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.
Shot rings out in the Memphis sky
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on the evening of April 4, 1968. He was 39 years old. An outstanding orator and a pioneer of nonviolent resistance, King had been at the forefront of the civil rights movement since the mid-1950s. He was shot at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, the night after giving his famous "mountaintop" speech. "The bullet knocked him out of his shoes," recalled Andrew Young earlier this month. "I guess I realized that he never heard the shot and probably never felt it. Dr. King constantly prepared us for his death. He said, 'I know my days are numbered" .
"I may not get there with you"
In the tenth episode of Eyes on the Prize, Paul Stekler and Jacqueline Shearer used footage from King's mountaintop speech and interviewed some of his closest aides, including Andrew Young. Stekler's archives are now part of the Briscoe Center's collections. "Most Americans are familiar with the last 60 seconds of the speech, with its famous declarations 'I've been to the mountaintop' and 'I've seen the promised land.' But the full speech included a call for economic justice in language that portended the man he might have lived to become," said Paul Stekler in a recent Washington Post editorial.
Anger and Grief
King's death led to a tense national atmosphere. President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a national day of mourning on April 7. There were numerous riots across America, including those in Washington, D.C., captured by photographer Steve Northup. “It was the sounds that stuck with me: the unending noise of unanswered alarms, the crunch of glass underfoot, and the constant wail of police and fire sirens,” recalls Northup. "I remember hesitating a bit before entering the grocery store. Eventually, I shrugged to my colleague, Bob Maynard, and we climbed in through a broken storefront window. I’d spent all of 1965 and 1966 covering combat in Vietnam so, my threat assessment was pretty well honed. Bob and I spent the afternoon, wandering about the area. It was a most surreal time, and I went through about all the emotions I knew. At one point, an elderly lady walked in and started shopping! I pointed her out to Bob, who went up to her and said, ‘Little old White Lady, it's dangerous in here.’ Young man, she replied, ‘It's Friday afternoon and I always shop on Friday afternoon.’"
Through his close friendship with King, photographer Flip Schulke became one of the leading chroniclers of the American civil rights movement. In 1965, when Schulke's presence was challenged at a civil rights planning session in Selma, Alabama, King assured his colleagues, "I have known this man for years. . . . I don't care if Flip is purple with yellow polka dots, he is a human being and I know him better than I know a lot of black people. I trust him. He stays and that's it."
Schulke's photographic archive captures the essence of King's public statesmanship, but also the personal sorrow at King's funeral. During the service, a sermon of King's from February 1968 was played: "Say that I was a drum major for justice. . . . Say that I was a drum major for peace. . . . And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won't have any money to leave behind. . . . But I just want to leave a committed life behind." The funeral was followed by two public memorials and a long procession before King was buried in Southview Cemetery, Atlanta.
"I am a man"
Along with Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. has assumed something approaching founding father status in American history. Without a doubt, iconic images of King and the civil rights movement have contributed to that reputation. And yet, Schulke's photographs, many of which have never been publically displayed, provide a uniquely candid view of King's daily life. They show King as a typical father and husband, rather than some mythical American figure.
Resurrection City Incorporated on the National Mall
In May 1968, Resurrection City was "incorporated" on the National Mall, a makeshift encampment that housed activists and protestors as part of the "Poor People’s Campaign." Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had been planning to "lead waves of the nation's poor and disinherited to Washington" since December 1967. "This will be no mere one-day march in Washington, but a trek to the nation's capital by suffering and outraged citizens who will go to stay until some definite and positive action is taken to provide jobs and income for the poor."
Marching on Washington
King's assassination in April did not deter the SCLC from beginning the campaign. In early May, activists began marching on Washington, led by new SCLC president Ralph Abernathy, Jesse Jackson, and Coretta Scott King. Other activists were joining "mule train" caravans from Mississippi, while many others bused in from Boston, Chicago, San Antonio, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle.
By mid-May, activists began arriving in Washington. On May 10, the National Park Service issued a permit to allow marchers to camp on the national mall. On May 13, Resurrection City was dedicated. "They set out building a sprawling encampment of canvas and plywood structures to house the multitudes expected," recalled Jules Witcover, author of The Year the Dream Died: Revisiting 1968, whose archives are housed at the center. "A 'construction battalion' of 500 took up the work, shouting 'freedom!' as each nail was struck."
Life in Resurrection City
Eventually, 3,000 people were encamped on the mall in a space taking up nearly 15 acres. By the end of May, Resurrection City boasted a general store, a health clinic and a "city hall." Almost daily, activists visited government departments, reeling off lists of demands and protesting the poverty of millions of Americans. Meanwhile, rain turned the encampment into a quagmire, impeding its operation. Calvin Trillin of the New Yorker wrote: "The poor in Resurrection City have come to Washington to show that the poor in America are sick, dirty, disorganized and powerless—and they are criticized daily for being sick, dirty, disorganized and powerless."
Bruce Roberts, whose photographic archive is housed at the center, photographed the camp in early June. "I was there one afternoon—up there doing another story and just went over," recalls Roberts. "I just wanted to go over and see what was going on. It was quite quiet at the time. It was midday, after lunch, and there were people all over. They had used plywood—more wood than canvas—giving the place a sense of permanence. The weather was very pleasant. Most of the mud had dried out. Things were pretty well organized. When I first saw the place, I could see some of the government buildings beyond the trees. It was strange that you could get this view of 'the people' here and 'the government' there."
