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    Photographs Do Lie

    I never knew the back story to this photograph before.



    Photographs Do Lie | The Weekly Standard

    Photographs Do Lie

    Why his Pulitzer-winning picture of a South Vietnamese general haunted Eddie Adams for the rest of his life.
    12:00 AM, Sep 24, 2004 • By DUNCAN CURRIE

    PHOTOJOURNALIST Eddie Adams died last Sunday at age 71, but his place in history is secure. Indeed, Adams made history with his famous picture of South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan. Taken in Saigon on February 1, 1968, the picture showed Gen. Loan's point-blank execution of a Viet Cong captain named Bay Lop. The images were searing: Loan's cold grimace; a snub-nosed .38 revolver held inches from Lop's terrified face; the fiercely clenched teeth of an officer standing nearby.

    It won a Pulitzer Prize for the Associated Press in 1969, and was one of the most influential still photos of the 20th century. But until the day he died, Eddie Adams regretted having taken it.

    Actually, that's an understatement. Adams blamed himself for ruining Loan's life. "The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera," was how he put it. His picture told one story; but his contrition for that picture told quite another.

    Adams snapped his unforgettable shot on day two of the Tet Offensive. Tet was a coordinated assault by more than 80,000 North Vietnamese and VC troops on 36 (of 44) provincial capitals, 5 (of 6) autonomous cities, and 64 (of 242) district capitals in South Vietnam. It was a surprise attack during a holiday truce (for the Vietnamese New Year). The fighting lasted a few months in several different theaters. It ended with a resounding American victory. But media coverage in general, and Adams's photograph in particular, transformed it into a Pyrrhic victory.

    On the day of the picture, VC guerrillas were storming Saigon. General Loan, South Vietnam's national police chief, sought to make an example of the captured Bay Lop. As journalists, including Adams, followed, Loan brought the hand-bound prisoner to a street corner. Suddenly, the general extended his arm, raised a gun to Lop's head, and pulled the trigger. Adams clicked his camera at that precise moment. (Close inspection of his photo reveals the bullet exiting Lop's skull.) As Adams remembered it, Loan then turned to the journalists and said, "They killed many of your people and many of my men."

    The AP photo landed in newspapers worldwide the following day. Without background or context, readers saw a merciless Loan and a defenseless Lop. (NBC also acquired film footage of the incident, thanks to South Vietnamese cameraman Vo Suu.)

    It's impossible to say how much Adams's picture influenced the 1968 U.S. presidential race. But it galvanized nascent antiwar sentiment, and indirectly boosted the campaign of Sen. Eugene McCarthy. On March 31, some eight weeks after its publication, President Lyndon Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.

    For many Americans, the picture became a symbol of the war's putative moral ambiguities. Antiwar partisans used it to buttress their charge that the U.S. military was sanctioning atrocities.

    Along with Tet, it catalyzed the gradual turning of public opinion against the war. (In the wake of the offensive, CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite declared Vietnam unwinnable.) The NVA and VC may have tortured and killed 3,000 South Vietnamese civilians in the city of Hué; but the most enduring image of Tet was Adams's picture. Loan was thus cemented in history as a brutal executioner.

    The AP subsequently assigned Adams to follow Loan around Vietnam. Then, a strange thing happened. As Adams later recalled on National Public Radio, "I . . . found out the guy was very well loved by the Vietnamese, you know. He was a hero to them . . . and it just saddens me that none of this has really come out."

    Among other things, Adams learned that Loan spent considerable time lobbying for new hospitals in South Vietnam. "It's just a sad statement," Adams said on NPR, "of America. He was fighting our war, not their war, our war, and every--all the blame is on this guy."

    Adams frequently offered a qualified defense of Loan's infamous act. Within context, and given the inevitable fog of war, he would say, the killing was understandable, if not excusable. As historian Robert D. Schulzinger points out in A Time for War, the executed VC fighter "had killed some Saigon civilians, many of them relatives of police in the capital."

    When Saigon fell in April 1975, Loan escaped to the United States. But his notoriety traveled with him. New York congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman demanded his deportation. So did the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Deportation to Communist Vietnam would have equaled a death sentence. President Jimmy Carter, to his credit, intervened and allowed the ex-general to stay in Virginia.

    For years afterward Loan operated a pizza parlor in Dale City, Virginia, while making his home in nearby Burke. He kept in regular touch with Eddie Adams; the two men had become friends.

    Adams once visited Loan at the pizzeria. "He was like a freak show," Adams told the New York Daily News. "People had figured out who he was." Adams recalled "going into the bathroom in his restaurant and reading some graffiti on the wall. Someone had written, 'We know who you are, you f-----.'" The obscenity made him despondent. "That was because of me," Adams said. "And I don't like ruining people's lives with my pictures."

    Shortly after the visit, Loan closed his restaurant in 1991. People indeed had learned he was the executioner from Adams's photograph. The negative publicity had triggered a sharp decline in business.

    Loan died in July 1998, at age 67, from cancer. Torn up by regret, Adams penned a moving eulogy in Time magazine. It was part remembrance, part mea culpa for his 1968 picture. "Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world," he wrote. "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?' General Loan was what you would call a real warrior, admired by his troops. I'm not saying what he did was right, but you have to put yourself in his position."

