The My Lai Massacre: Summary & Facts

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

The Vietnam War is a very controversial subject for many Americans. This lesson discusses the events of the My Lai Massacre, arguably one of the worst atrocities committed during the Vietnam War.

Vietnam War

Beginning in 1954, Vietnam was a divided nation. After decades of French control, the country had secured its independence. As a new country, its leaders were torn over how to run it. People in the north favored communism, while people in the south were heavily influenced by the democratic West. Ultimately, the country was cut in half creating two states: North Vietnam and South Vietnam. Tensions between the two sides escalated over the years, leading to increased U.S. involvement during the 1960s. While only about 800 American soldiers had boots on the ground during the 1950s, by 1962 this number jumped to around 9,000.

The primary focus of U.S. troops was to push back the communist Viet Cong (also called the National Liberation Front). The Vietnam War was brutal for Americans. The Viet Cong used guerrilla tactics, and the swampy jungle only made things worse. By 1968, American morale was low, especially after the Tet Offensive, when the Viet Cong launched a large-scale attack that completely took American troops by surprise, during the Vietnamese Lunar New Year celebration.

Charlie Company

The Charlie Company, part of the Americal Division, had suffered pretty heavy losses as a result of the Tet Offensive. Nearly 30 men were killed, leaving only about a 100 American troops. Charlie Company's men were exhausted, angry, and intent on revenge.

In March of 1968, the Charlie Company was notified of a Viet Cong stronghold in a hamlet called My Lai (a hamlet is like a village, only smaller). American troops had already experienced several conflicts in the region, and many men were killed as a result of sniper fire and land mines. Before entering My Lai, the men were briefed by their commanding officer, Captain Ernest L. Medina. Charlie Company was instructed to destroy My Lai. Lieutenant William Calley was responsible for leading the search-and-destroy mission.

My Lai Massacre

The My Lai Massacre began on March 16, 1968. Surprisingly, Charlie Company did not encounter any Viet Cong. Instead, most of the people living in My Lai were women, children, and old men too old to fight. On Lieutenant Calley's orders, Charlie Company proceeded to devastate the hamlet. They set homes on fire and ruthlessly murdered the villagers. According to witnesses, Lieutenant Calley ordered the Vietnamese people to lie in a ditch before he shot them at point blank range. Countless women were also the victims of sexual assault and rape during the massacre. The actual death toll of the My Lai Massacre is unknown, but historians estimate the numbers anywhere from 175 people up to 500.

American soldier setting fire to a Vietnamese home
American soldier setting fire to a Vietnamese home

Aftermath

Commanding officers of the Americal Division realized pretty quickly that what had happened in My Lai was an atrocity. Their troops had destroyed a village of non-combatants and had not come across enemy fire from the Viet Cong. The My Lai Massacre was kept secret for nearly a year; however, the men who were there that day shared stories with other members of the Americal Division. Soldier Ron Ridenhour sent multiple letters to the president and the secretary of defense about the incident. Ultimately, he shared the story with the press in 1969. Other individuals also spoke out against the My Lai Massacre, including Hugh Thompson, a helicopter pilot responsible for ending the bloodshed. Thompson saw what was happening from the air and landed his helicopter in My Lai. He even threatened to shoot at his own countrymen if they did not stop the carnage.

Helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson
Helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson

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