The photograph subsequently became one of the most famous of not only the Vietnam War, but also the whole of the 20th century. The apparently casual execution of a Viet Cong prisoner, who looked suspiciously like a civilian, seemed to symbolize the appalling inhumanity of the Vietnam War. Moreover, opponents of the war in the U.S and other nations were quick to use the photo to support their case.
The man who shot Nguyen Van Lem in the head with his .38 caliber Smith & Wesson was General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the chief of the South Vietnam National Police. Vo Suu, the film cameraman who also recorded the execution, recalled that just after the shooting Loan said, “These guys kill a lot of our people, and I think Buddha will forgive me.”