113. Memorandum From the Deputy Secretary of Defense (Packard) to President Nixon 1


  • The My Lai atrocity

In March 1968 a task force of the Americal Division conducted a combat operation against My Lai, a Viet Cong controlled village in Quang Ngai Province. The mission was to seize the village and destroy it, after evacuating noncombatants, in order to eliminate a Viet Cong sanctuary. During the operation a small group of American soldiers reportedly shot many (possibly 100) unarmed, unresisting Vietnamese civilians. Those who had knowledge of the incident did not report it. Subsequent assertions of the Viet Cong that the Americans were killing hundreds of innocent civilians were investigated by the Commander of the 11th Infantry Brigade and Vietnamese Provincial Authorities, with inconclusive results. Headquarters, Department of the Army was [Page 357] first apprised of this apparent war crime in March 1969 and started an investigation which is still in progress.

On the basis of evidence thus far developed, court martial charges will be preferred on September 4 or 5, 1969 against an Army Lieutenant allegedly implicated in the atrocity. Further delay might risk a loss of court martial jurisdiction, for the officer is scheduled to be discharged on September 6th. The known facts leave no doubt about the necessity of prosecution. If sufficient additional evidence is developed, charges will be brought against others. Details are contained in the attached “Statement of Facts and Circumstances.”2

The next stage of the case will be a formal investigation of the charges under procedures which afford accused persons a hearing. Following this, the court martial convening authority will determine whether the charges will be referred for trial.

Publicity attendant upon such a trial could prove acutely embarrassing to the United States. It might well affect the Paris peace talks, and those nations opposed to our involvement in Vietnam will certainly capitalize upon the situation. Domestically, it will provide grist for the mills of antiwar activists.

Apart from publicity attendant upon any court martial proceedings, the incident will almost surely find its way into the public press by other means. A combat photographer who was working with the task force is reported to have given color-slide lectures about the incident to fraternal groups in the Cleveland area. Several Congressmen have learned of it through letters from a former serviceman.

We plan to furnish substantially the same information to the Chairmen of selected Congressional committees on 5 September 1969.

The Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs) will be in touch with his counterpart on your staff to work out an appropriate press plan.

David Packard 3
  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 118, Vietnam Subject Files, Vietnam—Lt. Calley Case (The Mai Lai Atrocity). Confidential. The memorandum was retyped on White House stationery.
  2. Attached but not printed.
  3. The retyped copy indicates Packard signed the original.