Nguyễn Ngọc Loan & the Photo that Sparked the Anti-War Movement

Nguyễn Ngọc Loan (born on December 11, 1930) gained international attention when a photo of him shooting communist Nguyễn Văn Lém was published worldwide. Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams won the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography but he regretted the effect it had on Nguyễn Ngọc Loan’s reputation. The image became an anti-war icon among those who misunderstood the story behind it.

To the uninformed, the picture showed a South Vietnamese general executing a communist in cold blood. To the informed, a South Vietnamese general was executing a communist captain who just killed South Vietnamese Lieutenant Colonel Nguyễn Tuấn, his wife, their six children, and his 80-year-old mother in cold blood by cutting their throats. Furthermore, Communist Captain Nguyễn Văn Lém was captured by a mass grave of 34 bodies where he proudly admitted to killing those civilians during the Tết Offensive. General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan executed him in front of AP photographer Eddie Adams and NBC News television cameraman Vo Suu.

The execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém meant that Nguyễn Ngọc Loan had prevented further mass murders by this one individual, yet the anti-war movement sympathized with the mass murderer instead. Many uninformed people saw only the cold blooded execution of a communist and immediately jumped to conclusions, condemning Nguyễn Ngọc Loan as if he was a war criminal. During the fall of Saigon in 1975, he fled to the United States where he was harassed by anti-war activists. Photographer Eddie Adams said that on his last visit to Nguyễn Ngọc Loan’s pizza parlor in Washington, the toilet wall had graffiti saying, “We know who you are, fucker”.

Eddie Adams has apologized to Nguyễn Ngọc Loan and his family for the damages that the photo had done. At the premature death of Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, Eddie Adams stated, “The guy was a hero. America should be crying. I just hate to see him go this way, without people knowing anything about him.” Nguyễn Ngọc Loan was forced into early retirement by the ignorance of the anti-war movement and died of cancer on July 14, 1998.

February 1, 1968, under the social democratic regime of President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu
General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan Executing a Việt Cộng Prisoner in Saigon


Photographer: Eddie Adams, Associated Press