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.”

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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?





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June History Hits: Unveiling the Truth

On June 13, 1971, The New York Times began publishing the Pentagon Papers, a collection of top-secret documents exposing U.S. strategy in the Vietnam War. This release sent shockwaves through the United States, forever altering the landscape of journalism, government transparency, and public trust.

The Pentagon Papers were a top-secret government study spanning from 1945 to 1967 that documented the United States’ political and military involvement in Vietnam. Commissioned by then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the study aimed to provide an internal review of the war effort. The papers revealed a stark contrast between the public narrative presented to the public and private assessments of military officials.

The New York Times and The Washington Post published excerpts of these papers after receiving them from whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, a former military analyst. The decision to release these classified documents was met with considerable controversy and legal challenges from the U.S. government. The Nixon administration sought injunctions to halt the publication, arguing that national security would be compromised. The legal battles that ensued tested the boundaries of the First Amendment. In 1971, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of The New York Times and The Washington Post upheld the fundamental principle that prior restraint on publication should only be justified under exceptional circumstances.

The release of the Pentagon Papers marked a turning point in government accountability. It exposed the discrepancies between official statements and classified information, revealing a pattern of deliberate misinformation. This ignited public demand for greater transparency in government operations, fostering a renewed skepticism toward official narratives. The papers also impacted the public’s perception of the Vietnam War. The revelations shook public trust in the government’s handling of the conflict and fueled anti-war sentiment. This provoked opposition to the war effort, ultimately shaping the course of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

The New York Times’ decision to publish the Pentagon Papers stands as a testament to the vital role of journalism in fostering an informed society and holding power to account.

Learn more about the Pentagon Papers here: