HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — They were the images that communicated the horrors of war in ways words could not.
They were so much more than just photographs, Vietnam’s president said Thursday, recalling black-and-white images he said he will never forget from the war that ended 40 years ago: A Buddhist monk consumed by flames in a fiery suicide. A screaming Vietnamese child running down a road naked, as her skin burns from a napalm attack.
“They gave the whole world a full picture of what was going on in Vietnam,” President Truong Tan Sang told The Associated Press ahead of an exhibit of the AP’s wartime photographs in Hanoi. “I believe these photos made an enormous contribution to bringing the war in Vietnam to an end.”
“Vietnam: The Real War,” a collection of 58 photographs taken by the AP, opens to the public Friday, marking a homecoming that officials say is historic and an emblem of changing times. Forty years after the war ended, it is the first time that the collection is being exhibited in Vietnam, where the conflict is called the “American War.”
AP’s Saigon bureau won six Pulitzer Prizes for its Vietnam coverage, including four for photography. All four are on display among prize-winning works by more than 20 photographers, whose images are part of the news cooperative’s archive with tens of thousands of wartime photographs.
There was Malcolm Browne’s shocking 1963 photograph of the burning monk, which appeared on front pages around the globe and sent shudders all the way up to the White House, prompting John F. Kennedy to order a re-evaluation of his administration’s Vietnam policy.
Eddie Adams captured the moment a Viet Cong suspect was shot in the head, point blank, by a South Vietnamese commander in 1968.
In 1972, Huynh Cong “Nick” Ut captured the unforgettable image of a screaming 9-year-old girl, after an aerial napalm attack burned the clothes off her body. It is known as “Napalm Girl,” and earned Ut a 1973 Pulitzer and celebrity status in Vietnam.
The longtime AP photographer sees the image every day, and remains haunted by it.
“I have it blown up big in my living room,” said Ut, who lives in Los Angeles but returned to Vietnam for the exhibit. He said he still wakes up from nightmares about the war. “Sometimes I just look at it and cry.”
For many, the photographs helped crystallize the debate Americans had been having for years about the far-off war that left so many dead.
More than 58,000 Americans died in the war. An estimated 3 million Vietnamese perished.
One of the exhibit’s centerpieces is a gripping close-up by Horst Faas, AP’s veteran Saigon photo editor. It shows a doe-faced American soldier with the hand-scrawled message on his helmet: “War is Hell” — an underlying message of every image at the exhibit. Terrified parents crouch over their children, or desperately clutch their tiny corpses. Soldiers from both sides grimace in pain as they wait in tropical jungles for help.
“AP presented these images of what was really going on in the war. It was through that lens that people around the world gained a better understanding of the conflict,” said Gary Pruitt, AP’s president and CEO, who was in Hanoi to attend a Thursday night preview and the exhibit’s Friday opening.
Hundreds of reporters from around the world covered the more than decade-long conflict, but the AP was especially well represented in both staff size and talent. Their pictures brought the reality of the conflict to the homes of Americans in unprecedented detail and horrifyingly close-up.
Part of Pruitt’s message in Vietnam was about the importance of a free press, in a country that still lacks one.
Many of the AP pictures led to “serious tensions” with the U.S. government, he said.
“There were times when the United States government felt the AP’s work was undermining its military effort,” Pruitt said. There was government pressure at times to change reporters and to change coverage. “AP resisted that pressure … AP is there to report the facts and tell the truth, no matter who it upsets and no matter what happens as a result.”
The exhibit comes amid a flurry of war-related commemorations. This month marks the 20th anniversary of restored diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Vietnam. Major celebrations marked the recent 40th anniversary of defeating the Americans on April 30, 1975, when northern communist forces seized control of U.S.-backed South Vietnam, ending the war.
When the photos were published they “helped people around the world understand the meaninglessness of the war in Vietnam,” Assistant Foreign Minister Vu Quang Minh said at Thursday’s preview, attended by government officials, diplomats and a variety of Vietnamese celebrities.
Now they can teach the younger generation, he said, “to understand the destruction and suffering war brings to humankind. And therefore to cherish peace.”
The exhibit that runs through June 26 is being held at Hanoi’s Exhibition Hall, after previous runs in New York and London.
Associated Press writer Minh V. Tran contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to show that some individual photos have been displayed before.
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