Hi there,

If you think Democracy Now!’s reporting is a critical line of defense against war, climate catastrophe and authoritarianism, please make your donation of $10 or more right now. Today, a generous donor will DOUBLE your donation, which means it’ll go 2x as far to support our independent journalism. Democracy Now! is funded by you, and that’s why we’re counting on your donation to keep us going strong. Please give today. Every dollar makes a difference—in fact, gets doubled! Thank you so much.
-Amy Goodman

Non-commercial news needs your support.

We rely on contributions from you, our viewers and listeners to do our work. If you visit us daily or weekly or even just once a month, now is a great time to make your monthly contribution.

Please do your part today.


Democracy Now! Special: Robert F. Kennedy’s Life and Legacy 40 Years After His Assassination

Media Options

Forty years ago today, on June 5, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy had just won the California Democratic primary, a major boost in his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Just after midnight, Kennedy addressed supporters at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, in what would be the last moments of his life.

Today, we spend the hour playing excerpts of rare Robert F. Kennedy speeches and the new documentary RFK Must Die: The Assassination of Bobby Kennedy. We also play a never-before broadcast address by Kennedy speaking to students at St. Lawrence University in Canton in 1966 and the man who recorded it. We also speak with journalist John Pilger who covered Kennedy’s campaign and was with him when he was shot, and we speak with labor organizer Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America, whose cause Kennedy championed.
[includes rush transcript]

Related Story

Web ExclusiveJun 01, 2020“We Still Don’t Have Justice”: Bakari Sellers on Enduring Systemic Racism & Healthcare Disparities
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Forty years ago today, Robert F. Kennedy was shot at the Ambassador Hotel after the Los Angeles primary, the Democratic primary he won. Today on Democracy Now!

, we look back at Kennedy’s life and legacy.

His record as a political figure is a complicated one. To many Americans, he came to embody the hopes of the civil rights and antiwar movements. But while serving in government, he played a major role in actions these movements fought against. As a young lawyer, Robert Kennedy was a key aide to Republican Senator Joe McCarthy on the notorious Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. As Attorney General under his brother, President John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy signed the wiretap order authorizing the FBI’s spying on Martin Luther King, Jr. On foreign policy, Robert Kennedy played a key role in US efforts to overthrow Cuban President Fidel Castro and was part of the inner circle of advisers that backed President Kennedy’s escalation of the bombing and destruction of Vietnam.

But he also was going through transformations at the end of his life. Today, we’ll look at those last months. But we begin with excerpts of the documentary RFK Must Die: The Assassination of Bobby Kennedy, directed by Shane O’Sullivan and produced by E2 Films.

On June 5, 1968, Kennedy had just won the California Democratic primary, a major boost in his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Just after midnight, Kennedy addressed supporters at the Ambassador Hotel in LA in what would be the last moments of his life.

    ROBERT F. KENNEDY: What I think is quite clear is that we can work together in the last analysis and that what has been going on within the United States over the period of that last three years, the divisions, the violence, the disenchantment with our society, the divisions, whether it’s between blacks and whites, between the poor and the more affluent, or between age groups or on the war in Vietnam, that we can start to work together. We are a great country, an unselfish country and a compassionate country. And I intend to make that my basis for running over the period of the next few months.

    Mayor Yorty has just sent me a message that we’ve been here too long already. So, my thanks to all of you, and now it’s on to Chicago, and let’s win there. Thank you very much.

    NARRATOR: Moments later, he was assassinated.

    ANDY WEST: Oh, my god! Senator Kennedy has been shot in the head. I am right here, and Rafer Johnson has a hold of a man who apparently has fired the shot. He still has the gun. The gun is pointed at me right at this moment. I hope they can get the gun out of his hand. Get the gun! Get the gun! His hand is frozen. Get his thumb! Get his thumb! Get a hold of his thumb and break it if you have to! Get his thumb! OK, now hold onto the guy! Hold onto him! Hold on to him. Ladies and gentleman, they have the gun away from the man.

