Vietnam: The (Last) War the U.S. Lost, looks at the life of Robert F. Kennedy, assassinated 40 years ago this week, and separates the myth from the reality., author of the new history
I think we can end the divisions in the United States…the violence, the disenchantment with our society, the divisions, whether it’s between blacks and whites, between the poor and the affluent, or between age groups, or over the war in Vietnam–that we can start to work together again. We are a great country, an unselfish country and a compassionate country…. So my thanks to all of you, and it’s on to Chicago, and let’s win there.
ROBERT F. KENNEDY said this to ecstatic supporters at the Ambassador Hotel following his triumph in the California Democratic primary on June 4, 1968. Shortly after his victory speech, Kennedy left the stage, and as he was entering the crowded hotel kitchen to greet supporters, he was shot and mortally wounded. Two days later, he died.
For many liberals, the hopes for progressive political change died with him. “The ’60s came to an end in a Los Angeles hospital on June 6, 1968,” Richard Goodwin mournfully declared in his popular memoir Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties. Goodwin was a former White House staffer during the Kennedy-Johnson administrations who had resigned over the escalation of the war in Vietnam. He would later become a speechwriter for Sens. Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy during their 1968 presidential campaigns.
Jack Newfield, one of the leading journalists of the Village Voice, wrote in his memoir of Robert Kennedy that after his death “from this time forward, things would get worse.”
Goodwin, along with historians like Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and many members of an adoring press corps who could barely contain their enthusiasm for Bobby Kennedy’s quest for the White House when he was alive, would transform his life and death into a powerful liberal myth that has lasted to this very day.
Bobby Kennedy–in reality, an arrogant and intolerant political operative obsessed with his older brother John F. Kennedy’s political career–is now remembered as a thoughtful, pained prophet who identified with the dispossessed and forgotten of American society.
He has been placed alongside his brother and Martin Luther King Jr. as a trio whose assassinations collectively put America on the wrong historical path. Had they lived, much of the “turmoil” of the 1960s–the urban rebellions, the war in Vietnam and the long decades of conservative rule begun with Richard Nixon’s election to the presidency in 1968–could have been avoided.
Bobby Kennedy was the last hope–so goes the myth–for peaceful, progressive change. In the words of Michael Harrington, author of The Other America, “he was a man who actually could have changed the course of American history.”
The question we have to ask four decades later is whether any of this is remotely true.
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ROBERT FRANCIS Kennedy was the third son of Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., a ruthless and politically ambitious businessman from Massachusetts. Kennedy Sr. made a fortune from a variety of enterprises, including real estate, moviemaking, the stock market and bootlegging alcohol during Prohibition.
Joe Kennedy had extensive ties to organized crime and corrupt politicians, who helped make him very rich and to pursue his political ambitions. His own ambition to be the first Irish Catholic president of the United States, however, was thwarted by Franklin Roosevelt, and he transferred his dream to his sons. Three out of four would either become president or run for the presidency.
It is one of the great ironies of U.S. political mythology that the Kennedy family, viewed today as the very symbol of liberalism, was, in fact, deeply conservative.
Joe Kennedy was openly supportive of the pro-fascist forces in Spain during that country’s civil war in the 1930s. He was appointed U.S. ambassador to Great Britain by Roosevelt in 1938, and was known as an “appeaser”–one of those who supported making concessions to Hitler on the eve of the Second World War. Herbert von Dirksen, the German ambassador to Britain, told his superiors that Ambassador Kennedy was “Germany’s best friend” in London. Kennedy was fired as U.S. ambassador in 1940.
From this point onward, Joe Kennedy concentrated on promoting his sons’ political careers and conservative causes in more covert ways. He was very close to the infamous anticommunist Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, after McCarthy became famous for persecuting liberals and radicals. During McCarthy’s 1952 reelection campaign, Joe made a sizeable contribution and then asked that his son Bobby be placed on the McCarthy subcommittee investigating “subversives.”
