I continue to be impressed by how many current trends in public life appear to have their roots in events of the 60s. Beginning at that time, there seems to have been a growing conviction that internal investigations are futile and can only end in coverups and failure, and that going to the press with the story is the only way to redress institutional or governmental wrongdoing.
One of the seminal events that led to this perception was the horrific and shocking My Lai massacre, and the subsequent initial investigation/coverup. I believe that some of the current tendency to go directly to the press without even attempting redress a problem through the usual channels–the checks and balances established by the Constitution (Congressional oversight, for example) or internal investigations by the military, the CIA, or the body in question–can be traced to the trauma of this event.
The massacre at My Lai was a turning point in America’s perception of itself. It represented a loss of innocence about the military, who until then had been thought incapable of the kind of atrocity that occurred there. It also made Americans more cynical towards the military command and its ability to investigate its own wrongdoings. And lastly, the press was seen in the role of heroes bent on publicizing the truth.
The facts of My Lai were sensational, and they make shocking reading today, even in our far more jaded age. I’ve written about My Lai before, here. It was an event of great complexity, and I highly recommend this must-read teaching case study on the subject, which comes as close to explaining what happened there–and why it happened–as I think anything ever could.
There is no question that My Lai was an atrocity, and the shock of learning that the American military could be guilty of such a thing was a great factor in turning people against the Vietnam War. Another terrible aspect of My Lai that led to great distrust was that the original field investigation of the events conducted by the Army was unquestionably a coverup (read the case study for the details, as well as a discussion of how the normal and recommended Army procedure for dealing with events involving possible atrocities was not followed in the case of the initial My Lai investigation).
Present at My Lai on that dreadful day were those who witnessed the massacre but did not participate. There were also some who tried to stop it from happening to the point of threatening to shoot their fellow soldiers if they did not cease the indiscriminate killing.
But such a thing couldn’t be covered up for long; too many people knew about it, and the facts were so shocking that they motivated those in the know to eventually speak out.
How did the truth finally come to light? Many of you are no doubt familiar with the fact that reporter Seymour Hersh is credited with publicizing the story, and that he received a Pulitzer Prize for his work. But it was actually a less well-known man named Ron Ridenhour who was responsible for bringing the My Lai massacre to the attention of the authorities–after the initial coverup, but before the press ever got hold of it.
Ridenhour had served in Vietnam but was not a member of the company responsible for the My Lai killings, nor was he a witness to them. Here is how Ridenhour’s knowledge and disclosure occurred (keep in mind that the My Lai massacre itself had taken place in March of 1968):
Ridenhour learned of the events at My Lai from members of Charlie Company who had been there. Before speaking with Hersh, he had appealed to Congress, the White House, and the Pentagon to investigate the matter. The military investigation resulted in Calley’s being charged with murder in September 1969 — a full two months before the Hersh story hit the streets.
Over a year after My Lai occurred and the original investigation/coverup was closed, Ridenhour composed this letter about My Lai and sent it off to the White House, the Defense Department, the State Department, and various members of Congress. It is credited with motivating the Pentagon to begin a new official investigation of My Lai about a month after the letter’s receipt.
It is significant to me that Ridenhour did not initially go to the press (nowadays, I’m almost sure that would be where he’d go first). In his letter, he gives his reason for approaching the matter the way he did initially [emphasis mine]:
Exactly what did, in fact, occur in the village of “Pinkville” [My Lai] in March, 1968 I do not know for certain, but I am convinced that it was something very black indeed. I remain irrevocably persuaded that if you and I do truly believe in the principles, of justice and the equality of every man, however humble, before the law, that form the very backbone that this country is founded on, then we must press forward a widespread and public investigation of this matter with all our combined efforts. I think that it was Winston Churchill who once said “A country without a conscience is a country without a soul, and a country without a soul is a country that cannot survive.” I feel that I must take some positive action on this matter. I hope that you will launch an investigation immediately and keep me informed of your progress. If you cannot, then I don’t know what other course of action to take.
I have considered sending this to newspapers, magazines and broadcasting companies, but I somehow feel that investigation and action by the Congress of the United States is the appropriate procedure, and as a conscientious citizen I have no desire to further besmirch the image of the American serviceman in the eyes of the world. I feel that this action, while probably it would promote attention, would not bring about the constructive actions that the direct actions of the Congress of the United States would.
So, at first, Ridenhour was very sensitive to the damage that going immediately to the press could cause to the nation and to the military. Instead, he went to the proper investigative authorities charged with oversight, rather than seeking to sensationalize the issue by widespread press coverage.
But later on he apparently changed his mind, and did go to the press. Why?
From a reading of this article about Ridenhour by leftist journalist Alexander Cockburn, which appeared in the Nation in 1988, I’ve pieced together the following story:
Ridenhour had been initially shocked and traumatized by hearing about the My Lai massacre. and felt he needed to do something about it because of the early coverup. He went through a period in which he agonized over whom to tell, which he resolved by writing the letter previously quoted and sending it to the proper authorities.
This is how Ridenhour (who later became an investigative reporter, by the way) described what happened after he wrote the letter and sent copies off:
“I was in Arizona, waiting to go to school and working in a popsicle factory,” Ridenhour said. “They came and interviewed me, and then some of the people I mentioned in the letter-maybe five other soldiers-gave them more names. It sort of bumped and grinded along from late April to September, when they charged Calley.
So far so good. But the news of Calley’s arrest only agitated Ridenhour:
I was convinced there was a cover-up going on, that these guys were not sincere in pursuing the business. They stopped accepting my calls. Then they called me and said they had arrested Calley. I waited to see what would happen, and then, when no one else was arrested, I knew what they were going to do. They were going to flush Calley, claim that this was the act of a wild man and then let it go. That’s when I started trying to get in touch with the press.”
It’s clear that Ridenhour had been outraged at the initial coverup, and feared another. It’s also clear that, by this time, he had a definite agenda: he had decided that the problem was not Calley, but rather a systemic military policy set by the higher-ups, and he was determined that his version of who bore the true responsibility for the massacre was going to be the one heard.
Then Hersh came on the scene:
[Ridenhour] talked to a man from The Arizona Republic. Nothing got published. The Army had put out a brief statement-two paragraphs long-saying that it had charged a lieutenant, Calley, with the murder of an unknown number of civilians. The Associated Press carried the story, but no one picked it up. As Ridenhour tells it, a general who had worked on the Calley investigation became indiscreet at a cocktail party in Washington, let drop details of My Lai and the Calley arrest to a relative of Seymour Hersh, who duly passed on the news. Hersh found the brief item mentioning Calley’s arrest and interviewed Calley, who was being held at Fort Benning, Georgia. (Hersh says he had already been working on the story after a tip-off from a public service lawyer.)
Hersh’s first story prompted The Arizona Republic to print its article, which Hersh, in turn, saw. He flew out to talk to Ridenhour, who gave him the names and addresses of the people who had been at My Lai. Hersh asked Ridenhour to hold the story from anyone else for three days and went about his business. “I was glad to give him the three days,” Ridenhour said. “He was the first person to respond. He went off and started finding those other kids, and they told him those horrible stories.”
The rest, of course, is history.