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 aptly called ‘an image that does not rest.”

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 in the photo, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, makes the news in the Vatican as they presented a poster-size reproduction of the award-winning image to Pope Francis, who highlighted the evils of war.

In 2016, Facebook stirs controversial by removing “Napalm Girl” from a comment posted on the network because the photo shows then 9-year-old Kim Phuc fully naked. She ripped her clothes off on fire 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 social network . free speech policies.

Such episodes show how “Napalm Girl” is more than powerful evidence of the indiscriminate effects of war on civilians. The Pulitzer Prize-winning imageformerly known as “The Terror of War”, also gave rise to media myths.

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.

Prominent among the “Napalm Girl” myths, which I address and dismantle in my book”Getting It Wrong: Debunking America’s Biggest Journalism Mythsis that warplanes piloted or guided by the United States dropped napalm, a gelatinous and incendiary substance, in Trang Bang.

Not so.

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

The New York Times headline report of Trang Bang said, “The South Vietnamese are dropping 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 at Trang Bang first gained traction during the 1972 presidential campaign, when Democratic candidate George McGovern referenced photography 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 are based on assumptions that “Napalm Girl” was so powerful that she must have had powerful effects on its audiences. These myths claim that photography hastened the end of the war and that he transformed American public opinion against conflict.

Neither is correct.

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

American views on the war had turned negative long before June 1972, as measured by a survey question that the Gallup organization asked periodically. 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 respondents 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” appeared on the front pages of newspapers everywhere in America.

Many major American daily newspapers 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.”

About Julius Southworth

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