During WW2, the average infantry soldier saw 40 days of combat, in 4 years. In Vietnam, the average combat infantryman saw 240 days of combat, in a year.
By 1967, the Johnson administration was coming under increasing criticism, for what many of the American public saw as an endless and pointless stalemate in Vietnam.
Opinion polls revealed an increasing percentage believed it was a mistake to send more troops into Vietnam, their number rising from 25% in 1965, to 45% by December, 1967.
The Johnson administration responded with a “success offensive”, emphasizing “kill ratios” and “body counts” of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters. Vice President Hubert Humphrey stated on NBC’s Today show that November, that “We are on the offensive. Territory is being gained. We are making steady progress.”
In Communist North Vietnam, the massive battlefield losses of 1966-’67 combined with the economic devastation wrought by US Aerial bombing, causing moderate factions to push for peaceful coexistence with the south. More radical factions favoring military reunification on the Indochina peninsula, needed to throw a “hail Mary” pass. Plans for a winter/spring offensive began, in early 1967. By the New Year, some 80,000 Communist fighters had quietly infiltrated the length and breadth of South Vietnam.
One of the largest military operations of the war launched on January 30, 1968, coinciding with the Tết holiday, the Vietnamese New Year. In the first wave of attacks, North Vietnamese troops and Viet Cong Guerillas struck over 100 cities and towns, including Saigon, the South Vietnamese capitol.
Initially taken off-guard, US and South Vietnamese forces regrouped and beat back the attacks, inflicting heavy losses on North Vietnamese forces. The month-long battle for Huế (“Hway”) uncovered the massacre of as many as 6,000 South Vietnamese by Communist forces, 5-10% of the entire city. Fighting continued for over two months at the US combat base at Khe Sanh.
While the Tết offensive was a military defeat for the forces of North Vietnam, the political effects on the American public, were profound. Support for the war effort plummeted, leading to demonstrations. Jeers could be heard in the streets. “Hey! Hey! LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?”
Lyndon Johnson’s Presidency, was finished. The following month, Johnson appeared before the nation in a televised address, saying “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”
In the early morning darkness of February 1, 1968, Nguyễn Văn Lém led a Viet Cong sabotage unit in an assault on the Armor base in Go Vap. After taking control of the camp, Nguyễn arrested Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Tuan with his family, demanding that the officer show his guerillas how to drive tanks. The officer refused, and the Viet Cong slit his throat, along with those of his wife and six children, and his 80-year-old mother.
The only survivor was a grievously injured 10-year-old boy.
Nguyễn was captured later that morning, near the mass grave of 34 civilians. He said he was “proud” to have carried out orders to kill them.
AP photographer Eddie Adams was out on the street with NBC News television cameraman Võ Sửu, looking for something interesting. The pair saw a group of South Vietnamese soldiers dragging what appeared to be an ordinary man into the road, and filmed the event.
Adams “…followed the three of them as they walked towards us, making an occasional picture. When they were close – maybe five feet away – the soldiers stopped and backed away. I saw a man walk into my camera viewfinder from the left. He took a pistol out of his holster and raised it. I had no idea he would shoot. It was common to hold a pistol to the head of prisoners during questioning. So I prepared to make that picture – the threat, the interrogation. 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. I made a picture at the same time.”
The man with the pistol was Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, Chief of the national police. Loan had personally witnessed the murder of one of his officers, along with the man’s wife and three small children.
Nguyễn Văn Lém was guilty of major war crimes. He was out of uniform and not involved in combat, when he murdered the General’s own subordinates and their families. The man was a war criminal and terrorist with no protections under the Geneva Conventions, legally eligible for summary execution.
Loan drew his .38 Special Smith & Wesson “Bodyguard” revolver and fired. The execution was barely a blip on his radar screen.
General Nguyễn was a devoted Patriot and South Vietnamese Nationalist. An accomplished pilot who led an airstrike on Việt Cộng forces at Bo Duc in 1967, Loan was loved and admired by his soldiers.
In February 1968, hard fighting yet remained to retake the capitol. As always, Nguyễn Ngọc Loan was leading from the front, when a machine gun burst tore into his leg.
Meanwhile, Adams’ “Saigon Execution” photograph and Võ’s footage made their way into countless papers and news broadcasts. Stripped of context, General Nguyễn came to be seen as a “bloodthirsty sadist”, the Viet Cong terrorist his “innocent victim”.
Adams was well on his way to winning a Pulitzer prize for that photograph, while an already impassioned anti-war movement, lost the power of reason.
The political outcry reached all the way to Australia, where General Nguyễn was recuperating from his amputation. An Australian hospital refused him treatment, and he traveled to America, to recover.
American politics looked inward in the years to come, as the Nixon administration sought the “Vietnamization” of the war. By January 1973, direct US involvement in the war, had come to an end.
Military aid to South Vietnam was $2.8 billion in fiscal year 1973. The US Congress placed a Billion dollar ceiling on the number the following year, cutting that to $300 million, in 1975. The Republic of Vietnam collapsed, some fifty-five days later.
General Nguyễn was forced to flee the country he had served. American immigration authorities sought deportation on his arrival, in part because of Eddie Adams’ picture. The photographer was recruited to testify against the General, but Adams spoke on his behalf.
Nguyễn was permitted to stay. He and his wife opened a pizza shop in the Rolling Valley Mall of Virginia, “Les Trois Continents”. The restaurant was a success for a time, until word got out about the owner’s identity. Knowing nothing about Nguyễn except for that image, locals began to make trouble. Business plummeted as the owner was assaulted in his own restaurant, his life threatened.
The last time Adams visited Nguyễn’s pizza parlor, the words “We know who you are, fucker“, were scrawled across a toilet wall.
The couple was forced to close the restaurant in 1991. Nguyễn Ngọc Loan died of cancer, seven years later.
Eddie Adams won his Pulitzer in 1969, but came to regret that he had ever taken the picture. Years later he wrote in Time Magazine. ‘The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths. What the photograph didn’t say was, “What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American soldiers?”‘
Before Nguyễn died, Adams apologized to the General and his family, for what that image had done to the man’s reputation. “The guy was a hero”, he said, after his death. “America should be crying. I just hate to see him go this way, without people knowing anything about him.”