31 January 2023
EDDIE ADAMS / AP PHOTO
EDDIE ADAMS / AP PHOTO

ON 1 FEBRUARY 1968, Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, the chief of the Republic of Vietnam National Police, summarily executes Nguyễn Văn Lém, an officer of the National Liberation Front for South Vietnam, on the streets of the capital, Saigon. Two days earlier, the NLF and the People’s Army of Vietnam had launched the Tết Offensive, a major military escalation timed to coincide with the lunar new year, when many south Vietnamese soldiers were on leave. Over eighty thousand troops infiltrated over a hundred cities and towns in the Republic of Vietnam, with 35 NLF battalions attacking key targets in Saigon, including the presidential palace and the US embassy.

Lém was captured near the An Quan pagoda in the capital. He was alleged to have killed the family of a south Vietnamese colonel, though the US historian Edwin Moïse has described this charge as “a post-war invention.” Lém was handcuffed and taken to Loan, who immediately shot him with his service revolver. The execution, which was illegal under Vietnamese law and violated the Geneva Conventions, was captured by the Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams and an NBC television crew.

Adams’s photograph, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize, was published by newspapers around the world and helped turn public opinion in the United States against involvement in the Vietnam War. Loan did not face consequences in Vietnam for the execution. After the fall of Saigon, in 1975, he relocated to the suburbs of Washington, DC, where he opened a restaurant. In 1978, following public and congressional pressure, the Immigration and Naturalization Service sought to rescind his status as a permanent resident on grounds of moral turpitude. Loan’s lawyer argued that he had acted legally in accordance with martial law, and the US president, Jimmy Carter, quashed the proceedings, calling the charge “historical revisionism.”

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