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Remembering the My Lai Massacre: Seymour Hersh on Uncovering the Horrors of Mass Murder in Vietnam

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In 1970, Seymour Hersh won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on how the U.S. slaughtered more than 500 Vietnamese women, children and old men in the village of My Lai on March 16, 1968. The event became known as the My Lai massacre. We speak with Seymour Hersh in New York City.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Seymour Hersh is our guest for the hour. The award-winning investigative journalist, based in Washington, D.C., has been a staff writer for The New Yorker, The New York Times, awarded the Pulitzer Prize as a freelancer in 1970 for his exposé of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. His new memoir is just out. It’s called Reporter: A Memoir.

So, March 16th, 1968, Sy. We have students, classes coming through here every week. When you say My Lai, the vast majority of the kids have never heard of it. In a nutshell, tell us what it is you exposed. And this is amazing. You did this as a freelance reporter. Where were you working? How did you find this story out?

SEYMOUR HERSH: I had a little office in the National Press building. I had been a reporter for the Associated Press covering the Pentagon, '66 and ’67. I got in trouble there with the management. But I learned then OJT, on-the-job training, from officers. There's a lot of integrity in the service. There really is. A lot of people take the oath of office to the Constitution and mean it, not to their general and not to the president. And so, I learned from those people that it was a killing zone. It was just massacre. And I came away thinking, “My god.” And I started reading, of course. You have to—can’t write. You’ve got to read before you write. So I was ready to believe a tip, in '69, that there had been a terrible massacre. The thing is, I didn't know how bad it was until I got into it.

What happened is, a group of American kids, to their credit—they were just country boys. Those days, the kids in the street, we had more African Americans than in the population, more Hispanics than the population, a lot of rural kids, American kids, from small villages across the country. And we’re not talking about big city kids in this company, a few, but very few. And they were told how bad the communists were. There were told, one day, they were going to—tomorrow, you’re going to—they’ve been in the country for three months, lost about 30 percent of their people through snipers. They’d fall into pits with sticks with poison on them—I mean, horrible stuff. And so they began to hate. And they were allowed to hate. And there was a lot of ignorance about the society, about the culture of Vietnam. And they had—they were just in one of the worst divisions of the war, Americal Division. The way the war was, you could do anything you wanted, kill people, because it was always seen as a violation of rules and not as a criminal act. So that’s how they covered up stuff.

So, they were ready to go. They were ready. They were told they were going to meet the enemy for the first time in three months of being in country. They had never seen the enemy. They just were shot at. And they went into this village of about 500 people, possibly more, and they expected to see the enemy there. The intelligence, as it always is, was bad. There was no—the 48th North Vietnamese Division was nowhere near the place. That’s what they thought. And instead of meeting the enemy, there were just families, women and children and old men. And so they began to murder them. They put them in ditches. And they raped. They killed. They threw babies up—this was hard for me to even, in the first year—and caught them on bayonets. I mean, some of the stuff I kept out of the initial story, it was just so awful.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you initially heard that there was a lieutenant being charged with some of these atrocities? And talk about how you tracked him down.

SEYMOUR HERSH: Actually, what I first heard, it came from a wonderful man named Geoff Cowan, who was just out of law school, who was then in a—he was just in a new public policy group, social law firm, that—one of the first set up in Washington. And he heard this tip, and he figured I might do it. He didn’t know where to go. And I started chasing it. He said it was an enlisted man went crazy. And so, what I thought it was, from my—I had read the Russell Tribunal, which everybody poo-pooed. But the Russell Tribunal, Bertrand Russell Tribunal, published, I guess, in '65 or ’66, had a long section on stuff going on in the war that was amazing. And I found one of the guys that testified, so I knew it was true. And so, I thought something bad happened. I thought maybe they threw rockets into a village. They used to have sometimes—even in as early as ’65, they'd go into a village, and there wouldn’t be any enemy there. And the soldiers would be frustrated. And the officers would say to the guys in tanks and the guys with machine guns, “You have an mad minute.” So they just shoot up everything in the village. Literally, that’s what’s going on, according to the Russell—and it was true. So I knew that.

What I didn’t know—I mean, we were censored in World War II. We all know that. We didn’t see the photographs. We didn’t know how bad it was. We didn’t know how both sides treated each other. So I didn’t know, either. And as I’m doing the story, I’m learning it’s not just some bombing or some mad moment. It’s a group of soldiers spending a day putting people in ditches, shooting them at will.