    Adams also sent the Loan family flowers and a card. "I'm sorry," he wrote. "There are tears in my eyes."
    "So little pains do the vulgar take in the investigation of truth, accepting readily the first story that comes to hand." Thucydides 1.20.3

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    In Memoriam/Battleship Enthusiast Defense Professional USSWisconsin's Avatar
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    Good article, sad story. IMO, Bay Lop got what he deserved, it was legal and moral - he was a combatant - out of uniform while fighting behind enemy lines, he had killed civilians. Don't the rules of war allow for summary execution of enemy combatants in this situation? It is unfortunate that the photographer published the picture with Loan clearly identifiable - had it been cropped with just Loan's arm and shoulder- it would have been almost as effective.
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    We learned about this in class. It looks like he's a civilian, but he was actually a Viet Cong fighting in civilian clothing, therefore making him a spy and he was executed on the spot by the general. Unfortunately, or fortunately, the photograph captured the execution perfectly and was turned into a rallying cry that even eventually changed government policy. There are very few pictures that can claim to have changed government policy
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    there were just SO MANY idiots like Eddie in America back in those days. Too bad

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    Dude, did you even read the article?

    It won a Pulitzer Prize for the Associated Press in 1969, and was one of the most influential still photos of the 20th century. But until the day he died, Eddie Adams regretted having taken it.
    Adams frequently offered a qualified defense of Loan's infamous act. Within context, and given the inevitable fog of war, he would say, the killing was understandable, if not excusable. As historian Robert D. Schulzinger points out in A Time for War, the executed VC fighter "had killed some Saigon civilians, many of them relatives of police in the capital."
    He kept in regular touch with Eddie Adams; the two men had become friends... The obscenity made him despondent. "That was because of me," Adams said. "And I don't like ruining people's lives with my pictures."
    Eddie Adams was a photographer given a job to do and he executed it perfectly. When he found out the true story behind his picture he did everything he could in order to fix the situation.

    Adams was in the right place at the right time and was able to take advantage of that. Moreover, like I said before, there are very few pictures that have definitely had a part in changing government policy, and this is one of them. Adams was extremely lucky to have gotten this picture. You may agree or disagree with the war or with the anti-war protesters, but Adams was most definitely not an anti-war protester and to bunch him with that group is plain wrong
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    Turbanator Senior Contributor Double Edge's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by bigross86 View Post
    Moreover, like I said before, there are very few pictures that have definitely had a part in changing government policy, and this is one of them.
    Now, that would make for an interesting thread.

    Pic and its impact.

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    Another picture would be "Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath":



    This picture, taken in 1971 by W. Eugene Smith brought world attention to Minamata Disease, neurological syndrome caused by severe mercury poisoning. Minamata disease was first discovered in Minamata city in Kumamoto prefecture, Japan in 1956. It was caused by the release of methylmercury in the industrial wastewater from the Chisso Corporation's chemical factory, which continued from 1932 to 1968. This highly toxic chemical bioaccumulated in shellfish and fish in Minamata Bay and the Shiranui Sea, which when eaten by the local populace resulted in mercury poisoning. While cat, dog, pig, and human deaths continued over more than 30 years, the government and company did little to prevent the pollution.

    About the picture: Smith and his Japanese wife lived in Minamata from 1971 to 1973. The most famous and striking photo of the essay, Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath, (1972) shows Ryoko Uemura, holding her severely deformed daughter, Tomoko, in a Japanese bath chamber. Tomoko was poisoned by methylmercury while still in the womb. The photo was very widely published. It was posed by Smith with the cooperation of Ryoko and Tomoko in order to dramatically illustrate the consequences of the disease. It has subsequently been withdrawn from circulation at the request of Tomoko's family, and therefore does not appear in recent anthologies of Smith's works.

    In 1973, following the exposure of the disease and Smith's photo essay, a lawsuit was successfully won on behalf of the victims. The verdict handed down on 20 March 1973 represented a complete victory for the patients of the Litigation Group:

    "The defendant's factory was a leading chemical plant with the most advanced technology and ... should have assured the safety of its wastewater. The defendant could have prevented the occurrence of Minamata disease or at least have kept it at a minimum. We cannot find that the defendant took any of the precautionary measures called for in this situation whatsoever. The presumption that the defendant had been negligent from beginning to end in discharging wastewater from its acetaldehyde plant is amply supported. The defendant cannot escape liability for negligence."

    Smith and his wife were extremely dedicated to the cause of the victims of Minamata disease, closely documenting their struggle for recognition and right to compensation. Smith was himself attacked and seriously injured by Chisso employees in an incident in Goi, Ichihara city, near Tokyo on January 7, 1972, in an attempt to stop the photographer from further revealing the issue to the world. The 54 year-old Smith survived the attack, but his sight in one eye deteriorated and his health never fully recovered before his death in 1978.
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    Eddie Adams was a photographer given a job to do and he executed it perfectly. When he found out the true story behind his picture he did everything he could in order to fix the situation.
    Even Eddie himself realized later that was a mistake, didnt he? I dont see anything wrong with calling someone who screw up thing an idiot.

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    Because you lumped him in with a group of intentional anti-war protesters that did everything in their power to stop the war. Adams didn't necessarily protest the war (nowhere I can see, anyway) and defended General Loan's act. To me that doesn't sound like an idiot, especially not the kind of idiot that would throw pigs blood on vets returning from Vietnam.

    You may think he's an idiot for making the mistake, that's your prerogative, but to group him in with the rest is just plain wrong and disgraceful, IMO
    tankie likes this.
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    Quote Originally Posted by USSWisconsin View Post
    Good article, sad story. IMO, Bay Lop got what he deserved, it was legal and moral - he was a combatant - out of uniform while fighting behind enemy lines, he had killed civilians. Don't the rules of war allow for summary execution of enemy combatants in this situation? It is unfortunate that the photographer published the picture with Loan clearly identifiable - had it been cropped with just Loan's arm and shoulder- it would have been almost as effective.

    USSWisconsin,

    The article is actually no better than the journalism it criticizes. It is riddled with factual errors & sloppy journalism.

