A Photo That Changed the Course of the Vietnam War

The execution occurred on Feb. 1, 1968, two days after Vietcong and North Vietnamese forces launched the coordinated assaults of the Tet offensive. Suddenly, insurgents have been in dozens of cities, in nearly each province of South Vietnam. They have been in the streets of Saigon, the capital. They have been even inside the closely guarded compound of the United States Embassy.

It was a stunning sight for Americans, who had been assured by President Lyndon B. Johnson and his prime common in Vietnam, William C. Westmoreland, that the enemy was on its final legs.

Meredith H. Lair, a Vietnam War professional at George Mason University, mentioned the offensive “caused people to question whether they’d been fed lies by the administration, and to question whether the war was going as well as they’d been led to believe, and to question whether the war could be won if the enemy was supposed to be cowed and appeared so strong and invigorated.”

If the broader Tet offensive revealed chaos the place the authorities was making an attempt to challenge management, Adams’s photograph made individuals query whether or not the United States was preventing for a simply trigger. Together, they undermined the argument for the struggle on two fronts, main many Americans to conclude not solely that it couldn’t be gained, but additionally that, maybe, it shouldn’t be.

The photograph “fed into a developing narrative in the wake of the Tet offensive that the Vietnam War was looking more and more like an unwinnable war,” mentioned Robert J. McMahon, a historian at the Ohio State University. “And I think more people began to question whether we were, in fact, the good guys in the war or not.”

A police chief had fired a bullet, point-blank, into the head of a handcuffed man, in possible violation of the Geneva Conventions. And the official was not a Communist, however a member of South Vietnam’s American-allied authorities. He was on America’s facet.

“It raised a different kind of question to Americans than whether or not the war was winnable,” mentioned Christian G. Appy, a professor of historical past at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “It really introduced a set of moral questions that would increasingly shape debate about the Vietnam War: Is our presence in Vietnam legitimate or just, and are we conducting the war in a way that is moral?”

In the months after the Tet offensive, public opinion shifted extra quickly than at some other level in the struggle, Dr. McMahon mentioned. Adams’s photograph gained a Pulitzer Prize, and Time journal referred to as it one of the 100 most influential ever taken.

“You can talk about ‘the execution photograph from the Vietnam War,’ and not just the generation who lived through it but multiple generations can call that image to mind,” mentioned Susan D. Moeller, a professor of media and worldwide affairs at the University of Maryland and the creator of “Shooting War: Photography and the American Experience of Combat.” “It was immediately understood to be an icon.”

In South Vietnam, the picture resonated in a really completely different method. To Americans, it conveyed that North Vietnam and the Vietcong have been far stronger than that they had been led to consider. To South Vietnamese, it conveyed the reverse: Those forces “no longer had the kind of aura of omnipotence that they had had before,” mentioned Mark Philip Bradley, a historian at the University of Chicago.

Then there was the fallout for the individual for whom viewers had the least sympathy: General Loan, the executioner, who would ultimately transfer to the United States. In 1978, the authorities tried unsuccessfully to rescind his inexperienced card. He died 20 years later in Virginia, the place he had run a restaurant.

Adams himself, earlier than his dying in 2004, expressed discomfort with the penalties of his photograph. He famous that pictures, by nature, exclude context: on this case, that the prisoner had killed the household of one of General Loan’s deputies.

“Two people died in that photograph: the recipient of the bullet and Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan,” he wrote in Time journal. “The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera.”

“Still photographs,” Adams wrote, “are the most powerful weapon in the world.”

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