This gruesome photograph became anti-war propaganda that drastically shaped public opinion. The horrific frozen frame depicts a moment of distinction, a moment in a time that could not be undone, a wartime tension that could not be unraveled.
In this sense, the photograph was successfu, shocking and characteristic in its ability to drive the anti war movement, protesting against brutality of the Vietnam conflict. But, what you can not see, is enough to change your perspective completely.
It was while covering the Vietnam War for the Associated Press that Eddie Adams took his best known photograph – that of police chief General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, summarily executing Nguyễn Văn Lém, a Vietcong prisoner.
Eddie Adams won the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography and a World Press Photo award for the photograph. He described the image as a ‘reflex picture’ and that he ‘wasn’t certain of what he’d photographed until the film was developed.’
Two people died in that photograph: the recipient of the bullet and General Nguyen Ngoc Loan. The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera.
Still photographs are the most powerful weapons in the World. People believe them; but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths.
This picture really messed up his life. He never blamed me. He told me if I hadn’t taken the picture, someone else would have, but I’ve felt bad for him and his family for a long time.
I sent flowers when I heard that he had died and wrote, ‘I’m sorry. There are tears in my eyes.’
Nguyễn Văn Lém was a member of the Viet Cong. He was captured near the Ấn Quang Pagoda on 1 February 1968, during the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War, when Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces launched a massive surprise attack. .
Lém was brought to Brigadier General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, Chief of the Republic of Vietnam National Police at 252 Ngô Gia Tự Street, District 10 near the modern day Chùa Trấn Quốc temple. Loan summarily executed Lém using his sidearm, a .38 Special Smith & Wesson Bodyguard revolver.
The event was witnessed and recorded by Võ Sửu, a cameraman for NBC News, and Eddie Adams, a photographer for Associated Press .
What many include Eddie Adams did not know at the time is that despite assumable context, the victim in the photo, is not a civilian. The man being executed is Vietcong prisoner Nguyễn Văn Lém (also known as Captain Bay Lop). Van Lem, was an assassin, the leader of a Vietcong death squad who was targeting South Vietnamese officials.
Early on the morning of the photograph, Lém had led a unit of Vietcong tanks to attack the Armor Camp in Go Vap. After taking control of the camp, Lém arrested Lt.Col Tuan along with his family. In an effort to gain intelligence from Tuan, Lém tortured, and eventually executed, Tuan.
Lém then went on to kill all the members of Tuan’s family, to include his 80-year-old mother and 5 children except one little boy of 10 years old who survived after being shot in the arm, leg, and head execution style. The little boy grew up in the U.S and became the first Vietnamese American U.S Navy Real Admiral Huan Nguyen in 2019.
Lém was then captured near a mass grave of 34 innocent civilian bodies, leaving little doubt to his involvement in the atrocity. Proudly admitting his participation in the horrific war crime, Lém was brought in and promptly executed.