    First, Bay Lop was a pseudonym. His name was Ngyuen Van Lem. That was known well before this article was written & a google search would have revealed it. I weep no tears for him, he was a ruthless man who was prepared to murder civillians & met the end he most likely expected.

    Second, context WAS given, so was background. I have personally viewed the NY Times, WashPo & numerous smaller newspapers in the US & Australia for that day. In all of them the prisoner is identified as a 'VC suspect' (correct based on the avail info) or a 'Vietcong Officer'. The quote from Loan identifiying him as having killed 'many of your people...' was in all the major papers, as were allegations that the man killed family members of local police. Again, all of this can be easily checked. I know because I have done it myself.

    Had he done that he would also have noticed that many papers ran a photo nearby of a clearly emotional ARVN soldier carrying the body of a child. I'm not 100% sure if it was supposed to be one of the children alleged to have been killed, but I think it was. In any case, a reader might reasonably link the two. More 'context'.

    It is worth pointing out that not only is the original allegation about lack of background & context incorrect, it ignores a rather curious fact. In this case the context & background were entirely derived from the people responsible for the killing of this man without any time to check them. In terms of journalistic standards this sort of thing would be excoriated if the people whose word you were taking were the 'enemy'. Yet the word of a man with Loan's reputation was reported without context - that he was (among many things) a murderous thug. For most of the audience 'chief of Police' conjurs up an idea a very long way away fropm what the General was. In this case (speaking broadly not just about the article) all of this appears to have gone entirely without comment. Hell, even I missed it until now (might have to re-write my chapter).

    Third, lets not get all weepy for Nguyen Ngoc Loan. he was a man of insane bravery & deeply held anti-communist committments. I also have no reason to doubt that within certain quarters in the RVN he was popular. He was also a brutal thug who was the enforcer for what was then one of the largest heroin traffiking organisations in the world. He also killed political & military opponents of his patron - Nguyen Cao Ky. Indeed, there was actually a second camera crew on site that day (CBS I think). The Vietnamese camera man refused to film the execution because he knew who Loan was & feared that he might come after him. In a good many ways Loan was no better than the man he killed.

    Again, most of this is easy enough to find out. At least those reponsible for the original images can plead 'fog of war' for any misunderstanding. Mr Currie has no such excuse, which either means he is lazy, pushing an agenda or both.

    Nguyen Van Lem got the end he deserved. Nguyen Ngoc Loan got off lightly. Lets save our tears for people more deserving. I'm sure we could find millions in Indochina over tha last 55 years.

    Below are a few paragraphs from my unfinished PhD thesis. They might shed some light on General Loan.

    A son of the Vietnamese upper middle class, Nguyen Ngoc Loan was a well-educated, even cultured man who spoke fluent French and played the piano. He came of age during the tumultuous years of the First Indochina War (1946-54), firmly staking out his political position by joining the fledgling air force of the new Republic of Vietnam (RVN) where he is variously described as having served as a pilot, paratrooper or perhaps both. What is not in doubt is that he became firm friends with fellow pilot and air force officer Nguyen Cao Ky, a man who would rise to the top of the RVN and then fall away just as precipitously. After a rapid advance within the air force Ky appointed him director of the Military Security Service (MSS) in 1965. Soon he became head of the Central Intelligence Organization (CIO), the RVN equivalent to the CIA. Loan soon had a chance to prove his loyalty when, in March, 1966, Ky chose to move against onetime friend General Nguyen Chanh Thi of the ARVN. Supported by Buddhist dissidents Thi decided to fight. In May Colonel Loan led several thousand troops loyal to Ky in pitched battles in Da Nang, killing hundreds of rebel soldiers and hapless civilians. The following month he rounded up Ky’s opponents in Hue’, jailing hundreds of students, monks and others.

    His reward was promotion to Brigadier-General and appointment as chief of the national police, leaving handpicked successors in charge at the MSS and CIO. Nguyen Ngoc Loan was not the first person in history to discover that criminal networks are a great intelligence resource (the American government had known this for years), but he was surely one of its most effective exploiters. Indeed, in district 8 on the southern fringe of Saigon communist attacks had dropped from forty per month in 1966 to none by January 1968. From his position it is alleged that Loan oversaw organized crime, prostitution and the drug trade in Saigon. This not only satisfied his patriotic desire to suppress the communist uprising, but also the more immediate need to keep his patron, Vice President Ky, in a position of power. As Ky’s powerbroker he supplied intelligence, votes, money and muscle, standing over and even murdering political opponents (if the rumors are to be believed). So how did this man, one of the most important in the South, come to personally execute a man on Ly Tho Thai street on February 1, 1968?

    Unlike many in his own government and MACV he had seen it coming. With an unparalleled network of informants in Saigon he knew that something was happening in the last weeks of January 1968. Loan’s position meant that he was one of the key Vietnamese officials involved in the program of kidnapping and execution that would become known as ‘Phoenix’. Loan’s constant attempts to retain South Vietnamese control over the program even extended to threats to resign over American behaviour. This did little to endear him to American officials such as pacification supremo Robert Komer. When Loan reported his suspicions about a Viet Cong buildup in Saigon as 1968’s Tet (New year) celebrations approached they argued. As usual Komer ignored him. If the Americans trusted or respected the local knowledge of the Vietnamese they rarely showed it. Backing his own judgment he kept the police force on duty and the elite paratroop and marine units in Saigon. It was a decision that dramatically limited the impact of the offensive in Saigon. By the time he arrived at the An Quang pagoda that February morning he had spent two days moving from place to place keeping the city together, sleeping very little (if at all). Some claim that earlier that day he had personally found the bodies of the wife and children of a policeman (and perhaps the man himself), shot (or throats cut) by the Vietcong. What is beyond dispute is that by the time several marines dragged a man in civilian clothes out into Ly Thai Tho Street General Loan was in an extremely bad mood.
    Last edited by Bigfella; 27 Jan 11, at 09:45.


