e- mail us


Robert Kennedy recalled, in his own words

Millions of words have been written about Robert F. Kennedy, with tens of thousands more emerging now to mark the 30th anniversary of his assassination. Something about him remains compelling, even for those not yet born at the time of his death.

To express that “something” is no easy task, and legion is the number of essay and editorial writers who have tried and failed. Perhaps, therefore, it would be best to fall back on the words of Kennedy himself to remind us of a time when calls to honor and courage and our nation’s most noble ideals didn’t yet sound like the setup for Warren Beatty’s cynical raps in the movie “Bulworth.”

These excerpts are taken from RFK: Collected Speeches (Viking, 1993).

In his most famous address, Robert Kennedy spoke on June 6, 1966, at the University of Capetown in South Africa. His remarks ostensibly addressed the apartheid system in that nation, but he was clearly mindful of the continuing racial turmoil in the United States:

Only earthbound man still clings to the dark and poisoning superstition that his world is bounded by the nearest hill, his universe ended at the river shore, his common humanity enclosed in the tight circle of those who share his town and views and the color of his skin.

It is your job, the task of the young people of this world, to strip the last remnants of that ancient, cruel belief from the civilization of man.

This world demands the qualities of youth, not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease.

It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

If there was one thing President Kennedy stood for that touched the most profound feelings of young people around the world, it was the belief that idealism, high aspirations and deep convictions are not incompatible with the most practical and efficient of programs. It is not realistic or hardheaded to solve problems and take action unguided by ultimate moral aims and values, although we all know some who claim that it is so. In my judgment, it is thoughtless folly. For it ignores the realities of human faith and of passion and belief -- forces ultimately more powerful than all of the calculations of our economists or our generals.

While efficiency can lead to the camps at Auschwitz, or the streets of Budapest, only the ideals of humanity and love can climb the hills of the Acropolis.

Kennedy also touched on the themes of racial and class healing in his announcement of his candidacy for the presidency on March 16, 1968.

As a member of the cabinet and a member of the Senate, I have seen the inexcusable and ugly deprivation which causes children to starve in Mississippi, black children to riot in Watts, young Indians to commit suicide on their reservations because they’ve lacked all hope and feel they have no future, and proud and able-bodied families to wait out their lives in an empty idleness in eastern Kentucky. I have traveled and I have listened to the young people of our nation and felt their anger about the war that they are sent to fight and about the world that they are about to inherit.

Vietnam, and more generally the cause of peace, was the other transcendent issue with which Kennedy was associated. His first major address on the subject took place at Kansas State University two days after his announcement of his candidacy.

I was involved in many of the early decisions of Vietnam, decisions which helped set us on our present path. It may be that effort was doomed from the start; that it was never really possible to bring all the people of South Vietnam under the rule of the successive governments we supported -- governments, one after another, riddled with corruption, inefficiency, and greed; governments which did not and could not successfully capture and energize the national feeling of their people. If that is the case, as it may well be, then I am willing to bear my share of the responsibility, before history and my fellow citizens. But past error is no excuse for its perpetuation. Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom, not a guide by which to live.

I am concerned that at the end of it all, there will be only more Americans killed; more of our treasure spilled out; and because of the bitterness and hatred on every side of the war, more hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese slaughtered; so that they may say, as Tacitus said of Rome: They made a desert and called it peace.

If we care so little about South Vietnam that we are willing to see the land destroyed and its people dead, then why are we there in the first place?

The cost of the war’s present course far outweighs anything we can reasonably hope to gain by it, for ourselves or for the people of Vietnam. It must be ended, and it can be ended in a peace for brave men who have fought each other with a terrible fury, each believing that he alone was in the right. We have prayed to different gods, and the prayers of neither have been answered fully. Now, while there is still time for some of them to be partly answered, now is the time to stop.

Perhaps it is romantic nostalgia to see in those words the promise of a man who saw both what was wrong with America and what was right; and who might have done something to end the former and to bolster the latter. Clearly he was a creature of his times. His use of sexist language, for example, will sting the ears of those for whom Kennedy is an avatar of inclusion.

But as he lay dying on the floor of a kitchen in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles 30 years ago, his last words reportedly were: “Is everyone all right?”

National Catholic Reporter, July 3, 1998