Politics & Policy

There Are Tears in My Eyes.

Eddie Adams & the Most Famous Photo of the Vietnam War

“THERE ARE TEARS IN MY EYES.”

CNN has a new program called Dying to Tell the Story. It’s a show dedicated to the journalists who gave or risked their lives to get the story out. I haven’t seen it, but they are running ads for it pretty steadily. You can get the feel for what they’re doing right away. They are laying another layer of treacle and hagiography on the press corps. Protectors of the first amendment who are willing to give their lives in defense of your right to know, or some other comic book drivel. CNN is part of that whole Freedom Forum cult which is trying to make journalism some sort of secular priesthood.

#ad#Go out to the Freedom Forum’s “Newseum” in Arlington, Virginia and you’ll see a lot of very interesting stuff about the press — old headlines, big TVs (gotta love really big TVs) and some great photography — but you will also see a celebration of journalists as a special caste. The press is so self-serving that we do not need to make these people martyrs to a great cause. My guess is that more Peace Corps volunteers have died digging wells than journalists “dying to tell the story.”

Since I haven’t seen the program yet, I don’t want to jump the gun. But, as I say, I have seen the commercial. There are some powerful images in it. There’s a shot of a man on fire. I don’t know the back story, but one wonders if it reminded anyone else of the cameramen who filmed a burning man until they were sure they got the shot before they put him out.

But the really disturbing image is of Nguyen Ngoc Loan shooting a man. Everybody has seen this picture or the film of the incident. A cruel and angry South Vietnamese General executes what appears to be a defenseless Vietcong prisoner. Eddie Adams, The AP photographer who snapped the photo, earned a Pulitzer Prize for the picture. That picture helped galvanize the anti-war effort in the United States. Hubert Humphrey, at the time the photo was taken, was on the verge of challenging President Johnson for the Democratic nomination for president. The photo (and subsequent NBC film) helped stir sentiment to the point that Johnson announced he would not seek a second term only two months later. It is one of the most powerful icons for everything that was supposedly wrong with that war. It is precisely the sort of professional coup that a reporter who’s “Dying to Tell the Story” dreams of getting.

Except Eddie Adams wishes he never took the picture.

After the photo was seen around the world, the AP assigned Adams to hang out with General Loan. He discovered that Loan was a beloved hero in Vietnam, to his troops and the citizens. “He was fighting our war, not their war, our war, and every — all the blame is on this guy,” Adams told NPR (in what may have been the most surprisingly courageous NPR interview I’ve ever heard). Adams learned that Loan fought for the construction of hospitals in South Vietnam and unlike the popular myths, demonstrated the fact that at least some South Vietnamese soldiers really did want to fight for their country and way of life.

Just moments before that photo had been taken, several of his men had been gunned down. One of his soldiers had been at home, along with the man’s wife and children. The Vietcong had attacked during the holiday of Tet, which had been agreed upon as a time for a truce. As it turned out, many of the victims of the NC and North Vietnamese were defenseless. Some three thousand of them were discovered in a mass grave outside of Hue after the Americans reoccupied the area. The surprise invasion, turned out to be a military disaster for the Vietcong, but a huge strategic victory because of its effect on American resolve.

But at the time, all of this was irrelevant to people like Loan. It was an ugly, shocking assault. The execution of the prisoner was a reprisal. It was an ugly thing to be sure, but wars, civil wars especially, are profoundly ugly things.

Adams 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?’”

The picture that Adams took, the picture that CNN thinks is such an atrocious and ignoble deed, ruined Loan’s life. More to the point, it didn’t expand on “our right to know.” It didn’t answer questions, or give us the story. It deceived. It gave no context. It confirmed the biases of the anti-war journalists, and they used it to further their agenda.

Loan fled Vietnam during the fall of Saigon for the US. He eventually moved to Burke, Virginia. He tried to open a restaurant in Northern Virginia, but when the identity of its owner became known, it closed down. Protestors circled the establishment venting their fashionable, safe, outrage.

The two men stayed in touch, and Adams tried to apologize many times.

“He was very sick, you know, he had cancer for a while,” he told NPR. “And I talked to him on the phone and I wanted to try to do something, explaining everything and how the photograph destroyed his life and he just wanted to try to forget it. He said let it go. And I just didn’t want him to go out this way.”

General Loan died a year and a month ago. He left a wife and five kids. Most of the obituaries were, like the photograph that ruined his life, two dimensional and unforgiving. Adams sent flowers with a card that read, “I’m sorry. There are tears in my eyes.”

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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