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    It occours to me that some folks might find the whole chapter interesting. there are bit of this that might seem a bit odd out of context & it does have some wanky language. Some of the strange questions (was he Sth Korean? refer to the way the story has been retold, often on the internet). Hopefully it will explain this event more fully. Unlike Mr Currie, I have researched this extensively. Indeed, a few bits of this ended up in a published article.

    General Loan has a Bad Day

    February 1 1968 was a very bad day to be in Saigon, and Chief of Police of the Republic of Vietnam, General Nguyen Ngoc Loan was right in the middle of it all. It was the third day of the most widespread and dramatic military action in modern Vietnamese history. Cities and towns the length and breadth of the south were under attack. There were battles throughout the heart of Saigon. The American Embassy compound had even been briefly occupied. In hindsight it is clear that the worst had passed, but that was thought was unlikely to have been in the minds of the ARVN marines who were fighting their way through the maze of streets surrounding the An Quang Pagoda, less than 5 kilometers from the center of the city. Traditionally a center of Buddhist opposition, the pagoda had now been commandeered by the Viet Cong. General Loan, however, was not the only one drawn to the pagoda by the heavy fighting that morning. Several camera crews from American network television and Eddie Adams, photographer from AP, arrived as the last of the Viet Cong were removed from the pagoda. As Adams and the NBC crew walked up the open expanse of Ly Thai Tho Street they saw the marines drag a disheveled figure in shorts and a check shirt toward General Loan. Without a word to the man Loan withdrew his revolver, waved away the marines and shot the man once in the head. In one second General Nguyen Ngoc Loan had gone from historical footnote to 20th century icon. He had become the property of the ages.

    From the moment that the shutter on Adams’ camera closed, that instant began to refract and diffuse like light through a prism. A moment punctuated by the towering certainty of death was rapidly surrounded by a swirling mass of competing accounts, rumors and outright inaccuracies. Authors even get confused about the date: was it the morning of Feb. 1 1968, Feb. 2 1968, or even Feb. 1 1969? Was the man with the gun South Vietnamese or South Korean; Born in the North, or in Hue; an angry man avenging the murder of a friend or a cold-blooded killer out to make a statement for the media; was he an incorruptible hero to the people of South Vietnam, or a corrupt, drug-dealing political fixer with a short temper? Did he know the man he was killing, or was the victim just another person in the wrong place at the wrong time? Who was the dead man? Was he simply a “suspected Vietcong”, and officer, a brutal murderer, a Vietcong commando, commander of a sapper unit? Who was he: Nguyen Tan Dat, Hon Son, Bay Lop, Nguyen Van Lem, or simply (and most often) “unknown”? Even the man who took
    the photograph is a source of contradictions. Accounts list him as working for Associated Press or NBC. He says the well-known General was unknown to him at the time. He claims that he stopped photographing before the body of the dead man hit the ground, though he clearly did not. Was he proud of the photo at the time or unaware of it until it hit the papers? Is he happy about the fame that it brought, or does he regret the damage he perceived it to have done? In that moment on Ly Thai Tho Street a series of threads that ran through the war in Vietnam converged, were bound together, and then through the power of late 20th century mass media became virtually unrecognizable. What follows is one version of the events of that day, an attempt to move outside the frame of that photograph to examine what it captured in a different context.

    A son of the Vietnamese upper middle class, Nguyen Ngoc Loan was a well-educated, even cultured man who spoke fluent French and played the piano. He came of age during the tumultuous years of the First Indochina War (1946-54), firmly staking out his political position by joining the fledgling air force of the new Republic of Vietnam (RVN) where he is variously described as having served as a pilot, paratrooper or perhaps both. What is not in doubt is that he became firm friends with fellow pilot and air force officer Nguyen Cao Ky, a man who would rise to the top of the RVN and then fall away just as precipitously. After a rapid advance within the air force Ky appointed him director of the Military Security Service (MSS) in 1965. Soon he became head of the Central Intelligence Organization (CIO), the RVN equivalent to the CIA. Loan soon had a chance to prove his loyalty when, in March, 1966, Ky chose to move against onetime friend General Nguyen Chanh Thi of the ARVN. Supported by Buddhist dissidents Thi decided to fight. In May Colonel Loan led several thousand troops loyal to Ky in pitched battles in Da Nang, killing hundreds of rebel soldiers and hapless civilians. The following month he rounded up Ky’s opponents in Hue’, jailing hundreds of students, monks and others.

    His reward was promotion to Brigadier-General and appointment as chief of the national police, leaving handpicked successors in charge at the MSS and CIO. Nguyen Ngoc Loan was not the first person in history to discover that criminal networks are a great intelligence resource (the American government had known this for years), but he was surely one of its most effective exploiters. Indeed, in district 8 on the southern fringe of Saigon communist attacks had dropped from forty per month in 1966 to none by January 1968. From his position it is alleged that Loan oversaw organized crime, prostitution and the drug trade in Saigon. This not only satisfied his patriotic desire to suppress the communist uprising, but also the more immediate need to keep his patron, Vice President Ky, in a position of power. As Ky’s powerbroker he supplied intelligence, votes, money and muscle, standing over and even murdering political opponents (if the rumors are to be believed). So how did this man, one of the most important in the South, come to personally execute a man on Ly Tho Thai street on February 1, 1968?

