History Thread: The Shooter in the Photograph

Few images from the Vietnam War, or indeed any war, are as well-known as Eddie Adams’ snapshot of Brigadier General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the National Police Chief of South Vietnam, executed a suspected Vietcong terrorist. Taken during the height of the Tet Offensive in February 1968, when Vietcong guerrillas launched coordinated assaults across South Vietnam, it came to represent the brutality of the South Vietnamese government and the unworthiness of the American cause. The photograph inspired massive reams of ink and outrage, with only a few writers bothering to sketch its context. In recent years, a bizarre counternarrative has emerged among some historians to paint Loan as a hero, or even a victim of circumstance – an interpretation hardly borne out by the historical record.

The shot seen round the world

The future General Loan was born in Hue in 1930 to middle-class parents. After a brief stint fighting with the Vietminh against the Japanese, he attended school planning to become a pharmacist. In 1951 he attended an officer’s training school and joined the Vietnamese National Army, a military organization established by the French to prop up their puppet, Emperor Bao Dai, in the waning days of the Indochina War. While at school Loan met a stylish, arrogant Air Force cadet named Nguyen Cao Ky, who became a close friend. The two men’s destinies would become inextricably linked in the history of South Vietnam.

Loan spent most of the ’50s and early ’60s as a junior Air Force officer, training pilots and occasionally undertaking combat missions against Vietcong and North Vietnamese forces. He was dispatched to the United States to undertake intelligence training, gaining connections with the Central Intelligence Agency and showing a skill for intrigue. Acquaintances remembered Loan as “a withdrawn, seemingly rather timid young man who drank sparingly, did not have a mistress, and whose only vice was a fondness for poker games.” With the overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem in November 1963, his star rose along with his friend, now-General Ky, who played a major role in the coup.

General Ky

After taking part in Operation Flaming Dart, a series of air raids against North Vietnamese positions in the spring of 1965, Major Loan saw his fortunes raise precipitously. The Diem coup had led to a revolving series of military governments in Saigon, which belatedly stabilized with Ky’s appointment as Prime Minister in June. Loan was promoted to Colonel and made commander of the Military Security Service and the Central Intelligence Organization, effectively receiving control over South Vietnam’s entire intelligence apparatus. Loan was appointed Director of the Republic of Vietnam National Police the following April, further extending his purview.

Loan quickly proved his worth to Ky. In March 1966, a heavy-handed occupation of Danang by ARVN soldiers (falsely claimed to be under Communist control) and the firing of a general suspected of disloyalty triggered a Buddhist uprising which was joined by mutinous soldiers. Loan spearheaded the counterattacks with a force of tanks, jeeps and artillery. According to Stanley Karnow, Loan “systematically combed Danang street by street, slaying hundreds of rebel troops and more than a hundred civilians, most of whom had taken refuge in Buddhist temples.” An American officer actually intervened to stop Loan when the Colonel ordered airstrikes against a temple full of terrified civilians.

Fighting in Danang

Loan’s reign of terror soon extended throughout the whole country. After subduing Danang, Loan imposed a crackdown in his home city of Hue, jailing hundreds of suspected rebels. He imprisoned these men and without trial in the “tiger cages” of Con Dao Prison and other interment centers. These cages, often less than 5 by 9 feet in size, forced the prisoners to skitter about like crabs to move. Fed menial meals of fish soup, they were often beaten and tortured by their guards with nightsticks, metal weights that made movement impossible, and lime powder sprinkled in their drinking waters. The brutality within these walls was only a starker version of what the junta practiced publicly.

General Ky proved South Vietnam’s most flamboyant and vicious dictator, openly declaring his admiration for Adolf Hitler as he oppressed his subjects, alienated his American allies (who branded him “the bottom of the barrel”), cancelled elections and pilfered massive amounts of money from the treasury. He couldn’t have done so without Loan’s assistance; at the height of his power, the General commanded 70,000 men in his three departments, with spies riddling every agency. Americans, though squeamish about Ky’s excesses, didn’t mind his enforcer: CIA operative Lucien Conein said that Loan received carte blanche because “we wanted effective security in Saigon above all else” and that “the whole three-tiered US Advisory structure at the district, province and national level was placed at his disposal.”

