On this day in history, 1 February 1968, Nguyễn Văn Lém, was executed, while handcuffed, by General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, South Vietnam’s Chief of Police, in this image captured by Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams.
The infamous Tet Offensive, launched Jan 30th, 1968, was the largest engagement during the American involvement in Vietnam and a major propaganda victory for the Vietnamese
Communists and North Vietnamese People’s Army of Vietnam despite the tactical victory for the coalition of anti communist forces in SouthEast Asia.
Huế, Khe Shan … Walter Cronkite calling the war “unwinnable” … and this image you’ve no doubt seen … it helped galvanize the U.S. Anti-Vietnam War movement across America. Young people at universities engaged in a “sit in”, protestors in front of the White House, a resounding American defeat haunting our military for the next 25 years until the victory over Saddam Hussein and Iraq during the First Gulf War in the early 1990s … the memories of the baby boomers who lived through this war, America’s first defeat, captured in a single image … an image winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1969.
Nguyễn Văn Lém, in the first days of the Tet Offensive, led a group of non-uniformed combatants targeting South Vietnamese National Police and was captured at a mass grave containing the bodies of family members of national police members.
General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, playing the role of judge, jury, and executioner was not the American way. The still image of Lém’s execution could be viewed over and over again and became engrained in the minds of Americans wondering why our soldiers were fighting this war in such a foreign place, so far away from home, against an enemy who didn’t play by the rules of war, and our allies, the South Vietnamese, taking such gruesome action … Hell no, we don’t your fucking war …. became an anthem over the next several years in the United States.
Nearly 40 years later, in 2016, it seems foreign to protest America’s involvement in foreign wars, foreign to have anything less than complete and total support for our troops abroad. The nearly 3 million troops who served in Vietnam, whether by choice or by draft, deserve to be remembered. Honored. Because in another 100 years, America’s involvement in SouthEast Asia from 1946-1975 will be the forgotten war, brushed over in history books like the War of 1812, because for some reason we like to teach our children a “winner’s history”. How do you teach your children you won the War of 1812 when the opposing army burned down the building where your president lived and the building where your congress met?