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Athens Draft Board Resigns over My Lai Verdict

WSB-TV reporter John Phillips and a second unnamed reporter poll men and women in Athens and Fort Benning in this news clip.  Phillips seeks to gauge the public’s response to the conviction of Lieutenant William L. Calley for his role in the Vietnam War’s My Lai Massacre. Most of the people questioned at Fort Benning, the site of Calley’s basic training, agree that Calley acted on the orders of his superiors and should not be blamed for the murders at My Lai. Others feel that Calley has received a fair trial and justice has been served. On March 30, 1971, Clarke County’s five-member Selective Service     Board—Daniel B. Amaker, William F. Condon, Roscoe Hansfort, John Neely, and George H. Pugh—resigned in response to Calley’s conviction. The Athenians in the poll overwhelmingly support their decision. The Board has decided, and Athenians agree, that they cannot draft men who might later be prosecuted and jailed just for following orders.

American involvement in the Vietnam War began in the early 1950s when, fearing the spread of communism throughout South Asia, the Truman administration provided financial support of France’s effort to reconquer Vietnam after the French lost their hold of the nation during World War I. Under Ho Chi Minh’s leadership, Vietnamese nationalists sought to expel the French to establish a sovereign nation. In 1954, the French defeat at the Battle at Dien Bien Phu culminated at the Geneva Accords which divided the country at the 17th parallel into North Vietnam and South Vietnam.

The United States began to send military personnel into the country, and in 1965, drastically increased the numbers of American soldiers deployed in Vietnam to assist the South Vietnamese in fighting the Viet Cong, the name given Ho Chi Minh’s supporters. Viet Cong sympathizers lived in villages in both North and South Vietnam and sometimes used a guise of friendliness to gain the trust of U.S. soldiers. This inability to identify the enemy led American troops, in some cases, to consider civilians, including women and children, as potential Viet Cong.

Charlie Company, First Battalion, Americal Division, consisting of young Army soldiers mostly under the age of twenty-two, entered My Lai under Calley’s command on March 16, 1968.  Their mission was to destroy Viet Cong forces supposedly camped in the area. The soldiers found that the village was comprised mostly of women, children, and elders, yet they proceeded to fire on these civilians, who put up no resistance.  More than four hundred Vietnamese died at My Lai, some after being raped by U.S. soldiers. Only one injury occurred on the American side: one soldier shot himself in the foot.

On March 29, 1971, the twenty-seven year old Calley was court-martialed and sentenced to life in prison for the deaths of twenty-two Vietnamese citizens. His defense argued that Calley acted under the orders of his superior, Captain Ernest Medina. In subsequent appeals of this decision, Calley’s original sentence dwindled from twenty years, to ten, to his parole on November 19, 1974.

The last American troops left Vietnam on April 30, 1975 marking the end of the nation’s longest war. The twenty-five year war claimed the lives of over 58,000 Americans and about two million troops and civilians in North and South Vietnam. It cost the United States over $150 billion and led President Lyndon B. Johnson to halt plans for additional Great Society programs.

The first televised war in the nation’s history, the Vietnam War affected the American public in unprecedented ways. Just as reports by WSB-TV and WALB-TV news crews brought the public confrontations of the Civil Rights Movement into the privacy of American living rooms, television exposed American viewers to horrific color images of war: body bags, tortured POWs, bombed–out villages and towns. The Vietnam lotteries further heightened anti-war sentiments in the late 1960s and early 1970s since disproportionate numbers of young soldiers from poor and minority backgrounds increasingly filled the military’s workforce.

Adopting strategies of organizing and civil disobedience from the Civil Rights Movement, and introducing new tactics of their own, college students staged mass protests against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. The National Guard’s shooting of four white Kent State University students at an anti-war demonstration became a national symbol of public sentiment against the conflict. The Reverend Dr. King engendered controversy by speaking out against the war and addressing it as a civil rights issue, thus calling attention to how the Movement reached beyond the plight of blacks and poor people in the American South to address how people of color worldwide shared histories of oppression and revolution.

Suggested Resources (click here)

Discussion Questions

1.  Examine the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.  What is its proximity to other civil rights memorials on the mall, and what do you think are meanings intended by this symbolism?  What do these spaces tell us about meanings of freedom and patriotism?

2. View the twenty University News Service photographs that document Kent State students' violent confrontation with the National Guard on May 4, 1970. Then view Spider Martin's online visual history of the Selma to Montgomery march in March 1962. What do these visual images convey about the emotions and attitudes of the activists expressing dissent and the soldiers or police officers who opposed them?

3. Read our story on Fannie Lou Hamer and Anti-War Activism on the Atlanta pages. Why do you think that activists like Dr. King and Hamer found their opposition to the war compatible with the goals of the Civil Rights Movement?  

Take it to the Streets!

During wartime, language is often used to by opposing sides to dehumanize or ridicule the enemy, and euphemisms such as “terminate” instead of “kill” are used to make the act of battle sound less horrific.  Read the Vietnam veteran Yusef Komunyakaa’s work "The One-legged Stool" from his book Dien Cau Dai (1988), and discuss how the black POW refers to his North Vietnamese captors.  Write an essay of 2-3 pages comparing the wartime language used in the 1960s and 1970s to describe the enemy Vietnamese to descriptions of blacks and other people of color during the Jim Crow era.

Writer: Christina L. Davis
Editors and Researchers: Kamille Bostick, Christina L. Davis, Mary Boyce Hicks, and Professor Barbara McCaskill
Web Site Designer: William Weems      

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