Americans are not unique in seeking to wish away their atroci
ties. The Germans did it too. Opton and Duckles made use of
survey techniques to study the kinds of psychological defenses
people call forth to avoid accepting the unacceptable.
THEY DESERVED IT
Edward M. Opton, Jr., and Robert Duckles
A fictional German psychiatrist, the creation of satirist Art Hoppe, tells his American patient who is troubled by My Lai to repeat three times a day: "I didn't know what was going on. These things happen in war. I was only following orders as a good American. Our soldiers are good American boys. The war is to save the world from Communism. Our leaders were wrong. The unfortunate victims were members of an inferior race." With a single exception, Hoppe's compilation of German clichés after the "Final Solution" accurately summarizes American reactions to My Lai, as they emerged in a survey we and our colleagues at The Wright Institute in Berkeley, California, made last December.
Our sample was not large--most of our data come from 42 long interviews with randomly selected telephone subscribers in Oakland, California, plus four in-person interviews--but the results are consistent with larger, less intensive surveys by the Wall Street Journal, Minneapolis Tribune, and Time. Time reported that 65 percent of its sample of 1608 individuals denied being upset by the news of the alleged massacre at My Lai. Americans have reacted like Germans to reports of atrocities. During one interview, an airline hostess was asked to inspect the Life magazine photographs of My Lai. As she viewed the mangled bodies and the contorted faces of those about to die she trembled, her chin dropped to her chest, her eyes closed to shut the pictures out. For several seconds she seemed unable to move. But she recovered quickly, for we then asked, "You said before that you weren't surprised. Do you have any other reactions besides that?" she responded: "No, I