    Unlike many in his own government and MACV he had seen it coming. With an unparalleled network of informants in Saigon he knew that something was happening in the last weeks of January 1968. Loan’s position meant that he was one of the key Vietnamese officials involved in the program of kidnapping and execution that would become known as ‘Phoenix’. Loan’s constant attempts to retain South Vietnamese control over the program even extended to threats to resign over American behaviour. This did little to endear him to American officials such as pacification supremo Robert Komer. When Loan reported his suspicions about a Viet Cong buildup in Saigon as 1968’s Tet (New year) celebrations approached they argued. As usual Komer ignored him. If the Americans trusted or respected the local knowledge of the Vietnamese they rarely showed it. Backing his own judgment he kept the police force on duty and the elite paratroop and marine units in Saigon. It was a decision that dramatically limited the impact of the offensive in Saigon. By the time he arrived at the An Quang pagoda that February morning he had spent two days moving from place to place keeping the city together, sleeping very little (if at all). Some claim that earlier that day he had personally found the bodies of the wife and children of a policeman (and perhaps the man himself), shot (or throats cut) by the Vietcong. What is beyond dispute is that by the time several marines dragged a man in civilian clothes out into Ly Thai Tho Street General Loan was in an extremely bad mood.

    For days the media too had been overwhelmed by events. A war that usually required a quick commute to a particular spot in the countryside was suddenly everywhere. From the heart of Saigon to remote provincial towns there were flare-ups everywhere. One of those in the middle of this was Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams. Ever since childhood Eddie Adams had wanted to be a photographer. As a child he sold newspapers to earn enough to buy a camera. By 14 he was already making a living doing wedding photos and working for a local newspaper. By the time he started working for AP in Vietnam he had already taken combat photos for them in the Caribbean and done a stint taking photos for the marines. Since 1965 he had covered the expanding war in Vietnam, more than earning his place at AP with the New York Press Photographers’ Association “Photographer of the Year” award for work in Vietnam in 1967. The Associated Press bureau was the biggest, most experienced press organization in Vietnam. They had been reporting the conflict from its beginnings early in the decade. Among their employees were Pulitzer Prize winners such as Malcolm Browne, Peter Arnett and fellow photographer Horst Faas. In the confusion of Tet it was AP that was best able to cover events in all their breadth. Their people were picked for an ability to know where the stories were. On this occasion Adams was right on the money.

    The other key media presence that day was television. Despite the obvious dangers of having the war suddenly erupt so close to home, the Tet Offensive was a bonanza for television. Rather than having to transport heavy gear and a three-man crew (correspondent, camera and sound) by air or (even worse) road to some distant battlefield, they could just jump in a car and be there in minutes. That morning NBC correspondent Howard Tuckner his two cameramen, Vietnamese brothers Vo Suu and Vo Huynh, and soundman Le Phuc Dinh let Adams ride along to the An Quang Pagoda. With offices situated next to each other NBC and AP people often traveled together. In addition the NBC crews knew that if AP picked up a story it had a far better chance of running on television. Also nearby were crews from ABC America and Japan. Both Tuckner and the Vo brothers were experienced at covering the war, having done numerous segments for NBC before this. Nothing they did before or since, however, would matter as much as what they captured that morning. As they arrived on the scene Adams and the NBC crew had seen the marines escorting the prisoner towards Loan. They jumped out and headed in the same direction.

    Of all the participants that day, the “suspected VC” is the most mysterious. It is believed that he was born Nguyen Van Lem, two years after Loan’s own birth. He was politicized as a teenager, joining the Viet Minh in their fight against the French, and continuing the fight against the RVN and their American backers. By 1968 Lem was a commando with the rank of Captain. He had also adopted the nom de guerre Bay Lop, Bay meaning seventh son, Lop for his wife Nguyen Thi Lop, a proud partner in the independence struggle. It is not known exactly what Lem did during the Tet offensive. He has been implicitly linked to the murder of policemen and their families, though we will never really know. It is believed that he was caught carrying a pistol (an indication of officer status) and that he spat at his captors in defiance. What Lem may not have known that day was that, in addition to two daughters, he would soon have a son. His wife was 1 month pregnant. The great irony of Nguyen Van Lem’s instant of fame is that the machinations of international capitalism in the guise of the mass media gave him more impact on the struggle in Vietnam than he could have hoped to achieve had he lived.

    Even when they saw the gun, none of the westerners in Ly Tho Thai street that day really expected Loan to kill the man. The Vietnamese who were there may have seen things differently. The ABC cameraman, a local, stopped filming at the vital moment, later claiming that he was scared of Loan. A Vietnamese reporter from Time who was in the vicinity thought is so unremarkable that he did not even mention it to his deputy bureau chief. They knew all about Loan, and were not surprised. Upon seeing the photo Peter Arnett also concluded that what he saw was typical of both Loan and the war. Australian cameraman Neil Davis might not have been surprised either. Several days later in Hue Loan pointed a gun at Davis and said “one day I kill you”. Subsequently Davis said that he didn’t believe him, but that was afterward. If Bay Lop knew who Loan was then perhaps he too knew what was coming. He remained impassive throughout. Loan claimed that he had told another of his men to shoot the prisoner, but when he hesitated the general stepped in. In the same 500th of a second that he discharged the gun Adams took the photo. The moment was created. Even at the moment of its creation, however, this image had another element.

