The True Story Behind “Napalm Girl”

Published June 6, 2017
Updated July 24, 2018
Published June 6, 2017
Updated July 24, 2018

How "Napalm Girl" shocked the world — and ended up a motivational speaker in Canada.

Napalm Girl

AP/Nick Ut

The most influential photos always have a story attached to them. Napalm Girl, caught in a moment of desperation in 1972, encapsulated the terror of the U.S. war in Vietnam. The legend of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the girl in question, was simple and gratifying to opponents of the war.

According to an article published by NPR in 2012 to mark the photo’s 40th anniversary:

“Whatever your age, you’ve probably seen this photo.

It’s a hard image to forget. A young girl, naked, runs screaming toward the camera in agony after a napalm attack incinerated her village, her clothes, and then her skin.

That girl is Kim Phuc. She was 9 years old in 1972 when she was photographed, screaming in pain, after a U.S. commander ordered South Vietnamese planes to drop napalm near her village.”

Except for the part where none of that narrative is true, the story of Napalm Girl is indeed very powerful. And the story of what happened to Kim Phuc after her brush with history is just as powerful a reminder that human beings are far more complex than a single photograph can ever convey.

A War Of Pointless Brutality

Napalm Girl From Behind

AP/Nick UtStanding in a puddle of water that has been poured over her burns, Phan Thi Kim Phuc is filmed by an ITN news crew.

One thing the narrative got right is that America’s war in Vietnam was coarse and brutal, even by the standards of 20th-century warfare. By 1972, the U.S. had been meddling in Vietnam’s affairs for decades, and half of that time had seen three times the munitions used in all theaters of World War II dropped over an agrarian country the size of New Mexico.

For a decade, the world’s most powerful air force dropped every explosive and incendiary known to man, along with a hefty dose of dioxin-based herbicide, on (mostly) South Vietnamese targets. On the ground, armed troops ranging from greenhorn Marines just doing their jobs to throat-slitting commandos in the Studies and Observations Group that killed an estimated 2 million indigenous people.

What made Vietnam uniquely horrible was the sheer pointlessness of it all.

As early as 1966, senior war planners at the Pentagon knew there was no focus and no plan for victory. By 1968, many Americans knew it too. By 1972, U.S. leadership had had enough: President Nixon’s plan of “Vietnamization” of the war effort had steadily shifted much of the burden of defense onto the government in Saigon, and the end was finally in sight.

The year after the Napalm Girl photo was taken, the United States and North Vietnam came to a shaky ceasefire that gave America all the excuse it needed to cut and run. The war continued, however, between Saigon and Hanoi, and there hangs a tale.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.