1968: And it All Started in Vietnam

By Philip Jones Griffiths


The flowers bloomed in 1968.

The peoples of the world who had lost hope found some. Great social movements were invigorated and there was confidence that “they” – the repressive forces – were on the run.

Certainly the tyrannical right fought back with their traditional violence: Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were murdered in America and the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia but civil unrest spread through the United States and also in France, where the government was almost toppled.

Demonstrations became a worldwide phenomenon that the authorities had difficulty controlling.

And it all started in Viet Nam.


The war of National Liberation fought by the Vietnamese was under the most severe attack by America’s genocidal juggernaught. They applied their traditional wisdom to the situation: it was obvious the enemy had to be persuaded to leave and thus a psychological approach had to be employed.  

During 1967 they made sure the battles shifted from the lowlands to the hilly West of Viet Nam. This was something the American military could relate to. Their manuals were strong on taking hilltops. The main U.S. base of operations was a place called Kesanh, before long the most often heard word throughout America since the Alamo. President Johnston had a scale model of it in the basement of the White House where he uttered the words, “This won’t be my Deen Been Fu!” – a reference to the collapse of the base at Dien Bien Phu wich had ended the earlier French war. So, an optimism, orchestrated by the brilliant North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap, pervaded 1967 and Westmoreland, the US General in charge, went to Washington in December to reassure everyone that the war was being won.


Then, at the end of January 1968, Giap struck. Americans woke to discover that virtually every town and city in South Vietnam was under attack. The enemy was even in the US Embassy grounds in Saigon. This was known as the Tet Offensive, and just to disprove American charges that it was a final desperate move by a spent force, a repeat performance was launched a few weeks later. The deception had worked. It was the beginning of the end for the Americans in Viet Nam. And the ushering in of a period of social optimism throughout many countries.

Philip Jones Griffiths

18.02.1926 -18.03.2008
By Holly Aylett

and-it-all-started-in-vietnam-philip-jones-griffiths-2.jpgRefugees flee across the broken bridge at Hue. Marines intended it to carry their counterattack from the southern side right into the citadel. Despite the many guards, the Vietcong were able to swim underwater and blow up the bridge using skin-diving equipment from the Marines.

This little box worn around our necks is the ultimate passport - it allows us to see it for ourselves.

The Vietnam War and the Tet Offensive were defining events in 1968. Philip Jones Griffiths has given his life’s energy to make sure that generations to come will never forget that war, and its horrific, ongoing legacy for the peoples of Vietnam and Cambodia. As Philip observes, the war memorial that records the names of the Americans who died in the war is 150 yards long. If a memorial had been built for those who died in Vietnam it would be nine miles long. And in Cambodia today, a woman’s first question after giving birth is still, “Is it all there?’

Philip’s seminal book, Vietnam Inc. was first published in 1971 in a run of 1000 copies. Its impact was so immediate and devastating that pressure was put on the publisher to postpone the paperback edition. It was only republished after protracted negotiation over thirty years later. Philip’s photos also inspired Hollywood’s memory of the war. Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now includes a scene where a captured Viet Cong soldier, his blasted intestines strapped to his body in a bowl, is seen being given water. Philip was never credited. “Sue me!”, challenged Coppola.

I feel immensely proud that Philip wished to be included in this special edition of Vertigo. As we write he is fighting his own war against cancer in order to complete two more books; Middle Years, based on his recent exhibition of photos of Britain and Ireland, and Cambodia Dreaming (working title). Like his earlier book, Viet Nam at Peace, it is a testimony to the indomitable spirit of the people, which Philip has always found even amidst the tragic wreckage of war. It’s not without contradiction, as he recognises. Some of these photos show a people who, having fought to defend their way of life, now seem to have accepted the values of those who sought to annihilate them.

At a recent presentation of his work Philip was asked if, in seeking the iconic image, he feared that the longer term vision might sink into a mere, aesthetic consideration. He had no fears about composition, he replied, only about the motivation of those photographers who take pictures to hang on gallery walls. He felt it unconscionable, obscene even, that young photographers should have this aim.

Philip’s dedication to telling the stories of our time with his camera, and his refusal to compromise, is an example to us all. To look at his photographs is to feel the passion of his creative engagement. The power of his radical vision challenges us to look again, beyond the headlines, and to be active in response to the enormously complex history which we both create and witness in every day we live. Philip is a spirit of conviction and truth which cannot be overwhelmed.

To view more of Philip’s photographs visit http://www.aperture.org/jonesgriffiths/

Holly Aylett is a filmmaker, lecturer and writer.