How America’s darkest deed in Vietnam was eventually revealed

In Saturday’s ‘Irish Examiner’, historian Ryle Dwyer described his university education in Texas during the period of the Kennedy assassination and the escalation of American involvement in Vietnam. Today, as the 50th anniversary of the massacre at My Lai approaches, he shows how it took 20 months after the slaughter of hundreds of civilians by American soldiers for the story to become public knowledge, and that no one has really been held accountable

American troops in Vietnam in the 1960s. Of those involved in the massacre of civilians at My Lai, only one soldier ever served a very small amount of prison time. Picture: PhotoQuest/Getty Images

The My Lai massacre occurred in Vietnam on March 16, 1968, but the American people did not learn about it until November 1969. I still have a vivid memory of the story breaking on the radio news.

I was studying for my doctorate at the University of North Texas, and had become very critical of the war, largely as the result of hearing a lecture almost two years to the day before the massacre. That lecture was given at the university by Harvard professor Henry Kissinger on St Patrick Day, 1966.

Basically, he argued that the US had made a commitment to Saigon, and if it did not uphold this commitment, no other country would trust the Americans. Countries like Japan, South Korea, India and Pakistan would all feel that they could not depend on the USA, and they would then seek to develop nuclear weapons. This would lead to nuclear proliferation and ultimately to catastrophe.

His arguments were very persuasive, and then he took questions from the audience. One person asked if the US was supporting a government in Vietnam that had blocked free elections?

It seemed like an absurd question, because this would negate the sacrifices of all those Americans, like my father, who were killed in the Second World War. Kissinger ignored the question and took others questions, but then somebody else asked that question again. He tried to ignore a second time, but the next person he called on, politely asked him to answer the previous question first.

Academic and politician Henry Kissinger was an architect of US policy in Vietnam

Kissinger had been an advisor to Henry Cabot Lodge, the US ambassador in Saigon. When Kissinger replied that could not answer the question truthfully, because of his position, that effectively answered the question.

Most Americans did not know the US was supporting a government that had prevented agreed elections. In 1954, the Geneva Accords stipulated that the Viet Minh forces of Ho Chi Minh should withdraw north of the 17th parallel, while French forces would move south and withdraw completely from the country within two years. The 17th parallel was designated as a “military demarcation line” only, not a political boundary. The whole country was to be fully integrated following free elections in 1956.

US president Dwight Eisenhower wrote in his memoirs that he never talked to anybody knowledgeable in Indochinese affairs who thought Ho Chi Minh would win less than 80% of the vote, so the US propped up the Saigon regime in refusing to hold the agreed elections. The American behaviour in Vietnam was worse than the Black and Tans in Ireland.

People queue to be evacuated on the roof of the US embassy in Saigon in 1975.

This made a mockery of the sacrifices of people like my father whose wartime letters indicated that he believed he was fighting for democracy in the Second World War. Having grown up in Ireland, I considered myself Irish, but I was an American citizen and had registered for the draft.

After listening to Kissinger, however, I felt that I could not serve in the US forces during the Vietnam War, without betraying the legacy of my father. Hence after graduating, I went straight on for a Master’s degree — to avoid the draft, more than anything else.

I remember discussing this with a member of the fraternity I had joined. He was drafted and sent to Vietnam. When he got back we met at the fraternity house. I introduced him to the younger members and they asked him about the war and rumours of atrocities.

“You’ll never know how you’ll behave, until you get there!” he told them. He explained this by giving a horrific example.

As a university graduate he had quickly become a sergeant and he said that on seeing action for the first time one young soldier complained to him about the behaviour of some men who “had slapped an old man around”.

About a month later, the soldier who complained to him, had rounded up some children and then threw a live grenade into the midst.

My friend came back to Denton and we shared a place. Some nights, especially after a few drinks, he would talk about Vietnam. He told some fascinating stories about a couple of near misses that he experienced. In one instance, a sniper jumped out from behind a tree just a few feet behind him firing an automatic weapon.

“I knew I was hit,” he said. One of his colleagues killed the sniper. My friend was frantically trying to find where he had been hit, but the Viet Cong soldier had done what seemed impossible — he actually missed. My friend often stressed that he never shot a civilian that he did not think was endangering his life, but he still felt he should never have been there. “If I were ever to satisfy my conscience,” he often stressed, “I would have to go back on the other side, because we had no fucking business there!”

I did not ask him any question about Vietnam. Looking back, that seemed strange, but it was something that was ingrained in me since childhood. As a child, if my brother or I ever asked our mother any question about our father, she would answer us, but she would always have tears in her eyes.

It is disconcerting for a child to see a parent cry, so my brother and I decided, not to ask questions about our father, or even talk at home about that war. I learned about my father from reading his wartime letters, all of which my mother saved in our attic.

My friend clearly wished to forget the war, but seemed somewhat haunted by it, so I never asked any questions; I just listened.

When the story of the My Lai massacre broke on the radio news, my friend remarked, “That’s where I was. We called it Pinkville!”.

It was Seymour Hersh, a 32-year old freelance journalist, who broke the story of the massacre in the village of Son My (the site of the massacre was named as My Lai on US maps), where between 300 and 500 civilians — mostly women and children — were murdered by American soldiers. Even though Hersh broke the story, it was the subsequent publication of photographs taken during the massacre by army photographer Ron Haeberle that had the greatest impact. Those were splashed around the world.

He shot a sequence of three pictures of two little boys. In the first photograph, they were walking down a grass pathway together. “When these two boys were shot at,” Haeberle noted, “the older one fell on the little one, as if to protect him.” That was the second picture. “Then the guys finished them off,” he added. The third picture was of the two little boys lying dead.

