It was one of the most iconic photos of the Vietnam War.
At the height of the 1968 Tet Offensive, while prisoners were being rounded up in Saigon, General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan casually strolls over to a young man and shoots him in the temple.
The photo, taken with one-in-a-million perfect timing as the bullet entered the man’s head, won Eddie Adams the Pulitzer Prize and has been reproduced countless times as an example of the brutality of war, and especially of the American war effort in Vietnam.
However, what most people at the time, and even now, don’t know about the events leading up to the “Saigon Execution” photo paint a somewhat different picture from what the public got at first glance….
On the morning of the “Saigon Execution” photo, Nguyễn Văn Lém’s death squad had just killed 34 people – seven police officers, two or three Americans, and several police officers’ family members, all bound at the wrists and shot in the head over a pit – and they may have been looking for Loan himself.
Legally, this put Lém in a bad position. He wasn’t wearing a uniform, he wasn’t fighting a battle, and he had evidently committed a major war crime against General Loan’s own subordinates and their kids.
As a war criminal and terrorist, Lém had effectively no protection under the Geneva Conventions and was eligible for summary execution when caught.
Nguyễn Ngọc Loan? He made it out of South Vietnam as the Communists moved in and opened a pizza parlor in the USA. He died in 1991.