AMY GOODMAN: Vincent Di Pierro was a waiter at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He is featured in the documentary RFK Must Die and describes the scene of the shooting.

    VINCENT DI PIERRO: Kennedy, after he got shot with the first shot, his hands went up to his head, like that, and he started to spin to his right. The second shot, it appeared the bullet hit him, because his right arm went limp, and it went down to the side, and he started falling back towards me. The third bullet, I believe, is the bullet that hit Paul Schrade, because at that point Paul went down.

    Karl now has got the gun. He’s banging the gun. I’m watching the bullets come out of the gun, as he’s — every time he hits it, he fires. Goldstein gets hit — what number bullet, I don’t remember. He hits me on my right shoulder. I am now falling. I am now on the ground and have Kennedy on my legs. I’ve got Paul under my left arm. And I’ve got Goldstein on top of my right shoulder. I’m basically on the bottom of a pile of — and crying. I was hysterical.

    Karl literally had his hand, banging it on the cabinet, trying to get him to release it. Finally, after the gun was empty, he was still banging his hand, and you could still hear the gun click. He was still trying to shoot at him on the ground.

    When we were on the floor and the shooting was finished, I was on my knees, and I crawled over to the senator. The first thing he said was, “Is everybody else alright?” We all said, you know, “Don’t say anything. Just don’t speak.” All he was concerned with was everybody else. That’s something I can never forget, to see a man who knew he was probably going to die worrying about everybody else.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Kennedy was pronounced dead the next day. President Lyndon Johnson would later address the nation in a televised speech.

    PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: 200 million Americans did not strike down Robert Kennedy last night, any more than they struck down President John F. Kennedy in 1963 or Dr. Martin Luther King in April of this year. But those awful events give us ample warning that in a climate of extremism, of disrespect for law, of contempt for the rights of others, violence may bring down the very best among us.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Kennedy’s funeral was held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. His younger brother, Senator Ted Kennedy, delivered the eulogy.

    SEN. TED KENNEDY: My brother need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it. As he said many times in many parts of this nation to those he touched and who sought to touch him, “Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.”

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Kennedy’s death came just two months after Martin Luther King’s assassination in Memphis. Kennedy had broken the news to supporters of King’s assassination while campaigning in Indianapolis and delivered what was to become a famous speech.

    ROBERT F. KENNEDY: For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and distrust, of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.

    My favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote, “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

    What we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom and compassion toward one another, a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Robert F. Kennedy breaking the news of the Martin Luther King assassination that night, April 4th, two months before his own assassination. Kennedy was in Indianapolis when Dr. King was killed.

Kennedy’s entry into the Democratic race was steeped in controversy. He was challenging his brother John F. Kennedy’s vice president, Lyndon Johnson, who had become president following Kennedy’s assassination. Kennedy only entered the race after antiwar Senator Eugene McCarthy nearly defeated Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. Faced with a narrow victory and Kennedy’s entry, Johnson would drop out of the race just weeks later.

This excerpt of the film RFK Must Die features a Kennedy campaign ad and clips from the campaign trail.

    CAMPAIGN AD: Tomorrow’s citizen needs people, people who know how to plan for his future. He needs them in the right places, now. People like Robert Kennedy.

    ROBERT F. KENNEDY: One thing is clear in this year of 1968, I believe, in this country, as I traveled across, and that is that the American people want no more Vietnams.

    CAMPAIGN AD: In August in Chicago, the Democratic Party will nominate its candidate for president of the United States. There are two roads to that nomination. One is to seek commitments through discussions with political leaders. The other is to go to the people.

    ROBERT F. KENNEDY: I think this is a great country, and I think we’ve accomplished — “Get a haircut.” I’m just at the pitch of my campaign speech, and I look around, and it says, “Get a haircut.” I got a haircut.

    No matter what happens, I’ve got a very tough road ahead.

