True Crime: Charges Brought Against William Calley in My Lai Massacre

The beginning of September also marks the beginning of one of the most famous trials in American history. On September 6, 1969, Lt. William L. Calley Jr. was charged with the murder of 109 South Vietnamese civilians in what is known as the My Lai Massacre.

This was an incredibly complex case as it pitted what many felt were the “rules of war” or the acceptability of wartime murder against the everyday morality of preserving and protecting the lives of innocent civilians. Vietnam was a brutal engagement and even those close to it were divided on where the line fell in this case.

The simplest retelling of the facts are that on March 16, 1968, Calley and members of his platoon attacked an area code named “Pinkville” in Southern Vietnam, which was considered a Viet Cong stronghold. 

Whether Viet Cong were present during the attack or whether it was just an attack on civilians including children is hotly contested.  The incident and trial were covered by freelance reporter Seymour Hersh, who won the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting.

Calley was accused of killing 109 himself, but a total of between 200 and 500 people were believed to have been killed during the massacre.

One of Calley’s fellow platoon members, Paul Meadlo, who was also under investigation, gave a very open interview to Hersh, clearly laying out that while they believed they were under orders to kill the villagers, they were also seeking revenge for the deaths of American soldiers. 

In that article, Meadlo’s mother made the famous statement, “I sent them a good boy and they made him a murderer.”

According to Calley’s Wikipedia page, the two military prosecutors in the trial struggled with the unwillingness of many soldiers to testify against Calley. Nevertheless, Calley was ultimately convicted. President Richard Nixon, however, intervened and he was quickly paroled and freed prompting the prosecutor, Aubrey M. Daniel III, to write a letter to Nixon condemning his interference. President Donald Trump briefly toyed with the idea of pardoning Calley, but ultimately left if alone.

The news reporting at the time reported many officers defending Calley saying that other servicemen had killed civilians and that in Vietnam, you never really knew who was Viet Cong and who was not.  On the other hand, people from Calley’s own platoon complained and reported the incident, which shows that even those on the ground found the situation questionable.

Vietnam veterans spoke of the dehumanization of the Vietnamese people that occurred over uninterrupted months of fighting in harsh, jungle conditions, and of the equally brutal murders of Americans.

In the end, the results show that there was no answer. Calley was convicted, Calley was forgiven. Calley went on to marry, write a book about the experience, become a gemologist and a realtor.  He is now 80 and presumably lives in Florida.

In 2009, according to his Wikipedia page, Calley apologized for the incident. 

“There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in Mỹ Lai. I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry.”

Learn More Here:


On This Day: Nixon Resigns

On August 8, 1974, President Richard M. Nixon announced that he would be the first president in American history to resign the presidency. He addressed the public in a televised speech from the Oval Office in which he said, “I hope that I have hastened the start of the process of healing which is so desperately needed in America.” This statement of resignation came after the president realized he would likely be impeached for his role in the Watergate scandal.  

In June 1972, five men broke into the Democratic National Committee offices at the Watergate complex and installed illegal wiretaps. These five, who included the security chief of Nixon’s reelection campaign, were arrested. Shortly after, two White House staff members were also implicated in the crime. Immediately, Americans began to speculate about the president’s involvement in the conspiracy.  

During the latter part of 1972, two Washington Post reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, released leaks from an anonymous source, Deep Throat, later revealed to be FBI deputy director, Mark Felt. Their articles accused President Nixon of knowledge of and involvement in the Watergate wiretapping and that it was a small part of a major conspiracy by the Nixon campaign to spy on and sabotage the campaigns of the democratic candidates for president. Though their source and evidence were compelling, they didn’t stop Nixon from winning the election in a landslide.  

At the beginning of 1973, Congress established a committee to investigate the 1972 presidential campaign for any signs of malfeasance. These televised hearings, much like the January 6 hearings, drew the attention of the entire country. A major break in the case came when White House legal aide, John Dean, testified that President Nixon had been aware of the Watergate cover-up. It was at this point that the prosecutor and his team uncovered many instances of political espionage by the Nixon campaign. They also became aware of recordings of conversations between Nixon and his staff that contained sensitive information. When they requested the tapes be turned over to them, Nixon offered to send summaries, but the prosecutor was not having that.  

Following this, Nixon ordered the Attorney General to fire the special prosecutor assigned to the Watergate case. The Attorney General and his deputy refused to do so, choosing to resign instead. The act, later ruled illegal, was eventually carried out. This is referred to as the Saturday Night Massacre, and it caused the public’s confidence in the president to plummet. By 1974, three articles of impeachment were adopted against the president, including hindrance of the impeachment process, abuse of presidential powers, and obstruction of justice. At the beginning of August 1974, the Watergate tapes were finally released. A few days later, Nixon announced his resignation.