There was one scene, they had maybe 80 people in a ditch, and a young man named Paul Meadlo, who I interviewed—I found him. And they sprayed bullets into it. And some mother—I didn’t share this story for a long time. Some mother had tucked a baby—everybody was killed, they thought, maybe, as I say, 80 people. There’s a famous photograph of the ditch. She kept her little 2-year-old baby protected. And about 10 minutes after they’ve done the shooting, they were having lunch, their K-rations, sitting there around the ditch. And this little boy, full of other people’s blood, crawled up to the top of the ditch, keening, screaming, and began to run away when he got to the top. And Lieutenant Calley said to Paul Meadlo, who had done most of the shooting, a farm boy from a place called New Goshen, Indiana, you know, had barely gotten through high school and was taken—the Army lowered its standards very quickly in the war, because they didn’t want bright kids there, because they would talk about what’s going on. I say that seriously. Seriously. That was the motive, McNamara, who was a psychotic liar. I figured that out when I was even in the Pentagon. Anyway, so this kid is running away, and Calley says to Meadlo, “Plug him.” And Meadlo, who had been shooting in the ditch, couldn’t shoot one. So, Calley, the great man of the world, ran up behind him with his—the officers had a smaller rifle and a carbine—and shot him in the back of the head, blew off his head.

AMY GOODMAN: The baby, the child.

SEYMOUR HERSH: The baby, in front of his own soldiers. I’m learning this. I say—

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Private First Class Paul Meadlo, speaking about his involvement in the My Lai massacre. In 1969, he spoke to CBS’s Mike Wallace on national television about what happened.

PAUL MEADLO: Well, I might have killed about 10 or 15 of them.

MIKE WALLACE: Men, women and children?

PAUL MEADLO: Men, women and children.

MIKE WALLACE: And babies.

PAUL MEADLO: And babies.

MIKE WALLACE: Why did you do it?

PAUL MEADLO: Why did I do it? Because I felt like I was ordered to do it. Well, at the time, I felt like I was doing the right thing. I really did.

MIKE WALLACE: You’re married?

PAUL MEADLO: Right.

MIKE WALLACE: Children?

PAUL MEADLO: Two.

MIKE WALLACE: How can a father of two young children shoot babies?

PAUL MEADLO: I don’t know. It’s just one of them things.

AMY GOODMAN: Paul Meadlo, saying, “It was just one of them things,” speaking on 60 Minutes in 1969. You—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you had some involvement in getting him there?

SEYMOUR HERSH: Oh, my god. He was—I wrote—what happened is, I had got the tip. I found my way to Fort Benning, where Calley—I found my way to Calley. I had a—I saw a document in which he was initially accused of killing 109 or 111 “Oriental human beings.” “Oriental human beings.” And I remember going nuts. Does that mean one Oriental equals how many whites, how many blacks? And I did do something. The one thing I did, that made a friend of life for me with Mel Laird, the secretary of defense, a congressman who was then secretary of defense, who was appalled, too, by this, I did go to his people—to him, actually, pretty much directly, and said, “I’m going to take this out, because this is so friggin’ racist, that I think any American soldier walking down a street in South Vietnam could be executed for having done that.” So I did take it out. I didn’t write that. “Oriental human beings” is what they wrote.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you said you’re going to take it out.

SEYMOUR HERSH: I didn’t put that in.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re going to omit it from the story.

SEYMOUR HERSH: I just took out the word “Oriental.” I said, “I just—you can’t be that dumb. You can’t be that crazily racist.” And it was to charge him with. Anyway, that’s just a sideshow. I did it because I just thought too many American boys who had nothing to do with it would be executed, but just shot at random. It would create so much anger. And I don’t second-guess that. I mean, it was bad enough, what I had, believe me, what they did.

And I found Calley. And nobody wanted it. I had not only been a correspondent for the Pentagon at the AP, I had worked with—been Eugene McCarthy’s press secretary, wrote a lot of speeches for him. I had been known—all the reporters knew me. They had to deal with me. I also freelanced. And between '67 and ’69, by this time, I had maybe written a dozen articles, including three or four for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, on all sorts of stuff. So they knew me. You know what it—even when I got to The New York Times in ’72, later, appropriating—you know, they hired me. I was at The New Yorker then, and they hired me away. Even then, there were some stories I did that what they wanted me to do is maybe somebody else should do it first, and then they'll do the second-day story.

AMY GOODMAN: But go back. You went to The New York Times. They didn’t want the story.

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, no, I didn’t go near The New York Times, because they would steal—I was worried about them taking it over. I went to people I had worked for. I worked for Life—I had a commitment from Life magazine. I had—Look magazine was talking to me. I went to The New York Review of Books. Bob Silvers wanted to run it. And I was a friend of Izzy Stone’s.

Izzy Stone had picked up—Izzy Stone had some sort of—I had been a reporter for the Pentagon for only about a month or two, and he saw something in my stories that made him—he used to go out Sunday morning to the major out-of-city newspaper stand at 6:00 in the morning to buy 20 papers. And one morning—I never—I knew who he was, through my mother-in-law, who had been a subscriber for years. One morning, about 6:30—I was just newly married. We had been partying, and it was Sunday morning. The call comes, and it’s Izzy, about—before 7:00, saying, “Have you seen page 19 of The Philadelphia Inquirer today?” “What?” So we became friends. And he would—we would take walks. And I will tell you, if you ever want a tutorial from anybody in the world, you want it from Izzy Stone. The whole idea of reading—all he did was read everything. He did it all by simply brainpower. He was amazing. Anyway, and so, he was a mentor.

