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During the summer of 1971, in the midst of protests and demonstrations in the United States against the Vietnam War, it became public for the first time that something horrific had happened in the remote South Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai. Three years previously, in March 1968, a unit of American soldiers engaged in seemingly indiscriminate violence against unarmed civilians, killing over 500 people, including women and children. News filtered slowly through the system, but was initially suppressed, dismissed or downplayed by military authorities. By late 1969, however journalists had pursued the rumors, when New York Times reporter Seymour Hirsch published an exposť on the massacre, the story became a national outrage.
Howard Jones places the events of My Lai and its aftermath in a wider historical context. As a result of the reporting of Hirsch and others, the U.S. army conducted a special inquiry, which charged Lieutenant William Calley and nearly 30 other officers with war crimes. A court martial followed, but after four months Calley alone was found guilty of premeditated murder. He served four and a half months in prison before President Nixon pardoned him and ordered his release.
Jones' compelling narrative details the events in Vietnam, as well as the mixed public response to Calley's sentence and to his defense that he had merely been following orders. Jones shows how pivotal the My Lai massacre was in galvanizing opposition to the Vietnam War, playing a part nearly as significant as that of the Tet Offensive and the Cambodian bombing. For many, it undermined any pretense of American moral superiority, calling into question not only the conduct of the war but the justification for U.S. involvement.
Jones also reveals how the effects of My Lai were felt within the American military itself, forcing authorities to focus on failures within the chain of command and to review training methods as well as to confront the issue of civilian casualties--what, in later years, came to be known as "collateral damage."
A trenchant and sober reassessment, My Lai delves into questions raised by the massacre that have never been properly answered: questions about America's leaders in the field and in Washington; the seeming breakdown of the U.S. army in Vietnam; the cover-up and ultimate public exposure; and the trial itself, which drew comparisons to Nuremberg. Based on extensive archival research, this is the best account to date of one of the defining moments of the Vietnam War.
Howard Jones is University Research Professor Emeritus at the University of Alabama. He is the author of several books, including Mutiny on the Amistad, Death of a Generation, and The Bay of Pigs.