At one point, as Haeberle focused his camera on another little boy about five feet away, American soldiers blew the boy away with their M-16s before he could snap the shutter. The bullets’ impact threw the boy’s body backwards for several feet. He crumpled on the ground and died.

Jay Roberts, a reporter accompanying the photographer, angered some of the American soldiers when he witnessed them fondling the breasts of a teenage Vietnamese girl as they tried to strip her. Her mother rushed over to slap and scratch the soldiers manhandling her daughter. Haeberle came along with his camera, as they were about the shoot the mother, two daughters, an old man and three children.

“I yelled, ‘Hold it’, and shot my picture,” he recalled. “As I walked away, I heard M-16s open up. From the corner of my eye I saw bodies falling, but I didn’t turn to look.”

One American soldier fired two shots at a baby on the ground just in front of him with a .45 revolver but missed each time, much to the amusement of colleagues. He then stepped over and killed the baby with a third shot.

Lt William Calley ordered his men to force a group of women and children, into a ditch. Calley then gave the order to slaughter them, and his men opened up with automatic weapons. When the shooting stopped, a bloodied two-year-old boy ran out of the ditch crying. He was heading toward the hamlet. “There’s a kid,” somebody shouted. Calley grabbed the child, threw him back in the ditch and shot him.

Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, providing cover in a helicopter, took some time to realise what was happening on the ground. Seeing a wounded woman on a roadway, he marked the spot with smoke and called for help on the ground. He watched in horror as an American soldier walked up to the wounded women and just shot her.

Seeing American troops heading in the direction of nine Vietnamese civilians who were cowering in a bunker near the drainage ditch, he landed his helicopter between the soldiers and civilians and warned off Calley, having ordered his gunners, Larry Colburn and Glen Andreotta, to fire on the soldiers if they tried to harm the civilians. He then called for another helicopter to airlift the civilians out while he provided cover as the other helicopter made two trips to ferry the nine people away.

Thompson, who had complained to his base by radio during the massacre, reported the killings to a colonel next day, but nothing happened, except that he and his crew were ostracised. They were sent out on missions without covering helicopters. A few weeks later, Andreotta was killed in action.

After getting out of the army, Ron Ridenhour, a young GI who had heard of the massacre from friends while in in Vietnam, wrote to Congressman Mo Udall and 29 other officials with details of the killings. Udall pursued the matter. The day before Calley was due to get out of the army in September 1969, he was arrested, but nothing further had happened until after Hersh broke the story in November.

Capt Ernest Medina and Lt Calley were charged along with 23 other soldiers, but the cases against 19 of those were dropped.

My friend remarked that there was actually a colonel in charge overhead in a helicopter.

Calley was accused of personally murdering 109 people, and he was convicted of killing 22 of them. He was sentenced to life in prison at hard labour.

Lt William Calley arrives for his court martial in 1971 at Fort Benning, Georgia. (Photo by Columbus Ledger-Enquirer/Columbus Ledger- Enquirer/MCT via Getty Images)

Medina was also charged with murder, but he was acquitted, along with the five others. Calley, the only one ever convicted, served just one day in Leavenworth prison, before US president Richard Nixon had him moved to an army base under house arrest, pending an appeal. His appeal was rejected but he was quickly paroled.

In the interim Col Oran Henderson, who was overhead in the helicopter during the massacre, was charged with wilful dereliction of duty for not having carried out an adequate investigation, but he was also acquitted.

Thus, nobody was ever really held responsible for the massacre.

What happened afterwards?

Henry Kissinger

Became US Secretary of State for Richard Nixon and won the Nobel Peace Prize for the Paris Accords which led to the end of the Vietnam War. Criticised for his support for a secret bombing campaign in Cambodia which gave rise to the murderous regime of the Khmer Rouge. Stepped down at the end of the Gerald Ford administration in 1977, but continued to provide advice for Presidents Reagan and George H W Bush. Now 94, he remains one of the highest paid political thinkers in the world.

Richard Nixon

Oversaw the end of the war in Vietnam, but lost any peace dividend because of his involvement in the Watergate scandal which led to his resignation ahead of impeachment in 1974. Pardoned by his successor, President Gerald Ford, and died from the after effects of a stroke in 1994 aged 81.

As president, Richard Nixon ended direct US involvement in the war in 1973.


Renamed Ho Chi Minh City after its fall in 1975, but still generally known by its old name. After a rapid depopulation caused by North Vietnamese reprisals and forced agrarian reform it has recovered and is now home to nearly nine million people, the largest city in the country


Capital of Vietnam on the banks of the Red River with a population of nearly eight millions people. Survived and recovered from wars against Japan, France and extensive bombing by the United States.

William Calley

Now aged 74 and lives in Miami. Was the only officer to be charged and was found guilty of 22 charges of murder by a court-martial. Subsequently released after 42 months of house arrest after disquiet was raised over the fairness of his trial, the availability of evidence, and the longstanding Viet Cong practice of embedding their fighters among local villages.


Suffered extensively in US bombing campaigns aimed at destroying Viet Cong supply lines and became riven by a bloody civil war and communist insurgency led by Pol Pot. In 1975 his Khmer Rouge took power, renamed the country Kampuchea, and initiated a genocide in which two to three million people, a quarter of the population, died, giving rise to the phrase The Killing Fields. Pol Pot died in 1998. Now a monarchy with a population, predominantly Buddhist, of more than 15 million.

Ryle Dwyer:

Loraine commemoration: Ryle Dwyer with Tom Ingram at the grave of Ryle’s father.

Returned to live in Ireland in Co Kerry where he became a noted historian and author and the leading academic authority on Irish neutrality and its impact on relations with the United States. He has been back to his alma mater in Denton, Texas once, for two hours in 2006.

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