Witness to the End, Photographer Reflects on Vietnam

BY Alicia Lozano  April 30, 2010 at 2:10 PM EST

Thirty-five years ago, White House photographer David Hume Kennerly knew he was on the verge of capturing a historic moment. President Gerald Ford had convened an emergency meeting of the National Security Council in the Roosevelt Room and was poised to end America’s military presence in Vietnam.

“It was a steady drumbeat of bad news coming into the White House,” Kennerly said. “It was a very tense, dramatic time.”

President Ford’s decision set in motion a rapid withdrawal effort in the next 48 hours, culminating with the final Marines being evacuated by helicopters from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon on April 30, 1975.

Kennerly said that witnessing firsthand the orders to end the war brought his career full circle. He’d made his name in Vietnam as a young photographer for UPI, winning the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography in 1972: a portfolio that also included his coverage of Laos, Cambodia and the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier boxing match in New York City.

In 1973, Kennerly returned to Washington and began covering Vice President Ford after Spiro Agnew resigned the office. Kennerly said he and Ford quickly became friends.

“I started shooting pictures of him regularly,” Kennerly said, “And when he became president he offered me the job as White House photographer and I took it.”

Kennerly said Ford gave him “total entree to everything” and that he was allowed to go anywhere the president went and that his only boss was Ford himself.

“I, of course, had a top secret clearance, which enabled me to be in any meeting at any time no matter what it was,” Kennerly said, “I was backstage and it was without question one of the most exciting professional experiences in my life.”

Kennerly has gone on to cover a host of foreign wars — including Iraq and Afghanistan — and has photographed every president from Nixon to Obama, but he said his picture of Ford ending the war remains one of his best.

“I think it still gives you a flavor of what was going on at the time,” Kennerly said.