So, I couldn’t get anybody to buy it. Bob Silvers wanted to do it. He was going to remake the magazine—I came to him late—and put it—I’ll never forget this. And I had done—they bought—I published a book on chemical and biological warfare that they had syndicated in '68 or so. They had done—they had been friendly to me. I had done pieces for him. And I liked him. I liked the magazine and—much more radical. And what happened is, he wanted me to put a paragraph in, after the—he was going to run it on the cover, the story. I just wrote a straightforward AP story: Lieutenant Calley did this and this, and he murdered this. And he wanted a paragraph saying, “This shows why the war is bad.” And I said, “Bob, no, the story tells why the war is bad.” And we had a fight. I actually pulled it out, because I—and then, people ask me—one of the things they ask me about: How could you do that? Here's a public place. Because the story deserved to be just there for everybody.

AMY GOODMAN: So, who published it?

SEYMOUR HERSH: A little antiwar news service, Dispatch News Service, which people don’t understand here. They had correspondents in Vietnam who knew Vietnamese, and they were a quite good service. And I was doing some stuff for them, because I really respected it. I gave it to them, thought, “Who knows?” And somehow they got 35 front pages, the story. The American press was open to the story. And it was 1969. It wouldn’t be now. Some papers would run it, and some papers wouldn’t, because of the division. It was a different time. And—

AMY GOODMAN: And you won the Pulitzer Prize for the story.

SEYMOUR HERSH: Well, but I kept on going. I found Meadlo. I got a company register. M-E-A-D-L-O. I knew he was somewhere in Indiana. I spent—I don’t know—10 hours calling every phone directory in the state, 'til I finally found a M-E-A-D-L-O in a place called New Goshen. And I remember flying from Salt Lake City to Chicago to Indianapolis, getting a car. And when I got there, it's this kid that had—he had killed these people.

Let me just tell you this story. The next day, he had his leg blown off. And he kept on screaming. This was what made everybody remember this. His leg was blown off, and he had done all the shooting. And he said to me Calley–he was talking about Lieutenant Calley—had ordered him to do it. He said, “God has punished me, Lieutenant Calley, and God will punish you.”

So I find this kid. It’s a rundown farm in this rural area near Terre Haute, near the Indiana state line, or in Indiana near the Illinois state line. And it’s an old farmhouse. There’s chickens running around all over. The coops aren’t attending. His mother—I had called earlier and gotten his mother. And she confirmed that was the boy, Paul, who had lost his leg. I go out there. Here comes this farm woman. This is a hardtack place. She’s probably 50, looks 70. And I came out, and I have my little ratty suit on. I came in a car, rent-a-car. And I said, “I’m the guy that called. Is Paul—can I see him?” She said, “Well, he lives in that separate house there. I don’t know what he’s going to do.” And then this woman said to me, this woman who didn’t read newspapers, didn’t watch much news—she said to me, “I gave them a good boy, and they sent me back a murderer.” I mean, are you kidding? And then I went in, and what I did with him—he had a leg, and I spent the first 20 minutes asking him to show me the stump, and how did they treat him. And then he started talking.

And then, my—I had a friend who was working with Dispatch, David Obst, who later became Woodward and Bernstein’s literary agent. He was the guy packaging the story and somehow selling them. And he called up CBS, and they said, “Bring him here.” And he agreed to come, with his wife. He flew from—we went to Indianapolis, and he flew to New York. And he wanted—it was expiation. And he went on TV. And Mike Wallace, who’s tough as nails, asked him—he asked him five times in that interview, “And babies?” Again, he kept on saying, “And babies?” And Mike was a very tough dude. And he got him there. And first, they were just interviewing—they were practicing. And he asked him a question. He began to talk, and he said, “Stop. Put on the cameras.” And the kid just did it. And that turned the story, because at that point he’s on television. It’s not Dispatch News selling stories to everybody for a hundred bucks. And it changed America.

And here’s what also killed me. After that—it was the third story I did. I did two more. It was a Thursday, I think. It was on Walter Cronkite. Remember? We had—we had CBS News, was against the war. We had something—we had a network news agency that actually took a stand on something. I mean, I don’t know what they’re doing with this, the Mexico thing, but I’m sure they’re being objective. Anyway, there’s no objectivity in this one. And so, what happened is, that Sunday, about 10 papers had their correspondents who had been in Vietnam. They told the story about what—of a massacre they witnessed. So we’re dealing with self-censorship to a degree. And I learned a lot. You know what I learned? I learned I could handle them. I could run them. They could be mine.

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Investigative Reporter Sy Hersh: Working with Gene McCarthy’s Presidential Bid Shaped My Life Path

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