The End of Resurrection City
By late June, Resurrection City was mired in controversy. Congressmen were calling for its closure, and tensions—with local police as well as between campers—were beginning to mount. George Wallace poured scorn on Washington; “a jungle . . . where you can’t walk safely with your wife and children in the shadow of the White House.” On June 24 (the day after the SCLC’s NPS permit expired) police promptly cleared Resurrection City of the remaining protesters, while workers from the Department of the Interior began to dismantle the camp. Abernathy and over 100 others were arrested.
Lenneal Henderson, who camped in Resurrection City while a student at Berkeley, spoke with Smithsonian Magazine about the camp recently. "I was there all 42 days, and it rained 29 of them. It got to be a muddy mess after a while. And with such basic accommodations, tensions are inevitable. Sometimes there were fights and conflicts between and among people. But it was an incredible experience, almost indescribable. It was exciting to be part of something that potentially, at least, could make a difference in the lives of so many people who were in poverty around the country."
RFK Gunned Down
Both the Nixon and Kennedy campaigns had an air of hope around them, albeit for constituencies that didn't overlap very much. Photojournalist Stephen Shames remembers Sen. Robert Kennedy giving a speech in Oakland just days before he was assassinated. "It was an incredible experience . . . electrifying. I'd heard King speak, Bobby Seale speak, there was something similar that happened in the crowd responding to Kennedy, an emotional response that overtakes you." The following week on June 5, an ascendant Kennedy was celebrating victory in the California Democratic primary at a rally at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Then, according to reporter Jules Witcover, America witnessed "another hour of mindless tragedy in a nation that cannot or will not keep weapons of death from the hands of madmen who walk its streets."
Photojournalist Ron Bennett remembers a "muffled sound like bursting balloons," then seeing the senator on the ground bleeding from the head—"somehow another Dallas had occurred."
Bennett, a photojournalist for UPI, jumped on a stainless-steel table and began taking pictures. It was the same table that Kennedy's bodyguard had pinned the attacker to in an attempt to disarm him. Bennett says he remembers stomping on the assailant's hand as he photographed, helping dislodge the weapon. Bennett went into autopilot, snapping as sharply as ever but running through 26 frames before he'd taken a breath. "It's the same as a soldier in war—you go through trauma. . . . You're seeing things you don't see in normal life. You realize how precious life is."
"Bedlam Swirled Around"
Jules Witcover, a print reporter for Newhouse Newspapers, was just feet away when he heard multiple pops "like a firecracker" before seeing a stricken Kennedy being attended to on the ground. Witcover began frantically reporting, taking notes as "bedlam swirled around" and "shrieks of terror filled the room." Others walked around aimlessly, one carrying Kennedy's shoes, in a total state of shock.
"I was focused on observing everything I could. I didn't feel any sense of danger at all. But later, when I looked at what I had written, it was all an indecipherable garble," recalled Witcover. "If you look at that notebook, you can see from my lack of handwriting how one person was affected by the scene. I still have dreams about it. I can still visualize the scene."
Disillusionment Sets In
For many, especially the young, Kennedy's assassination instilled an anger and cynicism that would delegitimize whomever became the next president. "One man voted eight times from a short caliber pistol, and those eight votes canceled out hundreds of thousands of others cast just hours before," mulled Bennett in a thought piece several days later.
Witcover went on to cover Kennedy's funeral, the Democratic convention, the general election, and the plethora of protesters that seemed to accompany every waking moment that year. "The shaken nation was set on a course of disappointment and division and self-doubt that bred distrust of its leaders and institutions, apathy and ultimately hostility toward both." 1968 thus became the "pivotal year [when] something vital died: the post–World War II dream of an America that at last would face up to its most basic problems at home and abroad with wisdom, honesty and compassion."
Schulke Photographs the Prague Spring
Flip Schulke was sent to Czechoslovakia in July 1968 to cover the Prague Spring, a fleeting period of liberalization in the communist nation. Earlier that year, the reformer Alexander Dubček had replaced hardliner Antonín Novotný as the country's leader. Dubček's program included greater press freedom, a repudiation of Stalinism, and plans for democratization.
SSSR GO HOME
Schulke's images captured a culture emerging from winter. But none of this passed muster in the Kremlin. Schulke left 10 days before Soviet tanks rolled into Prague, leading to a period of "normalization," an Orwellian euphemism if there ever was one.
"These youths have been hoodwinked"
Western press covered the Prague Spring and subsequent Soviet invasion. The papers of Sig Mickelson, CBS Television's president, include a pamphlet titled, "On the Events in Czechoslovakia: Facts, Documents, Press Reports and Eyewitness Accounts." Aimed at asserting the Soviet side of the story, the pamphlet was distributed by the Russian communist party to the western press. One caption reads, "These youths have been hoodwinked by reactionary demagogy."
1968 Around the World
The Prague Spring shows how events of 1968 affected the entire world, from the student protests in France and West Germany (left, from the papers of CBS radio correspondent Robert Trout), the jungles of Vietnam (see the January and February pages of this site), and within the political clubs of English towns, where workers agitated for nationalization and Enoch Powell predicted "rivers of blood."