ONCE UPON A HISTORY
Change Has Its Enemies Robert F. Kennedy and his Fight to Change American Politics
Nicholas L. Irving, B. A.
On June 5th 1968, the political aspirations of Robert Francis Kennedy were ended by the hands of Sirhan Sirhan; the assassin’s bullets ending not only the life of Robert Kennedy, but also the promise that came with the vision of another Kennedy in the White House. Robert Kennedy’s vision was not of only peace, but also of harmony throughout the United States and the world. His presidential campaign was run on the foundation of ending the war in Vietnam, as well as ending the racial tensions and the growing economic divide that had gripped Americans since the country’s inception. The central question is whether or not Robert Kennedy was merely following in the footsteps of his brother, President John F. Kennedy; or was he his own political individual, fighting for the causes that he believed in? I believe this is an important question to examine in order to look properly at the life of Robert Kennedy. If he indeed was simply following in his brother’s footsteps, that in no way makes Robert Kennedy’s life any less remarkable; but if he was indeed his own political individual, given how easy it would be simply to live in the shadow of his brother, it would make Robert Kennedy’s political career that much more astounding. The simplified answer to whether or not Robert Kennedy was influenced by his brother is yes, without a doubt. Being raised in a close-knit and competitive family, Robert Kennedy was influenced by all of his brothers, although it has been argued that being such a large family, as well as the age gap between John and Robert, they did not have a very close childhood.1 Also, being the campaign manager and Attorney General during John’s presidency, Robert no doubt drew influence from his brother. I will argue that while he was unquestionably influenced by his brother, Robert Kennedy’s political career was driven by his own ambitions and beliefs based on 1
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Robert Kennedy and His Times (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002), 92. John Kennedy stated at one time that “The first time I remember meeting Bobby was when he was three and a half, one summer on the Cape.” This encapsulates the age difference and the family size of the Kennedys. Although meant as a joke, John and Robert did have very little time together growing up due to their age difference of eight years, especially considering John’s time in boarding school, college, and the military.
his extensive work with the Civil Rights Movement and his identification with the underdog. I also argue that Robert Kennedy was equally influenced by his father Joseph Kennedy as he was by John, and that he did not act as much like a stereotypical “Kennedy” as John, Joseph, and younger brother Edward did. Robert Kennedy’s early political career, and life for that matter, was seemingly always within the shadow of the elder John. It was not until his brother’s assassination in 1963 that Robert Kennedy’s individual political ambitions began to take shape. During an interview in England, Robert said, “until November 1963, my whole life was built around President Kennedy.” But after his brother’s death, “I had to play a different role, because what had existed for me then didn’t exist.”2 He left his position in the White House to run for a seat in the U.S. Senate less than a year after his brother’s death, an election which he won. His political career culminated when he decided to run for president in 1968, and his campaign was one of the most inspirational events in modern political history. Had John Kennedy not been assassinated, I do not believe that the full extent of Robert Kennedy’s true political visions would have been seen until after his brother left office. Robert Kennedy would not have simply followed in his brother’s footsteps no matter what happened to his brother; rather, John’s assassination in 1963 merely let Robert emerge from his brother’s shadow sooner than expected. Much of the established literature on Robert Kennedy focuses on one of three things – his life, his presidential campaign, or his assassination. There is also a large amount of literature on the Cuban Missile Crisis, of which Robert was a vital participant.3 One good example of literature about the Cuban Missile Crisis is actually written by Robert Kennedy himself – 2
Thurston Clarke, The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2008), 65. 3 Norman MacAfee, ed. The Gospel According to RFK: Why It Matters Now (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2004), 11. The exact quote – “[RFK] was also, notably, the crucial voice for reason and negotiation during perhaps the most perilous event in human history – the Cuban Missile Crisis of October, 1962…” was chosen because it perfectly encapsulates Robert Kennedy’s role in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Although Robert Kennedy was indeed a vital participant, much of the established literature focuses around John Kennedy, Nikita Khrushchev, and Fidel Castro.
Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis.4 The book gives good insight into the relationship between Robert and John, especially given the circumstances of the crisis. The bond they shared with one another is arguably unparalleled to the bond any U.S. President has ever had with a member of their Cabinet. Of the literature dealing with Kennedy’s life, Arthur Schlesinger provides by far the most expansive biographical work, as Schlesinger had extensive access to both Kennedys during their lives. In writing Robert Kennedy’s biography, Schlesinger also had unrestricted access to the Kennedy family papers, as well as Kennedy’s personal papers. Schlesinger argues that Robert was greatly influenced by John Kennedy, and he sees the pivotal event shaping their relationship to be a trip the brothers took to Israel, Japan, India, and Vietnam in 1951.5 They learned about the extremely strong nationalism that was sweeping through Asia at the time; nationalism that would eventually lead to the Vietnam War. The trip forged a strong bond between the two brothers, and it left a great impression on both men; they realized that revolutions were inevitable in the region, and that the United States might not have the upper hand in helping the region to combat the Soviet Union and the allure of Communism.6 Schlesinger also highlights John’s 1952 Senatorial campaign as another important event in the relationship between the brothers. Robert’s help during the campaign earned him his brother’s, as well as his father’s, respect. Describing his son to be “tough as nails,” Joseph Kennedy said: “I don’t understand it. [John] is not like me at all. I never could have done it
In addition to Thirteen Days, Robert Kennedy is also the author of The Enemy Within: The McClellan Committee’s Crusade Against Jimmy Hoffa and Corrupt Labor Unions, Just Friends and Brave Enemies, To Seek a Newer World, and The Pursuit of Justice. 5 Schlesinger, Jr., Robert Kennedy and His Times, 90-92 Robert and John’s sister Patricia also accompanied them on the trip, as well as Congressman Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr. 6 Ibid., 92-93.
