Kennedy, Robert Francis
KENNEDY, Robert Francis
(b. 20 November 1925 in Brookline, Massachusetts; d. 6 June 1968 in Los Angeles, California), prominent political figure who served as attorney general in the administration of his brother, President John F. Kennedy, and as a senator from New York, and who was involved in many of the key issues and events of the 1960s, including U.S. relations with Cuba and Russia, civil rights, the Vietnam War, antipoverty, and the fight against organized crime.
Kennedy was the seventh child and third son born to Joseph Patrick Kennedy and Rose (Fitzgerald) Kennedy. Having made a fortune through a variety of activities, the father turned to politics, which led to involvement in Franklin D. Roosevelt's campaign and ultimately to appointment in 1938 as ambassador to England. But his strong isolationist views put him at odds with the president's concern over the growing menace of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany, and after Roosevelt won his third term, Joseph Kennedy resigned his post.
During Kennedy's childhood, his father focused greater attention on his two eldest sons, Joseph, Jr., and John. Some observers believe that Kennedy's quest for paternal approval had a formative effect on his behavior for years to come. Often reserved and awkward (but with a dry sense of humor), Kennedy was a mediocre student, though not for lack of determination or intelligence. He was well-versed in public affairs as a result of the family's mealtime discussions about politics, which Joseph, Sr., and the two older boys dominated. More religious than his siblings, he seemed to find refuge in identification with the Catholic Church.
Despite his father's reluctance, since his eldest sons were already enlisted, Kennedy joined the V-12 naval officer training program in March 1944 after graduating from Milton Academy. In August, Joseph, Jr., died in a plane explosion while on a bombing mission. His family shattered by grief, Kennedy nonetheless continued his training but ultimately did not pass the aptitude test for flight school. In July 1945 Kennedy resigned from officer training and enlisted as a sailor on a ship named after his brother. By the time he shipped out, the war was over. He was discharged in May 1946.
With Joseph, Jr., gone, his father's ambitions shifted to John, and the family undertook to elect him congressman for the Eleventh District of Massachusetts. Robert Kennedy helped in the campaign and then returned to Harvard to finish his remaining three semesters. Still aiming to earn his father's attention and respect, he continued to receive mediocre grades but played football with a furious intensity. On graduation in 1948 he enrolled at the University of Virginia School of Law and continued seeing Ethel Skakel, whom he had met during his work on his brother's campaign. They were married on 17 June 1950, when Robert was twenty-four and Ethel twenty-two. They had eleven children. For Kennedy, Ethel provided an essential complement, accentuating his passion and humor and helping him work through his insecurities. He graduated in the middle of his law school class in 1951.
Kennedy began working at the Justice Department but quickly left to work in his brother's successful 1952 U.S. Senate campaign, in which he played an important role in mediating the interventions of his overbearing father. Kennedy was determined and driven, and his performance finally began to earn him his father's respect and his brother's confidence. In January 1953 Joseph, Sr., asked Senator Joseph McCarthy to hire Kennedy as a lawyer on the staff of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. After just five months Kennedy resigned, disagreeing with the committee's increasing emphasis on rooting out Communists inside the American government and its methods in pursuing that goal. He returned shortly thereafter as counsel to the Senate Democratic minority, who were increasingly at odds with McCarthy, and then became chief counsel to the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations after the Democrats regained control of the Senate.
Two years later Kennedy convinced Senator John McClellan of Arkansas to create a Select Committee on labor racketeering, which became known as the Rackets Committee, and for which Kennedy became chief counsel. He focused the committee's investigations on the Teamsters Union, which had organized the trucking industry, and especially on its president, Dave Beck, and Beck's chief rival, Jimmy Hoffa (who took over when Beck fell from power). Kennedy wrote a book about the investigations, entitled The Enemy Within (1960).
At the end of 1959 family duty called him to manage his brother John's presidential campaign. Kennedy, putting his own ambitions on hold, was tough and effective. The campaign was not easy. A Catholic had never been elected president, and the party apparatus was not instinctively enthusiastic about John Kennedy, who had never been a Senate insider. Nonetheless, with important assistance from Kennedy, John prevailed in a very close election.
