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An Atrocity Is Uncovered: November 1969
The My Lai Massacre

[Here for the first time in electronic form are the unabridged original dispatches by Seymour Hersh on the 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam. The articles are relevant again in light of the revelations of the Marines massacre of twenty-four Iraqi civilians at Haditha last November (as detailed in today’s New York Times account) for several reasons, among them the parallels between the two massacres in terms of methods, motives and the U.S. military and government cover-up—until the press got a hold of the story. At My Lai as at Haditha, the killings were planned, deliberate and executed with leisurly cold-bloodedness. At My Lai as at Haditha, revenge was the motive. At My Lai as at Haditha, the military had the evidence early on, lied about it, covered it up, and, in the My Lai case, may have been involved in murdering a helicopter pilot who threatened to go public with the story. Hersh’s pieces were originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on November 13, 20 and 25, 1969. Hersh won the Pulitzer Prize in 1970 “For his exclusive disclosure of the Vietnam War tragedy at the hamlet of My Lai.”—pt.]

Lieutenant Accused of Murdering 109 Civilians
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 13, 1969

FORT BENNING, Ga., Nov 13-LL William L Calley Jr., 26 years old, is a mild-mannered, boyish-looking Vietnam combat veteran with the nickname “Rusty:’ The Army is completing an investigation of charges that he deliberately murdered at least 109 Vietnamese civilians in a search-and- destroy mission in March 1968 in a Viet Gong stronghold known as “Pinkville.”

 

Calley has formally been charged with six specifications of mass murder. Each specification cites a number of dead, adding up to the 109 total, and charges that Calley did “with premeditation murder… Oriental human beings, whose names and sex are unknown, by shooting them with a rifle.”

The Army calls it murder; Calley, his counsel and others associated with the incident describe it as a case of carrying out orders.

“Pinkville” has become a widely known code word among the military in a case that many officers and some Congressmen believe “will become fat mote controversial than the recent murder charges against eight Green Berets. Army investigation teams spent nearly one year studying the incident before filing charges against Calley, a platoon leader of the Eleventh Brigade of the American Division at the time of the killings.

Calley was formally charged on or about Sept. 6, 1969, in the multiple deaths, just a few days before he was due to be released from active service.

Calley has since hired a prominent civilian attorney, former Judge George W. Latimer of the U.S. Court of Military Appeals, and is now awaiting a military determination of whether the evidence justifies a general court-martial Pentagon officials describe the present stage of the case as the equivalent of a civilian grand jury proceding.

Calley, meanwhile, is being detained at Fort Benning, where his movements are sharply restricted. Even his exact location on the base is secret; neither the provost marshal, nor the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division knows where he is being held.

The Army has refused to comment on the case, “in order not to prejudice the continuing investigation and rights of the accused.” Similarly, Calley—although agreeing to an interview—refused to discuss in detail what happened on March 16,1968.

However, many other officers and civilian officials, some angered by Calley’s action and others angry that charges of murder were filed in the case, talked freely in interviews at Fort Benning and Washington.

These factors are not in dispute:

The Pinkville area, about six miles northeast of Quang Ngai, had been a Viet Cong fortress since the Vietnam war began. In early February 1968, a company of the Eleventh Brigade, as part of Task Force Barker, pushed through the area and was severely shot up.

Calley’s platoon suffered casualties. After the Communist Tet offensive in February 1968, a larger assault was mounted, again with high casualties and little success. A third attack was quickly mounted and it was successful.

The Army claimed 128 Viet Cong were killed. Many civilians also were killed in the operation. The area was a free fire zone from which all non-Viet Cong residents had been urged, by leaflet, to flee. Such zones are common throughout Vietnam. One man who took part in the mission with Calley said that in the earlier tWO attacks “we were really shot up.”

“Every time we got hit it was from the rear,” he said. “So the third time in there the order came down to go in and make sure no one was behind.

“We were told to just clear the area. It was a typical combat assault formation. We came in hot, with a cover of artillery in front of us, came down the line and destroyed the village.

“There are always some civilian casualties in a combat operation. He isn’t guilty of murder.”

The order to clear the area was relayed from the battalion commander to the company commander to Calley, the source said. Calley’s attorney said in an interview: “This is one case that should never have been brought. Whatever killing there was was in a firefight in connection with the operation. “

“You can’t afford to guess whether a civilian is a Viet Cong or not. Either they shoot you or you shoot them.

