The Search for Consensus: Editorials of the My Lai Massacre

August Jackson


The Vietnam War is, without a doubt, the most enigmatic episode in American history. The events surrounding the war touched off societal upheaval, a re-evaluation of American government and motives, and seemed to call into question everything Americans held dear. No single event of this war forced Americans to question themselves more than did the My Lai Massacre, for it seemed to be the perfect metaphor for the entire Vietnam conflict. It is difficult to analyze the opinions that surrounded an event that one did live through, and those of us who came after Vietnam must rely on history. Perhaps the best record history has to offer of the varying viewpoints of the day are the editorials which appeared in newspapers throughout the United States. I have undertaken an analyses of some of the editorials of the day, not to engage in any sort of social science study, but rather to try to better understand the various opinions that prevailed regarding this incident of twenty-seven years ago.

Background of the My Lai Incident

The My Lai Massacre occurred in the Son My Village in the Quang Ngai Province of South Vietnam, located on the South China Sea. It occurred 16 March 1968, less than two months following the harrowing Tet Offensive by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces. On that day, Bravo and Charlie Companies (two of the three platoons that comprised Task Force Barker) of the 11th Infantry Brigade of the 23rd Infantry Division (Americal) entered the village and killed 347 non-belligerent Vietnamese (Sheehan, p. 689).

One American platoon marched more than seventy civilians to a ditch east of the My Lai Hamlet and gunned them all down at close range, while another platoon made its way through the hamlet shooting every Vietnamese in sight, while yet another platoon killed more than ninety additional civilians in the Khe My Hamlet. The list of those killed includes elderly Vietnamese, women, children, and unarmed men. The massacre was so inclusive that even infants did not escape point-blank execution. Men were beaten, women were raped, the livestock was slaughtered and dumped into village wells to poison the water.

The horrendous incident was cloaked in a cover-up that entangled several levels of the Division Command, and escaped disciplinary attention for more than a year. In March 1969, former serviceman Ronald L. Ridenhour wrote a letter to the Secretary of Defense and other officials detailing the stories he had heard from his comrades in Vietnam about the incident at Son My. Lieutenant General William Peers was assigned to direct an investigation of the alleged incident. The first public account of the incident was in the New York Times in November of 1969. One month later, Life magazine featured full-color photographs taken during the incident by an army photographer (Spector, pp. 203-06).

In the court marshall that resulted from General Peers' investigation, seventeen officers and noncommissioned officers were charged in the incident. Of those, five were acquitted, while eleven others were dismissed due to lack of evidence. One man, Lieutenant William Calley, who had been charged with "personally killing 109 Vietnamese" (Sheehan, p. 689), was found guilty of the premeditated murder of at least twenty-two Vietnamese non-combatants (of which he served only four years under house arrest).

Lt. Calley's trial ended on 29 March 1971, and on 20 April 1971, a contingent of Vietnam Veterans Against The War staged their historic protest on the steps of the United States Capitol in which they discarded their wartime decorations and denounced their participation in the war as criminal.

Both within and without the military, answers were sought as to how such an incident could have happened. General Peers concluded that the incident was brought about due to several factors, including: lack of proper training in the Law of War for the 11th Infantry Brigade, resentment of Vietnamese civilian collaboration with the Viet Cong, lack of supervision of the enlisted men by the officers and NCOs, and psychological stress from heavy casualties the unit had received just prior to the incident.

To so many civilians back home, My Lai was the perfect metaphor for the Vietnam War as a whole. In this incident, American soldiers, who are supposed to represent the benevolent morality of American foreign policy, engage in the barbarous acts that we would choose to believe them incapable of. Following that, the military command structure fails to report this incident, making evident flaws in that structure and calling the military's credibility into question. By serving as the example of just how criminal Americans could be, My Lai served as a sort of national wake-up call and made all of America question our involvement in Vietnam, and even the most ardent war supporter at least had to analyze this situation to form some sort of justification for our involvement.

