W. Joseph Campbell

Exaggerating the power of ‘Napalm Girl’ photo

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Photographs on May 29, 2014 at 8:03 am
'Napalm girl,' 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

‘Napalm girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

The famous “napalm girl” photograph of June 1972 undeniably ranks among the most profound and disturbing images of the Vietnam War. Its power, though, is often overstated.

The photograph, taken by Nick Ut of the Associated Press, and showed Vietnamese children terror-stricken by a misdirected napalm attack on their village by the South Vietnamese Air Force. At the center of image was a 9-year-old girl named Kim Phuc, shown screaming and naked as she fled. The photograph, formally titled “The Terror of War,” won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973.

In the years since then, a tendency has developed to attribute to the image effects that are far more powerful and decisive than it projected at the time.

For example, the Guardian newspaper in London asserted in a review the other day of an exhibit in France of the imagery of war that Ut’s photo “galvani[z]ed” American “public opinion and expedited the end of the Vietnam war.” Neither claim is accurate.

By June 1972, American public opinion had long since turned against the war in Vietnam. Nearly 60 percent of respondents to a Gallup poll conducted early in 1971 had said that the United States had made a mistake by sending troops to fight in Vietnam. (Gallup periodically has asked the question since 1965, when just 24 percent of respondents said it was a mistake to have sent troops to Vietnam. By August 1968, a majority of respondents said it had been a mistake.)

Ut’s photo can hardly be said to have galvanized opinion against the war: That shift had taken place years before.

Nor can it be said that the photo “expedited” the war’s end.

By June 1972, the war was essentially over for American forces in Vietnam. President Richard Nixon had announced in November 1971 that U.S. ground operations had ended in South Vietnam and by June 1972, nearly all U.S. combat units had been removed from the country.

Compelling though it was, the “napalm girl” photo exerted impact far less profound than is now believed.

But so what? Why is it problematic to overstate the image’s effects?

To do so is to indulge in a central flaw of a media-driven myth — that of media centrism, of exaggerating the power of the journalism, of attributing to news media greater influence than they really wield. To do so also is to misread and distort the historical record. No single photograph turned public opinion against the war in Vietnam or “expedited” its end: The war’s duration, its uncertain policy objectives, and its toll in dead and wounded all were far more decisive factors in the outcome of the conflict.

“Napalm girl” was an unsettling image, undeniably memorable. But it does not follow that it wielded immeasurable or decisive influence.

It did not.


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