It’s March 16th, 1968, at 7:30 AM in South Vietnam.
U.S. Army Lieutenant William Calley and his men ride in a helicopter one mile from a South Vietnamese village known as My Lai. Other choppers filled with soldiers follow closely behind.
Soon, they begin their descent toward an open field. As the helicopters touch down… Lieutenant Calley and his men rush out, guns in hand, and get in formation.
The soldiers were briefed on their mission the day before, but Lieutenant Calley takes a moment to remind them of their goal. Over the roar of the helicopter's blades, he tells them that in the village, there are Viet Cong enemy fighters. Their objective is to move in and take them out.
His men nod and Lieutenant Calley turns toward My Lai. Then he leads his men in a brisk jog across the large field between them and the village.
As he approaches, Lieutenant Calley sees the thatched roofs of the local homes. He begins to scan for Viet Cong fighters, but he doesn’t see any men of fighting age. The only people that he can see are women and children. And at the sight of American troops… these innocent villagers begin to flee. Lieutenant Calley knows that Viet Cong fighters often pose as civilians to avoid detection. He’s been informed that anyone in the village is a Viet Cong ally. Lieutenant Calley glances from his men to the fleeing villagers. His men look to him waiting for an order. Then, Calley raises his rifle and tells his men to open fire.
In 1968, war is raging in the divided country of Vietnam between a communist-dominated north, and a US-supported south. But America’s efforts have been hampered by the guerilla tactics of the Viet Cong, a group of pro-communist resistance fighters who resent the US presence in the region. By 1968, many American citizens are growing increasingly bitter toward the war, as each new report of the fighting illustrates the ugly reality in Vietnam.
One of the worst reports concerns the actions of Lieutenant William Calley and the men of C Company. On March 16th, 1968, when Calley and his men arrived at the My Lai village, they didn't find a single Viet Cong fighter. But nonetheless, they killed livestock, burned homes, and raped women; and they rounded up and executed hundreds of innocent Vietnamese.
In the aftermath of the My Lai Massacre, as this tragic event will come to be known, the army attempts to cover up the horrifying facts. But eventually, the truth will be revealed to the American public. Many more will join the already growing anti-war movement, resulting in one of the largest, and most impactful, public demonstrations in US History on November 15th, 1969.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is November 15th, 1969: The Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam.
It’s April 1969 in Boston, Massachusetts.
25-year-old Sam Brown is in his apartment, making dinner. He’s a graduate student in ethics at the Harvard Divinity School, and he’s tired from a long day of lectures. As he sautés some vegetables in a pan, he hears a knock at the door. He turns the stove down, wipes his hands, and walks to see who’s there. When he opens the door, he finds 52-year-old Jerome Grossman.
The two men know each other well. They both worked for the presidential campaign of a man named Eugene McCarthy, a Senator from Minnesota. Jerome was director of Senator McCarthy’s campaign, and Sam was the student leader. Both men supported McCarthy because of his desire to end the war in Vietnam. McCarthy wasn’t selected as the Democratic candidate for president, but many who worked on his failed campaign stayed in touch.
Jerome apologizes for showing up uninvited, but Sam tells him he’s welcome anytime and ushers the older man inside. As they walk into the living room, Sam tells Jerome that he's almost finished cooking dinner and asks if he would like to join him. Jerome accepts, and thanks Sam for his generosity.
10 minutes later, the two men are eating at Sam’s dining table. As Jerome takes a bite, he tells Sam that he didn’t come by just to say hello. He has an idea, an idea for something big that might bring an end to the war in Vietnam; something that involves putting pressure on the White House.
President Richard Nixon has been in office for a few months now. His predecessor, Lyndon B. Johnson, was very unpopular by the end of his term mainly due to his handling of the Vietnam War. Nixon has been critical of Johnson’s actions related to Vietnam. But the way Jerome sees it, Nixon has been in office long enough to make some major changes, yet his administration has handled the war much the same as Johnson.
Jerome tells Sam that he wants to organize a massive, nationwide strike. If enough people join in and march in the streets instead of going to work, Nixon will have to wake up to the reality that the majority of the American public is against the war.
Sam chews a bite of food while he thinks about Jerome’s idea. He knows that the anti-war movement is often written off as just a bunch of college kids and hippies. He likes the idea of taking the protests off college campuses and into the streets. But he wonders if this is a way to get a bigger chunk of the public involved.
Sam tells Jerome that he feels the idea of a strike might be too radical for the average American. Even the word “strike” implies aggressiveness, and that might put off the many moderates who oppose the war. Jerome nods thoughtfully and asks Sam what he thinks they should call it instead.
Sam scratches his chin, thinking. And then wonders aloud what about calling it a “moratorium”. In substance, the protest will be the same. But it will sound a lot less threatening. Jerome is immediately sold. He thanks Sam for the great idea. But he didn’t come here today for branding advice. He came because he needs Sam’s help.
Sam’s from a small town in Iowa. He’s great at connecting with everyday people, the exact demographic Jerome is hoping to inspire and activate against the war. Jerome also knows Sam is graduating in about a month and likely looking for his next opportunity. So, Jerome pushes his plate aside and leans forward in his chair. Then he asks Sam if he’d be willing to move to Washington and help him organize the moratorium.
Sam doesn’t need much convincing. He is an expert organizer, and he’s passionate about doing his part to end the war. His answer is, of course, yes.
After a brief discussion, Sam and Jerome decide on mid-October as the perfect time for the event. Once he’s in Washington, Sam will set up a base of operations. He will establish branches all over the country to call as many people as possible asking for their participation. And he will raise funds to run ads targeted at Americans of all ages and political persuasions. In the end, the moratorium will be a huge success, with almost a million citizens taking part across the country. The event will put pressure on Richard Nixon, and eventually force the embattled president to act.
