In response to:
On Robert Kennedy from the August 1, 1968 issue
To the Editors:
My first reaction, on reading Hans J. Morgenthau’s cold-hearted eulogy of Robert Kennedy [NYR, August 1] was to want to say to him, and to his readers: Robert Kennedy was not like that, he was not like that at all.
His opposition to Administration policies in Vietnam was early and vigorous, and was based at least as much on the effects of these policies on the people in South Vietnam as on considerations of national interest. He had the strongest record of any Attorney General in this century on issues of civil liberties. He was acutely aware of “the moral and pragmatic ambiguity of the political act…,” and he had the courage to change his mind, even when it was highly unpopular for him to do so.
Robert Kennedy’s memory will survive even the most back-handed praise. But I cannot let Mr. Morgenthau’s factual premises go unchallenged in your pages.
Robert Kennedy spoke out first on our policy in Vietnam in May of 1965, not in February of 1966; his prosecution of Hoffa was vigorous, as it needed to be, but also fair, as is demonstrated by two affirmations of Hoffa’s conviction in the U.S. Supreme Court; in his 1964 senatorial campaign, he did not “misrepresent” Senator Keating’s record, but exposed the inconsistent and often illiberal character of that record; and in the Indiana primary, he told it like it is to every audience, black and white, as he did when he was asked by a group of hostile medical students who would pay for the costs of the increased social benefits he was proposing, and he pointed a finger at them and answered, “You will.”
Mr. Morgenthau gives Robert Kennedy grudging credit for “his capacity for moral indignation.” He had that, in heroic measure, but he also had the special qualities of courage and patience and compassion to move from indignation to step-by-step action, to begin to figure out how we get there from here.
Harvard Law School
Hans J Morgenthau replies:
People have reacted to Robert Kennedy either with passionate love or with passionate hatred. I tried to approach the subject of my inquiry sine ira et studio, that is in a detached manner. My main impulse was intellectual curiosity. I wanted to know what kind of man Robert Kennedy actually was, what it was that attracted and repelled so many and left so few indifferent.
That members of the Kennedy Circle, to which Mr. Yarmolinsky belonged, would find my analysis emotionally unsatisfactory had to be expected. Mr. Yarmolinsky is entitled to feel dissatisfied with what I had to say. He is not entitled to challenge the facts from which my analysis derives. By doing this, he allowed his emotions to get the better of his critical faculties.
Mr. Yarmolinsky informs me that “Robert Kennedy spoke out first on our policy in Vietnam in May 1965, not in February of 1966.” This information is superfluous, since it is reflected in my article where I said: “When the first wave of protest struck the country in 1965 in the form of the teach-ins, Kennedy did not join it. He did not go on record as opposing the war as such, but only raised doubts about its tactics.” The real issue is the substance of Kennedy’s position, not the date of its first formulation.
Mr. Yarmolinsky says, “His prosecution of Hoffa was vigorous, as it needed to be, but also fair, as is demonstrated by two affirmations of Hoffa’s conviction in the U.S. Supreme Court.” The issue I was raising does not concern the legality but the morality of Hoffa’s prosecution. What was terrifying at the time and what is still terrifying in retrospect is the single-minded ferocity with which the powers of the federal government were brought to bear not upon stamping out labor racketeering where it was found, but upon bringing one law breaker—one among thousands—behind the bars of a federal penitentiary. One needs only to compare Thomas E. Dewey’s systematic breakup of the New York rackets with this prosecution of one man, which approached the character of a personal vendetta, in order to see what was wrong. Mr. Yarmolinsky evaluates the situation differently from myself, but he has not challenged any of the facts.
Mr. Yarmolinsky says that Robert Kennedy “did not ‘misrepresent’ Senator Keating’s record, but exposed the inconsistent and often illiberal character of that record.” This assessment is not supported by the record or by disinterested observers. For instance, The Reporter of November 5, 1964, accused the Kennedy campaign of having invented non-existent bills and amendments for Keating to vote against. William V. Shannon in his The Heir Apparent accuses the Kennedy campaign of having used Keating’s occasional conservative vote to carefully suppress his much larger number of progressive votes. The Executive Director of the Fair Campaign Practices Committee wrote Kennedy a confidential letter which was leaked to the press and which reads in part: “I say with deep regret that I read your statement with dismay. Your description of his cynical [Keating’s] position on the test-ban treaty is not only false and distorted, but also appears to be either a deliberate and cynical misrepresentation or the result of incredible carelessness, touched with luck.” It is true that the Committee disavowed that letter because it had been sent without its authorization.
Finally, Mr. Yarmolinsky says that “in the Indiana primary, he told it like it is to every audience, black and white….” The truth is that Kennedy fought the Indiana contest as the champion of law and order, not as the leader of the disadvantaged in search of a better life. I mentioned this fact in my article without passing judgment on it. But whether or not one approves of it—and there is something to be said in favor of it on tactical grounds—Robert Kennedy emerged from the Indiana primary not yet as a charismatic leader but still as a conventional politician.
September 26, 1968