Nguyễn Ngọc Loan

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Nguyễn Ngọc Loan
Born (1930-12-11)11 December 1930[1]
Huế, French Indochina (present-day Vietnam)
Died 14 July 1998(1998-07-14) (aged 67)
Burke, Virginia, U.S.
Allegiance  South Vietnam
Service/branch  Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN)
Republic of Vietnam National Police
Rank US-O8 insignia.svg Major General
Battles/wars Tet Offensive

Nguyễn Ngọc Loan (Vietnamese: [ŋʷǐənˀ ŋâwkp lʷāːn]; 11 December 1930 – 14 July 1998) was South Vietnam's chief of National Police. Loan gained international attention when he executed handcuffed prisoner Lê Công Nà (Bảy Nà), a local Việt Cộng member who was arrested near Ấn Quang pagoda. Nà was executed without judge on the street on 1 February 1968 with the witness of Võ Sửu, a cameraman for NBC, and Eddie Adams, an Associated Press photographer. The photo (captioned "General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon") and film became two famous images in contemporary American journalism.[2]


Loan was a staunch South Vietnamese nationalist, refusing to give Americans special treatment in his jurisdiction. For example, he rejected the arrest of a Vietnamese mayor by American military police and insisted that only South Vietnamese authorities could arrest and detain South Vietnamese citizens. He also insisted that U.S. civilians, including journalists, fell under South Vietnamese jurisdiction while in Saigon. Loan's uncompromising stand caused him to be regarded as a troublemaker by the Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. Loan was also skeptical of the U.S. CIA-backed Phoenix Program to attack and neutralize the clandestine Việt Cộng infrastructure.[3]

Loan's men were also involved in the arrest of two Việt Cộng operatives who had been engaged in sending out peace feelers to U.S. officials behind the back of the South Vietnamese. His stand against such "backdoor" dealing, and his opposition to releasing one of the communist negotiators, reportedly angered the Americans, and forced them to keep both him and the South Vietnamese better informed of diplomatic dealings involving their country. Loan was an accomplished pilot—he led an airstrike on Việt Cộng forces at Bù Đốp in 1967, shortly before he was promoted to permanent brigadier general rank. The Americans were displeased at his promotion, and Loan submitted his resignation shortly thereafter. According to the 2010 book: "It was widely believed that Loan was being forced out by the Americans for exposing their dealings with the VC or that he was taking a stand on principle because the U.S. was trying to compel the government to release [communist envoy] Sau Ha."[4] The South Vietnamese cabinet subsequently rejected Loan's resignation. The United States under the Nixon administration later negotiated a separate deal with the North that left communist troops in good tactical position within South Vietnam, and forced acquiescence by the South Vietnamese. Later action by the U.S. Congress cut off aid to South Vietnam during the final northern conquest in 1975.[5]

Prisoner execution[edit]

General Nguyen Ngoc Loan Executing a Viet Cong Prisoner in Saigon is a photograph taken by Eddie Adams on 1 February 1968. It shows South Vietnamese National Police Chief Nguyễn Ngọc Loan executing a Việt Cộng captain of an insurgent team Nguyễn Văn Lém (referred to as Captain Bảy Lốp), in Saigon during the Tet Offensive.

Around 4:30 a.m., Lém led a sabotage unit along with Việt Cộng tanks to attack the Armor Camp in Gò Vấp. After communist troops took control of the base, Lém arrested Lieutenant Colonel Nguyễn Tuan with his family and forced him to show them how to drive tanks.[6] When Lieutenant Colonel Tuan refused to cooperate, Lém killed Tuan, his wife and six children and his 80-year-old mother by cutting their throats. There was only one survivor, a seriously injured 10-year-old boy.[7]

Lém was captured near a mass grave with 34 civilian bodies. Lém admitted that he was proud to carry out his unit leader's order to kill these people.[8] Having personally witnessed the murder of one of his officers along with that man's wife and three small children in cold blood,[citation needed] when Lém was captured and brought to him, General Loan summarily executed him using his sidearm, a .38 Special Smith & Wesson Bodyguard revolver,[9] in front of AP photographer Eddie Adams and NBC News television cameraman Võ Sửu. The photograph and footage were broadcast worldwide, galvanizing the anti-war movement.

