Nguyễn Ngọc Loan
|Nguyễn Ngọc Loan|
11 December 1930|
Huế, French Indochina (present-day Vietnam)
14 July 1998 (aged 67)|
Burke, Virginia, U.S.
Republic of Vietnam Air Force (VNAF)|
Republic of Vietnam National Police
Loan gained international attention when he summarily executed handcuffed prisoner Nguyễn Văn Lém, on February 1st, 1968 in Saigon, Vietnam during the Tet Offensive. Nguyễn Văn Lém was a Việt Cộng member. The event was witnessed and recorded by Võ Sửu, a cameraman for NBC, and Eddie Adams, an Associated Press photographer. The photo and film became two famous images in contemporary American journalism.
Loan was born in 1930 to a middle-class family in Huế, and was one of eleven children. He studied pharmacy at Huế University before joining the Vietnamese National Army in 1951. He soon studied at an officer training school, where he befriended classmate Nguyễn Cao Kỳ. Loan received pilot training in Morocco before returning to Vietnam in 1955, serving with the Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) for the next decade.
He received additional training in the United States at some point during this period, enabling him to speak English fluently by the time he rose to prominence in the late 1960s. Despite gradually taking on administrative tasks involving intelligence and security, Loan flew as wingman to Kỳ, now commander of the VNAF, during the February 1965 Operation Flaming Dart airstrikes targeting North Vietnam.
In June 1965, when Kỳ became prime minister of South Vietnam, he promoted Loan to colonel and appointed him director of the Military Security Service. This was followed within a few months by an appointment to director of the Central Intelligence Organization, giving Loan simultaneous control of both military intelligence and security. He was further made director general of the Republic of Vietnam National Police in April 1966. Holding these positions enabled Loan to wield immense power, and he supervised the suppression of the early 1966 uprising of Kỳ's rival General Nguyễn Chánh Thi and dissident Buddhists. When Kỳ agreed to become vice president to Nguyễn Văn Thiệu in 1967, the former relied on the support Loan provided for him in order to retain power.
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.
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.
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. In addition to his military service, Loan was an advocate for hospital construction.
Nguyễn Văn Lém (also known as Bảy Lốp), was a Việt Cộng member. On 1 February 1968, during the Tet Offensive, he was captured in a building in the Cholon quarter of Saigon, near the Ấn Quang pagoda. Lém wore civilian clothing at the time of his capture. He was brought to South Vietnamese National Police Chief Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, who then summarily executed him on the street using his sidearm, a .38 Special Smith & Wesson Bodyguard revolver.
The execution was captured on photo by Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams and on video by NBC News television cameraman Võ Sửu. After the execution, Loan told Adams: "They killed many of our people and many of yours." Võ Sửu reported that after the shooting Loan went to a reporter and said ''These guys kill a lot of our people, and I think Buddha will forgive me.''
Max Hastings, in his book “Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975,” notes that the Viet Cong was in civilian clothes and had just cut the throats of a South Vietnamese officer, his wife, their six children and the officer’s 80-year-old mother.
The photograph and footage were broadcast worldwide, galvanizing the anti-war movement. Eddie Adams' photo won Adams the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography. The image became an anti-war icon.
A few months after the execution picture was taken, Loan was seriously wounded near Saigon 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. He was evacuated to Australia and then to the United States. Afterwards, Loan remained in the United States for an extended period as Thiệu consolidated his power by replacing Kỳ supporters. Upon his return to Saigon, he was appointed to a position that involved long-range planning, but lacked actual power.
In 1975, during the fall of Saigon, Loan fled South Vietnam and to the United States. There he moved to Dale City, Virginia. He then opened a restaurant called "Les Trois Continents" in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Burke, Virginia at Rolling Valley Mall. The restaurant served hamburgers, Vietnamese cuisine, and pizza, but was described as more of a pizzeria. Loan also worked as a secretary in a Washington firm at this time. When interviewed, Loan stated "All we want to do is to forget and to be left alone."
House of Representatives member Elizabeth Holtzman forwarded a list of Vietnamese officials who may have committed crimes (including Loan) to Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). House of Representatives member Harold S. Sawyer later requested the Library of Congress investigate Loan. In 1978, the INS contended that Loan had committed a war crime, following a report by the Library of Congress which concluded that the summary execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém had been illegal under Vietnamese law, in an attempt to revoke his permanent resident status to ensure that he could not become a United States citizen. They approached Adams to testify against Loan, but Adams instead testified in his favor and Loan was allowed to stay. The deportation was halted by the intervention of United States President Jimmy Carter, who stated that "such historical revisionism was folly".
In 1991, he closed his restaurant and went into retirement.. Adams recalled that on his last visit to the pizza parlor shortly before it closed, he had seen written on a toilet wall, "We know who you are, you fucker".
Nguyễn Ngọc Loan died of cancer on 14 July 1998, aged 67, in Burke, Virginia. After his death, 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."
Eddie Adams wrote a eulogy to Loan 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?"
Nguyễn was married to Chinh Mai, with whom he raised five children.
- Thiếu tướng Nguyễn Ngọc Loan (in Vietnamese) Archived 6 April 2005 at the Wayback Machine.
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The INS now contents in a legal proceeding against Loan that he should have been tried in Vietnam for the execution, a war crime, and that his permanent resident status should be rescinded on the grounds of "moral turpitude." ... But Sawyer said that he also then requested the Library of Congress to research the issue. The results of the library's report, which concluded that summary execution of such nature were illegal under Vietnamese law at the time, were forwarded to INS last spring.
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- Feb. 1, 1968: A grisly moment from the Vietnam War -St. Louis Dispatch
- The exact location of this event happened on the west section of "Lý Thái Tổ" street, right in the center of this satellite map, and looking East as shown in the execution picture.