Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Into The Dark: The My Lai Massacre

The Verdict

"Don't you have a country? Don't you live in this world? What the hell are you?" from All My Sons by Arthur Miller (1946).

On March 29, 1971, after the longest court martial in American history and thirteen days of deliberations, Lt. William Calley was found guilty of the murder of at least twenty-two Vietnamese civilians. Calley, then 27, stood erect as he heard the verdict. He saluted the jury foreman, Colonel Clifford Ford, and returned to his seat at the defense table. His attorney, George Latimer, told the press: "It was a horrendous decision for the United States, the United States Army and for my client. Take my word for it, the boy is crushed."

The very next day, Lt. Calley stood in the same courtroom and read his statement to the jury prior to sentencing. He said that he was not at fault because he was only doing what he was trained to do:

"Nobody in the military system ever described them as anything other than Communism. They didn't give it a race, they didn't give it a sex, they didn't give it an age. They never let me believe it was just a philosophy in a man's mind. That was my enemy out there. And when it became between me and that enemy, I had to value the lives of my troops, and I feel that was the only crime I have committed."

Calley during court martial (AP)
Calley during court martial
(AP)

Of course, Calley never mentioned the fact that not one round of enemy fire was ever received at My Lai that day and no Viet Cong were ever seen or captured. There was no contact with the enemy whatsoever and Calley nor any member of his platoon ever attempted to make that claim. His platoon suffered not a single casualty and there was no battle, as some people believed. The public's reaction to My Lai was based on a misconception of fact that was never fully clarified. A few minutes after Calley read his statement, he received his sentence: life imprisonment at hard labor.

The sentencing, however, was not greeted with universal approval. Many Americans felt that Calley was simply a scapegoat and those in higher positions should also be held accountable. President Nixon wrote in his memoirs: "Public reaction to this announcement was emotional and sharply divided. More than 5,000 telegrams arrived at the White House, running 100 to 1 in favor of clemency." Nixon, ever the politician, decided that mercy was in order for the young lieutenant. On April 1, 1971, just two days after the verdict, Nixon ordered Calley to be placed under house arrest while his appeal worked its way through the courts. "The whole tragic episode was used by the media and the antiwar forces to chip away at our efforts to build public support for our Vietnam objectives," he wrote.

Across the nation, there were many demonstrations of support for Lt. Calley. The American Legion announced plans that it would try to raise $100,000 for his appeal. Draft board personnel in several cities resigned in groups. Several politicians spoke out in public criticizing the government's prosecution of the soldiers at My Lai. "I've had veterans tell me that if they were in Vietnam now, they would lay down their arms and come home," Congressman John Rarick told the New York Times.

But prosecutor Aubrey Daniel also did not remain silent. He wrote a highly publicized letter to President Nixon criticizing him for releasing Calley to house arrest: "How shocking it is if so many people across this nation have failed to see the moral issue...that it is unlawful for an American soldier to summarily execute unarmed and unresisting men, women and babies."

Lt William Calley leaves apartment (TIMEPIX)
Lt William Calley leaves
apartment (TIMEPIX)

For the next few years, in Ft. Benning, Georgia, William Calley, the convicted mass murderer, sat in his home under house arrest, watching television reruns and cooking his own food. Whenever he went out to town for supplies, he had to be accompanied by two M.P.s. He waited out the years in his apartment, unbowed, convinced he had done something right in the service of his country. His self-serving statements during this time carried on the myth that he and the members of his platoon were engaged in some type of enemy action. "I'm sorry anybody had to die there, sorry I ever had to kill a soldier in Vietnam...but I'll be very proud to have been in the U.S. Army and fought at My Lai," he told Time magazine in 1971.

In 1973, his sentence was reduced to ten years by Secretary of the Army Howard Callaway. After a great deal of legal wrangling, Calley was paroled on September 9, 1974. He had served 3 years under house arrest or approximately one month for every ten Vietnamese killed at My Lai. Today, William Calley lives in a self-imposed obscurity in Columbus, Georgia, working in a family-owned jewelry store. He refuses to give interviews or talk about Vietnam in public.

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