Voices from the My Lai Massacre
Author: Joseph Jelen
School: Northwood High School
Grade Level: AP (9-12)
Time Estimated: 1 day (80 minute period)
In this lesson students will evaluate public reaction to the My Lai massacre and extend that understanding to better understanding public perception of the Vietnam conflict. Most textbooks devote a paragraph or two to the events surrounding the My Lai massacre, in order to reach a more sophisticated understanding, this “Opening Up the Textbook” lesson seeks to articulate the silences of those left out of the textbook account. Students will first be given their textbook account to decide who might deserve some mention in this account. Next, students will be given several “silenced” individuals or groups a chance to “speak” to them through primary sources. By the end of the lesson students should be prepared to rewrite their history text by including whoever they feel deserves a voice in this narrative.
To the policymakers subscribing to the notion of containing Communism, the objective in Vietnam seemed clear enough: contain Communism to North Vietnam. However, as the United States became more deeply involved in the conflict in Vietnam, it became less clear what the objective was and who the enemy was. At home, the conflict in Vietnam ultimately left the United States polarized, pained, and unsure of itself. Many protested involvement in the conflict while others maintained its necessity. Events in Vietnam seemed to have a way of jarring the people of the United States in ways not seen in previous wars as television beamed nightly images from the confusing battlefield which was anything but what both the public and military were prepared for. Then, in 1968 Americans received a jolt as they had heard rumblings of a massacre at My Lai, and were shocked to find photographic evidence of the massacre in their favorite LIFE magazine staring at them in bold Technicolor. Americans were left unsure of what to make of this execution of men, women, and children. Had a young Lieutenant lost it? Had his commanders given him orders to kill these villagers? Or was this part of a broader policy that even policymakers at the top of the chain of command knew was an unfortunate cost of war to counter the insurgency? Questions swirled around the incident ay My Lai, and the trials of Lt. Calley and others brought little relief to many Americans worried about a country that had lost its way. What is left in the tangled web that is the My Lai massacre are the voices of those who were there and the voices of those who reacted to the event in the United States.
This lesson enriches MCPS lesson sequence 184.108.40.206 (“The Home Front: A Nation Divided”)
Students will be able to analyze and draw conclusions from primary source My Lai documents to rewrite their history textbook to include those conclusions.
- Textbook Selection on My Lai
- Voices from My Lai Capture Sheet
- Voice: My Lai Citizen
- Voice: Lt. Calley
- Voice: Other American Soldiers at My Lai
- Voice: American Public
- Presentation: Zoom-In Inquiry, Paul Conrad cartoon (select View, Full Screen Mode to view as slideshow)
- Formative Assessment: Rewrite the Textbook
- Computer and projector to show cartoon presentation
Introducing the Lesson (5 minutes)
Teacher will present the warm-up question and facilitate discussion:
How do the authors of textbooks decide what to include or not include in their textbook?
Lesson Activities (60 minutes)
- Teacher will introduce textbook account of the events at My Lai. Have students think of people they would like to hear from in this textbook account and write them down on the handout. Students will complete the Textbook Selection handout. (5 minutes)
- Teacher will ask students to share possible voices. Make a list. Prompt students so that list includes: My Lai residents, Lt. Calley, other soldiers at My Lai, and the American public. Students will share their responses and add to the class list. (5 minutes)
- With a partner, students analyze and draw conclusions from the “voices” of Lt. Calley, other soldiers at My Lai, survivors present at My Lai and the American public. Students will work with a partner to draw conclusions from their sources and record those conclusions on their Capture Sheet. (20 minutes)
- Teacher will continue examination of American public opinion by participating in zoom-in inquiry with My Lai massacre cartoon using the Zoom-In Inquiry, Paul Conrad cartoon Presentation (open PDF, open the View menu, and click on Full Screen Mode to view as a full-screen presentation). (30 minutes)
Concluding the Lesson, Formative Assessment (15 minutes)
- Teacher will instruct students to modify their textbook account of the My Lai massacre in order to give a more complete view of the events surrounding the My Lai massacre by completing the Formative Assessment handout
- Students should rewrite or add to their textbook any or all of the following voices: My Lai villagers, Lt. Calley, other soldiers present, and the American public.
This lesson is differentiated to allow students to work with heterogeneous partners. While students are provided a structure to follow in drawing conclusions from various sources, students will work best at their own pace with these documents. Within their partnership, students can ask questions of one another to clarify understanding. As partners are working together, the teacher is able to circulate to support students in drawing conclusions at the level at which they are at, be it helping high achieving students draw more sophisticated demonstrate mastery by adding to their textbook what they conclude.
Rewriting the textbook
3 – Rewrites the text with substantial historical conclusions from student research
2 – Rewrites the text with some historical conclusions from student research
1 – Rewrites the text with few relevant historical conclusions from student research
0 – Did not attempt
On August 19, 2009 William Calley apologized, for what is thought to be the first time, for his role in the My Lai massacre. His statement came during a public address to a small meeting of the Kiwanis Club in Columbus, Georgia. The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer initially carried the story, which was picked up by the Associated Press and National Public Radio. The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer quoted Calley as stating that, “There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai. I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families. I am very sorry.”
Click here to read the full story from NPR: “Calley Apologizes For My Lai Massacre”
- “Famous American Trials,” University of Missouri – Kansas City
Douglas Linder, “The My Lai Courts Martial 1970,” 2009
- This site features primary sources from many of America’s most famous trials. “The My Lai Courts Martial” section features testimony, pictures, biographies, and maps related to the My Lai incident. This website proved invaluable in giving myself some background information on My Lai and selecting voices of interest to present to students.
- “Remember My Lai,” Frontline, PBS
- This documentary aired on PBS on May 23, 1989, but its interviews with those involved in the My Lai incident shed light on how the incident has shaped the lives of those involved. Perhaps showing this to a class as an introduction might prove useful.
- The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University
- This archive of Vietnam War related material is extensive. After reading about how to use its powerful search feature, users can find information related to many aspects of the Vietnam conflict. Of particular interest to my research was the interviews conducted by the U.S. army with My Lai villagers and the photographs that Haeberle took the day of the incident.