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Execution In Saigon: The Famous Snapshot That Started The Anti-War Movement

Culture | February 1, 2020

Eddie Adams' photo as it appeared on the front page of the New York Times, February 2, 1968.

On February 1, 1968 the iconic photo of Nguyen Van Lem being executed on a street in Saigon went all the way around the world, exposing the realities of the Vietnam War. While this photo of Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan with his arm outstretched, firing directly into Lem’s head shows the brutality of war, it also doesn’t show any context for the moment. The photo, taken by Eddie Adams, shocked Americans who believed that the war was almost at an end. Adams won a Pulitzer for his work and man behind the trigger in the photo ended up dealing with the fallout from this photo for the rest of his life.

America Didn’t Know How Deep We Were In The War When The Photo Was Released

source: briscoe center for american history

U.S. soldiers had been dying in Vietnam since 1959, when some were killed in a guerrilla raid outside Saigon. In 1964, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which formally entered the U.S. into the conflict. By 1968, President Johnson was assuring Americans that the Viet Cong were on the run -- but the truth was quite the opposite. What was meant to be a short term skirmish had turned into an intensive war in a chaotic area that was constantly changing. During the war, Nguyen Ngoc Loan worked his way up through the military and became the chief of the South Vietnamese National Police. A man with a fervent need to follow the rules, and a distinct hatred of communism, he carried out his own brand of justice.

Nguyễn Văn Lém Was Captured During The Tet Offensive

source: FS Stoppers

From January to September 1968, North Vietnamese forces launched a coordinated series of attacks on more than 100 cities and towns in South Vietnam, proof that American forces had failed to quash the guerilla combatants. Death squads made their way through the cities, killing anyone who wasn't joining their revolution. Captured in a building in the Cho Lon quarter of Saigon, Nguyễn Văn Lém was a member of the Viet Cong whose downfall began in the Tet Offensive. Allegedly Lém was arrested for cutting the throats of South Vietnamese Lt Col Nguyen Tuan, his wife, their six children and the officer’s 80-year-old mother. On top of that, he was leading a Viet Cong team whose whole deal was taking out members of the National Police and their families. A the time of his death, Lém should have been considered a prisoner of war under the Geneva Convention, but because he was dressed in civilian clothing and he wasn’t carrying a firearm, he was technically seen as an “illegal combatant.”

Lém Was Captured The Morning Of The Photo

source: flickr

During the Tet Offensive, Lém was on a bloodthirsty tear through Saigon. He may look boyish, but he had the heart of a killer. The photo shows Lém handcuffed and in civilian clothing, but he was operating a death squad that had killed 34 that same day. He allegedly took out seven police officers, multiple members of their families, and even a few Americans. Each victim was bound by their wrists and shot in the back of the head, execution style. Because he wasn’t wearing the outfit of a solider this put him in a bad scenario. As a person committing war crimes he was in a bad way, especially with General Loan coming after him. Not only had he carried out a gruesome act, but he was eligible for immediate execution.

The Photo Was Captured By Accident

source: eddie adams workshop

As Lém was led down the street in handcuffs, he had no way of knowing that his final moment was about to become an iconic moment of the war -- but photographer Eddie Adams almost didn’t capture the photo. Adams was making his way through Saigon, snapping photos of anything that he found interesting when he saw what he thought was a Viet Cong soldier about to be taken down, and he prepared to grab a pic. He explained:

When they were close – maybe five feet away – the soldiers stopped and backed away. I saw a man walk into my camera viewfinder from the left. He took a pistol out of his holster and raised it. I had no idea he would shoot. It was common to hold a pistol to the head of prisoners during questioning. So I prepared to make that picture – the threat, the interrogation. But it didn’t happen. The man just pulled a pistol out of his holster, raised it to the VC’s head and shot him in the temple. I made a picture at the same time.

The Photo Changed The Way People Thought About The Vietnam War

source: briscoe center for american history

Eddie Adams’ “Saigon Execution” was emblazoned across newspapers the next morning, showing not only the final moments of Lém’s life but the realities of the Vietnam War. The photo, compounded with footage of the event, sent the public into a frenzy. Never before had they seen something so brutal or horrifying. Without context, viewers believed that what they were seeing was the execution of civilian and not a the leader of a death squad. Christian G. Appy, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, explained how the photo changed the way the photo made Americans see the war:

It raised a different kind of question to Americans than whether or not the war was winnable. It really introduced a set of moral questions that would increasingly shape debate about the Vietnam War: Is our presence in Vietnam legitimate or just, and are we conducting the war in a way that is moral?

The Fallout Of The Photo Affected Everyone Differently

source: briscoe center for american history

The photo of the execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém changed the lives of everyone involved. Obviously, Lém lost his life, and the American people finally discovered how awful the situation was in Vietnam. When Eddie Adams returned from Vietnam he won the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography, essentially earning him a place as one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century. Loan, the man firing the gun in the photo, escaped Vietnam during the fall of Saigon but he never found solace. He was removed from a hospital in Australia when the government discovered who he was. He later immigrated to America where he opened a pizza restaurant. His business was constantly vandalized and he was accosted multiple times, as if that weren't bad enough his green card status was constantly questioned. In 1991, he closed his restaurant. He passed away from cancer in 1998.

Tags: The Vietnam War

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.