    There was more than a hint of theatrics to all of this. Although Loan claimed he had been unaware of the cameras, friends later suggested that he had only conducted the execution because the media were on the scene, thereby implicating the media in his act. It should be clear by this point that the media was not there by random chance, they were there, as Hamilton points out, as part of a complex system. The transnational media entity covering the war was not simply a ‘fly on the wall’ recording events, it was a participant in events as they unfolded. Having said this, there is no reason to believe that Lem would have been allowed to live if the media had not been there, it is likely that what changed was the time, place and identity of the executioner. In his discomfort about the consequences of the photo, Adams has subsequently suggested that he didn’t see the photograph until it was published. According to his Associated press colleague Peter Arnett, Adams rushed back to AP headquarters to see what he had. Both Adams and Horst Faas were excited when they saw the negatives with Adams letting out a whoop. They knew it was something special: a man at the moment of death, the bullet that killed him only just the skull. Drama, violence, pathos, everything a photojournalist could hope for in a single shot. In that instant a disparate group of people were tied together forever: the ruthless policeman, the committed guerilla, the stunned photographer, the experience cameramen; the multiple facets of their lives to that point became frozen in two dimensions. That moment was about to become the property of the world.

    What followed provides a glimpse of the transnational entity that was media coverage of the Vietnam War. Driven by the machinery of the global mass media it absorbed the image and began a process of reproduction and reinterpretation that continues to this day. One of the advantages that AP had over some other media organizations was access to its own telegraph wire for transmitting stories and photos. Reuters also had its own circuit, so both services were able to avoid using the Vietnamese government wire and sell space to other media organizations. Under normal circumstances this might only give AP a slight edge (though for an organization that relied on speed enough reason to pay for it). In the chaos of Tet it was vital. From Saigon the photo went straight to head office in New York. With the time difference between Saigon and America the photo arrived in time for the Thursday night news. Ironically one of the most famous newspaper photographs in history was first seen on television. Despite NBC’s use of their satellite uplink in Tokyo the footage shot by NBC and ABC cameramen did not arrive in America until the following day.

    The rapid dissemination of then photograph indicated the extent to which the war was a global media event. Over Friday morning’s breakfast readers in Dublin, London, New York, Washington and other western hemisphere countries were confronted with front-page headlines saying that the Viet Cong were preparing for a ‘big thrust’ and the image of one of their number being executed. The Irish Times, London Times, New York Times, Manchester Guardian and Washington Post ran it on the front page. The New York Times ran it again on page 12 with the photos Adams took immediately before and after. This layout was a precursor of the dramatic footage of the event that was on its way to NBC at that moment. Most of the captions identified Brigadier General Loan, none named Nguyen Van Lem, labeling him a ‘Vietcong Officer’, suspect or even ‘terrorist’. Most gave a brief description of what had happened. Some quoted Loan as saying ‘They killed many Americans and many of my people’, others gave a lengthier description of the circumstances of the capture and execution. The New York Times montage had the headings ‘PRISONER’, ‘EXECUTION’, ‘DEATH’ with a detailed explanation of each. No two captions were the same. Already the image was beginning to fray around the edges. With each minute shift in reportage the moment had less to do with the event itself and more to do with the media entity that recorded it.

    The following evening the NBC and ABC footage screened on American television. As already documented, the ABC cameraman had stopped filming at the vital moment, so ABC inserted the AP photo into their footage. The footage that has become familiar to viewers came from NBC. Not only did Vo Suu capture the entire scene, but he had taken it from virtually the same perspective as the photograph. With all of the color and movement of television it confirmed the ‘reality’ of the moment and enhanced the drama of the still image. For the many millions who have seen both images it is possible to blend one into another, with the instant captured by Adams floating in and out of Vo Suu’s longer piece. The tension in the film exists because we have the moment already imprinted in our minds. The viewer can visualize what is coming before it arrives. For some television executives the footage was all too dramatic. The BBC chose not to run the film, opting for the photograph only. It is not clear which Australian television networks opted to show the footage and in what form, though it is highly likely that at least one did so. The entity that was media coverage of the war had brought together a group of journalists in to allow the work of one to reinforce the power of the other in a way that has rarely happened before or since.

    The image of General Loan and Nguyen Van Lem has become so well known that it is tempting to think that for a moment it swamped the media accessible parts of the world with its drama. It is dangerous to read such assumptions backwards into history. While there are archives and tapes of American television for the historian to pore over, many organizations were not so obliging. We do not know exactly how widespread the replays of the footage were. Many people who have seen the film in subsequent documentaries may have been denied the opportunity at the time. Newspaper coverage is somewhat easier to follow, but even here there are many questions. What we do know is that distribution and use of stories and images was not uniform. What readers in Washington or New York might assume was available to all was often much more circumscribed. What writers limited to investigating American media might assume to be the case cannot simply be extrapolated to other media markets. Media coverage of the war was a vast entity, but a multi-faceted one.

    Although Australia is in virtually the same time zone as Vietnam, newspapers here did not get the photograph from New York in time for the Friday morning editions. It ran on Saturday, two full days after the event. Even then it only ran in some papers. The broadsheet Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age both ran the photo. The Herald ran a fairly small and heavily cropped version on the front page. The Age ran the execution shot and the photo of Lem fallen to the ground on page 2, next to a photo of dead Americans. The tabloid Melbourne Sun ran the execution shot as an inset to the ‘after’ shot, which took up almost half the page. Both had substantial captions. As with the examples from Friday morning, all of the captions varied. While the Friday morning papers had warned of another Vietcong offensive, by Saturday Australian newspapers were talking of the ‘total defeat’ and ‘smashing’ of a ‘broken’ offensive. What is surprising is the number of Australian papers that did not run the photo. It is unclear as to why papers such as the Adelaide Advertiser, Canberra Times, Brisbane Courier Mail, Australian and a host of others did not run the photograph. It is possible that various editors decided to spare their readers the shock of the image. It is also possible that they did not receive an AP feed, and so missed the photo completely. While the larger Australian dailies subscribed to AP, others relied on Australian Associated Press (actually a part owner of Reuters) for their copy. So many Australians did not see the photograph in their newspaper that Saturday or thereafter. Great swathes of rural Australia and significant pockets in the capitol cities had to rely on what was shown on television or reproduced later in news magazines.