Loan surveys damage in Hue, March 1968

Loan was effective in rooting out Vietcong cadres in the capitol, although his police often didn’t distinguish terrorists from dissenters or innocent bystanders. His police performed less glamorous roles, however. Whenever Ky faced a challenge from dissidents in Vietnam’s National Assembly, he turned to Loan to put things right. Once, during a contentious vote on presidential power, Loan arrived with a detachment of armed men to force delegates to vote the Premier’s way. On another occasion, opposition leader Ly Qui Chung spied Loan “patrolling the balcony during assembly sessions, conspicuously brandishing his revolver while imbibing six-packs of beer.”

Loan struck many as a bizarre figure, capable of cruelty and expansive gestures. Despite his buttoned-down private life, he co-managed a Saigon night club which he used to pad his paycheck. Although he professed to be a practicing Buddhist, he had no more sympathy for his fellow worshippers than the Catholic Diems. On one occasion, he told Oriana Fallaci that he did not believe in God, but rather “destiny.” After hearing of a Buddhist monk’s self-immolation in protest, Loan mocked him before reporters by offering a fire extinguisher.


Corruption is the prerogative of the powerful, and Loan took after his friend, Premier Ky. Using his policemen, he cornered Saigon’s heroin rackets on the Premier’s behalf. One writer comments how Loan “systematized the corruption, regulating how much each particular agency would collect, how much each officer would skim off for his personal use, and what percentage would be turned over to Ky’s political machine.” Journalist Alfred W. McCoy details how Loan reactivated networks of the Binh Xuhn, an anticommunist paramilitary force quashed by Ngo Dinh Diem in the early ’60s whose real specialty was drug trafficking. Under Loan’s aegis, old contacts of the Binh Xuhn funneled heroin to gangsters in China, France and further afield, much of it making its way to American servicemen. Invariably, the South Vietnamese government received a cut of the money.

Nonetheless, Loan would insist to American journalist Tom Buckley that he didn’t personally benefit from this amoral schemes. “The position I hold in Vietnam, I should be billionaire, not just millionaire,” he complained. I know what other people took, but Ky and I, we are fighting men, and it is not our way. So now I work like a slave and we live, eleven of us, in a little house, and we have nothing, nothing, nothing!” If Loan didn’t personally profit from this corruption, it seems little better that he assisted the Premier in accruing millions of ill-gotten gains. Like many corrupt men in power, he not only protested his innocence but proclaimed himself a victim.

Lyndon Johnson, William Westmoreland, Nguyen Van Thieu and Nguyen Cao Ky

In 1967 Ky negotiated a power-sharing agreement with Nguyen Van Thieu, allowing that mild-mannered official to become Premier while Ky served as Vice President. Ky, however, retained a great deal of power behind the scenes, which he exercised through Loan who received a promotion to Brigadier General. Loan had a mixed reputation among his American allies: some liked him for his English language skills, spartan lifestyle and quiet personality; Lucien Conein recalled that he was nicknamed “Laughing Larry” for a discomforting habit of chuckling in conversation. On the other hand, he criticized CIA operations in his country, which he viewed as an affront to his own agencies, and once arrested two North Vietnamese agents planning to negotiate a separate piece with America behind Saigon’s back.

Thus Loan, like many South Vietnamese, embodied the paradox of the Vietnam War. On the one hand, Diem, Ky and Thieu were demeaned as American puppets, there to advance a superpower’s agenda with no interest or agency of their own. But in reality, as Max Hastings writes, “the puppets refused to dance.” The CIA backed the overthrow of Diem not only for his violence towards Buddhists and other political opponents, but because he desired a separate peace with Ho Chi Minh. Ky, while undoubtedly a brutal dictator, seemed to enrage Washington for his independence as much as his fascist affectations. Ky’s successor, Thieu, earned American enmity for refusing to accept iniquitous peace terms. With an irony only Henry Kissinger could appreciate, American planes bombed Hanoi in December 1972 to compel their ally to accept the terms.

