On the 1st February 1968, American photojournalist Eddie Adams took a photograph of South Vietnamese National Police Chief General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan executing Viet Cong officer Nguyễn Văn Lém in Saigon. The photograph’s publication in the New York Times rallied US citizens to the anti-war movement and earned Adams a Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography in 1969.
The Tet Offensive had begun on the 30th January, and saw over 80,000 communist troops carry out a series of surprise attacks against South Vietnamese forces and their allies. It’s reported that, two days later, in the early morning of the 1st February Lém led a troop that attacked a South Vietnamese base and killed South Vietnamese National Police officers and their families. He was later captured near a mass grave containing 34 civilian bodies, and soon brought before General Loan in Saigon. While still handcuffed, Loan shot Lém with his Smith & Wesson revolver in front of photographer Eddie Adams and an NBC News television cameraman.
The photograph was printed in the New York Times, and appeared alongside a now-forgotten image of a child killed by the Viet Cong in an attempt to achieve balance. However, the immediacy of the image made an enormous impact in America where it became strongly associated with the anti-war movement. Adams later spoke out many times in defence of General Loan, declaring that the photograph does not present the whole story. He later visited Loan many times, and apologised in person for the effect the photo had on his life. On hearing of Loan’s death in 1998, Adams called him “a hero”.