Saigon Execution

1968
Photograph by Eddie Adams

Two people’s lives were destroyed that day. The general’s life was destroyed as well as the life of the Viet Cong. I don’t want to destroy anyone’s life. That’s not my job.

Eddie Adams

Saigon Execution

  • Eddie Adams
  • 1968

The act was stunning in its casualness. Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams was on the streets of Saigon on February 1, 1968, two days after the forces of the People’s Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong set off the Tet offensive and swarmed into dozens of South Vietnamese cities. As Adams photographed the turmoil, he came upon Brigadier General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of the national police, standing alongside ­Nguyen Van Lem, the captain of a terrorist squad who had just killed the family of one of Loan’s friends. Adams thought he was watching the interrogation of a bound prisoner. But as he looked through his viewfinder, Loan calmly raised his .38-caliber pistol and summarily fired a bullet through Lem’s head. After shooting the suspect, the general justified the suddenness of his actions by saying, “If you hesitate, if you didn’t do your duty, the men won’t follow you.” The Tet offensive raged into March. Yet while U.S. forces beat back the communists, press reports of the anarchy convinced Americans that the war was unwinnable. The freezing of the moment of Lem’s death symbolized for many the brutality over there, and the picture’s widespread publication helped galvanize growing sentiment in America about the futility of the fight. More important, Adams’ photo ushered in a more intimate level of war photojournalism. He won a Pulitzer Prize for this image, and as he commented three decades later about the reach of his work, “Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world.”

See the sequence of events that led to the execution

Hear Eddie Adams' account of the killing in Saigon

See Eddie Adams' photos of Brigadier General Nguyen Ngoc Loan taken after the shooting

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