‘America’s traditions and history would not permit such a course of action’
It was the moment Joseph Kennedy had waited to see his entire life.
The patriarch long envisioned his favourite son would one day occupy the White House. That dream ended on Aug. 12, 1944 when Lieut. Joseph Kennedy Jr. was killed after his explosive-ladened Navy PB4Y blew up over England. The dream then fell to Jack, who courageously saved his crew after PT-109 sank. On Jan. 20, 1961, John Fitzgerald Kennedy was inaugurated the 35th president of the United States.
On that day, however, it was not one but two Kennedys who entered the Oval Office for the first time. By Jack’s side was his younger brother, Bobby, now the attorney general of the United States. It was a controversial appointment as the 35-yearold Robert Kennedy was viewed as too young and inexperienced. But the third son of Joseph and Rose Kennedy was ready to be the nation’s principal law enforcement officer.
“We know that it is law which enables men to live together, that creates order out of chaos,” Bobby said shortly after being sworn in. “We know that law is the glue that holds civilization together. And we know that if one man’s rights are denied, the rights of all others are endangered.”
Kennedy immediately trained the powers of the Justice Department on prosecuting alleged mobsters Anthony Carello, Carmine Galante and John Ormento, as well as other major figures in the mafia. He coordinated the efforts of the IRS, the Secret Service and the FBI in taking on organized gambling and labour racketeering renewing Kennedy’s feud with Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa. Kennedy sent to Congress five anti-racketeering bills which were passed into law. Prosecutions for racketeering in Kennedy’s Justice Department rose by 300 per cent with convictions of organized criminals growing by 350 per cent.
Bobby was active in promoting civil rights fighting segregation. He dispatched federal military personnel to stop riots and ensuring that a black student named James H. Meredith could enrol in the University of Mississippi. He sent 500 federal marshals to protect the Freedom Riders, a group of African Americans and whites trying to integrate buses and bus terminals in Montgomery, Alabama. He also took on Democratic governor George Wallace of Alabama, who physically stood at the door of the auditorium at the University of Alabama to try to block the entry of two African American students. On Bobby’s advice, the president issued an executive order, which federalized the Alabama National Guard which then ordered the governor to step aside, which he did.
Bobby and Ethel settled down at an estate in McLean, Virginia, known as Hickory Hill( it was previously owned by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson and Jack Kennedy when he was still in the senate). While Bobby and Ethel had a strong relationship, he was prone to womanizing. For her part, Ethel seemed to accept that infidelity came with marrying a Kennedy (Despite his running around, Bobby was actually more faithful to his wife than either of his surviving brothers ). While he was rumoured to have had affairs with actresses like Kim Novak and Lee Remick, it is largely accepted that Bobby was romantic ally involved with the biggest movie bombshell of all-time, Marilyn Monroe.
His brother, whose indiscretions were one of Washington’s worst kept secrets, saw Marilyn quite frequently until the president broke off the relationship. When the troubled actress couldn’t handle the rejection, Jack instructed Robert, to deal with the matter. Fearing scandal would ruin their re-election in 1964, Bobby went to see Monroe in Los Angeles and instructed her to stop calling the White House. He provided her with his number at the Justice Department and continued seeing Marilyn into the summer of 1962.
Many believe Bobby became infatuated with Marilyn. The Kennedy family pressured him to dump the actress as she had become a “political liability” (despite this, Bobby ’s sister, Patricia, and her husband, British actor Peter Lawford, remained close friends with Marilyn). So Bobby broke things off with the 36-year-old actress. Marilyn Monroe was found dead in Brentwood, L.A. villa in the early morning hours of Aug. 5, 1962.
The death remains shrouded in mystery to this day. Many have speculated that Robert Kennedy visited her hours before police believe she committed suicide. Through eyewitness accounts provided by Eunice Murray, Monroe’s housekeeper, and her brother-inlaw, Norman, investigative reporters have concluded that Bobby visited the villa that afternoon accompanied by Lawford. He was there to dissuade Marilyn to call of a planned press conference where she would reveal her affairs with both of them. Some conspiracy theorists have alleged Bobby came back that night without Lawford. Kennedy was indeed in California that weekend staying at a ranch near San Francisco. Others believe government agents murdered Marilyn without Kennedy’s knowledge.
In Washington, Jack came to rely on Bobby to solve many dilemmas. After the Bay of Pigs disaster in 1961, it was Bobby who led the review of the Central Intelligence Agency’s conduct of the operation. In many ways, Bobby was Jack’s closest adviser much like the relationship that Franklin Roosevelt had with Harry Hopkins. In fact, Robert played a crucial role during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the greatest challenge that President Kennedy faced during his term.
In early October 1962, the CIA discovered 10,000 Soviet troops and advisers on the island of Cuba. They further identified launchers capable of firing SS-4 medium range ballistic missile and intermediate-range ballistic missiles that possessed a range of 2,037 kilometres, the SS -4’s could reach Miami, New Orleans and, even, Washington. Their warheads had the explosive power of one megaton which was 60 times more destructive than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. After the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (the “Ex Com”) was briefed on the situation, Bobby feared another Pearl Harbour was about to happen.
