The Vietnam War was defined as the “first televised war,” but it has been the still photos, the single frames, that have carved its place in history. Eddie Adams’ image of the point-blank execution of a suspected Viet Cong member on the streets of Saigon and Nick Ut’s photo of a little girl running naked down the street after being burned by napalm are two examples of “iconic” photos as defined by scholars. These iconic photos have appeared repeatedly in the media, they have been reused and repurposed by popular culture, and they appear in history books as visual representations of the war.
America entered the Second Indochina War to halt the spread of communism: to stop potential “dominoes” from falling around the world. When the French pulled out of the First Indochina War on July 21, 1954, President Eisenhower feared that the region would fall to communism if there were not a U.S. presence in Vietnam. It was President Lyndon Johnson who sealed America’s fate in Vietnam after the Tonkin Gulf Resolution passed through Congress in August of 1964, giving Johnson the authority to use military force in Southeast Asia without an official declaration of war.
For the next ten years, the United States would be stuck in Vietnam, fighting on the side of the South Vietnamese against the North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front (NLF). When the war finally ended on April 30, 1975, the number of casualties was astronomical for both sides. The war in Vietnam was never officially declared an American war by the U.S. Congress, but it was a brutal war nonetheless.
The photographs that emerged from the war, especially the iconic photos, were also brutal. Previous scholars such as David Perlmutter suggest, however, that the public’s understanding of the circumstances captured by these photographs may be limited. If these scholars are correct, then what meanings are everyday citizens attaching to these iconic photographs? For this study, a sample population of individuals, age 15 or older during the height of the war, was interviewed. Their oral histories of the photos were examined in an attempt to gain an understanding of the iconic qualities of the photographs and how those photographs have contributed to collective memory of the Vietnam War era.