One need not excuse the South Vietnamese government’s corruption to observe that many of its citizens sincerely desired independence, or at least an alternative to Ho Chi Minh’s brutal collectivist state. And yet circumstances rendered that nearly impossible. Saigon produced no viable leader who could survive without American money and bayonets; the Vietcong and their Northern allies resisted with a ferocity that baffled a generation of American generals and statesmen. The Americans simultaneously propped up dictators, alienating Vietnamese who’d otherwise welcome an anticommunist government, then refused to allow those dictators genuine independence. Even had Loan and his comrades possessed more nobility than avarice, they were caught in a hopelessly rigged game.


This game climaxed on January 31, 1968. Vietcong forces, backed by North Vietnam, had launched a massive coordinated assault across South Vietnam, taking advantage of the Tet Lunar New Year. In Saigon, cadres of sappers attacked military barracks and government buildings, most dramatically the American embassy, in hopes of overthrowing Thieu’s government and inspiring a popular uprising. American soldiers and their Vietnamese allies, initially taken by surprise, quickly recovered and contained the offensive. By the end of that day, despite fearsome fighting, massive destruction and dramatic media coverage, it was clear that the Vietcong attack had failed. What remained was the messy job of cleaning up holdouts, a task which felt to General Loan.

On February 1st, Loan led forces of the National Police in rounding up Vietcong assassination squads, which targeted South Vietnamese military and political officials and their families (Loan was high on their list). Patrolling the streets of Saigon in military fatigues, Loan showed immense physical courage as he led his men in several fierce gun battles with communist cadres, taking part in several skirmishes with an assault rifle and a .38 caliber Smith & Wesson revolver. His men uncovered evidence of Vietcong atrocities, including a hastily-dug mass grave with nearly thirty victims who had been killed by an assassination team. With Loan tired, angry and in a vengeful mood, it was the misfortune of Nguyen Van Lem to cross his path.

Lem was a 36 year old Vietcong captain, a veteran fighter whose unit had been among the first to infiltrate Saigon. Lem (also known by the code-name Bay Lop) remains a shadowy figure, with little known about the actions of his squad. Lem was captured near the An Quang pagoda, where South Vietnamese Marines had fought a protracted gun battle with communist militants; he was arrested with pistol in hand, having evidently shot at least one of his attackers. Another story would blame him for the brutal murder of Lt. Colonel Nguyen Than, who was butchered by Vietcong agents along with his wife, children and 80 year old mother. No hard evidence connected him to this crime, but details availed him little. Worse, he was in civilian clothing, which rendered his protection under the laws of war doubtful.


As Loan encountered Lem, Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams approached with a camera. Adams expected that Loan was planning to interrogate or possibly torture Lem, and thought it would be a useful addition to the striking images from Tet. To his shock, he watched Loan wave his men away, then draw his revolver and shoot Lem in the head. With remarkable timing and presence of mind, Adams caught the precise moment the .38 caliber bullet killed the terrified Communist. His body crumpled lifeless into the street, spraying blood onto the pavement as Adams’ camera, and an NBC film camera manned by Vietnamese reporter Vo Suu, rolled.

Holstering his weapon, Loan off-handedly explained to Adams that “if you hesitate, if you didn’t do your duty, the men won’t follow you,” additionally offering that Lem “killed many of our people and many of yours.” Then Loan resumed his patrol, unaware or unconcerned that he’d become a synecdoche for the brutality of the South Vietnamese war effort. For his part, Adams won a Pulitzer Prize for the photograph, though he came to regret it. “Two people died in that photograph,” Adams later commented. “The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera.”

Adams’ photograph went over the airwaves, receiving repeated airplay on television and splashed across newspaper and magazine headlines across the world. Along with the famous photograph of Kim Phuc, running screaming as her village was napalmed, the “Execution in Saigon” came for many to symbolize the war. Tet was seen as a turning point: the fact that the Vietcong attack was a military catastrophe did not make it any less shocking, after years of assurances that American victory was around the corner.


Loan, at the time, showed little remorse for the incident, and offered straightforward justifications. “He wasn’t wearing a uniform and I can’t respect a man who shoots without wearing a uniform,” he told Italian interviewer Oriana Fallaci. “Because it’s too easy: you kill and you’re not recognized. I respect a North Vietnamese because he’s dressed as a soldier, like myself, and so he takes the same risks as I do. But a Vietcong in civilian clothes – I was filled with rage.” He offered a similar rationale to American reporter Tom Buckley, adding that Lem “was the commander of a sapper unit. He killed a policeman…What do you want us to do? Put him in jail for two or three years and then let him go back to the enemy.”