“This case is going to be important—to what standard do you hold a combat officer in carrying out a mission?

“There are two instances where murder is acceptable to anybody: where it is excusable and where it is justified. If Calley did shoot anybody because of the tactical situation or while in a firefight, it was either excusable or justifiable.”

Adding to the complexity of the case is the fact that investigators from the Army inspector general’s office, which con- ducted the bulk of the investigation, considered filing charges against at least six other men involved in the action March 16.

A Fort Benning infantry officer has found that the facts of the case justify Calley’s trial by general court-martial on charges of premeditated murder.

Pentagon officials said that the next steps are for the case to go to Calley’s brigade commander and finally to the Fort Benning post commander for findings on whether there should be a court-martial. If they so hold, final charges and specifications will be drawn up and made public at that time, the officials said.

Calley’s friends in the officer corps at Fort Benning, many of them West Point graduates, are indignant. However, knowing the high stakes of the case, they express their outrage in private.

“They’re using this as a Goddamned example,” one officer complained. “He’s a good soldier. He followed orders.

“There weren’t any friendlies in the village. The orders were to shoot anything that moved.” Another officer said “It could happen to any of us. He has killed and has seen a lot of killing. ..Killing becomes nothing in Vietnam. He knew that there were civilians there, but he also knew that there were VC among them.”

A third officer, also familiar with the case, said: “There’s this question—I think anyone who goes to (Viet) Nam asks it. What’s a civilian? Someone who works for us at day and puts on Viet Cong pajamas at night?”

 

There is another side of the Calley case—one that the Army cannot yet disclose. Interviews have brought out the fact that the investigation into the Pinkville affair was initiated six months after the incident, only after some of the men who served under Calley complained.

The Army has photographs purported to be of the incident, although these have not been introduced as evidence in the case, and may not be.

“They simply shot up this village and (Calley) was the leader of it,” said one Washington source. “When one guy refused to do it, Calley took the rifle away and did the shooting himself.”

Asked about this, Calley refused to comment.

One Pentagon officer discussing the case tapped his knee with his hand and remarked, “Some of those kids he shot were this high. I don’t think they were VietCong. Do you?”

None of the men interviewed about the incident denied that women and children were shot. A source of amazement among all those interviewed was that the story had yet to reach the press.

“Pinkville has been a word among GIs for a year,” one official said. “I’ll never cease to be amazed that it hasn’t been written about before.” A high-ranking officer commented that he first heard talk of the Pinkville incident soon after it happened; the officer was on duty in Saigon at the time.

Why did the Army choose to prosecute this case? On what is it basing the charge that Calley acted with premeditation before killing? The court-martial should supply the answers to these questions, but some of the men already have their opinions.

“The Army knew it was going to get clobbered on this at some point,” one military source commented. “If they don’t prosecute somebody, if this stuff comes out without the Army taking some action, it could be even worse.”

Another view that many held was that the top level of the military was concerned about possible war crime tribunals after the Vietnam war.

As for Calley—he is smoking four packs of cigarettes daily and getting out of shape. He is 5-foot-3, slender, with expressionless gray eyes and thinning brown hair. He seems slightly bewildered and hurt by the charges against him. He says he wants nothing more than to be cleared and return to the Army.

“I know this sounds funny,” he said in an interview, “but I like the Army. ..and I don’t want to do anything to hurt it.”

Friends described Calley as a “gung-ho Army man ... Army all the way.” Ironically, even his stanchest supporters admit, his enthusiasm may be somewhat to blame. “Maybe he did take some order to clear out the village a little bit too literally” one friend said “but he’s a fine boy.”

Calley had been shipped home early from Vietnam, after the Army refused his request to extend his tour of duty. Until the incident at Pinkville, he had received nothing but high ratings from his superior officers. He was scheduled to be awarded the Bronze and Silver Stars for his combat efforts, he said. He has heard nothing about the medals since arriving at Fort Benning.

Calley was born in Miami, Fla., and flunked Out of the Palm Beach Junior College before enlisting in the Army. He became a second lieutenant in September 1967, shortly after going to Vietnam. The Army lists his home of record as Waynesville, N.C.

