And that was the way it played out, with the cooperation of a large segment of the Western press. By the time of the incident and the photograph, American active forces had largely been withdrawn from South Vietnam (only two American advisers were involved that day, neither with any command authority). That is another fact that has been widely forgotten, and although it meant that the picture’s notoriety could not have been especially instrumental in the withdrawal of American forces, the photo did have the effect of contributing to the public’s support for Congress’s later cutoff of financial aid to the ARVN, which brought on the war’s final tragic chapters.
There is a bitter irony in all this, because the photo ended up ultimately facilitating the takeover of Kim’s village — as well as all of South Vietnam — by those Northerners the South had fought so long and hard to repel, and who had started the battle by attacking Trang Bang. In addition, the withdrawal of funds occurred at a time when some experts maintain that the tide had turned in favor of the South.
The Northern takeover caused renewed suffering for Kim herself. It was only after the North took over that she began to have trouble getting medical help for her continued pain. It was only after the North took over that she was pulled from college and used as a propaganda tool, “trotted out to meet foreign journalists” and forced to tell them what the authorities told her to say.
Kim’s life finally improved after many years. The Vietnamese prime minister arranged for her to study in Cuba, where she met her husband-to-be. They traveled to Moscow for their honeymoon, and when their flight stopped in Canada on the way back to Cuba they seized the opportunity to defect. These days she travels frequently to speak to the public, and she has now accepted the photo as a “powerful gift” in her life.
It is wonderful that Kim’s existence has become so much happier. But it is up to us to draw the correct conclusions from her story: what was the real atrocity here, and who were the perpetrators?
Kim is glad to be alive now, but she describes her attitude growing up in Communist-dominated Vietnam this way:
I got burned by napalm, and I became a victim of war … but growing up then, I became another kind of victim. … I wished I died in that attack with my cousin, with my south Vietnamese soldiers.
From her telling phrase “my south Vietnamese soldiers,” it is clear that Kim does not see them as the villains of the piece.