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How a Military Whistleblower Changed American History

Some whistleblowers work inside the system, informing their bosses that something’s amiss. Others go outside, clueing in reporters, legislators, or regulators. A low moment in American history—the My Lai massacre in Vietnam—produced both kinds of truth-tellers. An army helicopter pilot, Hugh Thompson, Jr, along with his crew members Glenn Andreotta and Larry Colburn, saved Vietnamese villagers from American fire during the killings. Thompson then reported the horrors up the chain of command—which tried to cover it up.

If it were not for a man named Ronald Ridenhour, however, the horrors of My Lai may never have come to light—and he deserves the most credit for forcing Americans to confront how some soldiers behaved in Indochina.

Fifty years ago, Ron Ridenhour was a grunt—a bit player in the Vietnam horror show. As a door gunner on an observation helicopter, he heard rumors shortly after March 16, 1968, of Americans shooting unarmed villagers.

Ridenhour started collecting testimonials, informally. In March, 1969, he sent a detailed report to 30 members of Congress, along with President Richard Nixon, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Secretary of Defense.

“The question most often put to me,” Ridenhour later recalled, “was not why had they done it, but why had I done it. In a word, justice.” He admitted: “I was younger and more foolish then.”