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 US 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.
“Saigon Execution” In Context: Vietnam In 1968
By 1968, America was as deep as it was going to get in the war in Vietnam. For several years, what began as a limited advisory deployment had grown into full-scale combat between US forces and a volatile mix of North Vietnamese regular forces and Viet Cong guerrillas.
The latter operated in the shadows from villages all over South Vietnam, and American intelligence was all but incapable of gauging its strength and locations. From about 1964, however, the Lyndon Johnson administration had maintained the line that resistance was diminishing and that the whole country should be pacified soon.
The Tet Offensive of early 1968 blew those lies out of the water.
All at once, 80,000 communist troops struck more than 100 targets all over the country. It was clear that the guerrillas had a lot of logistical support from areas thought to be loyal to the South, and that everything the brass had been saying about progress toward victory was false.
Early in the attack, Saigon itself was overrun, which gave the Viet Cong the opportunity to cleanse the city of political enemies and settle some old scores. General Loan, as commander of South Vietnam’s National Police Force, was part of the effort to retake the city.