Myths exaggerate the impact of a horrifying photo from the Vietnam War

Facebook caused controversy in 2016 by deleting the “Napalm Girl”, a comment posted on the network, because the photo showed the then-9-year old Kim Phuc completely naked. She tore off her clothes while she and other terrified kids fled their village of Trang Bang on June 8, 2002. Facebook reversed its decision after international outrage over the social network’s policies on free speech.

These episodes show that “Napalm Girl”, while a powerful example of the indiscriminate impact of war on civilians, is not all it’s cracked up to be. The Pulitzer Prize winning image formally known as “The Terror of War” has also given birth to tenacious myths.

Nick Ut, AP photographer, visited Phan Thi Kim Phuc in 1973. Ut took her to hospital after taking the 1972 photograph of her in pain. AP photo

Widely believed but often exaggerated

What are the media myths?

The stories are often repeated and widely accepted, but when examined, they are revealed to be apocryphal.

The photograph was taken by Ut when he worked as a photographer for The Associated Press at the age of 21.

In my book Getting it Wrong: Debunking the Greatest Myths in American Journalism, I debunk the myth that U.S. piloted or guided planes dropped napalm at Trang Bang, a gelatinous incendiary material.

No, it’s not so.

According to news reports at the time, the napalm attack was carried by Skyraider propeller-driven aircraft of the South Vietnamese Air Force in an attempt to rouse communist forces buried near the village.

The New York Times’ article by Trang Bang stated: “South Vietnamese drop napalm onto their own troops.” The Chicago Tribune, June 9, 1972, said that “napalm was dropped by a Vietnamese Air Force Skyraider diving on the wrong target.” Christopher Wain wrote , in a dispatch to United Press International, “These were South Vietnamese aircraft dropping napalm upon South Vietnamese peasants, and soldiers.”

In 1972, the myth of American responsibility for Trang Bang was born when Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern made reference to the photo in a television speech. He said that the napalm which badly burned Kim Phuc was “dropped by America.”

The metaphorical claim of McGovern was similar to Susan Sontag, who claimed in her 1973 book on photography that Kim Phuc “had been sprayed with American napalm.”

The New York Times headline for June 9, 1972 clearly stated that it was an attack by South Vietnam which sprayed napalm onto troops and civilians. New York Times archives

What is the fastest way to end the war?

The second myth is based on the assumption that “Napalm Girl”, which was widely viewed, must have had a powerful effect . These myths assert that the photo hastened the end of the war, and that it changed the U.S. opinion about the conflict.

Both are inaccurate.

continued for almost three years after Ut’s photograph was taken. In April 1975, communist forces overran South Vietnam, securing its capital.

Gallup’s periodic survey questions showed that Americans’ attitudes towards the war were negative before June 1972. The question, which was a proxy for Americans’ views on Vietnam, asked if sending U.S. soldiers there had been an error. In summer 1965, when the question was first asked, only 24% said that sending troops to Vietnam had been a bad decision.

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