Exactly 55 years to this day the photo of the execution of a suspected Viet Cong member in Vietnam still has the power to shock the world.
Captured by American photojournalist Eddie Adams it shows South Vietnam National Police Chief Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing suspected Viet Cong member Nguyen Van Lem.
The photo was published on the front page of newspapers like The New York Times on February 1, 1968, on the second day of the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War.
The image was reprinted around the world and came to symbolize for many the brutality and anarchy of the war. It also galvanized growing sentiment in America about the futility of the fight – that the war was unwinnable.
Adams began taking photos as Lem was frogmarched through the streets to Loan’s jeep. Loan stood beside Lem before pointing his pistol at the prisoner’s head.
“I thought he was going to threaten or terrorize the guy,” Adams recalled afterward, “so I just naturally raised my camera and took the picture.”
Lem was believed to have murdered the wife and six children of one of Loan’s colleagues. The general fired his pistol.
“If you hesitate, if you didn’t do your duty, the men won’t follow you,” the general said about the suddenness of his actions.
Vietnam execution photo snapped on the second day of Tate offensive
On 31 January 1968, the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong launched a large-scale offensive attacking most major cities in South Vietnam simultaneously.
The attacks came as a complete surprise for both the South Vietnamese Army and the American Army, as the Vietnamese Lunar New Year holiday of Tet had just begun, and a ceasefire had been announced for the duration of the holiday.
Within a day, the streets of Saigon, a presumed safe hold, had turned into a battlefield. It would take the South Vietnamese Army and the American forces two weeks to regain control of the city.
The career of the American photojournalist Eddie Adams spanned 45 years, in which he covered every possible subject, including 13 different wars.
After working for several newspapers in Pennsylvania, Adams joined The Associated Press (AP) in 1962. For AP, he traveled three times to Vietnam to cover the war.
After an interlude at Time magazine between 1972 and 1976, Adams returned to AP as a special correspondent. His 1979 photo story about Vietnamese boat people fleeing their homeland, motivated the U.S. government to admit 200,000 Vietnamese refugees to the USA.
In 1980, Adams became a staff photographer at Parade magazine and, from 1982 until his death in 2004, he was Parade’s special correspondent.
Related: The Greek Fighter who Escaped the Nazis to Become a Vietnam Hero
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