Mediating the cold war
Media framing and the vietnam war
The impact of one photo
Dutch and American newspapers had different ways of framing the famous Vietnam War photo “Execution in Saigon”. This photo was taken in 1968 by American photographer Eddie Adams during the first days of the Tet Offensive, a surprise attack by the Vietcong on several South Vietnamese cities. The exact moment Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the head of the National Police, executes a Vietcong member, Nguyen Van Lem, on the streets of Saigon is captured on camera. It showed the moment the bullet entered Nguyen Van Lem’s head and the photo was published by many newspapers around the world. It even won the World Press Photo that year. Several newspapers will be further discussed in this section with the aid of video and text.
Exploring the photograph
Image: “Execution in Saigon”. AP Photo/Eddie Adams 1968. Audio: Loes Koenders.
Het Algemeen Dagblad published the photo on February 2, 1968. It was part of a broader article titled “Heavy fighting in Saigon continues: Vietcong strengthens itself.” The text underneath “Execution in Saigon” was the following:
“The head of the national police of South Vietnam, brigade general Nguyen Ngoc Loan, singlehandedly executes a Vietcong officer, who was captured yesterday during fights in Saigon. “They killed many Americans and many of my people,” declared the general after the execution.”
The photo was accompanied by another horrifying photo of a South Vietnamese officer holding a murdered family member in his arms. The same form of framing can be seen in De Telegraaf, which uses the same combination of photos. However, the later also includes the following text under the photo: “Because of the merciless political killings, the situation got so heated that brigade general Nguyen Ngoc Loan shoots a Vietcong officer with his revolver.” This description is very interesting, because to a degree, it appears to justify the execution.
Het Vrije Volk, a socialist newspaper, takes a radically different approach. They published the photo together with photos of murdered Vietcong fighters. This has the opposite effect and makes the execution look even worse. They used the following text:
“Without any form of trial, the head of the South Vietnamese police, brigade general Nguyen Ngoc Loan shoots a captured Vietcong officer in the head. The reason the brigade general gave for the personal execution was: “The Vietcong has killed many Americans and many of my people”.”
The text does not differ enormously from the other texts, but framing through images is the main form of framing in this case. The images that they included make it seem as if there was only violence from the South Vietnamese side, which is extremely one-sided.
“Vietcong versterkt zich.” Algemeen Handelsblad, February 2, 1968. Delpher.
“Strijd zonder genade.” De Telegraaf, February 2, 1968. Delpher.
Cabanes, Barnard-Joseph. “Hanoi is meer dan ooit tot vrede bereid.” Het Vrije Volk, February 2, 1968. Delpher.
American newspapers used stronger terms while describing this photo. The United States was a participant in the Vietnam War, unlike the Netherlands, which is one of the reasons for this.
The Los Angeles Times published a thorough description of the photo: “The Viet Cong grimaces at the impact of the bullet in picture caught by Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams. Loan explained to the newsmen that he was embittered by the Viet Cong killings of civilians.” The title of the article, “10,500 Reds Killed”, is very telling. It immediately indicated who the enemy is. This does not offer a fair assessment of the event.
The Washington Post’s article is already more “colored” in terms of wording. They write about the Vietcong killings of South Vietnamese officers and their families. This shifts away blame from Nguyen Ngoc Loan.
The New York Times uses strong terms in their article. The title of their article, “Street clashes go on in Vietnam, foe still holds part of the city”, makes it clear to the reader who the enemy is. Just like several Dutch newspapers, they include other photos of murdered South Vietnamese officials and their families. The “Execution in Saigon” photo is described: “GUERRILLA DIES: Brig. Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, national police chief, executes man identified as a Vietcong terrorist in Saigon. He wore civilian dress and had a pistol.” This description leaves no doubt as to who the bad guy is.
“10,500 Reds Killed, S. Viet Carnage.” Los Angeles Times, February 2, 1968. Koninklijke Bibliotheek.
“Execution.” Washington Post, February 2, 1968. Koninklijke Bibliotheek.
Mohr, Charles. “Streets Clashes Go on in Vietnam, Foe Still Holds Parts of Cities.” New York Times, February 2, 1968. Koninklijke Bibliotheek.