W. Joseph Campbell

‘Scorched by American napalm’: The media myth of ‘Napalm Girl’ endures

In Debunking, Error, Media myths, Newspapers, Photographs on August 22, 2016 at 7:33 am

One of the most memorable photographs of the Vietnam War was “The Terror of War,” better known as “Napalm Girl.”

The image showed a cluster of terrified Vietnamese children fleeing an errant bombing raid near their village, Trang Bang. At the center of the photograph was a naked, 9-year-old girl named Kim Phuc who was badly burned in the napalm attack.

'Napalm girl,' 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

‘Napalm Girl,’ 1972 (Nick Ut/AP)

The photograph was taken June 8, 1972, by an Associated Press photographer, Nick Ut. The photograph won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973 and much acclaim in the years since then.

It also has given rise to enduring media myths — notably that Ut’s photograph showed the effects of a U.S. bombing raid at Trang Bang, northwest of Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital now known as Ho Chi Minh City.

That myth of the “Napalm Girl” was invoked yesterday in a 900-word profile of Ut in the Los Angeles Times. The article referred in its opening paragraph to Kim Phuc, saying she had been “scorched by American napalm.”

In fact, the aerial napalm attack was carried out by the South Vietnamese Air Force, as news reports at the time made clear.

The Los Angeles Times prominently displayed the photograph on its front page of June 9, 1972 (see right), and stated in its caption that the napalm had been “dropped accidentally by South Vietnamese planes.”Screen Shot 2016-08-21 at 9.39.27 AM

The New York Times reported on June 9, 1972, that “a South Vietnamese plane mistakenly dropped flaming napalm right on his troops and a cluster of civilians.” The Chicago Tribune told of “napalm dropped by a Vietnamese air force Skyraider [warplane] diving onto the wrong target.”

Christopher Wain of Britain ITN television network wrote in a dispatch from Trang Bang for the United Press International news service:

“These were South Vietnamese planes dropping napalm on South Vietnamese peasants and troops.”

The myth of American culpability in the attack at Trang Bang has been invoked often over the years. Early this month, for example, a columnist for USAToday referred to Ut’s photograph and said it showed “a naked nine-year-old Vietnamese girl fleeing her village after U.S. forces bombed it with napalm….”

The making of the myth can be traced to the hapless campaign in 1972 of George McGovern, the Democratic nominee for president.

In a televised speech in October 1972, McGovern invoked the image of “the little South Vietnamese girl, Kim, fleeing in terror” and “running naked into the lens of that camera.

“That picture ought to break the heart of every American,” McGovern said. “How can we rest with the grim knowledge that the burning napalm that splashed over little Kim and countless thousands of other children was dropped in the name of America?”

How he determined that Kim Phuc was representative of “countless thousands of other children” sprayed by napalm, McGovern did not say.

But his claim that the napalm had been “dropped in the name of America” insinuated U.S. responsibility for the errant attack — which misstated what had happened at Trang Bang. The aerial attack was carried out by South Vietnamese forces to roust communist troops from bunkers at the outskirts of the village.

The fighting there was an all-Vietnamese encounter.


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