This iconic image of the Vietnam war, which won Eddie Adams a Pulitzer Prize, is often depicted in black and white terms: “A bad guy shooting a good guy” or “a good guy shooting a bad guy” but the actual story behind the images has numerous shades of grey. Not many can adequately explain the context and circumstances surrounding the event. This is more so considering this image (along with Nick Uts’ “napalm girl,” Kim Phuc, in 1972) was seared in the consciousness of an entire generation of the time and may have helped to bring about the end of the war.
[This has become an internet meme like Che and Mao images > see these on page 2]
Horst Faas, photographer and photo editor now retired from The Associated Press remembers the day he saw Eddie Adams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of the execution of a Vietcong in 1968.
“London, Sept. 19, 2004 – Editing film could be a dreary business, but on that day, 36 years ago – the second day of the communist attacks into the very centers of South Vietnam’s cities – I felt as though I had won the jackpot of a lottery.
Running my Nikon eyeball quickly over a roll of black-and-white film from Eddie Adams, I saw what I had never seen before on the lightbox of my Saigon editing desk: The perfect newspicture – the perfectly framed and exposed “frozen moment” of an event which I felt instantly would become representative of the brutality of the Vietnam War. The 12 or 14 negatives on that single roll of film, culminating in the moment of death for a Viet Cong, propelled Eddie Adams into lifelong fame. The photo of the execution at the hands of Vietnam’s police chief, Lt. Colonel Nguyen Ngoc Loan, at noon on Feb. 1, 1968 has reached beyond the history of the Indochina War – it stands today for the brutality of our last century”. Read More here >
In Wikipedia, a page on General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan describes the event: “General Nguyen Ngoc Loan Executing a Viet Cong Prisoner in Saigon is a photograph taken by Eddie Adams on 1 February 1968. It shows South Vietnamese National Police Chief Nguyễn Ngọc Loan executing a Việt Cộng officer in Saigon during the Tet Offensive. The event was also captured by NBC News film cameras, but Adams’ photograph remains the defining image.
It has been claimed that he was either Nguyễn Văn Lém or Lê Công Nà, a similar looking man who was also a member of the Việt Cộng and died during the Tet Offensive. Lém was captured and brought to Loan, then Chief of National Police of the Republic of Viet Nam. Using his sidearm, a Smith & Wesson Model 38 “Bodyguard”, Nguyễn Ngọc Loan summarily executed Lém in front of AP photographer Eddie Adams and NBC television cameraman Vo Suu.
The photograph and footage were broadcast worldwide, galvanizing the anti-war movement;
South Vietnamese sources attested that Lém commanded a Việt Cộng death squad, which on that day had murdered South Vietnamese National Police officers, or in their stead, the police officers’ families; these sources said that Lém was captured near the site of a ditch holding as many as thirty-four bound and shot bodies of police and their relatives, some of whom were the families of Loan’s deputy, and six of whom were Nguyễn’s godchildren. Lém’s widow confirmed that her husband was a member of the Việt Cộng and that she did not see him after the Tet Offensive began. Shortly after the execution, a South Vietnamese official who had not been present said that Lém was only a political operative.
The photo won Adams the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography, though he was later said to have regretted its impact.
The image became an anti-war icon.
Concerning Loan and his famous photograph, Adams wrote in Time:
“ The general killed the Viet Cong;
I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation.
They are only half-truths … What the photograph didn’t say was, ‘What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American soldiers? ”
Adams later apologized in person to General Nguyễn and his family for the damage it did to his reputation.
When Loan died of cancer in Virginia, Adams praised him: “The guy was a hero. America should be crying. I just hate to see him go this way, without people knowing anything about him.” Read more here>
Donald R. Winslow gives a rare personal insight into Eddie Adams’ mind in “The Pulitzer Eddie Adams Didn’t Want” on the New York Times Lens blog:
“…I scanned his journals, thought back on our conversations and recalled the many times I’d listened to him speak to student photojournalists and professionals in classrooms or in bars or on street corners waiting for news to happen. I cobbled together the bits and pieces of insight he’d share sparingly with one friend or another over time. That’s when it dawned on me. As I held both photos side by side, I realized what he’d been hinting at and saying indirectly.
Eddie thought he’d won the Pulitzer for the wrong picture.
There’s something you have to take into account about Eddie. Before he was a photographer, he was a Marine. And some Marine principles took root in his heart: honesty, fairness and the importance of holding and protecting a higher moral ground”. [This is a small out of context excerpt which will make sense if you read the whole moving story here].
Eddie Adams Talks About The Saigon Execution Photo
See the meme that has developed over the years about this image in part II of this story