W. Joseph Campbell

‘Napalm Girl’ photograph ‘changed us and our stomach for war’: But how?

In 'Napalm girl', Debunking, Error, Media myths, Photographs on March 14, 2017 at 4:25 pm

The Associated Press photographer who took the famous “Napalm Girl” photograph of the Vietnam War is retiring this month, a development that prompted yet another exaggerated claim about the image and its supposed effects.

Nick Ut in 2016

The photographer is Nick Ut, who in June 1972 made the photograph of a cluster of terrified Vietnamese children fleeing an errant aerial napalm attack at Trang Bang, a village in what then was South Vietnam. The image is regarded as among the most memorable of the war and won for Ut a Pulitzer Prize in 1973.

Over the years, the photograph has become embroidered with media myths — notably the erroneous notion that the napalm was dropped by U.S. warplanes. As I discuss in the expanded second edition of my mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong, the attack at Trang Bang was carried out by the 518th Fighter Squadron of the South Vietnamese Air Force.

The other day, a Los Angeles television station contributed to the hyperbole associated with “Napalm Girl” by declaring the photograph was so powerful that it “changed us and our stomach for war.”

But how?

How did Ut’s black-and-white photograph — emotionally powerful though it was — change “us and our stomach for war”?

The report, by KABC TV, didn’t say, didn’t back up what was a sweeping and dubious claim.

Instead, the report reviewed Ut’s career, much of which was spent in Los Angeles for AP, after the Vietnam War.

To direct attention to the blithe KABC claim is not to be excessively fastidiousness. Indeed, calling out the assertion that the photograph “changed us” is to underscore how “Napalm Girl” has, as I note in Getting It Wrong, “become invested with mythic qualities and suffused with power that no photograph, however distinctive and exceptional, can realistically project.”

The myths and exaggerations that have taken hold about “Napalm Girl” also include claims that that the photograph hastened an end to the Vietnam War and that it galvanized American public opinion against the conflict. Those claims are inaccurate; neither can be sustained by dispassionate assessment of the relevant evidence.

The war went on nearly three years after the photograph was taken, ending in April 1975 with North Vietnam’s military conquest of South Vietnam. And U.S. public opinion had shifted against the conflict long before 1972.

As for having little “stomach for war” after 1972 — the United States has been engaged in numerous conflicts since Vietnam, including wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as interventions or air strikes in Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Libya, and Syria.

So why does it much matter to confront and debunk the myths of the “Napalm Girl,” a photograph taken nearly 45 years ago?

Debunking those myths, I point out in Getting It Wrong, “is vital for a number of reasons, not the least of which is insisting on a more complete understanding of a prominent visual artifact of a bitter and prolonged war.

“Confronting the myths [also] serves to puncture the post hoc causality commonly associated with the image, and to deflate the notion that a single still photograph was decisive to the Vietnam conflict. To assert such an argument is to indulge in media-centrism; it is to stretch logic.”

WJC

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Why Trump-Russia is hardly Nixon-Watergate

In Debunking, Media myths, Scandal, Watergate myth on March 5, 2017 at 9:59 am
nixon-resigns_cxtribune

Exceptional

“Overstated” hardly suffices in describing the media’s eagerness to find in President Donald Trump’s odd affinity for Russia parallels or echoes that bring to mind Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal.

Such stuff is overstated. Premature. Facile. And ahistoric.

Even if they are vague and remote, Trump-Russia parallels to Nixon-Watergate are delectable to hyperventilating anti-Trump commentators. But of course no evidence has emerged that Trump or his administration have been corrupted by Russia, or that they are under the influence of Russia’s thuggish leader, Vladimir Putin.

Casually invoking such parallels is to ignore and diminish Watergate’s exceptionality. Watergate was a constitutional crisis of unique dimension in which some 20 men, associated either with Nixon’s administration or his reelection campaign in 1972, went to prison.

Watergate’s dénouement — Nixon’s resignation in August 1974 — was driven not by dogged reporting of the Washington Post but by Nixon’s self-destructive decision to tape-record conversations at the White House. Thousands of hours of audiotape recordings were secretly made, from February 1971 to July 1973.

