In an instant, Vietnam execution photo framed a view of war |
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In an instant, Vietnam execution photo framed a view of war

The Associated Press
South Vietnamese Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of the National Police, fires his pistol into the head of suspected Viet Cong officer Nguyen Van Lem (also known as Bay Lop) on a Saigon street Feb. 1, 1968, early in the Tet Offensive. (AP Photo/Eddie Adams)
The Second Offensive in Saigon, Vietnam, from May 5-6, 1968. (AP Photo/Eddie Adams)
Under sniper fire, a Vietnamese woman carries a child to safety as U.S. Marines storm the village of My Son, near Da Nang, searching for Viet Cong insurgents in April 1965. The men of the village had largely disappeared, and the remaining villagers revealed little when questioned by the Marines. (AP Photo/Eddie Adams)
Wounded South Vietnamese forces after fierce fighting with Viet Cong at Cheo Reo, Vietnam on July 7, 1965. (AP Photo/Eddie Adams)
An unidentified gunner of the U.S. Army in Vietnam at an unknown date. (AP Photo/Eddie Adams)
Smoke rises over battle-scarred Saigon during the Tet Offensive as the sun sets over the South Vietnamese capital on Feb. 8, 1968. Savage fighting was continuing there for the ninth consecutive day with Viet Cong guerrillas pitted against combined South Vietnamese and U.S. forces. (AP Photo/Eddie Adams)
Residents rush to leave a threatened section of Cholon, the Chinese quarter of Saigon on June 1, 1968. Vietcong units moved into the area by passing Vietnamese Marines fighting to the west and fired on government troops. Reacting instinctively, residents picked up their personal belongings, abandoned their homes, and fled. (AP Photo/Eddie Adams)
U.S. Marine Sgt. Lyle Lewis of Tacoma, Wash., carries a wounded fellow Marine on his back to reach stretcher bearers at the base of a hill, April 28, 1965. They were part of a large patrol several miles from Da Nang air base that moved deep into Viet Cong territory. (AP Photo/Eddie Adams)
U.S. hospital corpsmen dash from a bunker at the airstrip at Khe Sanh, Vietnam, carrying a wounded U.S. Marine to a waiting evacuation helicopter on March 6, 1968. The Marine was hit during a North Vietnamese rocket or artillery barrage. The Communists have the base airstrip zeroed in, compelling aircraft to get in and out quickly. (AP Photo/Eddie Adams)
Vietnam War. Location and date unknown. (AP Photo/Eddie Adams)
A Vietnamese policeman helps a woman fleeing her home in Cholon, Saigon, to carry her wounded son on June 1, 1968. She and other residents in the area fled as Viet Cong units moved in from the west to attack government units. At the first sound of gunfire, residents fled, abandoning their homes. The boy was hit by an initial exchange of fire. (AP Photo/Eddie Adams)
Some of the twenty-one saffron-robed Buddhist monks, wanting to see South Vietnam’s President Thieu as he arrives at the Presidential Palace in Saigon on Thursday, April 18, 1968. The monks ranging from youngsters to aged venerable's, converged on the Presidential Palace on Thursday, April 18. The monks are demanding from President Thieu the release of Trich Tri Quang, and five other militant Buddhist being hold by the government. The militant Buddhist leader with the five others is being held in a police villa near downtown Saigon where they have been held for seven weeks. The Buddhists did not see President Thieu, and the protest broke up quietly. (AP Photo/Eddie Adams)
Vietnamese soldiers capture a communist Viet Cong guerrilla hiding in high swamp grass during an operation 15 miles south of Da Nang in Quang Nam province in Vietnam on March 28, 1965. Five Viet Cong guerrillas were reported killed and 30 taken prisoner in the action. (AP Photo/Eddie Adams)
Young children smoking during the Vietnam War in Saigon in an undated photo. (AP Photo/Eddie Adams)
A Swift Boat on patrol during the Vietnam War, May 1968. The aluminum Navy vessels were first used to patrol the coast but later deployed in interior waterways for such duties as intercepting Viet Cong arms shipments and transporting SEAL teams for counterinsurgency operations. (AP Photo/Eddie Adams)
An Hoa or Van Tuong, Vietnam, (location unspecified), July 1965, during the Vietnam War. (AP Photo/Eddie Adams)
**Eds Note: Graphic Content** Young Vietnamese on motorbikes stop to look at a Viet Cong killed in the western section of Saigon, Cholon, during day-long fighting on May 5, 1968. A group of Viet Cong moved into the area following an mortar barrage on different parts of the city. The fighting which took place in Cholon was near a heavily-hit area during the Tet Offensive. (AP Photo/Eddie Adams)
Captain Charles S. Robb, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson's son-in-law, serving during the Vietnam War in Danang, Vietnam on May 22, 1968. (AP Photo/Eddie Adams)
A Vietnamese man carries his lightly wounded wife out of a threatened area in Southern Saigon, Vietnam on May 8, 1968. Daylong fighting in the area erupted at dawn with a daring Viet Cong attack on a police station. As they did during the Tet Offensive, residents abandoned their homes escaping to safer parts of the city. (AP Photo/Eddie Adams)
U.S. Marines sit in a helicopter at Van Tuong, Vietnam, in July 1965. (AP Photo/Eddie Adams)
The bridge at the edge of the northern sector of Saigon, Vietnam in May 1968. The Vietcong made a pre-dawn attack on the South Vietnamese capitol sending small groups of men into many areas. (AP Photo/Eddie Adams)

