The True Story Behind The Iconic “Saigon Execution” Photo

This infamous Vietnam War photo was taken on February 1, 1968, in Saigon, Vietnam, by Eddie Adams, a photographer with the Associated Press (AP). Adams served as a military photographer with the U.S. Marines in the Korean War and joined AP in 1962. The image dates from day two of the Tet Offensive, which was a major campaign of attacks by the North Vietnamese Viet Cong forces on targets throughout South Vietnam.

In the photo, South Vietnamese soldiers lead a man in civilian clothes with his hands tied behind his back. The group are in a street in the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon, where there had been fierce fighting since the outbreak of the Tet Offensive. And the man is a 36-year-old officer called Nguyen Van Lem, who also went by the nom de guerre of Bay Lop. Lem had been captured not long before Adams captured this image.

Lem was a member of the Viet Cong and served as the leader of an insurgent group in Saigon. The insurgents’ mission was apparently to assassinate South Vietnamese National Police officers. It was also claimed that they had been ordered to target those officers’ families.

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Timed to coincide with the Vietnamese New Year holiday, the Tet Offensive was launched by North Vietnamese communist forces on January 31, 1968. It involved some 70,000 Viet Cong soldiers attacking towns and cities throughout South Vietnam. The series of attacks aimed to encourage the South Vietnamese populace to rise up against their government; they also looked to weaken the resolve of the U.S.

And although the offensive was eventually beaten back by American and South Vietnamese forces, the pictures of chaos and slaughter that were beamed back to the U.S. undoubtedly had an effect on public opinion. Indeed, in the week leading up to February 18, 1968, 543 U.S. troops were killed and 2,547 were wounded. For America, these were to be the highest casualty figures in a given week during the whole conflict.

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Yet there was one particular photograph and segment of news footage that shocked people worldwide more than any other. That brings us back to the Viet Cong prisoner, Nguyen Van Lem, whom we saw being marched along a Saigon street earlier in the article. What was about to happen to this man, and the images of the event, would reverberate around the world.

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Shortly after the two photographs of Lem that we saw earlier were taken, he was presented to a senior South Vietnamese National Police officer. By happenstance, Adams was on the scene, as was an NBC News film cameraman named Vo Suu. And the incident that occurred next produced some of the most horrifying images of the Vietnam War, including arguably the most shocking single still image.

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Eddie Adams subsequently took this dramatic shot of the summary execution that ensued. Recalling the event years later, Adams told Newseum, “Then I see him go for his pistol, and as soon as he raised his pistol, as soon as he brought it up, I took the picture.” The photographer also admitted that at the time he had no idea how immensely significant this single frame would turn out to be.

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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.

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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.”

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“I had no idea he would shoot,” Adams admitted. “It was common to hold a pistol to the head of prisoners during questioning.” And Adams looked back on the photo ruefully. “The General killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera,” he added. “Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world.”

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Indeed, General Loan quickly became infamous around the world for killing someone in cold blood, and this was much to Adams’ regret. “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 said.

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The fact was that Lem had been in command of a group tasked with killing senior South Vietnamese officers. In addition, it was reported that he’d been captured near a mass grave. There were seven senior representatives of the South Vietnam Police, not to mention their family members, among the dead. All the victims had been tied up and shot.

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So, was the execution of Lem during the brutal fighting of the Tet Offensive a war crime? This is a controversial question. It can be argued that as Lem was not in uniform and he had allegedly massacred civilians in cold blood, he was not entitled to the protection of the Geneva Convention. Arguably, Lem himself was a war criminal, so there is a possibility that his execution was permissible under international law.

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In any case, General Nguyen Ngoc Loan’s actions on that February 1968 day in Saigon were to have repercussions for him throughout the rest of his life. Not long afterwards, he was himself seriously wounded in combat, which subsequently led to his right leg being amputated.

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After being wounded, Loan was transferred to a hospital in Australia. However, there was so much public opposition to his presence in the country that he had to be transferred to a hospital in the U.S. What’s more, even there politicians continued to criticize him.

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Loan later returned to Saigon; but when that city fell to the Viet Cong, he asked U.S. forces to evacuate him and his family. His pleas were ignored, however, although the family eventually managed to escape in a South Vietnamese aircraft. Subsequently, he opened a pizza restaurant called Les Trois Continents in a Washington, D.C., suburb.

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Loan was, however, forced to shut up his restaurant in 1991 after his identity became known. Eddie Adams visited the pizzeria shortly before its closure and saw a message scrawled on the bathroom wall. The words read, “We know who you are, f**ker.” Meanwhile, Loan lived on until 1998, when he died of cancer at the age of 67.

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The importance of Adams’ photo and its impact upon the outcome of the war has been hotly debated. It seems a stretch to credit the image with a central role in the eventual defeat of the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government in 1975. However, there’s no doubt that it played a part in strengthening anti-war sentiment both in the U.S. and around the world.

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At any rate, many consider the Tet Offensive itself to have been the main turning point in the war. Although the campaign was eventually quashed, it showed how determined the Viet Cong were. By 1973 the American military effort in Vietnam was over, and just two years later North Vietnamese troops overran Saigon. Yet however small the parts were played by Eddie Adams’ photograph, General Loan’s actions and the death of Nguyen Van Lem, they certainly represent an important and, indeed, unforgettable episode in the conflict.

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