Fifty years ago today, an American massacre of Vietnamese civilians created outrage around the world. University of Auckland’s Liam Appleton retells the story and explains the complicated legacies of the My Lai Massacre that also touched New Zealand.

On the morning of March 16, 1968, American soldiers massacred as many as 504 civilians in a small settlement known on US Army maps as My Lai. Almost all of them were old men, women and children. Scenes and accounts of the atrocity intensified worldwide condemnation of an already divisive and evermore unpopular American war effort in Vietnam, and New Zealand was not left out.

American Vice President Spiro Agnew briefly visited New Zealand in January 1970, not long after the massacre became public knowledge. A large group of young marchers descended upon his Auckland hotel, where they conducted a raucous protest until around 200 police arrived and violently removed them shortly before midnight. In May 1971, police likewise blocked a small group of protestors dressed as bloodied Vietnamese peasants at an Auckland parade by the returning 161st Battery.

Among the broader consequences of the My Lai Massacre was to discredit moral claims attached to the Vietnam war effort. Aside from overt protests, this also took the form of increasing stigma at home attached to service in Southeast Asia – a stigma from which New Zealand soldiers were not exempt.

The full extent of crimes documented in the US Army’s official investigation included both “individual and group acts of murder”, as well as extraordinary physical and sexual violence against the people of My Lai by two companies of the Americal Division. Many of the dead lay piled in two large ditches, where soldiers killed them en masse.

By the time the attack finished, the hamlet lay reduced to a smoking ruin. The soldiers burned homes and crops, and slaughtered both livestock and people. The commanding officers who planned and ordered the operation covered up the resulting butchery of unarmed Vietnamese civilians, proclaiming it a stunning success.

On the following day, a minor story on the New York Times front page carried a triumphant retelling of this official story: “GI’s, in Pincer Move, Kill 128 in Daylong Battle”. US Army dispatches described a “vast” search and destroy operation to secure territory near the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon, in a coastal area of Quang Ngai province. American troops reportedly battled Vietcong guerrillas until all the enemy either lay dead or fled into the jungle. An otherwise routine Vietnam War news item, it passed without further mention.

Key to the uncovering of the massacre were the letters of Ronald Ridenhour, which triggered the Pentagon to investigate. Ridenhour quietly sent copies of this letter to dozens of politicians and officials in March 1969, pleading for an inquest into events described to him by other servicemen while deployed Vietnam.

The first visible result of Ridenhour’s letters appeared in November 1969, when American newspapers reported a total of 108 murders charged against US Army Lieutenant William Calley for an as-yet unknown incident. Within days, a more complete story emerged from American eyewitnesses.

The revelation of the massacre confronted those at home with graphic accounts and images of extreme violence against committed by American soldiers. Among the most potent of these accounts was published by Life magazine in December 1969, containing a collection of gruesome colour photos captured by an Army photographer. Perhaps the most ghastly of them depicted bloody and mangled corpses strewn on a road leading to the village.

General William Peers, who wrote the Army’s report on the My Lai massacre, later described his initial disbelief that such a massacre as Ridenhour described could possibly have remained secret. Peers’ report, delivered in March 1970, would ultimately condemn actions both intentional and ignorant “at every command level” in the Americal Division for the massacre and its coverup.

In America, the legacy of My Lai remains complicated by the question of accountability. Out of the 25 men charged with war crimes by the US Army, including superior officers, only Lieutenant Calley was convicted. Telephone surveys conducted after the delivery of Calley’s life sentence in March 1971 indicated most Americans both believed that the sentence was too harsh and that Calley was a scapegoat. Sympathy for Calley extended even to President Richard Nixon, who ordered him transferred from military prison to house arrest just one day after his conviction. By June 1974, Calley’s sentence was commuted on appeal to time served and he went free after less than four years.

Ridenhour wrote in a 1969 letter that the fundamental American ideals of justice and equality demanded a full accounting of the matter. Reflecting some 20 years later, he bitterly remarked that the focus of Americans’ regret instead came to rest “on what the war had done to its boys, almost to the exclusion of what its boys had done to the Vietnamese”.

For at least that reason, the My Lai Massacre is still worth remembering.

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