Shedding Some Light On Another Picture That Became An Antiwar Icon
Excerpt from the book Vietnam Insights: Logic of Involvement and Unconventional Perspectives by James M. Griffiths
An incident that occurred during the Tet Offensive of 1968 probably created the longest lasting image of the horror and brutality of the Vietnam War. Vietnamese National Police chief Gen. Nguyen Loc Loan executed Vietcong prisoner Bay Lop in the streets of Saigon by placing a .38 to his head and pulling the trigger. This was done in the full view of the cameras. The still photograph taken by photographer Eddie Adams was flashed worldwide and won Adams a Pulitzer Prize. The film of the incident was broadcast to 20 million Americans on The Huntley-Brinkley Report on February 2, 1968.
This incident had a great impact on U.S. public opinion. A U.S. high school textbook of 1995 describes it this way, accompanied by the famous picture:
Particularly alarming was the savage flavor that the war had taken on. In the midst of the fighting , television cameras recorded the sight of a captured Vietcong guerrilla being led up to a South Vietnamese police officer on a downtown Saigon street. The officer pulled out his pistol and shot the young soldier through the head, leaving him lying dead with his blood gushing onto the street. No single image did more to create feeling among Americans that Vietnam was an immoral conflict.21
This incident does show the horror and brutality of war, but it is examined in this book for another reason. As horrible as the incident was, its brutality then and for the most part up to the present day has been portrayed as unprovoked . What the textbook of today does is repeat the errors of omission that occurred during the reporting of the event at the time.
Photographer Adams later said that he talked to Loan and Loan said "They killed many of my men and many of your people."22 Adams continued referring to the executed Vietcong: "They found out that he was the same guy who killed one of his ---uh---Loans officers and wiped out his whole family.23 Adams also expressed regret for what the photograph had done to Loans life.
It seemed to be a truism of the war that U.S. and South Vietnamese actions such as these were banner headlines and even framed in a worse light than they actually were while enemy actions of this nature went unreported . This phenomenon continues through more recent times.
A story in Time Magazine in 1993 rehashes the incident, then adds: "A quarter-century later, the victims widow, Nguyen Than Lop, 60, lives in a decrepit house on the outskirts of what is now called Ho Chi Minh City. For a decade after the war, she and her three children were homeless. The Vietnamese provided shelter only after a Japanese TV crew found her living in a field."24 A reader of the article cannot escape the message that this is somehow Americas fault.
As for the executed Vietcong, the article says: "The fate of Lop, a captured Vietcong captain, was a starkly dramatic moment in a nationwide battle that lasted 25 days and was fought in more than 100 cities, towns, and military bases."25 Given all the peripheral information surrounding the mention of Lop, it is interesting that what Lop had done prior to his execution is still omitted.
The picture is shown in the February 15,1993 issue of Time as well as on Times front cover on April 5, 1993, as part of a cross and bearing the title " The Generation That Forgot God." The picture is also featured in the introductory segment of every videotape in the series The Vietnam War With Walter Cronkite . Millions of people have seen the picture and millions will continue to see it in the future without the slightest idea of the context of the circumstances that surrounded the event. These millions will continue to have an incomplete understanding of this brutal image that became an antiwar icon.
Part of the Cronkite series is the episode called "The Tet Offensive." In this segment, the incident of General Loan , killing the Vietcong captive is shown in full color. It is narrated by CBS newsman John Lawrence, who says "The military commander of the operation to secure Saigon, General Nguyen Loc Loan, arrives for an inspection. General Loan gets special attention from the troops. He often leads his national police in action, and last week he showed them just how tough he is by shooting and killing a prisoner in cold blood."26
While the circumstances surrounding the incident may or may not have been known with the original broadcast in 1968, they surely were when the series was produced by CBS in 1985. CBS News and Walter Cronkite apparently felt that the circumstances surrounding the event were not relevant information to be recorded in its version of history.
CBS News is not alone in portraying the incident in this way. Most accounts of the event portray it as an unprovoked, summary execution of a prisoner of war.
THE QUESTION IS WHY?
1. James M. Griffiths, Vietnam Insights: Logic of Involvement and Unconventional Perspectives (New York: Vantage Press, 2000)
21Carol Berkin et. Al., American Voices, A History of the United States, (Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman, 1995) p. 749
22Eddie Adams in William Stearnman, videotape,Televisions Vietnam (Washington, D.C.:Accuracy in Media, 1985)
24Richard Hornik, "Good Morning Vietnam," Time Magazine, February 15 1993, p.42.
26. John Lawrence in the Vietnam War With Walter Cronkite, "The Tet Offensive" (New York: CBS News, 1985)