Saigon Execution

The real story behind Eddie Adams’ iconic Vietnam War photo.

“Saigon Execution” is one of the most recognizable photographs in military history, and it played a contributing role in turning public opinion against the Vietnam War. The image—by combat photographer Eddie Adams—captures the moment a uniformed South Vietnamese officer fires a bullet into the head of a man who appears to be a civilian.

Taken out of context, the photo seems to evince a senseless act of brutality, which explains why it was later used in support of the moral argument that protestors made against the war. But the reality is that the shooter (General Nguyen Ngoc Loan), was executing a ruthless Viet Cong assassin (Nguyen Van Lem, aka Bay Lop), who was leading a team that had targeted the general himself.

To help put the photo in context, I asked James S. Robbins—author of “This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive” (Encounter Books)—about the incident, and what impact it had on the war effort and the life of General Loan.

What do most people not understand about “Saigon Execution”?
The photo shows General Loan, arm outstretched, shooting a prisoner who looked like a civilian, though he was actually a Viet Cong guerrilla. The picture was front-page news and ultimately won the Pulitzer Prize for spot photography. But Eddie Adams later said that the picture didn’t tell the story and that he was sorry he took it.

The man who was shot was Bay Lop, who had beheaded people, been caught in the act of gunning down policemen, and killed the family of one of General Loan’s friends. That doesn’t necessarily justify what Loan did. But when stripped of context, it looked like someone from the South Vietnamese national police gunning down some helpless guy, and that was not the case. Bay Lop was the leader of a sophisticated assassination team that was attempting to knock off all the top leaders [of South Vietnam], and General Loan was on their list.

But the picture had a big impact in the U.S., right?
It had a huge impact, because people who were against the war immediately seized on it. And the North Vietnamese put on a propaganda tour around the world using the photo as its centerpiece, telling people: This is who we are fighting—this terrible regime in Saigon that guns down helpless prisoners.

What effect did the photo’s fame have on General Loan?
It became an opportunity for his political enemies to go after him. But he was wounded in action a few months later, and that’s when he was removed from his job. His leg was shot up to the point where it was later amputated, and he couldn’t do his job anymore.

Later, when he came to the United States, the Immigration and Nationalization Service (INS) wanted to deport him on the grounds of moral turpitude based on the photo. But Eddie Adams came to his defense. When the INS asked him to testify against Loan, he said: No, I’ll testify for him. He got to know General Loan after Tet and found he wasn’t a bad guy; he was just in a bad situation. So Loan was not deported and he lived in northern Virginia until 1998, when he passed away.

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