An information sheet put out by the public affairs officer of the American Division the day after the March 16 engagement contained this terse mention of the incident: “The swiftness with which the units moved into the area surprised the enemy. After the battle the Eleventh Brigade moved into the village searching each hut and tunnel.”

 

Hamlet Attack Called “Point-Blank Murder”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 20, 1969

 WASHINGTON, Nov. 20—Three American soldiers who participated in the March 1968 attack on a Vietnam village called Pinkville said in interviews made public today that their Army combat unit perpetrated, in the words of one, “pointblank murder” on the residents.

“The whole thing was so deliberate. It was point-blank murder and I was standing there watching it,” said Sgt. Michael Bernhardt, Franklin Square, N.Y., now completing his Army tour at Fort Dix, N .J .

Bernhardt was a member of one of three platoons of an Eleventh Infantry Brigade company under the command of Capt. Ernest Medina. The company entered the Viet Cong-dominated area on March 16, 1968, when on a search-and-destroy mission. Pinkville, known to Vietnamese as Song My village, is about six miles northeast of Quang Ngai.

The Army has charged Lt. William L. Calley Jr., Miami, one of Medina’s platoon leaders, with the murder of 109 South Vietnamese civilians in the attack. A squad leader in Calley’s platoon, Sgt. David Mitchell, St. Francisville, La., is underinvestigation for assault with intent to murder.

At least four other men, including Medina, are under investigation in connection with the incident. Calley and his attorney, George W. Latimer, Salt Lake City, have said that the unit was under orders to clear the area.

Bernhardt, interviewed at Fort Dix, said he had been delayed on the operation and fell slightly behind the company, then led by Calley’s platoon, as it entered the village. This is his version of what took place:

“They (Calley’s men) were doing a whole lot of shooting up there, but none of it was incoming—I’d been around enough to tell that. I figured they were advancing on the village with fire power.

 

“I walked up and saw these guys doing strange things. They were doing it three ways. One: They were setting fire to the hootches and huts and waiting for people to come out and then shooting them up. Two: They were going into the hootches and shooting them up. Three: They were gathering people in groups and shooting them.

“As I walked in, you could see piles of people all through the village. ... all over. They were gathered up into large groups.

“I saw them shoot an M-79 (grenade launcher) into a group of people who were still alive. But it (the shooting) was mostly done with a machine gun. They were shooting women and children just like anybody else.

“We met no resistance and I only saw three captured weapons. We had no casualties. It was just like any other Vietnamese village—old Papa-san, women and kids. As a matter of fact, I don’t remember seeing one military-age male in the entire place, dead or alive. The only prisoner I saw was about 50.”

An Army communique reporting on the operation said that Medina’s company recovered two M-I rifles, a carbine\ a short-wave radio and enemy documents in the assault. The Viet Cong body count was listed as 128 and there was no mention of civilian casualties.

Bernhardt, short and intense, told his story in staccato fashion, with an obvious sense of relief at finally talking about it. At one point he said to his interviewer: “You’re surprised? I wouldn’t be surprised at anything these dudes (the men who did the shooting) did.”

Bernhardt said he had no idea precisely how many villagers were shot. He said that he had heard death counts ranging from 170 to more than 700.

Bernhardt also said he had no idea whether Calley personally shot 109 civilians, as the Army has charged. However, he said, “I know myself that he killed a whole lot of people.” Residents of the Pinkville areas have told newspapermen that 567 villagers were killed in the operation.

Why did the men run amuck?

“It’s my belief,” the sergeant said, “that the company was conditioned to do this. The treatment was lousy. ..We were always out in the bushes. I think they were expecting us to run into resistance at Pinkville and also expecting them ( the Viet Cong) to use the people as hostages.”

A few days before the mission, he said, the men’s general contempt for Vietnamese civilians intensified when some GIs walked into a landmine, injuring nearly 20 and killing at least one member of the company.

Why didn’t he report the incident at the time?

“After it was allover, some colonel came down to the firebase where we were stationed and asked about it, but we heard no further. Later they ( Medina and some other officers) called me over to the command post and asked me not to write my Congressman.”