Campaigning exposed and awakened Kennedy to the most important issues of the day, including race and poverty. When John Kennedy was elected, Joseph, Sr., wanted Robert Kennedy to be named attorney general. Robert was initially reluctant to sacrifice his desire for an independent identity, but President Kennedy decided that he needed someone he could trust absolutely and that his brother was that person, so Robert agreed. He recruited an exceptionally strong staff and began his tenure by redeclaring his war on organized crime. But his quest ran into considerable resistance from J. Edgar Hoover, the longtime director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), whose people would have to conduct the investigations necessary for prosecutions to occur. Hoover had always been more interested in rooting out Communism than in addressing organized crime and above all was unwilling to be accountable to anyone for his stewardship of the FBI. Nonetheless, Kennedy persisted, placing special emphasis on pursuing Hoffa.
In April 1961 the Kennedy administration faced its first crisis. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) convinced the president to sign off on a plan (developed during the Eisenhower administration) to send a covert force into Cuba, predicting that with the help of the invading force the Cuban people would revolt and overthrow the communist dictator Fidel Castro. The mission failed spectacularly. Most of the invaders were killed or captured. The Bay of Pigs crisis taught both brothers a hard lesson and solidified Kennedy's position as the president's most important and trusted adviser. It also hardened his resolve to find a way to remove Castro and free the Cuban exiles captured at the Bay of Pigs. In addition, the cold war context in which the Kennedy administration came to power led them to see a positive American presence in the Third World as a critical strategic stance in the struggle to defeat Communism. Accordingly, Kennedy made trips to Africa, India, Japan, and Indonesia to promote the ideals of democracy. His 1962 visit to Japan was especially successful, as he interacted with students, workers, intellectuals, and others, winning them over with his frankness, understanding, and demonstrated knowledge of their concerns.
At the same time, the civil rights movement was gaining momentum, with the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., as its most visible leader. At first civil rights were not at the forefront of Kennedy's concerns, consumed as he was by the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs and the war on organized crime. But on 4 May 1961 thirteen young protesters known as the Freedom Riders boarded a bus to test a Supreme Court decision that prohibited segregation in interstate transportation. They were dragged from the bus and beaten by mobs in Anniston, Alabama, and again in Montgomery, Alabama, a few days later. Kennedy, shocked by the violence, worked to get protection for the riders. But he also preferred to keep the clamor down, fearing that news of racial unrest would harm the country's cold war activities. He believed that racial problems could eventually be solved without the need for confrontation, so his commitment was to the pursuit of voter registration, focusing on gradual change rather than the more dramatic demonstrations led by King.
Both Kennedys were jolted out of their underestimation of the civil rights issue by the crisis surrounding the enrollment of James Meredith at the University of Mississippi. In September 1962 Meredith won a court order enforcing his acceptance to the university and forbidding any interference by the governor of the state, Ross Barnett. Barnett disobeyed the order and stopped Meredith from registering. Kennedy entered into secret negotiations with Barnett, securing an agreement that federal marshals would escort Meredith to the university so the governor could save face by seeming to succumb to overpowering federal force. But the crowd that had gathered was too threatening, and the attempt was called off. Four days later, after Barnett proposed a similar deal and then canceled, Kennedy told Barnett that the president was going to federalize the National Guard because Barnett had broken his word. This time Barnett agreed to cooperate, and Meredith, accompanied by U.S. marshals, registered at the university. But as it grew dark, a mob came together, shouting racial epithets, and the situation quickly deteriorated. The marshals protected themselves with tear gas, but the riot continued and gunfire began to ring out. A total of 160 marshals were injured. It was remarkable that none of them was killed. (There were two deaths, one a photographer and the other a bystander.) Eventually, there was no choice but to send in troops. Although Kennedy had failed to accomplish Meredith's enrollment peacefully, to the country and the world the show of force demonstrated the Kennedys' commitment to civil rights.
In October 1962 confirmation came that the Soviets were installing medium-range ballistic missiles in Cuba. Kennedy and CIA director John McCone had been the only senior officials concerned in the preceding months that Soviet ships then entering Cuban harbors were delivering such weapons. To everyone else it seemed too unlikely that the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev would dare to put nuclear missiles so close to American soil. Kennedy had pushed for more action, but the senior national security apparatus outvoted him in September and in fact canceled U-2 spy plane flights over Cuba to prevent an incident should one of the planes be shot down. Thus, the United States was unaware that the Soviets were indeed unloading ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads in Cuba. The Soviets claimed that they were only defensive weapons, but in truth, half of the cities in the United States were within the range of the missiles.
