The shooting of hundreds of people in the Vietnamese village of My Lai in 1968 marked a pivotal turning point in America’s feelings about the the Vietnam War. But while public awareness of the massacre, which spread in the year after the event, stoked anti-war sentiment, the verdict in the trial of one of the soldiers held responsible elicited a more complicated reaction.
When Lt. William Calley was found guilty of murdering more than 20 Vietnamese civilians, it ended the argument that an American soldier could not have possibly done such a thing. But the verdict of Mar. 29, 1971, despaired hawks and doves alike.
As TIME explained in a cover story about the trial, those who had believed Calley innocent “sought refuge in the oversimple conclusion that Calley was merely a scapegoat” or that “the Army sent Calley to Viet Nam to kill and should not punish him for doing precisely that.” On the other side, many of those who had no trouble believing that My Lai had happened were in agreement: accountability was key, they argued, but the finger should be pointed at the whole system, not Calley. Nobody was satisfied, though for starkly different reasons.
Nationwide, the indications of the split were many: protests (““We are all of us in this country guilty for having allowed the war to go on,” future Secretary of State John Kerry said at a protest. “We only want this country to realize that it cannot try a Calley for something which generals and Presidents and our way of life encouraged him to do”), flags flown at half-mast—even songs:
But TIME’s editorial stance on the matter was clear to see:
See how LIFE reported on My Lai: American Atrocity