    America was a great force in the world with immense prestige, long before we became a great military power. The real constructive force in this world comes not from bombs, but from the imaginative ideas, the warm sympathies and the generous spirit of a people.

    PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president.

    NARRATOR: With the president out of the race, Kennedy took to the campaign trail. He started out away from the cities in the heartland of Indiana and Nebraska.

    VOICEOVER: Robert Kennedy on a family farm.

    WOMAN FROM FARM: How can we make the people in the city understand our problems?

    ROBERT F. KENNEDY: Well, elect me president of the United States.

    VOICEOVER: Robert F. Kennedy in Indiana.

    ROBERT F. KENNEDY: Even here at home, I’ve seen children here in the United States starving, without the adequate, satisfactory meals, whether it be in Easton, Kentucky, whether it be on some of our Indian reservations, or whether it be in the Delta area of Mississippi, young children starving to death. Obviously, we can work out a system where you can produce these goods, and those goods be made available to our own population.

    This is the most dangerous time that you can possibly live in, but that also makes it the most interesting time. Camus said that he wouldn’t exchange his time with any other time just for that reason.

    We had great prestige a number of years ago around the rest of the globe, but it wasn’t because of our military power, and it wasn’t because of our economic power. It was just because people believed in us and believed that we would do what was right, believed that the principles that we attempted to follow within our own country we stood for around the rest of the globe. And they don’t have that same confidence now.

AMY GOODMAN: Excerpts of the film RFK Must Die. It is directed and narrated by Shane O’Sullivan. It’s premiering on the Documentary Channel Monday, June 9th at 8:00 p.m. Eastern time. It’s also set for theatrical release here in New York at the Pioneer Theater today, on this fortieth anniversary of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. We’ll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: The documentary RFK Must Die features the first-ever interview with the brother of Sirhan Sirhan, the man who shot Robert Kennedy. Here, Munir Sirhan describes finding out about his brother’s involvement with Kennedy’s death.

    MUNIR SIRHAN: I went to work as normal, and I saw my colleagues sitting in the coffee shop, and I looked over at the TV, and it said something to the effect that Bobby Kennedy has been shot. All of a sudden, I saw Sirhan’s picture on there. It said something to the effect that if anyone recognizes this fellow, to get in touch with the police. I looked at it once, and when I took a closer look, I ran down to my superior’s, and since I didn’t have a car at the time, I asked him if I could borrow his car, run home. Complete shock. Complete shock. Devastation. Shock. And when we first saw him in jail, I think mother and I went up first. When mother first asked him, he says, “Mother, I don’t remember. I don’t know what happened.” And he says that to this day. When you ask him about the particulars of that night, he doesn’t recall.

AMY GOODMAN: Munir Sirhan, first interview. He’s the brother of Sirhan Sirhan. It appears in RFK Must Die, the new film about Robert F. Kennedy.

The Australian British journalist John Pilger was with Robert F. Kennedy the night he was killed. Pilger had been covering the Kennedy campaign as it traveled across the country. He has written critically of Kennedy’s record as Attorney General and as presidential candidate.

Earlier today, I spoke with John Pilger on the telephone from Italy. He was reporting for the Daily Mirror at the time and had one of the last interviews with Robert F. Kennedy, which he described as a long, languorous interview, in which Robert Kennedy took out some beer, was relaxed, was in a small plane, his campaign plane, speaking with this journalist reporting for the British Daily Mirror. John Pilger is known for scores of documentaries he has done over the decades, more than fifty of them, on everything from Vietnam to Cambodia to East Timor to Iraq. His latest film is called The War on Terror.

I asked John Pilger to describe the day Robert F. Kennedy was shot.

    JOHN PILGER: I had been traveling with Robert Kennedy as a correspondent for the London Mirror in the end of May, early June, primarily through California. And this was the primary that Kennedy had to win to show that he could gain the nomination. In fact, by winning in California, which he did, he would almost certainly have gained the nomination.