As I point out in my media-mythbusting book, Getting It Wrong — an expanded second edition of which came out not long ago:

“To roll up a scandal of such dimension [as Watergate] required the collective if not always the coordinated forces of special prosecutors, federal judges, both houses of Congress, and the Supreme Court, as well as the Justice Department and the FBI.

“Even then,” I write, Nixon likely would have served out his term if not for the audiotape recordings he secretly made of most conversations in the Oval Office of the White House.”

Those recordings were crucial. They provided unambiguous evidence that Nixon conspired to obstruct justice by approving a plan to divert the FBI from its investigation into the seminal crime of Watergate — the burglary in June 1972 at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in Washington, D.C.

Without the tapes, Nixon likely would have served out his second presidential term. He would have been bloodied and weakened by Watergate, but his presidency likely would have survived the scandal.

That, too, was the assessment of Watergate’s leading historian, Stanley Kutler, who died last year. In the final analysis, Kutler observed, Nixon “was primarily responsible” for bringing down Nixon, given the tell-tale tapes.

“Absent the tapes, Nixon walks,” Kutler said. “You had to have that kind of corroborative evidence to nail the president of the United States.”

Other figures, including John Dean, White House counsel to Nixon as Watergate unfolded, have reached similar conclusions.

Not only were the White House tapes essential, but unseating Nixon, a Republican, also required a Democratic-controlled Congress to pursue investigations of the administration and the tentacles of Watergate. Likewise, it took a Republican-controlled Congress to impeach Bill Clinton, a Democrat, in 1998 for perjury and obstruction of justice.

It would take a good deal more than vague associations for a Republican-controlled Congress to consider launching an impeachment inquiry of Trump, and that reality renders Trump-Russia and Nixon-Watergate comparisons even more distant and improbable.

Of course, Trump, himself, has invoked Nixon and Watergate. He did so yesterday, claiming on Twitter that his predecessor, Barack Obama, wiretapped Trump Tower in New York City. Trump offered no evidence to support the claim, which stands as yet another example of how Nixon-Watergate parallels are invoked with imprecision.

In tweeting such a claim, Trump came off as unpersuasive as his bloviating media foes.

WJC

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After the ‘Cronkite Moment,’ LBJ doubled down on Viet policy

In Cronkite Moment, Debunking, Error, Media myths, Washington Post on February 23, 2017 at 7:15 am

One of the most cherished stories in American journalism is also a tenacious media-driven myth.

Cronkite in Vietnam

Cronkite in Vietnam

The cherished tale/media myth is commonly known as the “Cronkite Moment” of 1968, when CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite supposedly exposed the bankruptcy of the Vietnam War. Forty-nine years ago next week, Cronkite declared in an unusual editorial comment at the close of a special report that the U.S. military was “mired in stalemate” in Vietnam and said  negotiations might offer the country a way out.

As I discuss in Getting It Wrong, an expanded second edition of which came out recently, the “Cronkite Moment” had few of the effects that are commonly, and extravagantly, associated with it.

Notable among those effects was that President Lyndon B. Johnson watched the program and, upon hearing Cronkite’s downbeat assessment, immediately recognized that his war policy was a shambles.

We know that’s not true: Johnson did not see the Cronkite program when it aired on February 27, 1968. He was in Austin, Texas, at that time, attending the 51st birthday party of a long-time political ally, Governor John Connally. It is not clear whether, or when, Johnson saw the program on videotape at some later date.

In any case, Cronkite said nothing about the war that hadn’t been said by leading journalists many times before. By February 1968, “stalemate” was a decidedly unoriginal way to characterize the Vietnam War.

It’s often claimed that Cronkite’s assessment turned public opinion against the war. But that wasn’t true, either: Public opinion had begun shifting months before Cronkite’s commentary. Indeed, Cronkite followed rather than led Americans’ changing views about Vietnam.

The second edition of Getting It Wrong, which includes three new chapters and new material elsewhere, presents additional evidence that underscores the mythical status of the “Cronkite Moment.”

