Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: My Lai incident
from The Columbia Encyclopedia

(mē lī), a massacre of Vietnamese civilians by U.S. soldiers in the Vietnam War. On Mar. 16, 1968, a unit of the U.S. army's Americal division, led by Lt. William L. Calley, invaded the South Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai (more correctly, Son My), a reputed Viet Cong stronghold. In the course of combat operations, dozens of unarmed civilians, including women and children, were killed (the final army estimate for the number killed was 347). The incident remained unknown to the American public until late 1969, when a series of letters by a former soldier to government officials forced the army to take action. Several soldiers and veterans were charged with murder, a number of officers were accused of dereliction of duty for covering up the incident, and army and congressional investigations concluded that a massacre had in fact taken place. Of the many soldiers originally charged, only five were court-martialed, and one, Lt. Calley, convicted. He was found guilty (1971) of the premeditated murder of at least twenty-two Vietnamese civilians and sentenced to life imprisonment (later reduced to 10 years), but in 1974 a federal district court overturned the conviction and he was released. The My Lai incident aroused widespread controversy and contributed to growing disillusionment in the United States with the Vietnam War. The U.S. army released an official report on its investigation in 1974. In 1998 three U.S. soldiers who had saved Vietnamese civilians during the massacre were honored with the Soldier's Medal.

  • See Hammer, R. , The Court-Martial of Lt. Calley (1971);.
  • Hersh, S. M. , Mylai 4 (1970) and Cover-up (1972);.
  • Allison, W. T. , My Lai (2012);.
  • Jones, H. , My Lai (2017).
The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2018

Related Articles


Full text Article My Lai Massacre
Encyclopedia of War and American Society

The slaughter of more than 500 Vietnamese civilians by soldiers of C Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry on March 16, 1968, was one of the...

Full text Article My Lai Massacre
Encyclopedia of Military Science

My Lai remains one of the most problematic episodes in the history of the Vietnam War and in the entire course of U.S. military history. Without que

Full text Article My Lai Massacre
Asian American Leadership: A Concise Reference Guide

The My Lai Massacre was the mass killing of 300 to 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians in U.S.-allied South Vietnam by U.S. Army soldiers, in 1968. Ini

See more from Credo