A spasm of stories in the world media heralded April 30, 2015, the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. In Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, a choreographed military parade and patriotic speeches marked the event. Front and center among the visiting dignitaries were two dozen survivors of the hundreds of Western and Japanese journalists whose stories, photos and clips brought the war into living rooms around the world, at great cost. At least 65 journalists died there.
One of those old journalists, Vietnamese AP photographer Nick Ut, who took the iconic photo of a child engulfed by napalm and running down a highway, was also present and basking in the attention. But Ut has come in for criticism by bloggers who say he has ignored the later political woes the victim and her family suffered at the hands of the communist regime.
As a group, the self-styled “old hacks” were pleased to be back again, but most were considerably bemused by their celebrity. As reporters who covered the war from the US/South Vietnamese side, they were more used to being viewed with suspicion. Sore losers in the US blamed them for turning the American public against the war.
Then, when a loosely organized group of Vietnam War journalists began holding reunions in Phnom Penh and Saigon – first in 1995 and then every five years thereafter – it was the Vietnamese government that suspected they might be up to no good. Not this year, though. For the 40th anniversary, the police minders were gone, the welcome mat was out, and for retired reporters who were short of funds, Vietnam's Foreign Ministry picked up the tab.
Three of the group got extra attention from their hosts and especially from Vietnamese reporters, who had been given carte blanche by the Ministry of Information to report on the Old Hacks. One was Tim Page, the daredevil photographer who helped to organize a collection of photos by cameramen on both sides who were killed during the 30-year Vietnam conflict. That exhibit is the highlight of Ho Chi Minh City's War Remnants Museum. The other two were Pulitzer Prize-winners Peter Arnett (1966, for his reportage on the disintegration of South Vietnam's Diem regime under Viet Cong and Buddhist pressure) and Huynh Cong "Nick" Ut.
Ut, the only Vietnamese among the Old Hacks at this reunion, was awarded his Pulitzer in 1973 the "napalm girl" image that seared itself onto eyeballs around the world. Nearly as remarkable as the photograph is Ut's own story. He was only 15 when the legendary photographer Horst Faas hired him to work in the darkroom of the Saigon bureau of the Associated Press. Ut's older brother had been Faas' sidekick until his tragic death covering an operation in 1965. Now Faas took Ut under his wing. According to former colleagues, Ut yearned to follow his brother's profession. However, one death in Ut's family was already too many, Faas ruled, and refused to let young Ut cover combat.
One day in June 1972, however, Ut hitched a ride to Trang Bang, 50 km northwest of Saigon, where a North Vietnamese unit had seized a village on the highway to Phnom Penh. As Ut and several Vietnamese freelance photographers joined up with the Saigon troops sent to clear the highway, a South Vietnamese air force pilot dropped a napalm canister onto what he thought were Communist positions.
As the smoke cleared, it was evident that the drop had gone tragically wrong. Villagers were fleeing down a slope toward the photographers. Many, their clothes singed black, had napalm burns. In the middle of the highway ran nine year-old Kim Phuc, naked and screaming.
Shutters snapped furiously as the villagers reached safety with the South Vietnamese unit. The photographers raced back to town. That evening, printed and cropped, AP's napalm girl image was sent to newspapers around the world.
Embracing the Narrative
These days, Nick Ut is often in Vietnam. Like many other Vietnamese closely identified with the Americans, Ut was evacuated to the US as Communist forces closed in on Saigon. He settled in Los Angeles and continued to work for AP. From 1989 onward, however, Ut also found that in Vietnam he was now, on the strength of the famous photograph, a celebrity.
For public consumption at least, Ut has bought into Hanoi's narrative of painless reunification. That evolution ensures him a warm welcome by the propaganda apparatus of the party/state but it is earning him growing criticism from bloggers and others who feel he has turned his back on the forces who are seeking more human rights freedom in the country and particularly a freer press – a milieu that Ut himself spent his professional life in. Ut when interviewed has purged his replies of any hint that his loyalties once lay with the Saigon regime.
"As a combat photographer," he told Lao Dong (Labor Daily) in 2003, ". . . I recorded the face of war with just one prayer, that peace would come to Vietnam as soon as possible. After the photo of Kim Phuc was published, colleagues put it up for a Pulitzer Prize. I didn't want that. I thought it would be a sad thing to win a prize for shooting the pain of war ... a war that I'd had more than enough of!"
Six weeks after the 40th anniversary festivities, Ut was back, doing a star turn at the opening of a 58-photo exhibit mounted by the Associated Press in a government-run gallery in Hanoi. Commenting on the AP exhibition, President Truong Tan Sang told a reporter that the photos "gave the whole world a full picture of what was going on in Vietnam. I believe these photos made an enormous contribution to bringing the war . . . to an end."
AP CEO Gary Pruitt sang harmony: "AP presented these images of what was really going on in the war... There were times when the United States government felt the AP's work was undermining its military effort. . . . AP resisted that pressure."
Reports of the AP exhibition prompted comment in Vietnam's lively blogosphere. Why has the real story of "napalm girl" Kim Phuc been suppressed, asked bloggers Duc Hong and Tuan Khanh. And why does Ut, who knows that story intimately, keep silent?
In parallel posts, referencing Kim Phuc's own memoirs, the bloggers related that after Hanoi's victory in 1975, Phuc's family was classified as "bourgeois." Phuc was forced to drop out of pharmacy school and return to her village where, under police supervision, she was compelled to tell the approved version of her story over and over to visiting foreigners.
Kim Phuc lives in Canada now. She didn't get there the usual way, emphasizes blogger Hong. "She had to run away; she sought political asylum." Her chance came when she was allowed to go to Cuba in 1986 as a student. Phuc defected while her plane, bound from Cuba to eastern Europe, stopped to refuel in Gander, Newfoundland. Now a Canadian citizen, Phuc has never returned to Vietnam.
The bloggers are perplexed. Ut, Khanh argues, has embraced the photo that made him famous but, by not telling the full story of Kim Phuc, has betrayed his profession. Phuc, despite her painful scars, was desperately unhappy in her role as a pawn of Hanoi's propaganda machine. Ut by contrast seemingly relishes the perks and prominence that are showered on him for acquiescing to Hanoi's spin on the famous photo.
Ut's AP colleague Eddie Adams, who went on to become a wealthy celebrity photographer, also won a Pulitzer for an iconic photo, Khanh notes. It shows Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the Saigon regime's police chief, blowing out the brains of a Viet Cong sapper squad leader during the Tet 1968 battle. Unlike Ut, Adams didn't let Hanoi spin his photo. When opportunity arose, he explained the context of the summary execution and expressed regret that his photo had been used as anti-Saigon propaganda.
"I've worked for AP more than 40 years," Ut told the Hanoi newswire Vietnam Express a few years ago. " At any time, I could have been fired for even a small ethical lapse. A professional journalist must be careful and conscientious."
Perhaps the Vietnamese bloggers' revisionist take on Ut is too harsh. Time passes, and a story told many times tends to evolve. Perhaps Nick Ut, now about to retire, truly believes that the way he now recounts Kim Phuc's story is, somehow, the right way.
David Brown is a former US diplomat in Southeast Asia and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel