Everybody welcomes dancers, history is today, the 16th of March, nineteen sixty eight, the My Lai massacre occurred in South Vietnam. U.S. troops kills between 250 and 500 unarmed people during a counterinsurgency operation. The victims include men, women, children and babies. It was a complete breakdown in order. And is widely regarded as the most shocking war crime perpetrated by U.S. troops in the whole of the Vietnam War. What made those men snap and commit those terrible crimes on this day in nineteen sixty eight?
Well, I talked to Eric Villainies, a historian of the US Army Center of Military History based at Fort McNair in D.C. And as you'll hear, it gives a fantastic summary of what happened and why he thinks it happened. As I mentioned many times, this podcast before, I joy discussions like this and learning about the changes that take place on the battlefields and in military planning departments to try and prevent things like this happening. And he's very interesting about its consequences.
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In the meantime, everybody here is Eric Vila's talking about the My Lai massacre.
All right, thanks so much for coming on the podcast. Thank you for having me. So let's start with the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. End of January, turbulent year, 1968. That's the critical background to this event, right? It is. And the My Lai massacre really in a lot of ways comes out of those chaotic, turbulent, confusing days and months just before and during the Tet Offensive, the U.S. Army in January 68, they think they got the better of the Vietnamese or the Viet Cong is suffering.
What is that outlook in January 68? Yeah, OK. So if we're looking at it, say. Middle of January, you know, before the fighting breaks out, before the Tet Offensive. There is cautious optimism that the trends are looking up for the allies. There's nobody at Macfie headquarters, not General Westmoreland or anyone else, who has any illusion that this isn't going to continue the war for years and have a lot of casualties and there's no guaranteed outcome.
But over the last year or so, they have seen a lot of encouraging signs in the various programs. And so the trend lines were definitely moving in the right direction. And this is actually one of the reasons why the Vietcong and North Vietnamese decide to launch the Tet Offensive is they were beginning to lose some ground. They were beginning to lose control of some areas in South Vietnam. And they wanted to upend everything and they absolutely certainly did. This part of the country we're talking about is Gwangi Province.
This is of a northern part of South Vietnam, and it's in a zone called iCore as a South Vietnamese military zone. But iCore was one of the most dangerous places to be in the country. Lots and lots of fighting. This particular area where My Lai was located is this kind of peninsula and a bit under communist control since nineteen forty five. I mean, that's one thing to keep in mind. The Communists were always really in control of these hamlets and villages.
And so when the Tet Offensive happens and this is thirty one January sixty eight, so the whole country explodes in fighting. More than three hundred South Vietnamese cities come under attack. Ninety thousand Vietcong, the North Vietnamese soldiers invade Saigon way and a lot of other places. So it is absolute chaos. Now, from a military point of view, the allies get the upper hand pretty quickly. And from a accounting point of view, the communists lose incredible casualties, up to 40 thousand killed in a few weeks, and they're driven out of most of the cities quickly except for way, which, of course, takes about a month.
But the thing that a lot of people don't maybe know about this is one of the biggest impacts of the Tet Offensive, is that the security in the countryside takes a huge hit because when the fighting happens, a lot of those South Vietnamese units which had been out there defending villages and hamlets, they come back to the towns, they come back to the cities. And so there's a sort of security vacuum in many places. And so this is kind of setting up the context or in the operations following Tet.
The Americans want to get the momentum back. They want to get the South Vietnamese forces back in the countryside as quickly as possible, working in pacification. And so there's a real energy and pressure on US commanders to make things happen. And that's sort of the setup for this particular operation. It was essentially an attempt to get control of areas where all the allied troops had basically moved out. And so this particular area, this product, Kingi Province, had been occupied by South Korean Marines, but they had recently moved.
So that's like on top of everything else, the troops that used to been there, they weren't there anymore. So from the American point of view, there was an opportunity, let's put it that way, opportunity to get in there, reassert control. And I think that's part of the thinking that led to this tragedy, this catastrophe, this desire to get back in. Come on, let's hurt the Viet Cong when they're down. Let's really put the pain on them.
And so I think that was part of the mentality going. And part of the reason these commanders and soldiers were so amped up is because they were kind of being coached to come on, let's do the knockout blow. Let's get into the weeds on counterinsurgency. Like what is a knockout blow like? Is it searching for weapons caches? It is intelligence led assassination. Is it village to village questioning? Who's Viet Cong around here? Like, what does that operation look like?
Right. It's something, of course, the army and well, militaries in general are still arguing about. But one thing I think the point out here is that Vietnam was a complex war that was operating on numerous levels. One level, there were conventional big unit battles between regular forces all the way down to the sort of guerrilla activities where a farmer decides to pick up old Springfield at night and take a few pot shots at the Americans and everything in between this area.