[running for President]. But Bobby is like me.”7 Schlesinger also points out that having completely different personalities, “[their] closeness was really based in their political work.”8 In addition to Robert Kennedy’s biography, Schlesinger has also done equally expansive work on John Kennedy’s life and presidency.9 Evan Thomas is another historian who chronicles the life of Robert Kennedy, and he is the only scholar other than Schlesinger to gain access to Robert’s personal archives, as well as interviews with former Kennedy aides and advisors. Thomas argues that after the death of John Kennedy, and with the failing health of his father, Robert Kennedy had to find a new role for himself.10 Thomas also argues that while Robert publicly dismissed any notions of conspiracy in the assassination – he did not want to cause any public outrage – he feared in private that his own political enemies had caused the death of his brother.11 The issue of how Robert Kennedy dealt with the assassination of his brother is drawn out further in the scholarship of David Talbot.12 Talbot’s look at the close relationship between Robert and John during the Kennedy presidency is the framework for his scholarship on the aftermath of John’s assassination as seen through the eyes of Robert Kennedy. Literature focusing on Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1968 is not as abundant as scholarship on his life, but it represents the culmination of his political career – and
Schlesinger, Jr., Robert Kennedy and His Times, 97. Schlesinger further states that Joseph said at one time that Robert was similar to him because “he hates like me,” although the father later denied ever saying that. 8 Ibid., 96. 9 Schlesinger also wrote the forward to Robert Kennedy’s Thirteen Days. Written in 1999, the forward provides new evidence regarding the Cuban Missile Crisis, as well as its enduring impact on American politics and foreign relations. Other works by Schlesinger involving the Kennedys include A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House, Kennedy or Nixon: Does It Make Any Difference?, Bitter Heritage: Vietnam and American Democracy, 1941-1966, and JFK Remembered. 10 Evan Thomas, Robert Kennedy: His Life (New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 2000), 19. 11 Ibid., 21. 12 David Talbot, Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years (New York: Free Press, 2007), xiii-xiv. Talbot notes that he had always found it strange that Robert did not publicly investigate the assassination, instead publicly saying he supported the lone gun-man theory. However, Talbot’s findings show that Robert privately spent the rest of his life trying to figure out who was actually behind the assassination of his brother.
one of the most inspirational and memorable presidential campaigns in American history. When looking at Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign, the two prominent scholars are Thurston Clarke and Norman MacAfee. Their works paint Robert Kennedy as more of an individual politician, not simply trying to be a carbon copy of his older brother. Clarke, in particular, goes into detail separating the brothers from each other. Despite not being as naturally charming as his older brother, Robert was said to have his emotions much closer to the surface. While some long-time associates of John said they never actually knew him, those with even first-time encounters with Robert Kennedy got to know exactly what he was thinking; while Jack was cool, Bobby was passionate.13 What both authors fail to flesh out enough is how Robert Kennedy’s work with the Civil Rights Movement and fighting poverty really made him stand apart from his brother; his identification with the underdog made Robert Kennedy his own political individual. Robert and John Kennedy also had differing views on how they carried out their policies towards the public – while John Kennedy gave the public appearance of being a more decisive man, he often joked privately about his public speeches. Conversely, while Robert gave the appearance of being more tentative in public, he fiercely defended his words in private because he truly believed in them.14 Robert Kennedy would continue to try and distance himself from his brother in public during his presidential campaign in order to not simply look like he was striving for a John Kennedy Administration redux. During some speeches, he would even exclude using John’s name, even when talking about pivotal events in the Kennedy administration such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Test Ban Treaty of 1963. Perhaps the biggest issue that Robert 13
Clarke, 64. Ibid., 64-65. The statement was paraphrased by Clarke from John Bartlow Martin, who wrote speeches for both John and Robert Kennedy. I do not believe this was meant as a political or personal jab at John Kennedy. Most politicians have to be particularly careful with their words in public, especially when talking about extremely delicate issues such as wars, national security issues, etc. Based on John Kennedy’s personality, it is very easy to imagine him joking with advisors about a speech given to the public, especially if words were very carefully chosen when talking about certain topics. 14
Kennedy differed on from his brother was the space program, which was one of President Kennedy’s key causes during his time in office. Robert Kennedy was not against having a space program, but he thought it was “more important that we be able to walk safely in the streets of our nation’s capital and our other cities at night.”15 Norman MacAfee’s work also focuses on Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1968. While Clarke’s work goes more in depth about the causes and the process of Robert Kennedy’s campaign, MacAfee’s work examines the many speeches he gave during the campaign.16 MacAfee details each speech’s significance, as well as how they relate to the period when he wrote the book, which was written during the second Bush Administration in 2004.17 Many of Kennedy’s statements about Vietnam are paralleled by MacAfee to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as to the Bush Administration. While MacAfee’s scholarship is indeed entertaining, comparing events nearly four decades apart from one another is full of conjecture and parallels. My scholarship will stay in the timeframe of Robert Kennedy’s life, without making comparisons to the current day; the main focus will stay on Robert Kennedy’s vision and how it was a vision all his own. Finally, the literature about the assassination of Robert Kennedy is almost as plentiful as work focusing on his life. However, the academic credibility of many of the books does not hold up to the established historians such as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and Thurston Clarke. Much of the literature done in this area does not touch upon the influences of Kennedy as much as they try to
Clarke, 65. Kennedy goes on to say that if given the choice between cutting funding for the space program or welfare payments, he would cut the space program. This is directly in line with Robert Kennedy’s fight for civil rights and defeating the poverty that ravaged many Americans. 16 MacAfee, 2-3. MacAfee states that many of the subjects Kennedy spoke about – ending war, greater voting participation, the right to political dissent, fixing the economic gap between the rich and poor, etc. – are just as relevant today as they were in 1968. 17 Ibid., 2. MacAfee argues that Americans are living under a “counterfeit flag” after the events surrounding the 2000 elections in which some people claim that the Bush campaign and its supporters “stole” the election from Al Gore through voter fraud.
solve the mystery surrounding his assassination. Many of them put forth conspiracy theories that are nearly impossible to either confirm or deny. However, Robert Kaiser’s work is an exception due to his unprecedented access to not only Sirhan Sirhan’s defense team, but the assassin himself. Kaiser conducted many interviews and was present for psychological evaluations on Sirhan, as well as meetings between Sirhan’s lawyers. Sirhan himself differentiates Robert Kennedy from his brother, saying “[President] Kennedy was infallible. He was a man… I loved him! And I thought Kennedy, Bob, would do the same… But, hell, he [screwed] up. That’s all he did.”18 Of all the scholarship done on Robert Kennedy, whether it focuses on his life, political career, or death, none seem to emphasize how Robert Kennedy really stood out as an individual. I believe this work is needed to really paint the fullest picture of Robert Kennedy as a person. While there are many secondary sources that talk about Robert Kennedy’s life, his presidential campaign, and his assassination, proper analysis on how he was a political individual cannot be determined without examining Kennedy’s work in the Civil Rights Movement and how he fought to end the Vietnam War. The work Robert Kennedy did with those causes can best be viewed through the many inspirational speeches he gave. Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1968 contains the greatest amount of his speeches on a variety of different topics, including: the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the right to political dissention, narrowing the poverty gap, and putting an end to the Vietnam War. After examining these speeches, as well as much of his other work, it will become clear that Robert Kennedy was his own man in life and in politics, even with all the influence that comes from being the son of an ambassador and the brother of a president. Current scholarship seemingly ignores how Robert
Robert Blair Kaiser, R.F.K. Must Die! Chasing the Mystery of the Robert Kennedy Assassination (New York: Overlook Press, 2008), 173-174. This statement comes during a conversation between Sirhan and Kaiser. Sirhan was talking about the Kennedys’ role with the Jews in the Middle East, where Sirhan was from. He loved watching JFK’s speeches growing up, but despised Robert for not being like his brother.