Vice President Gerald Ford became president and pardoned Richard Nixon of all his crimes. Though he was pardoned, the Watergate Scandal has gone down in history. Nixon remains the only president to have resigned his office.

Learn more here:


On This Day: “Old Enough to Fight, Old Enough to Vote”

On June 30, 1971, then-President Richard Nixon issued the following statement: “Tonight, Ohio’s Legislature ratified the 26th Amendment to the Constitution. This amendment guarantees the right of 18-year-old persons to vote in state and local, as well as federal, elections. It appears that 38 states have now ratified the Amendment that will now become part of the law of the land. The ratification of this amendment has been accomplished in the shortest time of any amendment in American history” (1).

Signed just a few days later, the 26th Amendment to the United States Constitution reads: “The right of citizens of the United States who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age” (2).

The push to lower the voting age began during WWII. In 1942, President Roosevelt lowered the draft age of young men from 21 to 18 years old. Americans pointed out that it seemed only right that a young man required to serve in his country’s army should also have the right to vote. The slogan “Old Enough to Fight, Old Enough to Vote” became their cry. At the time, the proposal did not gain enough traction in Congress for passage, but when the Vietnam War came around, the idea was renewed. Congress aimed to lower the voting age as part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but after its passage, President Nixon himself suggested that this new law would only be upheld if it was passed as a constitutional amendment. The amendment was quickly drafted and ratified.

On July 5, 1971, President Nixon signed the certified amendment with three 18-year-olds signing as witnesses (2). Upon its enactment, the US gained 11 million additional voters (3).

Mirroring the sentiments of the “Old Enough to Fight, Old Enough to Vote” crowd, there is a contingent of Americans today who would like to see the voting age lowered again, this time to 16. Opponents of this proposal suggest that 16 and 17-year-olds are too young to make mature decisions regarding politics. Arguments in favor suggest that as this group is most affected by gun violence in schools, they should have a say in how that violence is addressed by lawmakers. They also point out that in countries where the voting age is at 16, that group’s turnout is much higher than among 18-21-year-olds (4). What do you think? Should the voting age in the United States be lowered to 16 years old?





Learn more here:

January 1972: Nixon Approved $5.5B to Build the Space Shuttle with Promise of Cost Savings

It was hopeful thinking, even at the time.  But on January 6, 1972, then US President, Richard Nixon, authorized $5.5B (a fortune in any era) to initiate the space shuttle program with the goal of reducing costs for space travel through partially reusable space vehicles as opposed to the disposable Apollo launchers that had been used up to that point.

In his written statement on the matter, which is still available on NASA’s website, he said, “I have decided today that the United States should proceed at once with the development of an entirely new type of space transportation system designed to help transform the space frontier of the 1970’s into familiar territory, easily accessible for human endeavor in the 1980’s and ’90’s.” 

His big pitch centered on taking the “astronomical costs out of astronautics.” 

According to a Wikipedia article on the subject, Nixon approved the space shuttle program with the idea that launches would come out to be about $188 per pound (or $558 in 2019 dollars), but actually ended up costing something like $27,000 per pound or $1.5 billion per launch. The same article goes into a lot of detail as to why the costs skyrocketed (pun intended).

In addition to being costly, the space shuttle program also had several high profile disasters including in 1986 when the Challenger shuttle burned on the launch pad while millions of Americans watched on television. I was in elementary school at the time and remember the trauma of it all.  And later in 2003, the space shuttle Columbia broke apart upon re-entry.  In both events, the entire crew of each shuttle were killed totaling 14 astronaut deaths overall.  US President, George W. Bush retired the program in January 2004. 

All of that being said, the space shuttle program was instrumental in building the International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope, and it did realize one of Nixon’s ambitions, which was to “evolutionize transportation into near space, by routinizing it.”

Additionally, the space shuttle program was more like a bit actor playing a part in the never-ending, complex political drama around how NASA is funded and what projects are green-lighted, which tends to fluctuate depending on who is in the White House.

One other interesting tidbit from Nixon’s original announcement that feels painful to read now is his nod toward using the space program to manage pollution control.  In the full statement, he lines this ambition up with several other items on his wish list. 

“We are gaining the capability to use satellites as tools in global monitoring and management of nature resources, in agricultural applications, and in pollution control,” he said.  While satellite technology has substantively increased our understanding of these issues, it has not gone as far as his sweeping statement might suggest.  

It gets even more eerie and sad when he says, “Views of the Earth from space have shown us how small and fragile our home planet truly is. We are learning the imperatives of universal brotherhood and global ecology learning to think and act as guardians of one tiny blue and green island in the trackless oceans of the Universe.”

Yeah, not so much.

Nixon’s historical legacy is challenging to say the least, and in the long expanse of time, neither the space program nor his hopes that we would use it to become better stewards of the earth are actually his biggest problems.  

To read more on this topic, here are some great resources: