The Myth of the Kennedys
Emilio Estevez’s film Bobby opened in theaters across the country last week. It received mixed reviews from most critics, who nevertheless praised Estevez, the son of actor Martin Sheen, for making a “serious” movie that attempts to capture the political atmosphere in the U.S. on the eve of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968.
Whatever its shortcomings as a film, the major problem with Bobby is political -- it regurgitates all of the myths about Robert Kennedy and his brother, President John F. Kennedy.
The greatest of all the myths about the Kennedys is that if the two brothers had lived, then much of the “turmoil” of the 1960s, particularly the U.S. war in Vietnam, would have been avoided. For many liberals, Robert Kennedy’s assassination represented “the end of the ’60s” -- the end of the road for progressive political change and the beginning of three decades of conservative rule. Is any of this remotely true?
Robert Francis Kennedy was the third son of Joseph Kennedy, a ruthless and politically ambitious businessman from Massachusetts. Kennedy Sr. made a fortune from a variety of enterprises -- real estate, moviemaking, the stock market and bootlegging alcohol during prohibition -- thanks to his thoroughgoing corruption.
His own ambition to be the first Irish Catholic president of the United States 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 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 very close to the infamous anti-Communist Sen. Joseph McCarthy after he became famous for tormenting liberals and radicals during the 1950s witch-hunts.
During McCarthy’s 1952 re-election campaign, Joe made a sizeable contribution to his campaign -- 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 anti-union Democratic Sen. John McClellan of Arkansas.
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, Bobby remained focused on building his older brother John’s political career. He was campaign manager for John’s first U.S. Senate campaign in 1952 and presidential campaign in 1960. Bobby was his brother’s closest advisor and was appointed attorney general in the Kennedy administration.
The Kennedy presidency took place during a crucial time for two issues that would later come to dominate the rest of the decade: civil rights and the Vietnam War.
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 1961, “I did not lie awake at night worrying about the problems of Negroes.”
That would soon change as Black students started sit-ins against segregated restaurants and other public facilities, and the Freedom Riders challenged segregation on interstate bus lines. 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 -- Southern Democrats were known as “Dixiecrats” -- with Blacks almost entirely disenfranchised in the South and the border states. For most of 20th century, the Democrats needed this “solid South” to win national elections -- including John F. Kennedy.
The Freedom Riders and sit-ins threatened to push the Dixiecrats into the Republican Party -- two of the most famous “Dixiecrats,” Senators Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms, eventually did -- so the Kennedys hoped to push civil rights activists in a direction that wouldn’t jeopardize their Southern support.
As attorney general, Bobby Kennedy famously told James Farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality: “Why don’t you guys quit all that riding and sitting shit, and concentrate on voter registration. If you do that, I’ll get you tax-free status.”
At the same time, he authorized the FBI to begin wiretapping Martin Luther King’s telephone conversations. This decision contributed to the FBI’s notorious COINTELPRO program against the civil rights movement and other radical organizations.
The Kennedys put enormous pressure on the organizers of the historic March on Washington in August 1963 to avoid any criticisms of the administration. Yet at the march, Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee leader -- and future member of Congress -- John Lewis could pose a question that resonated with many: “Which side is the federal government on?”
A generation of civil rights activists became radicalized in the face of the waffling compromises and inaction of the Kennedy administration. And in turn, a wider generation of youth became radicalized by the Kennedy administration’s foreign policy, particularly when it came to Cuba and Vietnam.
The Kennedys were as committed to defending the American empire as any reactionary Republican.
They inherited plans for 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.
By the time of John F. Kennedy’s death in November 1963, the U.S. 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, known to U.S. officials as the “Viet Cong.”
In early November 1963, after the U.S. 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 U.S. from destroying large parts of Vietnam in the hopes of winning the war against the NLF and the North Vietnamese.
After John was assassinated, 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 senator, he never voted against any of the 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.” 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 U.S. 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?
These “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 Tet that the war had become a “quagmire” and couldn’t be won. The leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, Richard Nixon, was counterposing “peace with honor” to the Democrats’ war policies.
But it was only after Eugene McCarthy, a U.S. senator from Minnesota who was little known nationally, challenged Johnson in the Democratic presidential primaries and won 42 percent of the vote in the first primary contest in New Hampshire that Bobby finally decided to run for president.
Once Johnson announced that he wouldn’t run for reelection, many people believed that Bobby could have won both the Democratic nomination and the presidency.
Robert Kennedy never advocated unilateral withdrawal of U.S. forces from Southeast Asia. He peppered most of his campaign speeches in 1968 with rhetoric about the need for “peace” in Vietnam, but offered little more than talk of a “negotiated settlement” -- which was not very different from what Johnson or Nixon proposed while continuing to wage war against the Vietnamese people.
Bobby’s chief political goal was to capture the support of the antiwar movement and derail it.
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 Democratic Party establishment responsible for many of the things that the 1960s movements struggled against.
Joe Allen writes for Socialist Worker, where this article first appeared. Thanks to Alan Maass.
Joe Allen’s three-part history of the Vietnam War in the International Socialist Review has the facts about the Kennedy administration in Vietnam. Start with part one: “Vietnam: The War that the U.S. Lost” available on the ISR Web site.
The ISR also recently republished a classic article on the 1968 presidential election, “Who’s Going to Be the Lesser Evil in 1968?” by the socialist Hal Draper.
For the Kennedy record in waging war on Castro, see Under the Eagle: U.S. Intervention in Central America and the Caribbean by Jenny Pearce. Noam Chomsky documents the myths and distortions about the Kennedys’ foreign policy in Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War and U.S. Political Culture.
For a more general look at the socialist case against the Democratic Party, you can download an ISO Web book by Lance Selfa, The Democratic Party and the Politics of Lesser Evilism, which is based on articles that appeared in the ISR, Socialist Worker and elsewhere.
Other Articles by Joe Allen