Kennedy stood apart from his family on these important issues. I will examine Robert Kennedy’s work during four key stages in his life: his early political career, his time as attorney general, the time immediately following the death of his brother, and Robert’s presidential campaign up until his death on June 5th, 1968; in doing so, Robert Kennedy’s vision and political independence will be demonstrated. Robert Kennedy’s political career began in 1946, shortly after receiving an honorable discharge from the United States Navy.19 Robert’s job was to aide John Kennedy’s congressional campaign, as John was running to become one of the Democratic representatives of Massachusetts. Due to Robert’s introverted personality early on in his life, his presence in the campaign was seen as merely familial obligation to some, including John Kennedy himself. “It’s damn nice of Bobby wanting to help,” John said to a friend from his days in the Navy, “but I can’t see that sober, silent face breathing new vigor into the ranks.” Adding to that, fellow campaign supporter Paul Fay said of Robert, “words came out of his mouth as if each one spoken depleted an already severely limited supply.”20 This description of a shy boy is a stark contrast to the Robert Kennedy remembered by most – a man who was lucid, captivating, and fearless.21 Robert Kennedy helped John win the election by doing what he did best – identifying with the common man. While John was often in his campaign quarters surrounded by his father’s political allies – all established and in their senior years – Robert Kennedy was out in the streets playing softball, helping to dispel the notion of the Kennedys being high-hat.22 Though 19
Schlesinger, Jr., Robert Kennedy and His Times, 61. Robert was honorably discharged after serving his time on a ship named the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. after his brother, who had died in combat during World War II. 20 Schlesinger, Jr., Robert Kennedy and His Times, 63. 21 Ibid., 13. Here, Schlesinger describes childhood fights between John and the eldest Kennedy child, Joseph, Jr. While the two brothers would wrestle and fight with one another, Robert would often cower with his sisters instead of getting involved. This is another stark contrast to the fearless Robert Kennedy seen later on in his life as Attorney General, Senator, and presidential candidate. 22 Ibid., 64. One Massachusetts politician said of Robert “all that propaganda that the Kennedys were the highhat kind was dissipated in my area by Bobby playing [softball] with those kids.”
the help of their father undoubtedly helped the campaign, it was Robert’s efforts to change the minds of young people, those who did not necessarily follow politics, as well as former servicemen that really won the election for his brother.23 This theme of Robert Kennedy identifying with the common-man and the underdog will remain constant throughout the remainder of his political career, something that made him stand out from the rest of the Kennedy family. Following Robert’s success in aiding his brother’s congressional campaign, it seemed natural that he would help John once again; this time in trying to become a United States Senator. However, Robert Kennedy was initially reluctant to do so. Having started working for the Department of Justice, Robert was incredibly immersed in his work, so much so that he was “out of touch with Jack and unaware of Jack’s problems.”24 Robert changed his mind, however, when he was told that John had no shot of winning without his help. The campaign process seemed to draw out Robert Kennedy’s abhorrence for the “old-school” form of politics that ruled in both the Democratic and Republican parties at the time – the same sort of politics his father was so involved with, and the people that surrounded John during most of his campaign.25 During the campaign, Robert Kennedy would throw campaign supporters, no matter how important they were, out of the campaign headquarters if they were not doing work. During an interview, Robert said that politicians “do nothing but hold meetings … you can’t get any work out of a politician.” During the interview, the reporter noted that Robert used the word
Ibid., 64. Schlesinger, Jr., 94. Quote taken from a Kennedy campaign supporter. Schlesinger goes on to point out that Robert not only was immersed in his work at the Dept. of Justice, but did not want to spend the campaign arguing with his father, who he shared many political differences with. His job, located in New York, also made Robert out of touch with the politics of Massachusetts; Robert feared that he would “screw it up” for his brother. 25 Ibid., 96. A campaign supporter said of Robert: “The entire hand-shaking, small-talking side of politics was repugnant to him; he often said to me, ‘Larry, I don’t know how you stand it.’” Robert did not care whether or not people liked him as a person, as long as he got his job done. 24
“politician” as if it were a profane word.26 Robert Kennedy’s disdain for the way politics were normally run no doubt fueled his desire to change them, and in doing so made Robert Kennedy a political individual. The best way for Robert Kennedy to change the status quo in politics was by doing what he already did best – relating with the common man in a way few politicians had ever done. For the time being, however, Kennedy’s mission was to help his brother’s career in any way possible, a trend that helped John win both congressional and senatorial seats due to Robert’s endless determination, work ethic, and most importantly his invaluable skill of relating to the common man. This trend would continue onward when John Kennedy decided to run for President in 1960. Having gained the experience of how to run a campaign during both of his brother’s successful campaigns, as well as an unsuccessful but knowledge-building run at Vice-President in 1956,27 Robert Kennedy was ready to assume the role of campaign manager for John’s 1960 run for president, a role in which Robert was John’s “first and only choice.” As with past campaigns, Robert was extremely tenacious in his work ethic; he commanded the same out of his staff, as well as his brother. “All right, Jack,” Robert would tell John, “what has been done about the campaign? . . . A day lost now can’t be picked up on the other end. It’s ridiculous more work hasn’t been done.”28 Robert Kennedy’s work ethic, as well as the extreme cohesion of the campaign staff – many of whom were former schoolmates and friends of Kennedy – helped John decisively win the Democratic nomination, followed by a narrow victory over the Republican Richard Nixon to win the presidency. The margin of victory in the popular vote was so narrow – a mere two-tenths of a percent – that Robert Kennedy’s determination, relation with the common 26
Ibid., 95. Thomas, 72-73. Despite losing the VP nomination to Estes Kefauver, the process of rounding up delegates at national level let Robert know what he needed to do in order to be successful in helping his brother win the presidential election in 1960. 28 Schlesinger, Jr., Robert Kennedy and His Times, 193. 27
man, and work with the Civil Rights Movement and activists such as Martin Luther King, Jr. undoubtedly helped his brother win the majority of the nation’s votes. The effect of Kennedy’s work with Dr. King was invaluable to his brother’s election – John Kennedy received an astounding seventy percent of the African-American vote.29 After Robert Kennedy had helped his brother win the election to become the thirty-fifth President of the United States, their attention turned to assembling the cabinet. Some positions had been filled relatively easily, such as North Carolina Governor Luther Hodges as Head of Commerce and Connecticut Governor Abraham Ribicoff as Head of Health, Education and Welfare.30 Other positions were more difficult to nominate a candidate for – namely attorney general. John knew that having Robert on his staff would be invaluable, but would only have him if Robert wanted to do so. Their father Joseph Kennedy not only suggested, but demanded that Robert Kennedy be given the position of attorney general, much to the objection of Robert himself. Robert Kennedy had visions of returning to Massachusetts and possibly running for governor in 1962, but ultimately relented to his father’s wish after both Ribicoff and Adlai Stevenson declined the position when offered by President-elect Kennedy.31 The Kennedys, Joseph in particular, knew that the president would need someone within his cabinet that he could put complete faith in, and that person could only come from his own family. While Robert Kennedy had to put his personal ambitions on hold, he knew his services would be invaluable to John, and he ultimately did what he thought was right for his family.
