General William Westmoreland was the commander of the US Army in Vietnam.

He publicly congratulated one company on “an outstanding job” and “dealing the enemy a heavy blow”.

The official report said “In a bloody day-long battle, US infantrymen today killed 128 Communists.”

But it wasn’t strictly accurate.

In fact it was a cover-up.

What actually happened was that First platoon, Charlie Company, went berserk and murdered up to five hundred unarmed villagers.

Mainly women, children, and old people.

It was a village called My Lai, on March 16th 1968.

The leader of the platoon was Lieutenant William Calley.

He and his men herded the villagers into a ditch and machine-gunned them.

It only stopped when a US helicopter-gunship landed nearby.

The pilot was Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson.

He began pulling the children that were still alive out from under the bodies of their parents.

He told his door-gunner to shoot anyone who tried to stop him.

The gunner trained his weapon on the soldiers and they stopped firing.

That helicopter crew saved 17 people, mainly children, that day.

One of them was just four years old.

At first the army tried to cover up the massacre, but eventually the news broke in the US media.

Lieutenant William Calley was charged with personally killing twenty two unarmed villagers.

Calley’s defence was that he did nothing wrong because he was following orders, as any good soldier should.

The issue became the most controversial news topic across America.

At that time George Lois was doing the covers for Esquire magazine.

He was an outstanding art director and he had an outstanding client.

They both appreciated the value of controversy.

Esquire was going to run a long article about the massacre and Lois persuaded the editor, Harold Hayes, to let him try an idea he had.

He wanted to photograph William Calley, in uniform, with a bunch of Vietnamese children sitting on his lap.

Harold Hayes said Calley would never agree to it.

George Lois said “Just let me talk to him.

He told Calley “Look, people who think you’re guilty will still think you’re guilty. People who think you’re innocent will still think you’re innocent. But what this cover shows is you’re not ashamed. You’re not hiding. You don’t think you did anything wrong.“

And it worked, William Calley posed, smiling, for the photo with Vietnamese children on his lap.

I remember walking down Madison Avenue and nearly falling over when I saw the cover.

It was all over every newsstand, other magazines couldn’t get a look-in.

During the decade George Lois and Harold Hayes were in charge, Esquire completely dominated point-of-purchase.

Which meant impulse sales were through the roof.

The shock of George Lois’s covers meant people who were going to buy another magazine switched at point-of-purchase.

Nowadays we think controversy is a bad thing, to be avoided at all costs.

We think it’s better to go unnoticed than cause a fuss.

But controversy means people will notice our work, controversy means it will get talked about.

Controversy is free media.


In 2008, the Museum of Modern Art had George Lois’s ten years of Esquire covers on exhibition for an entire year.