Bobby only stayed on McCarthy’s committee for six months, using it as a springboard for an assignment to another congressional committee that gained him greater notoriety–the Senate Rackets Committee led by the reactionary Democratic Sen. John McClellan of Arkansas, whom the conservative labor leader George Meany described as “an anti-labor nut.”
As an assistant counsel to McClellan, Bobby carried on his particularly vicious persecution of Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa, gaining a reputation for ruthlessness in pursuit of his political enemies and rivals. Joe Kennedy complimented his son on this character trait. “He’s a great kid,” Joe said. “He hates the same way I do.”
Throughout the 1950s, Bobby remained focused on building his older brother’s political career. He was campaign manager for John F. Kennedy’s first U.S. Senate campaign in 1952 and his presidential campaign in 1960. Bobby was his brother’s closest advisor (after Joe Kennedy Sr.). When JFK won the presidency, he made Bobby his attorney general.
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THE KENNEDY presidency took place during a crucial time for three issues that would later come to dominate the rest of the decade: the civil rights movement, the Cuban Revolution and the war in Vietnam.
The Kennedys relied heavily on the Black vote to win the presidency in 1960, making certain symbolic overtures to Martin Luther King during the campaign. But as Bobby recalled in 1964, “I did not lie awake at night worrying about the problems of Negroes.”
That would soon change as Freedom Riders challenged segregation on interstate bus lines during the first year of the Kennedy presidency. The year before, a wave of sit-ins took place across the country to desegregate everything from lunch counters to public swimming pools. A mass movement against Jim Crow segregation was emerging–and the Kennedys did everything they could to contain it.
The Democratic Party was still a Jim Crow party–white Southern Democrats were known as “Dixiecrats”–with Blacks almost entirely disenfranchised in the South and the border states. For most of the 20th century, the Democrats needed the “solid South” (the states of the former Confederacy voting for the Democratic ticket as a bloc) to win national elections, and Kennedy was no exception. During his short time in office, John Kennedy appointed five supporters of segregation to the federal judiciary.
The Freedom Riders and sit-ins threatened to push the Dixiecrats into the Republican Party. The Kennedys hoped to pressure civil rights activists in a direction that wouldn’t jeopardize their southern support.
John Kennedy told Louisiana Gov. James H. Davis that his administration was trying “to put this stuff in the courts and get it off the street.” As attorney general, Bobby Kennedy famously told representatives of student civil rights groups, “If you cut out this Freedom Rider and sitting-in stuff and concentrate on voter registration, I’ll get you a tax exemption.”
He told Harris Wofford, special assistant to the president on civil rights, “This is too much,” after King refused to call off the protests. RFK added, “I wonder if they have the best interests of the country at heart. Do you know that one of them is against the atom bomb? Yes, he even picketed against it in jail! The president is going abroad, and all this is embarrassing him.”
Robert Kennedy also authorized FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover to begin wiretapping Martin Luther King’s telephone conversations on the grounds that Stanley Levison, King’s closest adviser, was allegedly a closet member of the Communist Party. Of King, RFK remarked, “We never wanted to get very close to him just because of these contacts and connections that he had, which we felt were damaging to the civil rights movement.”
The Kennedys put enormous pressure on the organizers of the historic March on Washington in August 1963 to cancel the event; then, when that failed, to control it. Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee leader and future member of Congress John Lewis wanted to say in his speech: “I want to know: Which side is the federal government on?” The administration compelled him to take this out because, according to Bobby Kennedy, it “attacked the president.”
Lewis’s frustration with the Kennedy administration would have resonated with many civil rights supporters. One major source of frustration with the Kennedys was their refusal to provide federal protection to civil rights activists. Bobby later admitted, “We abandoned the solution, really, of trying to give people protection.”
A generation of civil rights activists became radicalized in the face of the waffling compromises and inaction of the Kennedy administration.
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MANY OF that generation also became radicalized by the Kennedy administration’s foreign policy, particularly when it came to Cuba and Vietnam. The Kennedy brothers were as committed to defending the American empire as any reactionary Republican.
