The Mythology of Bobby Kennedy

In his review of David Halberstram’s journalistic profile of Robert Kennedy, William Spragens writes that the author “feels Robert Kennedy was a transitional figure in American politics, with an understanding of the old politics but also with a rare feeling for the new politics.”[1]  Indeed, in the first chapter, Halberstram lays out this thesis quite matter-of-factly when he says that Kennedy existed “at the exact median point of American idealism and American power.  He understood the potency of America’s idealism, as a domestic if not an international force, and yet he had also exercised American power.”[2]  It is difficult to disagree with the latter assertion; Bobby Kennedy’s illustrious political career included stints on the McCarthy Committee and the Senate Racket’s Committee, time as John F. Kennedy’s campaign manager and one of his most trusted political advisors during his brother’s presidency, as well as an appointment to the most senior position in the Justice Department.  However, Bobby Kennedy’s evolving views on the Vietnam War from 1965 to 1968, ultimately reveal him to be, not an idealist, but, rather, a shrewd realist. 

Bobby Kennedy had certainly exercised American power.  He began his public career working for the justice department and then, through family connections, gained a position on the McCarthy committee.  Subsequently, he joined the Senate Rackets Committee and led the investigations which led to the eventual prosecution of Teamsters boss, Jimmy Hoffa.  In 1960, he exercised quite a lot of influence as campaign manager for his brother’s presidential run.  As reward for directing an excellent campaign, Jack Kennedy appointed his brother to the Attorney General position at the justice department.  Halbertram notes that Bobby did not merely act as Attorney General but became the President’s right-hand man, advising him on almost every important issue.  On the Cuban Missile Crisis, Bobby acted as the reasonable and level-headed counter-weight to war-mongers such as Dean Acheson.  Jack Kennedy’s administration was heavy with political scientists, and yet it was Bobby who displayed the most political acumen.  Halberstram cites an instance during the Cuban Missile Crisis when Khrushchev had sent a mollifying message to the administration and then a day later made a more hostile and menacing broadcast.  It was Bobby who counseled his brother to ignore the broadcast and respond to the message.  Halberstram also writes that Bobby was the leading author of the administration’s counterinsurgency strategy in Vietnam.  As evidenced, the author effectively lays out the case for Bobby Kennedy’s exercise of American power.