The United States discovered the sites in aerial reconnaissance photographs on Tuesday, 16 October 1962. At first, like his brother and the other advisers involved, Kennedy was furious about the Soviets' deception and wanted to retaliate. But within a day he saw things differently, and his measured judgment and discerning advice were invaluable throughout the thirteen days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. He was against bombing the missile sites, resisting the urgings of the hawks on the Executive Committee, or ExComm, the name given to the group put together to advise the president. Instead, he agreed with those who wanted to put a naval blockade around the island as a way to buy time and avoid the escalation of reprisals that could follow an outright attack. On Friday morning Kennedy managed to convince most of the members of ExComm that a blockade was the best response, and the president later endorsed the decision. On Monday night President Kennedy addressed the nation and announced the blockade. The threat of an impending nuclear war sent a wave of fear across the country.
Kennedy worked his diplomatic back channels, attempting to discover whether the Soviets would accept a trade of U.S. missile bases in Turkey for the Soviet bases in Cuba. On Wednesday morning, 24 October, tensions rose further as two Soviet ships and a submarine approached the blockade line. The United States went to Defense Condition (DEFCON) 2, one step away from war. Anxious moments passed until word came that the ships had stopped. The quest for a diplomatic solution continued, and on Friday, Khrushchev sent a letter suggesting that he would remove the missiles from Cuba in exchange for a lifting of the blockade and a U.S. promise not to invade Cuba. But Saturday morning brought a harsher letter from Khrushchev, in which he also demanded the removal of the missiles the Americans had in Turkey. Working with Ted Sorensen, the president's speechwriter, Kennedy drafted a letter back to Khrushchev, accepting the demands of the first letter but deftly setting aside those of the second for later negotiations. Then word came that a U-2 plane had been shot down, and President Kennedy had to resist demands by the military to launch air strikes in response. Instead, he sent Kennedy to meet with the Soviet ambassador with two messages: one, if the Soviets would withdraw the missiles, the United States would not invade; and two, the United States would remove its missiles from Turkey after the crisis was resolved, but only if the Soviets did not try to depict it as a response to Soviet pressure. On Sunday morning Khrushchev announced the withdrawal of nuclear missiles from Cuba.
Kennedy's continued focus on Cuba led to the successful release of the Bay of Pigs prisoners in December 1962, in exchange for donated cash and medical supplies. Kennedy never gave up on his desire to oust Castro, but as 1963 unfolded, the country became consumed by the continuing struggle over equal rights for African Americans. Not satisfied with the administration's efforts, including a proposed civil rights bill that dealt only with voting rights, Martin Luther King, Jr., continued staging demonstrations and marches, especially in Birmingham, Alabama, where covered by national television, Sheriff Eugene "Bull" Connor turned fire hoses and police dogs on marching children. More than any other single set of events, this galvanized national concern. In early June, amid the growing national pressure for action, Kennedy, now more deeply committed, deftly negotiated Alabama governor George Wallace's capitulation to the enrollment of black students at the University of Alabama. On the same day, after continuing advocacy by Kennedy, President Kennedy delivered a nationally televised speech and sent a comprehensive civil rights bill to Congress.
In October 1963 worries about growing difficulties in Vietnam pushed their way into Kennedy's field of concerns. The Kennedys were not interested in waging a ground war against Communism in Vietnam and instead looked to their longstanding belief in counterinsurgency. Distrustful of the CIA's bleak assessment of the chances of success, President Kennedy asked the Pentagon to begin secret operations to undermine the Ho Chi Minh regime in the North. At the same time Washington had authorized a coup against its one-time ally, South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and his increasingly troubled regime. Kennedy opposed the coup, fearing that if it failed the United States would be blamed. But on 1 November, the generals in charge of the coup attacked the presidential palace in Saigon and assassinated Diem, and the problems in Vietnam began to escalate.
Kennedy was at home at 1:45 p.m. on 22 November 1963 when J. Edgar Hoover called to tell him that the president had been shot. At 2:30 p.m. word came that the president was dead. Stunned, Kennedy stayed with friends and family and comforted his children until it was time to go meet his brother's body. He attended to the details of the funeral, preserving an outward reserve and composure, but inwardly he was in agony at the loss of the brother with whom his career and ambitions had been so intimately connected. He appeared to have no interest in the investigation of the murder. It seemed he felt that taking an interest would only prolong his unbearable grief.
