Photographs Do Lie
Why his Pulitzer-winning picture of a South Vietnamese general haunted Eddie Adams for the rest of his life.
12:00 AM, Sep 24, 2004 • By DUNCAN CURRIE
PHOTOJOURNALIST Eddie Adams died last Sunday at age 71, but his place in history is secure. Indeed, Adams made history with his famous picture of South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan. Taken in Saigon on February 1, 1968, the picture showed Gen. Loan's point-blank execution of a Viet Cong captain named Bay Lop. The images were searing: Loan's cold grimace; a snub-nosed .38 revolver held inches from Lop's terrified face; the fiercely clenched teeth of an officer standing nearby.
It won a Pulitzer Prize for the Associated Press in 1969, and was one of the most influential still photos of the 20th century. But until the day he died, Eddie Adams regretted having taken it.
Actually, that's an understatement. Adams blamed himself for ruining Loan's life. "The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera," was how he put it. His picture told one story; but his contrition for that picture told quite another.
Adams snapped his unforgettable shot on day two of the Tet Offensive. Tet was a coordinated assault by more than 80,000 North Vietnamese and VC troops on 36 (of 44) provincial capitals, 5 (of 6) autonomous cities, and 64 (of 242) district capitals in South Vietnam. It was a surprise attack during a holiday truce (for the Vietnamese New Year). The fighting lasted a few months in several different theaters. It ended with a resounding American victory. But media coverage in general, and Adams's photograph in particular, transformed it into a Pyrrhic victory.
On the day of the picture, VC guerrillas were storming Saigon. General Loan, South Vietnam's national police chief, sought to make an example of the captured Bay Lop. As journalists, including Adams, followed, Loan brought the hand-bound prisoner to a street corner. Suddenly, the general extended his arm, raised a gun to Lop's head, and pulled the trigger. Adams clicked his camera at that precise moment. (Close inspection of his photo reveals the bullet exiting Lop's skull.) As Adams remembered it, Loan then turned to the journalists and said, "They killed many of your people and many of my men."
The AP photo landed in newspapers worldwide the following day. Without background or context, readers saw a merciless Loan and a defenseless Lop. (NBC also acquired film footage of the incident, thanks to South Vietnamese cameraman Vo Suu.)
It's impossible to say how much Adams's picture influenced the 1968 U.S. presidential race. But it galvanized nascent antiwar sentiment, and indirectly boosted the campaign of Sen. Eugene McCarthy. On March 31, some eight weeks after its publication, President Lyndon Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.
For many Americans, the picture became a symbol of the war's putative moral ambiguities. Antiwar partisans used it to buttress their charge that the U.S. military was sanctioning atrocities.
Along with Tet, it catalyzed the gradual turning of public opinion against the war. (In the wake of the offensive, CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite declared Vietnam unwinnable.) The NVA and VC may have tortured and killed 3,000 South Vietnamese civilians in the city of Hué; but the most enduring image of Tet was Adams's picture. Loan was thus cemented in history as a brutal executioner.
The AP subsequently assigned Adams to follow Loan around Vietnam. Then, a strange thing happened. As Adams later recalled on National Public Radio, "I . . . found out the guy was very well loved by the Vietnamese, you know. He was a hero to them . . . and it just saddens me that none of this has really come out."
Among other things, Adams learned that Loan spent considerable time lobbying for new hospitals in South Vietnam. "It's just a sad statement," Adams said on NPR, "of America. He was fighting our war, not their war, our war, and every--all the blame is on this guy."
Adams frequently offered a qualified defense of Loan's infamous act. Within context, and given the inevitable fog of war, he would say, the killing was understandable, if not excusable. As historian Robert D. Schulzinger points out in A Time for War, the executed VC fighter "had killed some Saigon civilians, many of them relatives of police in the capital."
When Saigon fell in April 1975, Loan escaped to the United States. But his notoriety traveled with him. New York congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman demanded his deportation. So did the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Deportation to Communist Vietnam would have equaled a death sentence. President Jimmy Carter, to his credit, intervened and allowed the ex-general to stay in Virginia.
For years afterward Loan operated a pizza parlor in Dale City, Virginia, while making his home in nearby Burke. He kept in regular touch with Eddie Adams; the two men had become friends.
Adams once visited Loan at the pizzeria. "He was like a freak show," Adams told the New York Daily News. "People had figured out who he was." Adams recalled "going into the bathroom in his restaurant and reading some graffiti on the wall. Someone had written, 'We know who you are, you f-----.'" The obscenity made him despondent. "That was because of me," Adams said. "And I don't like ruining people's lives with my pictures."
Shortly after the visit, Loan closed his restaurant in 1991. People indeed had learned he was the executioner from Adams's photograph. The negative publicity had triggered a sharp decline in business.
Loan died in July 1998, at age 67, from cancer. Torn up by regret, Adams penned a moving eulogy in Time magazine. It was part remembrance, part mea culpa for his 1968 picture. "Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world," he wrote. "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 soldiers?' General Loan was what you would call a real warrior, admired by his troops. I'm not saying what he did was right, but you have to put yourself in his position."
Adams also sent the Loan family flowers and a card. "I'm sorry," he wrote. "There are tears in my eyes."
Duncan Currie is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.