Vietnam War: Introduction

by World Press Photo

Between 1963 and 1975, the Vietnam War dominated the news headlines around the world, and as a consequence the results of the World Press Photo contest during that period.

The Vietnam War is still the most photographed and filmed conflict of all time, when photojournalists (and TV journalists) had unrestricted access to the battlefield—in South Vietnam, that is—bringing the war into many living rooms worldwide. Some of the images have been carved into collective memory, such as Eddie Adams’ picture of a summary execution in the streets of Saigon, and Nick Ut’s photo of Kim Phuc running away from her bombed and burning village.

Vietnam was the Cold War’s largest and most notorious frontline. In fear of an all-consuming nuclear war, the United States and the Soviet Union avoided a direct military confrontation. Nevertheless, both superpowers did fight each other with weapons in the form of proxy wars such as Vietnam, where the United States supported the south and the Soviet Union, and China, backed up the north.

The seeds of war were sown during Vietnam’s struggle for independence after World War II, when communists led by Ho Chi Minh fought and defeated the French colonial power. In 1954, Vietnam was divided into North and South Vietnam along the 17th parallel.

From the start, the United States supported the unstable regime in the south with money, arms and so-called military advisers, to create a stand against the communist north that was infiltrating the south as well. After a military incident in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964, the US Congress authorized military action in the region. This decision led to the arrival of 200,000 American combat troops in South Vietnam one year later, eventually leading up to 500,000 troops in 1967.

The Tet Offensive in January 1968, when North Vietnamese troops and the Viet Cong launched a large-scale attack on major cities in South Vietnam, became a turning point in the conflict. Confronted with a growing opposition to the war at home, US President Lyndon B. Johnson decided not to send over new troops. His successor Richard Nixon proclaimed a policy of ‘Vietnamization’, which implied that the South-Vietnamese army would gradually take over the combat role of withdrawing US ground troops.

In 1970, Nixon’s national security adviser Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho on behalf of the North Vietnamese government started peace talks in Paris, which led to a ceasefire agreement in January 1973. Immediately, both sides began to release their prisoners of war, and by March 1973, the United States had pulled troops out completely. Two years later, in 1975, North Vietnam invaded the south and, while the last American military advisers hastily left, took control of the whole country, which became the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

The Vietnam War (or American War, as it is called in Vietnam) was long and bloody. The Vietnamese estimate that between 1954 and 1975 about one million communist fighters and four million civilians died. According to US numbers, nearly 60,000 American soldiers died or went missing in action, 300,000 were injured and about 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers were killed.

In terms of media coverage, the Vietnam War was unique: not only did journalists have unlimited access, it was also the first war where images had a profound influence on the public opinion. Although an indisputable connection between media imagery and the course of war has never been demonstrated, the idea that photos and TV footages had played a major role in political and strategic decisions firmly fixed itself in the collective consciousness. This perception of the Vietnam War would also influence the US restrictions imposed on the media during the Persian Gulf War (1990-1991), the war in Afghanistan (2001-) and the Iraq War (2003-2010).

Eddie Adams

Nick Ut

Eddie Adams

John Nance

Eddie Adams

Larry Burrows

Don McCullin

Sven-Erik Sjöberg

Thai Khac Chuong

Chuck Fishman

Grey Villet

Marie Dorigny