What Halberstram does far less effectively, however, is lay out the case for Bobby’s understanding of the potency of America’s idealism.  Idealism rested with those who opposed the war on moral grounds, and desired an immediate and unconditional withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam.  During the period which began with the assumption of his Senate seat on January 5, 1965 up to his assassination, Bobby Kennedy pursued a daring, dissenting, and pioneering but not idealistic course on the issue of Vietnam.  Although he refused to question the the basic Cold War logic which motivated the Truman administration’s initial foray into the internal affairs of the Southeast Asian nation in the late 1940’s, he did criticize Johnson’s tactics, specifically the president’s bombing of North Vietnam, his escalation of troop levels, and his policy of preventing dissident South Vietnamese political organizations from sharing power in the South Vietnamese government.  With this tactical critique, Kennedy had staked a position far to the left of most Americans; a Harris poll conducted in May 1965 showed that fifty-seven percent of Americans supported Johnson’s prosecution of the war, which at that point included sustained bombing of North Vietnam and a major expansion in ground forces.[3] Throughout 1965 and 1966, whenever Johnson resumed bombing North Vietnam after a short ceasefire, his popularity surged.  Meanwhile, the mainstream press contented itself with playing backseat driver by continually offering the Johnson administration supposedly better methods to destroy the National Liberation Front.  The anti-war movement struggled to get off the ground, and did not exist as a major influencer of public opinion in 1965 and 1966.  Given this overall national context and the formidable bipartisan support which Johnson enjoyed from the Senate, Kennedy’s dissent from the norm certainly represented a novel force.  However, it did not represent, as Joseph A. Palermo writes in In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, a shift “steadily away from a technocratic or tactical critique of the war to a more fundamental questioning of the United States’ ultimate goals in Vietnam.”  Early on, Kennedy understood that there was no military solution for Vietnam.  He comprehended the fact that the unequal distribution of land in the country prevented the United States from winning popular support for its puppet government.  He clearly articulated that the National Liberation Front, the most powerful force battling the United States in South Vietnam, attracted its support primarily from impoverished peasants, while the U.S.-backed regime headquartered in Saigon represented the interests of the wealthy and landowning classes.  Most importantly, he understood that all these realities needed to change, historic injustices needed to be rectified, and the political, economic, and social development of the country needed to be prioritized in order for the South Vietnamese people to reject a Communist system.  At this point, the people of South Vietnam undoubtedly viewed the North Vietnamese government and its military as their saviors against an imperialistic United States and its unrepresentative puppet regime.  Kennedy sought to win the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese people, and the only way to do so was by temporarily ceasing military operations, recognizing the National Liberation Front, and allowing it to participate in negotiations which would inevitably lead to its participation in a newly formed government.  However, Palermo misidentifies this, albeit, dramatic tactical disagreement between Kennedy and Johnson as a difference in goals.  Both men favored a non-Communist outcome in South Vietnam.  To this point, Bobby Kennedy never went so far as to call for a unilateral and unconditional withdrawal of military forces and an end to any and all American involvement whatsoever in the internal affairs of South Vietnam.  Such a tactical stance would have been concomitant with the abandonment of the United States’ Cold War goals in Southeast Asia.  In a speech delivered on the Senate floor on May 6, 1965, Kennedy explicitly opposed a unilateral withdrawal and asserted that such a radical turn in American foreign policy would constitute a “gross betrayal of those in Vietnam who have been encouraged by our support to oppose the spread of communism.”[4]  However, he added that “I do not believe we should be under the self-delusion that that this military effort will bring Ho Chi Minh or the Vietcong to their knees.”[5]  The Senator from New York ultimately never questioned the altruism and supposedly good intentions of American foreign policy with regards to Vietnam.  He still sought to defeat Ho Chi Minh and the National Liberation Front, but through the use of political tactics as opposed to military ones.  He was a pioneer but a pioneer with boundaries because anything more would have brought him into agreement with the radical college student yelling “Victory for the Vietcong.  Victory for the Vietcong.”  The same reality exists for Barrack Obama and Bernie Sanders.  Both men can and do disagree with the manner in which George W. Bush prosecuted the War on Terror but neither can dissent from its basic ideological framework.  Nonetheless tactics must still line up with goals, and, for this reason, it seems right to interrogate whether or not Bobby Kennedy actually understood the ideological framework of the Cold War and how Vietnam fit into this framework.  In his speech on May 6th, the junior senator from New York articulated a revealing connection between Johnson’s prosecution of the Vietnam War and the recent American invasion of the Dominican Republic on April 14, 1965.  On this date, Johnson had ordered twenty-three thousand U.S. soldiers into the tiny nation to suppress what he referred to as an anti-American revolution.  In respect to this invasion, Kennedy said our goal “must surely be not to drive the genuine democrats in the Dominican revolution into association with the Communists by blanket characterizations and condemnation of their revolution.”[6]  Later in the speech, Kennedy criticized the administration for doing the same thing in Vietnam with regards to the National Liberation Front.  Now Palermo contends that Kennedy’s drawing of parallels between Johnson’s Vietnam War policy and Johnson’s invasion of the Dominican Republic revealed that he had repudiated the Administration’s increasing dependence on military force in Southeast Asia.  This point practically goes without saying.  However, what proves more intriguing is the fact that Kennedy considered the National Liberation Front, America’s purported enemies in South Vietnam, to be a grouping of non-Communist Democrats which the United States should allow to participate in any future government.  Indeed, taken by itself, this assertion could conceivably be construed as an indirect rejection of U.S. foreign policy in Vietnam going back to the Truman administration.  However, if this was the case, Kennedy would have certainly followed this statement by calling for a total withdrawal of military forces from South Vietnam.  Therefore, one must logically locate another reason for why the Senator believed that it was in the United States’ national interest to allow the National Liberation Front, its primary foe, to participate in any future government.  The Johnson Administration was quite literally bombing the country into oblivion.  Why would it have concerned itself with prioritizing the social, political, and economic development of the country?  Why would it have concerned itself with land redistribution and advancing the self-determination of the South Vietnamese people?  Why would it have cared that the National Liberation Front enjoyed massive popular support?    What epiphany had Kennedy come to about Vietnam in 1965, which Johnson had yet to realize?  The GVN operated a repressive military dictatorship with zero popular support, and owed its entire existence to American largesse.  Bobby Kennedy understood this since he authored the failed counterinsurgency strategy used to prop up the GVN and combat the National Liberation Front back during his brother’s administration.  The Senator also realized that the United States could not prevent the unification of North and South Vietnam.  Therefore it had to devise another method through which to influence the future direction of the country and safeguard its national interests.  That method was a negotiated political settlement involving both the National Liberation Front and the North Vietnamese government.  Militarily, Vietnam was a lost cause.  Counterinsurgency had not worked.  The use of massive American firepower and saturation bombing had proved ineffective as well.  Johnson proved himself unwilling to face this stark reality and remained fiercely wedded to a military solution.  So one can reasonably argue that Kennedy stood as a pioneer on Vietnam in 1965.  Both the mainstream news media and the general public, having been consistently and purposely misled by the Johnson administration on the progress of the war, failed to comprehend that the military solution was no longer a viable option for safeguarding American interests in Vietnam.  From this standpoint, Bobby Kennedy was always a realist, never an idealist.  Indeed, it is hard to believe that the individual who authored Jack Kennedy’s counter-insurgency strategy could ever transform into a moral dove.  David Halberstram wants his 1960’s reader to believe that Kennedy, had he not been assassinated and had he won the Democratic nomination and then the election, would have been the nation’s savior.  This argument is unconvincing.  Bobby Kennedy was no foreign policy radical.    The fact that both Halberstram and Palermo portray Kennedy as an idealist for his dissent on Vietnam stems either from their lack of understanding of the larger Cold War ideological framework within which the war was taking place or their simple refusal to include an explanation of this framework in their biographies for fear it would not fit well into the idealist thesis.

