So often the story of Viet Nam is told from a singular point of view. Only part of the story is told, and that part impacts people’s lives in multiple negative ways because the truth is not known. One of the most impactful photographs of the 2nd Indochina War is the famous Eddie Adams photograph of Brig. General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing Bay Hop.
When this photograph hit the front page of the New York Times there was universal outrage. The brutality of the act repelled people. The New York Times continued to condemn Loan’s actions after he became a US citizen. Not once did they ever mention what Bay Hop had done to deserve execution.
However, what the media didn’t report might have completely changed the reaction of people worldwide. Had they published this picture, the execution of Bay Hop might have been put in a different context and changed the reaction to the photo of his execution.
The caption under the photo explains the scene. Before Bay Hop was executed, he and his fellow Viet Cong executed an entire family because the father, Lt. Col. Nguyen Tuan, refused to give them information they wanted. Lt. Col. Tuan was decapitated, and his wife and six children were murdered with machineguns.
Bay Hop was the leader of that operation and was captured and executed shortly after for the murders. Before his capture, he used civilians as a human shield, the second war crime he had committed that day. (The first was the murders of the Tuan family.)
Brig. General Nguyen Ngoc Loan’s execution of Bay Hop, although brutal, was legal under international law. Assassins in civilian clothes do not enjoy any of the protections of international law and are subject to immediate execution if captured.
This story is a microcosm of what went on in Vietnam. The communists routinely committed war crimes yet the media seldom reported them. The legal actions taken by the South Vietnamese and their allies, however, were often described as war crimes and routinely criticized as inhumane. This perspective affected the way people worldwide thought about the war and the actions of the South Vietnamese and their allies.