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Saigon Execution

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Nguyễn Ngọc Loan aims a pistol at Nguyễn Văn Lém. Lém's face is visibly distorted from a bullet that is still travelling through his head.
Saigon Execution

Saigon Execution[a] is a 1968 photograph by Associated Press photojournalist Eddie Adams, taken during the Tet Offensive of the Vietnam War. It depicts South Vietnamese brigadier general Nguyễn Ngọc Loan shooting Viet Cong captain Nguyễn Văn Lém[b][c] near the Ấn Quang Pagoda in Saigon. The photograph was published extensively by American news media the following day,[2] and would go on to win Adams the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography.


Nguyễn Văn Lém was a captain in the Viet Cong (VC) and was known by the code name Bảy Lốp.[1] He and his wife Nguyễn Thị Lốp lived as undercover arms traffickers in Saigon, trading tires as a front business.[3][d] At the beginning of the Tet Offensive, he was instructed to assassinate prominent figures who stood opposed to the VC, including Loan, United States army general William Westmoreland, and South Vietnamese president Nguyễn Văn Thiệu.[5]

Nguyễn Ngọc Loan was the chief of the Republic of Vietnam National Police (RVNP),[6] and brigadier general of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).[7] He had anticipated the Tet Offensive, and was responsible for coordinating the ARVN response in Saigon – including leading the RVNP to capture the Ấn Quang Pagoda, which the VC were using as a base of operations.[8]

Eddie Adams was an Associated Press (AP) war photographer. Having worked previously as a US Marine,[9] he had a reputation for being fearless, taking pictures close to danger, and for often being "in the right place at the right time".[10] Adams was in Vietnam since 1965 to cover the war, and on February 1, 1968 he heard from the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) about fighting in Chợ Lớn.[11] He met with NBC journalist Howard Tuckner, cameramen Võ Huỳnh and Võ Suu, and soundman Lê Phúc Đinh. They shared a car to Chợ Lớn to cover the conflict.[7]


Võ Suu's video of the execution, broadcast on The Huntley–Brinkley Report, February 2, 1968.[12]

The NBC and AP crews arrived at the Ấn Quang Pagoda the same morning, and having seen nothing of interest by noon, were preparing to leave. A cameraman for the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) was also present. Meanwhile, Lém was captured by ARVN marines while wearing civilian clothing. The marines escorted him to where the journalists happened to be.[13] The journalists noticed this; the NBC and ABC cameramen began filming.[e][7][13] Loan instructed a marine to kill Lém, but he was reluctant, so Loan unholstered his gun,[13] a .38 Special Smith & Wesson Bodyguard revolver.[14] The ABC correspondent was spooked by Loan and stopped filming.[f] Adams believed this was merely an intimidation tactic, but nonetheless prepared to take a photo. Loan then shot Lém. At the same time, Adams snapped the photo,[13] capturing the moment the bullet was still inside Lém's head.[16] Lém fell to the ground, blood spurting out of the wound. Loan then explained his actions to the journalists, citing the Americans and South Vietnamese that had died.[g] A marine placed a VC propaganda leaflet on Lém's face. His body was left in the street and later taken to a mass grave.[18]


Loan in interviews[edit]

When asked in 1972 why he killed Lém, Loan said to Tom Buckley of Harper's Magazine "When you see a man in civilian clothes with a revolver killing your people ... what are you supposed to do? We knew who this man was. His name was Nguyễn Tân Đạt, alias Hàn Sơn. He was the commander of a sapper unit. He killed a policeman. He spit in the face of the men who captured him."[14]

Lém's previous actions[edit]

Lém was accused of having recently captured ARVN Lieutenant Colonel Nguyễn Tuấn and his family, and ordered Tuấn to show him how to use the tanks. Tuấn refused, and Lém cut each of their throats.[19] Historian Ed Moise believes that story is South Vietnamese propaganda. Noting his position, historian Max Hastings said "the truth will never be known".[20]


The event received extensive attention in the US over the coming days; the photo was published on most American newspapers the following morning, and 20 million people saw the NBC's film of it on The Huntley–Brinkley Report that evening.[21] Various other organizations and American politicians commented on the event.[22]

The photograph is commonly characterized as having created a massive shift in American public opinion against the war. Historian David Perlmutter found little to no evidence to support this claim.[23]


Eddie Adams with his photo in 1969

The photo came to haunt Adams: "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 elaborated on this in a later piece of writing: "Two people died in that photograph. The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera."[24] Adams later stated he regretted he was unable to get a picture "of that Viet Cong [Lém] blowing away the [Tuân] family".[20]

Ben Wright, associate director for communications at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, said of the photo: "There's something in the nature of a still image that deeply affects the viewer and stays with them. The film footage of the shooting, while ghastly, doesn't evoke the same feelings of urgency and stark tragedy."[24]


In 1975, Nguyễn Ngọc Loan fled South Vietnam during the Fall of Saigon, eventually emigrating to the United States.[25] Pressure from the U.S. Congress resulted in an investigation by the Library of Congress,[26] which concluded that Lém's execution was illegal under South Vietnamese law.[27] In 1978, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) contended that Loan had committed a war crime.[27] They attempted to deport him, but President Jimmy Carter personally intervened to stop the proceedings, stating that "such historical revisionism was folly".[28][29] Loan died on July 14, 1998, in Burke, Virginia, at the age of 67.[30]

