Was South Vietnam Police Chief Nguyen Ngoc Loan A Bad Guy?

February 1, 1968 Saigon Police chief Nguyen Ngoc Loan shoots  Vietcong i
The picture that changed history. February 1, 1968. Saigon Police chief Nguyen Ngoc Loan shoots a Vietcong in the head.
One look at the image and most of say, "Of course, he was a bad guy. Shooting that poor thin Vietnamese man in cold blood". But the reality is different.....

First some background. 1968. Vietnam. With North Vietnam’s Tet Offensive beginning, Nguyen Ngoc Loan, South Vietnam’s national police chief, was doing all he could to keep Viet Cong guerrillas from Saigon. As Loan executed a prisoner who was said to be a Viet Cong captain, AP photographer Eddie Adams opened the shutter. Adams won a Pulitzer Prize for a picture that, as much as any, turned public opinion against the war.


And the so-called "poor guy" (Named Nguyen Van Lem) shaking in fear as death is seconds away was no innocent man. He was a hard-core Vietcong militiamen, member of a death squad, who had just killed the the Deputy commander of the South Vietnamese Police and his family (At least eight people) in cold blood.

video

moments before the shooting
Before the killing

moments after shooting
Moments after the shooting

South Vietnamese sources attested that Lem commanded a Vietcong death squad, which on that day had murdered South Vietnamese National Police officers, or in their stead, the police officers' families; these sources said that Lem was captured near the site of a ditch holding as many as thirty-four bound and shot bodies of police and their relatives, some of whom were the families of Loan's deputy, and six of whom were Nguyen's godchildren.

The photo won Adams (The man who shot the famous picture) the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography, though he was later said to have regretted its impact. The image became an anti-war icon. Concerning Loan and his famous photograph, Adams wrote in Time:

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?"

Adams later apologized in person to General Nguyen and his family for the damage it did to his reputation. When Loan died of cancer in Virginia, Adams praised him: "The guy was a hero. America should be crying. I just hate to see him go this way, without people knowing anything about him.".


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MORE ABOUT THE MAN....

One of the 11 children of a prosperous mechanical engineer, Loan was born in Hue. He graduated near the top of his class at the University of Hue and begun a career as a jet pilot in the South Vietnamese Air Force. As a close friend of Nguyen Cao Ky, the swashbuckling pilot who became Premier in 1965, Loan, then a colonel, was put in charge of the national police and gained an immediate reputation among Western reporters for his temper and rages at the scenes of Viet Cong attacks on civilian targets.

Some of those who knew him said General Loan would not have carried out the prisoner execution if reporters and photographers had not been at the scene.

Loan later suggested that the execution had not been the rash act it might have appeared to be but had been carried out because a deputy commander he had ordered to shoot had hesitated. "I think, 'Then I must do it,' " he recounted. "If you hesitate, if you didn't do your duty, the men won't follow you."

Vo Suu, a cameraman at the scene for NBC News, recalled that immediately after the shooting the general had walked over to a reporter and said, "These guys kill a lot of our people, and I think Buddha will forgive me."

When General Loan was severely wounded while charging a Viet Cong hideout three months later and taken to Australia for treatment, there was such an outcry there against him that he was moved to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, where he was repeatedly denounced in Congress.

Back in Saigon, Loan, who had been relieved of his command after having been wounded, seemed a changed man, devoting time to showering presents on orphans. At the fall of Saigon his pleas for American help in fleeing were ignored. But he and his family escaped in a South Vietnamese plane.

After his presence in the United States became known there was a move to deport him as a war criminal. But the efforts fizzled, and Loan, whose right leg had been amputated, settled in northern Virginia, where he eventually opened his pizzeria, which he operated until 1991 when publicity about his past led to a sharp decline in business. As a message scrawled on a restroom wall put it, "We know who you are."









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The 2010 book, This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive, offers a detailed, sympathetic picture of Loan, portraying him as a relatively honest and uncorrupted officer, who cleaned up and stabilized a difficult Saigon security situation. He was also a staunch South Vietnamese nationalist, refusing to give Americans special treatment in his jurisdiction. For example, he rejected the arrest of a Vietnamese mayor by American military police and insisted that only South Vietnamese authorities could arrest and detain South Vietnamese citizens. He also insisted that U.S. civilians, including journalists, fell under South Vietnamese jurisdiction while in Saigon. Loan's uncompromising stand caused him to be regarded as a troublemaker by the Johnson administration. Loan was also skeptical of the U.S. CIA-backed Phoenix Program to attack and neutralize the clandestine Vietcong infrastructure.

This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive by James S Robbins (Pages 94-104, 105-106)

Loan's men were also involved in the arrest of two NLF operatives, who had been engaged in peace feelers with U.S. officials, behind the back of the South Vietnamese. His stand against such "backdoor" dealing, and his opposition to releasing one of the communist negotiators, reportedly angered the Americans, and forced them to keep both him and the South Vietnamese better informed of diplomatic dealings involving their country. Loan was also an accomplished pilot, leading an airstrike on Việt Cộng forces at Bo Duc in 1967, shortly before he was promoted to permanent brigadier general rank. The Americans were displeased at his promotion, and Loan submitted his resignation shortly thereafter.

According to the 2010 book: "It was widely believed that Loan was being forced out by the Americans for exposing their dealings with the VC or that he was taking a stand on principle because the U.S. was trying to compel the government to release [communist envoy] Sau Ha." The South Vietnamese cabinet subsequently rejected Loan's resignation. The United States under the Nixon administration was to later negotiate a separate deal with the North that left communist troops in good tactical position within South Vietnam, and forced acquiescence by the South Vietnamese. Later action by the U.S. Congress was to cut off aid to South Vietnam during the final northern conquest in 1975.

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In the morning of the second day of Tet, January 31st, 1968, when general Nguyen Ngoc Loan was leading a fierce fight near An Quang Pagoda in Saigon's Chinese quarter, two of his officers brought to him a communist cadre who had murdered many innocents in cold-blood in the past couple days. He was Captain Nguyen Van Lem, alias Bay Lop.

Minutes before he was captured, Bay Lop had killed a RVN policeman's wife and all of his family members including his children. Around 4:30 A.M., Nguyen Van Lem led a sabotage unit along with Viet Cong tanks to attack the Armor Camp in Go Vap. After communist troops took control of the base, Bay Lop arrested Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Tuan with his family and forced him to show them how to drive tanks. When Lieutenant Colonel Tuan refused to cooperate, Bay Lop killed all members of his family including his 80-year-old mother. There was only one survivor, a seriously injured 10-year-old boy.

Nguyen Van Lem was captured near a mass grave with 34 innocent civilian bodies. Lem admitted that he was proud to carry out his unit leader's order to kill these people. Lem was in his shorts and shirt. His arms were tied from the back. The pistol was still in his possession. General Loan executed Nguyen Van Lem on the spot.



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