Charles Kenney, John F. Kennedy: The Presidential Portfolio – History as Told Through the Collection of the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum (New York: PublicAffairs, 2000), 92-93. Kenney details a phone conversation between John Kennedy and Coretta Scott King shortly after her husband Martin Luther King, Jr. was jailed due to a traffic violation. JFK expressed his support for King, and when word got out of this conversation, many African-Americans threw their support over to the Kennedy ticket. 30 Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993), 130. 31 Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days, 142; and Schlesinger, Jr., Robert Kennedy and His Times, 230-231.
Robert Kennedy’s passion and determination made him the perfect “pit bull” in the Kennedy Administration.32 Self-described in his childhood as being “[of] good character on the whole, but my temper is not so good,” Robert Kennedy was often given the nickname “Raul,” named after Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s younger brother who acted as the Castro regime’s militant enforcer.33 Kennedy’s “win at all costs” attitude, as well as his extremely anticommunist views, views that were much more visceral than his brother’s,34 would be integral in the Kennedy Administration’s efforts during the four most vexing challenges during John’s time as president – the Cold War, the Bay of Pigs Scandal, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the war in Vietnam. The Cold War is perhaps one of the most complex and fascinating events of the twentieth century, a war which historians have traced the origins back to 1917.35 Based primarily around the ideological differences between the communist and capitalist forms of government, tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union had been building long before the Kennedys took the White House. It was during the time of the Kennedy Administration, however, that the height of the Cold War nearly caused the annihilation of the entire world. As president, John Kennedy strived to end the Cold War and sought peace with the Soviet Union. As he said, “some say that it is useless to speak of peace… and that it will be useless until the leaders of the Soviet Union adopt a more enlightened attitude. … I believe we can help them do it.”36 Robert Kennedy, who was present on nearly every important presidential discussion on the Cold War, 32
I view Robert Kennedy’s role as Attorney General as being comparative to current White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel; both men were selected as the sort of “get the job done, whatever the cost” staff members that I believe every high-ranking government office should have. 33 Talbot, 92. 34 Talbot, 93. Talbot also refers to Robert’s Catholicism as being more visceral than John’s. This goes along with the idea of Robert being more passionate in his beliefs than John has been thought to have been. 35 Melvyn Leffler, The Specter of Communism: The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1917-1953 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1994), 3-4. 36 John F. Kennedy, “American University Commencement Speech,” Washington, D.C., 10 June, 1963.
said that “[there was] no barrier to resolving the difficulties between [the U.S. and U.S.S.R.].”37 Despite the public effort to seek peace with the Soviet Union, tensions were never completely alleviated during JFK’s time as president, and would not do so until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Cold War did not offer a more embarrassing moment to the Kennedy Administration than the Bay of Pigs scandal of 1961. On April 18th, 1961, roughly fifteen-hundred American-trained anti-Castro Cuban exiles landed at the Bay of Pigs, which is located on the southern coast of western Cuba. The plan was to have the Cuban exiles storm Fidel Castro’s headquarters, starting a military coup, and eventually overthrowing the Communist dictator; a situation that was far more preferable to the Kennedys than having American troops invade the island.38 The Bay of Pigs Invasion seemed to be doomed from the start. Due to a scheduling conflict, Robert Kennedy was absent on the night the president met with his advisors about the Bay of Pigs Invasion. A meeting was hastily called following the annual White House Congressional Reception after word of the invasion reached the president.39 The Cuban exiles were quickly overwhelmed by the Cuban army, and without the support of the U.S. military, they were doomed.40 President Kennedy was forced to make extremely important decisions without the help of the man he trusted the most. Afterwards, President Kennedy insisted on including Robert on any major military or security decision from that day on.41 Robert Kennedy personally supported the Cuban exiles due to his hatred of the communist system in Cuba. In the days following the invasion, Robert Kennedy released a statement backing their actions, stating that “there is nothing in the neutrality laws which 37
Schlesinger, Jr., Robert Kennedy and His Times, 421-422. Talbot, 45. 39 Ibid., 47. 40 Most of the exiles were captured by Castro’s men, and then were paraded around as prisoners for the world to see. Many were also executed by the Cuban military on the charge of treason. 41 Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1971), 114. 38
[prevent] refugees from Cuba from returning to that country to engage in the fight for freedom.” The neutrality laws Kennedy references are some of the oldest laws in the United States; laws that Kennedy declared to be “not designed for the kind of situation which exists in the world today.”42 The Bay of Pigs would turn into one of the Kennedy Administrations most heavily scrutinized events, although it has come to light in recent years that President Kennedy was not fully informed about the bleak prospects of the situation by CIA director Richard Bissell.43 Whether or not the actions of the CIA were done on purpose is still a mystery, but the situation infuriated President Kennedy to no end, and he heavily contemplated disbanding the agency, even saying he wanted to “splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it into the winds.”44 This formed a breach between the Kennedy Administration and the CIA, a breach that Robert Kennedy felt equally as strongly as the president; and one that Robert would carry with him the rest of his life. This is one instance where Robert Kennedy’s views stayed with those of his brother’s and did not change following John’s assassination. This does not diminish Robert Kennedy as a political individual, as their views towards the CIA and FBI were garnered from experiences such as the CIA’s involvement in the Bay of Pigs, as well as Robert Kennedy’s tense relationship with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Following the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Kennedy Administration contemplated what their next move should be. After the Soviet Union pledged to support Cuba in the event of another incident, the option of bombing Soviet missile silos stationed in Cuba was brought up. Robert Kennedy was against this, likening the possible bombing of Cuba and the Soviets to Japanese 42
Robert F. Kennedy, “Statement on Cuba and Neutrality Laws,” Washington, D.C., 20 April, 1961. Talbot, 47. “In 2005, a secret internal CIA history of the Bay of Pigs was [released]. … [It] contained proof that [CIA Director Richard] Bissell concealed the operation’s bleak prospects from Kennedy when he briefed him about it for the first time shortly after JFK’s election.” 44 Ibid., 51. 43
