Protesters beaten. Clashes outside of a political event in Chicago. It was inevitable that the demonstration that caused Donald Trump to cancel a rally inspired a flood of pieces comparing 2016 with 1968.
Back then a fiercely contested primary splintered one party and led to a chaotic convention. The opposition ran a candidate with years of experience in Washington, who had already lost one presidential election. Trump has even adopted Nixon’s “Silent Majority” slogan. Others have compared Trump to George Wallace, whose anti-establishment third-party campaign preyed on xenophobia and cultural fears in much the same way as Trump’s.
Much has changed since then, when only 14 states held primary in the Democratic race. 48 years ago March 12, incumbent president Lyndon Johnson, facing backlash over the Vietnam War, barely eked out an eight point victory over Eugene McCarthy in the first primary, New Hampshire. It wouldn’t be until the end of the month that he withdrew.
John McCain had just been transferred to solitary confinement after having been shot down over Hanoi the previous October. Donald Trump had just taken his fourth student deferment in January while studying economics at Wharton. Michael Bernhardt had just been sent to Vietnam, after dropping out of the University of Miami to volunteer and “test his courage,” assigned to Charlie Company in Quang Ngai Province.
There’s one event, however, I want to key in on that happened exactly to this date—March 16th local time—48 years ago. It’s a date that should live in infamy. A date that contributed to turning the Vietnamese even more against the U.S. and would, when it was exposed a year later, cause scandal in America. A brigade of the United States military murdered over 300 civilians in My Lai.
The military had just suffered its bloodiest month of the Vietnam War in the wake of the Tet Offensive. 543 soldiers were killed and 2,547 injured in a single week in February. Charlie Company had seen three of its own men die in a minefield on February 25. Another, Sgt. George Cox, was killed in a booby trap on March 14.
Machine gunner Greg Olsen was walking along when it happened. He observed in a letter to his father, “On their way back to the LZ, they saw a woman working in the fields. They shot and wounded her. Then, they kicked her to death and emptied their magazines into her head. It was murder; I’m ashamed of myself for not trying to do something about it.”
The next day a memorial service was held for Cox. It was one day before Charlie Company was planning to attack purported Viet Cong strongholds in My Son. According to PBS’s “American Experience” program, Colonel Oran Henderson told soldiers “the next morning they will have the opportunity to meet the enemy head on and encouraging the troops to be more aggressive.” Captain Ernest Medina gave a briefing that night, in which he “‘embellishe[d]’ … orders and add[ed] a “revenge element” in his briefing.”
The next day helicopters descended on the villages of Son My, soldiers expecting heavy resistance. After encountering little resistance, soldiers who arrived in the village began killing civilians who had been pulled from their huts. Under the direction of Lieutenant William Calley, they gathered villagers together and fired on them. “Get with it. I want them dead,” Calley reportedly told Paul Meadlo, who followed his orders and killed more than a dozen people standing in a circle. Other soldiers raped women and threw grenades into homes. Tens of civilians were pushed into a ditch. Calley gave orders, and his men complied in murdering 75 to 150. In total between 347 and 504 civilians were massacred in a single day in a group of small villages.
Not everyone at My Lai was a villain. Bernhardt refused to obey orders. Richard Pendleton, according to Joanna Bourke’s An Intimate History of Killing, only killed animals. Helicopter pilot Captain Hugh Thompson, upon seeing the atrocities, threatened to shoot at anyone who continued attacking civilians. He may have been the only hero that day. Those who stood silently by weren’t doing anything to stop it.
How could a country founded on such high-minded principles, that got involved in Vietnam on the pretense of saving the Vietnamese people from the horrors of communism commit such evil acts?
The Peers Report blamed Medina for having “planned, ordered, and supervised the execution by his company of an unlawful operation against inhabited hamlets.” He, along with all twenty four others tried except for Calley, was found not guilty. The actual content of Medina’s speech is disputed. Bernhardt, in a 1989 issue of the London Sunday Times Magazine, was quoted as saying, “He didn’t specifically say to kill every man, women [sic] and child. He stopped just short of that, but he gave just about every other indication that this is what he expected.”
What is clear is that many of the soldiers were riled up and hungry for blood. No one had to tell them to kill everyone they saw who they viewed as the enemy. Olsen, in his letter two days before, wrote, “Why in God’s name does this have to happen? They are seemingly normal guys, some are friends of mine. For a while they were like wild animals.”
Conservative Americans like to think of themselves and their country as “exceptional.” But Harvard professor of international relations Stephen M. Walt wrote in 2011, “[T]here is nothing unusual about such lofty declarations; indeed, those who make them are treading a well-worn path. Most great powers have considered themselves superior to their rivals and have believed that they were advancing some greater good when they imposed their preferences on others.”
Ho Chi Minh quoted the U.S. Declaration of Independence when declaring Vietnam’s independence from France in 1945. North Vietnamese communists went on to kill up to 922,000 people in democide between 1945 and 1956, according to R.J. Rummel, longtime professor of political science at the University of Hawaii. They attacked landlords and buried people alive.
They beat American POWs with bamboo poles, chained them to beds for days on ends, and hung them by the wrists from meat hooks in the ceiling. Donald Trump denies that soldiers who went through that abuse for years, fighting as long as they could not to give in and make propaganda statements, who refused to accept early release, are heroes to their country. Not even John McCain, who would return to Vietnam many times later and become a leader in the Senate supporting normalizing relations in 1995.
Vietnamese endured much abuse of their own at the hands of the French in that very prison. Hoa Lo, aka the “Hanoi Hilton,” was built in 1896, and housed Vietnamese dissenters, militants and terrorists in overcrowded prisons, with malnutritious rations, where 87 died between July 1920 and July 1921. You can learn all about it at the museum they have there today, but about the Americans you will only see denials and propaganda photos of Christmas celebrations.
Every country thinks of itself as uniquely good and wants to deny or downplay anything bad it does. But if we Americans really are to be exceptional in terms of our values and our political freedoms, we must also be able to criticize our own government. Jung Chang, a Chinese author who emigrated to the UK, wrote in Wild Swans, “To me, the ultimate proof of freedom in the West was that there seemed to be so many people there attacking the West and praising China [in the 1970’s].”
Exceptionalism, if it is to exist, must come from within. It doesn’t exist by our very existence. It only exists when we push for it to happen. It only exists when, like Hugh Thompson, we stand against the violent mobs trying cow us into acquiescence. It exists when, like John McCain, we overcome pain and make peace with the past.
When we don’t we can be complicit in doing terrible things, as individuals or as citizens representing our government, as Walt wrote:
If only it were true. The United States may not have been as brutal as the worst states in world history, but a dispassionate look at the historical record belies most claims about America’s moral superiority.
The United States has fought numerous wars since then — starting several of them — and its wartime conduct has hardly been a model of restraint. The 1899-1902 conquest of the Philippines killed some 200,000 to 400,000 Filipinos, most of them civilians…
Trump tells us he wants to “Make America Great Again,” but his plan calls for murdering the non-combatant family members of terrorists. He would have protesters arrested, or punched in the face, and media outlets sued for reporting negative stories about him. He would implement torture techniques “tougher than waterboarding.” “Can you imagine these people, these animals, over in the Middle East that chop off heads, sitting around talking and seeing that we’re having a hard problem with waterboarding?” he said at a debate.
And if Trump gave an order to “take out the families,” he expects soldiers to obey, even though it’s an illegal order, because, “They won’t refuse. … If I say do it, they’re going to do it.”
In Trump’s America, the My Lai Massacre wouldn’t be an “inexcusable” crime, as Nixon put it in his memoir; it would be official policy.