When investigative reporter Seymour Hersh discovered that American soldiers had butchered about 400 unarmed civilians in the village the military called My Lai on March 16, 1968, he could not sell the story to major publications like “The Washington Post” or “The New York Times” but instead had to sell the scoop to the small, left-leaning and newly formed Dispatch News Service. A story, headlined “Lieutenant Accused of Murdering 109 Civilians,” appeared on November 15, 1969 in thirty mid-sized newspapers across the country, which paid $100 each, before it was picked up by major news outlets.
Hersh informed readers that platoon leader William L. “Rusty” Calley had received orders to strike at communist guerillas supposedly hiding in My Lai and to “shoot anything that moved.” Soldiers killed unarmed elderly people, women and children, Hersh reported, and 90 percent of the company had participated in the slaughter.
“The Cleveland Plain Dealer” received official Army photos of the mass murder and ran them with a second Hercsh dispatch published November 20. On November 25, one of the whistleblowers, Paul David Meadlo, told his story on CBS News. Meadlo had not discussed My Lai with his family before giving the interview. His mother found out the details about My Lai watching him on television. “He wasn’t raised up like that,” Myrtle Meadlo said. “I raised him to be a good boy and I did everything I could. They came along and took him into the service. He fought for his country and look what they done to him. They made a murderer out of him . . .” In early December, graphic My Lai photos were published in color by “Life” magazine, featuring (as author Rick Perlstein describes them), a “boy with a stump where his leg should be; a pile of adult and infant corpses lying on a dusty road like broken toys; and woman splayed in rape position . . . ”
News of My Lai surfaced during an angry era of American politics, an age of white backlash against black protestors, of adult exasperation with the young, and of American resentment oft the world. Instead of outrage, many Americans rallied to the defense of William Calley (who faced a military trial for murder) and the other men of Charlie Company who took part in the massacre.
Historian Rick Perlstein, in his book “Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America,” notes the wide support for the massacre in the American public. ‘What do they give soldiers bullets for – to put in their pockets?” one elevator operator in Boston said. “It sounds terrible to say we ought to kill kids, but many of our boys beings killed over there are just kids, too.” A reader of the “Plain Dealer” wrote to the editor that, “Your paper is rotten and un-American.” Others insisted that the story was fake, the result of a liberal conspiracy. “The story was planted by Vietcong sympathizers and people inside the country who are trying to get us out of Vietnam sooner.”
Calley defended himself by saying he was only following orders. A military court in Fort Benning, Georgia convicted Calley and sentenced him to life imprisonment. Calley was sent to serve his sentence at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. The American Legion post in Columbus, Georgia, promised to raise $100,000 for Calley’s appeal. The group issued a statement that said, “The real murderers are the demonstrators in Washington who disrupt traffic, tear up public property, who deface the American flag. Lieut. Calley is a hero . . . we should elevate him to saint.”
Across the country cars sported bumper stickers that demanded “Free Calley” while a Nashville radio station released a record with a reading done in William Calley’s voice as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” played in the background. The record sold 200,000 copies, and some radio stations played the disc around the clock, breaking in only to ask for donations to Calley’s defense fund. The White House conducted a poll and found that 78 percent of the American public disagreed with the Calley verdict while about 51 percent wanted him completely exonerated. In spite of being advised by White House counsel John Dean that Calley’s trial was airtight legally, President Richard Nixon, saw an opportunity to ride a growing backlash against anti-war protestors and he ordered the lieutenant released from the stockade until his appeal was decided.
“And a man convicted by fellow army officers of slaughtering twenty-two civilians was released on his own recognizance to the splendiferous bachelor pad he had rented with the proceeds of his defense fund . . . ” Perlstein wrote, “complete with padded bar, groovy paintings, and a comely girlfriend, who along with a personal secretary and a mechanical letter-opener helped him answer some two-thousand fan letters a day.” Meanwhile, Calley’s sentence was repeatedly reduced by Nixon and then commuted to time served. He was released in November 1974. Calley resumed a quiet life after his brief reign as an American anti-hero.
Michael Phillips has authored the following:
White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006)
(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)
“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)
“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ” in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)
“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)
(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013).
“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).
He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.