For much of the 20th century, Cuba had been, for all intents and purposes, a colony of the United States, where poverty wages were being paid–and huge profits reaped–by American corporations. It also was a haven for the American Mafia.
Castro’s nationalist revolution in 1959 drove the American ruling class to hysterics, and they set out to destroy Castro. The Kennedy administration inherited plans from the Eisenhower administration and authorized the CIA’s disastrous “Bay of Pigs” invasion of Cuba in early 1961, the most spectacular of the U.S. government’s failed attempts to crush the Cuban Revolution.
But it didn’t stop there. Bobby Kennedy led a special White House committee that oversaw “Operation Mongoose,” a wide-ranging covert program of sabotage, assassination, blackmail and other activities directed against Fidel Castro and the Cuban government. Bobby declared that it was “top priority” to get rid of Castro. The U.S. failed, but its campaign resulted in untold death and destruction across Cuba.
The Kennedy brothers’ failure in Cuba only made them more determined to succeed elsewhere. They became fascinated with “unorthodox” warfare: counter-insurgency, assassination and covert action. The Eisenhower administration had authorized the CIA to carry out 170 major covert operations in eight years, while the Kennedy brothers authorized 163 in less than three years.
Vietnam became a laboratory for all these deadly programs. By the time of John F. Kennedy’s death in November 1963, the United States was already fighting a proxy war in Vietnam. Its 15,000 military advisors were leading combat operations and bombing missions in a faltering effort to prevent the victory of the National Liberation Front (NLF) of South Vietnam, called derisively by U.S. officials the “Viet Cong.”
In early November 1963, after the United States engineered the assassination of the corrupt South Vietnamese dictator Ngo Dinh Diem, Bobby said to his brother, “It’s better if you don’t have him, but you have to have somebody that can win the war, and who is that?” The “who” never emerged, but that didn’t stop the United States from destroying large parts of Vietnam in the hopes of winning the war against the NLF and the North Vietnamese.
After John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in November 1963, Bobby remained in the cabinet as a lame-duck attorney general until August 1964, when he resigned and ran successfully for a U.S. Senate seat from New York.
Despite his personal hatred for the reigning Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, who triumphed over his Republican rival Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election in part by pledging to keep the U.S. out of a ground war in Vietnam, Bobby supported Johnson’s war policies in Vietnam. As a U.S. senator, he never voted against any appropriation bills that funded the war. I.F. Stone, the great radical journalist, wrote an article in October 1966 titled “While Others Dodge the Draft, Bobby Dodges the War.”
In the Democratic congressional primaries in 1966, a number of antiwar candidates ran against incumbents supporting Johnson’s war policies. The best known of these was radical journalist Robert Scheer, who challenged Representative Jeffrey Cohelan, representing a district covering parts of Berkeley and Oakland in California. Kennedy endorsed Cohelan.
Even the slavishly loyal Kennedy biographer Arthur Schlesinger was forced to admit, “Kennedy brooded about Vietnam, but said less in public.” What were Bobby and other Senate liberals “brooding” about? Two things: the prospect of the United States losing the war, and the growing dissent in the country that threatened the Democratic Party’s domination of national politics since the early 1930s. How could the Democrats–the “war party” in Vietnam–capture the antiwar vote?
Antiwar sentiment was bound to find expression in the Democratic Party; it may have been the governing war party, but it was still the liberal party, and more importantly, it was the party that had traditionally played the role of capturing and disarming mass movements for social change.
When Bobby Kennedy made it clear that he would not challenge Johnson for the Democratic nomination, the field was left open for a little-known Democratic senator from Minnesota, Eugene “Gene” McCarthy, to run as an antiwar candidate. In November 1967, at the press conference announcing his candidacy, McCarthy was quite open about his political objective:
There is growing evidence of a deepening moral crisis in America–discontent and frustration and a disposition to take extralegal if not illegal actions to manifest protest. I am hopeful that this challenge…may counter the growing sense of alienation from politics which I think is currently reflected in a tendency to withdraw from political action, to talk of nonparticipation, to become cynical and to make threats of support for third parties or fourth parties or other irregular political movements.