    But I had one of the last interviews with Kennedy. In those days, there was good access to the candidates. There were spin doctors, but the protection around the candidate was fairly minimal, in that you could speak to him and have an interview. And I had a very long interview with Kennedy, in which I asked him about his alleged opposition to the war. You may remember, he was running against Senator Eugene McCarthy then, whose so-called children’s campaign was very much an antiwar campaign, and Kennedy really only came into the campaign after McCarthy had won in New Hampshire and Lyndon Johnson had decided not to seek another term. So Kennedy was really running as the new liberal candidate, antiwar, which he wasn’t, and somebody — he was like Barack Obama of his time, very much for — he was supported by young people, although they were divided then between McCarthy and him, and he was supported by minorities. So the interview I had with Kennedy was about two or three days before he arrived in Los Angeles.

    And I went along to the Ambassador Hotel, where Kennedy was due to appear, having won that primary. And in fact I had been invited with a number of other journalists to join him and his entourage at what was then a fairly well-known discotheque in Los Angeles called The Factory. And we had been told to follow the candidate through the kitchen, because they were going out the back way. And as we waited for Kennedy to appear on stage in the ballroom at the Ambassador, one of the Kennedy workers came up to us and said, “There’s a funny-looking guy in the kitchen. He’s giving me the creeps.” Well, that was Sirhan Sirhan. And I have to say that none of us journalists where we were went off and inquired who this funny-looking guy was.

    Kennedy arrived, stood on the stage, made a very short speech, which ended famously with now “on to Chicago,” where the Democratic nomination would have happened, the convention there. And then, he and Ethel, his wife, and his two protectors — Bill Barry, former FBI agent, and Rosey Grier, NFL player —- followed by a half a dozen journalists, including myself, started to walk towards the kitchen. Kennedy entered the kitchen. Sirhan leapt up on a serving area, pointed a gun at him and fired. He was wrestled. Kennedy fell. He was wrestled to the ground, and then there were other shots.

    There’s no question that there was another gunman, because one of the people who was hit, just grazed, was standing next to me, and that happened when Sirhan Sirhan had been wrestled to the ground. So that’s the interesting thing. There was another assassin or another several assassins. And then it was bedlam. And as you know, Kennedy died about twenty-four hours later.

    AMY GOODMAN: John Pilger, what about Robert Kennedy’s views of Vietnam? Also, of course, your view is not the standard one, that there were other assassins.

    JOHN PILGER: I’m sorry. I didn’t quite hear the second part. His views of Vietnam and…?

    AMY GOODMAN: Your view is not the standard one, that there were other assassins there. But -—

    JOHN PILGER: Well, I told — the FBI interviewed quite a few of us, and I told the FBI at length just what had happened, the numbers of shots that were fired that I heard — I thought I heard. And I’m pretty sure I did hear them, which Sirhan Sirhan —-

    AMY GOODMAN: How many?

    JOHN PILGER: —- couldn’t have fired. There were two people seen running from the Ambassador Hotel, including one famous woman in a polka dot dress. A number of us thought we saw those. We can’t be absolutely sure about that. There is a new documentary out, which I haven’t seen, which I understand goes into this in depth. But —-

    AMY GOODMAN: Well, John, on the issue of Vietnam, where you feel Robert Kennedy stood -— today, forty years later, remembered as being the antiwar candidate, as Eugene McCarthy was — your view?

    JOHN PILGER: He wasn’t, no. He wasn’t an antiwar candidate. Kennedy was essentially a carpetbagger. He had no intention actually of running that year, and it was only McCarthy’s win in New Hampshire and the tremendous outpouring of support around him and also around Martin Luther King. You may remember that Martin Luther King had drawn together both the civil rights movement and the antiwar movement, which then had command of many of the streets in the United States. And he had made the connection between the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam, so it was building now into 1968 pretty quickly. And Kennedy rode this wave.

