In the spring of 1968, as NASA wrung its hands over the Saturn V, the United States’ strategy of attrition in Vietnam seemed to be failing as the ongoing conflict consumed ever more hundreds of lives and President Lyndon Johnson was being pressured by his generals to commit an additional 206,000 troops to the half-million – strong military force already in south-east Asia. At the end of January, a hammer blow struck the misguided sense of complacency that the Vietcong were little more than snipers and unable to mount major co-ordinated attacks. The so-called ‘Tet Offensive’, which ran in three devastating waves until September, was intended to strike military and civilian command centres throughout South Vietnam and spark uprisings among the population. Although it ultimately proved disastrous, militarily, for the Vietcong, the offensive was so vast (countrywide) and so well-organised (involving more than 80,000 troops) that it shocked both Johnson’s failing administration and the American public. In March, citing conflict both abroad and at home, Johnson announced that he had no intention to ‘‘seek and. . . will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president’’.
Against this backdrop of self-doubt and introspection came one event which has become infamous as perhaps the most notorious act of mass murder in American military history, involved the tiny South Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai. There, on 16 March, at least 300 – some reports say as many as 500 – unarmed civilians, including women and children, were raped, tortured, mutilated and massacred by American troops. Excuses have been banded around over the years, that such-and-such was reaching for a grenade, for instance, or even that the South Vietnamese peasantry were seen as ‘inhuman’, but the precise reasons for My Lai have never been divulged. When it reached the ears of the world a year later, the incident sparked outrage and condemnation and strengthened already simmering public discontent over an unpopular war.
The so-called ‘Charlie Company’ who gained notoriety for the massacre had arrived in South Vietnam three months earlier, just before the January outbreak of the Tet Offensive. My Lai and several neighbouring hamlets were suspected of harbouring Vietcong fighters and the wheels of a major American offensive were quickly set in motion. It would, the commanders urged, be an aggressive assault, involving the total destruction of the hamlets, the slaughter of livestock and even the pollution of wells. On the evening before the attack, Captain Ernest Medina of Charlie Company advised his men that nearly all civilians at My Lai would have left for market by early morning and only Vietcong sympathisers or fighters would remain. Differing opinions would materialise over the years over whether Medina specifically instructed his men to slaughter women and children. . .
Certainly, upon reaching My Lai soon after dawn, no enemy fighters were found, but their presence was suspected and Lieutenant William Calley – the only military officer to be convicted of murder that day – began shooting at what he later described as a ‘‘suspected enemy position’’. Calley’s actions lit the touchpaper for the murderous rampage that followed: the soldiers began attacking anything that moved, using rifle butts, bayonets and hand grenades to summarily execute young and old alike. At one point, it was said, Calley took a weapon from a soldier who refused to kill… and used it to continue the massacre. When the bloodbath ended, My Lai was torched.
Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, a helicopter pilot, witnessed much of this from the air and identified many of the soldiers committing the atrocities; his and others’ testimony would prove crucial when the perpetrators were brought to trial. However, the real carnage might have gone unknown had Ron Ridenhour, a former member of Charlie Company, not sent a damning letter in March 1969 to newly-inaugurated President Richard Nixon, numerous congressmen, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Pentagon and the State Department, detailing the chain of events at My Lai. Eventually, in September 1969, William Calley was convicted of premeditated murder and 25 other officers were later charged with related crimes. At around the same time, Time, Life and Newsweek magazines broke the story… and public support for the Vietnam War, already on shaky ground, vanished.