NEW YORK — It was a fraction of a second that jolted Americans’ view of the Vietnam War.

In a Saigon street, South Vietnam’s police chief raised a gun to the head of a handcuffed Viet Cong prisoner and abruptly pulled the trigger. A few feet away, Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams pressed his shutter.

Taken during the North’s surprise Tet Offensive, the New Kensington native’s Feb. 1, 1968, photo showed the war’s brutality in a way Americans hadn’t seen before. Protesters saw the image as graphic evidence that the U.S. was fighting on the side of an unjust South Vietnamese government. It won Adams the Pulitzer Prize. And it haunted him.

“Pictures don’t tell the whole story,” he said later. “It doesn’t tell you why.”

After 50 years, the Saigon execution remains one of the defining images of the war. Time magazine has declared it one of history’s 100 most influential photos.

South Vietnamese Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, chief of the National Police, fires his pistol into the head of suspected Viet Cong officer Nguyen Van Lem (also known as Bay Lop) on a Saigon street Feb. 1, 1968, early in the Tet Offensive. Photo by AP Photo/Eddie Adam


“It still represents a lot of what photojournalists do, that idea of bearing witness to an important event,” says Keith Greenwood, a University of Missouri photojournalism-history professor. “There are ugly things that happen that need to be recorded and shared.”

It was the second day of the Tet Offensive. North Vietnamese forces and Viet Cong guerrillas had attacked South Vietnamese towns and cities, including the capital, Saigon, during a holiday cease-fire.

Adams , a former Marine Corps Korean War photographer who joined the AP in 1962, and NBC cameraman Vo Suu had been checking out fighting in a Saigon neighborhood when they saw South Vietnamese soldiers pulling a prisoner out of a building, toward the newsmen.

The soldiers stopped. The police chief, Lt. Col. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, walked up and lifted his pistol. Adams figured the chief planned a gunpoint interrogation.

Instead, Loan fired, and Adams’ photo froze prisoner Bay Lop’s grimace as he was shot. Suu’s footage also captured the moment, in motion.

Loan told the two: “They killed many of my men and many of your people” and walked away, Adams recalled in a 1998 interview for an AP oral history project.

At the AP’s New York headquarters, photography director Hal Buell saw the image emerging from the radio-based system used to transmit photos at the time. After some deliberation, he and other editors decided to distribute it worldwide.

“I knew when it went out that you were going to get two reactions. The doves were going to say, ‘See the kind of people we’re dealing with here (in South Vietnam)?’ And the hawks said, ‘It shouldn’t have been used — you guys gotta get on the team,'” says Buell, now retired.

But “the image had an impact, and its impact was felt by those people who were on the fences.”

The photo appeared on front pages, TV screens and protest placards. The Tet Offensive proved a military failure for the Communists, but it fueled the American public’s pessimism and weariness about the war. It ended when the North prevailed in 1975.

Adams, meanwhile, felt Loan was unfairly vilified by a public that didn’t see something outside the frame: the killings of Loan’s aide and the aide’s family hours earlier by the Viet Cong.

“I don’t say what he did was right, but he was fighting a war, and he was up against some pretty bad people,” Adams said. He rued that “two people’s lives were destroyed that day” — Lop’s and Loan’s — “and I don’t want to destroy anybody’s life. That’s not my job.”

Loan died in 1998 in Virginia, where he ran a restaurant. Lop’s widow told the AP in 2000 that she felt the picture helped turn Americans against the war.

Adams, who died in 2004, was more proud of his 1977 photos of people fleeing postwar Vietnam. Those images helped persuade the U.S. government to admit over 200,000 of the refugees (one of the pictures also is on Time’s 100-most-influential list). His legacy includes the annual Eddie Adams Workshop for emerging photojournalists, which marked its 30th year this fall.

Work and fundraising are underway to expand a 2012 short documentary about the famous photograph, “Saigon ’68,” into a full-length film.

Director Douglas Sloan says it will encourage people to understand the context of what they see in powerful images.

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