The Public Response

The graphic accounts of the events of that fateful day in 1968 so alarmed the American public that a boisterous outcry was inevitable. It was in the wake of the events surrounding My Lai that a flurry of editorials appeared regarding all aspects of this incident, from its initial discovery, to every step of the court marshall. It is this public outcry which I have sought to try to digest in order to understand the thoughts and opinions that prevailed around the nation regarding this event.

The editorial outcry surrounding the initial discovery of the My Lai incident was one of universal horror and shock. It was not until the events of the investigation and trial began to unfold that any notable variance of opinion made itself evident. For this reason, I chose to focus primarily on editorials that were published as the military justice system followed its course.

One aspect of what I read surprised me: a lack of regional divisions in the opinions surrounding this event. Before I began my editorial analyses, I fully expected the most critical editorials to come from the Northeast and West Coast, while I was certain the editorials from the Midwest and South would be most favorable to the establishment. I was surprised to find that the latter two regions were home not only to the most favorable editorials, but also published some of the most anti-military editorials to come out of this event. This runs counter to my overall impression of the political leanings of America's regions and perhaps says much about the depth to which anti-war sentiment ran by the beginning of 1970.

The Role of the Media

One of the issues that is heavily debated today and at the time was what role the media played in the Vietnam War: was it the bearer of truth that brought the horrors to public sight, or was it the liberal V.C. collaborator that cost us America victory?

From the very beginning, the media played a tremendous role in the uncovering of the My Lai incident. Many in the media seemed to posses the opinion that it was their own investigative pressuring following Ridenhour's letters that led the army to send General Peers to investigate. The Sun-Times (Chicago) patted itself and its media compatriots on the back in an editorial published 22 March 1970 for diligently bringing the nature of the My Lai incident to public attention. To many in the media, My Lai seemed like a justification for the unfavorable coverage the war faced, and these individuals wasted no time in reminding their audience of the role they played.

Those Darned Liberals

Many in America had expressed anti-Liberal opinion, accusing anti-war leftists of everything from being unpatriotic to collaborating with the North Vietnamese. Many editorial writers looked on the My Lai incident and the public outcry surrounding it as yet another example of "totalitarian liberals" (The Indianapolis Star , 28 March 1970) trying to undermine the military effort and pound guilt into the American psyche. "What about atrocities committed by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army?" these editorials demanded in outrage, "Why aren't the V.C. being put on trial?"

Understandably, none of these editorials actually condoned the actions Lt. Calley and his fellows committed that day. Though some editorials recounted anecdotes of individuals demanding that Calley be awarded a medal, no editorialist went so far as to suggest that the My Lai Massacre was in any way heroic, or even entirely acceptable. However, many editorialists felt that, compared to the atrocities committed by the other side, My Lai was nothing to make a big deal about, and these editorialists harbored resentment against those who believed American personnel should be made to atone for anything they did at My Lai.

The Daily News (New York City) actually pursued an angle that laid blame for My Lai on the very liberals that sought to utilize the incident for their own political gain. Draft-dodging liberals, the editorial of 31 March 1971 argues, were the educated class from which the military has historically depended on to build its officer corps. Had these liberals not chosen to avoid military service and encourage others to do so, there would have been better officers present throughout Vietnam, and particularly at My Lai. The leadership of such officers, the paper argues, could have prevented My Lai from happening altogether.

Just Another Day in the War

The overwhelming sentiment regarding the My Lai Massacre seemed to be that it was just another tragic event of a tragic war. Most editorialists from around the country, regardless of their opinion of the trial, its outcome, or who or what was to blame, all managed to regard My Lai as a prime example of why the Vietnam War was a mistake.

One such opinion was expressed in a 19 March 1970 editorial in The Sun (Baltimore):

"It comes as no terrible shock, but as one more bitter chapter in a war whose rules of conduct are blurred because its purpose is murky and uncertain."

