Since the days of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, this conflict has been under scrutiny. Launched as an effort against communism, France fought to retain their territory of Indochina. U.S. involvement in this conflict came slowly in the form of economic aid to France. Eventually economic aid led to sending military personnel to aid the French in their fight against communist regimes. After the Vietnamese Nationalist Vietminh defeated French forces, President Dwight D. Eisenhower took control of South Vietnam from the French. President Eisenhower initiated the installment of a U.S. led government in South Vietnam as well as dispatched military advisers to train a South Vietnamese army. Through the course of this war, U.S. involvement grew to include an estimated 486,000 troops stationed in Vietnam by the end 1967.
A major turning point in the Vietnam War occurred in the small village of My Lai, Vietnam. The hamlet of My Lai was known for being fertile Viet Cong territory. A unit of the 11th Infantry Brigade, known as the Charlie Company, was sent to My Lai on a “search and destroy” mission. Soldiers of the Charlie Company were ordered to locate and eliminate communist fighters said to be in the area. On the morning of March 16, 1968 U.S. soldiers entered My Lai and, in what was said to be a matter of hours, killed hundreds of Vietnamese civilians in cold blood. Innocent men, women, and children were raped, tortured, and murdered. The initial targets of the Charlie Company’s mission, the 48th Viet Cong Battalion, were nowhere to be found. This horrific event became known as the My Lai massacre.
It took nearly a year before this mass murder was made known to the American public. Helicopter gunner Ron Ridenhour wrote a series of letters to congressional and military officials documenting the events that took place in the village of My Lai on March 16, 1968. Through Ridenhour’s letters the cover up became exposed. Once the My Lai massacre was unveiled to the American public sentiment toward the Vietnam War, and the U.S. military in general, began to shift. The My Lai massacre is said to have contributed to the early withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam and the end to war in Southeast Asia.
In response to news of the massacre, the military launched an investigation into the Charlie Company and their alleged actions. Lt. General W.R. Peers, who led the inital investigation, recommended that charges be brought against 28 officers as well as two non-commissioned officers involved in covering up the massacre. Charges were brought against a total of 13 officers. Ultimately, only one soldier, Lt. William Calley, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
One day after Calley was sentenced, President Richard Nixon ordered him released from prison in. Calley was transfered from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Benning to serve his sentence under house arrest. The prosecutor in Calley’s case, Aubrey Daniels was so disheartened by Nixon’s decision he wrote the President a letter outlining his frustrations. After serving a mere three and a half years under house arrest, Calley’s petition for habeas corpus was granted allowing his immediate release.
Today, social studies curriculum tends to either “gloss over” the event as a basic war effort or eliminate the massacre altogether. The carnage left to haunt this village was not a basic war effort but a mass murder of innocent civilians. Social studies curriculum should conduct a more in depth study into the My Lai massacre because students need to be exposed to the “other” perspective of the Vietnam War. All too often textbooks and other classroom resources only discuss how the United States was affected by the Vietnam War. The My Lai massacre is a perfect example of how the Vietnamese, like survivor Ha Thi Qui, were affected during the war.
As you explore the resources made availabe through this site, consider the following questions:
- How were the Vietnamese affected by the My Lai massacre?
- Should the Charlie Company’s actions be considered mass murder or part of a basic war effort?