    But Kennedy himself had actually supported the war and, even when he was running as a candidate, had made it quite clear — and here, there is a definite echo of Barack Obama — where he said, well, yes, I’m going to withdraw the troops, but when? And just as Obama is now saying — reserving his right not to withdraw troops next year. Kennedy was saying pretty much the same thing. And the impression I got traveling with him was that he was quite uncomfortable with being an antiwar candidate.

    AMY GOODMAN: In what way?

    JOHN PILGER: Well, he was equivocal. And again, I draw the comparison. I see so many echoes in Barack Obama of Robert Kennedy. He was equivocating. And when you’re equivocating at that stage, in an atmosphere — a charged antiwar atmosphere — by then, most Americans were against the war in Vietnam. There was a momentum to get out of Vietnam. It had really begun in earnest then. Kennedy was hedging. He was hedging his bets. And he was never saying outright that he was getting the troops out. And I think he provides a very good lesson for those whose hopes are pinned on one candidate at the moment.

    AMY GOODMAN: His relationship with Dr. King? It had actually just come out a few weeks before Robert Kennedy was assassinated that he had been involved as Attorney General with the wiretapping of Dr. King. That information, though it had been years before, came out just before he himself was assassinated.

    JOHN PILGER: I’m sorry. I missed the beginning of that, Amy.

    AMY GOODMAN: His relationship with Dr. King. It had just come out, right before Robert Kennedy was assassinated, that he had authorized the wiretapping of Martin Luther King years before, when he was Attorney General.

    JOHN PILGER: Yes. Yes, that’s right. Yes, I understand. Yes, that’s right. Kennedy had a very checkered past. He — it seemed to me that he was —- I mean, his relationship with the other McCarthy is known. He was very much -—

    AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking Joe McCarthy? What was his relationship?

    JOHN PILGER: Joe McCarthy, when he was — he did work as a junior lawyer around that time and was involved with the committee. His relationship in — I mean, his relationship with black people in the United States, I thought, was always compromised. He once described them, for which he later apologized, as immigrants.

    And I thought all the contradictions and confusion that are often invested in the Kennedy name were really very vividly expressed in Robert Kennedy himself. He was very hard to pin down. He spoke in a rhetoric. I was looking back on my notes recently of the interview I did with Kennedy, and, you know, there was just a stream of consciousness of rhetoric, really refusing to be pinned down on the major issues. He was an image candidate, bar none. He used the memory of his martyred brother, President John Kennedy, to — a lot. He spoke with different rhetoric to different audiences. All politicians do that, of course, but I was struck to hear Kennedy speak to, let’s say, a blue-collar audience, white blue-collar audience, in a very conservative way and use the code for race, which was law and order then, and then he would go into the vineyards of California among Mexican Americans and really be received almost like as a Christ-like figure.

AMY GOODMAN: John Pilger, investigative journalist, documentary filmmaker, covered Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign in the last months, was one of the last extended interviews he did with Robert F. Kennedy. He was there, back in the kitchen, when Robert F. Kennedy was shot and assassinated.

Coming up, we’ll speak with Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers, about the legacy of Robert F. Kennedy. We’re also going to play a speech that Kennedy gave in 1966, an excerpt of it, which has never been nationally broadcast before. He gave it to students at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We take a look now at Robert F. Kennedy’s position on the Vietnam War and how it changed. As President Kennedy’s Attorney General, Robert Kennedy took part in the high-level discussions that led to his brother’s massive escalation of the US attack on Vietnam.

In a Democracy Now! exclusive, I want to turn to a never-before-broadcast address by Robert F. Kennedy on February 14, 1966. Speaking to students at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, Kennedy was asked about his position on the ongoing US attack on Vietnam. His answer was decidedly pro-war.

