February 1, 1968: Nguyễn Văn Lém is executed.

Lém was a member of the Viet Cong whose execution on the streets of Saigon was captured in a photograph that eventually won the Pulitzer Prize and came to symbolize, to many people, an ugly war that many Americans now wanted no part in. AP photojournalist Eddie Adams’ photograph was in some ways the antithesis of Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima. Both were widely distributed, iconic photographs, and both had been taken during major military engagements (the Tet Offensive and the Battle of Iwo Jima) - one launched by the Viet Cong and the other by American military forces. One was captured during the country’s least popular, most detested war, and the other during a war out of which the United States emerged victorious and stronger than ever before. One invigorated a fierce antiwar movement, and the other strengthened morale and national pride. 

The executioner in the photograph was South Vietnam’s chief of National Police, then Brigadier General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, who was described by many who knew him as hot-tempered. The prisoner had reportedly been the commander of a death squad and had, prior to his execution, killed one of the general’s colleagues and his family, including his wife and their six children. After shooting him, the general said (according to another Pulitzer Prize winner"They killed many Americans and many of my people" to the journalists gathered around the scene. Eddie Adams, who later apologized to the general, lamented his role in destroying the man’s reputation:

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?”

Others disagreed with Adams’ sentiment, however; many maintained that, regardless of the exact context of his specific photograph, it effectively and succinctly captured the horror and brutality of the Vietnam War. Adams also stated that he “would have rather won the Pulitzer” for his photographic series “Boat of No Smiles”, which documented in photographic form the struggles of Vietnamese refugees.

Other links: Eddie Adams speaking about his photograph

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