Eventually, at the beginning of 1964, he began to take up work at the Justice Department again. In March 1964 Jimmy Hoffa was found guilty of jury tampering and sentenced to eight years. In July he was found guilty of stealing a million dollars from Teamster funds and sentenced to five more years. Kennedy, though, showed little interest. Meanwhile, his personal relationship with Lyndon B. Johnson, his brother's successor, degenerated from mutual dislike and resentment to outright enmity. In the spring of 1964 it spurred Kennedy to reenter the public arena. He did nothing to discourage speculation that he would accept designation as President Johnson's running mate. He offered to be President Johnson's ambassador to South Vietnam. Then his younger brother, Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, suffered a broken back in a plane crash, and Kennedy questioned his own reemergence once again. But he went as scheduled, nonetheless, to Germany to dedicate a memorial to his brother, and to Poland, where the Communist government tried, without success, to keep his visit a secret. Kennedy seemed to feed off the energy of the crowds that gathered to hear him speak, and this seemed to revive his confidence and passions. When he returned, the pressure on Johnson to select Kennedy as his running mate dissipated when the conservative Barry Goldwater won the Republican nomination. Kennedy made up his mind to run for the Senate in New York. He announced his candidacy on 22 August 1964 and resigned as attorney general on 2 September.
The campaign began slowly, with Kennedy falling behind in the polls. He was initially tentative as a candidate and acted as though he did not want to trade on his brother's memory, but at the same time he seemed to lack confidence that there was any independent reason to elect him in his own right. The accusation that he was a carpetbagger—running for office to represent a region where he had never lived—resonated with some voters. In October, Kennedy's opponent, the incumbent Kenneth Keating, pushing for the Jewish vote, hinted that Kennedy, as attorney general, had made an overly generous settlement deal with a company that had produced goods for the German war effort in World War II. The charge inflamed Kennedy, animating his spirit and competitive instinct. His speeches acquired life and energy, and he pulled ahead in the polls. In November he won by over 700,000 votes.
Kennedy was an unusual senator. As the brother of the murdered president, having been so deeply involved in so many issues both foreign and domestic, and so obviously a future candidate for president himself, he had an immediate celebrity status. He defined his role in ways that departed from the norm. He performed his Senate work—introducing and voting on legislation, participating in hearings, attending to the people and the problems of New York State. But he also traveled the globe, meeting with heads of state and especially seeing and connecting with the people, particularly the poor and the oppressed, of each place he visited. His visits to Latin America and South Africa would stir millions of people who had never seen an American leader up close and projecting concern. And he would also burrow deeply into the neighborhoods and communities of his adopted state, spending countless hours in particular on a project in the Bedford-Stuyvesant (Bed-Stuy) section of Brooklyn, New York, to demonstrate that a low-income, run-down, black neighborhood could revitalize itself in a civic partnership with outside public and private leaders.
He began conventionally enough, adding an amendment to the pending Appalachian regional development legislation to add thirteen low-income New York counties situated along the Pennsylvania border. His work the first year included proposing funding for drug treatment and reform in the financing of social security. He succeeded in amending the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to protect U.S.-educated non-English speakers (mainly Puerto Ricans in New York State) from unfair imposition of English-language literacy tests and added an evaluation requirement to the new federal program to help educationally disadvantaged children.
But events both foreign and domestic brought him into confrontation with the Johnson administration. The president began escalating the war in Vietnam and sent troops to the Dominican Republic to undo a coup against the military regime there. Simmering unrest in inner cities boiled up in the Watts section of Los Angeles. Kennedy was critical of the administration's actions on these fronts. Largely muted in 1965, his criticism intensified through the following two years.
Throughout, he offered new ideas and new departures: his maiden speech in the Senate on nuclear proliferation, a call for rejuvenation of the Alliance for Progress in Latin America, his often-quoted speech that thrilled many but infuriated those in power in South Africa, a trilogy of speeches about urban race and poverty issues, a call for engagement with Communist China, critiques of administration policy in Vietnam and in the American inner city.
He traveled to learn, not only abroad but all over America. He met the labor leader Cesar Chavez and members of the farmworkers union in California, people in Mississippi who were struggling with hunger bordering on starvation, unemployed former coal miners in eastern Kentucky, Native Americans on reservations, and the largely black urban poor in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. In every case he came away determined to help and offered legislation to respond to the problems he had seen.
Two powerful themes animated Kennedy's activities through 1966 and 1967: his concern about race and poverty in the United States and his growing opposition to the war in Vietnam.
In early 1966, having given a speech calling for community-driven revitalization efforts in low-income neighborhoods (but with outside financing and other assistance)—a speech that was part of Kennedy's response to the violence in Watts a few months earlier—he met with a group of African-American community leaders in the Bed-Stuy section of Brooklyn. Each side challenged the other to act. The result was a yearlong planning process in which Kennedy involved himself intensively. The entity that emerged, the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, was a model for the ensuing wave of community development corporations around the country. Kennedy enlisted the participation of powerful business and political leaders to assist and succeeded in amending the federal antipoverty program to provide funding for programs like the Bed-Stuy initiative (of which Bed-Stuy was the main beneficiary for some years).
