Feb 1, 1968.
There were a lot of pictures taken during the Vietnam War-those of burning monks, fallen soldiers and whirling helicopters. But the photo above by Eddie Adams of a public execution is the one that defined the conflict. Ironically, the picture that shocked the American public and brought home the personal nature of the conflict in Indochina did not involved any Americans. It was the gunshot heard all over the world; Italian photographer and designer Oliviero Toscani compared it to Caravaggio’s 1598 painting, “Judith Beheading Holofernes.”
It is dehumanizing to personally witness the execution, no matter what the victim had done. The person about to be executed was a Vietcong Guerrilla named Bay Hop responsible for killing twelve only that fateful morning. Pretending to be a civilian, he had just cut the throats of South Vietnamese lieutenant colonel, his wife, their six children, and the colonel’s 80-year-old mother. His group of guerillas had also slaughtered the family of his executioner’s best friend in a house just up the road.
America was shocked to its core: the general is the personification of America’s hidden hand and her dirty involvement in the Vietnam Quagmire. The fact that the executioner was American-educated and trained Brig. General Nguyen Ngoc Loan (then South Vietnam’s National Chief of Police) did not help either.
On that fateful day — a couple days after the beginning of the Tet Offensive — Eddie Adams and NBC News television cameraman Vo Suu were walking the streets of Saigon when they saw what they thought to be a street interrogation. Adams remembered: “”He was a small barefooted man in civilian clothes with his hands tied behind his back. I ran up just to be close by in case something happened.”
As they began to photograph and film, the general walked up, raised his pistol and summarily fired a bullet into the prisoner’s head. Hop, wincing, appeared to be receiving the bullet. It was argued that the general was only interested in publicly executing the Viet Cong prisoner because there was the press there to capture the moment. For him, the photographic evidence of the execution was meant to teach the Vietcong what would happen to their forces if caught.
Immediately the next day the photograph on the front pages above the fold of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. The photo along with the NBC film of the same event, was credited with having provoked the civilian outrage that lead to massive demonstrations against the war. Although the above photo was not as graphically violent an ending as shown by the television footage of the same incident, for many viewers, the picture was a climactic moment, proclaiming the horror and immorality of the war, signifying its barbarity and its incoherence.
Within two months, President Johnson would be announcing he would not pursue a second term.