The Vietnam War (1954-75) occurred during the Cold War, a period of tense rivalry between the USA and the Soviet Union. As the war progressed, American involvement in Vietnam grew with the Communist forces. The American troops were seen as overly aggressive, with soldiers trained to only perceive the Vietcong as ‘the enemy’, and to employ “search and destroy” tactics (Sanders 5). This resulted in numerous deaths on both sides and many exhausted soldiers suffering from low morale both physically and emotionally, seen foremost in Americans (Sanders).
Although atrocities were committed by both sides, the My Lai Massacre was perhaps the most brutal. On March 16th, 1968, the US Army ‘Charlie Company’ division entered the Son My village led by Captain Medina and the 1st Platoon leader, Lieutenant Calley (Oliver). According to the soldiers, Medina ordered “the killing of every living thing in My Lai”. As a result, more than 300 unresisting and unarmed civilians were assembled and killed violently (Oliver 37). These civilians believed to be supporters of the Vietcong included men and women of all ages who were beaten, sexually assaulted, and shot, their bodies mutilated. Although a helicopter pilot named Hugh Thompson attempted to shield the civilians, the majority were killed mercilessly (Digital History).
The 11th Brigade covered up the massacre by reporting that 128 Vietcong were killed, seen as an impressive number exterminated in 24 hours (Digital History). When Thompson claimed that civilians were killed, Medina stated that 20-28 civilians died unintentionally in My Lai, which was confirmed by Colonel Henderson (Herring). This event was exposed a year later when a helicopter gunner wrote letters to the US Congress detailing the massacre (Oliver). In April 1969, an investigation was launched, resulting in the discovery of the extent of the war crimes (Oliver). The Army investigators concluded that 33 of the 105 Charlie Company soldiers participated in the massacre, 28 officers in the cover-up (Digital History). Ultimately, only Lt. Calley was convicted, with his sentence reduced to 3 years under house arrest after some publicized citizen support, causing President Nixon to decrease the charges (Herring).
Prior to the event, the American public was already opposed to the Vietnam War. Massive anti-war movements were existent in relation to Vietnam, specifically from 1965 onwards after Operation Rolling Thunder. Before 1965, the movement encompassed students and intellectuals who spurred the ‘Hippie’ movement, which in 2 years grew to 100,000 protestors demonstrating at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and 30,000 marching to the Pentagon (History.com Staff)
Nixon wrote in his memoirs that the reactions to the massacre were “emotional and sharply divided”- while some supported Calley, many were critical of the government’s response in terms of the weak prosecution of the soldiers involved in My Lai (Gado). These reactions combined with...