In February 1966 Kennedy, increasingly troubled over the American escalation of the war in Vietnam, delivered a major speech on the floor of the Senate, calling for negotiations, with the formation of a coalition government as the major aim of the talks. The speech elicited a storm of criticism (largely organized by the White House), as well as some important support. In its wake Kennedy worried that, in view of Johnson's enmity toward him, his criticism of the president's policies would have the perverse effect of stimulating accelerated escalation of the war. He was largely silent on the subject for the next year.
When he traveled to a new place or gave a speech about a new subject, Kennedy's modus operandi was to follow up. His trip to Latin America in late 1965, which included meetings with students and visits to see the conditions faced by low-wage workers, brought a campaign to reform U.S. aid to Latin America. His meeting with Chavez when he went to California for a Senate hearing on farmworker labor organizing led him to become the leading advocate for the farmworkers in Washington. His shocking discovery of near-starvation in Mississippi in 1967 made him the prime force behind getting food to feed hungry Americans. His June 1966 trip to South Africa brought him to the forefront of the antiapartheid cause. The surprising media attention given a speech criticizing the welfare system in May 1967 impelled him to play a major role in trying to improve regressive welfare legislation wending its way through Congress at the time. Kennedy was a reader, but his learning style was multisensory as well. He learned by seeing, listening, touching—by using all of his senses—and then, always, the result was a determination to act.
By 1967 Kennedy was more overt in his criticisms of President Johnson's handling of the war and what he and many others thought was the inadequate response to the increasing racial strife at home. In the fall a "dump Johnson" movement began to emerge. Its chief organizer, the New York activist Allard Lowenstein, visited Kennedy and urged him to challenge Johnson for the Democratic nomination. Kennedy equivocated, and Lowenstein recruited Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota to make the effort. The weakness of the American position in Vietnam was further revealed at the end of January 1968, when the North Vietnamese and Vietcong mounted a strikingly successful, multipronged offensive. McCarthy very nearly defeated President Johnson in the New Hampshire Democratic primary on 12 March 1968. Four days later Kennedy entered the race.
Why did Kennedy equivocate? One reason was surely his continuing worry that his actions would evoke counterproductive policy steps from President Johnson, who had such a personal animus toward him. Another was his remaining fealty to politics as taught to him by his father—that one does not undertake an effort in which he believes he cannot succeed. Another part of him, perhaps more recent in its prominence, was more cause-oriented, and this part took hold as matters deteriorated further in Vietnam in early 1968. Nonetheless, polling data from New Hampshire that foretold Senator McCarthy's showing cannot be ignored in analyzing Robert Kennedy's decision-making process. He had to have realized the task was not as impossible as he had thought.
Kennedy's entrance into the race was electrifying. He drew crowds of 15,000 and more at such unlikely places as the University of Kansas. Finally unleashed, his initial speeches were especially passionate and strong. Fifteen days after Kennedy's announcement, President Johnson dropped out of the race, leaving his mantle to his vice president, Hubert H. Humphrey. Humphrey's entry seemed to throw Kennedy off balance because so much of his passion came from his disagreement with and disapproval of President Johnson. In addition, if Kennedy was attractive to many, there were disaffection and anger from many others—people who had joined the McCarthy campaign but would have supported Kennedy had he gotten into the fray three or four months earlier. The crosscurrents were difficult to handle.
The campaign was tumultuous. King was murdered in early April, less than a week after President Johnson's withdrawal. One momentous event followed another at a dizzying pace. Kennedy won his first ballot test in the Indiana primary on 7 May and won the Nebraska primary a week later. As politics were then, the nomination would depend on the decisions of political leaders as well as the outcome of primaries, but Kennedy's electoral showing would certainly influence the professionals as they decided what to do. Kennedy suffered a setback in losing the Oregon primary at the end of May but recouped to win the California primary on 4 June. He seemed to have found his footing.
As Kennedy left the podium shortly after midnight on 5 June after finishing his speech at the victory celebration in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, he was shot by Sirhan Sirhan, a deranged man who resented Kennedy's pro-Israeli sympathies. Kennedy lay unconscious through the next day and was pronounced dead at 1:44 a.m. on 6 June 1968. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.
