Ghosts of the killing fields: The My Lai massacre 50 years later

Ghosts of the killing fields: The My Lai massacre 50 years later
Women and children in My Lai, Vietnam, shortly before US soldiers shot and killed them. Pic: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

The My Lai massacre — the worst American atrocity of the Vietnam War — took place 50 years ago next month on March 16, 1968, although US citizens did not become aware of it until 20 months later when freelance journalist Seymour Hersh provided the first substantial account.

Historian Ryle Dwyer was a student in Texas in the early 1960s. In a two part series he writes, for the first time of his experiences in the American South and the link between the Kennedy assassination and the killings of 500 villagers in Quang Ngai Province.

The My Lai massacre and the whole Vietnam War had a profound influence in my interest in history.

Although born in the United States, I was reared from the age of four in Tralee, Co Kerry, were I received all my primary and secondary education.

My introductions to the study of history was during my final year of primary school in 1956-1957, at the Christian Brothers School (CBS), Tralee. The teacher was a Christian Brother, who used to denounce the 19th century Irish leader, Daniel O’Connell, for suggesting that it was not worth killing or dying for Irish independence.

That Christian Brother seemed to think that this was blasphemous, because, after all, Jesus Christ died to save mankind. Moreover, Patrick Pearse and the men of the 1916 Rebellion, had died in an effort to secure Irish independence.

“The old heart of the earth needed to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefields,” Pearse wrote of the First World War in December 1915. “Such august homage was never before offered to God as this, the homage of millions of lives gladly given for love of country.”

James Connolly complained that those were the sentiments of a “blithering idiot”. As the son of soldier killed in the Second World War, I questioned this glorification of war, and quietly wondered whether that cranky Christian Brother really understood Christianity.

I cannot remember ever covering any aspect of 20th Century Ireland in a history class in secondary school. It was suggested that the passions of the Civil War, over 30 years earlier, were still too raw to study the period in school. 

When it came to the Leaving Certificate course in 1963, the class was covering the period of St. Patrick, which I suspected had more to do with mythology than history, so I did not take history.

As my father was killed in Germany while serving in the US Army in January 1945 I was eligible for a university grant in the United States. Understanding how long it took to overcome the passions of civil war became particularly obvious when I moved to Texas in January 1964.

Ryle's father, Lt. John G. Dwyer
Ryle's father, Lt. John G. Dwyer

Passions provoked by the conflict were still apparent 99 years later at North Texas State University in Denton, almost 40 miles north of Dallas. It seemed that white Texans thought accepting civil rights was tantamount to admitting that the South had been wrong in the Civil War.

Growing up, I had never heard the term “nigger” used in a derogatory way. When people in Tralee talked about somebody “working like a nigger”, it was a compliment, suggesting that that person was working very hard.

All first-year students in the university had to live in one of the university dormitories, which had all been integrated in recent years. I remember being behind a black student in the cafeteria line one day.

“Hey, nigger,” the young man behind the counter said, “you’re not getting served here.”

“I don’t know what you’re laughing at, whitey,” he added, looking at me, “because you’re not getting served either.”

It was obviously a joke between friends. The young man speaking was just as black as the student ahead of me. He was possibly alluding to something that had happened to one of them recently.

At the university’s golf course one day, somebody behind me asked if he could join me. I was going to agree, but then I noticed he was black. I had never seen a white person playing with a black person. 

“You did not come here to start new social trends,” I thought to myself, but just as quickly realised that if I refused, it would mean that I had become racist. So, I welcomed him.

Zack Hayes introduced himself. As we were playing the second hole, I went to the right side and he went up the left.

As I passed two white men playing the first hole, they sneered, “Nigger lover!”

“Did they say something to you?” Zack asked at the green.

“They did,” I replied. There was no need to specify.

“Does it bother you?” he asked.

“No,” I replied. “What narrow-minded people think never bothers me.”

Yet, less than 20 minutes earlier, I had effectively considered what such people might think. It was an example of how easily one could become conditioned. 

I would certainly have been thoroughly ashamed of myself, if I had refused his request.

We played together several times afterwards, but we never played together without somebody trying to insult one of us. He said he was used to it all of his life, and did not let it bother him.

T. Ryle Dwyer at College in 1966
T. Ryle Dwyer at College in 1966

During my second year in Texas I joined a fraternity, which had around 40 members, mostly from various parts of the Texas. 

