Friday, February 4, 2011

What did General Nguyen Ngoc Loan really say on February 1, 1968?

It started with a letter to the editor I read in the San Antonio Express News whereby a reader felt that what  columnist, Patrick Brady, had wrote "is indistinguishable from the viral e-mails on the Internet that don't have to adhere to professional or ethical standards."

Now Patric Brady is no ordinary columnist, he is a retired two star General, a Medal of Honor winner, and a Vietnam vet.  So two days later, I read a different column written by the General called "Despite reports of the day, Tet battle was American victory" which has in it a statement of first-hand knowledge that just did not look factual to me.
Gen. William Westmoreland asked me to go to Vietnam and meet with Giap to arrange a documentary wherein Giap agreed to declare Tet the communist calamity it was. I met with Giap, but we never got the film done.
Now like I said in my post written about this, I don't know really anything about Tet other than it was in Vietnam and happened during the war.  So I went looking for an answer to my question: did General Giap really say that?

I went looking because General Brady had two days prior been called out for presenting "demonstrably false information to the public."  Could this also be another case of false information passed of as factual?  Surely not from a two star General, twice in a span of two weeks, and in a major newspaper to boot.

The internet is an interesting place.  It is filled with information, most of it a regurgitation of someone else's work, or heavily skewed to present a particular point of view.  But in and amongst all this bad stuff, if you look hard enough, you will find enough information to lead you to a clearer picture of an event.

I learned a lot about Tet.  I also came away understanding that it was not a victory for the communists, in fact, what they wanted to happen, a mass uprising of the people, did not take place.  I also came away convinced that Walter Cronkite did not lose the war for us, and, as Oliver North said in his show, Vietnam was "a very uncivil, civil war."  I also came across a website that made me suspect that, like in General Brady's previous column, his comments about General Giap were indistinguishable from the viral e-mail shown on the site.

And in the course of looking at one website after another on Tet and General Giap, one particular event kept getting mentioned over and over again as well.  That was the photo by Eddie Adams.

And when I began to read about it, I came across a number of statements attributed to Eddie Adams that just did not ring authentic.  In particular:
He was a good guy.  He was fighting for America with America.  I think he was a goddamn hero.
Really?  A hero?  Well I found out through researching Adams that this was indeed a true statement regarding Nguyen Ngoc Loan, who was chief of South Vietnam’s national police and is the one seen pulling out the pistol and shooting the man.  I also found something else out; context matters.

I have spent the last couple of days learning as much as I could about Eddie Adams' photograph that first day of February, 1968.  When you read all the things written about what took place, and you see the subtle changes to the story, when you see quoted statements attributed to Adams that do not convey what he was trying to get across, and then you hear the man yourself - in his own words - well it's a real disservice to the man.  One I hope to correct some of this with my next post.

The journey down this road continues....

Wikipedia got me started on this, they cited the New York Times, and just to show you I am serious about getting my facts correct, I went to the library and got a copy of that particular front page of February 2nd, 1968:

So here is what I can confirm in the Wikipedia article on Eddie Adams so far:  The statement: "John G. Morris recalls that; (Theodore M. Bernstein), "determined that the brutality manifested by America's ally be put into perspective, agreed to run the Adams picture large, but offset with a picture of a child slain by Vietcong, which conveniently came through from AP at about the same time". Nonetheless, it is Adams's photograph that is remembered while the other far less dramatic image was overlooked and soon forgotten" appears to be a true accounting.

During this journey I also began to notice a difference in what General Loan is quoted as saying after he shot Nguyen Van Lam that day.  So I went out looking.  So what exactly did Loan tell Adams immediately following the execution?  Here is what I have been able to uncover:
  • "They killed many Americans and many of our people" (New York Times, Feb 2, 1968)
  • "'They killed many of your people and many of my men." (Adams heard on one NPR story)
  • "They killed many Americans and many of my people." (Peter Arnett from his book)
  • "He killed many of my men and many of your people. ( "War Stories with Oliver North)
  • "They killed many of my men and many of your people." (An Unlikely Weapon)
  • "They killed many of our people and many of yours." (NPR story quoting Adams)
  • "They killed many of my people, and yours, too." (Horst Faas, Adams' Editor)
  • "These guys kill a lot of our people, and I think Buddha will forgive me." (Vo Suu, the NBC cameraman with Adams that day)
  •  They killed many Americans and many of my men.  Buddha will understand.  Do you? (Paper soldiers: the American press and the Vietnam War)
  • Many Americans have died recently.  So have many of my best friends.  Buddha will understand.  Do you? (Life Magazine, March 1, 1968)
  • Many Americans have been killed these last few days and many of my best Vietnamise friends.  Now do you understand?  Buddha will understand. (The American culture of war: the history of U.S. military force from World)
  • "Many Americans have died recently, So have many of my best friends. Buddha will understand—do you? (Time, Feb 23, 1968)
  • “These guys kill a lot of our people, and I think Buddha will forgive me.” (NBC Cameraman Vo Suu - The New York Times article on Loan's death - July 16, 1998)
The quote "Many Americans have been killed these last few days and many of my best Vietnamese friends.  Now do you understand?  Buddha will understand." is often cited from a transcript that appears in George A. Bailey and Lawrence W. Lichty, Rough Justice on a Saigon Street: A Gatekeeper Study on NBC's Tet Execution Film," Journalism Quarterly 49:2 (Summer 1972)

