Robert Kennedy chats with reporters prior to his assassination at the Ambassador Hotel. Los Angeles, June 5, 1968
Bill Eppridge—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
By David Kaiser
June 5, 2018

When Robert F. Kennedy was shot on June 5, 1968, he had just assumed the leadership of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party by beating Eugene McCarthy in the California Primary. For nearly four years — ever since a dramatic appearance on the last night of the 1964 Democratic Convention, when a standing ovation delayed the opening of his speech by a full 16 minutes — he had been the favorite of liberal Democrats, who were deserting Lyndon Johnson because of the Vietnam War. Elected to the Senate from the state of New York in 1964, he had also emerged as a spokesman for the urban poor, who had rioted in Harlem in 1964, in Watts in 1965 and in nearly every major city from 1966 through the spring of 1968.

His death a day later froze him in time as a symbol of that era. For many American liberals, especially after that year’s election culminated in the victory of Richard Nixon, he also became a symbol of not just a better past, but also a better future that might have been. Lost in the aftermath of his death and the tumultuous events of the rest of 1968, is the matter of just how liberal Robert Kennedy really was.

The historical record, in fact, is clear: until 1963, at least, liberalism was not Kennedy’s primary characteristic. He had been born in 1925, on the leading edge of the Silent Generation. Like so many men born in that year, he had gone into the wartime military, but too late actually to reach combat. During the 1950s and early 1960s he seemed determined to prove that he was as tough as any of the next older generation, including his two older brothers, each of whom had distinguished himself, and one of whom had died, in combat. As counsel to the Senate Rackets Committee, he brought mobsters and labor bosses to Washington to embarrass them in public, and began his long and eventually successful campaign to put Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa behind bars. Managing his brother’s campaign in 1960, he ruthlessly warned delegates about the consequences of not endorsing JFK quickly enough.

As he freely admitted in oral histories he did in 1964-5, his attacks on unions helped JFK secure some support from southern Democratic governments, for whom union organizers ranked second only to civil rights workers as dangerous outside agitators.

When his brother appointed him Attorney General, his top priority was a concerted attack on organized crime, and in April he had immigration agents kidnap New Orleans mobster Carlos Marcello, an undocumented immigrant, and fly him out of the country to Guatemala. (Marcello returned and, as I argued in my book The Road to Dallas, was connected through the mob to the assassination of President Kennedy.) When that same spring the first civil rights crisis of the Kennedy Administration began, as the Freedom Riders made their way south, RFK asked the organizers to halt the rides because they would embarrass the President while he traveled in Europe.

Kennedy did evolve significantly on civil rights in the first half of 1963, but not out of moral outrage. Martin Luther King Jr.’s campaign for the desegregation of public accommodations in Birmingham had provoked shocking violence, and more such episodes would surely follow. As Kennedy explained in his oral histories a year later, the Justice Department simply did not have the manpower to protect demonstrators against violence, and he therefore saw no choice but to introduce legislation that would meet their demands and get the question off the streets. So was born the great Civil Rights Act of 1964. His commitment was tactical and political, not emotional.

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Later in that same year, apparently worried by J. Edgar Hoover’s accusations of Communist influence on Martin Luther King Jr., he suggested that the FBI tap King’s phone. Courtney Evans, his FBI liaison, suggested that the idea was too dangerous, but RFK ordered him to go ahead anyway. Shortly before the March on Washington in August of 1963, he dismissively asked civil rights activist Marietta Tree if she planned to participate in the event, along with “that old black fairy” Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King, Jr, whose personal indiscretions, he said, were well known to the government. In an oral history early in 1965, Kennedy described a meeting James Baldwin had arranged between him and some younger, more militant black activists in April 1963. He was still disgusted by their anger and threats, and by the failure of the older leaders present to stand up to them.

The oral histories also include a discussion of Vietnam — and here RFK emerges as more hawkish than his older brother. He claimed that his brother “had a strong, overwhelming reason for being in Vietnam, and that we should win the war in Vietnam,” in order to avoid a further spread of Communism and a worldwide defeat for the U.S, but in fact, JFK had twice refused to declare the survival of South Vietnam a vital interest of the U.S. RFK vocally opposed the coup against Ngo Dinh Diem in the fall of 1963. He shared his brother’s desire to achieve détente with the Soviets, but in the Third World he focused on fighting the Cold War more effectively.

And caution marked RFK’s positions in the last three years of his life. In early 1966, he created a sensation by suggesting that the U.S. might negotiate with the National Liberation Front — the political arm of the Viet Cong — to end the Vietnam War. He backed away from that position when it provoked controversy. In late 1967, he decided that he would not challenge Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic nomination, yielding the role of challenger to Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota. When McCarthy nearly won the New Hampshire primary, however, he “reassessed” his position and entered the race. He won the support of a majority of liberal Democrats and beat McCarthy in primaries in Indiana and Nebraska; lost to him in Oregon; and won in California.

But his positions on key issues remained more moderate than McCarthy’s. While the Minnesota Senator argued that the Vietnam War could only end with a coalition government in South Vietnam, RFK accused McCarthy of trying to impose surrender on Saigon, and promised to “clean up” the existing government — which could be interpreted as a promise to continue the war. In a California debate, McCarthy suggested the government had to build housing for urban black people in mostly white suburbs, where jobs were moving, while Kennedy suggested helping them where they were.

Because relatively few states chose delegates in primaries in 1968, Kennedy trailed Hubert Humphrey by a large margin in delegate counts when he died. I well remember that hardly anyone expected him to get the nomination.

Robert Kennedy died as he had lived, a mainstream mid-century Democrat. Had he lived, that might have turned out to be a strength rather than a weakness. We can see now that with the passage of the great civil rights acts of 1964 and 1965 and Medicare in the latter year, the great era of liberal legislation was coming to an end. The problem for the Democrats now was to head off a conservative Republican revolution — the one that struck forcefully in 1980, when RFK would have been only 55.

The 2006 film Bobby, set on the day of his assassination, includes real newsreels of white West Virginians talking about his visit to their town. They glow with pride, savoring one of the great days of their lives. Those towns are now among the most reliably Republican areas in the country. Precisely because he was above all a realist, RFK might indeed have had a great role to play in the American politics of the late 20th century.

Historians explain how the past informs the present

David Kaiser, a historian, has taught at Harvard, Carnegie Mellon, Williams College, and the Naval War College. He is the author of seven books, including, most recently, No End Save Victory: How FDR Led the Nation into War. He lives in Watertown, Mass.

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