On the day his brother Jack was shot to death in Dallas, Texas, Robert Kennedy asked the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, John McCone, point-blank, if the CIA had been responsible for the murder. It is hard to know which is more remarkable—that Kennedy wasn’t sure of the answer, or that he expected to hear the truth either way. McCone of course said no, and there is no evidence that Kennedy ever doubted him, but that only narrowed the list of suspects in his mind. There were several others: organized crime and crooked labor unions, both hounded by Kennedy as a Senate investigator before his brother’s election, and as attorney general after it; Cubans opposed to Fidel Castro, and especially those Cubans who had gone onto the beach at the Bay of Pigs and been abandoned there; and Castro himself, who had been marked for death by Kennedy’s government, who knew it, and who had warned that two could play at that game.
But behind these suspicions, never resolved, lay a still darker fear in the mind of Robert Kennedy: that he himself, if any of the four had been established as the guilty party, could not have escaped at least some measure of responsibility for arousing and stoking the anger that resulted in his brother’s assassination. Kennedy had learned secrecy at his father’s knee, he was not loquacious in the Irish manner, when he had something big and personal to say he fell back on quoting the greats, and he rarely brooded aloud even with his closest friends about his brother’s death. But any man watched as closely as Kennedy was by rivals, journalists, and obsessive file-keepers like J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI was bound to give himself away on the things that troubled him most, and nobody was paying closer attention than President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who openly detested “that little runt” and was hated in return.
When Kennedy after much agonizing broke ranks with the administration over Vietnam, calling the war a “horror” in a Senate speech in March 1967, Johnson was instantly back at him with a poisonous leak to the Washington Post columnist Drew Pearson, who flatly accused Kennedy of masterminding an effort to assassinate Fidel Castro. Had Kennedy’s plan “backfired against his late brother”? Pearson wondered. Was it possible the senator had been “plagued by the terrible thought that he had helped put into motion terrible forces that indirectly may have brought about his brother’s martyrdom? Some insiders think so.”
The question must have been a painful one. But guilt was only one of the torments which entered Robert Kennedy’s life with Jack’s assassination. With it also came a fatalism hard to distinguish from despair and the onset of a raw spiritual sensitivity as tender as a wound that would not heal. Tough and ruthless by common report; a good hater by his father’s; single-minded and driving according to just …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.