Although it is impossible to say for sure, many believe Kennedy would have been nominated and elected. If so, it is likely that he would have sought to end the Vietnam War far more quickly than President Richard M. Nixon did and undertaken a major effort at racial reconciliation at home. Regardless, Kennedy was an important figure in the 1960s. He played a vital role in his brother's administration, especially on civil rights issues and in the Cuban Missile Crisis, and his leadership as a U.S. senator constituted a rallying point for the mounting concerns about President Johnson's policies. His decision to run for president, belated as it was, had a catalytic effect in bringing about President Johnson's decision not to seek reelection. More than any other important elected official of his time, Kennedy was seen by low-income and minority people in the United States and to some extent around the world as someone who cared about them and spoke for them. This is perhaps his most lasting legacy.
Robert F. Kennedy's speeches are collected in Edwin O. Guthman and C. Richard Allen, eds., RFK: Collected Speeches (1993). Works by Robert F. Kennedy include The Enemy Within (1960) and Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis (1969). Biographies of Robert F. Kennedy include David Halberstam, The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy (1968); Jack Newfield, Robert Kennedy: A Memoir (1969); Jules Witcover, 85 Days: The Last Campaign of Robert Kennedy (1969); William Vanden Heuvel and Milton Gwirtzman, On His Own: Robert F. Kennedy, 1964–1968 (1970); Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Robert Kennedy and His Times (1978); Jeff Shesol, Mutual Contempt: Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, and the Feud that Defined a Decade (1997); and Evan Thomas, Robert Kennedy: His Life (2000).
Kennedy, Robert Francis
KENNEDY, ROBERT FRANCIS
For more than twenty-five years in public service, Robert Francis Kennedy was at the center of the most important political and legal developments of his time. The younger brother, by five years, of President john f. kennedy, in whose cabinet he served, Bobby Kennedy held a number of roles in government: assistant counsel (1953–55) and chief counsel (1955–57) to the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, chief counsel of the Senate Rackets Committee (1957–59), U.S. attorney general (1960–63), and finally U.S. senator from New York (1965–68). His major endeavors included probing union corruption in the 1950s and implementing White House policy on the civil rights movement in the early 1960s. He was assassinated in 1968, like his brother before him, while campaigning for the presidency.
Born into one of the United States' most powerful political dynasties, on November 20, 1925, in Brookline, Massachusetts, Kennedy was the third son of Joseph P. Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. Great things were expected of the Kennedy sons, and the means were provided: $1-million trust funds, entrance to the Ivy League, and later, leverage to see that they held government positions. Kennedy's father, a business magnate and former U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, doted on the shy, bookish, and devoutly Catholic young man. His father thought Kennedy was most like himself: tough.
Kennedy was educated at Harvard College, interrupting his studies to serve in world war ii as a Navy lieutenant, following the death of his eldest brother, Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Jr., in the
war. He served aboard the destroyer Joseph P. Kennedy until being discharged in 1946, then returned to Harvard, where he played football and earned his bachelor of arts degree in 1948. He next traveled briefly to Palestine as a war correspondent. Marriage to Ethel Skakel followed in 1950, and a law degree from the University of Virginia in 1951. Kennedy and his wife had eleven children over the next eighteen years.
Kennedy's rapid ascent in national politics began immediately upon his admission to the Massachusetts bar in 1951. He first joined the Criminal Division of the u.s. justice department as a prosecutor. The next year, he managed
his brother John's senatorial campaign, and in early 1953, he was appointed an assistant counsel to the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which became the bully pulpit for the anti-Communist witch-hunts of its chairman, Senator joseph r. mccarthy. Kennedy worked under McCarthy's foremost ally, Chief Counsel roy cohn, and investigated international shipping to Communist China, before resigning over disgust with McCarthy in mid-1953. Historians view his role in the red scare created by the proceedings to have been very limited, although some have argued that Kennedy was initially blind to Senator McCarthy's agenda. Kennedy rejoined the sub-committee in 1954, and became its chief counsel and staff director in 1955.
Under the new leadership of Senator john mcclellan, the subcommittee turned its attention to labor racketeering. Kennedy focused on corruption in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Heading a staff of sixty-five investigators, he squared off against the union's presidents, David Beck and james r. hoffa, in dramatic public hearings at which he often was accompanied by his brother John. Kennedy and the subcommittee believed the union had connections to organized crime; the union viewed Kennedy as a show-off who was persecuting it for his own political benefit. The union leaders frequently took the fifth amendment, refusing to answer questions under Kennedy's relentless grilling. Beck resigned and was later convicted; Kennedy became a national figure. The hearings began a long-running feud between Kennedy and Hoffa that would continue into the 1960s. Kennedy later devoted considerable resources of the Justice Department to prosecuting Hoffa, ultimately convicted in 1964 for jury tampering, fraud, and conspiracy in the handling of a Teamster benefit fund.
