In what was a long, costly and divisive conflict, the Vietnam War was home to casualties in the millions, along with amputations and crippling wounds that were 300 percent higher than in World War II, according to U.S Wings statistics. It has now been over 50 years since the chaos began, with a Pulitzer Prize-winning picture still resonating that would define the Vietnam War.
On February 1st, 1968, Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams found himself within the havoc of the streets of Saigon. Just two days after the forces of the People’s Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong initiated the Tet offensive and swarmed into various Vietnamese cities, Adams embedded himself within the mayhem, in hopes of capturing an iconic moment.
According to Time, he came upon Brigadier General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of the national police, who had been standing alongside the captain of a terrorist squad, Nguyen Van Lem. Thinking he was watching the interrogation of a bound prisoner, he had no idea what he was about to witness. Looking through his viewfinder, he noticed the general raise his .38-caliber pistol, and fire a bullet straight through the individual’s head.
The handcuffed prisoner, who was barefoot and wearing just a plaid shirt and shorts, fell to the ground instantly, as Adams stood there stunned. According to The Daily Telegraph, the photographer found it difficult to come to terms with the clinical way that the man had been dispatched, without even the opportunity to speak. It was the ghastly details of the gunned-down prisoner that Adams was not yet aware of, which would suggest that he was, in fact, “far more ruthless and barbaric than his executioner”, according to Time.
In LZ Center’s Vietnam War Documents, it is revealed that the prisoner had been captured at the site of a mass grave of 34 civilians, in which he admitted that he was proud to carry out the attacks ordered out by his unit’s leader. Among those bodies, were the wife and six children of General Loan’s best friend, whose throats were slit by the captured prisoner.
Following the shooting, General Loan justified the abruptness of his decision, saying “If you hesitate, if you didn’t do your duty, the men won’t follow you”, according to LIFE Magazine. Eddie Adams, situated in the heart of it all, had no idea that the moment he just captured on camera would become one of the defining images of the Vietnam War.
The powerful photo would initiate a public swaying of opinion against the war, giving Americans “a stark glimpse of the brutality of the Vietnam War” according to The New York Times. By the morning that followed, the captured moment would be immortalized on the main pages of newspapers all over the world and would fuel a shift of perception that people had of the war. Michelle Nickerson, an associate professor of history at Loyola University Chicago said “It hit people in the gut in a way that only a visual text can do”, adding “The photo translated the news of Tet in a way that you can’t quantify in terms of how many people were, at that moment, turned against the war.”
Without context, this was an inevitably alarming sight for Americans, who had recently been assured by President Lyndon B. Johnson, and his top general in Vietnam, that the war was coming to an end at last, according to The New York Times. A Vietnam war expert at George Mason University, Meredith H. Lair, said that the Tet offensive, which was a series of fierce attacks on over one hundred cities in South Vietnam, “caused people to question whether they’d been fed lies by the administration.”
Furthermore, she added that it caused people to question whether the war was going as well as it seemed and whether the war could be won. The captured image sparked a worry as to whether the United States had been fighting for a just cause, and led American citizens to conclude that perhaps not only the war couldn’t be won, but shouldn’t be won.
“I think more people began to question whether we were, in fact, the good guys in the war or not,” said historian Robert J. McMahon. The reality of the matter was, that a police chief had fired a bullet into the head of a captured man, which was likely a violation of the Geneva Conventions, and the official was a member of South Vietnam’s government, who was an ally of the United States, according to The New York Times.
Christian G. Appy, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, said that this issue would raise a set of moral questions that shaped the debate about the war; whether the American presence in Vietnam was legitimate, and if the war was being conducted in a moral manner.
The captivating execution image naturally resonated in different ways for the two nations involved. For Americans at the time, the image conveyed that North Vietnam and Vietcong were actually much stronger than they had anticipated. For South Vietnam, it was the opposite, proving that the forces “no longer had the kind of aura of omnipotence that they had before”, as said by Mark Philip Bradley, a historian at the University of Chicago. As for the executioner, there was little sympathy on behalf of the viewers and witnesses. The general would flee Vietnam and make his way to the United States, where the government made attempts to deport him and faced constant confrontation about his past.
Photographer Eddie Adams, according to The New York Times, expressed his discomfort with the consequences of the captured image. Adams notes that photographs, by nature, exclude context, with the prisoner’s past being unknown in the image. Despite his feelings towards his photograph, Time Magazine has called it one of the 100 most influential ever taken. In an interview with Time, Adams stated: “Two people died in that photograph: the recipient of the bullet and Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan. 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.” A shadow of the chaos, Eddie Adams ended up capturing one of the most powerful and talked about moments in the history of war.
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