What we're talking about is this is a good example of the problems of pacification. You had a number of hamlets and villages, again, which were essentially under Vietcong control. The South Vietnamese government officials only showed up during the daytime and they didn't sleep. There was no security. So how do you get control of those people? Well, it's a combination of things. Part of it is you do have to figure out who's the bad guys, who are the good guys?
Do you need to develop information? That's where the actually the Phoenix program comes in. It was not a CIA assassination program. Like some people say. It was basically an effort to build a national database of the people in South Vietnam and then determine, are they a secret agent or are they simply criminal? Are the innocent civilian to do this, you need to, of course, question people, get information. And where the Americans come in is they would use Ordon operations.
So during an operation, the Americans would come in and create a perimeter around whatever village or hamlet that needs to be searched. Right. And find out who are the bad guys. And this was going on a lot during his time in the war. So you would have, for example, helicopters flying overhead. You would have Navy vessels off the coast and you would have a number of units which would land by helicopter, surround a certain area and then move through it.
Now, normally it was the South Vietnamese would be doing the question asking partly because the language. Right. But it's also their country. This is part of the reason why this military operation was unusual. And it was unusual in a lot of ways. One of the reasons is in this, what was supposed to be cordoned search operation, there were no South Vietnamese officials there to do any of the questioning, all that sort of thing that might happen.
And so when the Americans went in there, they had no way of knowing bad guy from good guy. Now, they've been told there was a Vietcong battalion in the area, the forty eighth local force battalion. And a local force battalion basically think of it as their full time soldiers, but they work for a district committee, so they're kind of like in the United States, if you think of a county. They'd be a county military force, a main force, and it would be like a state military unit.
This is a unit that operated fairly locally. They wear black pajamas and stuff, but they're recognizable soldiers. I mean, ammo, belts, hats, they don't look like just farmers. So the Americans knew that there was a unit like this in the area. So when they land or is the obvious thing to do is look for people holding weapons. Well, there really were none because the battalion wasn't there. It moved around a lot. And after the Tet Offensive, it actually only had about one hundred guys left because it had taken such heavy casualties.
So it was actually broken up into like 10, 15 people over like 50 kilometer radius. There was no unit to be found. They were all hiding. So when the Americans go in, in normal procedure, you round everyone up usually have like a medical clinic, you know, vaccinations and you fix teeth and you play music and you entertain the folks. You don't want to make an unpleasant experience. And then you have self-heating these officials go by and get information and check ID cards and that kind of thing.
None of that happened. The Americans go in there amped up. They're told there's nobody friendly in the area. Accounts differ, but some of them at least say that they were told that they had the authority to destroy anything of military value to the Vietcong because these folks were living in this area. They were supporting the Viet Cong. They were giving them rice act information. But you can't just go around burning houses, killing livestock, and you certainly can't kill civilians.
And so when the Americans went in, they were not supervised. And so this is the problem. If you talk counterinsurgency, this is not the way to do it. This is a heavy hand on steroids is part of the reason for that. They just been involved in this brutal, surprising weird's Tet Offensive fighting when even supposedly safe areas were insecure or if there was fighting in the ground. The U.S. embassy in Saigon and everyone knows from the extraordinary pictures, don't mccullom that way.
The U.S. Marines involved in fighting this was intense warfare with these soldiers. These individuals had they experienced that over the previous few months. That's one of the sort of surprising aspects of this. No, very few of them had ever been in combat. So this is a unit from the 20 30 Infantry Division or the Americal, as it was now is it was formed in the South Pacific in World War Two. So it's usually called the Americal, even though it is twenty third division.
It was an odd unit because it was actually formed in Vietnam. It was cobbled together from other units and assembled in country. It had a predecessor where they took existing units, but by this time they had three infantry brigades, 11th one ninety six and then one nine eight that were part of this division. But it had never traditionally worked together. And in fact, these brigades were spread out over a large area in the force that that went into My Lai.
It was one company from each of the battalions in the 11th Infantry Brigade. So this is a cobbled together force from a cobbled together division, also operating a place it had never operated before. This is not their normal area. This is where the South Korean Marines used to be and the Americans get permission to go in here. So on top of all those other things, most soldiers had not actually been in combat. Now they're reading the newspapers. They're watching the TV.
I mean, they know the country is wracked by fighting, but their own experience has mostly been booby traps and sniper fire. They'd taken some casualties from enemy mines and things like that. And that certainly wore on their mental attitude. If you've ever been in combat before. And actually I think that is a problem is if you're all amped up and you're told that this place is full of bad guys and you've never been in the same combat before, I think the opportunities for discipline problems magnified.
He was given Snow's history, we're talking about the My Lai massacre, which occurred on this day 16th March in 1968.
