50 Years After ‘Napalm Lady,’ Myths Distort the Actuality Behind a Horrific Photograph


The “Napalm Lady” {photograph} of terror-stricken Vietnamese youngsters fleeing an errant aerial assault on their village, taken 50 years in the past this month, has rightly been referred to as “an image that doesn’t relaxation.”

It’s a type of distinctive visible artifacts that attracts consideration and even controversy years after it was made.

Warning: This text incorporates graphic photos that some might discover disturbing.

In Might 2022, for instance, Nick Ut, the photographer who captured the picture, and the picture’s central determine, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, made information on the Vatican as they offered a poster-size copy of the prize-winning picture to Pope Francis, who has emphasised the evils of warfare.

In 2016, Fb stirred controversy by deleting “Napalm Lady” from a commentary posted on the community as a result of the {photograph} exhibits the then-9-year-old Kim Phuc completely bare. She had torn away her burning garments as she and different terrified youngsters ran from their village, Trang Bang, on June 8, 1972. Fb retracted the choice amid a global uproar concerning the social community’s free speech insurance policies.

Such episodes sign how “Napalm Lady” is rather more than highly effective proof of battle’s indiscriminate results on civilians. The Pulitzer Prize-winning picture, formally referred to as “The Terror of Battle,” has additionally given rise to tenacious media-driven myths.

“Napalm Lady.” Terrified youngsters, together with 9-year-old Kim Phuc, heart, close to Trang Bang, Vietnam, after a South Vietnamese aircraft on June 8, 1972, by chance dropped its flaming napalm by itself troops and civilians. Photograph by Nick Ut / Related Press

Learn additionally: An Interview with Nick Ut: The Photojournalist Who Shot the Iconic ‘Napalm Lady’ Photograph

Broadly Believed – Typically Exaggerated

What are media myths?

These are well-known tales about or by the information media which are extensively believed and sometimes retold however which, below scrutiny, dissolve as apocryphal or wildly exaggerated.

The distorting results of 4 media myths have develop into connected to the {photograph}, which Ut made when he was a 21-year-old photographer for The Related Press.

Distinguished among the many myths of the “Napalm Lady,” which I handle and dismantle in my guide Getting It Unsuitable: Debunking the Biggest Myths in American Journalism, is that U.S.-piloted or guided warplanes dropped the napalm, a gelatinous, incendiary substance, at Trang Bang.

Not so.

The napalm assault was carried out by propeller-driven Skyraider plane of the South Vietnamese Air Drive making an attempt to roust communist forces dug in close to the village – as information accounts on the time made clear.

The headline over the New York Occasionsreport from Trang Bang mentioned: “South Vietnamese Drop Napalm on Personal Troops.” The Chicago Tribune entrance web page of June 9, 1972, acknowledged the “napalm [was] dropped by a Vietnamese air power Skyraider diving onto the fallacious goal.” Christopher Wain, a veteran British journalist, wrote in a dispatch for United Press Worldwide: “These have been South Vietnamese planes dropping napalm on South Vietnamese peasants and troops.”

The parable of American culpability at Trang Bang started taking maintain throughout the 1972 presidential marketing campaign, when Democratic candidate George McGovern referred to the {photograph} in a televised speech. The napalm that badly burned Kim Phuc, he declared, had been “dropped within the identify of America.”

McGovern’s metaphoric declare anticipated comparable assertions, together with Susan Sontag’s assertion in her 1973 guide “On Pictures,” that Kim Phuc had been “sprayed by American napalm.”

The New York Occasions headline of June 9, 1972, clearly reported it was a South Vietnamese assault that sprayed napalm on troops and civilians. New York Occasions archive

Hastened the Battle’s Finish?

Two different associated media myths relaxation on assumptions that “Napalm Lady” was so highly effective that it will need to have exerted highly effective results on its audiences. These myths declare that the {photograph} hastened an finish to the battle and that it turned U.S. public opinion towards the battle.

Neither is correct.

Though most U.S. fight forces have been out of Vietnam by the point Ut took the {photograph}, the battle went on for practically three extra years. The finish got here in April 1975, when communist forces overran South Vietnam and seized its capital.

People’ views concerning the battle had turned detrimental lengthy earlier than June 1972, as measured by a survey query the Gallup Group posed periodically. The query – primarily a proxy for People’ views about Vietnam – was whether or not sending U.S. troops there had been a mistake. When the query was first requested in summer time 1965, solely 24% of respondents mentioned sure, sending in troops had been a mistake.

However by mid-Might 1971 – greater than a yr earlier than “Napalm Lady” was made – 61% of respondents mentioned sure, sending troops had been mistaken coverage.

In brief, public opinion turned towards the battle lengthy earlier than “Napalm Lady” entered fashionable consciousness.

Ubiquitous? Not Precisely

One other fantasy is that “Napalm Lady” appeared on newspaper entrance pages in all places in America.

Many giant U.S. every day newspapers did publish the {photograph}. However many newspapers abstained, maybe as a result of it depicted frontal nudity.

In a evaluate I performed with a analysis assistant of 40 main every day U.S. newspapers – all of which have been Related Press subscribers – 21 titles positioned “Napalm Lady” on the entrance web page.

However 14 newspapers – greater than one-third of the pattern – didn’t publish “Napalm Lady” in any respect within the days instantly after its distribution. These included papers in Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Houston and Newark.

Solely three of the 40 newspapers examined – The Boston Globe, the New York Publish and The New York Occasions – revealed editorials particularly addressing the {photograph}. The editorial within the New York Publish, then a liberal-minded newspaper, was prophetic in saying:

“The image of the youngsters won’t ever depart anybody who noticed it.”


Concerning the writer: W. Joseph Campbell is a Professor of Communication Research on the American College College of Communication. The opinions expressed on this article are solely these of the writer. This text was initially revealed at The Dialog and is being republished below a Inventive Commons license.

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