Thursday 1 February 2018 – 50 years ago today: the execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém in Saigon


Photo: Brigadier General  Nguyễn Ngọc Loan executing Viet Cong prisoner Nguyễn Văn Lém, 1 February 1968, Saigon. Photo by Eddie Adams.

This iconic photograph from the Vietnam war quickly circulated the world in February 1968, reprinted on newspaper front pages and becoming a symbolic image of the violence and futility of the Vietnam war.  The man being shot is Nguyễn Văn Lém who had been detained by southern Vietnamese forces near a mass grave of officials and their families who had been killed by a group of Viet Cong men led by Lém during the Tet Offensive launched by the People’s Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong at the end of January.  The offensive caught many south Vietnamese cities by surprise.  Nguyễn Văn Lém was believed to not only be involved in the killings but also part of a group that was targeting police and other officials and their families.  Once detained he was marched through the streets of Saigon by the soldiers led by Brigadier General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan.

American photographer Eddie Adams witnessed Lém’s detention and summary execution but he didn’t realise – even as he took this iconic photo – that Loan was actually going to shoot his prisoner.  Adams explained: “I thought he was going to terrorise the guy [as Loan pointed his pistol at Lém], so I just  naturally raised my camera and took the picture.”  Adams said that it wasn’t uncommon for prisoners to have guns pointed at their heads as a means to terrorise them.  However, Loan did fire and Adams had unwittingly captured the micro-second of a moment that the bullet entered the head of Nguyễn Văn Lém.  The image captures the moment of grimace a fraction of second before Lém dies as well as the seemingly calm posture of General Loan and the shocked reaction of one of his soldiers.  Loan told Adams after the execution: “If you hesitate, if you don’t do your duty, the men won’t follow you.”


Photo: Nguyễn Văn Lém lies dead on the street as Nguyễn Ngọc Loan  reholsters his pistol.

General Loan had played a crucial role in the first few days opposing the Tet Offensive, bringing troops together to resist the fall of Saigon.  Eddie Adams at first considered him  a “cold, callous killer” but came to reassess his opinion of the General after travelling around Vietnam with his forces.  He later said that Loan was “a product of modern Vietnam and his time.”

Adams received praise for his iconic photograph from everyone from President Nixon downwards and in May 1969 won the Pulitzer Prize for spot news photography for the photograph.  Adams, however, felt guilt over the photograph: “I was getting money for showing one man killing another. Two lives were destroyed, and I was getting paid for it. I was a hero.”  Adams believed that the photo contributed to the eventual destroying of Nguyễn Ngọc Loan through the negative reaction he got from having his killing of Nguyễn Văn Lém seen around the world.


Photo: Eddie Adams in Vietnam

Loan fled South Vietnam at the end of the war for the United States.  However, the authorities in the States wanted to depart him – partly because of the notoriety of the photograph.  In hope of this Eddie Adams was called to testify against the former general only for him to testify in support of him.  Mr Adams even went on television to explain the circumstances around the execution to support Loan.  The US Congress eventually lifted the threat of deportation and Loan settled in Washington DC where he opened a restaurant servicing a combination of hamburgers, pizzas and Vietnamese dishes.  Loan, however, could not escape the photograph and his restaurant was frequently daubed with graffiti.  Loan was eventually forced to close the restaurant and retire.  He died of cancer in 1998 aged 67.

Writing in Time in 1998 following the death of Loan, Adams said:

“Two people died in that photograph: the recipient of the bullet and General Nguyễn Ngọc 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. […] 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 people?’. […] 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’.

Eddie Adams continued as a photographer, winning hundreds of photography awards for his work. He most notable other photographs included a series of photos he took of Vietnamese refugees who had sailed to Thailand in a 30-foot boat only to be towed back to the open seas by Thai Marines.  He won the 1977 Robert Capa Gold Medal from the Overseas Press Club for these photos which, along with an accompany report, influenced American President Jimmy Carter to grant nearly 200,000 Vietnamese “boat people” asylum in the United States.  Mr Adams thought that these were more important to him and wished he would be remembered for these rather than the so-called ‘Saigon Execution’ photo.  He  once wrote that the “boat people” photos “did some good and nobody got hurt.” Eddie Adams  lived in New Jersey and died in 2004 aged 71 in New York City from Lou Gehrig’s Disease (amytorphic lateral sclerosis). 

Adams had created a photography workshop called  Barnstorm: The Eddie Adams Worship, which continued his legacy after his death.  His photograph archive was donated by his widow Alyssa Adams to the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas in Austin.  As well the Vietnam war, the archive contains features on poverty in America, the homeless, Mother Teresa, Brazil, alternative societies, anti-war demonstrations and riots plus portraits of people including Ronald Reagan, Fidel Castro, Malcolm X, Clint Eastwood, Bette Davis and Jerry Lewis.