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Tell me about those problems. What happens when those guys go into this area and come into contact with Vietnamese civilians? So when they actually conduct this operation, which again, is unusual because it was all done verbally, they normally these operations, there's this whole staffing process and you have detailed records of the artillery. What are you going to do with the infantry you're going to do? They just did it verbally, which is part of the problem is we don't have those records.
So what happened is they basically landed several infantry companies in this general area with helicopters and it's called Sign Me Village, because it's a larger area that encompasses a number of smaller communities called Hamleys. We refer to it as My Lai, but they were, in fact, six Mylai hamlets, the one we're talking about. Where most of this happened was My Lai for. And the one company that we're really focusing on is a company from 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry.
That land is Mylie and then they sweep through this community. And as this is happening, there's other companies going in operations, other places, but this one particular company kind of breaks into platoons, some of those platoons, particularly like the one commanded by Lieutenant Calley. Just start murdering people, they're rounding people up, and these are old men, women, children and you no military age males and usually they seem to be a lot of shouting and they, hey, you know, where the weapons, where the bad guys.
But at a certain point, as they're rounding them up, in some cases, line them up by the side of the road and we don't know exactly who fired first or who ordered it. And there's different accounts. But basically some of these US soldiers, some of these squads just are gunning down these civilians in other cases. And this was not widely reported at the time. They sexually assaulted some of the women, some really, really, really horrible things were going on.
And so depending on where you were in this hamlet, either things look pretty normal or if you happen to be a hundred meters away. It was a horror show, so it just depended on these sections of platoons, but there end up killing dozens and dozens and dozens of people and the company commander is radioing back, but he's not saying that there's any problems. He's just saying we're counting light resistance. Things are going fine. I think the first person really to know something was wrong was it was a helicopter flying overhead observation helicopter, and the scout helicopter flew and lower.
And Hugh Thompson looked down and sees these bodies, Vietnamese bodies laying in a ditch and American soldiers are buying the looks and his two crewmen look out and then they see firing in some of these civilians following what they can't believe what he's seeing. So he actually lands his helicopter, gets out, pulls us forty five and aims it at the Americans there and says the next man who shoots a civilian is going to get a forty five to the temple. Now he just could not believe it.
And so he actually does where he lands. I mean he stops killing there, but he's got to get back in his helicopter and continue the mission. So he reports back to his superior almost immediately what he's seen. He's like something terrible's going on. And so that was really the first indication. And keep in mind here just how fragmented the command and control system is. You, Thompson's superior is the battalion commander of the aviation company, the helicopter company who is attached to the 11th Brigade, but not really in their chain of command.
So not like you. Thompson can get the division commander on the phone. He just has to tell whoever his boss is. And so when the division that General Koster and Colonel Henderson, the brigade commander, do a little investigation the next day, they conclude, oh, now a few civilians may have been killed by stray artillery rounds, but there was nothing really unusual. Of course, the truth is that up to four hundred civilians had been murdered this day in another area.
But it was absolutely horrifying experience. And some of the American soldiers who were in that company refused to take part. They just walked away. Some of them try to get their fellow soldiers to stop. Others took part reluctantly because they thought that was their orders. And a few of them seem to be really enthusiastic about it. So it ran the gamut, but the fact is it happened and it was barbaric, why did it happen here on this day and was it unusual and it was unusual?
Why did it happen? It is unusual. Some people are going to say, hey, you're an army historian, you're going to tow the company line. We army historians actually have the same standards of objective professionalism that any tenured academic does. The Army does not tell us what to write. We actually have a supervisory committee who makes sure that we have are independent. So I call it like I see it. Why this why here, why now?
Again, I think part of it is the fragmented command and control system, when you have a cobbled together task force that is operating in a place it's never been before. Offering over a pretty wide area, these companies were scattered in a lot of locations. And this is, again, an operation that was planned hastily. So all those things are kind of the setup. But there's still that question of if there are other operations like this in the war and it didn't happen.
I mean, this almost never happened on this scale with this ferocity. A lot of people want to point the finger at Cowley himself. And certainly he deserves all the blame that's coming to him. But he wasn't the only one and I think I don't want to psychoanalyze, but I think that when you create the conditions. Or chaos, you're likely to get them, and so this whole pep talk before they went into the operation, the officers like, all right, we're going to get in there, we're going to kick some ass and this is on the ropes and we're going to keep them down on the mat and look sharp.
And most these guys never been in combat. So there are a little apprehensive in here. They get this pep talk. We're going to go in and also, yeah, you know, we're going to shine because these companies and Task Force Barker, we're the best companies out of each of the battalions in 11th Brigade. I mean, these are not the cast off rejects. This was supposed to be a marquee operation, but they're pumped up and going in the area and I think in some of these locations with some of these groups.
As soon as the troops realized that they were being fired at, it was a firefight. But they have all this anxiety and rage, in some cases probably outright racism, right? And you've got these people who, you know, are supporting the Viet Cong. They know that they may not carry weapons, but they know that they are. And I think at some point someone pulls the trigger. And if you take a group mentality, it's easy to kind of lose your identity.