The sole survivor of Lém's alleged killing of Tuân's family was Huan Nguyen; aged nine at the time, he was shot three times during the attack that killed his family and stayed with his mother for two hours as she bled to death. In 2019, he became the highest-ranking Vietnamese-American officer in the U.S. military when he was promoted to the rank of rear admiral in the United States Navy.[31][32]

In 2012, Douglas Sloan made a short film, Saigon '68, about Adams' photograph. This film details the influence it had on the lives of Adams and Loan, and on public opinion of the Vietnam War.[33]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Robbins 2010, p. 145.
  2. ^ Braestrup 1983, p. 348.
  3. ^ Morris & Hills 2018, p. 25.
  4. ^ "Unforgettable". people.com. Archived from the original on 6 July 2018. Retrieved 5 July 2018.
  5. ^ Robbins 2010, pp. 145–146.
  6. ^ Robbins 2010, p. 93.
  7. ^ a b c d Bailey & Lichty 1972, p. 222.
  8. ^ Robbins 2010, p. 150.
  9. ^ Robbins 2010, p. 151.
  10. ^ Robbins 2010, p. 152.
  11. ^ Willenson 1987, pp. 184–185.
  12. ^ Bailey & Lichty 1972, pp. 224–7.
  13. ^ a b c d Robbins 2010, p. 153.
  14. ^ a b Buckley, Tom (April 1972). "Portrait of an Aging Despot". Harper's Magazine. p. 69.
  15. ^ Braestrup 1983, p. 351.
  16. ^ Hariman & Lucaites 2015, p. 91.
  17. ^ Perlmutter 1998, p. 43.
  18. ^ Robbins 2010, p. 154.
  19. ^ Robbins 2010, p. 156.
  20. ^ a b Hastings, Max (2018). Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945–1975. New York: HarperCollins. p. 467. ISBN 978-0-06-240566-1.
  21. ^ Perlmutter 1998, p. 36.
  22. ^ Robbins 2010, pp. 160–163.
  23. ^ Perlmutter 1998, pp. 40, 43–44, 47, 49–51.
  24. ^ a b Eddie Adams' iconic Vietnam War photo: What happened next, BBC
  25. ^ Barnes, Bart (16 July 1998). "NGUYEN NGOC LOAN DIES AT 67". The Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Archived from the original on 7 July 2018. Retrieved 9 July 2018.
  26. ^ Dickey, Christopher (3 November 1978). "U.S. Acts to Deport Saigon Official Who Killed Bound Prisoner in 1968". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Archived from the original on 3 July 2018. Retrieved 9 July 2018.
  27. ^ a b Christopher Dickey (3 November 1978). "U.S. Acts to Deport Saigon Official Who Killed Bound Prisoner in 1968". Washington Post. Archived from the original on 3 July 2018. Retrieved 3 July 2018.
  28. ^ "Carter bids to halt Viet general's deportation". The Miami News. 6 December 1978. p. 9C. Retrieved 9 July 2018 – via Newspapers.com.
  29. ^ "Viet executioner won't be deported". Detroit Free Press. New York Times Service. 2 December 1978. p. 2A. Retrieved 9 July 2018 – via Newspapers.com.
  30. ^ "Nguyen Ngoc Loan, 67, Dies; Executed Viet Cong Prisoner". The New York Times. 16 July 1998. Archived from the original on 20 April 2009. Retrieved 5 July 2009.
  31. ^ "Huan Nguyen becomes first Vietnamese U.S. Navy Rear Admiral". Naval Sea Systems Command. 10 October 2019. Retrieved 12 June 2020.
  32. ^ "The Navy's First Vietnamese Admiral Saw His Family Killed by an Infamous Viet Cong Guerrilla". Military.com. 19 July 2022. Retrieved 23 September 2022.
  33. ^ Icontent Films. "Short Film". The Moment of Truth. Retrieved 6 October 2022.

Paginated sources[edit]


  1. ^ Also called Street Execution of a Viet Cong Prisoner
  2. ^ Born 1933;[1] Vietnamese: [ŋwiəŋ˨˩˦ vaŋ˧˧ lɛm˧˥]; code name Bảy Lốp[1] (pronounced [ʔɓa(ː)j˨˩˦ lop̚˦˥])
  3. ^ In this Vietnamese name, the surname is Nguyễn. In accordance with Vietnamese custom, this person should be referred to by the given name, Lém.
  4. ^ Bảy means "seventh son",[1] and Lốp was inherited from his wife.[4] Lốp means "tire" and was related to Lém and Lốp's front business.
  5. ^ Võ Huỳnh and Võ Suu were on opposite sides of the street. Huỳnh carried a silent film camera, and Suu a sound-on-film camera.[7]
  6. ^ He did not resume filming until after the gunshot.[15]
  7. ^ Exactly what was said is disputed. Eddie Adams reported "They killed many of my men and many of your people". Howard Tuckner reported "Many Americans have been killed these last few days and many of my best Vietnamese friends. Now do you understand? Buddha will understand." Several other variations were published in periodicals.[17]

External links[edit]