In 1960, Kennedy managed his brother John's presidential campaign. His reward was the position of attorney general, an appointment that brought widespread criticism of the president-elect for nepotism. But Kennedy's brother stood behind his decision, and thus began a relationship unique in presidential history: throughout foreign policy crises in Cuba and Vietnam, domestic unrest over civil rights, and especially the day-to-day functioning of the White House, Kennedy served as his brother's closest adviser. The two also shared a common problem in the person of Director j. edgar hoover, of the federal bureau of investigation (FBI), who secretly kept tabs on them while intensifying the FBI's domestic spying during the Kennedy administration.
The greatest crisis facing Attorney General Kennedy was the civil rights movement. The slow pace of change had frustrated civil rights leaders and mounting violence—from beatings to murder—brought pleas to the White House for intercession to protect demonstrators. During the Freedom Rides of 1961, for example, when busloads of black activists sought to integrate bus stations in the South, the movement's leaders appealed for help. Kennedy dispatched Justice Department representatives to Alabama; asked for assurances of protection from Governor John Patterson, of that state; and brought suit to win a court order on behalf of the riders. The administration was reluctant to do more because of concerns about limitations on federal power. Then, in May 1961, after more terrible assaults on the activists in Montgomery, Alabama, the attorney general dispatched five hundred federal marshals to Alabama. Yet the protection rendered did not stop local authorities from arresting, jailing, and beating activists.
The reluctance of the White House to intercede more forcefully had a political rationale as well: the new Kennedy administration had won election by a small margin that included southern support. As critics have noted, concerns about federal authority did not stop the attorney general from later authorizing Director Hoover to place wiretaps on the Reverend martin luther king, jr., whom the pro-civil rights White House treated as an ally. Hoover's concerns about King's alleged Communist ties affected the Kennedys. As Kennedy later told an interviewer, "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." Nor did Kennedy balk at approving the appointment of William Harold Cox, an out-spoken racist, as a district judge in Mississippi, for reasons of political expediency, although he later regretted having done so. In time, Kennedy and the president took bolder steps—in 1962, sending five thousand federal marshals to quell rioting in Mississippi, after james h. meredith became the first black man to enter the state's university, and later, securing King's release from jail in Birmingham, Alabama.
"Some men see things that are, and ask 'Why?' I see things that never were, and ask 'Why not?'"
—Robert F. Kennedy
The assassination of his brother John in 1963 changed the course of Kennedy's life. Besides grieving the loss of his brother, he found he worked uncomfortably under President lyndon b. johnson, and he soon left the Justice Department. In 1964, he won election in New York to the U.S. Senate, where he served as a liberal voice until announcing his own bid for the presidency in 1968.
Emphasizing a commitment to the concerns of young people, black citizens, and the nation's poor, the Kennedy campaign inspired radicals, the working class, and the dispossessed. Kennedy's opposition to the war in Vietnam was passionate. On a television broadcast, he said:
Do we have a right here in the United States to say that we're going to kill tens of thousands, make millions of people, as we have … refugees, kill women and children? …I very seriously question that right….We love our country for what it can be and for the justice it stands for.
Kennedy's candidacy sharply divided the democratic party between him and his opponent for the nomination, eugene mccarthy. Kennedy had won primaries in Indiana, Nebraska, and finally California, when he was shot at a campaign function on June 4, 1968, by Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian immigrant who said his motive was the candidate's support for Israel. The second murder of a Kennedy, following hard on the April 1968 assassination of King, was an immeasurable shock to the nation. It seemed to many to sound the death knell of an era.
Kennedy's contribution to U.S. law is complex. In the 1950s, he helped expose corruption in the nation's unions, but critics have subsequently treated his very personal pursuit of Hoffa as an exercise not only in justice but in vendetta. When he headed the Justice Department in the early 1960s, his advocacy of civil rights had practical limitations imposed by political necessities and legitimate concerns about the balance of state and federal authority; groundbreaking civil rights legislation would, of course, follow in the years after his tenure. It was as a candidate for president that he may have been his most memorable, an ardent and inspirational voice. Through his opposition to the vietnam war and his support for the disadvantaged, he offered the promise of a new idealism in politics.
Guthman, Edwin O., and Jeffrey Shulman, eds. 1988. Robert Kennedy in His Own Words: The Unpublished Recollections of the Kennedy Years. New York: Bantam Books.
