RFK: Death of a Dream June 6, 1968

June 5, 2008

The year was 1968. It was a contentious presidential election year. The incumbant president Democrat Lyndon Baines Johnson had bowed out of the election with a shocking announcement in March. The Vietnam War was tearing Americans apart. Johnson’s popularity was at an all-time low. The Republican frontrunner for the nomination was former Vice President Richard M. Nixon who promised peace with honor in Vietnam if he was elected. (Above: Photo taken from RFK funeral train. Paul Fusco photo.)

On the Democratic side President Johnson had lost the New Hampshire primary to little-known Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota who promised unconditional withdrawal from the war. After this primary loss President Johnson suddenly announced that he would not stand for re-election. The sudden withdrawal of Johnson opened the field. Vice President Hubert Humphrey entered the race late, after the primaries (only thirteen states had primaries at this time), and promised to continue Johnson’s policies. He proposed to negotiage a peace, but not at any cost.

Senator McCarthy was winning primaries and support as the anti-war candidate. Sitting on the sidelines was Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York. At the urging of supporters he entered the race and he too began winning primaries and support as an anti-war candidate. He brought the Kennedy name and support to the race. McCarthy did not have a national base and began losing ground to Kennedy. Humphrey was the party favorite, except he didn’t enter any primaries and Kennedy began gaining in delegate support and in public support. Kennedy hoped to force McCarthy out of the race by winning the delegate-rich California primary, then it would be just Kennedy and Humphrey at the convention. By the time the California primary came on June 4th, it was obvious the nomination would have to be decided at the convention in Chicago in August.

The California primary was the biggest and most delegate-rich for any candidate. Senator Kennedy won it overwhelming. It was also the last primary. The next event to determine the Democratic nominee was the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

In the early hours of June 5th, after his primary victory, Senator Robert F. Kennedy went to the Ambassador Hotel ballroom in Los Angeles and gave a victory speech to his supporters. Shortly after midnight, he concluded his speech with the words of encouragement to them, “Now on to Chicago and let’s win there.”

He planned to go into the crowd and shake hands, but his friends directed him to leave backstage through the kitchen area to avoid the crowds. Kennedy was shaking hands with kitchen staff on his way out, when a Palestinian immigrant Sirhan B. Sirhan stepped forward and at point blank range emptied his eight-shot Ivor Johnson revolver at the senator. Kennedy slumped to the concrete floor of the kitchen and lay on his back bleeding profusely from his head. One of the kitchen staff cradled his head as friends and supporters wrestled with Sirhan and finally subdued him. Several others were wounded.

Senator Kennedy was rushed to the hospital where doctors performed surgery, but in the early morning hours of June 6, 1968 Robert Francis Kennedy died of his gunshot wounds. The hopes and dreams for real change died with him.

Hubert Humphrey became the Democratic nominee without virtually any opposition, and Richard Nixon was the Republican nominee. Nixon was elected in a landslide in November 1968. A peace was negotiated in Vietnam after several more years of fighting. Nixon and Spiro Agnew, his Vice President, were re-elected in 1972, and both subsequently resigned in disgrace.

I still remember Bobby’s inspiring words,

“There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were and ask why not.”

U.S. postage stamp issued in 1978 to honor Robert Kennedy.


Book Review – Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years

March 31, 2008

brothersbookcvr.jpgBrothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years

by David Talbot, Free Press a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, NY, 2007

This is a riveting expose of the Kennedy era through the eyes of John Kennedy’s most trusted adviser and confidant, his brother Robert Kennedy and other close friends from that era. It begins with John F. Kennedy’s presidency in January 1961 and continues through his brother, Robert Kennedy’s assassination, on June 6, 1968.

Using startling new evidence and interviews, the author reveals for the first time that Robert Kennedy did not believe the Warren Commission’s lone gunman theory and was convinced his brother was the victim of a conspiracy. When he became president he intended to re-open the Warren Commission Investigation into his brother’s assassination.


Previously unknown and chilling facts about the era are uncovered. The historical characters come to life in the pages of this book. The reader will be pulled into the events as if they were there. For example, the Joint Chiefs-of-Staff of the American military planned to carry out a surprise nuclear attack on the Soviet Union in the early 1960s to remove the communist threat. President Kennedy asked them what American losses would result. The reply was, “only 20 or 30 million deaths, and a few major cities would be obliterated.” It was inconceivable to him they would seriously consider such a thing. During his entire administration the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the military were conducting operations that he would not sanction, yet they went ahead regardless.

Some key points made by the author put this era in context,

          This was the height of the Cold War and the communist threat was the dominating fear of the CIA, FBI, and the military.

          The use of nuclear weapons and nuclear war were not unthinkable concepts to the military.

          The CIA was fixated on Fidel Castro’s Cuba and overthrowing its socialist government.

          The assassination of Castro was actively pursued with the help of the Mafia and without Kennedy’s approval or knowledge.

Any and all attempts by Kennedy to ease tensions with the Soviet Union were strongly opposed by the military and others who said he was “soft” on communism and believed as a result he was endangering the security of the United States.

He was opposed in his attempt to assist Martin Luther King, Jr. and his drive for civil rights for black Americans. The resulting split in the Democratic Party seriously endangered the re-election of Kennedy in 1964. If he did not win the state of Texas in the election of 1964, he would not be re-elected, hence the urgency of his trip to Texas in 1963. He needed to attack extremism in America and promote his view of world peace that relied on peaceful co-existence, not nuclear confrontation.

Reading this book made me believe in conspiracy simply because he had so many powerful enemies who had the motive, means and opportunity to murder the president. The author answers another statement made by those who don’t believe in conspiracy – “someone would have talked”. Talbot documents the fact that many reliable witnesses have talked over the years. They have not been taken seriously, eliminated, or their testimony buried. Although the story is woven into the assassinations of both John and Robert, it is not a true assassination book. It doesn’t advance a specific conspiracy scenario, rather it summarizes the most significant theories on the subject. What he does do most effectively is lift the veil on the many enemies of the Kennedy presidency. Bottom line thesis the book seems to advance is that Kennedy’s approach to the Cold War was so revolutionary, sinister forces fought to end it.

To anyone interested in the history of this era, this book will be a page-turner. I read it in a couple of days and couldn’t leave it alone. Talbot has so well-researched and documented his story the reader will be thinking about it for a very long time. It reads like a thriller. He accomplished the goal of examining the Kennedy Era through the eyes of those who lived it. After reading this book I am amazed that nuclear war did not occur.

Previously unpublished interviews with Jackie Kennedy and Robert Kennedy concerning the events of November 22, 1963 and their aftermath are a highlight of the book. Jackie’s descriptions of the bloodbath inside the presidential Lincoln are especially gut-wrenching. These descriptions serve to force the reader to look beyond the Zapruder film and realize the human carnage that was taking place.

The final question posed by the author is, “Why should we care after all these years?”  His book argues that democracy is threatened by lies and untruths perpetuated by governments. For this reader, a child of the sixties, the Kennedy assassinations were the beginning of my cynicism of governments. This book reconfirms my beliefs.

The author, David Talbot is the founder and former editor-in-chief of Salon, one of the most respected on-line magazines. He has written for The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and other publications. When Robert Kennedy was assassinated, Talbot was a sixteen-year old worker in Kennedy’s campaign for the presidency.

This was the most thought-provoking book I have read for a long time. I highly recommend it.


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