    ROBERT F. KENNEDY: I’ll give you what I think myself, as far as Vietnam is concerned, and then I’d be glad to answer any other questions in more detail about it. First, I think that we have a commitment in Vietnam that we have to keep. Now, whether that commitment, as George Kennan said, should have been made originally, whether we should have been in this position, become involved in this kind of a position ten years ago, eight years ago, five years ago or three years ago, the fact is that we are now there, and a commitment has been made by several presidents of the United States and supported by the American people. I think we have to keep that commitment. So, therefore, I am not in favor of unilaterally withdrawing from South Vietnam. I’m in favor of remaining there and keeping the commitment that we have. I think it would be disastrous to pull out of Vietnam at the present time.

    Secondly, I’m in favor of trying to find a peaceful solution to the problem of Vietnam. I don’t think that there is any chance of finding that peaceful solution at the present time, although I’m in favor of making every kind of effort to do so and to demonstrate to our own people and around the world that we are interested in finding a peaceful solution.

    But I think that Hanoi and the Viet Cong and the National Front and the Chinese are convinced that the United States is going to turn and run from Vietnam. They felt that the French were going to do it in 1954. There was dissension within France. They see the same kind of dissension within the United States. They think that there — as General Giap said in his speech last spring, the Americans are going to say, “Bring the boys home for — by Christmas,” that they aren’t going to remain there, that we don’t have the tenacity or the will to remain, so that therefore they think that the war is going in their direction and that they will — there’s no sense in any sitting down to any negotiating discussions, that they’ve had negotiations before and discussions before and sat down at a conference table, and they felt they’ve always come out badly. They thought they would do much better in the 1955 discussions and felt that they were betrayed by Molotov, so that they don’t wish to come back to a conference table, because they think the United States will get out, that they think they can win the war in the South.

    I think that our greatest problem, therefore, is to prove that we’re going to remain in Vietnam. Now, that war, that struggle in Vietnam, therefore, in my judgment, is going to be costly, is going to be long, is going to be much bloodier than it is at the present time, and we’re going to have a commitment of a great number of more troops than we have at the present time. I would think that the estimate of 400,000 troops by the end of the year is probably accurate and the fact that it will grow even more next year, and the casualties will be considerably higher than they are at the present time, as far as Americans.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert F. Kennedy, speaking on February 14, 1966. David Emblidge now joins us from Boston. He was a student at St. Lawrence University in New York. Emblidge recorded Kennedy’s speech and has provided it exclusively to Democracy Now! Today, he’s an assistant professor of writing, literature and publishing at Emerson College in Massachusetts.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, David Emblidge.

DAVID EMBLIDGE: Thanks. Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: This might surprise some people, as they listen to Robert F. Kennedy in 1966, two years before he ran for president.

DAVID EMBLIDGE: Well, it certainly does seem like a surprise nowadays, looking backwards on it, because, of course, we want to remember Bobby Kennedy — most of us who worked for him — as an antiwar candidate. And, of course, it took him quite some time to get to that position.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain that transition? In a moment, we’ll play a few minutes of a speech he gave in 1968. But during this period, defending the Vietnam War, and your thoughts as a student at St. Lawrence?

DAVID EMBLIDGE: Well, my own thoughts at the time, I think, were probably quite similar to the thoughts of thousands, if not tens or hundreds of thousands, of other students around the country, that many of us had moved out ahead of where the political leaders were, certainly out ahead of where Robert Kennedy was. Most of us were already opposed to the war in Vietnam. I myself ended up resisting the war in all sorts of ways and ultimately filing a claim as a conscientious objector. I managed to avoid the war with a medical deferment and a string of deferments for my education and teaching. I was probably quite typical in that respect. So in some respects, the Robert Kennedy we hear in this speech in 1966 was behind us in our — behind us, following our — the development of our own political thinking.

And I think it was really the initiative of Senator Eugene McCarthy, who won the presidential primary in New Hampshire, that — I think it was that, on an antiwar campaign, that really woke Robert Kennedy up to the fact that there was a movement afoot on which Kennedy could capitalize and probably should capitalize, because by the time McCarthy had achieved his victory in New Hampshire, public opinion had shifted quite significantly in the direction of seriously questioning the commitment in Vietnam.