This evidence elaborates on Johnson’s conduct in the immediate aftermath of Cronkite’s special report — the days and weeks when the anchorman’s assessment should have exerted greatest influence and impact, when its immediacy and vigor should have been most pronounced.

But instead of recognizing that Cronkite had shown him the light, instead of realizing that his war policy was a shambles, the president doubled down. Johnson mounted an aggressive and assertive defense of his war policy that made clear he had not taken the anchorman’s message to heart.

Just three days after the program aired, Johnson vowed in remarks at a testimonial dinner that the United States would “not cut and run” from Vietnam. “We’re not going to be Quislings,” the president said, invoking the surname of a Norwegian politician who had helped the Nazis take over his country. “And we’re not going to be appeasers.”

At a ceremony at the White House on March 12, 1968, at which he awarded Medals of Honors to two Marines, Johnson declared:

“I think if we are steady, if we are patient, if we do not become the willing victims of our own despair [about Vietnam], if we do not abandon what we know is right when it comes under mounting challenge — we shall never fail.”

Johnson spoke with even greater vigor in mid-March 1968, telling a meeting of business leaders in Washington:

“We must meet our commitments in the world and in Vietnam. We shall and we are going to win. … I don’t want a man in here to go back home thinking otherwise — we are going to win.”

Two days after that, on March 18, 1968, the president traveled to Minneapolis to speak at the National Farmers Union convention. He took the occasion to urge “a total national effort to win the war” in Vietnam. Johnson punctuated his remarks by slapping the lectern and declaring:

“We love nothing more than peace, but we hate nothing worse than surrender and cowardice.”

He also said on that occasion that “the time has come when we ought to unite, when we ought to stand up and be counted, when we ought to support our leaders, our government, our men and allies until aggression is stopped, wherever it has occurred.”

He disparaged critics of the war as being ready to “tuck our tail and violate our commitments.”

A day later, Johnson insisted in what the Washington Post described as “a brief, tough talk” at the State Department:

“We have set our course [in Vietnam]. And we will prevail.”

Two days after that, on March 21, the president said at a Rose Garden ceremony at the White House that the will of America’s Vietnamese allies did not “break under fire” during the recent Tet offensive, adding:

“Neither shall ours break under frustration.”

And on March 25, Johnson told an audience of trade unionists: “Now the America that we are building would be a threatened nation if we let freedom and liberty die in Vietnam. We will do what must be done — we will do it both at home and we will do it wherever our brave men are called upon to stand.”

So in the days and weeks after the Cronkite program, Johnson was adamant in defending his Vietnam policy. On multiple occasions during that time, the president in effect brushed aside Cronkite’s downbeat assessment and sought to rally support for the war effort. At a time when Cronkite’s views should have been most potent, the president remained openly and tenaciously hawkish on the war.

The shift in the president’s approach came not in the immediate aftermath of the “Cronkite Moment” (which was not referred to as such until many years later) but during meetings with an informal group of senior counselors who collectively were known as the “Wise Men.”

They included such foreign policy notables as Dean Acheson, a former secretary of state; McGeorge Bundy, a former national security adviser to Kennedy and Johnson, and George Ball, a former under secretary of state.

The “Wise Men” had met in November 1967 and expressed near-unanimous support for Johnson’s Vietnam policy. They met again, at the request of the White House, in late March 1968.

Mostly, if not unanimously, the Wise Men expressed opposition to America’s escalating the war in Vietnam, as Johnson was then contemplating. “The theme that ran around the table was, ‘You’ve got to lower your sights,’” George Ball later recalled.

The president “was shaken by this kind of advice from people in whose judgment he necessarily had some confidence, because they’d had a lot of experience,” Ball noted a few years later.

The counsel of the Wise Men probably was the tipping point for Johnson on Vietnam. On March 31, he announced the United States would restrict most bombing missions over North Vietnam — and that he would not seek reelection to the presidency.

WJC

A version of this essay first appeared
at University of California Press blog

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