Thoughts on the photograph

Eddie Adams: “I just followed the three of them as they walked towards us, making an occasional picture. 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.” 

Writer Susan Sontag writing in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), said: “He [General Loan] would not have carried out the summary execution there had [the press] not been available to witness it.”

Donald Winslow, of The New York Times, quoting Eddie Adams: “[The photograph was a] reflex picture [and] wasn’t certain of what I’d photographed until the film was developed.”  Winslow also pointed out that Adams wanted people to understand that the ‘Saigon Execution’ was not the most important picture and that he did not want his obituary to begin, “Eddie  Adams, the photographer best known for his iconic Vietnam photograph ‘Saigon Execution’.”

Hal Buell, Adams’ photo editor at Associated Press: “[the photo] in one frame, symbolises the full war’s brutality. Like all icons, it summarises what has gone before, captures a current moment and, if we are smart enough, tells us something about the future brutality all wars promise. Eddie is quoted as saying that photography is a powerful weapon. Photography by its nature is selective. It isolates a single moment, divorcing that moment from the moments before and after that possibly lead to adjusted meaning.”


Photos: The last few moments of Nguyễn Văn Lém’s life. Photos by Eddie Adams.

After the death of General Loan, Mr Adams went as far as to apologise directly to Loan’s family for the damage his photo had done and he would praise him after his death as a “hero” of a “just cause” and on the TV show War Stories With Oliver North he called the general “a goddamned hero!”

Eddie Adams’ photograph was quickly adopted by many as an anti-war symbol, generally ignoring the context behind the execution and the reality of war and who Nguyễn Văn Lém was and what he had done.  Lém was often portrayed as an innocent victim of the brutality of war but he was far from innocent. Nguyễn Văn Lém was also known as Captain Bay Lop.  He was a prominent member of the Viet Cong, either an assassin with or the leader of a Viet Cong death quad which had been targeting and killing South Vietnamese National Police officers and their families. Lém’s squad were  also attempting to take down a number of South Vietnamese officials and may have also been targeting General Loan himself.  It is said that Nguyễn Văn Lém’s squad had killed one Loan’s officers and members of the officer’s family.

Nguyễn Văn Lém was detained next to a mass grave containing around 30 bodies of South Vietnamese police officers and their families – all bound and shot earlier that day.  Eddie Adams backs up this story and Nguyễn Văn Lém’s widow also confirmed that her husband was a member of the National Liberation Front (better known as Viet Cong) and that he disappeared just before the Test Offensive.  Immediately after killing Nguyễn Văn Lém, General Loan told Adams: “They killed many of my people, and yours too.”

Most would assume that the summary execution was a breach of the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war, but  sadly war is brutal and rarely abides by international law or conventions.  General Loan would have regarded Nguyễn Văn Lém as a dangerous enemy who had killed many civilians, police officers and members of his own forces.  It seems that no official ruling has ever been made on whether the execution was a breach of the Geneva Convention or not.  As General Loan was on the side of the south in the Vietnam War – i.e. the side backed by the United States – it was not likely that he would be pursued for any offence committed.

General Loan was severely injured a few months after killing Nguyễn Văn Lém, which led to the amputation of a leg. Australian medics  refused to treat him and he was transferred to the US Medics.  General Loan, of course, was fighting on the side of South Vietnam which was supported by both Australia and the United States. As the War was ending, General Loan fled the country and despite initial attempts to prevent him emigrating to the United States, he was allowed to settle in the United States with no official consequences for his actions and was able to lead  a normal life until 1991 when he identity was discovered.  At that point he was forced into retirement in face of hostility towards him.


Photo: Nguyễn Ngọc Loan in his American restaurant, which he operated from 1975 until 1991.

The family of Nguyễn Văn Lém weren’t so fortunate. Nguyễn Thi Lop didn’t know her husband, who was 36 when he died, had even been arrested let alone executed and she found out like everyone else by reading the story with the iconic photograph in a newspaper.  Pregnant and fearing for her life she fled with her two daughters to a relative’s house.  She struggled to make a living in various odd-jobs until the war ended. For a long time they lived in extreme poverty in a field and it wasn’t until they were discovered by a Japanese film crew that the Vietnamese government offered them help.  Eventually Nguyễn Thi Lop was granted a pension, a “gratitude house” and a scholarship for her son who was born eight months after Nguyễn Văn Lém’s death.


Photo: Nguyễn Thi Lop, the widow of Nguyễn Văn Lém holding mementoes of her husband.

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