leader Hideki Tojo, whose attack on Pearl Harbor led the United States into World War II, proclaiming, “My brother is not going to be the Tojo of the 1960s.”45 This issue on whether or not to bomb missile silos, later known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, became a real divergent point between the two brothers. President Kennedy had felt very much betrayed by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who had previously promised that the Soviet Union would not bring missiles into Cuba.46 While the president felt something needed to be done, Robert Kennedy, along with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, argued that military action was not necessary; McNamara said of the situation: “It makes no difference whether you were killed by a missile from the Soviet Union or Cuba.”47 It had been revealed in later years when transcripts of conversations during National Security Counsel Meetings were released to the public in 1996 that Robert Kennedy was in favor of a possible air strike if it was the only chance the United States had of taking out Castro in Cuba, a view that was shared in part by John Kennedy as well.48 Ongoing conversations with Nikita Khrushchev finally turned out the way the Kennedys wanted, with the Soviets pledging to remove its missiles from Cuba after President Kennedy offered to remove American missiles from Turkey, as well as to stay out of Cuban affairs in the future.49 Robert Kennedy suggested that the possibility of removing American missiles from 45
Allan Winkler, The Cold War: A History in Documents (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 92. Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days, 116; and Nikita Khrushchev, Khrushchev Remembers (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1970), 496. The fact that Khrushchev had lied to Kennedy about the missiles was done “to keep the Americans from invading Cuba…” 47 Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days, 117. McNamara also argued that the issue of nuclear superiority did not matter, either. Regardless of who had more nuclear bombs, it only took the using of one to set of the destruction of the rest of the world. 48 David Patterson and others, eds., “Minutes of the 505th Meeting of the National Security Council,” Foreign Relations of the United States: 1961-1963 Volume XI: Cuban Missile Crisis and Aftermath (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of State, 1996). 49 Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days, 71. In a letter from Khrushchev to JFK: “We will remove our missiles from Cuba, you will remove yours from Turkey… The Soviet Union will pledge not to invade or interfere with the internal affairs of Turkey; the U.S. to make the same pledge regarding Cuba. 46
Turkey would not be a bad idea because not only were the missiles obsolete compared to newer types, Turkey would be better protected from Naval submarines patrolling the waters of the Mediterranean and Black Seas.50 Any military strike or invasion against the Cuban missile silos would surely have caused immediate retaliation from the Soviet Union, and World War III would have begun, likely ending in complete nuclear annihilation. At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, few people actually knew how close the world came to destruction. Without the actions of Robert Kennedy and the presidential staff, it is unclear what President Kennedy would have done. Ultimately, cooler heads prevailed, and the United States did not bomb Cuba and its missile silos, much to the chagrin of many American military officials, who wanted to use their might to overpower the Soviets and possibly win the Cold War outright without Soviet retaliation.51 While the Kennedy Administration was dealing with Cuba and the Soviet Union, the United States was involved in another situation that was equally as dire, with the addition that American lives were being lost in the process – the Vietnam War, an event that would help shape Robert Kennedy’s vision and political individuality. The Vietnam War was every bit as complex as the Cold War was; coupled with the fact that nearly sixty-thousand American soldiers lost their lives for causes that most American citizens either did not know about or did not support, it was easily one of the most controversial events of not only the Kennedy Administration, but afterwards as well. It turned into one of the causes Robert Kennedy fought so hard against in the time following the death of his brother. Robert Kennedy’s first recorded views on Vietnam stem from a visit he and his brother made to the country in 1951 when occupying French troops were trying in vain to fight off Vietnamese
Ibid., 71. Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days, 120. It is noted that President Kennedy said to White House aide Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.: “An invasion would have been a mistake – a wrong use of our power. But the military are mad. They wanted to do this. It’s lucky for us we have McNamara over there.” 51
freedom fighters. Even before their decisive battle at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the French position seemed hopeless. Robert noted, “We saw the position the French were in, and saw what they were trying to do to the Indochinese. And my brother was determined early that we would never get into that position.”52 However, the actions of the presidents prior to Kennedy made it almost impossible for the United States not to be in the same position the French had been in nearly a decade before; actions such as Harry Truman’s signing of NSC-68, which outlined the government’s blueprint on dealing the communism,53 and Dwight Eisenhower’s decision to give military and monetary aid to South Vietnam which eventually led to greater and greater involvement by the United States.54 While it would be convenient to paint Robert Kennedy as an anti-war hero who had been in opposition of American involvement in Vietnam from the very beginning, the reality differs. He and John Kennedy were firm believers in the theory of the “domino effect” regarding the spread of communism in Asia. During an oral history interview, Robert stated that “[President Kennedy] had a strong, overwhelming reason for being in Vietnam and that we should win the war in Vietnam.”55 When asked what that overwhelming reason would be, Robert Kennedy replied “just the loss of all of Southeast Asia if you lost Vietnam. I think everyone was quite clear that the rest of Southeast Asia would fall.”56 During the early days of the Kennedy Administration, when the United States military was in the beginning stages of landing ground troops in Vietnam, there were no protests, and there was not too much coverage on television or
Schlesinger, Jr., Robert Kennedy and His Times, 701. NSC-68 stated that the United States would fight communism wherever it sprang up. Stopping the spread of communism was key in defeating the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and NSC-68 was seen as a major shift in American foreign relations. 54 Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days, 536. Eisenhower was in office when the “domino theory” was first theorized by political analysts Joseph and Stewart Alsop. 55 Robert Kennedy, interview with John Bartlow Martin, 30 April, 1964. 56 Ibid. 53
