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Robert F. Kennedy Jr. walks a strikingly similar path to the one his father did 55 years ago. Union ForwardRead More
In February 1968, Senator Robert F. Kennedy delivered a historic speech declaring that the United States was incapable of winning the war in Vietnam.
After several years of making only muted criticisms of the U.S. war effort, Kennedy’s 1968 speech was a resounding denouncement of President Lyndon Johnson’s steadfast commitment to escalation in Vietnam.
His decision to challenge Johnson for the 1968 Democratic Party nomination pushed the incumbent president to end his re-election campaign within a matter of weeks.
Now, 55 years later, environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. walks a similar path to the one his father did before him.
RFK Jr. considers President Joe Biden a family friend, yet he decries the president’s unwavering commitment of U.S. military and political support to Ukraine—a commitment which he fears both prolongs Ukrainians’ suffering and risks ending in nuclear war.
President Biden’s re-election campaign bears notable similarities to Johnson’s short-lived 1968 campaign, including his refusal to engage in an open debate about the wisdom of his approach to the war in Ukraine.
During his 1968 speech, Senator Kennedy called for Americans to “face the facts” of the Vietnam War, “freed from wishful thinking, false hopes, and sentimental dreams.”
The young senator did not discredit the bravery of U.S. troops who had sacrificed their youths and their lives in the name of defending liberty abroad.
He questioned the very premise upon which the war had been launched.
He blamed America’s failure in Vietnam on a tapestry of misconceptions and illusions promoted by the U.S. government in order to escalate a war that no amount of American military power could have won.
In his view, “the unswerving pursuit of military victory, whatever its cost,” did not serve American or Vietnamese national interests, nor did it serve the interests of either nation’s people.
Contrary to the position of the U.S. government—that the war effort was guarding liberty and democracy abroad—Kennedy saw the war as a tremendous injury to the faith of other peoples in U.S. wisdom and purpose.
Kennedy believed that continued escalation could only lead to “the further slaughter of thousands of innocent and helpless people,” a tragedy which would forever rest on America’s national conscience.
In his estimation, a political compromise to end the war was not merely the best path to peace; it was the only one.
He challenged U.S. leaders to show “as much willingness to risk some of our prestige for peace” as they had shown to send young American men into war.
In order for the U.S. government to rally “public confidence and unity for the shadowed days which lie ahead,” Kennedy believed that American leadership had no choice but to tell its people the whole, terrible truth of the war.
Senator Robert F. Kennedy was not always an anti-war advocate.
As his brother’s Attorney General in the early 1960s, he was fiercely supportive of the CIA’s covert efforts to remove Fidel Castro from power in Cuba.
The anti-war impulses he is remembered for began to materialize in the years that followed his brother’s assassination in November 1963.
Fidel Castro was an early suspect in the assassination, leading Kennedy to question whether his own support for repeated U.S. assassination attempts against the Cuban leader had led to his brother’s death.
After his election to the U.S. Senate in 1964, RFK held back from directly challenging President Lyndon Johnson’s devotion to escalation.
Meanwhile, American media enthusiastically reported on a simmering feud between RFK and President Johnson over which man was the rightful heir to the legacy of President Kennedy, a feud which RFK had little interest in feeding.
Kennedy’s February 1968 speech calling for a reversal of the Johnson administration’s commitment to escalation in Vietnam only came after years of reluctance to wade into the debate and dispute the president of his own party.
Facing challenges from both Kennedy and Senator Eugene McCarthy—who was also critical of the administration’s policies in Vietnam—President Johnson withdrew from the Democratic primary in March, reversing his previous decision to seek re-election.
Less than three months later, RFK met the same fate as his brother before him.
Today, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has launched a campaign against incumbent President Joe Biden based in part on what he views as misconceptions and fanciful illusions that the current administration has embraced to escalate a proxy war against Russia in Ukraine.
During his 1963 speech, President Kennedy famously challenged the patriotic assumption of the mid-20th century that the U.S. had earned the singular right to rule the post-World War II international order because of its military victory over Nazi Germany.
