If certain acts in violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal, conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.
–Mr. Justice Robert Jackson, Chief Prosecutor for the United States at the Nuremberg Tribunals
The dramatic disclosure of the Song My massacre has aroused public concern over the commission of war crimes in Vietnam by American military personnel. Such a concern, while certainly appropriate, is insufficient if limited to inquiry and prosecution monstrous events that may have taken the lives of more than 500 civilians In the My Lai No. 4 hamlet of Song My village on March 16, 1968.
Song My stands out as a landmark atrocity in the history of warfare, and its occurrence is a moral challenge to the entire American society. This challenge was stated succinctly by Mrs. Anthony Meadlo, the mother of David Paul Meadlo, one of the killers at Song My: “I sent them a good boy, and they made him a murderer.” (The New York Times, November 30, 1969.) Another characteristic statement about the general nature of the war was attributed to all army staff sergeant: “We are at war of the individual servicemen who participated in the with the ten-year-old children. It may not be humanitarian, but that’s what it’s like.” (The New York Times, December 1, 1969.) The massacre itself raises a serious basis for inquiry into the military and civilian command structure that was in charge of battlefield behavior at the time.
However, evidence now available suggests that the armed forces have tried throughout the Vietnamese War to suppress, rather than to investigate and punish, the commission of war crimes by American personnel. The evidence also suggests a failure to protest or prevent the manifest and systematic commission of war crimes by the armed forces of the Saigon regime.
Thus a proper inquiry must be conducted on a scope much broader than any single day of slaughter. The official policies developed for the pursuit of belligerent objectives in Vietnam appear to violate the same basic and minimum constraints on the conduct of war as were violated at Song My. The B-52 pattern raids against undefended villages and populated areas, “free bomb zones,” forcible removal of civilian population, defoliation and crop destruction, and “search and destroy” missions have been sanctioned by the United States Government. Each of these tactical policies appears to violate international laws of war that are binding upon the United States by international treaties ratified by the government, with the advice and consent of the Senate. The overall American conduct of the war involves a refusal to differentiate between combatants and nom combatants and between military and nonmilitary targets. Detailed presentation of such acts of war in relation to the laws of war is contained in In the Name of America, published under the auspices of the Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam, in January 1968–several months before the Song My massacre took place. Ample evidence of war crimes has been presented to the public and to its leaders for some time, but it has not produced official reaction or rectifying action. A comparable description of the acts of war that were involved in the bombardment of North Vietnam by American planes and naval vessels between February 1965 and October 1968 may be found in North Vietnum: A Documentary, by John Gerassi.