(The Army subsequently substantiated Bernhardt’s accusation. In a private letter dated Aug. 6, 1969, Col. John G. Hill, a deputy for staff action control in the office of Army Chief of Staff William C. Westmoreland, wrote that Medina acknowledged that he had requested Bernhardt to wait until a brigade investigation of the incident was completed. Nothing came of the investigation. )

Bernhardt said that about 90 per cent of the 60 to 70 men in the short-handed company were involved in the shootings. He took no part, he said. “I only shoot at people who shoot at me,” was his explanation. “The Army ordered me not to talk,” Bernhardt told the interviewer. “But there are some orders that I have to personally decide whether to obey; I have my own conscience to consider.

“The whole thing has kind of made me wonder if I could trust people any more.”

His opinion, he said, is that a higher Tanking officer must have ordered the destruction of Pinkville. “Calley’s just a small fry,” he said.

Bernhardt said the Army must have known at high levels just what did happen at Pinkville.

“They’ve got pictures. Some dude went along on the mission and shot pictures,” he said. Bernhardt said the photographs were shown to him in the Article 32 proceeding, which concluded that the chargesagainst Calley were justified.

“They showed a mass of people. …this pile-up of people. I don’t see how anybody could say it was artillery or crossfire that killed those people,” he said.

(The Cleveland Plain Dealer printed today photographs showing South Vietnamese civilians allegedly killed in the incident. It said the photographs came from a former Army combat photographer, Ronald L. Haeberle, Cleveland.

(Haeberle said in a copyright story that he joined the company just before it entered the village and heard from the men that the villagers were suspected of being Viet Cong sympathizers. He said he saw men, women and children killed. )

Another witness to the shootings was Michael Terry, Orem, Utah, then a member of the C Platoon of Medina’s company and now a sophomore at nearby Brigham Young University. Interviewed at his home, Terry said he, too, came on the scene moments after the killings began.

“They just marched through shooting everybody,” he said. “Seems like no one said anything. …They just started pulling people out and shooting them.”

At one point, he said, more than 20 villagers were lined up in front of a ditch and shot.

“They had them in a group standing over a ditch-just like a Nazi-type thing. ...One officer ordered a kid to machine-gun everybody down, but the kid just couldn’t do it. He threw the machine gun down and the officer picked it up. ...” Terry said.

“I don’t remember seeing any men in the ditch. Mostly women and kids.”

Later, he and the platoon team he headed were taking a lunch break near the ditch when, Terry said, he noticed “some of them were still breathing. ...They were pretty badly shot up. They weren’t going to get any medical help, and so we shot them. Shot maybe five of them. ..”

Why did it happen?

“I think that probably the officers didn’t really know if they were ordered to kill the villagers or not. ...A lot of guys feel that they (the South Vietnamese civilians) aren’t human beings; we just treated them like animals.”

Apparently one officer, who was not from Medina’s company, attempted to halt the shootings. Terry and Bernhardt both reported that a helicopter pilot from an aviation support unit landed in the midst of the incident and attempted to quell it.

The officer warned that he would report the shootings. On the next day, the pilot was killed in action and the subsequent investigation started by officials at the Eleventh Brigade was dropped after one and a half days because of insufficient evidence.

Terry said he first learned of the present investigation when he was interviewed last spring by a colonel from the Army Inspector General’s office. Bernhardt was not questioned until a team from the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division visited him two months ago.

The third witness to the Pinkville shootings cannot be identified. He is still on active duty with the Army on the West Coast. But he corroborated in detail the Bernhardt and Terry descriptions of that day in March 1968.

“I was shooting pigs and a chicken while the others were shooting people,” he said. “It isn’t just a nightmare; I’m completely aware of how real this was.

“It’s something I don’t think a person would understand the reality of it just didn’t hit me until recently, when I read about it again in the newspapers.”

All three GIs were read key excerpts from a three-page letter sent in March by a former GI, Ronald Ridenhour, to the Army and 30 other officials, including some Senators. The letter out- lined the Pinkville incident as he understood it. It was Ridenhour’s persistence that prompted the Army to begin its high-level investigation in April.

Ridenhour, now a student at Claremont ( Calif.) Men’s College, was not in Medina’s company and did not participate in the shootings. He relied on information from Terry and Bernhardt, among many others, to draft his letter.

Calley’s attorney refused to comment on the new charges brought out in the interviews. But another source, discussing Calley’s position, said, “Nobody’s put the finger yet on the man who started it.”