in print. 57 1961 was hands-down the easiest year the Kennedys would have regarding the situation in Vietnam due to the lack of any real public criticism towards the Kennedy Administration about their involvement. Soon after, however, the situation became murkier, as President Kennedy was stuck with American troops in Vietnam with no real solution for victory, as well as no viable exit plan.58 No matter how Robert Kennedy actually felt about the Vietnam War, his public opinions stayed in line with that of his brother’s, in order to keep from publically disparaging both his president and brother. As unfortunate as it is, it took the assassination of John Kennedy for Robert’s true views on the Vietnam War to come out to the public. During the afternoon of November 22nd, 1963, Robert Kennedy received a phone call at his Hickory Hill home in Virginia; the man on the line was head of FBI J. Edgar Hoover, a man who had numerous disagreements with both Kennedy brothers throughout their political careers.59 In a very blunt tone, Hoover uttered the phrase “I have news for you, the president’s been shot.” With no further explanation, the phone call ended. Finally, a second phone call came from Hoover less than an hour later; this time he only said “The president’s dead,” before hanging up, with no condolences given. Robert Kennedy would later say, “I think he told me with pleasure.”60 In the time immediately following the assassination of his brother, Robert Kennedy withdrew from public matters completely, instead trying to investigate in private why his brother had been murdered, who had actually fired the fatal shots, and if anyone else was
Schlesinger, Jr., Robert Kennedy and His Times, 706. Ibid., 708-709, 722. JFK often said in private that the U.S. was “over-committed” in Vietnam, but without a solid exit strategy, the only thing to do was to give South Vietnam all the support it needed. JFK looked for a nonmilitary solution towards ending the war; a view shared by Robert Kennedy. In private, JFK gave odds of one hundred-to-one that the U.S. would lose the war in Vietnam, and that he also knew there was no way to remove U.S. troops from the country before the November 1964 elections. 59 Both Robert and John Kennedy had a large distrust for both the FBI and CIA following the Bay of Pigs Invasion, as well as numerous other events throughout the careers of both men. In Hoover, RFK saw everything that was wrong with America, and vice versa. 60 Talbot, 1-2. 58
behind the plot.61 Before delving back into politics, Robert Kennedy tried to find out the truth about his brother’s assassination; after coming to an answer that he would never reveal to the public, Robert Kennedy knew that he had to return to politics in order to carry on his brother’s legacy, as well as to begin his own.62 In stark contrast from his beginnings in politics, when he was the “sober, silent face” who his brother did not think would make much of an impact, Robert Kennedy had turned into a fierce and passionate man who was seen by many as the future of American politics. Now that he was without his brother, Robert Kennedy turned his focus on the causes he personally believed in. His speeches carried a more staunch anti-war tone, which was a departure from his time as attorney general. President Kennedy wanted to have very few, if any American ground troops in Vietnam, and more importantly, a proposed troop withdrawal in 1965, a proposal that President Lyndon Johnson abandoned quickly despite requests from Robert Kennedy to follow through.63 After falling out of favor in the chain of command of the new Johnson Administration, Robert Kennedy resigned from his position as attorney general in order to run for senator of New York during the 1964 election term.64 From the time of Robert Kennedy’s decision to run in the 1964 senatorial election to his presidential campaign of 1968, some of the decade’s greatest speeches were given by Kennedy on a variety of subjects, mostly the causes he
Ibid., 3. There are obviously countless conspiracy theories as to the assassination of President Kennedy. While never bringing into the public the findings of his private investigations, RFK would always refer to a “they” when describing who killed his brother. RFK said to close aide Edwin Guthman: “There’s so much bitterness, I thought they would get one of us, but Jack, after all he’d been through, never worried about it.” “Bob said, ‘I thought they would get me, instead of the president,’” Guthman would later say. “He distinctly said ‘they.’” 63 Schlesinger, Jr., Robert Kennedy and His Times, 725. The Kennedy Administration stance on Vietnam was to have no (or very limited) combat troops, no heavy bombing, and most importantly, a planned withdrawal of troops scheduled in 1965. These stances were dismissed by LBJ, who thought JFK’s stance on Vietnam was too contradictory. 64 Ibid., 657. Supporters of Robert Kennedy advocated for him to be LBJ’s running mate in the 1964 presidential elections, but RFK knew LBJ would not select him as vice president, as he knew LBJ had disdain for him during his brother’s presidency. LBJ thought he was beneath RFK in terms of importance in the Kennedy Administration, and he was more or less correct in that claim. LBJ wanted his presidency to be his, not Robert Kennedy’s. 62
fought for following his brother’s death: the war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, and changing the American political process. These speeches made Robert Kennedy a political individual at a time when most prominent politicians would not dare to speak out against the way things were done. Most established politicians were too concerned about their political livelihood and winning votes, while Robert Kennedy was concerned with neither of those – he ran for office to invoke change and equality within the United States. Robert Kennedy’s first, and perhaps most emotional, speech came at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, where he delivered a tribute to President Kennedy, as well as thanking the Democratic Party for the support they had given his brother. He thanked the Democratic Party for giving his brother the ability and opportunity to try to make the United States “a better place when we turned it over to the next generation than when we inherited it from the last generation.”65 This determination to make the United States, and the world, a better place was alive in Robert Kennedy, as well; and, like his brother, Robert Kennedy realized he needed to become president in order to make a real difference. On March 16th, 1968, Robert Kennedy gave a speech in the Senate Caucus Room in Washington, D.C. that would perfectly outline his political views and what exactly made him a political individual. He said, “I do not run for the Presidency merely to oppose any man but to propose new ideas. … I feel obligated to do all I can.”66 Perhaps more than any other politician who has spoken words similar to that during a political campaign, Robert Kennedy truly meant them – he actually felt obligated to do all that he could. Unlike most politicians who vow to help certain segments of society in order to win their votes, only to ignore them upon reaching office, Robert
Robert Kennedy, “Tribute to John F. Kennedy at the Democratic National Convention,” Keynote address, Atlantic City, New Jersey, 27 August, 1964. 66 Robert Kennedy, “Announcement for Candidacy for President,” Washington, D.C., 16 March, 1968. In The Gospel According to RFK: Why It Matters Now, edited by Norman MacAfee, 14.