It’s November 3rd, 1969, a month after the first moratorium event.
Sam Brown is in the Washington D.C. headquarters for Jerome’s organization, officially known as the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam. Rows of volunteers sit with telephones, coordinating with anti-war organizations across the nation. But Sam himself isn’t manning a phone. He’s standing in a small office, watching President Nixon give a televised speech about his plans for Vietnam.
Just weeks ago, on October 15th, Sam and his organizers successfully launched their first moratorium. Hundreds of thousands of people gathered in city centers nationwide, including a quarter of a million people in Washington. Senators and activists gave speeches, and protestors marched the streets calling for peace.
Sam’s strategy to reach people of all ages, political and socio-economic backgrounds was successful. White and blue-collar workers marched alongside college kids, showing that the anti-war movement enjoyed broad support. The event was so successful that Sam and his team are planning a second moratorium, set to take place on November 15th, they want it to be even bigger than the first.
But despite the gains they’ve made, President Nixon has largely ignored the anti-war movement, saying that he won’t be affected by policy made in the streets. Nixon hasn’t responded to any demands for peace… until now.
Today, two weeks before the second moratorium is planned, President Nixon is finally holding a press conference to respond to the growing anti-war pressure, to outline his policy in Vietnam. As Nixon makes his case, Sam turns up the volume.
"NIXON: There were some who urged that I end the war at once by ordering the immediate withdrawal of all American forces.
From a political standpoint, this would have been a popular and easy course to follow. After all, we became involved in the war while my predecessor was in office.
But I had a greater obligation than to think only of the years of my administration and of the next election. I had to think of the effect of my decision on the next generation and on the future of peace and freedom in America and in the world."
Hearing Nixon’s voice on the office television, more organizers begin to gather around to watch the speech with Sam. They listen as the President tells the nation that he wants peace, but on America’s terms. He says the former President Johnson was wrong to “Americanize” the war by sending troops. Instead, Nixon wants to pursue a policy of “Vietnamization” by training South Vietnamese soldiers to defend themselves.
Hearing this, Sam shakes his head with frustration. He doesn’t have faith that Nixon truly plans to de-escalate the situation. Nixon is known his hard-line stance against communism. Sam believes Nixon won’t bring any American forces home if he feels like North Vietnam’s communist government is poised to take control in the South.
Sam watches the T.V. discouraged and sees Nixon look directly into the camera, give his closing statements.
"NIXON: A few weeks ago, I saw demonstrators carrying signs reading: “Lose in Vietnam, bring the boys home.”
If a vocal minority, however fervent its cause, prevails over reason and the will of the majority, this Nation has no future as a free society.
And so tonight-to you, the great silent majority of my fellow Americans-I ask for your support.
Let us be united for peace. Let us also be united against defeat. Because let us understand: North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States. Only Americans can do that."
The room falls silent as Sam switches the television off. He turns to the volunteers that have gathered around. Some look disheartened. So, Sam tells them that Nixon might think he’s won over middle America. But they can prove Nixon wrong with their next upcoming Moratorium.
Nixon labeled the anti-war movement a “vocal minority”. And if the American public believes that, Sam knows they won’t turn out to march. So, Sam encourages all the organizers around him to get back to work, to get the message out, and to get people into the streets.
A week after his speech, Nixon’s approval rating will climb to the highest point in his presidency so far. But then, less than a week before the November 15th Moratorium, journalists will break the news of the My Lai Massacre and the subsequent cover-up to the public. Countless Americans will be shocked by the horrific actions of the military, and the anti-war movement will grow larger than Sam could ever have anticipated.
It’s November 15th, 1969, near the White House in Washington, D.C.
Sam Brown stands on a hill, looking out at an enormous crowd of protestors marching through the streets. People of all ages and backgrounds walk together, carrying posters with slogans like “Stop the Atrocity” and “Imperialism is the Real Enemy.” Sam can see dozens of American flags, as well as flags emblazoned with peace signs. He notices a few Viet Cong flags in the crowd as well. He doesn’t want to give anyone the impression that he or his organization supports communism. But he also doesn’t want to silence their right to free speech. He decides not to take them down. After all, those are just a few flags in a huge sea of people.
Sam can tell that the turnout is even bigger than the first Moratorium a month earlier, although it’s hard to tell the exact number. He allows himself a triumphant smile as he looks out at the event that he’s poured months of hard work into organizing. As he thinks back to all the phone calls and fundraising drives, the protestors chant and wave their signs in the direction of the White House. Sam wonders if President Nixon is inside, watching the coverage of the Moratorium himself.
For the rest of the day, the anti-war protestors will occupy the streets of Washington. They’ll gather in front of government buildings and sing songs like John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance”. The Second Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam is the largest demonstration in U.S. history up to that point, with over half a million people participating in D.C. alone and over a million more marching in other cities across the nation.
But despite the efforts of Sam Brown and other leaders of the anti-war movement, the massive protests will not bring an immediate end to the war. Even in the face of public opposition, Nixon will keep troops in Vietnam for three more years before finally withdrawing in 1973. Still, there’s no doubt that the Moratorium effort widened the base of those who stood against the Vietnam War in the United States. And future generations of activists will be inspired by the protests of the anti-war movement, the largest of which was the Second Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, taking place on November 15th, 1969.
Next onHistory Daily.November 16th, 1581. Toward the end of a notorious reign characterized by cruelty and widespread abuse, Russian ruler Ivan the Terrible murders his own son in a fit of rage.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Mischa Stanton.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Brandon Buerk.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, Pascal Hughes for Noiser.