On February 1, 1968, South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, who was the chief of the national police at the time, executed a Vietcong officer named Nguyen Van Lem. Loan carried out the execution on the streets of Saigon in plain view of anyone who happened to be watching. This included NBC’s television cameramen and Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams, who took this iconic photograph.
Immediately after shooting the man in the head, the general walked over to the reporters and plainly said, “These guys kill a lot of our people, and I think Buddhawill forgive me.”
Adams’s photo immediately became a symbol of the brutality of the ongoing conflict. But there was far more going on before that image was taken than was widely known at the time.
The executed man was the leader of a “revenge squad” and had killed dozens of unarmed civilians earlier that day. Despite this, the imagery of his execution haunted Adams, who regretted taking the Pulitzer Prize–winning photograph. “The general killed the Vietcong; I killed the general with my camera.”[