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Sunday, June 10, 2018

Robert Kennedy - an addendum

I told some Robert Kennedy stories earlier this week on the anniversary of his assassination, but I didn't have room for my favorite ones.  They involved my own father.

Born in 1913--four years before JFK and a full dozen years before RFK--my father had been a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford in the late 1930s and begun a career as a Washington civil servant in 1939. He had a very rapid rise, and in 1948 President Truman appointed him Assistant Secretary of Labor for International Labor Affairs.  That meant that his career was now hostage to the whims of the American electorate--as it remained for the rest of his working life, through 1980.  In the fall of 1952, I understood that the presidential election was important to my whole family, even though i was only 5, and I remember my older brother, in the top bunk bed, telling me on Wednesday morning that Eisenhower had won.  My father delayed any impact on our family for two more years, managing to stay in DC on a temporary basis, but in early 1955 we moved to Albany, where he was a top aide to the new Governor, Averell Harriman.  Harriman, although almost 70, had presidential ambitions, but these came crashing down when he was beaten badly by Nelson Rockefeller in his bid for re-election in 1958.  At that point my father managed to put together funding for a chair in international labor affairs at the School of Foreign Service at American University, and we moved back to Washington in early 1959.

My father, like so many Democrats, was now focused single-mindedly on the 1960 election.  His preferred candidate, and therefore mine, was originally Hubert Humphrey, the leading Democratic liberal, but Humphrey's candidacy crashed and burned in the West Virginia primary, leading John Kennedy ahead.  At that point my father joined the many Democrats who were hoping that Adlai Stevenson would make a third run for the nomination.  That was the situation on about July 1, when I went off to music camp in Maine.  I was there, out of reach of any television, when JFK was nominated in Los Angeles.  When my parents picked me up at the end of the month, I got my first real lesson in politics.  Not only was my father now solidly for JFK, nothing he said gave the slightest indication that he had ever favored anyone else.

As he explained years later in an oral history for the JFK Library, my father had met JFK a few times, but did not know him well. His entree into the campaign was his fellow Rhodes Scholar, Byron White, who had gotten to know some of the Kennedys in 1938-9 when old Joe Kennedy was Ambassador in London.  White was working with Bobby Kennedy, the campaign manager, in Citizens for Kennedy, the non-party, independent campaign organization they had set up.  Early in the campaign, on a plane trip to Chicago, my father told White that the campaign had a problem with Jewish voters.

The problem, he explained, was that many Jews didn't like Jack, because they thought his father had been a pro-Hitler anti-Semite in the 1930s.  White, knowing my father, knew this was serious. "Why don't you talk to Bobby about it?" he asked--with the candidate's brother and campaign manager right on the same plane. "You're kidding," said my father. "No, he'll want to hear it," said White, and off they went up the aisle.  After introductions, my father took a deep breath and plunged right in.

Here it behooves me to step back for a moment and use my historian's perspective. The accusation against Joe Kennedy was particularly serious because it was truer than true--and while I'm not sure that my father knew that, RFK most certainly did.   But what I didn't learn until the late 1980s was that the Kennedy brothers had been dealing with this accusation at least since Jack's first Senate campaign in 1952.  Now, in August 1960, Bobby was not surprised or distressed by what my father said.  He denied the accusation, and assured my father that his father had given substantial contributions to Jewish charities. "I hope that wasn't last month?" my father replied.  No, said Bobby, it was "a respectable time ago."  He encouraged my father to put this word out to Jewish leaders, as other allies had presumably done in Massachusetts, and he did.  And in the very close election, the Jewish vote retained its Democratic allegiance.

In a second conversation, RFK quizzed my father about the situation in New York, where the Democratic Party was fractured into three or four different groups.  My father told him not to worry--all those groups were solidly in JFK's camp.  What was important was not to waste time and energy trying to bring them together. "That's good advice," Bobby said.  In two conversations, Phil Kaiser had established himself in RFK's mind as a man who would not shrink from giving one bad news when it had to be delivered, and who had good political sense.  That was all he needed to know.

When JFK narrowly won the election, his transition team decided to make a new kind of ambassadorial appointment, one that did not fall within the traditional categories of professional diplomats on the one hand, and big campaign contributors on the other.  They included academics (such as John Kenneth Galbraith, who went to India, and Edwin Reicschauer, who went to Japan); journalists (William Attwood went to Guinea); retired General James Gavin, who went to France; and diplomat in exile George F. Kennan, who went to Yugoslavia.  My father always thought that it was RFK who had put him into the mix, and Chester Bowles, a transition figure who become Undersecretary of State, decided he should become Ambassador to Senegal.  In the fall of 1962, I learned relatively recently, my father wrote a memo for RFK, then Attorney General, on how recent steps by the Administration--particularly forcing the admission of James Meredith into the University of Mississippi--had improved its standing on the African continent.