One was a neighbour of Lyndon Johnson, who said that anyone who knew “Big Ears”— as he usually called Johnson — knew that he was probably involved in the assassination of John F Kennedy, because he had the most to gain.

People in Texas were aware of strange events that fuelled local suspicions, such as stories of a private party in Dallas on the eve of the assassination. 

Among those who reportedly attended the function at the former home of oil magnate Clint Murchison, were vice-president Johnson, former vice president Richard Nixon, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) J Edgar Hoover, his life partner and deputy director Clyde Tolson, along with Carlos Marcello, who was the Mafia godfather of Texas and Louisiana, and Jack Ruby — the man who murdered Lee Harvey Oswald, the suspected assassin of the US president that weekend.

They were not all at the party at the same time, so it was unlikely they were all involved in hatching some plot, but could somebody have been surrounding himself with those people for future protection?

While the national media depicted Ruby as a mere nightclub owner, people in Dallas recognised him as Mafia figure, who controlled the city’s prostitution. He had worked within Al Capone’s organisation in Chicago in the 1930s.

Lee Harvey Oswald had reportedly been under surveillance of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) during a recent visit to Mexico City. He telephoned and visited the Soviet embassy, where he reportedly met the Soviet intelligence chief.

The FBI had already informed Johnson of Oswald’s activity. The CIA had been watching the embassy and was bugging its telephones. 

The moment Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald
The moment Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald

Everybody entering and leaving the embassy was photographed and all telephone calls were taped. There was, therefore, firm proof of Oswald’s visits and his calls.

During a telephone conversation with Hoover on the morning after the assassination, Johnson asked if the FBI had “established any more” about Oswald’s visit to the Soviet embassy in Mexico?

“That’s one angle that’s very confusing,” Hoover replied. “We have up here the tape and the photograph of the man who was at the Soviet embassy, using Oswald’s name. 

"That picture and the tape do not correspond to this man’s voice, nor to his appearance. In other words, it appears that there is a second person who was at the Soviet Embassy down there.”

“The case as it stands now isn’t strong enough to be able to get a conviction,” Hoover added.

Twenty-four hours later Oswald was shot dead by Jack Ruby, but the FBI convinced the Warren Commission, which was set up to investigate the assassination, that Oswald was the lone assassin and there had been no conspiracy. 

Who was the second Oswald in Mexico City and why were the tapes of his telephone conversations destroyed?

Johnson was already under a scandal cloud, because of the behaviour of two aides — Billie Sol Estes and Bobby Baker. In April 1963, Estes was convicted of fraud in Federal court and sentenced to 15 years in prison. 

That September the Senate’s Rules Committee — under the chairmanship of Delaware senator John Williams — began investigating Baker for corruption, and on October 7, 1963, Baker was compelled to resign his staff position in the Senate due to corrupt practices.

A couple of days before leaving for Texas, John F Kennedy talked with his secretary Evelyn Lincoln about the 1964 presidential election. “I was fascinated by this conversation and wrote it down verbatim in my diary,” she recalled.

“Who is your choice as a running-mate?” she asked.

He looked straight ahead, and responded without hesitating. “At this time, I am thinking about Governor Terry Sanford of North Carolina,” he said. “But it will not be Lyndon.”

That Friday morning the focus of the investigation in Washington turned to Johnson himself. Senator Williams and a member of his staff questioned defence contractor Don Reynolds, who testified that Johnson had been receiving kickbacks for his role in defence contracts. 

Reynolds stated that he saw Baker with a suitcase for Johnson, containing a kickback of $100,000 in cash for a defence contract.

Reynolds produced documentary evidence of kickbacks that he had personally provided for Johnson. When similar allegations were later made against vice-president Spiro Agnew in 1973, he was forced to resign. 

It seemed that Johnson was on the brink of political destruction on the morning of November 22, 1963.

While Reynolds was testifying, Kennedy was shot in Dallas. Johnson became president, and the allegations were covered up for years afterwards. 

In the spring of 1964, Jackie Kennedy, the president’s widow, told historian Arthur M Schlesinger in a taped interview that she believed Johnson was behind the assassination.

There were also questions about the role of the CIA, because there were indications Kennedy was prepared to pull the plug on American involvement in Vietnam. 