AMY GOODMAN: Those remarks that you recorded at St. Lawrence University were two years before Robert F. Kennedy entered the race for the Democratic nomination. As a candidate, Kennedy took a more critical stance on Vietnam, although he still refused to call for an immediate US withdrawal. This is an excerpt of Kennedy’s speech at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, April 19, 1968.

    ROBERT F. KENNEDY: My first point really is that I think that we — problem has been that we’ve made it America’s war and that I think that we’ve made it a military conflict. And I think it’s far more complicated than that.

    I should say at the beginning that I was involved in an administration that — where we became more and more involved in Vietnam, so when there’s blame to be assessed about what is happening in Vietnam and the difficult problems that we’re facing in Vietnam, that administration of President Kennedy has to share its responsibility, and certainly I do, as well. I was a member of the National Security Council. I was involved in some of those matters at that time. So I don’t say these things on the basis of blaming anybody or any person or any administration, but rather at what I think I recognize from my own experience and my own mistakes and the direction that we’re moving at the moment.

    I think we looked on it as a military conflict, that if we killed enough of them, compared to how many we were going to be killed of our own army, that they would eventually give up. I think it was much more than that. I think that as we started to send large numbers of American troops, that the people of South Vietnam looked upon it more and more as an American war, that it was a white man’s war, that it was the continuation of the French effort to control Vietnam, and therefore they didn’t associate themselves with that effort, an effort of independence and an effort of freedom, but either would — became more neutral or associated themselves with the National Liberation Front or the Viet Cong.

    The result is, of course, the recruitment of the NLF grew tremendously over the period of the last two or three years. There’s no question, we were killing large numbers of them. But if you look at the figures of who we were killing, the army was wiped out every year. But in fact, the army grew from January ’66 to January ’67. It increased by 50 percent during the same period of time, according to our own figures. Plus, the mortally wounded or those who were so badly wounded they couldn’t enter the conflict anymore — everybody would have been dead.

    So I think that their recruitment program has been successful. The military effort that we have made and concentrated on that, I think has been a mistake. Third, I think that we have not made it clear enough that the government in Vietnam has to end its corruption and the dishonesty.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert F. Kennedy, speaking April 19th, 1968, less than two months before his own assassination. It was exactly two weeks after Dr. King’s assassination. Before we go on to the United Farm Workers and his stance with the farm workers, David Emblidge, I’d like to ask you for your final comments — how you felt about Kennedy in ’66 as a fierce antiwar activist yourself, and then the Kennedy who was assassinated on this day, forty years ago?

DAVID EMBLIDGE: Well, this is a story about change, personal change. My own changes, of course, meant that I found myself opposed to the war and was disappointed in Senator Kennedy at the time when I met him at St. Lawrence University. I was enthused and inspired by Senator McCarthy and his position and eventually made my peace with the fact that the more viable presidential candidate would have been Robert Kennedy, and so we all got on board to try to support his candidacy.

I was glad to see him come around. And his change in position, to me, reflected the fact that he had changed in many ways. He changed on the civil rights questions, as well, and became what I thought in the end was a deeply compassionate and committed reformer. So, ultimately, my memory of Robert Kennedy is as a man with fantastic potential to have changed this country, and it’s, to put it mildly, a tragic loss that he never really had that chance. And I carry forward the memory of Robert Kennedy, the potential transformative leader, and not necessarily the one who took so many years to get to that position.

AMY GOODMAN: David Emblidge, I want to thank you for being with us, sharing with us that speech you recorded in 1966, now teaching at Emerson College in Boston. I want to also thank the Pacifica Radio Archive for their remarkable collection. Among those more than 50,000 tapes was the speech that Robert Kennedy gave at the Biltmore Hotel in April of 1968.