Buckley, a writer for Harper‘s didn’t challenge Loan’s narrative of the shooting. However, he also recorded a telling incident he personally witnessed soon afterwards. Loan invited Buckley on a patrol of Saigon, watching the General interrogate a young man out after curfew. After a cordial exchange of pleasantries, Loan pulled out a small metal object and “pointed it at the man’s head…there was a spurt of flame.” To Buckley’s relief, the object was merely a cigarette lighter; to his disgust, the General and his entourage burst out laughing at this impromptu reenactment, with his victim standing there “motionless and silent.”

Either way, Loan’s days in power were numbered, In May 1968, during the “little Tet” Offensive by Vietcong, he was wounded in the leg by machine gun fire, an injury which required amputation and extensive hospital treatment in Australia. The injury, and the notoriety he’d accrued from the photograph, assured his fall from grace; Thieu kicked Loan upstairs to a bureaucratic post where he lacked the power he’d held before. “I am finished now; my career is over,” Loan mused. “But….to be liked or not liked, it doesn’t matter. Life belongs to Buddha, to God, whatever it is that is higher than me.”

Loan and his wife in Virginia

After Saigon’s fall in 1975, he fled to the United States with his family, opening a pizza restaurant in Burke, Virginia with money loaned from American veterans and South Vietnamese colleagues. “All we want to do is to forget and to be left alone,” Loan told a reporter who tracked him down. But discovery of Loan’s identity led to a push by several officials, including Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman and Senator Stephen H. Young, to push for his deportation. Incredibly, the INS concluded that Loan’s execution of Lem constituted a war crime, but attempts to prosecute or extradict him to now-communist Vietnam fell through. President Jimmy Carter ultimately stepped in and blocked the deportation, allowing Loan to live in obscurity until his death in 1998.

In later years, Loan’s actions were embellished, with some writers (either misguidedly or maliciously) trying to reframe Loan as a hero unfairly captured at his worst moment. A counternarrative emerged that Lem had murdered Colonel Than’s family, and that Colonel Than was close friends with General Loan (the two men were acquainted, but likely not intimate, and there’s no evidence that Loan knew of Than’s death before encountering Lem). Another story insisted Lem had been using a child as a human shield during the gunfight with Loan’s men, so wicked (the implication runs) that he fully deserved his summary execution.

Nguyen Thi Lop

Eddie Adams, who befriended General Loan in exile, often attempted to atone for the negative impact his photograph had on the man’s life. Adams claimed that Loan was “very well-loved by the Vietnamese,” and that “he was fighting with America for America. Aren’t you supposed to shoot the enemy?” Less forgiving was Nguyen Thi Lop, the widow of General Loan’s victim, who first learned about her husband’s death when she saw the photograph in the newspaper. Lop was haunted that she never learned what happened to her husband after the shooting, denying her family closure. “I always told myself that if I ever had the chance to meet [Loan] and be told what happened to the remains, I would have forgiven him,” she said. “If he didn’t tell me, I would have killed him and ripped his heart out.”

Perhaps we can forgive Eddie Adams his charity. The Vietnam War was a complex, messy conflict which still excites stark controversy in the United States, even as the Communist regime in Hanoi cultivates its own narrative of the war. None of the countries involved had a monopoly on violence, corruption or folly. But a close record of Nguyen Ngoc Loan’s life suggests that, far from being victimized by a poorly-timed photograph, he well represents the brutal inequity of the government he so poorly served.

Eddie Adams and his subject

Sources and Further Reading

General background comes from Max Hasting’s Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975 (2018) and Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History (1983). Besides the linked articles, Loan’s career is detailed in Andrew Friedman’s Covert Capital: Landscapes of Denial and the Making of U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia (2013) and Alfred W. McCoy and Catherine B. Read’s The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia (1972). Loan’s interview with Oriana Fallaci published in her book Nothing, and So Be It (1972); Tom Buckley interview included in Library of America’s Reporting Vietnam Volume Two (1998).