At the time of John F. Kennedy's death, my father was home on leave, lobbying for a new position, preferably in Europe.  With the help of his old boss Averell Harriman, he became the Minister, or Deputy Chief of Mission, in London, his dream job.  About four years later, early in 1968, he had one more encounter with RFK, by then a Senator from New York.  I never heard about this incident from him, which saddens me, because it made me quite proud of him.  My older brother, who witnessed it, told me about it after my father's death in 2007.

In January or February of 1968, before the fateful New Hampshire primary, my parents were again home on leave, and my father and older brother were entertained at the home of Byron White, now a Supreme Court Justice.  And who should also drop into the same evening party but Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York.  The subject of Eugene McCarthy's campaign came up, and RFK made clear that he regarded McCarthy as a stalking horse for himself.  Then Senator Kennedy brought up something else.  A year earlier, the London Embassy had become the focus of worldwide attention while Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin visited London for talks with Harold Wilson about the war in Vietnam.  The US had halted the bombing of the North for a few days and peace talks had been expected.  But suddenly, the visited terminated without anything happening, and the bombing resumed.  Exactly what had happened was not clear.

On that night early in 1968, RFK began grilling my father about what had happened.  "Was that all for show, or was there a real proposal?" he asked.  The answer would have interested him very much.  Wilson and the US Ambassador, David Bruce, thought they had a deal to open peace talks worked out, but the National Security Adviser, Walt Rostow--another fellow Rhodes Scholar of my father's--insisted on harsh conditions for talks which Hanoi would not accept.  But RFK did not learn about that night.

My father was a very loyal man, and he always believed he owed his diplomatic career to RFK.  But he also felt--like McGeorge Bundy--that "you can only work for one President at a time," and he still expected Johnson to be re-elected at that point.  He refused to tell RFK what had happened, even as the Senator, in my brother's recollection, got angrier and angrier, and eventually stormed out.  He felt a professional obligation to keep a secret, rather than to please the powerful politician who was interrogating him at that moment.

That kind of professionalism still survives among many Foreign Service officers, I suspect, but they are being marginalized in the new Administration.  Loyalty, now, isn't everything, it's the only thing. Both RFK and my father were men of another age.  They belonged to what most liberals today would see as a very narrow elite.  But that elite understood what politics and government were really about.


Bozon said...

Great stuff. Many thanks for posting this.

Takes one back to a more honest, bigoted, and refreshing, time in American social life, when it was not only ok but good to represent and to express ethnic prejudices and stereotypes of all kinds, true or false, not just anti Semitism, although as your post shows, it was not ok to do so and also try at the same time to portray oneself as a liberal Democrat, even way back then.

All the best

Unknown said...

A fascinating post. It was a better time in many ways, at least regarding the integrity of officials. My father worked in the State Department then, in African Affairs--he was Mennen Williams' chief assistant--and may have encountered your father. My Dad had that same kind of integrity. A Depression childhood, combat service in the War, the GI Bill...and loved jazz and science fiction, our two great native folk idioms, while they were having their post-War Golden Ages. I miss him, and the things about America he represented, now not only gone, but forgotten and held in contempt...

Ed Boyle said...

I suppose he could have told him if the war was over years later. We used to all come from small ethnically tightly identified groups with strict religious observation. If you read James Joyce you get the feeling of his being stifled from anearly dead culture. Right wing orthodox judaism and saudi cultur has similar effect. Times havechanged and prejudices have loosened but can never disappear. We are in a conservative phase where rots are important. Childhood memory is a great thing whether from center of politics or edge most families were strongly effected by historical occurrences. I only can trace that personally back in my irish and my wife's german/russian roots back to 1870s emiigration to USA and Russia post famine/franco prussian war. Each war/revolution in russia//England/canada threw someone in another trauma. I left America in 1989. I lost my desk job through great financial crisis but Ihave so much benefit from this change in life. Crisis brings growth. Stultifying cultural, national atmosphere teaches little. Europe is now, like America with Trump in an identity crisis. The 60s were result of post colonial, post hitlerian antiracial politics. Now they have been taken ad absurdum and are being fought. Identity is needed in dire financial and crisis times and the left insists on continues linearly forward, instead of taking a deep breath as the rest of the globe, china, russia, arabs heed their identities. The jewish identity is still strong. Hold onto it without defensiveness. Times will certainly get worse before they get better in this respect. If WWII ws focused on jews in Europe the current conflicts have Israel/arabs/iran/russia//USA. The solution to the last war was jewish statehood. Now it is drawing the region into numerous wars through jewish american support -neo cons- of proisrael policy without regard to American interest. Never Again is then an over aggressive battle cry which boomerangs, leading to similar results as before. Of course everywhere in boomer generation idealistic extremism reigns. Lets hope we can survive this crisis phase of history better than last one through cool heads, perhaps chinese and Russian(whose crisis passed in 90s).