50 years after ‘Napalm Girl,’ myths distort reality behind gruesome Vietnam War photo and exaggerate its impact

The ‘Napalm Girl’ photograph of terrorized Vietnamese children fleeing an errant airstrike on their village, taken 50 years ago this month, has been rightly called ‘a photo that doesn’t stop’.

It’s one of those outstanding visual artifacts that attracts attention and even controversy years after it was made.

In May 2022, for example, Nick Ut, the photographer who captured the image, and the central figure of the photo, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, made news at the Vatican by presenting a poster-size reproduction of the image. awarded to Pope Francis. , which pointed out the evils of war.

In 2016, Facebook sparked controversy when it removed “Napalm Girl” from a comment posted on the network because the photo showed Kim Phuc, then 9, completely naked. She had ripped off her burning clothes as she and other terrified children fled their village, Trang Bang, on June 8, 1972. Facebook reversed its decision amid an international outcry over the government’s free speech policies. social network.

Episodes like this show how “Napalm Girl” is more than powerful evidence of the indiscriminate effects of war on civilians. The Pulitzer Prize-winning image, officially known as “The Terror of War”, has also given rise to some nagging myths carried by the media.

Phan Thi Kim Phuc, left, is visited by AP photographer Nick Ut in 1973. After taking the photo of her fleeing in agony in 1972, Ut rushed her to hospital.
photo AP

Widely believed – often exaggerated

What are media myths?

These are well-known stories on or by the news media that are widely believed and often told but which, upon examination, dissolve as apocryphal or wildly exaggerated.

The distorting effects of four media myths have attached themselves to the photograph, which Ut took when he was a 21-year-old photographer for the Associated Press.

Among the “Napalm Girl” myths, which I address and dismantle in my book “Getting it Wrong: Busting America’s Biggest Journalism Myths,” is that US-piloted or guided warplanes dropped napalm, a gelatinous, incendiary substance. , in Trang Bang.

Not so.

The napalm attack was carried out by propeller-driven Skyraider planes from the South Vietnamese Air Force which were trying to overthrow the communist forces entrenched near the village – as the media made clear at the time.

The title of the New York Times report on Trang Bang read: “South Vietnamese drop napalm on their own troops. The front page of the Chicago Tribune for June 9, 1972 stated that “napalm [was] dropped by a diving Vietnamese Air Force Skyraider on the wrong target. Christopher Wain, a veteran British journalist, wrote in a dispatch for United Press International: “These were South Vietnamese planes dropping napalm on South Vietnamese peasants and troops.”

The myth of American guilt in Trang Bang began to take hold during the 1972 presidential campaign, when Democratic candidate George McGovern referenced the photograph in a televised speech. The napalm that badly burned Kim Phuc, he said, was “dropped in the name of America”.

McGovern’s metaphorical claim anticipated similar claims, including Susan Sontag’s statement in her 1973 book “On Photography”, that Kim Phuc had been “doused in American napalm”.

A headline of a New York Times article from June 9, 1972 said
The New York Times headline for June 9, 1972 clearly reported that it was a South Vietnamese attack that sprayed napalm on soldiers and civilians.
New York Times Archive

Hastened the end of the war?

Two other related media myths rest on assumptions that “Napalm Girl” was so powerful that she must have exerted powerful effects on her audience. These myths claim that photography hastened the end of the war and turned American public opinion against the conflict.

Neither is correct.

Although most American combat forces had left Vietnam by the time Ut took the picture, the war lasted nearly three years. The end came in April 1975, when communist forces invaded South Vietnam and seized its capital.

Americans’ views of the war had turned negative long before June 1972, as measured by a survey question the Gallup organization periodically asked. The question – essentially a proxy for American views on Vietnam – was whether sending American troops there had been a mistake. When the question was first asked in the summer of 1965, only 24% of respondents said yes, sending troops had been a mistake.

But in mid-May 1971 – more than a year before “Napalm Girl” was created – 61% of those polled said yes, sending troops had been wrong policy.

In short, public opinion turned against the war long before “Napalm Girl” entered the popular consciousness.

Omnipresent? Not exactly

Another myth is that “Napalm Girl” has appeared on the front pages of newspapers all over America.

Many major American dailies published the photograph. But many newspapers abstained, perhaps because they portrayed full-frontal nudity.

In a review I conducted with a research assistant from 40 major American daily newspapers – all of which subscribed to the Associated Press – 21 headlines placed “Napalm Girl” on the front page.

But 14 newspapers – more than a third of the sample – did not publish “Napalm Girl” at all in the days immediately following its release. These included newspapers in Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Houston and Newark.

Only three of the 40 newspapers examined – the Boston Globe, the New York Post and the New York Times – published editorials dealing specifically with photography. The editorial in the then liberal-minded New York Post was prophetic in saying:

“The picture of the children will never leave anyone who has seen it.”

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