Thousands of antiwar demonstrators mass in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 1973 taking part in a "March Against Death."

Thousands of antiwar demonstrators mass in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., Jan. 20, 1973 taking part in a "March Against Death." AP

Nixon’s Leniency After My Lai Hurt Veterans. Trump’s May, Too.

A president’s actions in 1971 helped turn public opinion against those who fought the Vietnam War.

Those who disagree with President Trump’s recent pardons for two U.S. soldiers and a sailor who committed war-zone crimes have focused on how his actions undermine the military justice system, the code of conduct, military discipline, and the integrity of the chain of command. But there is another serious consequence, one that flows perhaps less from the pardons themselves than from the ways in which the President and others explained and justified them. 

To understand this consequence, we must learn from our own history. In November 1969, the young journalist Seymour Hersh broke the story of a tragic atrocity in Vietnam. A few weeks later, Americans picked up Life magazine to find photos of a massacre in the Vietnamese village of My Lai. A U.S. Army platoon led by Lt. William Calley Jr. had swept into the town and, finding no enemy soldiers, proceeded to kill as many as 600 villagers, largely women and children. Thirty soldiers were charged with crimes, including senior officers who allegedly ignored accounts of criminal action, but ultimately only Calley was convicted. In March 1971, an Army court-martial board in Fort Benning, Georgia, found him guilty of 29 counts of premeditated murder and sentenced him to life imprisonment with hard labor.

There was considerable public support for Lt. Calley. In a Gallup poll taken the following month, 69 percent of the respondents said he was a scapegoat. Many of his defenders went farther, arguing that he was, in fact, a hero. Country music stations played “Set Lt. Calley Free” and “Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley,” the latter of which eventually sold some two million records. 

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President Nixon declined to publicly celebrate the disgraced Army officer, but he told Henry Kissinger that “most people don’t give a shit” whether he had actually killed the Vietnamese civilians. As the court martial came to an end, Defense Secretary Melvin Laird privately urged Nixon not to extend any pardon to Calley. Military leaders, Laird explained, believed that making him a scapegoat or hero would poison the view of American policy and the public view of soldiers. Nixon rejected the argument, telling advisors that demanding accountability for the massacre reflected the “obsolete idea that war is a game with rules.” The day after the verdict, Nixon ordered Calley released from the post stockade and placed under house arrest in the Fort Benning bachelor officer quarters. Appeals would eventually reduce his punishment to time served.

Public views of the war had been changing sharply. Though a kernel of opposition in early 1965 had grown to a much more widely held view, many Americans at home still viewed those serving in Vietnam sympathetically, as victims drafted to fight a cruel war. Few protesters faulted them for the war. President Lyndon Johnson was the perpetrator. The chant at antiwar rallies was, “Hey, Hey, LBJ, How many kids did you kill today?” 

But after the My Lai story broke, opposition to the war increased. Many became critical of the troops who served. Rather than victims of a cruel war, they became its perpetrators. LBJ was back on his Texas ranch; in the minds of a vocal minority, those deployed to Vietnam were now the “baby killers.” The My Lai atrocity framed this negative image; the Calley hearings and his defense, as well as some of the testimony in 1971 from the Vietnam Veterans against the War, deepened it. During the court martial, for the first time, a majority of the country said that the war was morally wrong. 

President Nixon’s actions and statements in the Calley case seemed to validate the view that everyone did it and no one is guilty—or perhaps, as some argued, that we were all guilty. There was little recognition of individual responsibility and accountability, crucial elements in military justice. This had real consequences for the Vietnam generation.

Participating in this war and presumably in its atrocities was the burden that the Vietnam veterans carried, heavily in the 1970s, and in some respects they still carry. In the aftermath of the war, more Americans knew the name of Lt. William Calley than knew anyone who had served bravely and with integrity. The atrocity at My Lai claimed many innocent Vietnamese victims, and the rationales used to explain, criticize, or to exonerate Lt. Calley ultimately claimed many victims who served in American uniforms. 

Pardoning or reducing sentences generally represents a determination that the process was prejudiced or unfair, that the accused was actually innocent, or that the sentence was excessive. Seldom does it represent a judgment that the pardonee actually committed the offense and moreover that doing it was a commendable thing. President Nixon was careful not to go quite that far in public statements regarding Lt. Calley. Others did. 

President Trump also ignored Pentagon advice not to become involved—although his engagement was more vocal than that of the cautious Nixon. Defenders of the three men from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, including Fox News hosts, insisted that in fact they were American fighting men doing their jobs, and doing them heroically and well. Lt. Calley’s lawyer said his client was a “good boy” whom the Army had trained to “Kill, Kill, Kill”—and then punished him for doing his job, President Trump championed this defense. “We train our boys to be killing machines, and then prosecute them when they kill,” he said. He insisted that in fact the men were “three great warriors,” and, indeed, “heroes.” The President invited the two pardoned soldiers to join him on the platform at a campaign fundraiser. 

Engaging in combat is a cruel and nasty assignment. In Vietnam and in Iraq and Afghanistan it was often hard to distinguish combatants from non-combatants. 

In the 21st century wars, the military’s rules of engagement became increasingly complex. And these needed to be followed in some remarkably intense, emotional, and frightening situations, and, in Iraq and Afghanistan, frequently by troops who had engaged in multiple deployments. These conditions made professional leadership and discipline even more important.

There have been instances of misconduct and, unfortunately, atrocity, in each of these wars. Offering clemency or pardon for those convicted of crimes can be debated. But by celebrating them and their actions, we make their conduct acceptable and the exemplary norm. If “everybody did it” becomes the defense, as it did in the Calley case, and if doing “it” results in ballads and television accolades and presidential cheers, the bar is lowered and the image of those who serve bravely and well suffers. 

In the spring of 2014, I was at West Point, meeting with classes and with cadets and faculty. One session was with a senior class on military law. These young men and women would graduate and receive a commission in a few weeks. We talked about My Lai and the Army handling of the case—and the public handling of it. These cadets were thoughtful and impressive. I left with confidence that they and their Army would handle any such future situations better than the Calley generation did. And by all accounts, they have.

Of course, we could not predict then how civilian leaders and the public would respond to future infractions of Army regulations and the established conventions of war. We have just had an unsettling look at that. And history has provided some insight into the possible consequences.