A Photo That Changed the Course of the Vietnam War

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Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the national police chief of South Vietnam, executed a Vietcong fighter, Nguyen Van Lem, in Saigon on Feb. 1, 1968. Credit Eddie Adams/Associated Press

Fifty years ago today, the national police chief of South Vietnam calmly approached a prisoner in the middle of a Saigon street and fired a bullet into his head.

A few feet away stood Eddie Adams, an Associated Press photographer, eye to his viewfinder. On a little piece of black-and-white film, he captured the exact moment of the gunshot.

The police chief, Brig. Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, stands with his back to the camera, right arm fully extended, left arm loosely by his side. The prisoner, Nguyen Van Lem, is a Vietcong fighter but wears no uniform, only a plaid shirt and black shorts. His hands are cuffed behind his back. Though in his 30s, he looks little older than a boy. His face is contorted from the bullet’s impact.

By morning, this last instant of his life would be immortalized on the front pages of newspapers nationwide, including The New York Times. Along with NBC video footage, the image gave Americans a stark glimpse of the brutality of the Vietnam War and helped fuel a decisive shift in public opinion.

“It hit people in the gut in a way that only a visual text can do,” said Michelle Nickerson, an associate professor of history at Loyola University Chicago who has studied the antiwar movement during the Vietnam era. “The photo translated the news of Tet in a way that you can’t quantify in terms of how many people were, at that moment, turned against the war.”

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