21 Lessons From America's Worst MomentsHistorians in the News
tags: racism, Vietnam, environmental history, lynching, Native American history, labor history, womens history
As many Americans prepare to toast their country’s past on the Fourth of July, there’s no escaping that not every facet of that history has been worth celebrating. In fact, for a great number, this very moment may fall into that latter category, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock the nation and a growing number of people confront the inescapable facts of past and present racism. June polling revealed that Americans are unhappier now than they have been in decades, and a majority believe the U.S. is heading in the wrong direction.
It is hardly consolation to be reminded that this is not the first low point in American history. But a look back at that past does reveal that, at the very least, even the worst moments contain lessons that can still apply today. And if we listen to those lessons, perhaps a better future will be possible. With that in mind, TIME asked 21 historians to weigh in with their picks for “worst moments” that hold a lesson—and what they think those experiences can teach us.
March 16, 1968: The My Lai massacre (Mark Philip Bradley)
On March 16, 1968, U.S. Army soldiers in Charlie Company killed as many as 567 South Vietnamese civilians, including women and children, in what became known as the My Lai Massacre. When the public learned about the massacre in November 1969, with harrowing photographs of dead villagers on major American television networks and in newsweeklies including TIME, it created a firestorm of controversy. Ultimately, however, the perpetrators were never held accountable. The platoon commander Lieutenant William Calley Jr. was initially given a life sentence but, at the order of President Nixon, was put under house arrest instead. He was released three and a half years later. Twenty-six soldiers were charged in military courts but none were convicted. The massacre and its aftermath were in part a reflection of a racist belief that shaped American policy in Vietnam—that, as William Westmoreland, the commanding general in Vietnam, infamously said, “life is cheap in the Orient.” With the COVID-19 pandemic having brought with it a spike in hate crimes against Asians and Asian Americans, My Lai offers a tragic cautionary tale about what can happen if a nation’s leaders choose to look the other way when racism trumps decency.
Other cases range from the murder of Emmett Till to the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire to the Santa Barbara oil spill.
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