The story behind the photo Saigon Execution which horrified the world unfolded.
The photograph was taken during the infamous Vietnam War where US participated. This was during the Tet Offensive where Viet Cong and North Vietnam forcess attacked South Vietnam.
A combat photographer Eddie Adams who captured the picture of the summary execution of Nguyen Van Lem. The one who shot Lem is General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the chief of the South Vietnam National Police.
“I had no idea he would shoot,” Adams admitted. “It was common to hold a pistol to the head of prisoners during questioning.” He regretfully looked back on the photo and said: “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.”
The film cameraman who also recorded the execution, Vo Suu, also recalled that just after the shooting that Loan said, “These guys kill a lot of our people, and I think Buddha will forgive me.”
After that incident, General Loan quickly became infamous around the world for killing someone in cold blood, much to Adams’ regret.
It appears that General Loan was the bad guy in that incident. Adams action at that time in Saigon greatly impacted the life of General Loan afterwards. He was criticized all over the world for the rest of his life. Not long afterwards, he was himself seriously wounded in combat, which subsequently led to his right leg being amputated. He was transferred to a hospital in Australia, however, there was so much public opposition in that country because of the impact that image has made him. He was then, transferred to US where he was also criticized by the politician.
Later after the war is over, he opened a pizza restaurant called Les Trois Continents in a Washington, D.C., suburb. Loan was forced to shut up his restaurant in 1991 after his identity became known. Eddie Adams had visited the pizzeria shortly before its closure and saw a message scrawled on the bathroom wall. It read, “We know who you are, f**ker.” Loan lived on until 1998, when he died of cancer at the age of 67.
What the other people do not know, the man who was shot by General Loan is Nguyen Van Lem who was a member of Viet Cong and served as the leader of an insurgent group in Saigon. Their mission was apparently to assassinate South Vietnamese National Police officers as well as targeting those officers’ families. In addition, it was reported that he’d been captured near a mass grave. There were seven senior members of the South Vietnam Police among the dead, as well as their family members. All the casualties had been tied up and shot.
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 a possibility that his execution was permissible under international law.
“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.
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.
In fact, many consider the Tet Offensive itself as the main turning point in the war. Although the assault was eventually defeated, it showed how determined the Viet Cong were. By 1973 the American military effort in Vietnam was over. Just two years later North Vietnamese troops overran Saigon. However small the parts played by Eddie Adams’ photograph, General Loan’s actions and the death of Nguyen Van Lem, they are certainly an important and unforgettable episode in the conflict.