Search for Consensus: Editorials of the My Lai Massacre
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?"
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.
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.
Day in the War
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
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."
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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:
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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, 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?"
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
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:
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.
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.