form of vernacular memory is critical to understanding the full story of My Lai. Pham Thi Thuan, currently 80 years old, described her experience hiding in a ditch from American soldiers with her two daughters among 170 bodies in an interview with USA Today. “I had to climb over so many bodies,” she said. “I was crying so much. I wondered what had happened, why we were the only ones left to survive” [5]. Do Ba, now 60, explained why he keeps a photo of Hugh Thompson, the US Army pilot who stopped the massacre, on a household altar surrounded by photos of ancestors. Do Ba explained how Thompson was like a father to him and how he “wouldn’t have survived without him” [5].

Relation to Memory

My Lai is notable not just because of the actual events that took place, but also in how its memory is processual in nature. The US Army’s initial account of My Lai shows both the usable and partial qualities of memory. By silencing witnesses, the Army ignored the reality of the situation by painting a picture of My Lai as a fierce battle against the Viet Cong and as evidence that the US was winning the war. After the vernacular memory of what actually happened at My Lai became public, opposition to the war continued to grow as the memory of My Lai proved to be unpredictable and was used for an entirely different purpose. Today, the massacre is viewed as an example of the horrors of war and played a large part in the shift in public opinion from glorifying war to understanding the harsh reality of it. The My Lai massacre is symbolic of 1968 as a whole because of the multiple and different perspectives associated with this event and the large gap between official and vernacular memory.

Works Cited

[1] “My Lai Massacre.”

[2] Dalek, Matthew. “How the Army’s Cover-Up Made the My Lai Massacre Even Worse.” March 16, 2018.

[3] Shapira, Ian. “’It was insanity’: At My Lai, U.S. soldiers slaughtered hundreds of Vietnamese women and kids.” The Washington Post. March 16, 2018.

[4] Rothman, Lily. “Read the Letter That Changed the Way Americans Saw the Vietnam War.” Time Magazine. March 16, 2015.

[5] Maresca, Thomas. “50 years after My Lai massacre, survivors ‘had to cimb over so many bodies.’” USA Today. March 15, 2018.


8 thoughts on “My Lai Massacre”

  1. Great article, Mike! Love how you touched upon the government’s intentional distortion of memory in that they blatantly covered up the true events that occurred. I also agree with your point regarding the unpredictability of memory: how could anyone have expected something like this based on the initial news reports? It really makes me question the legitimacy of similar reports, both throughout history and now. How can we know what actually happened when there are almost always ulterior motives involved?

  2. I really enjoyed your piece. It was very easy to follow with the subheadings and I think the narrative it created was great. You did a very good job at being comprehensive yet concise about each part of the story. I did not realize that no one was truly punished for this mass murder and it opened my eyes to how unjust the justice system was at the time. I also find it ironic, as you touched on, that the US was supposedly fighting for justice and freedom in Vietnam, yet when given the chance, US soldiers abused, tortured, and murdered civilians out of spite. This site most definitely speaks to the partiality of memory because how can we truly know what’s true and what’s not? It seems from this event that we cannot ever know.

  3. Good job. I appreciated the slew of mediums you used to tell the story of this horrific event. Most importantly, however, your reflection of course themes strengthened the post.

  4. You did a wonderful job in laying out the history of the My Lai massacre as it was extremely easy to follow and the topic captured my overall attention. The Vietnam War in general really hits home because my mother and father constantly talk about how they had to escape situations like this as they were attempting to leave Vietnam and had to end schooling as early as 3rd grade. Aside from that, this topic is a great example of the bad side of America that is in most cases hidden beneath the official memory. As discussed in class, people never like to deal with a history attached to shame or senseless acts and instead would rather reminisce about more patriotically beneficial parts of the event. I definitely agree with you that this event is partial; I would have liked to see how the Vietnamese perceived the American version of this story. I would have also liked to see how this event is pinned against America in terms of their involvement in present-day foreign affairs.

  5. Very well written! It was heartbreaking reading through this article, and it’s good to see that we have come a long way from 1968. You made a very good connection to the government’s distortion of memory! Good job!

  6. Very interesting and informative post! I also wrote an article about the Vietnam War but the focus of mine was on the memory of the Tet Offensive on the 25th anniversary. In my research I came across the question of the Vietnam should be remembered as a whole or if there should be separate memorials for the different but very influential losses of life through the war. I found that veterans who experienced the Tet Offensive first hand felt that it should be remembered yearly especially on the 25th anniversary. I wonder if there is a memorial or ceremony for the live lost in this massacre or if there is one that still lives on in the United States today.

  7. Very well written post for explaining the My Lai Massacre. This memory of My Lai Massacre during Vietnam War definitely gave the American public a shock when they saw the news. The story showed the irony of how the U.S was representing the good side when entering the war but causing more conflicts and chaos in the war.

  8. It’s crazy that the U.S. military changed the narrative around the murders they committed. This was very well written and interesting. Your inclusion of the lack of Vietnamese memory is significant because it shows an alternative side of the situation which the public doesn’t hear. I’m glad the public can now know what actually happened in association with the My Lai massacre.

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