50 Years On
Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams was on the streets of Saigon on February 1, 1968, two days after the forces of the People’s Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong set off the Tet offensive and swarmed into dozens of South Vietnamese cities. 50 years after the Tet Offensive, in which tens of thousands died, Eddie Adams images show the brutality of the Vietnam War. The most iconic of Adam’s pictures shows a South Vietnam Brigadier General raising a gun to the head of a handcuffed National Liberation Front prisoner before pulling the trigger. The iconic picture that Adams took that day won him the Pulitzer Prize, he regrets because besides fame it also brought a lifetime of sorrow.
Taken during the North’s surprise Tet Offensive in February 1968, the photo showed the savagery of the war in a way Americans had not yet seen. Protesters saw the image as graphic evidence that the US was fighting on the side of an unjust South Vietnamese government.
“I thought he was going to threaten or terrorise the guy,” Adams recalled afterwards, “so I just naturally raised my camera and took the picture.” But as he looked through his viewfinder, Loan calmly raised his .38-caliber pistol and summarily fired a bullet through Lem’s head. After shooting the suspect, the general justified the suddenness of his actions by saying, “If you hesitate, if you didn’t do your duty, the men won’t follow you.”
Adams wrote in Time in 1998:
|“||Two people died in that photograph: the recipient of the bullet and General Nguyen Ngoc Loan. The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapons in the world. 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 people?’…. This picture really messed up his life. He never blamed me. He told me if I hadn’t taken the picture, someone else would have, but I’ve felt bad for him and his family for a long time. … I sent flowers when I heard that he had died and wrote, “I’m sorry. There are tears in my eyes.”|
Ben Wright, associate director for communications at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, says “There’s something like a still image that deeply affects the viewer and stays with them.”
The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, based at the University of Texas in Austin houses Adams’s archive of photos, documents and correspondence. The Center is a special collections library that houses and preserves documents and artefacts of essential themes in Texas and United States history and makes the items available to researchers. The Center also has permanent, touring, and online exhibits open to the public.