Opinions similar to this one echoed through the editorials concerning the trial. Whether or not incidents such as My Lai were "no big deal" as Lt. Calley testified or were truly out of the ordinary seemed to matter little to those who viewed the entire war through the lens of My Lai. Whether there was one My Lai or one hundred, these individuals held fast to the opinion that any war where Americans could be made to behave in such a barbarous manner could not be a just one.

This opinion and ones similar to it were so widespread throughout the United States that it really brings home the extent to which anti-war sentiment had sunk into the American psyche. No longer were only leftist hippies were calling for an end to the war, but people from all parts of the country and from all points on the political spectrum.

South Vietnamese Government Policy

Many in the editorial corps found it difficult to accept the possibility that any combination of American policies and circumstances could have led to a disaster such as My Lai. In the minds of these individuals, surely our military system must have been acted upon by some external pressure to allow My Lai to happen. South Vietnamese government policy was looked on by some editorialists to be that fatal external ingredient.

In an editorial published 21 March 1970, the Des Moines Register questioned the South Vietnamese policy of designating "free fire zones." The Quang Ngai Province was one such free fire zone, and in such zones, military personnel were authorized to shoot anyone. If the South Vietnamese government had valued the lives of its citizens, some argued, American personnel surely would have shown civilians the respect they deserve.

Substance Abuse

One of the most preposterous claims to come out of the My Lai investigation was put forth by United States Senator Thomas Dodd (D-Connecticut). The Senator, who chaired a Senate subcommittee dealing with juvenile delinquency, put forward his theory that it was excessive use of marijuana by the men of Task Force Barker that drove them to commit their atrocities. This claim runs contrary to the findings of the Inspector General. Most editorialists who commented on this claim denounced the Senator, who was facing a tough re-election bid, for trying to reap political rewards for the My Lai Massacre.

The Inevitability of My Lai

To some, the Vietnam conflict was so immoral and poorly fought that My Lai was regarded as an inevitable outcome. The combination of an immoral war effort, a poorly organized military, a covert opponent such as the Viet Cong, and a civilian society sympathetic to the enemy mode it exceedingly difficult for American servicemen to perform. Says Neil Sheehan:

"The massacre at Son My was inevitable. The military leaders of the United States, and the civilian leaders who permitted the generals to wage war the way they did, had made the massacre inevitable." (Sheehan, p. 690)

On the opposite side of this argument, some editorialists held fast to the belief that My Lai was a reflection on the individual servicemen involved rather than a reflection on the entire war effort in Vietnam. One editorialist wrote in the Kansas City Star on 31 March 1971:

"Some critics of the war have misrepresented this atrocity as the inevitable consequence of U.S. policy in Vietnam. But there is nothing inevitable about the massacre itself. It need not have happened."

The question of whether or not My Lai was inevitable seems to touch on a much deeper concern: how could the United States engage in such a "limited" Cold War engagement such as Vietnam. Those who believe that events such as My Lai were inevitable seemed to believe that Americans were incapable of engaging in warfare for limited aims (communist containment). America's warfare history is one of ambitious goals, in which all Americans worked to insure those goals would be met. Could such a society undergo a "just another day at the office" war to maintain a status quo? Neil Sheehan and others seem to suggest that such an effort plays havoc with the American mind.

An Honorable Investigation

It is fully understandable that the United States Army would face a significant amount of criticism after My Lai, especially following an army cover-up that lasted for almost a year and extended all the way to the Commandant of West Point. It was interesting to see, however, that a very significant portion of the editorial community looked with a certain amount of favor on the army for displaying the courage necessary to bring some of its own officers to trial for war crimes.

Pro-army sentiment ran especially strong in the Midwest, where papers such as the St. Louis Globe-Democrat and the Ann Arbor News published editorials reminding their readership that it takes a big army to face up to its mistakes.

Following the conclusion of the court marshall process, many editorialists expressed disgust at the findings: how could only one lowly officer be made to answer for something as horrendous as the My Lai incident? While none presented Lt. Calley as any sort of admirable character (in fact, the most frequent description of Calley was "pathetic") he did receive a significant dose of sympathy from those who regarded him as a scapegoat.

