Saigon Execution – A Photo that changed the Vietnam War
On 1st February 1968, in Saigon near the An Quang Pagoda, Nguyen Van Lem (code name ‘Bay Lop’) was captured and brought before Chief of Police Nguyen Ngoc Loan.
Lem was a Vietcong fighter holding the rank of Captain. He was engaged in the famous ‘Tet Offensive’ in the Vietnam War. He had led forces which had captured an army base at Go Vap outside Saigon. Here he had arrested South Vietnamese Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Tuan. Lem had demanded of Tuan that he show his troops how to operate the captured vehicles at the base and Tuan had refused. Lem then murdered Tuan, his wife, their six children and Tuan’s eighty year old mother by cutting their throats.
Assassination and murder by Vietcong fighters was a long established practice during the bitter conflict and was sanctioned by the leadership of North Vietnam as part of their insurgency strategy.
Shortly after committing the murders, Lem was captured by ARVN Rangers. He was near to a mass grave of civilians and had proudly admitted to killing the thirty four victims. The Rangers brought Lem, shackled and who was wearing civilian clothes, to Police Chief Loan. As this happened, Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams and NBC cameraman Vo Suu happened to be stood nearby. Adams later stated that he though Laon was going to threaten Lem and had intended to capture this on camera. However, Loan drew his Smith and Wesson revolver and executed Lem immediately by shooting him in the temple. It was this event and the death of Lem which was captured on film. Loan then walked up to Adams and said “They killed many of my people and yours too” before walking away.
This image was to become known as the “Saigon Execution”.
Adams’ photograph would earn him a Pulitzer Prize in 1969 and it’s distribution and the disgust it evoked solidified opposition against the Vietnam War in the America. The image went on to encapsulate the brutality of the conflict and helped to turn public opinion firmly against the cause of South Vietnam. This public move against the war was to lead to the Nixon Doctrine which lead to ‘Vietnamization’ of the conflict and the withdrawal of American forces – a process that culminated in the fall to Communism of South Vietnam.
Despite the influence of his photograph and the recognition this bought to him as a photographer, Adams would later admit that he regretted that he had been unable to get a picture of Lem murdering Tuan and his family. Adams wrote in Time Magazine ‘The general killed the Viet Cong, I killed the General with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon 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 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?”‘.
Loan continued to fight for South Vietnam until he was seriously injured fighting in 1968. Loan, by this time a Brigadier General was leading a charge of soldiers across a bridge when he was hit by machine gun fire. He was dragged to safety by Australian War Correspondent Pat Burgess and would escape South Vietnam when the Communists captured Saigon.
Loan went on to move to the United States where he went on to set up a restaurant in Washington DC called ‘Les Trois Continents’. However, attempts to deport Loan were initiated after Democrat politician Elizabeth Holtzman petitioned the Immigration and Naturalisation Service. Holtzman cited Loan as a potential war criminal based on Adams’ photograph and he was to be deported to stand trial in Vietnam for the assassination of Lem. Adams himself advocated on behalf of Loan and apologised in person to him and his family for the damage that the photograph had caused to his honour. Loan was not deported after the interdiction of President Carter and he was to die of cancer in 1998 in Burke, Virginia. Adams described him, during television show ‘War Stories with Oliver North’ as a “goddamned hero”.
Unbeknown to Lem, there was a survivor of his massacre of the Tuan family. Huan Nguyen, Tuan’s son, who was nine years old at the time, managed to survive despite being shot in the arm, thigh and skull. Nguyen waited for two hours whilst his mother bled to death before crawling to safety. Nguyen went to live with his uncle, a Colonel in the Republic of Vietnam Air Force and after the end of the war fled to the United States. Nguyen was rescued by United States Navy and Marines, who cared for him and his family at the time. It was this experience that led him to later join the Navy himself.
Nguyen went on to become the first Vietnamese U.S. Navy Rear Admiral.