Some defining images

While words and statements tell the story of change, pictures are far more impactful
Some defining images
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After participating in the G20 summit in Delhi, US President Joe Biden visited Vietnam on September 10-11. US-Vietnam ties have grown over the decades and, significantly, the two countries decided to upgrade their relations to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership during Biden’s trip. The present state of Vietnam and US relations confirms the constantly changing nature of the inter-state system and the impermanence of what sometimes appears to be firmly rooted. Who would have thought in 1975, when the US lost the Vietnam war, that forty-eight years later, a US President would not only visit the country but decide that the two countries would cooperate in economic and technical spheres including in semi-conductors?

While words and statements tell the story of change, pictures are far more impactful. They vividly illustrate change by capturing historic moments which become embedded in human memory. Some become iconic. The history of US-Vietnam ties provides a rich testimony of the significance of pictures. Biden met with Vietnam’s communist party’s General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong on September 10 in Hanoi. Dominating the room and the conference table where Biden and his Vietnamese host sat with their aides was a bust of Ho Chi Minh. There is no doubt that Ho Chi Minh was one of the greatest communist revolutionaries of the 20th century. He travelled widely and laid the foundations of the Vietnamese communist party. After the Second World War the French who ruled Indo-China including Vietnam wanted to re-establish their rule. That, the Vietnamese communists led by Ho Chi Minh rejected and with Chinese and Soviet covert assistance decisively defeated the French in 1954. They were however unable to win the entire country. Consequently, South Vietnam remained beyond their grasp.

The Vietnam civil war ultimately drew in the United States militarily on the side of the South. The US’s Vietnam war took place between 1965 and lasted a decade, ending with its defeat, symbolized with an iconic photograph of a helicopter on the roof of the US embassy in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh city) evacuating its personnel. This photograph went—to use a term from today’s social media—viral and seared the US and global consciousness. This was the period of the Cold War and it was used by the Soviet bloc to depict US powerlessness. It was also used to propagate the that ultimately communism would triumph. That, of course, proved hollow. 

The Vietnam war became unpopular in American campuses and photographs of demonstrations also drew attention to the failure of successive US administrations to secure domestic support for this war. And, one photograph captured the horror of war like few have ever done: it was taken in June 1972 and depicted children running following an aircraft dropping Napalm bombs. One of the children was a nine-year old girl whose clothes had got burnt by napalm and she was seen running naked and screaming. That photograph too went ‘viral’. It caused deep revulsion against US policy in Vietnam, including in influential sections of US society. But it did not end the war for emotion seldom enters the calculations of politicians and strategists.

As I search my memory for other defining photographs of the 20th and the first two decades of this century three come to mind which decisively changed the course of global history. The first is the breaking of the Berlin wall in November 1989 which paved the way for the re-unification of Germany which contributed to the end of the Cold War. Another is that of Boris Yeltsin then President of the Soviet Union’s Russian republic perched atop a tank in August 1991 in Moscow to rally the people against those Soviet elements who wanted to end Gorbachev’s reforms. While their efforts failed, they struck the final nail in the Soviet Union’s coffin. By December the USSR went into the dust bin of history.

The most iconic images of this century so far are perhaps from the Al-Qaeda attack on September 11, 2001 against the US. In particular the images of the hijackers flying their aircraft into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre which brought down those buildings and killed over two thousand persons.

There are iconic photographs which capture India’s national journey since independence. They represent both triumphs and challenges. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru delivering his famous speech ‘At the stroke of the midnight hour…’, to the country’s military success in 1971 and of Kapil Dev lifting the cricket world cup in 1983 are some. The last rejuvenated the national spirit for success in sport has that quality. More recently the images of Chandrayaan 3 Lunar Mission and of the rover rolling out of the lunar craft onto the surface of the moon. These represent the strides made by Indian science and technology though there are miles to go still in these areas.

But the pictures of challenges too are there. They include the migration of workers at the beginning of Covid 19 in 2020. That was a shock but it was absorbed and the nation led by the government handled the impact of the pandemic with skill. Another moment of shock to the nation was the photograph of India’s gold reserves being loaded on to aircraft and being sent abroad to secure loans to tide over the financial crisis of 1991. But that led to economic reforms which in three decades has made India the fifth largest economy of the world.

And, the most unforgettable image of the recently concluded G20 summit would undoubtedly be that of the world’s most powerful leaders collectively paying homage to Mahatma Gandhi at Rajghat on September 10.

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