Saigon, South Vietnam was a chaotic and bloody place in the winter of 1968. On January 30, North Vietnamese forces struck suddenly and with shocking force at targets throughout the South, taking the South Vietnamese and their American allies by surprise and turning the tide of a war that President Lyndon Johnson had assured his people they were close to winning. As the reeling South Vietnamese army worked to re-establish order in their capital, an American photographer captured an image that would come to symbolize the brutality of the conflict.
The Tet Offensive directly countered the American narrative that the North was incapable of mobilizing in large numbers and was on the retreat. Conventional and guerrilla warriors struck targets and areas that had been considered to be safely under U.S./Southern control. As the Viet Cong overran Saigon in the first hours of the Tet Offensive, a fighter named Nguyễn Văn Lém was part of a death squad that targeted the National Police and their families. According to the South Vietnamese military, Lém’s squad had just killed 34 people associated with the police, at least 24 of whom were civilians, when he was captured on February 1st.
Lém, who had worn civilian clothes as he carried out his alleged war crimes, was brought to Brigadier General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan. Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams saw the prisoner being escorted to the general and decided to take a few pictures. “I prepared to make that picture—the threat, the interrogation,” Adams recalled. “But it didn’t happen. The man just pulled a pistol out of his holster, raised it to the VC’s head and shot him in the temple.”
Adams captured the exact moment when the bullet from Loan’s Smith & Wesson entered Lém’s head at point-blank range. The image, which very much appeared to depict the summary execution of an unarmed civilian by a South Vietnamese military official, ran in newspapers around the world, causing a sensation. The story behind the photo was much more complex, but the shot came to encapsulate Americans’ darkest fears about the war: that it was a haphazard, amoral bloodletting in which the United States’ cruelty rivaled that of its enemies.
Indeed, while Lém was not the innocent victim he appeared to be, it was later concluded that his execution had been a war crime. It was far from the only one committed by American and South Vietnamese forces—just a few months later, on March 16, American troops killed somewhere between 347 and 504 civilians in what came to be known as the My Lai Massacre. “Saigon Execution,” as Adams titled his photo, became a symbol of all that was wrong with American involvement in the war and won the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography for 1969. Four years later, another AP photographer would win the prize for a similar photo, “Terror of War,” which depicted terrified children fleeing after the South Vietnamese air force mistakenly attacked their village with napalm.
READ MORE: Vietnam War Timeline