Culture Re-View: A photograph changes the course of the Vietnam War

South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of the National Police, fires his pistol into the head of suspected Viet Cong officer Nguyen Van Lem
South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of the National Police, fires his pistol into the head of suspected Viet Cong officer Nguyen Van Lem   -  Copyright  Eddie Adams/AP Photo
By Jonny Walfisz

1 February 1968: A photograph changes the course of the Vietnam War.

A picture can tell a thousand words is a cliché beyond parody, yet sometimes it rings true and those words can change the course of a devastating war.

On this day in 1968, the Vietnam War had been raging between the North and South for nearly 13 years. Acting as a proxy war for the Cold War belligerents the US and USSR, the US had upped their involvement since 1961 sending troops abroad.

Despite the huge number of troops sent to Vietnam, in 1967 opposition to the war was only at 32% in the US. That all changed when Viet Cong Captain Nguyễn Văn Lém was brought before South Vietnam Army Brigadier General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan in a square in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City).

Lém, also known as Bảy Lốp, was in charge of a death squad. He had been captured after killing South Vietnam officer Nguyễn Tuân along with six members of Tuân’s family.

Eddie Adams/AP
South Vietnamese forces escort suspected Viet Cong officer Nguyen Van Lem (also known as Bay Lop) on a Saigon street Feb. 1, 1968Eddie Adams/AP

When brought to Brigadier General Loan, he didn’t hesitate to pass judgement. He immediately pulled out a pistol and shot Lém in the head. Lém was 36 years old.

Not expecting the summary execution, Associated Press photographer captured the precise moment the bullet entered Lém’s head. The incident was also filmed by NBC News television cameraman Võ Sửu.

Adams’ photo and Sửu’s video footage quickly spread through the media and changed public perception in the US over the war. As Lém was murdered wearing normal civilian clothes, many saw him as an innocent bystander and questioned if the narrative the US media and government was feeding them about the success of the war was accurate.

Eddie Adams/AP
South Vietnamese Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of the national police, holsters his gun after executing suspected Viet Cong officer Nguyen Van LemEddie Adams/AP

Watching an ally of the US government point blank execute a man created a conversation over the justification of the country’s role in the war. Although many other incidents changed the tide of public perception, the photo was an important cultural moment signifying a shift towards anti-Vietnam war belief in the 70s, eventually leading to the end of the war in 1975.

The photo netted Adams a Pulitzer Prize, but it came to haunt him. “I was getting money for showing one man killing another. Two lives were destroyed, and I was getting paid for it. I was a hero,” he said. Writing in Time magazine he explained: “Two people died in that photograph. The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera.”

Nonetheless, Adams believed that photographs “are the most powerful weapon in the world.”