This discontentment among U.S. troops resulted in one of the most horrible incidents of the war, in March 1968. Soldiers in one U.S. company, frustrated at their inability to find Viet Cong during a search-and-destroy mission in the tiny South Vietnamese village of My Lai, killed approximately 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians, including women, children, and elderly. The My Lai Massacre was covered up and did not become public knowledge until late 1969. In 1971, Lieutenant William Calley, commander of the company, was sentenced to life imprisonment for war crimes. Despite shock at the massacre, however, many in the American felt that Calley was a scapegoat for wider problems, and he was released on parole in 1974.
After the Tet Offensive, the U.S. government stepped up its covert operations, the most famous of which was the CIA-led Phoenix Program, which had been initiated in June 1967. Among other objectives, the program was meant to assassinate Viet Cong leadership. Although approximately 20,000 people were assassinated under the Phoenix Program, the program was plagued by corruption, mismanagement, and faulty intelligence, and many of its victims were likely not Viet Cong at all. In many cases, unscrupulous South Vietnamese officials named their opponents as Viet Cong and requested that the Phoenix Program eliminate them. When the details of the program later surfaced, many protested that its activities amounted to nothing more than war crimes.
Johnson’s early withdrawal from the 1968 U.S. presidential race allowed other Democrats to step in, including two antiwar candidates from the Senate, Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy, and Johnson’s pro-war vice president, Hubert Humphrey. Kennedy, the younger brother of former president John F. Kennedy, seemed sure to win the party’s nomination until he was assassinated at a Los Angeles hotel in June 1968. Humphrey became the Democratic nominee instead. However, violence outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago (see The Chicago Riot and Kent State, p. 50) ruined Humphrey’s chances, as American voters erroneously linked the police brutality with the Democratic Party.
Republicans capitalized on the riot and nominated Eisenhower’s former vice president, Richard M. Nixon, on a pro-war platform. Alabama governor George C. Wallace also ran as a third-party candidate, for the war and against civil rights. Because the riot had tainted Humphrey’s public image and because Wallace seemed far too conservative, Nixon won the election easily.