    These absences were not restricted to Australia. In Singapore and Malaysia not one of the numerous English language papers carried the picture. Neither did the malay language press. Even the prestigious Straits Times, published in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur did not run the photograph, despite extensive coverage of the Tet Offensive. The reasons remain somewhat obscure. Newspapers from the Times on down to local papers in Sabah or Penang all seemed to rely almost exclusively on UPI for their photographs. Despite the prominence of AP in the international distribution of photographs virtually every photo that is identified in one of these papers is from UPI. This is not simply for the duration of the Tet Offensive, but for the period 1963-75 (the scope of this thesis). So the reason for the absence of General Loan may be no more complex than a quirk of international news distribution. It has already been noted, however, that the censorious nature of governments in both countries (especially Singapore), combined with varying degrees of support for the non-communist side in the war would have been enough to give any editor in possession of the photograph pause for thought. It should also be noted that television in both countries was in its infancy, limited in coverage of the population (especially in Malaysia) and government controlled. It is far from certain that any footage of the shooting screened in Singapore or Malaysia. What seemed a devastating moment of high drama to observers of the American media was underwhelming to say the least further afield.

    As the Tet Offensive began to abate the treatment of its events began to shift from news to history. While the unevenness of media coverage meant that exposure to the image as news was nowhere near universal, its lasting impact could not be denied. In an appendix to his outstanding chapter on the image, Perlmutter lists some 31 quotes on the photo from sources as diverse as Generals, journalists, politicians, diplomats, government officials, peace activists and perhaps the largest single category, academics. They represent a cross section of debate and discussion about the photograph. In America much of the debate has centered around the impact of the image on the conduct of the war. For the most part this is a subset of a larger debate about the impact of media coverage of the Tet Offensive and the war in general. For those who see the photograph as significant it is the ultimate example of a ‘living room war’. Recently David Culbert has taken this argument to its logical extreme by claiming that the image was so powerful that it was able to change US policy by itself. While this debate has dominated discussion of the media and the war, uses of the image of General Loan have been far more versatile than this.

    The propaganda value of the image was recognized early. Four days after the photo first appeared it was reprinted in the Australian communist weekly The Tribune. It ran on the front page with a headline ‘WHY IS THIS MAN BEING KILLED?’ In a story, or more accurately statement, accompanying the photo, phrases such as “cold-blooded murder”, “alleged officer of the National Liberation Front”, “puppet regime”, “naked terror” and “US invaders” stake out the perspective of the newspaper in no uncertain terms. It is also stated that such murders were commonplace during Tet. The other major headline maintained an optimistic tone, more in keeping with party policy than events on the ground. For the antiwar movement it was evidence of the rectitude of their cause. Even today a Vietnamese book of images of Vietnam at war from 1858 to 1979 reproduces the photo with the caption: “General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, director of Saigon police, killing people in the street”. To the Vietnamese authorities their version of the photograph remains a powerful piece of propaganda. A product that could only have emerged in the manner it did from an open, capitalist society became a weapon for a closed socialist one.

    Students of history, journalism and photography have authored numerous papers giving their own perspectives on the image. Stanley Karnow reproduced the image in Vietnam: A History, one of the standard texts on the conflict. The montage of images at the start of the 1987 CBS documentary ‘The Vietnam War with Walter Cronkite and in the background of Cronkite’s set reproduce the image. It appears in the opening credits for the recent 3 part series American Photography: A Century of Images, on the history of American photography. A recent New York Times list of the 100 most significant pieces of journalism ever listed the photo and film together. Indeed, the photograph was one of only 52 images Martin Gilbert chose to illustrate part three of his History of the Twentieth Century, covering the period 1952-1999. Whatever its impact at the time, the image has become emblematic of the Vietnam War and the Twentieth Century. There are countless other reproductions of this moment as historical document, a tribute to the power of both the image and the media entity that produced it.

    Beyond its reproduction as a document of the Vietnam War or the 20th Century, the image captured by Eddie Adams and Vo Suu has seeped into the popular imagination. In the distinctly pro-war comic book Nam the image is used as a means to criticize the press and re-fight the ‘living room war. It appears blown up to cover an entire wall in an office in a scene from Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories. The image has been ‘quoted’ in other films. The ‘russian roulette’ games in Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter; the murder of a young girl in Wes Craven’s brutal Last House on the Left. With the aid of international wire services the original image was able to spread rapidly and lodge itself all over the world with a new series of meanings. With the aid of the internet the image and its potential meanings have fractured even further. It is a point of reference on notice boards about photography, journalism and the Vietnam War. One right wing observer has labeled an article about Nguyen Van Lem’s widow ‘Pro-Vietnam and Pro-Globalist propaganda…with a touch of Anti-Gun propaganda…’ It has even been used to dramatize the cause of the self-styled ‘pro-life’ organization ‘Operation Rescue’ in an article titled ‘Face of War’ by Troy Newman. Here he compares the famous Vietnam image with a gruesome photo of an aborted foetus, also portrayed as a victim of war. With the multiplication of the image on the internet dates and names have become even further confused; captions change again and again; the image is molded to a new set of agendas; any sense of the original context is slowly dissolved.