On October 11, 1963, he had signed an order to withdraw 1,000 of 16,732 US troops in Vietnam at the start of December.

Some in the CIA feared he was preparing to withdraw from Vietnam completely. Johnson promptly reversed Kennedy’s order to withdraw the 1,000 troops and he soon boosted the American presence with more than a half-a-million extra troops.

It is often forgotten, however, that he actually ran for president in 1964 as a peace candidate. He promised not to send American boys to do the fighting of Asian boys in Vietnam, while his Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater, was promising to bomb Vietnam into “a mud puddle”.

Looking back from the perspective of more than half-a-century, it seems that the crime of the century in the US — the assassination of John F Kennedy — was not properly investigated. 

Should anybody, therefore, be surprised that the most atrocious behaviour of American troops in Vietnam was subsequently ignored? 

And that this took place on the watch of President Lyndon Johnson, the Democrat from Texas.

New York Times reporter Seymour Hersh talks on the telephone at his New York Times Washington Bureau office. Pic: Wally McNamee/CORBIS
New York Times reporter Seymour Hersh talks on the telephone at his New York Times Washington Bureau office. Pic: Wally McNamee/CORBIS

My Lai at a glance

What was My Lai?

It was a massacre of civilians in South Vietnam who were thought to be harbouring members of the Viet Cong following the launch of the Tet Offensive by the North Vietnamese at the end of January 1968.

Who were the perpetrators?

Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade, 23rd Infantry Division.

How many died?

Estimates vary. The US Army puts the number just below 350. Vietnamese government figures calculate just over 500 men, women, children and babies in two separate incidents.

Why was the United States in Vietnam?

After the French were forced out of Indochina after a disastrous military defeat at the hands of the communist/nationalist Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 the country was partitioned on the 17th parallel. America, under President Eisenhower, promulgated the “domino theory” which stated that if one country fell to communism then neighbouring states would follow. American support for the conservative and catholic South Vietnam leadership at that time amounted principally to finances and some 900 “advisors”.

When did the Vietnam War start?

With the Cold War hardening through the building of the Berlin Wall, and the Cuban missile crisis, President John F Kennedy determined that he would “draw a line in the sand” in Vietnam. He increased the numbers of Special Forces operating in south east Asia and by November 1963, the month he was assassinated, there was a US military establishment of nearly 17,000. The trigger for war is often seen as the “Gulf of Tonkin” incident in August 1964 when a US destroyer opened fire on North Vietnamese motor torpedo boats.

How many ground troops did the US send?

Originally the United States attempted to bomb North Vietnam (and neighbouring Laos and Cambodia) into submission with an intensity that was kept secret from the US population. But it was felt that the US bases needed ground support and nearly 4,000 Marines were sent in March, 1965. By December 1965, this had increased to 200,000 soldiers. Between 1964 and 1975 more than 2.7m people served in US uniform in Vietnam.

How many fatalities were there through the conflict?

The US lost 58,000. Five were 16 years of age. The oldest was 62. Vietnam says that two million civilians fell on both sides, and that more than one million Vietcong and North Vietnamese soldiers were killed. Some quarter of a million South Vietnamese soldiers were killed. Total death toll 3.3m.

Was anyone charged with the My Lai Massacre?

Fourteen officers faced courts martial and 26 enlisted men were charged. Only one, Lt William Calley, was found guilty despite his claim that he was following orders. He was sentenced to life imprisonment for premeditated murder. President Richard Nixon controversially approved his detention under house arrest pending appeal. He eventually served 42 months under house arrest.

When did US forces leave Vietnam?

The American withdrawal began in 1971 and was accelerated. By the time of the oil crisis, caused by the 1973 Arab-Israeli conflict, the last American troops were on their way home. The official last day of US involvement was August 15, 1973. Many in the United States believe that there are 1,600 troops who were missing in action who might still be held by the Vietnamese and neighbouring countries.

What happened next?

Saigon fell to the People’s Army of Vietnam and the National Liberation Front (the Viet Cong) on April 30, 1975 to be renamed Ho Chi Minh City, in honour of the long-time symbolic leader of the North who had died in Hanoi six years earlier. It was preceded by Operation Frequent Wind, the largest helicopter evacuation in history which removed remaining US civilian and military personnel and some thousands of South Vietnamese co-workers and sympathisers.

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