American Experience investigates the My Lai massacre an atrocity during the Vietnam War that killed more than 300 unarmed civilians.




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Episode cast overview, first billed only:
Aubrey Daniel ...
Himself - Army Prosecutor
Fred Widmer ...
Himself - Radio Operator
Lawrence La Croix ...
Himself - Squad Leader
Greg Olsen ...
Himself - Machine Gunner
Himself - CBS News Anchor (archive footage)
John Smail ...
Himself - Squad Leader
Michael Bilton ...
Himself - Writer
Kenneth Hodges ...
Himself - Squad Leader
Thomas Turner ...
Himself - Team Leader
Jerome Walsh ...
Himself - Investigator, Peers Commission
Thomas Partsch ...
Himself - Grenadier
Do Ba ...
Himself - My Lai Villager
Ha Thi Quy ...
Herself - My Lai Villager
James S. Olson ...
Himself - Historian
Jonathan Schell ...
Himself - Writer


The experiences of Charlie Company leading up to the My Lai massacre and the circumstances of the event make the tragedy seem almost inevitable but for a few heroic souls who tried to stop it. Following a detailed account of the event, American Experience examines the Army cover-up, the subsequent investigation and the defacto cover-up after the release of Lt. Calley. Soldiers involved in the massacre and survivors describe their experience and how they later dealt with their memory of the tragedy. Written by David Foss

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Release Date:

26 April 2010 (USA)  »

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Aspect Ratio:

1.33 : 1
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User Reviews

Ultimately Anti-Massacre.
28 August 2016 | by (Deming, New Mexico, USA) – See all my reviews

In 1968 a company of American infantry rounded up more than one hundred Vietnamese civilians including women and children shot them to death and left the bodies in a ditch. This episode is an attempt to understand how this could have happened, and it's not a bad attempt. It doesn't justify the act in any way but it explains how ordinary young men from all walks of life could commit mass murder. In its own way it's almost a naturalistic illustration of the "frustration aggression" hypothesis described by half a dozen psychologists at Yale in 1939. When someone is frustrated and can't eliminate or respond to the source of his frustration, he become angry and takes it out on an innocent target.

Charlie Company was a tightly knit group. When they first arrived in Vietnam they distributed candy to the children. And, naive as they were, they expected to be greeted as liberators -- "like the GIs in Paris in World War ", as one of them puts it. Instead, as time passed, they found the Vietnamese to be hostile. For one thing, some of them simply didn't like armed foreign troops entering their territory and telling them what to do. For another, American strategy in Vietnam involved demolishing whole villages and designating broad areas as "free fire zones" in which anything that moved was killed.

Charlie Company began to lose members, mostly from booby traps, mines, and hidden snipers who would shoot and disappear. Mines split soldiers in two and flung body parts around. There were no pitched battles. There was nothing to fight.

They were sent to My Lai after having been briefed. My Lai was where an entire battalion of the North Vietnamese Army was located. The village had been cleared so anybody that was encountered was Viet Cong. The intelligence was wrong. There were no NVA troops in My Lai and the village had not been cleared of innocent civilians. Their helicopters landed under fire and the company quickly made its way to My Lai. Some figures were see fleeing and were shot down, but the village itself contained nothing but ordinary Vietnamese, old men, old ladies, young people, children, babies, all of them frightened. One of the infantrymen shouted that they must be VC and began shooting them. Once the first shots rang out, the Rubicam had been crossed and the shooting became general. If someone stepped out of a hootch they were immediately shot. "There was complete carnage there that day," says one participant.

Those who weren't already dead were herded with kicks to a drainage ditch outside the village. These were mostly old men and old ladies and mothers with children. A helicopter pilot landed nearby and tried to intervene. It was no use. Lieutenant Calley ordered automatic fire on the villagers and they were all executed. A few of the soldiers refused to obey the order and walked away, knowing that Calley could have shot them. The killings stopped when helicopters landed and began evacuating the survivors.

"The cover up began immediately after the operation," says one. The officer in overall charge, Captain Medina, began reporting false figures of the number of VC killed. Medina told his men "not to answer any questions -- reporters or anybody else." Nevertheless some of the participants gave honest answers to the interrogators, but it didn't stop the military press machine that dismissed the incident as communist propaganda. Nothing had happened at My Lai. The suppression of the incident last almost two years before a reporter informed members of Congress. There was an immediate uproar in the media and among the political and military leaders that led to an investigation.

The program and the talking heads it gives us clearly condemn the murder of unarmed, unresisting civilians. It's against military regulations. But opinions are divided on who, if anyone is to blame. Some argue that it was an unlawful order and should not have been obeyed. Even if it's not technically illegal, it's hard to believe that the military would want the publicity of court martialing somebody who states "I didn't shoot them because they were unarmed civilians and there was no evidence of their involvement in any activity against our forces". Others argue that the troops did what they were trained to do and were simply following orders, which is redolent of the Nazi excuses at the Nurenberg trials.

Calley faced the longest trial in American military history and was found guilty on four counts. There were widespread protests against his conviction from both ends of the political spectrum. The left felt the guilt was collective. The right felt he was a hero who had done his duty. President Nixon intervened and Calley was released after four months in Leavenworth. There was then no point in trying any of the other participants. It's rarely brought up these days. The total number of Vietnamese who died at My Lai was 507. It seems a small matter compared to the two million Vietnamese who died in the war. At the time, the event had considerable impact and changed the focus from "what are we doing to them?" to "what are we doing to ourselves?" The shame is covert but persistent. I doubt we'll ever see a blockbuster movie with a title like "The Battle of My Lai."

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