    The rapid spread of this famous image and the multiple meanings attached to it had a powerful impact on the participants. Within months of his unwilling elevation into the public eye General Loan returned to virtual obscurity. In May he was seriously wounded, flying first to Australia for treatment. Apparently his presence was enough of an embarrassment for him to have to move to America for treatment. By the time he had recovered the position of his patron, Marshal Ky, had disintegrated. In 1975 he fled the advancing communist forces, settling down in Virginia. The notoriety garnered from his actions during Tet followed him, with a failed attempt to have him deported for war crimes. Even an attempt to run a pizza parlour came to grief when his identity became known, with the message ‘we know who you are’ scrawled on a restroom wall. Until his death from cancer in 1998 Loan was dogged by an image that did little to explain his role in the history of the Vietnam War. For Eddie Adams the photograph was a launch pad to superstardom. In 1969 he received a Pulitzer Prize for the photo, though it is claimed he rejected the accompanying cash prize. He continued to work in Vietnam until 1975, leaving the country with a boatload of refugees. Though he went on to work for many magazines and gain numerous awards, Adams is still haunted by the photograph, once telling Time magazine ‘the general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera.’ When he heard that Loan had died he shed tears and sent flowers.

    By far the strangest legacy of that day on Ly Thai Tho Street lies with the family of Nguyen Van Lem. That image was the first his widow Nguyen Thi Lop knew of his capture and death. According to her ‘I almost died, I always feel like this, after so many years…’. Yet her relationship to the photograph is contradictory. She feels that it helped to turn Americans against the war, thereby helping to achieve her husband’s most cherished goal. In a nation with the bodies of some 300,000 soldiers unaccounted for, she is pleased to at least know his fate. In a final twist the images of his death are among the few images Lem’s youngest children have to remember him by. The same media entity that was used by General Loan to make an example of Nguyen Van Lem also allowed his death to take on a series of very different meanings.

    At a recent conference on photography at the University of Melbourne Australian photographer Julie Millowick prefaced a presentation of very personal photographs about her life and work with the photograph of General Loan shooting Nguyen Van Lem. Claiming that it was ‘late January 1968, about three in the afternoon, downtown Saigon’ and that ‘General Loan shot dead an innocent civilian’, she stated that this photograph had ‘changed history’ and inspired her to become a photographer. Yet another version of the story and another ripple spreading out from that moment. A young woman in Australia is inspired to make a life choice by one interpretation of one moment in an otherwise distant war. The media entity that put Eddie Adams on Ly Thai Tho street that day ensured that the moment he captured that image it ceased to belong to any of the participants. Like so many moments it was picked up, distributed and interpreted on a worldwide basis within hours. With that the events of that day became the property of others. The context became blurred, the image reinterpreted and reshaped to new perspectives and new agendas. It has been analyzed, debated and commodified. It has become an icon, a representation not only of the Vietnam War, or even the twentieth century, but of war and inhumanity, of truth and lies. As the image and the events surrounding it have fragmented so has the debate surrounding them. Whatever new interpretations future generations chose to make of this moment it will always remain a tribute to the breadth and power of the modern mass media.
    Last edited by Bigfella; 27 Jan 11, at 07:07.


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    Senior Contributor Bigfella's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by bigross86 View Post
    Dude, did you even read the article?

    Eddie Adams was a photographer given a job to do and he executed it perfectly. When he found out the true story behind his picture he did everything he could in order to fix the situation.

    Adams was in the right place at the right time and was able to take advantage of that. Moreover, like I said before, there are very few pictures that have definitely had a part in changing government policy, and this is one of them. Adams was extremely lucky to have gotten this picture. You may agree or disagree with the war or with the anti-war protesters, but Adams was most definitely not an anti-war protester and to bunch him with that group is plain wrong
    Adams had actually served with the Marines in Korea as a combat photographer, so he wasn't exactly the left wing monster many critics would like to see him & most other journaists as.

    I would challenge the assertion that this had much of an impact on policy. I would suggest that 30,000 dead Americans & a 3 year war that was clearly not being won (contrary to public pronouncements) were what changed policy. In fact, there was a spike in the popularity of the war in the first few days of Tet - around the time the image & footage were shown (don't forget the footage, which was, if anything, more impactful). The image may have impacted public memory, but the trajectory of the war was already set. had this never happened Johnson would still have decided not to call up the reserves & increase the deployment, he would still have sought peace & Nixon would still have campaigned on 'peace with Honour'.


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    Quote Originally Posted by drhuy View Post
    there were just SO MANY idiots like Eddie in America back in those days. Too bad
    So who is the idiot, the man with the camera, or the man who makes a point of shooting a man in front of a photographer & 2 network TV crews? He could have just dragged the guy around the corner & shot him. Adams & the journos were doing what Loan wanted them to do - record the killing. They even let him explain the reasons why. Perhaps they were idiots for letting him use them, but any negative consequences that flowed from that image were the General's fault.

    Judging by the performance of successive RVN governments & the ARVN over 20 years (remember how Loan's patron lost his powerbase?) I'd suggest that Sth Vietnam was also full of idiots just like Loan.


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    An interesting counter point was the picture of the WWII American flag raising on Iwo Jima, a staged photo that symbolically helped renew the American will to finish the War in the Pacific. It is interesting that a single still image can be the focal point of public perception of major events like these. Clearly the Adams picture wasn't the cause of the American outcome in Vietnam, but it was certainly symbolic.

    Bigfella, that is a wonderful peice of work, thank you for sharing it - it really illuminates the story
    Last edited by USSWisconsin; 27 Jan 11, at 22:26.
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    I would challenge the assertion that this had much of an impact on policy. I would suggest that 30,000 dead Americans & a 3 year war that was clearly not being won (contrary to public pronouncements) were what changed policy. In fact, there was a spike in the popularity of the war in the first few days of Tet - around the time the image & footage were shown (don't forget the footage, which was, if anything, more impactful). The image may have impacted public memory, but the trajectory of the war was already set. had this never happened Johnson would still have decided not to call up the reserves & increase the deployment, he would still have sought peace & Nixon would still have campaigned on 'peace with Honour'.
    There definitely is no proof of a causal link between the two, but like the article mentions, LBJ decided not to run shortly after the picture was published
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