The source said also that he understood that Calley and other officers in the company initially resisted the orders but eventually did their job. Calley’s platoon led the attack on the village, with the other units forming a horseshoe-shaped cordon around the area, to prevent enemy troops from fleeing.

“I don’t care whether Calley used the best judgment or not—he was faced with a tough decision,” the source said.

 

Ex-GI Tells of Killing Civilians at Pinkville
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 25, 1969

TERRE HAUTE, Ind., Nov. 25—A former GI told in interviews yesterday how he executed, under orders, dozens of South Vietnamese civilians during the United States Army attack on the village of Song My in March 1968. He estimated that he and his fellow soldiers Shot 370 villagers during the operation in what has become known as Pinkville.

Paul Meadlo, 22 years old, West Terre Haute, Ind., a farm community near the Illinois border, gave an eyewitness account—the first made available thus far—of what happened when a platoon led by Lt. William L. Calley Jr. entered Pinkville on a search-and-destroy mission. The Army has acknowledged that at least 100 civilians were killed by the men; Vietnamese survivors had told reporters that the death total was 567.

Meadlo, Who was wounded in a mine accident the day after Pinkville, disclosed that the company captain, Ernest Medina, was in the area at the time of the shootings and made no attempt to stop them.

Calley, 26, Waynesville, N .C., has been accused of the pre- meditated murder of 109 civilians in the incident. Medina, as commander of the Eleventh Infantry Brigade unit, is under investigation for his role in the shootings. Last week the Army said that at least 24 other men were under investigation, including Calley’s chief noncommissioned officer, Sgt. David Mitchell, 29, St. Francisville, La., who is being investigated for assault with intent to commit murder. Calley was ordered yesterday to stand general court-martial.

Here is Meadlo’s story as given in interviews at his mother’s home near Terre Haute:

“There was supposed to have been some Viet Cong in Pinkville and we began to make a sweep through it. Once we got there we began gathering up the people...started putting them in big mobs. There must have been about 40 or 45 civilians standing in one big circle in the middle of the village ... Calley told me and a couple of other guys to watch them.

“ ‘You know what I want you to do with them’ he said,” Meadlo related. He and the others continued to guard the group. “About 10 minutes later Calley came back. ‘Get with it,’ he said. ‘I want them dead.’

“So we stood about 10 or 15 feet away from them, then he (Calley) started shooting them. Then he told me to start shooting them. ... I started to shoot them, but the other guys (who had been assigned to guard the civilians) wouldn’t do it.

“So we (Meadlo and Cilley) went ahead and killed them. I used more than a whole clip—actually I used four or five clips,” Meadlo said. (There are 17 M-16 shells in a clip.) He estimated that he killed at least 15 civilians-or nearly half of those in the circle.

Asked what he thought at the time, Meadlo said, “I just thought we were supposed to do it.” Later, he said that the shooting “did take a load off my conscience for the buddies we’d lost. It was just revenge, that’s all it was.”

The company had been in the field for 40 days without relief before the Pinkville incident on March 16, and had lost a number of men in mine accidents. Hostility to the Vietnamese was high in the company, Meadlo said.

The killings continued.

“We had about seven or eight civilians gathered in a hootch, and I was going to throw a hand grenade in. But someone told us to take them to the ditch (a drainage ditch in the village into which many civilians were herded-and shot).

“Calley was there and said to me, ‘Meadlo, we’ve got an- other job to do.’ So we pushed our seven to eight people in with the big bunch of them. And so I began shooting them ill. So did Mitchell, Cilley ...(At this point Meadlo could not remember any more men involved).I guess I shot maybe 25 or 20 people in the ditch.”

His role in the killings had not yet ended.

“After the ditch, there were just some people in hootches. I knew there were some people down in one hootch, maybe two or three, so 1 just threw a hand grenade in.”

Meadlo is a tall, clean-cut son of an Indiana coal mine worker. He married his high-school sweetheart in suburban Terre Haute, began rearing a family (he has two children) and was drafted. He had been in Vietnam four months at the time of Pinkville. On the next day, March 17, his foot was blown off, when, while following Cilley on an operation, a land mine was set off.