“America’s traditions and history would not permit such a course of action,” he later wrote. “Whatever military reasons he and others could marshal, they were nevertheless, in the last analysis, advocating a surprise attack by a very large nation against a very small one. Our struggle against Communism throughout the world was far more than physical survival – it had as its essence our heritage and our ideals, and these we must not destroy.”
It was Bobby who chaired meetings of the Ex Com which eventually came up with the strategy to blockade Cuba instead of launching airstrikes to take out the missile sites – an act that could have led to nuclear war. The crisis worsened after the Cubans shot down an American U-2 plane killing the pilot, Major Rudolph Anderson. The Ex Com called for offensive action to be taken against the air defence sites, but the president urged caution.
“Those hours in the Cabinet Room that Saturday afternoon in October could never be erased from the minds of any of us,” Robert Kennedy stated in “Thirteen Days,” his account of the October Crisis that was posthumously published in 1969. “We saw as never before the meaning and responsibility involved in the power of the United States, the power of the president, the responsibility we had to people around the globe who had never heard of us or the men sitting in that room determining their fate, making a decision which would influence whether they would live or die.”
On Oct. 27, Jack and Bobby met secretly and devised a deal they would propose to Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. In exchange for the Soviets leaving Cuba, the U.S. would remove Jupiter missiles deployed in Turkey. Later that day, an exhausted Bobby Kennedy, who hadn’t slept in days, met with Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin at the justice department where he relayed to him that the president was willing to remove the Jupiter missiles from southern Italy and Turkey. Bobby gave assurances that the U.S. would not invade Cuba. Dobrynin departed and sent a communique to the Kremlin to communicate this offer with Moscow. Dobrynin returned that evening to reply to Bobby that Khrushchev was willing to dismantle and withdraw the missiles under United Nations supervision.
“Thank God for Bobby,” Jack wrote after the nuclear holocaust was averted.
The Cuban Missile Crisis has been described by historians as not only President Kennedy’s shining moment, but Bobby’s as well. In many ways, Robert grew as a person in those 13 days gaining invaluable foreign policy experience and proving he was very much the tough fighter his father believed he was.
As 1963 rolled around, Kennedy focused the Justice Department on litigating more voting and human rights cases. He made it easier for blacks to vote in southern states and worked to halt segregation in interstate transportation as well as in more than 1,100 school districts. He sent to Congress a civil rights bill guarantee access for all citizens to public accommodations and end discrimination in all federally funded programs. Robert Kennedy also cast his gaze to 1964 and the battle to elect his brother to a second term
But the legend and idealism of Camelot came to an abrupt end on Nov. 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas. En route from Love Field to the Trade Mart, President Kennedy and the First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, were travelling in a motorcade when the Lincoln Continental convertible they were riding in came under fire. A bullet struck Kennedy fatally in the head. He died at Parkland shortly thereafter.
Bobby was hosting New York district attorney Robert Morgenthau at Hickory Hill, Virginia when his wife, Ethel, answered the phone. It was FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Holding the receiver to his ear, an anguished look came over the Attorney General’s face. Bobby reappeared in the living room uttering only two words: “He died.”
Soon after, Bobby called Vice-President Lyndon Johnson. The two men despised each other intently but they put aside their feelings to deal with the immediate situation. They speculated about who could have been behind the killing – the Soviets, the Cubans, or some other unknown enemy. Kennedy initially asked Johnson to hold off being sworn in as president on Air Force One, which was carrying his dead brother’s body back to Washington. However, once the decision was made to proceed with the swearingin ceremony, with Jackie Kennedy standing next to Johnson, Bobby withdrew his objections.
Bobby next called the family compound at Hyannis, Cape Cod. It was left to him to tell his mother, Rose, that her second-born son was dead.
On Nov. 25, 1963, Bobby accompanied his mother and Jackie, along with her children, John Jr. and Caroline, as the family attended the president’s funeral at St. Matthew’s Cathedral. Later, Jack was interred at Arlington National Cemetery. Through it all, Bobby never left Jackie’s side.
When the family gathered for Thanksgiving at Hyannis a few days later, Bobby didn’t show up. He and Ethel went to Florida instead. Truthfully, he couldn’t face his parents. The Kennedy brothers had made several enemies over the last three years – the Soviets, the Cubans, the mob, and even elements within the FBI and CIA. Bobby told friends he was sure, one day, they would get him. But it was his brother who died in the crosshairs, not him. It was a guilt that Robert Kennedy could not live with.
Next column: A social justice warrior runs for president in 1968
On Nov. 25, 1963 the Kennedy family attend U.S. President John F. Kennedy's burial at Arlington National Cemetery, in Arlington, Va., including JFK's mother, Rose Kennedy (left); his brother U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and the president’s widowed wife, Jacqueline Kennedy (right). Bobby Kennedy blamed himself for his brother's death.