The Current

How reporter Seymour Hersh uncovered a massacre, and changed the Vietnam War dialogue

Seymour Hersh brings great insight into investigative journalism — past and present — because he has broken some of the most important and history-making stories of the last fifty years.

Pentagon tried to bury story of U.S. soldiers killing hundreds of Vietnamese civilians, says veteran reporter

U.S. soldiers are evacuated by helicopter from a Vietcong position in December 1965. Three years later, a massacre in the country was almost covered up by the Pentagon. (AFP/Getty Images)

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Warning: this story contains graphic images and details.

When journalist Seymour Hersh found proof that U.S. soldiers had massacred hundreds of unarmed civilians in a Vietnam village in 1968, no one wanted to publish his story.

Hersh is now a world-renowned investigative reporter, but back then he was a young freelancer, hearing violent stories from people returning from combat during the Vietnam War.

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"When I began this story, I didn't know how bad it was," Hersh said of his early investigations into the war. "I thought they just dropped bombs and shells on a mission."

"They were throwing live babies up in the air, and catching them on bayonets."

"They were raping everything, everyone. They were killing like you've never seen before, it's a massacre out of ... the 13th century," he told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti, during a conversation about his new book Reporter: A Memoir.

American soldiers conduct an investigation in My Lai, January 1970. Seymour Hersh broke the story of the massacre that occurred there in 1968. He details that story and many others in his new book, Reporter: A Memoir. (AP; Knopf Publishers)

On March 16, 1968, U.S. soldiers from Charlie Company — part of the Americal Division's 11th Infantry Brigade — flew into the village of My Lai, in South Vietnam. The soldiers had been told they were entering their first firefight with the enemy, against a North Vietnamese battalion.

"They all got on a helicopter at four in the morning … ready to kill or be killed in the name of America," Hersh told Tremonti.

They walked into a village expecting a chance to avenge the deaths of friends already killed in combat, but found "mostly women and children cooking breakfast," he explained.

"And they begin to execute them … [They] put people in ditches and just execute one after the other."

Bodies of women and children lie in the road leading from the village of My Lai, South Vietnam, in March, 1968. (Ronald L. Haeberle/Life Magazine/AP)

By the time the soldiers left, it's estimated that 504 people had been murdered. The Pentagon tried to cover up the massacre, but Hersh's dogged investigation eventually broke the story in November, 1969 — even though Life and Look magazines both turned it down. Hersh eventually found a willing publisher in Dispatch News Service (DNS), a news agency founded just the year before. 

Hersh and DNS won the Pulitzer Prize in 1970, launching a career that has seen him uncover internationally important stories, from the massacre at My Lai, to the human rights abuses by U.S. personnel in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.

A tip that led to a general's bad knee

Hersh's first indication that something had happened at My Lai came from Geoffrey Cowan, a young lawyer advocating against the war.

"He gave me a tip," Hersh remembers. "He said: 'Some GI shot up a village and killed a lot of people, as many as 75, and it's all over the Pentagon.'"

Based on everything else Hersh had read and heard about the fighting, the idea seemed plausible.

"It just made sense that this kind of thing would happen, and also made sense that the Pentagon would be so reluctant to publicize such a thing — they'd want to bury it."

A ceremony in Sony My to mark the 50th anniversary of the massacre, at a memorial to those killed. (NHAC NGUYEN/AFP/Getty Images)

Hersh checked publicly released files from the Pentagon, but all he found were subdued reports about isolated incidents, nothing on the scale of a suspected massacre. So he began to talk to people he knew in the Pentagon.

One day he wan into a newly-promoted general who had recently returned from Vietnam. The general was limping, and told Hersh he had been wounded on duty.

"I said: 'Oh you took a bullet to make general, right?' and we all laughed."

They continued chatting and walking down the hallway, until Hersh asked: "What's this about some guy shooting up everything?"

"He stopped in the corridor," Hersh said, "And he reached down with his right hand and he whacked his bad knee — the one that had been shot up — and he said; 'Sy, that guy Calley, he didn't shoot anybody higher than that. There's no story. He's just a criminal."

Lt. William L. Calley, Jr. during his court-martial at Ft. Benning, Ga. in April 1973. (Joe Holloway, Jr/AP)

A 'crazy night' of drinking and journalism

The "Calley" the general mentioned was First Lt. William Calley, who had been a platoon leader during the attack.

Calley had already been charged with 109 murders, but the military had not released the number of victims. Press coverage at the time only described "an unspecified number of civilians" among the victims.

Hersh tracked him down to the senior bachelor officers' quarters at Fort Benning, Ga. — accommodation usually reserved for high-ranking generals.

"He was staying in a pretty plush place for a kid that was up for mass murder," Hersh remembered.

In the beginning Calley insisted that what happened at My Lai was combat, but Hersh persisted and they spent "a crazy night" drinking and talking.

Calley's girlfriend cooked them a steak dinner at 4 a.m, and after a few more hours of drinking, Calley wanted to go bowling.

"I think he thought I was going to be the last person — that wasn't a lawyer — he was going to talk to again about this," Hersh said.

Calley insisted that he was following orders in Vietnam, and after 6 a.m. he called up his captain, Ernest Medina. He held the phone out so he and Hersh could both hear.

Lt. William L. Calley, Jr claimed he was just following the orders of Capt. Ernest Medina, above. (AP)

"'I'm here with a reporter,' he said. 'Would you please tell him that I was just following orders?'"

"Medina replied, 'I have no idea what you're talking about,' and slammed down the phone," Hersh said. He remembers the look on Calley's face.

"I'm sure he thought it, but this time he knew — fall guy. He was going to take the fall."

On March 29, 1971, Calley was convicted of the premeditated murder of 22 Vietnamese civilians. It was the only conviction related to the massacre.

Seymour Hersh at book signing in September, 2004 in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The conversation about war

Hersh had his story, but nowhere to publish it. Both Life and Look magazines turned it down.

Magazine publishers "wanted to be second," he said, because of the risks of breaking such a contentious story during wartime.

It was eventually picked up by the Washington-based Dispatch News Service, and distributed to newspapers across the U.S. on Nov. 12, 1969. Today it's credited as a turning point in the conversation around the Vietnam War, emboldening voices that wanted to end it, and making the argument to continue more difficult to justify. But Hersh is circumspect in discussing his story's impact.

"It didn't stop us from being brutal again in war," he said. "Do we fight wars any better?"

"It's a horrible, horrible ordeal, and that's why we should listen more to some of the smart generals, who always say no."

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this page.

Written by Padraig Moran. This segment was produced by The Current's Howard Goldenthal.