As Meadlo was waiting to be evacuated, other men in the company had reported that he told Calley that “this was his (Meadlo’s) punishment for what he had done the day before.” He warned, according to onlookers, that Calley would have his day of judgment too. Asked about this, Meadlo said he could not remember.

Meadlo is back at a factory job now in Terre Haute, fighting to keep a full disability payment from the Veterans’ Administration The loss of his right foot seems to bother him less than the loss of his self-respect.

Like other members of his company, he had been called just days before the interview by an officer at Fort Benning, Ga., where Calley is being held, and advised that he should not discuss the case with reporters But, like other members of his company, he seemed eager to talk.

“This has made him awful nervous,” explained his mother, Mrs. Myrtle Meadlo, 57, New Goshen, Ind. “He seems like he just can’t get over it.

“I sent them a good boy and they made him a murderer.”

Why did he do it?

“We all were under orders,” Meadlo said “We all thought we were doing the right thing. At the time it didn’t bother me.”

He began having serious doubts that night about what he had done at Pinkville. He says he still has them.

“The kids and the women—they didn’t have any right to die.

“In the beginning,” Meadlo said, “I just “thought we were going to be murdering the Viet Cong.” He, like other members of his company, had attended a squad meeting the night before, at which time Company Commander Medina promised the boys a good firefight.

Calley and his platoon were assigned the key role of entering the Pinkvi1le area first.

“When we came in we thought we were getting fired on,” Meadlo said, although the company suffered no casualties, apparently because the Viet Cong had fled from the area during the night.

“We came in from this open field, and somebody spotted this one gook out there. He was down in a shelter, scared and huddling. Someone said, ‘There’s a gook over here,’ and asked what to do with him. Mitchell said, ‘Shoot him,’ and he did. The gook was standing up and shaking and waving his arms when he got it.

“Then we came onto this hootch, and one door was hard to open.”

Meadlo said he crashed through the door and “found an old man in there shaking.

“I told them, ‘I got one,’ and it was Mitchell who told me to shoot him. That was the first man I shot. He was hiding in a dugout, shaking his head and waving his arms, trying to tell me not to shoot him.”

After the carnage, Meadlo said, “I heard that all we were supposed to do was kill the VC. Mitchell said we were just supposed to shoot the men.”

Women and children also were shot. Meadlo estimated that at least 310 persons were shot to death by the Americans that day.

“I know it was far more than 100 as the U.S. Army now says. I’m absolutely sure of that. There were bodies all around.”

He has some haunting memories, he says. “They didn’t put up a fight or anything. The women huddled against their children and took it. They brought their kids real close to their stomachs and hugged them, and put their bodies over them trying to save them. It didn’t do much good,” Meadlo said

Two things puzzled him. He vigorously disputes the repeated reports of an artillery barrage before the village was approached.

“There wasn’t any artillery barrage whatsoever in the village. Only some gunships firing from above,” he said.

The South Vietnamese government said Saturday that 20 civilians were killed in the Pinkville attack, most of them victims of tactical air strikes or an artillery barrage laid down before the U.S. troops moved in. The government denied reports of a massacre.

Meadlo is curious also about the role of Capt. Medina in the incident.

“I don’t know if the C.O. (Company Commander) gave the order to kill or not, but he was right there when it happened. Why didn’t he stop it? He and Calley passed each other quite a few times that morning, but didn’t say anything. Medina just kept marching around. He could’ve put a stop to it anytime he wanted.”

The whole operation took about 30 minutes, Meadlo said. As for Calley, Meadlo told of an incident a few weeks before Pinkville.

“We saw this woman walking across this rice paddy and Calley said, ‘Shoot her,’ so we did. When we got there the girl was alive, had this hole in her side. Calley tried to get someone to shoot her again; I don’t know if he did.”

In addition, Calley and Medina had told the men before Pinkville, Meadlo said, “that if we ever shoot any civilians, we should go ahead and plant a hand grenade on them.”

Meadlo is not sure, but he thinks the feel of death came quickly to the company once it got to Vietnam.

“We were cautious at first, but as soon as the first man was killed, a new feeling came through the company...almost as if we all knew there was going to be a lot more killing.”

[Texts reproduced from Reporting Vietnam, Part Two: American Journalism 1969-1975 (Library of America, 1998), pp. 13-27.

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