The execution appalled many people, but was most likely legal as Lém was acting like a "franc-tireur".[citation needed] According to Article 4 of the Third Geneva Convention of 1949, irregular forces are entitled to prisoner of war status provided that they are commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates, have a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance, carry arms openly, and conduct their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war. If they do not meet all of these, they may be considered francs-tireurs (in the original sense of "illegal combatant") and punished as criminals in a military jurisdiction, which may include summary execution.[citation needed] Lém had murdered a POW and civilians thus violating the rules of war. He was not marked by any identifiable marker showing that he was a legal combatant.

The photo won Adams the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography, though he later regretted its effect. The image became an anti-war icon. Concerning Loan and his famous photograph, Adams wrote in Time:

The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths. What the photograph didn't say was, "What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American soldiers?"[10]

Adams later apologized in person to General Nguyễn and his family for the damage it did to his reputation. When Loan died of cancer in Virginia, Adams praised him: "The guy was a hero. America should be crying. I just hate to see him go this way, without people knowing anything about him."[11][12]

Life after photo[edit]

A few months after the execution picture was taken, Loan was seriously wounded by machine gun fire that led to the amputation of his leg. Again his picture hit the world press, this time as Australian war correspondent Pat Burgess carried him back to his lines.[13] In addition to his military service, Loan was an advocate for hospital construction.[14]

In 1975, during the fall of Saigon, Loan fled South Vietnam. He moved to the United States. When he arrived, the Immigration and Nationalization Services wanted to deport him partially because of the photo taken by Adams. They approached Adams to testify against Loan, but Adams instead testified in his favor and Loan was allowed to stay,[15] and opened a pizza restaurant in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Burke, Virginia at Rolling Valley Mall called "Les Trois Continents".[16][17] In 1991, he was forced into retirement when publicity about his past led to a sharp decline in business. Adams recalled that on his last visit to the pizza parlor, he had seen written on a toilet wall, "We know who you are, fucker".[18][2]

Personal life[edit]

Nguyễn was married to Chinh Mai, with whom he raised five children. Nguyễn Ngọc Loan died of cancer on 14 July 1998, aged 67, in Burke, Virginia.[2]


  1. ^ Thiếu tướng Nguyễn Ngọc Loan (in Vietnamese) Archived 6 April 2005 at the Wayback Machine.
  2. ^ a b c "Nguyen Ngoc Loan, 67, Dies; Executed Viet Cong Prisoner". New York Times. 16 July 1998. Retrieved 5 July 2009. 
  3. ^ Robbins, pp. 94–104
  4. ^ Robbins, pp. 105–106
  5. ^ Stanley Karnow (1983). Vietnam: A History. Viking Press. pp. 181–239. 
  6. ^ Bai An Tran, Ph.D. "After 40 years of the Tet offensive in the VietNam War - Half of the truth deciphered"
  7. ^ Bai An Tran, Ph. D "After 40 years of the Tet offensive in the VietNam War - Half of the truth deciphered"
  8. ^ Tran, Bai An (February 2008). "After 40 Years of the Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War: Half of the Truth Deciphered". LZ Center 3rd Battalion 82nd Artillery B Battery 196th Light Infantry Brigade Americal Division. 
  9. ^ Buckley, Tom. "Portrait of an Aging Despot", Harper's magazine April 1972, Page 69
  10. ^ Adams, Eddie (27 July 1998). "Eulogy". Time. Retrieved 5 July 2009. 
  11. ^ Image Canon - Historic Images
  12. ^ Adams, Eddie (27 July 1998). "Eulogy: General Nguyen Ngoc Loan". Time. 
  13. ^ Lucas, Dean (17 February 2007). "Famous Pictures Magazine – Vietnam Execution". Famous Pictures Magazine. Retrieved 21 July 2012. 
  14. ^ '"There Are Tears in My Eyes", Eddie Adams & the Most Famous Photo of the Vietnam War', Jonah Goldberg, National Review. August 26, 1999
  15. ^
  16. ^ Tiede, Tom (26 March 1998). "Ex-Viet cop: I want to live a quiet life". Ludington Daily News. Retrieved 22 August 2014. 
  17. ^ Friedman, Andrew (2013). "Nguyen Ngoc Loan's Pizza Parlor". Covert Capital: Landscapes of Denial and the Making of U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia. University of California Press. pp. 196–219. ISBN 9780520956681. Retrieved 22 August 2014. 
  18. ^ Adams, in the documentary An Unlikely Weapon (2009), directed by Susan Morgan Cooper

Further reading[edit]

  • James S. Robbins (2010). This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive. Encounter Books. pp. 94–104. 

External links[edit]