The True Story Of Phan Thi Kim Phuc, The “Napalm Girl”

Published June 6, 2017
Updated September 23, 2019

A Career In Propaganda

Napalm Girl Burn Scars

Abend BlattKim displays her lingering scars from the incident that set the course for her life.

By the time Kim was released from the hospital, the war was reaching its end. Early in 1975, North Vietnamese forces surged across the DMZ for one last push against the South Vietnamese government.

In part due to images like Napalm Girl, the US Congress spurned the South’s desperate plea for assistance. That April, Saigon fell for good and the country was finally unified under the Communist government of the North.

A few years later, Vietnam invaded Cambodia to crush the Khmer Rouge. After that, peace mostly prevailed in Vietnam, though an uneasy relationship developed between Hanoi and its nominal ally, China. Vietnam remained a militarized state that was prepared for war at any time and very interested in propaganda victories over its many enemies.

In the early 1980s, the Hanoi government discovered Kim in her native town. She and her family had recently converted from their traditional shamanistic religion to Christianity, but the officially atheist government opted to overlook the small thought crime for a propaganda coup.

Kim was brought to the capital for meetings with high-level government officials and made a few television appearances. She even became a sort of protégé of Vietnamese Prime Minister Phạm Văn Đồng.

Through his connections, Kim got the treatment she needed in Europe and permission to study medicine in Cuba. Throughout this period, she made frequent public statements and appearances on behalf of the Hanoi government and very carefully avoided mentioning that the plane that dropped the bombs had nothing to do with American forces.

By leaving that detail unsaid, Kim (and her handlers) managed to reinforce the narrative that the United States had deliberately bombed her helpless village.

Phan Thi Kim Phuc’s New Beginnings In Canada

Napalm Girl Smiling Kim

Kim Phuc today.

Kim met a fellow Vietnamese university student, Bui Huy Toan, in Cuba. The two became a couple and eventually married.

In 1992, the 29-year-old Kim and her new husband were granted permission to spend their honeymoon in Moscow. During a layover in Gander, Newfoundland, the pair simply walked out of the international transit area and asked for political asylum in Canada. After a decade of working for the communist government of Vietnam, Napalm Girl had defected to the West.

Almost as soon as Kim received permission to stay in Canada as a political refugee, she demonstrated a keen appreciation of market economies by booking paid appearances as Napalm Girl. Instead of giving carefully worded denunciations of the imperialist US aggression forces, she offered equally carefully worded missives about peace and forgiveness.

Again, she very deliberately avoided blaming the United States for her injuries, but the implication was heavy in the air anytime she spoke, not least because that was what most people in her audiences assumed had happened and she never went out of her way to correct the false narrative.

All Is Forgiven

In 1994, Phan Thi Kim Phuc was named a Goodwill Ambassador for UNESCO. In this capacity, Kim traveled around the post-Cold War world giving speeches in what was becoming her trademark vague style.

In 1996, during a speech at the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., Kim spoke about forgiveness – again, with no mention at all about the identity of the pilot who had dropped the bombs – and got massive applause from the gathered crowd.

During the event, a “spontaneous” note was passed to her on stage, which read: “I am the one,” referring, apparently, to the “American pilot” in the audience who supposedly felt so moved that he had to confess to flying the fatal mission.

Newly ordained Methodist minister John Plummer then stepped forward, gave Kim a hug, and was “forgiven” for ordering the bombing of the Trang Bang temple that day. Later, the pair met in a Washington hotel room for an interview with a Canadian documentary crew.

In reality, the entire event was staged by Jan Scruggs, founder and President of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, which had raised the money to build the Wall.

John Plummer, the American who allegedly ordered the airstrike, didn’t plan on meeting Kim at the wall, but had in fact met with her a few days prior to the fundraising event.

It was later conclusively demonstrated that Plummer had been over 50 miles away from Trang Bang on the day of the bombing, and that he never had any authority over VAF pilots, but by the time the Canadian film crew had the footage it needed – and Scruggs had the donations he needed, it was too late for anybody to care.

The End Of The Road

Napalm Girl Giving Speech

JIJI PRESS/AFP/Getty ImagesNow in her 50s, Phan Thi Kim Phuc continues to give speeches, almost always as “the Girl In the Photograph.”

Kim Phuc, once the little girl with a burned-up back, has now settled into a comfortable middle age with her husband in Ontario. In 1997, she passed the Canadian citizenship test with, reportedly, a perfect score. Around the same time, she started a nonprofit to promote world peace and help children affected by conflict.

Kim herself continues to forgive vaguely not-American-exactly forces for what happened to her, and she is the subject of an adoring hagiography by Denise Chong: The Girl in the Picture: The Story of Kim Phuc, the Photographer and the Vietnam War published by Viking Press in 1999.

Jan Scruggs has mostly left the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, and now he travels between cities raising money for a projected $115 million Vietnam Veterans Education Center, which is also planned for the National Mall in Washington.

Nick Ut has recently retired from journalism after 51 years and multiple awards. Like Kim, he has also relocated to the West and now resides peacefully in Los Angeles.

Many members of Kim’s family, some pictured in the photograph that made her famous, still live in the People’s Republic of Vietnam, though nobody has been able to find them.

For more of the stories behind iconic historical photos like “Napalm Girl,” check out our articles on the “Saigon Execution” and “Migrant Mother.”

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