Vietnam: A look back after 50 years

By Charlotte Massey
The Detroit News

Chances are you have seen some of these images before.

There's the young girl with her clothes burned off by napalm, running in terror down a country road. There's the heroic wounded medic, tending to a fallen comrade. There's the broad daylight execution of a Viet Cong suspect. There are the soldiers, the civilians, the full range of intensity and horror and courage of war on display.

For people of a certain age — baby boomers like me — the photos are burned into our collective consciousness from the pages of daily newspapers or magazines like Life or Look. Younger people likely will have seen many of them in history books or documentaries. Most Americans alive today either lived through the Vietnam War or know someone with stories to tell of that turbulent time.

It has only been half a century since the first U.S. combat troops landed in Vietnam, in February 1965. But Vietnam had been at war long before that.

The former French colony in Southeast Asia fought for independence from 1946 to 1954. In 1954, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh and backed by China and the Soviet Union, was established north of the 17th parallel. The south, continued under rule of Emperor Bao Dai, who was deposed by his prime minister Ngo Din Diem a year later.

Diem established the Republic of Vietnam, backed by the west. An insurgency by North Vietnam and Viet Cong soon started against the government of the south. The U.S. had provided military assistance first to the French, and then to the Republic of Vietnam, since 1950, but the role of U.S. military advisers grew in the early 1960s as the Cold War intensified. By the time the U.S. started sending combat troops, the war had been going on in one form or another for nearly 20 years.

The journalists who documented Vietnam covered it with fewer restrictions than in any war before or since. The military allowed nearly free access to Americans fighting the war, and the images and reports, as well as the television coverage that played nightly to millions of viewers, profoundly affected American society.

Vietnam and the growing opposition to American involvement that was fueled in part by the photos shown here, was integral to the tide of social change that swept over the country in the 1960s and '70s.

There was the civil rights movement. There were the assassinations. There were drugs, sex and rock and roll. And there was the war. It was the subtext to the great cultural debates and upheavals of the mid 20th century, and a precursor to the way we handled later conflicts. The reverberations continue to this day.

Vietnam was, until Afghanistan, America's longest war. More than 58,000 U.S. soldiers and an estimated three million Vietnamese lost their lives in the conflict, which ended in April 1975 with the communist North Vietnamese victory and the fall of Saigon.

The history of Vietnam is still being written. Many of the photos here were published by the Associated Press, which won six Pulitzer Prizes for its coverage, in the book Vietnam: The Real War. (

There's a saying in this business that journalism is the first draft of history. In the case of Vietnam, the photographers who brought the war home to America's living rooms not only witnessed history. They made it.