For decades, it has been generally accepted that
the My Lai massacre of as many as 400 Vietnamese civilians by U.S. Army troops
on Mar. 16, 1968 was a violation of official policy directives on the treatment
of civilians in South Vietnam.
That was the conclusion reached in the most definitive official account of
why My Lai happened the final report by Gen. William Peers, who investigated
the question of responsibility for the massacre in late 1969 and early 1970
for the Department of the Army and the Army Chief of Staff.
Documentary evidence from U.S. army archives shows, however, that the Peers
report misrepresented a key directive from the top commander in Vietnam, Gen.
William C. Westmoreland, describing it as calling for a blanket policy of humane
treatment of civilians in villages controlled by the Communist movement.
The directive in question, a copy of which has been obtained by IPS, makes
it clear that the policy of humane treatment did not extend to civilians in
areas which had been under long-term Communist rule, as was the case with My
Lai. That revelation would have placed the responsibility for the orders on
the My Lai operation squarely on Westmorelands shoulders.
The Peers report found that the troops who entered My Lai and three other hamlets
of the village of Son My had been led to believe that everyone in the village
should be killed. Testimony before the Peers inquiry also showed that the platoon
leaders involved in the operation had been given that same message by two company
The report concluded that the Task Force commander responsible for the operation,
Col. Frank Barker, had failed to "make clear any distinctions between combatants
and noncombatants in their orders and instructions." The result, it stated,
was that he had "conveyed an understanding that only the enemy remained"
in My Lai.
The report asserted, however, that there was no higher command responsibility
for what happened in My Lai. It concluded that the policy guidance from Gen.
William Westmoreland, the commander of all U.S. forces in Vietnam, was "consistent
in adhering to the humane standard of protecting the civilians within the combat
The most important document cited by the Peers report in support of that conclusion
was Directive 525-3 from the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), called
"Combat Operations: Minimizing Noncombatant Battle Casualties."
The Peers report said that one of the "significant points" of the
directive, first issued on September 7, 1965 and reissued in slightly revised
form on Oct. 14, 1966, was that "Specified strike zones should be configured
to exclude populated areas."
"Specified strike zones" was the term that replaced the original
term "free fire zones" created in 1965 to refer to zones where air
strikes and artillery fire could be used freely with the approval of the province
chief approval which was routinely given to U.S. forces.
That description of a key point in the directive, which avoided direct quotation
from the document, made it appear that the noncombatant population was to be
protected from indiscriminate U.S. firepower in all Viet Cong hamlets. The report
stated without any qualification that "specified strike zones" were
"usually free of any known populace."
But the actual text of Directive 525-3, a copy of which was obtained from the
U.S. Army Military History Institute in Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, makes
it clear that the intention of Westmoreland and the U.S. military command in
regard to hamlets like My Lai was exactly the opposite.
The five-page directive was explicit about its concern with minimizing such
casualties in contested areas, where the population had not been under long-term
Communist influence. As the directive explained, "The use of unnecessary
force leading to noncombatant battle casualties in areas temporarily controlled
by the VC [Viet Cong] will embitter the population, drive them into the arms
of the VC, and make the long-range pacification more difficult and more costly."
But the directive made it clear that this motivation for humane treatment of
civilians did not apply to those who had been under long-term Communist rule.
A key point in the directive said, "Specified strike zones should be configured
to exclude populated areas, except those in accepted VC bases."
The term "accepted VC bases" referred to large parts of South Vietnam,
including Son My village and most of Quang Ngai province, where the Viet Minh
movement had mobilized the population to fight against the French and where
the Communist movement had strong organizations throughout the Diem regime and
in the early years of the U.S. war in Vietnam.
The directive thus made it clear the U.S. military command's policy was to
consider the civilian population in long-term Communist base areas as the enemy
which could be subjected to the same treatment as Communist military personnel.
The Peers report description which avoided quoting directly from the
document effectively covered up the actual intention of the command's
policy toward noncombatants in places like My Lai.
Directive 525-3 is not the only piece of evidence pointing to a military command
policy of treating noncombatants in Viet Cong base areas as subject to indiscriminate
violence. In his own memoirs published in 1976, General Westmoreland himself
wrote that, once the "free fire zones" were established, "anybody
who remained had to be considered an enemy combatant," and operations in
those areas "could be conducted without fear of civilian casualties."
Westmoreland was even more explicit in a visit to a unit of the 101st Airborne
Division called the Tiger Force in Quang Ngai province in 1967. As recounted
by members of the Tiger Force who were present, and reported by Pulitzer Prize-winning
Toledo Blade journalists Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss, Westmoreland
told them, "[I]f there are people who are out there and not in the
camps they're pink as far as we're concerned. They're Communist sympathizers.
They were not supposed to be there."
That message gave the Tiger Force officers the idea that they were authorized
to kill anyone who chose to remain in Viet Cong base areas. Sallah and Weiss
found that Tiger Force had carried out no fewer than 19 killing sprees against
civilians in "specified strike zones." The unit commanders justified
the wanton murder of civilians to Army investigators by explaining that the
creation of a free fire zone gave U.S. troops the right to "kill anything
The Peers report recommended disciplinary action against 30 Army officers,
including two generals and four colonels. But when it came to his treatment
of Westmorelands policy directives, Gen. Peers had a strong incentive
to absolve him of any responsibility for My Lai.
James K. Walsh, Jr., who was Special Counsel to the Peers investigation, recalled
in an interview with IPS that Peers had hoped to become commander of the 8th
Army in South Korea after his service in Vietnam.
That meant that he had to have the support of the Gen. Westmoreland, who had
become the Army Chief of Staff in 1968 and thus was in a position to determine
whether he would get the choice assignment he wanted.
Unfortunately for Peers, Westmoreland was replaced as Chief of Staff by Creighton
B. Abrams in June 1972, and Abrams was openly hostile to the whole Peers investigation,
according to Walsh. Peers never got the 8th Army command and chose early retirement.
Gareth Porter is an historian and national security policy analyst. The
paperback edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of
Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.