Mills, Judie. 1998. Robert Kennedy. Brookfield, Conn.: Millbrook Press.
"Remembering the Kennedys." 1984. Journal of American Studies 18 (December).
Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. 2002. Robert Kennedy and His Times. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Thomas, Evan. 2000. Robert Kennedy: His Life. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Robert Francis Kennedy
Robert Francis Kennedy
Robert Francis Kennedy (1925-1968), a U.S. senator and the attorney general in the administration of his brother John F. Kennedy, was assassinated during his 1968 race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Robert Kennedy was born on November 20, 1925, in Brookline, Mass. He graduated from Milton Academy before entering Harvard. His college career was interrupted during World War II; just after his oldest brother, Joseph, was killed in combat, Robert joined the Navy and was commissioned a lieutenant. In 1946 he returned to Harvard and took his bachelor of arts degree in 1948. He earned his law degree from the University of Virginia Law School and was admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1951. A year earlier he had married Ethel Shakel, by whom he had 11 children, one born posthumously.
In 1951 Kennedy joined the Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. He resigned the following year to run John F. Kennedy's successful campaign for U.S. senator. In 1953 Robert was appointed one of 15 assistant counsels to the Senate subcommittee on investigations under Senator Joe McCarthy. But later that year, when Democratic members of this subcommittee walked out in protest against McCarthy's harassing methods of investigation, Kennedy resigned.
Kennedy rejoined the Senate's permanent subcommittee on investigations as chief counsel for the Democratic minority in 1954. The following year, when the Democrats reorganized this committee under Senator George McClellan, Kennedy became chief counsel and staff director. That year the U.S. Junior Chamber of Commerce elected him one of "ten outstanding young men." In 1955, at his own expense, Kennedy joined Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas on a tour of several Soviet republics.
Kennedy became chief counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field organized under McClellan in 1957, and he directed a staff of 65. His major accomplishment was the investigation of corruption in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The hearings became nationally prominent, particularly Kennedy's prosecution of the union's president, James Hoffa, which to some union leaders seemed more like persecution. Kennedy was responsible for several additional investigations of labor and management abuses.
In 1960 Kennedy managed his brother's successful presidential campaign, and when John as incoming president appointed Robert U.S. attorney general, nationwide cries of nepotism arose. Robert's role in his brother's Cabinet was unique. He was virtually the President's other self. Shoulder to shoulder, the brothers stood together—through the Cuban missile crisis, the civil rights cases, and the growing war in Vietnam.
Soon after President Kennedy's assassination in 1963, Robert resigned from Lyndon Johnson's administration to run successfully for New York State senator in 1964. Naive liberals wondered why he chose to run in New York—thus knocking out a good liberal senator, Kenneth Keating— when he might have opposed Harry Byrd in his resident state of Virginia; but Kennedy was thinking of the presidency by now, and Virginia was no power base. As senator, Kennedy achieved a splendid record.
Kennedy leaped into the presidential sweepstakes in 1968, abruptly following Eugene McCarthy's solitary effort to dramatize the issue of the war in Vietnam. Kennedy's entrance into the Democratic primaries bitterly divided liberal Democrats. By this time Kennedy, who had come to sympathize with the African Americans' drive for "black power," was the joy of radical activists. He could reach and unite young people, revolutionaries, alienated African Americans, and blue-collar Roman Catholics. Meanwhile, the white South hated him; big business distrusted him; and middle-class, reform Democrats were generally suspicious of him.
On the night of June 4, 1968, following a hard-fought, narrow victory in the California primaries, Kennedy was killed by an assassin's bullet. Robert had been no carbon copy of John. In some ways he was more intense, more committed than John had been, yet he shared John's ironic sense of himself and his conviction that one man could make a difference.
There is no definitive study of Kennedy. Good general treatments are William V. Shannon, The Heir Apparent (1967), and Jack Newfield, Robert Kennedy (1969). See also Nick Thimmesch, Robert Kennedy at 40 (1965), and William J. Vanden Heuvel and Milton Gwirtzman, On His Own (1970). Victor Lasky, Robert F. Kennedy: The Myth and the Man (1968), is a hostile account. Valuable insights on him are in books about his brother: Theodore Sorenson's Kennedy (1965) and The Kennedy Legacy (1969); Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days (1965); and Donald S. Harrington, As We Remember Him (1965). Dealing with political campaigns are Gerald Gardner, Robert Kennedy in New York (1965); David Halberstam, The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy (1969), an account of his campaign for the presidential nomination; and Jules Witcover, 85 Days: The Last Campaign of Robert Kennedy (1969). □