Many reporters and photographers who covered the conflict in Vietnam belonged to a new generation of journalists. Coverage of previous wars has been heavily influenced by the government, says Susan Moeller, a journalism professor and author of Shooting War: Photography and the American Combat Experiencebut in Vietnam, the journalistic mission was different.
“They were no longer expected to express the government line,” Moeller said. “In Vietnam, journalists saw it as their mission to question certain statements and assertions by the White House and the Pentagon.”
Striking photographs of dying soldiers and wounded civilians provided a startling counter-narrative to official reports that America was winning the war in Vietnam. As the conflict dragged on and the death toll among American soldiers rose, these iconic images fueled the growing anti-war movement and rocked the halls of power.
1. A Buddhist monk self-immolates
On June 11, 1963, a Buddhist monk named Thich Quang Duc sat calmly in a busy intersection near the presidential palace in Siagon as another monk doused him with gasoline. After saying a short prayer, Thich Quang Duc lit a match and dropped it in his lap, instantly engulfing his body in flames. Footage of the monk’s stoic self-immolation, taken by AP reporter Malcolm Browne, sent shockwaves around the world.
Thich Quang Duc gave his life to protest against the brutal and anti-Buddhist policies of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, a devout Catholic. Browne’s unforgettable photographs challenged America’s growing support for the regime in South Vietnam. President John F. Kennedy is reported to have said, “No newsreel image in history has stirred so much emotion in the world as this one. But that did not change Kennedy’s view of the US position on Vietnam.
2. Shocking Execution
More than 50 years later, this image still has the power to surprise and sicken. It was published on the front pages of newspapers like The New York Times in February 1968, a few days after the start of the Tet offensive, massive attacks coordinated by the North Vietnamese government. Pictured, a South Vietnamese police chief calmly executes a Vietcong fighter on the streets of Saigon. The image, which won a Pulitzer Prize for photographer Eddie Adams, caused many Americans to openly question the morality of war.
3. The deadliest year for American soldiers in Vietnam
1968 was the deadliest year for American soldiers in Vietnam, and this image, captured by freelance photographer Art Greenspon, summed up the enormous cost paid by young men fighting in what looked increasingly like a futile war .
The feeling of brotherhood in the photo is palpable, as is the feeling of anguish and despair. Nearly half the company had been killed in a firefight, and the survivors waited two days for a medical evacuation helicopter to arrive. The first sergeant raised his arms in the air to signal the helicopter, but he might as well have raised them in prayer.
Greenspon’s indelible image landed on the front page of The New York Times and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
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4. LBJ and Family Watching Protests
Yoichi Okamoto was the first-ever chief White House photographer, hired by President Lyndon Johnson. Okamoto had unlimited access to the president, as seen in this incredibly intimate moment captured in the Johnsons’ bedroom at their family ranch in Stonewall, Texas.
The President and First Lady Ladybird Johnson watch coverage of anti-war protests outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
5. Shootings in Kent State
On April 30, 1970, President Richard Nixon authorized the American invasion of Cambodia, a neutral country bordering Vietnam. Americans were deeply divided over the war, and Nixon’s decision sparked angry protests on college campuses, including Kent State in Ohio, where protesters burned down the ROTC building.
On May 4, 1970, National Guard troops ordered protesters in Kent State to disperse, but the crowd of around 3,000 – made up of students and outside protesters – refused, some throwing stones on the guards. No one expected what happened next. National Guard troops opened fire, sending a 13-second volley of bullets into the mass of protesters.
Four Kent State students were killed that day and nine others were injured. Student photographer John Filo won a Pulitzer Prize for his captivating photo of 14-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio crying next to the fallen body of Jeffrey Miller. The shootings at Kent State cast a pall over the Nixon presidency and brought back the violence of the Vietnam War in a whole new way.
6. “The Terror of War”
The title of this photo says it all, “The Terror of War”. Vietnamese-American photographer Nick Ut won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1972 image of innocent children fleeing an accidental napalm attack on their village. Front and center is nine-year-old Kim Phuc, naked and badly burned by the US chemical weapon. When Ut realized the extent of his injuries, he and others came to Phuc’s aid. They are still close friends.
“This image will always serve as a reminder of the indescribable evil of which humanity is capable,” Phuc wrote in an essay published in the New York Times 50 years later, June 6, 2022. “Yet I believe that peace, love, hope and forgiveness will always be mightier than any weapon.”
7. Airlift operation after the fall of Saigon
On April 29, 1975, the fall of Saigon was imminent. Panic engulfed the streets of the South Vietnamese capital as North Vietnamese troops surrounded the city. American diplomats and journalists were ordered to evacuate Saigon immediately, and dozens of South Vietnamese citizens gathered outside the US Embassy hoping to board one of the helicopters. the Navy ferrying people to safety.
This iconic image, taken by Dutch journalist Hubert van Es, perfectly captured the desperate and ignominious withdrawal from Saigon, but the helicopter was not perched atop the US Embassy as most people think. . It was a building housing American CIA officers. Only a dozen of the people crowding the roof were able to hug the helicopter before it took off, never to return.