Finally, we turn to Dolores Huerta, the co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America along with Cesar Chavez. Robert F. Kennedy was a key political ally of the farm workers, publicly championed their cause. In his final speech moments before he was shot, Robert F. Kennedy acknowledged Dolores Huerta for helping him win the California primary. She joins us now on the phone from California.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Dolores.

DOLORES HUERTA: Hello, Amy. How are you doing?

AMY GOODMAN: It’s very good to be with you. In these last few minutes of this broadcast, your thoughts about Robert Kennedy and what he did for the United Farm Workers, how you hooked up?

DOLORES HUERTA: Well, not only farm workers. You know, when you think of the people in Appalachia that he visited, what he did in Bedford-Stuyvesant in terms of trying to provide low-income housing, and those programs are still going on today, and the [inaudible] Center down in Los Angeles. And, of course, you know, he was a man who knew how to reach out to the poor, whether it was the copper miners in Chile or the farm workers, that he could identify and he was there with people. He was not only compassionate, but he was a person that did things.

The other thing is that I think he set a very high standard for politicians because of his integrity and his courage. He had a lot of courage to confront the authorities, whether it was Lyndon Johnson as president, calling him out on the war, or the sheriff of Kern County, scolding him for arresting farm workers when they were out on their picket line. So I would like to see his legacy continue to be remembered year after year, just so that — especially for politicians. You know, Amy, he never used consultants. He directed his own political campaign, which is of course a far cry from what goes on today.

AMY GOODMAN: Dolores, we’re going to call you on your cell phone, because the landline is very bad. Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers, along with Cesar Chavez. Robert Kennedy is well known for his advocacy for farm workers. Let’s see if we can transition to a clearer line. Dolores, are you with us?

DOLORES HUERTA: Yeah, I am. Uh-huh. I’m here.

AMY GOODMAN: Oh, much, much better. Do you remember when you first met him?

DOLORES HUERTA: Let’s see, I first met Bobby Kennedy in 1960, when we were working on a voter registration drive for — well, actually, it was during that presidential campaign in 1960 with a community service organization. And we had done a nonpartisan voter registration drive, and our drive had been credited to another organization. And so, he had corrected that comment that he had made to Time magazine to give the community service organization. We had registered 140,000 Latino voters in California in a nonpartisan drive. So that’s when I first met him.

But then, over the years, he did a lot with the farm workers’ union. He helped us raise money for a twenty-four-hour clinic. They didn’t have a twenty-four-hour medical facility in Delano, where we were organizing. Then, of course, he came to Delano and had a hearing to see why the farm workers were being arrested, you know, without any cause during our strike in 1965 that we had.

So, over the years, you know, in New York City, when we were doing the grape boycott, we had forty farm workers who were arrested at Hunts Point Market, and Kennedy sent his attorneys to get the farm workers out of jail. So, you know, he was just there all the time. It was somebody that you could know that you could, you know, call him, and he would have his staff and his authority and everything that he had there to support workers. He was just an incredible human being.

And, of course, being there with Cesar Chavez when Cesar ended his first twenty-five-day water-only fast for nonviolence. He and Cesar were very close. Cesar really didn’t like politicians very much, but he and Bobby Kennedy really bonded.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Dolores Huerta, I want to thank you for being with us and encourage our radio listeners to go to our website to see all the photos we’ve been showing on our TV show. In the last ten seconds we have, you’ve been a fierce supporter of Hillary Clinton. Do you think you will be able to find it in yourself to support Barack Obama?

DOLORES HUERTA: Well, we have to vote for Barack. There’s no question of that. But I just hope that he does a lot more to reach out to the Latino community, because he’s sort of an unknown factor in our community.

AMY GOODMAN: Dolores Huerta, I want to thank you very much for being with us, co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America, along with Cesar Chavez.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Up Next

“We Still Don’t Have Justice”: Bakari Sellers on Enduring Systemic Racism & Healthcare Disparities

Non-commercial news needs your support

We rely on contributions from our viewers and listeners to do our work.
Please do your part today.
Make a donation