If you're part of a group and if other people are doing it, then you do it too. And I think that was the fateful moment. You had some individuals who I think just didn't have the self-control and the leadership in place. Because it was a long war and this is a pretty unusual situation. I just think that it was just badly planned. And once they got down there, these guys wanted to, I think, just wanted payback.
I think they just wanted like for the friend that had gotten his foot blown off by a mine or concerned, hey, if we don't throw this out, then the BCO maybe come back and kill me next month. It's hard to explain because it happens so infrequently and this is something the army is still wrestling with, in fact, our center held a discussion forum in twenty eighteen. We did a public one and then we did one at the Pentagon.
And this was our officers idea. We said we want to do something on Mylai. Because it is so awful, but it's unusual. What can we learn from it, right, that we're still asking those questions? And ultimately, what is the evil that resides in men's heart? I don't know. I honestly don't know. But it was not a commonplace event. And I will say this after Neily, the story doesn't come out for about a year.
There's rumors and stuff. But it wasn't until October sixty nine when Seymour Hersh actually breaks the story. The public learns about this and there's an actual reckoning. But after that, floodgates are open and in the army now the Army judge advocate general, their whole branch is shaped by My Lai, though, in the army. Now, every commander has a JAG as a legal person. By them, though, before they made these decisions, before they execute operations, before they pull the trigger, they check with the JAG, they're like, is this right?
I mean, I observed this in Camp Ashraf in Kuwait 2014. Three star general is looking at is a monitor. And there's a Predator drone up there and there's a single ISIS fighter theory somewhere. And that general had to look the JAG, the last thing you did said, is this a righteous act? The judge said, yeah, you cleared all the things you said, execute bomblet. That's the difference that it's made after me. The Army has put these Jags at all echelons because they realize they need the supervision.
So as I've already said, My Lai was a tragedy, it was a crime, but it was also a strategic event in modern US military history. You've said it's had on the US Army, but what effect did it have on the US public opinion relations Kinami and the public politicians and eventually public support for the war? Right. Rumors of this were circulating within division for months and months afterward, but it hadn't risen to public view. And it's interesting, I've actually read some accounts.
They were a number of South Vietnamese officials who said, no, no, that's the propaganda. They are actively trying to shoot down the claims that this had happened, but when the story finally breaks, agonises October sixty nine. This is five months after President Nixon has announced atomisation. He announced the United States is going to withdraw from the Vietnam War. When Seymour Hersh breaks the story in October, the first US units have already come back. Now it's a small number, but the United States was already headed down the road of a gradual withdrawal from Vietnam.
So in terms of public opinion, absolutely created outrage. It didn't accelerate the pace of U.S. withdrawal. I think the main thing it did was it further enraged people that the administration in previous administrations had been lying. I mean, you talk about this credibility gap with President Johnson. Well, here is something happened under President Johnson administration, not Nixon. But the blame goes all around. And so I think it doesn't have an effect on accelerating withdraw the United States.
But it has, of course, a long term impact because it really flies in the face of American society's view of the army in itself. Right. We're not like that. You know, the United States Army has always been very proud that it strives for a higher standard. We don't murder and slaughter people like some other armies. So I think that was a hard thing. That was a hard thing. And it's still a hard thing to kind of accept.
Unfortunately, it probably had the most negative effect on veterans themselves because after it came out, there were certain people, United States antiwar protesters conflated Mylai to the war. And so when you hear these stories of baby killer growing blood in veterans that are coming home, showing them My Lai contribute a lot to that, the idea that people who had not been in the war. Knowing the story, they look at these people differently and the soldiers coming home now, these soldiers may have not been in the unit in that area at that time.
Does it matter how this would work? As a citizen, you're like, holy cow, something that terrible could happen. What must these soldiers have seen and done? And so I think that was probably the most negative impact, is the public tended to kind of blame the soldiers, just all soldiers. And I think it made the reception coming home that much harder. It's a remarkable story. And thank you so much for coming on and telling me all about it.
How can people get hold of your book? So it is available to form free. If you go to our website, which is history that Ahmed Mail. I work for the United States Army Center of Military History, and the name of my book is staying the course of this type in Eric Villard Staying the Course You'll Find a link is a free PDF download Fixator and 80 pages plus. So it's a big one. Also could order it from Government Printing Office if you want it.
This would copy. Go to the website and you can download it as a PDF. You can also find video of the Neily discussion that we had in Washington, D.C., where I'm on the panel and we also had several JAG historians. It was a really great discussion. So that's another thing to get more information about this, we could never forget, never forget. Eric, that was so fascinating. I hope you come back on the Pulitzer. Let's talk about some of military history.
Absolutely a time. Thank you. Thanks, Mom.
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