Who is to Blame?

Amid claims that Lt. Calley had served merely as an army scapegoat were questions about who it was, exactly, that was to blame for this tragedy. It seemed to most that the blame traveled higher up the totem pole than Calley, but no one seemed to know for sure where the blame stopped.

The closest analogy editorialists of the day could relate to were the Nuremberg trials. In an editorial published 31 March 1971, the New York Times presented an interpretation of the Nuremberg findings that would suggest that blame lies at the higher levels of command, but that simply because Lt. Calley was "just following orders" did not excuse him from guilt. The Times editorial suggests that the army sold justice short by not finding guilt in any of the other officers tried for the My Lai Massacre.

Many editorialists of the day sought to place blame on the entire U.S. military structure for the massacre. In these individuals minds, it was this questionable war effort, combined with poor policy and even poorer implementation that made My Lai happen. This system that could train a man such as Calley and then place him in a position of authority must be done away with, these people argued. This was an entirely unrealistic viewpoint, as a Los Angeles Times editorial reminded America, as the justice system is incapable of undertaking such a mammoth task as finding an entire system guilty. To ask such a thing, the Times editorial suggests, is an exercise in futility.

There were also those who sought to place blame for My Lai on society as a whole. It was America, these editorialists argued, that asked these young men to fight such a war, and our society should face up to its guilt. This, in my perception, is the beginning of an unfortunate turn in the American vision of justice: the transfer of blame from the perpetrator of the crime to society as a whole. Those who hold this viewpoint believe humans are good by nature, and that it is society's corrupting affects that create criminals such as Lt. Calley. In my opinion, these editorialists who sought to make all Americans feel guilty for what happened at My Lai tragically misplaced the blame for this horror.

While some editorialists disparaged American society, others lauded it for having the courage and wherewithal to bring one of its own to trial. One of the most poignant such commentaries is this one that appeared in the London Daily Sun (U.K.):

"Sad, sad, sad, that it had to happen. Sad that a mere lieutenant should be carrying the can for Vietnam. But good for America. How marvelous it is that the big country should prove to be so big when one of its own interests are so directly involved. Would Russia have staged this trial? Or come to this conclusion?"

I believe this editorial serves as a reminder that American society, though far from perfect, is blessed in its ability to recognize and attempt to right its mistakes. In this regard, that blame some editorialists sought to lay on society's shoulders is so obviously misplaced.

A Shift in Values

The final editorial argument regarding My Lai I wish to pursue was most eloquently put forward by Louisville, Kentucky's The Courier Journal on 31 March 1971, in which was written:

"These are times of shifting values, of course. We no longer seem sure about things that once were right or wrong by their definition."

This, to me, is the crux not only of the debate surrounding My Lai, but also the entire Vietnam War. Unquestionably this was a time of metamorphosis that changed our society in every way imaginable: the way in which we waged war, how we envisioned our government, how we regarded the world, and every aspect of how we lived our lives. The world that exists post-Vietnam is almost completely different from the one that existed before Vietnam. The response to the My Lai incident is a perfect illustration of that: the complete inability to define the right wand wrong of My Lai is indicative of an old and a new value system in conflict with one another, while the court marshall jury and society sought to find an answer. One question left to ponder is whether this shift in values comes from the Vietnam War or whether or not Vietnam simply happened to coincide with this shift in values.


Upon concluding my analysis of the editorials of the day, it becomes apparent that My Lai is, without a doubt, one of the defining incidents of the Vietnam War. Not because of any sort of universalities surrounding it, but mostly because it has no universalities. Just like the war itself, My Lai is one big question mark. No one can say for sure what went wrong or who was to blame. It probably comes as some small comfort to the editorialists of that day that even more than twenty years later we're still arguing about My Lai and numerous other aspects of the Vietnam War.

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