Kennedy’s devotion to his causes shows that he would have actually attempted to follow through on his promises. Along with proposing new ideas, he would run for president “to seek new policies – policies to close the gaps between black and white, rich and poor, young and old, in this country and around the world.”67 Based on Robert Kennedy’s work fighting for these causes, I do not see those words as simple lip service in order to swing votes his way during the election. I would argue that Robert Kennedy would have created a new level of social programs that would have benefited countless Americans who were seeking a better life. Benefits for poor immigrant laborers, better rules enacting racial integration, and programs to help support the countless people who were living in poverty at the time, similar to programs created by Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. According to Kennedy, polices were not the only problem in Washington, but rather the men making them. “I run because it is now unmistakably clear that we can change these [policies] only by changing the men who make them…”68 those feelings could be traced back to Robert Kennedy’s work on his brother’s congressional and senatorial campaigns. He realized his disdain for the old school politician, the type that merely shook hands and worked out private back room deals, instead of striving for change and working for the people they are supposed to represent. Robert Kennedy represented a new school of politics that few had seen before, someone not afraid to fight for the underdog, such as supporting Marin Luther King, Jr., no matter the consequences. Robert Kennedy seemed to realize the importance of the 1968 elections in concurrence with domestic and foreign issues: “At stake is not simply the leadership of our party or even our country – it is our right to the moral leadership of this planet.”69 The
Robert Kennedy, “Announcement for Candidacy for President,” in According to RFK, edited by MacAfee, 14. Ibid., 15. 69 Robert Kennedy, “Announcement for Candidacy for President,” in According to RFK, edited by MacAfee, 15. 68
ongoing war in Vietnam, coupled with race riots throughout the United States, continued tensions with the Soviet Union, and the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation meant that the 1968 elections were to go a long way in deciding not only the fate of the nation, but of the entire world. Robert Kennedy was no stranger to these events – having played a major role in the Cuban Missile Crisis, the closest the world has ever come to total destruction – but unlike before, he was running to become the person who would be instrumental in deciding the world’s fate. One of the first steps in changing how the United States was being run was to support the Civil Rights Movement, which had strived for racial equality, as well as the easing of racial tensions between whites and African-Americans. The movement reflected a history that had been tumultuous throughout the United States since the nation’s inception and culminated in the 1960s. Aiding Robert Kennedy in this quest was the amazing relationship he carried with minorities of all types throughout his life. Robert Kennedy’s relationship with AfricanAmericans during his political career was always one of understanding; he sympathized with their plight, as Kennedy still felt the effects of being Irish-Catholic in the predominately Protestant world of politics. As the leader of the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. had turned himself into both a symbol and a target. Sadly, on the night of April 4th 1968, Robert Kennedy’s campaign was dealt a major blow when King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. That night, Kennedy gave a moving speech to his supporters in Indianapolis, Indiana. Kennedy stated that King’s death was a blow to anyone who “[loved] peace all over the world,” because King had “dedicated his life to love and to justice for his fellow human beings, and he died because of that effort.”70 In the days following, he gave two additional speeches about the current state of African-Americans in the United States.
Robert Kennedy, “On the Death of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Indianapolis, Indiana 4 April, 1968. In According to RFK, edited by MacAfee, 85.
The loss of Dr. King to the Civil Rights Movement, as well as to the advancement of African-Americans and minorities as a whole, was crushing. However, it did not stop the movement, as Robert Kennedy and many others refused to let that happen. Kennedy gave two speeches in the week following the death of Dr. King to a largely black audience. One of the greatest fears Kennedy had was of young African-Americans turning to the streets because they were “losing faith in the good-will and purpose of the nation and its institutions.”71 Kennedy likens the treatment of African-Americans in this country to the treatment of his own IrishCatholic people; that is one of the main reasons he was able to sympathize with their plight.72 Robert Kennedy also spoke against the fact that the government could spend thirty-billion dollars on the war in Vietnam, yet around half of adult African-American males were jobless.73 Dr. King also staunchly fought for that cause before giving his life to the movement. Along with Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy also associated himself with Cesar Chavez, who in the 1960s led a national grape boycott in protest of how immigrant farm workers were being treated on grape vineyards in the state of California. Robert Kennedy’s work on the Migratory Labor Subcommittee of the Senate Labor Committee led him to publicly support Chavez and his non-violent means of protesting, even going so far as to leave Washington during a time of great strife to help Chavez obtain his goals. Said Chavez of Kennedy’s efforts: “He said that we had the right to form a union and that he… not only endorsed us but joined us… So he not only helped us, … [but] turned it completely around.”74 Kennedy likened Chavez and his
Robert Kennedy, “In Black America,” Fort Wayne, Indiana 10 April, 1968 and Lansing, Michigan 11 April, 1968. In According to RFK, edited by MacAfee, 89. 72 Ibid., 90. The Kennedys’ Irish-Catholic background lead to heavy discrimination against the family from before RFK was even born. Father Joe Kennedy was often excluded from clubs and societies such as the Social Register due to his Catholicism, and despite his large personal wealth. It can also be seen in the fact that JFK was the first, and is still the only, Catholic president of the United States. 73 Ibid., 92-94. 74 Schlesinger, Jr., Robert Kennedy and His Times, 790-791. Kennedy left Washington in early 1966, during a time he was trying to fix the economic gap between the rich and poor, as well as trying to end the war in Vietnam, to
role in the migrant-worker community to that of King’s role in the African-American community. Both groups, normally leery of politicians, loved Kennedy for being able to not only relate to them, but actively engaging in helping them as well. Kennedy’s work even extended to Native Americans; he felt disgusted that “The ‘first American’ is still the last American in terms of employment, health, and education.”75 After Kennedy’s death in 1968, his widow Ethel received a letter from a Native American man whose tribe Robert had visited the year prior. In the letter, the man stated that Native Americans loved Robert Kennedy; he wrote “Loving a public official for an Indian is almost unheard of, as history bears out. We trusted him. … We had faith in him.”76 Robert Kennedy’s vision of change led him to believe in a political idea that few with his power would preach to the masses – the idea of dissent. He believed that the United States was being divided “not [by] those who call for change; it is those who present policy who divide our country…”77 Kennedy’s talks about political dissent during the late 1960s, a time when racial riots and the Vietnam War were already causing people to become distrustful of the government, gave him the label of someone who was aiding the enemy, endangering the troops, as well as being a traitor.78 Despite this, Kennedy firmly believed in the right of citizens to dissent from popular opinion if they do not believe in it. In response to the idea of President Johnson was not doing anything about the summers of racial riots throughout the streets of America, Kennedy said “I dissent from that, and I know you [Americans] do too.” Talking negatively about the Vietnam War, Kennedy said “in what way does the war’s present course advance the security of
help Chavez, who was fighting the fact that over forty of his protesters had been illegally arrested for lawfully picketing. 75 Schlesinger, Jr., Robert Kennedy and His Times, 793. 76 Ibid., 793. 77 Robert Kennedy, “The Destiny of Dissent,” Nashville, Tennessee 21 March, 1968. In According to RFK, edited by MacAfee, 45. 78 MacAfee, 43.
