Primary Source: Ron Ridenhour's Letter about the My Lai Massacre

Instructor: David Wilson

David has taught college history and holds an MA in history.

Of all the controversies of the Vietnam War, none were greater than the My Lai Massacre in 1968. American soldiers killed hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians, including women, children, and infants.

My Lai Massacre

In 1968, American involvement in Vietnam had reached a high point. About half a million soldiers were stationed in Vietnam, fighting the communist Viet Cong guerrillas and the North Vietnamese Army. The American military believed it effective to sweep through villages and hamlets in search of soldiers, as well as weapons, supplies, and food. Whenever American soldiers found enemy supplies or positions, they were under instructions to destroy them.

Many American soldiers, however, had little understanding of the Vietnamese people, their customs, or even the enemy they were fighting. This led to a number of incidents where soldiers accidentally or intentionally attacked civilians, a clear deviation from the laws of war. In March 1968, an American patrol came to the village of My Lai in search of communist fighters or equipment. Whether due to confusion, battle stress, mental instability, or pure cruelty, these soldiers murdered hundreds of villagers, including women and children. Soldiers raped women and mutilated both adults and children. Worse, it was not a sudden act of brutality but a deliberate series of murders: the soldiers famously took a lunch break before resuming the killing. The My Lai Massacre is widely considered one of, if not the, darkest moments in the history of the United States military.

Despite the brutality of the massacre, it did not initially reach public attention. The American military attempted to cover up the massacre, stating instead that the soldiers had successfully killed a number of communist enemies. Not until Ronald Ridenhour, a former soldier in Vietnam, sent a letter to Congress about the affairs at 'Pinkville' (the American name for My Lai) did further investigation reveal the depth of the carnage. Ridenhour had spoken to many of the soldiers at My Lai to corroborate his story. Upon being released to the press and the public nearly two years later, the story of My Lai shocked Americans, many of whom could not (or would not) believe that their soldiers could commit such an atrocity.

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