Date of Award

Fall 11-2020

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Advisor

John Worsencroft


In both the Pacific War against Japan from 1941 to 1945 and the Korean War from 1950 to 1953, United States combat troops—emboldened by a combat culture of dehumanization through racism and a military that enacted policies of attrition— committed atrocities against Asian soldiers and civilians. This trend continued into the Vietnam War unabated beginning in 1965. Incidents of atrocities committed by American troops overseas were not publicly discussed until the My Lai Massacre of 1968 was revealed to the American people in 1969. Once the massacre became a national news story published in outlets all over the country, American citizens were forced to confront the reality of what some US combat troops had done in Asian wars for decades.

This thesis argues that the media coverage of the My Lai Massacre broke a culture of silence, a phenomenon previously observed in military circles, that existed in American society concerning atrocities committed by GIs in American wars in Asia during the mid-twentieth century. Myths of American righteousness abroad and the morally good GI were challenged by liberal doves who reconciled the reality of My Lai with their national identity and called for a collective acceptance of responsibility by Americans. In contrast, a large contingent of war hawks, unwilling to let the overarching myth of American exceptionalism fade, defended and incorporated American war atrocities into those ideas. War atrocities and the myth of American exceptionalism persist in the wake of My Lai, but the culture of silence has diminished as Americans continue to reconcile atrocities with their wars.