In order to comprehend Kennedy’s role as a political realist on Vietnam, one must understand why the United States fought the Cold War. In 1955, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and The National Planning Association sponsored a study entitled “The Political Economy of American Foreign Policy”.  The study involved a representative portion of the power elite: economists, political scientists, and businessmen who occupied positions of power and influence deep inside our governmental institutions and largely dictated foreign policy regardless of who held executive office.  The study explicated how the U.S. would conduct its foreign economic policy going forward, “The central objective of American foreign economic policy is to foster the construction of a better integrated and more effectively functioning international economic system.”[7]  Mary Bradshaw, in her review of this study for The American Journal of International Law, cites its “series of steps to be taken to make relationships more satisfactory between the industrial countries and the independent underdeveloped nations.  These steps include “private capital investment in foreign lands, [the establishment of] an International Development Corporation [to provide] new sources of venture capital [and open] up new opportunities for private investors, loans or grants by the U.S. government, and [the use of] such devices as buffer-stock arrangements and certain commodity stabilization agreements.”[8]  Howard S. Ellis, in his review of the study for the international relations journal, “World Politics”, cites its foundation as “the clear-eyed recognition that the survival of the free world depends upon the United States–upon the contributions which it can make to  (. . . ) rational lines of economic development in the underdeveloped world.”[9]  Most people with a basic understanding of U.S. history will argue that America’s goal in fighting the Cold War was to defeat Communism throughout the world.  This is true, but it is only partially true.  Nor does it get to the root of exactly why the United States wanted to defeat Communism throughout the world.  With regards to the first point, the United States, throughout the period of the Cold War, orchestrated the overthrow of numerous governments that no objective observer would identify as Communist.  In order to understand why this is the case, one must tackle the second point.  As the aforementioned studies explain, the primary motive behind the prosecution of the Cold War was economic.  The intention was to foster the development of an integrated international economic system led by the United States and for the benefit of American corporations.  If the government of an underdeveloped country desired to exist outside of this system, if it did want to pursue so-called “rational lines of economic development” then it was deemed a threat and had to be subverted by the United States regardless of whether or not it was Communist.  As members of the political elite, both Bobby Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson understood how Vietnam fit into this framework.  They viewed Vietnam as an underdeveloped nation ripe and ready for exploitation by American corporations, and the puppet GVN government was supposed to facilitate this exploitation.  However, in contrast to the opposition which the United States encountered in most other countries which it sought to bring under its economic tutelage, the opposition in Vietnam, the National Liberation Front along with their sponsors, the North Vietnamese government, proved themselves to be formidable military opponents.  Johnson failed to understand this or at least one can say he arrived at this understanding too late.  By contrast, Kennedy understood not only their power but also the National Liberation Front’s popularity among the Vietnamese people.  He also comprehended the people’s hatred for their GVN.  Simply put, Kennedy realized that, because of these two factors, the United States could not realize its ideological Cold War goals in Vietnam without including the National Liberation Front in the process and somehow manipulating it into agreeing to a project of resource exploitation and foreign investment.  Taking this into account, one can reasonably argue that Bobby Kennedy bore no resemblance to the young college student shouting “Victory for the Vietcong, Victory for the Vietcong.”  He was a malleable foreign policy realist, nothing more and nothing less.








Bradshaw, Mary E.. 1955. Review of The Political Economy of American Foreign Policy. Its Concepts, Strategy, and Limits.The American Journal of International Law 49 (4). American Society of International Law: 599–601. doi:10.2307/2194448.

Elliott, William Yandell. The Political Economy of American Foreign Policy; Its Concepts, Strategy, and Limits;. New York: Holt, 1955.


Ellis, Howard S.. 1956. “American Foreign Economic Policy in the Context of World Politics”. World Politics 8 (3). [Cambridge University Press, Trustees of Princeton University]: 413–22. doi:10.2307/2008859.


Halberstam, David. The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy. New York: Random House, 1969.


Palermo, Joseph A. In His Own Right the Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.


Spragens, William C. “Review: The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy.” Political Science Quarterly 86, no. 3 (1971): 496-98. Accessed November 24, 2015. JSTOR.


[1] William C. Spragens, “Review: The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy,” Political Science Quarterly 86, no. 3 (1971): 496, accessed November 23, 2015

[2] David Halberstram, The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy (New York: Random House, 1969), 63.6

[3] Joseph A. Palermo, In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 11

[4] Joseph A. Palermo, In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 12

[5] Joseph A. Palermo, In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 12

[6] Joseph A. Palermo, In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 12

[7] William Yandell Eliot, The Political Economy of American Foreign Policy (New York: Holt, 1955),

[8] Mary Bradshaw, “Review.” The American Journal of International Law, 49, no.4 (1955): 599-601. Accessed December 12, 2015. JSTOR

[9] Howard S. Ellis, “Review: American Foreign Policy in the Context of World Politics.” World Politics 8, no. 3 (1956): 413-422. Accessed December 12, 2015. JSTOR.


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