Following is the second in a series of personal reminiscences by U.S. Foreign Service personnel who served in Vietnam, primarily during the United States' heavy involvement in the war.
The series, developed by Editorial Advisory Board member Bart Moon, also features images of the war and the people involved in it, kindly provided by E. Kenneth Hoffman of Seton Hall University. Readers are invited to view Mr. Hoffman's Vietnam Portfolio in its entirety, together with commentaries, at www.shu.edu/~hoffmake.
- If you have recollections of Vietnam for American Diplomacy, let Bart Moon know by e-mail, in care of the editor.
The My Lai Massacre, 1968
The killing of hundreds of villagers at My Lai by U.S. soldiers was one ofthe most regrettable incidents of the Vietnam War. Much has been written about what happened in this hamlet in Quang Ngai Province on March 18, 1968, and about the investigation and public treatment of the incident. I was involved in the aftermath as a member of CORDS the U.S. advisory team in the province from April 1968 to December 1969.
Quang Ngai is a large province in Central Vietnam, about 100 miles south of Da Nang. Stretching from the South China Sea to deep in the mountains, the province at that time was divided into six lowland and four mountain districts. Long a center of political activity, it is also the birthplace of former North Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Van Dong. In 1968-69, the province had a population of some 600,000, of whom 300,000 were refugees in 1969, and there was a well-established Viet Cong infrastructure. In 1968, the government had real control only over the capital city and district towns. The province was the home of a North Vietnamese Army Division and one of the most effective Viet Cong military units in Vietnam - the 48th VC Battalion. The battalion's operating area was in the Son Tinh District, just north and east of the capital city in rough terrain known as the Batangan Peninsula.
On the government side, Quang Ngai was the headquarters of the 2nd Division of the regular Vietnam Army (ARVN). The Americal Division had U.S. military responsibility for Quang Ngai. The advisory team worked with the province administration in almost all areas of government. CORDS provided equipment and training for the Regional and Popular forces and advice and support tothe province administration - including food and housing materials for refugees, medical personnel and hospital supplies, police support, and education support. There was a large CORDS contingent in the capital city and district teams in the lowland areas. The advisory team worked closely with U.S. Special Forces detachments in the mountain districts. Most of the time, there were five FSOs assigned to the advisory team - a relatively large number for such a team.
Quang Ngai was hit hard in the Tet offensive, which began in late January of 1968. With the Viet Cong reaching almost to the center of the main city, everybody's nerves were still on edge in early April; nightly Viet Cong attacks against government and U.S. facilities all over the Province continued through much of 1968. In March, an Americal unit had been sent to engage the 48th Battalion. The killings in My Lai on March 18 occurred during that operation. Rumors about the killings circulated within the American Division and there were investigations, by the division itself and by Army inspectors, but nothing surfaced in public until November 1969.
After March 1968, the 2nd ARVN Division, the Americal Division and CORDS continued to try to deal with the difficult situation in the Batangan Peninsula. In late 1968, five battalions of Vietnamese and American forces carried out a "purse seine" operation, surrounding the area to trap the battalion -- this time with extensive efforts to protect civilians. As the military forces advanced, CORDS established a temporary holding center just outside Song My village. When U.S. troops advanced to a hamlet, the people were evacuated and brought via helicopter to the holding center, where they were given food, shelter and medical treatment. Vietnamese authorizes conducted interrogations of persons thought to have Viet Cong connections, but there was no use of force in carrying this out.
At the end of the operation, the villagers (including those from My Lai) were moved further to temporary hamlets near the South China Sea, some 10-15 miles away from their home villages. The plan was to put all the hamlets together in one location defended by the government to protect them from the VC and to encourage them to support the Republic of Vietnam. Schools were established, elections held and clinics set up. Later in 1969, the people moved back to their own villages. Word of the 1968 massacre never surfaced to CORDS members during those activities.
The Viet Cong did not take lightly the government advance into the Batangan Peninsula. In one incident in the summer of 1969, they made a night attack against a crude government fort defended by province forces in the midst of a driving monsoon rain. A delegation from the province and the advisory team went to the fort the following morning to give medals to the surviving defenders. The bodies of the attackers were still hanging on the barbed wire surrounding the fort, and the terribly exhausted defenders received their medals with their fallen camrades at their feet. The sight of those ragged, battered and tired young men trying to form ranks in the rain and gloom could not be forgotten: It was a true demonstration of the courage of both the regional forces and the Viet Cong. The Batangan Peninsula was important to both sides.
In mid-November, 1969, 21 months after My Lai, a U.S. Army investigator appeared at the CORDS office in Quang Ngai City with a six-inch-thick file of documents and photos taken by a photographer who accompanied the operation of the My Lai massacre. I realized instantly that something terrible had occurred. I had believed I was well-informed about happenings in the province and felt we in CORDS were helping the people of Quang Ngai deal with the human problems of the war.
I was personally shattered that I had known nothing of the killings. In retrospect several events came to mind, including two mysterious investigations of U.S. Army operations in spring 1968 near Song My village that must have been related to My Lai. In neither of these or in any other venue had there been direct questions about My Lai from any source.
So it was a complete surprise when the investigator appeared. I immediately took the file to the very able and dedicated province chief, Col. Ton That Khien. That day, there was a meeting of district chiefs at headquarters and Col. Khien immediately called for the Son Tinh district chief. From their discussion, it was clear they already knew of the incident.
At the same time, news of the massacre was breaking in the United States. The province chief, recognizing the negative impact the news would have in the United States, asked for advice on handling it. I recommended complete disclosure to the press, because it was the right thing to do. And, since the story was out, a cover-up would only lead to more problems. The province chief cooperated with the press for about two weeks until he attended a regional meeting with President Thieu, where he apparently received instructions to stop talking to the press. Our intervention might have helped bring two weeks of accurate information to the public.
The whole situation was very sad. We in the advisory team could understand what faced the soldiers. They had only been in Vietnam for a few weeks, had been through the 1968 Tet attack, already had lost friends to mines and snipers but had not had face-to-face exposure to Vietnamese peasants all of whom must have looked like Viet Cong soldiers or supporters. They knew they were going into a very dangerous area to face a strong VC military unit and had been briefed that no villagers would be in the hamlets that day, since all were expected to be at market in another village. And when the soldiers encountered the peasants, they were confused and nervous. However, this was no excuse for the killings.
A strong element of the improvement in 1969 was Americal Division work with ARVN and province officials and the advisory teams to provide temporary security in remote villages to allow the government to establish village governments, police forces and local security forces. The disclosure of My Lai was an emotional blow to the people of the division, even though almost none of participants were still in Vietnam in late 1969.
The My Lai incident had more psychological impact in the United States than it did in the province. The people had seen so much violence and lost so many friends and relatives to the war that the incident did not seem much worse than many others. Ironically, even in the Batangan Peninsula after the killings, peasants seemed to dislike the government less than they disliked the Viet Cong.
|Please watch for the next essay in the series "Remembering Vietnam" in Issue No. 4 of American Diplomacy, due June 1, 1997. And be sure to view photographer E. Kenneth Hoffman's entire Vietnam Portfolio at www.shu.edu/~hoffmake.
If you have comments about the series or an essay to contriibute, please let the editor know by e-mail (click here).
Reprinted by permission of the author from the Foreign Service Journal, Vol. 72, No. 11 (Nov. 1995), pp. 44-47; originally entitled "Viet-Nam, 1968-69".)