by Jean Abrahams
Mỹ Lai residents during the Massacre. (Photo: World History Archive.)
On this day in 1968, approximately 504 unarmed elders, women, and children were brutally massacred by United States troops in the South Vietnamese village of Mỹ Lai.
The area in and around Mỹ Lai, Sơn Mỹ, was reportedly a stronghold of the communist National Liberation Front (NLF), and for this reason it faced frequent bombings and chemical attacks from the United States and South Vietnamese governments.
In March 1968, the Charlie Company of the American Division’s 11th Infantry Brigade was commanded to destroy the village of Mỹ Lai. Led by William Calley, the Charlie Company rounded up the residents of the village––mostly women, children, and elderly men––with no resistance.
The men, including Calley, began to shoot the villagers. Several women and children were raped and mutilated by the troops before they were killed.
"A lot of women had thrown themselves on top of the children to protect them, and the children were alive at first. Then, the children who were old enough to walk got up and Calley began to shoot the children," said PFC Dennis Konti, who helped commit the Massacre.
Of those murdered, 17 were pregnant, and children and infants accounted for 173 of the deaths. Only three guns were found in the entire village of Mỹ Lai.
Although the Mỹ Lai Massacre caused a sensation for its brutality and coverup, it was not an anomaly in the Vietnam War. American troops regularly burned entire Vietnamese villages to the ground, wantonly dropped bombs across Vietnam and Laos, raped and tortured women and children, and killed livestock.
In an effort to cover up their atrocities, the Army’s Public Information Office reported to news outlets that they had killed 128 Viet Cong soldiers in Mỹ Lai. In the time following the massacre, many of the soldiers present tried to inform their commanders and various government agencies about the slaughter, but were completely ignored.
The news of the true extent of the Mỹ Lai Massacre reached the American public in November 1969, some 20 months after the event. The bombshell reporting on the atrocities of the United States military bolstered the anti-Vietnam War movement. However, millions of Americans, as well as politicians including then-president Richard Nixon, continued to support the war in Vietnam and the soldiers who carried out the attack.
Over a dozen members of the military were charged with crimes for the Massacre, but none except Calley served any form of punishment for it. Calley spent only three years on house arrest for his commanding of the massacre in Mỹ Lai.