The events of 1968 left a deep imprint on the American psyche. At home, urban unrest, assassinations, and political intrigue dominated the news. Abroad, the Vietnam War, Prague Spring, and Paris riots point to the year’s global impact. The Briscoe Center’s collections contain thousands of documents and photographs, as well as other materials, that can help scholars, students and members of the public make sense of this tumultuous year. Check back each month as the story unfolds.
the Tet Offensive
Between 1966 and 1971, Dick Swanson made several trips to Vietnam to photograph the conflict for Life magazine. Upon arriving in January 1968 (he had been evacuated the previous year due to contracting malaria and hepatitis), his first assignment was to cover the battle of Khe Sanh. “It was a one-week assignment, but I stayed longer because I was more afraid of flying out than being mortared on the ground,” recalls Swanson. “Every time a plane landed at the American Khe Sahn base, the North Vietnamese Army mortared the hell out of it trying to hit the plane. Sometimes they succeeded.” Swanson eventually made it out of Khe Sanh and on to Saigon. Within hours of his arrival, the Tet Offensive (named after the lunar new year “Tet” festival) had begun with a series of attacks in the South Vietnamese capitol. The U.S. Embassy was especially targeted.
“I finally understood what ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’ meant,” remembers Swanson. “The Life magazine villa was right behind the embassy, so when the Viet Cong blew a hole in the embassy wall they also blew the windows out of the villa and me out of bed . . . I was one of the first journalists to get to the embassy.”
The surprise offensive was eventually repelled by U.S. and South Vietnamese forces, but not without heavy losses on both sides. Comprehensively covered by the American news media, the offensive sapped public support for U.S. involvement in Vietnam, a war that seemed increasingly unwinnable. Swanson captured the fierce fighting of the offensive as well as its aftermath of civilian suffering.
“It was a time when I bonded with Germaine, my wife of 49 years. She was a stringer working for Time-Life, and we navigated the fighting in Saigon together. I remember photographing field hospitals and makeshift morgues in schools, witnessing civilian casualties firsthand. She gathered information for my captions,” recalls Swanson. “I concentrated primarily on the photography, but for Germaine, the enormity of the situation, seeing her homeland torn up like that, was deeply tragic. We were married the following year, and in my own flawed way I’ve been trying to make up ever since for my blindness to her feelings.”
"If you hesitate, if you didn't do your duty, the men won't follow you." This was South Vietnamese Brigadier General Nguyen Ngoc Loan's blunt defense, offered immediately after shooting North Vietnamese guerilla captain Nguyen Van Lem in February 1968.
The scene was captured by Eddie Adams, a photojournalist for the Associated Press who covered over 150 combat missions in Vietnam. On assignment in Saigon during the Tet Offensive, Adams recalled seeing two South Vietnamese soldiers escorting a prisoner through the streets.
"They walked him [Lem] down to the street corner. We were taking pictures. He turned out to be a Viet Cong lieutenant. And out of nowhere came this guy [Loan] who we didn't know. I was about five feet away and he pulled out his pistol." Adams captured the exact moment where, according to ballistic experts, the bullet from Loan's gun entered Lem's body. "He shot him in the head and walked away," Adams recalled. "Then he walked by us and said, 'They killed many of my men and many of our people.'"
For Loan, the shooting was an act of justice: The Viet Cong captain had just murdered a South Vietnamese colonel (and friend of Loan's) along with his wife and their six children. But according to Adams, the photo destroyed Loan's life. "Two people died in that photograph," Adams wrote in 1998. "The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera."
"Photography by its nature is selective," says Hal Buell, one of Adams's former editors who was recently interviewed by the BBC. "It isolates a single moment, divorcing that moment from the moments before and after that possibly lead to adjusted meaning."
Adams, too, was well aware of how his photograph was more complicated than what on the surface appears to simply be a cruel, callous act of violence. "If you're this man, this general, and you just caught this guy after he killed some of your people . . .. How do you know you wouldn't have pulled that trigger yourself? You have to put yourself in that situation . . . it's a war."
Adams was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the photograph, and the American antiwar movement adopted the photograph as a symbol of the excesses of the conflict. However, it troubled Adams that the image became synonymous with his body of work. His career was diverse, spanning four decades and including many other images and projects of which he was far prouder.
According to Buell's interview, the image "in one frame, symbolizes the full war's brutality. . . . Like all icons, it summarizes what has gone before, captures a current moment and, if we are smart enough, tells us something about the future brutality all wars promise."
LBJ announces he will not seek reelection
President Lyndon Johnson’s March 31 decision not to seek reelection was a surprise of seismic significance to the American political landscape of 1968. Harry McPherson, whose papers are housed at the Briscoe Center, was a special counsel to the president and his chief speechwriter. He played a pivotal role in drafting Johnson’s March 31 speech.
"Kennedy's nomination or Nixon's election, or both"
Johnson’s lackluster performance in the New Hampshire Democratic primary (narrowly defeating Sen. Eugene McCarthy) led to Sen. Robert Kennedy joining the fray on March 12. Both Kennedy and McCarthy opposed the Vietnam War. Since traveling to Vietnam in 1967, McPherson had become convinced that Vietnam would end Johnson’s presidency. On March 23, he wrote a candid memo to Johnson on the president’s political prospects: “I think the course we seem to be taking now will lead either to Kennedy's nomination or Nixon's election, or both,’ wrote McPherson. “He [Kennedy] will try to occupy the same relation to you that his brother Jack occupied to the Eisenhower-Nixon Administration: imagination and vitality vs staleness and weariness . . . hope of change vs more of the status quo. We will be defending our programs: he will be attacking the tired bureaucrats who run them.”
Johnson Changes the Script
Johnson had begun private discussions with his family and confidants about the possibility of not seeking reelection in the fall of 1967. McPherson was aware of these discussions, but was caught off guard by Johnson’s insistence that it be announced at the end of a televised national address about the Vietnam War, scheduled for March 31. McPherson’s draft announced a moratorium on the bombing of North Vietnam except around the demilitarized zone, as well as further military expenditures and troop deployments. The draft portrayed Johnson as, “a free man, an American, a public servant, and a member of my party, in that order always and only.” It also echoed Lincoln’s famous “house divided” speech from 1858: “There is division in the American house now.” While Johnson mostly stuck to the script, he had the teleprompter add several self-penned lines to the end. Johnson only informed McPherson at the last minute. “I'm very sorry, Mr. President,” was McPherson’s exasperated response, “very sorry.”
"I shall not seek, and I will not accept"
Johnson’s speech ended, “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President. But let men everywhere know, however, that a strong and a confident and a vigilant America stands ready tonight to seek an honorable peace; and stands ready tonight to defend an honored cause, whatever the price, whatever the burden, whatever the sacrifice that duty may require. Thank you for listening. Good night and God bless all of you.”
McPherson went on to successful lobbying career in Washington. His papers include memos and speech drafts to President Johnson; drafts of his 1972 memoir, A Political Education; and clippings from his service on the 1979 presidential commission that investigated the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. His papers came to the Briscoe Center in 2014.