Mar-29: The Tragedy of Vietnam

On this day in 1971, Army Lt. William Calley was found guilty of killing 22 people in court martial proceedings for his role in the My Lai massacre which claimed the lives of 500 South Vietnamese civilians.

Exactly two years, later the last U.S. combat troops left Vietnam.

My Lai Massacre

In 1967, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara wrote a memo to President Lyndon Johnson:

There may be a limit beyond which many Americans and much of the world will not permit the United States to go. The picture of the world’s greatest superpower killing or seriously injuring 1,000 non-combatants a week, while trying to pound a tiny, backward nation into submission on an issue whose merits are hotly disputed, is not a pretty one.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the My Lai Massacre.

my lai
Display at War Crimes Museum, Saigon, Vietnam 1993

On March 16, 1968, the US Army killed between 347 and 504 unarmed civilians in the South Vietnam  My Lai hamlet of the village of Son My.  Victims included men, women, children, and infants. Some of the women were gang-raped and their bodies mutilated.

Twenty-six soldiers were charged with criminal offenses, but only Lieutenant William Calley Jr., a platoon leader in C Company, was convicted.  The court martial jury rejected Calley’s defense that he was just following orders and convicted him of killing 22 villagers, despite  he was originally given a life sentence which was later reduced to twenty years but served only three and a half years under house arrest.

The incident prompted global outrage when it became public knowledge in November 1969.


“Peace With Honor”

By 1968, Walter Cronkite gave his famous editorial statement on the futility of the war.

For it seems now more certain than ever, that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past.

Over four years later, on January 23, 1973, President Nixon announced to the American people that

 today have concluded an agreement to end the war and bring peace with honor in Vietnam and in Southeast Asia. . . .Now that we have achieved an honorable agreement, let us be proud that America did not settle for a peace that would have betrayed our allies, that would have abandoned our prisoners of war, or that would have ended the war for us, but would have continued the war for the 50 million people of Indochina.

On this day in 1973, the last American combat troops left Vietnam.

Declassified White House tapes reveal that Nixon knew withdrawal was signing the death warrant for South Vietnam and that he had reached an oral understanding with North Vietnam that they were free to takeover the South so long as they waited a decent interval before doing so.

On April 30, 1975, Saigon fell to advancing North Vietnamese troops.  The Vietnam War had come to a close.

The Cost of Vietnam

All total:

  • Nearly 2.6 Million U.S. Soldiers were deployed to South Vietnam
  • 58,148 were killed in Vietnam
  • 303,644 were wounded
  • 75,000 were severely disabled
  • 1,971 were Missing in Action (of which over 700 remains have been since recovered)


Within Vietnam, approximately 440,357 South Vietnamese forces were killed and over 444,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong  fighters were killed, while the number of Vietnamese killed or wounded exceeds 1.5 million


So one important lesson of Vietnam is, the first casualty of an unwise and unjust war are the American troops called on to fight it. Their service should be honored.

Paul Begala

All the wrong people remember Vietnam. I think all the people who remember it should forget it, and all the people who forgot it should remember it.

Michael Herr


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