JFK reminded Americans of the suffering and sacrifice the Soviet Union had endured to repel the invading Germans.
In order to put the Russians’ suffering into perspective, he urged Americans to imagine that all of the land and cities east of Chicago had been reduced to rubble. One in seven Russians had been killed in the war.
The goal of his speech was to articulate to the American people that the Soviet Union’s security concerns were not merely cover for aggression and military expansion, but a natural response to the terrible atrocity they had endured and would refuse to let happen again.
55 years later, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is imploring the Biden administration and the American people to similarly challenge their assumptions of Russia as the war in Ukraine rages on.
The junior Kennedy does not hesitate to condemn President Vladimir Putin’s “illegal, brutal and bloody” invasion of Ukraine.
In his view, it is within America’s power to bring an end to the terrible suffering which Ukrainians have endured since February 2022—but not through military power.
He condemns America’s “repeated, deliberate provocations” of Russia dating back to the 1990s, the role these provocations played in sparking the conflict, and the Biden administration’s refusal to acknowledge the power that U.S. leaders have to negotiate an end to the destruction:
“We pledged [in the early ‘90s] that if Russia made this terrible concession of moving 400,000 troops out of East Germany and allowing the unification of Germany under a NATO army … we would not move NATO one inch to the east.
Today … we’ve moved [NATO] not one inch to the east, but a thousand miles and fourteen nations.
We have surrounded Russia with missiles and military bases, something that we would never tolerate if the Russians did [to] us.” — Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
The fact that Eastern European nations sought out NATO membership on their own accord does not change the reality that U.S. military infrastructure has advanced to Russia’s doorstep since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Reports of China’s interest in expanding its’ military activities in Cuba, for instance, sparked deep concern among U.S. leaders.
It made no difference to U.S. leaders whether or not Cuba sought out stronger ties with China on its’ own accord.
The original architect of America’s Cold War-era containment policy towards communism himself, U.S. diplomat George Kennan, lambasted NATO’s expansion after the fall of the Soviet Union in a 1998 interview:
“I think [NATO’s expansion] is the beginning of a new Cold War. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake.
This expansion would make the Founding Fathers of this country turn over in their graves.
It shows so little understanding of Russian history and Soviet history. Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are — but this is just wrong.” — U.S. diplomat George Kennan
RFK Jr. reminded Americans during his June speech that the Framers of the Constitution understood that “democracy was inconsistent” with an imperialistic foreign policy.
“Every empire,” he said, “ends itself through the over-expansion of its military abroad.”
Kennedy rejects the Biden administration’s simplistic depiction of the war as a battle between good and evil.
Instead, he sees a reflex of violence and militarism as a response to “any and all crises” that America has “internalized and institutionalized” in the 60 years since his uncle’s assassination.
This reflex of violence, in his view, is inseparable from the violence that has become normalized in American schools, streets, and homes.
“Is it any wonder that as America has waged violence throughout the world, violence has overtaken us in our own nation?
It has not come as an invasion, it has come from within.” — Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
In the late 1960s, public opinion in the U.S. was split between further escalation of the Vietnam War and total withdrawal of American troops, thousands of whom had already been killed.
Today, RFK Jr. condemns the bipartisan view among U.S. leadership—including Republican Senator Mitt Romney and Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal—that America is getting its “money’s worth” in Ukraine without losing “a single American service woman or man.”
“Their disregard for Ukrainian lives,” Kennedy says, “is revolting.”
Meanwhile, Americans increasingly resent the Biden administration’s commitment of tens of billions of dollars to a foreign war while more than 60 percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck.
Public opinion is already split between escalation and cessation of military support for Ukraine, and it appears unlikely that support for sending more money to the war effort will grow without a major improvement in the financial situations of average Americans.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s father obviously did not win the presidency in 1968, but his campaign contributed to President Johnson’s decision to cancel his re-election campaign and to the end of America’s foolhardy war in Vietnam.
History does not repeat. In 2024, however, it might rhyme.
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