David D. Perlmutter an associate professor at the Manship School of Mass Communication, Louisiana State University, and a senior fellow at the Reilly Center for Media and Public Affairs states:
General Loan's own words are variously quoted, but in the most accepted version, he commented to the journalists, “Many Americans have been killed these last few days and many of my best Vietnamese friends. Now do you understand? Buddha will understand.” from Photojournalism and Foreign Affairs, David D. Perlmutter, Orbis Volume 49, Issue 1, Winter 2005, Pages 109-122 
Why do we accept that version and not the one in the New York Times or the one used fairly consistently by Eddie Adams, who was there?  What I find odd is that for such an iconic photo that has been discussed over and over, Dr. Perlmutter has been the only one I have found so far to acknowledge that there are different versions of what Loan said that day.  And what he said exactly is important, getting it right is important.

Why do I write this blog that no one reads, because the search is fun.  Here is a prefect example of what is assumed to be the truth may not be.  General Loan said something, but he did not say it in more than one way.  One of those comments attributed to him is correct, or none of them are, but what is now clear to me, is that at some point, words were added or deleted between Feb 2 and Feb 23.  I find this fascinating.

Today I just sent an email to Dr. Perlmutter


I was wondering if you might provide some insight on this.

The Feb 2, 1968 New York Times on page 12 under the photo titled "DEATH" has General Loan saying "They killed many of Americans and many of our people."  Your 2004 tribute to Adams has the General saying ""Many Americans have been killed these last few days and many of my best Vietnamese friends. Now do you understand? Buddha will understand." 

Adams, in every interview I have listened to, states it as the former.  The version you use is in your 2004 article called "The Myth Behind the Famous Eddie Adams 'Execution' Photo" is attributed to George A. Bailey and Lawrence W. Lichty, Rough Justice on a Saigon Street: A Gatekeeper Study on NBC's Tet Execution Film," Journalism Quarterly 49:2 (Summer 1972).

The version you use is consistent with what the Times article "World: By Book & Bullet" Friday, Feb. 23, 1968  (,9171,837937,00.html) which has General Loan saying ""Many Americans have died recently. So have many of my best friends. Buddha will understand—do you?"

Was General Loan's comment captured on tape or film, or was this recollection of what he said - regarding Buddha understanding - something that was document sometime after the event but prior to the Times Feb 23, 1968 article?

What do you make of these inconsistencies in what was said by General Loan?  I understand that they basically say the same thing, but they are very different in terms of the wording used and the comment about Buddha in one and not in the other.

Thank you,


Kevin said...

I think this story shows desperately important it is to be accurate and fair as a journalist and to listen, because misquoting and attribution mistakes are a huge problem. Still one of the strongest moments ever captured on camera film, I saw a pbs special on that photo, apparently the cameraman caught he like 10 miliseconds or something crazy like that before he pulled the trigger. and ill be honest, I wish i knew what he did was right or wrong, but i guess the past is past in this case, but perhaps not

Jeff said...

Past is prologue. This has been a fascinating journey. It is taking me places I never knew existed. I am also developing a thesis that will not square with what others say happened, want to believe happened, and need to have happened. We will never know the truth, but I think I am getting closer to it.

The problem is that very few people - nobody really - have looked critically at what was said and the context in which it was said. Looked at all the different versions of what Loan said? Two drastically different versions said to two men standing side by side? Why am I the only one that seems to find this odd? I'm not talking semantics here, but a different tone and wording. Odd.

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