Mỹ LAI, VIETNAM– The war in Vietnam was a conflict like no other. It was grueling and costly in both lives and character and it would challenge the Geneva Conventions of WWII.
In 1968, a 22-year-old active GI in the 11th Infantry Brigade witnessed the monstrous carnage of war. His name was Ronald Ridenhour. Six months later he would write a letter to the United States Congress in an effort to expose the atrocities of the Mỹ Lai Massacre in Vietnam. His truth was hard to denounce, though many tried. Ultimately, Mỹ Lai would show as a great stain on an American military tradition.
Randy Fertel sponsors Ridenhour Prizes for Courages Truth-telling. He met Ridenhour in New Orleans and says, “I was teaching a literary course and this was the early 90’s someone mentioned that someone who blew the whistle on Mỹ Lai lives in New Orleans as an investigative reporter.”
Ridenhour was not the first to try and expose Vietnam’s intimate truths, but he was very effective in his account. Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh would write the official story that was heard around the world November 12, 1969 with the Associated Press.
Mỹ Lai was not an anomaly, there were many incidents and Fertel says that race played a role in dehumanizing the targets of soldiers saying, “the enemy could be looked upon as subhuman. In that same area of Quảng Ngãi Province there were hundreds of events where American soldiers were cut loose.”
Mary Howell is a civil rights attorney in New Orleans, Louisiana and says “Mỹ Lai exposed that Americans really did stuff like this. This was the Americans that did it and it was really shocking for America to confront itself in the mirror, especially because there were photographs.”
The Mỹ Lai massacre would result in close to 500 slaughtered men, women and children. Several officers were brought to trial in 1971. Only Lieutenant William Laws Calley Jr. was charged and sentenced to life in prison, he was paroled three years later. In 2009 he publicly apologized.
Ridenhour continued to write and was a powerful investigative reporter until the end of his life. He helped to pave the way for journalists and whistleblowers with a landmark Louisiana Supreme Court decision that protects First Amendment freedom of the press.
Howell remembers working with Ridenhour when he first moved to New Orleans and says, “I got a call from a new reporter who had just come to town named Ron Ridenhour. He had come to work for Figaro, which was an alternative weekly newspaper at the time and he was here doing investigative stories about the New Orleans Police Department.”
On May 10, 1998 at the age of 52, Ronald Ridenhour passed away because of a heart attack. For 17 years, the legacy of Ronald “Ron” Ridenhour has lived on by honoring journalists and whistleblowers as part of yearly awards given called the Ridenhour Prizes for Courageous Truth Telling.
Below are some photographs of recent recipients of the Ridenhour Prizes.
Randy Fertel the sponsor of the awards shares a few of the past recipients of the Ridenhour prizes saying, “President Carter has received it and Dan Ellsberg, and this year it’s Denis Hayes, the founder of Earth Day.”
Heroes transcend ordinary skill, strength and courage. “Ron” Ridehour spoke unpopularity through silence, simply because his meter of morality would not allow him to rest.
Mary Howell thinks often about what Ridenhour’s words would be to young journalists today. Howell says, “I think that is part of the key here. Any future whistle blowers who are listening to this. They are going to not believe you and you need them to by any means necessary, make sure that believe you.”