Feb 1, 1968. There were a lot of pictures taken during the Vietnam War-those of burning monks, fallen soldiers and whirling helicopters. But this picture by Eddie Adams is the one that defined the conflict and changed history. In the sharp contrast with Capa’s Falling Solider, personalities and identities did matter a lot in this picture. Amazingly, the picture that polarized the American public and shown the personal nature of the Vietnam War 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 almost dehumanizing to personally witness the execution, no matter what the victim had done. It mattered a little that the person about to be executed was a Viet Cong Guerrilla named Bay Hop responsible for killing twelve only that fateful morning. It matter a little that his group of guerillas had slaughtered the family of his executioner’s best friend in a house just up the road. America–a nation that still supports death penalty by overwhelming numbers (for various reasons)–was shocked to its core. In the picture, its framing, its lighting and its depth mattered little. For instance, picture was cropped again and again just to display the general and his victim. However, the act, ‘the thing itself’ spoke directly–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.
In Adams’s photograph, we see Loan firing a bullet point blank into Hop’s head; Hop, wincing, appears to be receiving the bullet. Ironically enough, it has been argued that Ngoc Loan was only interested in publicly assassinating the Viet Cong prisoner because there were AP press corps there to capture the image. For him, the photographic evidence of the execution was meant to teach the Vietcong what would happen to their forces if caught.
The photograph was published on the front page of the New York Times and, along with the NBC film of the same event, is 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 his desire not to pursue a second term.
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.”