the country, the welfare of Vietnam, or the cause of peace in the world?”79 Perhaps most importantly to Kennedy, he strived to “give voice and recognition to those without the power to be heard.” 80 These people, which included African-Americans, Native Americans, the jobless, the poor, and the hard-working, needed their views to be heard if the country was really founded upon the will of the people. The right to dissent on any issue is what the freedom of speech is all about; and there was perhaps no dissent on any one issue more than the war in Vietnam during this time. When asked if these protests were prolonging the war by giving aid to the enemy, Kennedy replied, “I think that if all the protests were ended, and even if all objections to the war came to an end here in this country, the war in Vietnam would continue.”81 Perhaps more so than any other subject, Robert Kennedy spoke about the “art of peace.”82 Despite being the richest and most powerful nation in the world, respect for the United States was at an all-time low due to “our over-commitment in Vietnam and our under-commitment at home.”83 Kennedy argued that if the government were to ignore the very people and values that the nation was founded upon, it does not matter what is done abroad. Kennedy pleaded that “peace in the world means little to us unless we can preserve it at home.”84 Heading into June of the election campaign, Robert Kennedy was not winning in terms of delegates, although he did have the lead in the popular vote.85 After winning the primaries in South Dakota and California,
Kennedy, “The Destiny of Dissent,” in According to RFK, edited by MacAfee, 47. Ibid., 46. 81 Robert Kennedy, “Town Meeting of the World: The Image of America and the Youth of the World,” debate with Ronald Reagan, Sacramento, California 15 May, 1967. 82 Robert Kennedy, “The Art of Peace,” Portland, Oregon 17 April, 1968. In According to RFK, edited by MacAfee, 99-100. Kennedy speaks about a crucial moment during the Cuban Missile Crisis in which the Republic of Guinea, which had been previously supported by the Soviet Union, refused Soviet planes from refueling at Guinean bases. Had they done so, the Soviet planes would have brought nuclear bombs into Cuba, with the results being far different than what they turned out to be. Guinean President Sekou Toure declined to let Soviets land there not because he supported the U.S. during the Cold War, but rather because he supported peace. 83 Ibid., 101. 84 Ibid., 103. 85 MacAfee, 144-145. On the night before his death, RFK had just won the state of California, carrying 46.3 percent of the vote, beating out Senator Eugene McCarthy, who had 41.8 percent. Despite winning numerous 80
Kennedy spoke about what was to come during the following weeks; it would end up being the last time Robert Kennedy spoke in public. During his victory speech, Kennedy praised Senator Eugene McCarthy for being an advocate for change, much in the way RFK was. While current Vice President Hubert Humphrey was leading the delegate vote, he was being out-voted in the public by almost a fourto-one ratio; Kennedy did not believe that a man who was so strongly voted against could be nominated by the Democratic Party.86 Kennedy spoke about ending the war in Vietnam; telling McCarthy supporters that he was the only viable candidate who “committed to the realistic negotiated solution to the Vietnamese war … [whose] policies likely to bring an honorable peace to let the killing stop.”87 The final words publicly spoken by Robert Kennedy best encapsulate what he strived to do as a person, and as the next President of the United States: I think we can end the divisions within the United States. What I think is quite clear is that we can work together in the last analysis. And that which has been going on with the United States over the period of the last three years – the divisions, the violence, the disenchantment with our society, the divisions, whether it’s between blacks and whites, between the poor and the more affluent, or between ages groups, or over the war in Vietnam – that we can start to work together again. We are a great country, and unselfish country, and a compassionate country. And I intend to make that my basis for running over the period of the next few months… So my thanks to all of you, and it’s on to Chicago, and let’s win there.
Kennedy’s final public words were extremely prophetic and echoed his vision for what the United States could become; people working together to end the many divisions within the country on many different issues, whether it was about the war in Vietnam, racial tensions between blacks and whites, or between the rich and poor. No more than ten minutes after Robert Kennedy uttered those words, he lay dying in a pool of his own blood. Sirhan Sirhan took from the world that night not only the life of a great man, but the vision of a greater world, and all the primaries, RFK still trailed in the delegate vote. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who gained all of LBJ’s votes upon his withdrawal, had 944 votes, while RFK had only 524. 86 Robert Kennedy, “Victory,” Ambassador Hotel Ballroom, Los Angeles, California 4 June, 1968. In According to RFK, edited by MacAfee, 146. 87 Ibid., 147.
promise that went with it. I wish I could have experienced the 1960s the way my parents had, even though all who seemed to exude hope in the decade – John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy – failed to make it out of the 1960s alive. Despite their physical bodies not making it, their emotional visions have no doubt carried on. As Robert Kennedy said, “Like many shattering moments, it is like a gap in time itself, whose meaning is obscure and whose consequences are neither known nor inevitable.”88 Robert Kennedy spoke those words following the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, but they could easily be about the life of Kennedy himself; at the time of his death, nobody knew what laid ahead for America, and nobody knew what the consequences of his death were. At the time of his death, Robert Kennedy was indeed a political individual, far from following in the footsteps of his brother. Following his brother’s death, Robert Kennedy had to emerge from his brother’s shadow into the forefront of American politics. Kennedy’s love for the common man and his empathy for the underdog fueled his drive to change American politics, and only an assassin’s bullets kept him from doing so. In his own words, “Progress is a nice word. But change is its motivator. And change has its enemies.”89 Robert Kennedy had his enemies as well – while he may have been a mortal man – his message and vision were not.
Robert Kennedy, “In Black America,” in According to RFK, edited by MacAfee, 88. Robert Kennedy, Chicago, August 1963.
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Kennedy, Robert F. “The Destiny of Dissent.” Nashville, Tennessee, 21 March, 1968. In The Gospel According to RFK: Why It Matters Now, edited by Norman MacAfee, 45-47. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2004. Kennedy, Robert F. Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1971. Kennedy, Robert F. “Town Meeting of the World: The Image of America and the Youth of the World.” Debate with Ronald Reagan, Sacramento, California, 15 May, 1967. Transcript available from the Robert Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights <http://www.rfkcenter.org/lifevision/townmeetingoftheworld> (accessed 10 November, 2009). Kennedy, Robert F. “Tribute to John F. Kennedy at the Democratic National Convention.” Keynote address, Atlantic City, New Jersey, 27 August, 1964. Transcript available from the Robert Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights <http://www.rfkcenter.org/lifevision/tributetojfkatthednc> (accessed 7 March, 2010). Kennedy, Robert F. “Victory.” Ambassador Hotel Ballroom, Los Angeles, California, 4 June, 1968. In The Gospel According to RFK: Why It Matters Now, edited by Norman MacAfee, 145-148. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2004. Kenney, Charles. John F. Kennedy: The Presidential Portfolio – History as Told Through the Collection of the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum. New York: PublicAffairs, 2000. Khrushchev, Nikita. Khrushchev Remembers. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1970. Leffler, Melvyn. The Specter of Communism: The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1917-1953. New York: Hill and Wang, 1994. MacAfee, Norman, ed. The Gospel According to RFK: Why It Matters Now. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2004. Patterson, David and others, eds. “Minutes of the 505th Meeting of the National Security Council.” Foreign Relations of the United States: 1961-1963 Volume XI: Cuban Missile Crisis and Aftermath. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of State, 1996. Schlesinger, Jr., Arthur M. A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993. Schlesinger, Jr., Arthur M. Robert Kennedy and His Times. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002. 29
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Published on Aug 15, 2012
Robert F. Kennedy and his Fight to Change American Politics