There were scores of witnesses on the ground and still more overhead, American officers and helicopter crewmen perfectly capable of seeing the growing piles of civilian bodies. Yet when the military released the first news of the assault, it was portrayed as a victory over a formidable enemy force, a legitimate battle in which 128 enemy troops were killed without the loss of a single American life. In a routine congratulatory telegram, Gen. William Westmoreland, the commander of US forces in Vietnam, lauded the “heavy blows” inflicted on the enemy. His protégé, the commander of the Americal Division, added a special note praising Charlie Company’s “aggressiveness.”
Despite communiqués, radio reports and English-language accounts released by the Vietnamese revolutionary forces, the My Lai massacre would remain, to the outside world, an American victory for more than a year. And the truth might have remained hidden forever if not for the perseverance of a single Vietnam veteran named Ron Ridenhour. The twenty- two-year-old Ridenhour had not been among the hundred American troops at My Lai, though he had seen civilians murdered elsewhere in Vietnam; instead, he heard about the slaughter from other soldiers who had been in Pinkville that day. Unnerved, Ridenhour took the unprecedented step of carefully gathering testimony from multiple American eyewitnesses. Then, upon returning to the United States after his yearlong tour of duty, he committed himself to doing what ever was necessary to expose the incident to public scrutiny.
Ridenhour’s efforts were helped by the painstaking investigative reporting of Seymour Hersh, who published newspaper articles about the massacre; by the appearance in Life magazine of grisly full-color images that army photographer Ron Haeberle captured in My Lai as the slaughter was unfolding; and by a confessional interview that a soldier from Charlie Company gave to CBS News. The Pentagon, for its part, consistently fought to minimize what had happened, claiming that reports by Vietnamese survivors were wildly exaggerated. At the same time, the military focused its attention on the lowest ranking officer who could conceivably shoulder the blame for such a nightmare: Charlie Company’s Lieutenant William Calley.
An army inquiry into the killings eventually determined that thirty individuals were involved in criminal misconduct during the massacre or its cover-up. Twenty-eight of them were officers, including two generals, and the inquiry concluded they had committed a total of 224 serious offenses. But only Calley was ever convicted of any wrongdoing. He was sentenced to life in prison for the premeditated murder of twenty-two civilians, but President Nixon freed him from prison and allowed him to remain under house arrest. He was eventually paroled after serving just forty months, most of it in the comfort of his own quarters.
The public response generally followed the official one. Twenty-five years later, Ridenhour would sum it up this way. At the end of it, if you ask people what happened at My Lai, they would say:
“Oh yeah, isn’t that where Lt. Calley went crazy and killed all those people?” No, that was not what happened. Lt. Calley was one of the people who went crazy and killed a lot of people at My Lai, but this was an operation, not an aberration.
Looking back, it’s clear that the real aberration was the unprecedented and unparalleled investigation and exposure of My Lai. No other American atrocity committed during the war — and there were so many — was ever afforded anything approaching the same attention.
Most, of course, weren’t photographed, and many were not documented in any way. The great majority were never known outside the offending unit, and most investigations that did result were closed, quashed, or abandoned. Even on the rare occasions when the allegations were seriously investigated within the military, the reports were soon buried in classified files without ever seeing the light of day. Whistleblowers within the ranks or recently out of the army were threatened, intimidated, smeared, or — if they were lucky — simply marginalized and ignored.
Until the My Lai revelations became front-page news, atrocity stories were routinely disregarded by American journalists or excised by stateside editors. The fate of civilians in rural South Vietnam did not merit much examination; even the articles that did mention the killing of noncombatants generally did so merely in passing, without any indication that the acts described might be war crimes. Vietnamese revolutionary sources, for their part, detailed hundreds of massacres and large-scale operations that resulted in thousands of civilian deaths, but those reports were dismissed out of hand as communist propaganda.
And then, in a stunning reversal, almost immediately after the exposure of the My Lai massacre, war crime allegations became old hat — so commonplace as to be barely worth mentioning or looking into. In leaflets, pamphlets, small-press books and “underground” newspapers, the growing American antiwar movement repeatedly pointed out that US troops were committing atrocities on a regular basis. But what had been previously brushed aside as propaganda and leftist kookery suddenly started to be disregarded as yawnworthy common knowledge, with little but the My Lai massacre in between.
Such impulses only grew stronger in the years of the “culture wars,” when the Republican Party and an emboldened right wing rose to power. Until Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the Vietnam War was generally seen as an American defeat, but even before taking office Reagan began rebranding the conflict as “a noble cause.” In the same spirit, scholars and veterans began, with significant success, to recast the war in rosier terms. Even in the early years of the 21st century, as newspapers and magazines published exposés of long-hidden US atrocities, apologist historians continued to ignore much of the evidence, portraying American war crimes as no more than isolated incidents.
But the stunning scale of civilian suffering in Vietnam is far beyond anything that can be explained as merely the work of some “bad apples,” however numerous. Murder, torture, rape, abuse, forced displacement, home burnings, specious arrests, imprisonment without due process — such occurrences were virtually a daily fact of life throughout the years of the American presence in Vietnam. And as Ridenhour put it, they were no aberration. Rather, they were the inevitable outcome of deliberate policies, dictated at the highest levels of the military.