Kennedy’s “broodings” got worse after the Tet Offensive by the NLF and its North Vietnamese allies at the end of January 1968. A large majority of the U.S. population concluded from the offensive that the war had become a “quagmire” and couldn’t be won. The leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, Richard Nixon, was proposing “peace with honor” to the Democrats’ war policies.
Gene McCarthy’s campaign would have gone down as a footnote in history, but because of the Tet Offensive, he won 42 percent of the vote in the first primary contest in New Hampshire. It shocked Johnson, leading him to withdraw from the race. It was at this moment that Bobby announced his candidacy for the presidency.
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IT’S IMPORTANT to be clear that Robert Kennedy never advocated unilateral withdrawal of U.S. forces from Southeast Asia; in fact, he voted against this. While he peppered most of his campaign speeches in 1968 with rhetoric about the need for “peace” in Vietnam, he offered little more than talk of a “negotiated settlement,” which was not very different from what Johnson or Nixon proposed, while they continued to wage war against the Vietnamese people.
Bobby’s chief political goal, like Eugene McCarthy’s, was to capture the support of the antiwar movement and to deliver it into the safe confines of the Democratic Party.
With a political record like his, why did Bobby Kennedy’s campaign generate such excitement? Kennedy attracted large, enthusiastic, sometimes frantic crowds that just wanted to reach out and touch him. His most bland speeches elicited roaring approval from supporters. The media at the time described him as having a “pop star” appeal to the young.
In many ways, Kennedy became the receptacle for the hopes of those millions of Americans who still desired change through the established political system.
He encouraged these illusions in him. He met with well-known antiwar activists like former Students for a Democratic Society president Tom Hayden and former Yale professor Staughton Lynd. He had a well-publicized meeting with United Farm Workers union leader Cesar Chavez while he was on hunger strike.
Kennedy would also confide to reporters, “I wish I’d had been born an Indian” and “I’m jealous of the fact that you grew up in a ghetto, I wish I’d had that experience”–or even more ridiculously, “If I hadn’t been born rich, I’d probably be a revolutionary.”
But he could also strike a chord with people. On the night of Martin Luther King’s assassination, he spoke to a predominately Black audience and told them that he could identify with their anger because “his brother was killed by a white man.”
Kennedy, however, worked both sides of the street. While crafting a left-wing, even rebellious, image for the younger generation, he also sought the support of the party bosses for his campaign. He sought but failed to get the support of Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago, the very symbol of Jim Crow in the North, for his presidential bid. “Daley’s the whole ballgame,” Kennedy declared.
One of his earliest supporters was Jesse Unruh, the speaker of the California State Assembly, who is attributed to popularizing the saying, “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.”
Kennedy also didn’t sound very progressive on many key issues. He opposed economic sanctions on South Africa for its apartheid policies, and he opposed busing to integrate schools. Kennedy even attacked Gene McCarthy during their televised debate prior to the California primary for his support for building public housing in the suburbs. Kennedy said incredulously, “You say you are going to take 10,000 Black people and move them into Orange County.”
McCarthy believed that Kennedy advocated a “segregated residential apartheid.” Kennedy’s big idea to alleviate poverty in the inner cities was to provide tax breaks to corporations to move into blighted neighborhoods. Then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan believed that “Kennedy is talking more and more like me.”
With all this in mind, how could Bobby Kennedy be turned into such an icon?
The American myth-making machine is very powerful and usually does two things. It elevates people like the Kennedy brothers to a status that they do not deserve, while washing away the real radical politics that were at the core of activists like Martin Luther King. They are all mushed together into a candy-coated picture of the alleged greatness of American society and its political system. “The yearning for Robert Kennedy–or someone like him–is an open wound in some parts of America,” wrote one reporter two decades after his death.
Some would say Barack Obama is an example of “someone like him” today. Yet when we remember Robert Kennedy, it should not be as someone who promised hope and idealism, but as an opportunist who was part of a political establishment responsible for the things the movements of 1960s struggled against.
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