In that momentous, often terrible year of 1968, February 1 found the offensive in full swing by the National Liberation Front forces (NFL, or Viet Cong) across South Vietnam. The “General Uprising” kicked off on January 30, the beginning of Tet, the Vietnamese new year celebration (Tet is based on the Chinese lunisolar calendar, shifting from year to year; in 2008 the first day of Tet is February 7). News was just beginning to hit the U.S., in the days before videotape from the field and easy satellite uplinks.
On February 1, 1968, Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams accompanied a South Vietnamese police team trying to clear part of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) of Viet Cong; Adams put his camera up to aim as police chief General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan put a gun to the head of a man suspected of being part of the NFL, Nguyễn Văn Lém. Adams clicked the shutter coincidentally as the police chief fired the gun, killing the suspect.
The haunting photo won Adams the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography. It is an icon of 20th century war and the inhumanity of war (see Sherman’s comments, “war is hell”).
Both for copyright and sensitivity reasons, I only link to a copy of the photo. WARNING, POTENTIALLY OFFENSIVE MATERIAL: See the photo at the bottom of this column.
The photo ruined the life of Gen. Nguyễn. Adams wrote in Time Magazine:
The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon 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?’
Adams continued to photograph Southeast Asia. Before his death in 2004, he said he wished he would be remembered for photographs of Vietnamese boat people being pushed out to sea by the Thai Navy, rather than being offered refuge by the Thais. Adams’ photographs of the boat people caught the ire of people around the world and led President Jimmy Carter to grant asylum to the refugees.