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02/08/2008 12:48 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

40 Years Ago Today: Robert F. Kennedy's Most Important Speech on the Vietnam War

Excerpt taken from my 1998 doctoral dissertation in American History, Cornell University:

New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy's February 8, 1968 appearance at an annual Book and Author luncheon in Chicago had been scheduled to promote To Seek A Newer World, and for purely political reasons, he planned to speak on a subject other than Vietnam. Four days earlier, he decided to use the event to evaluate the meaning of the Tet Offensive. "Johnson can't get away with saying it was really a victory for us," Kennedy told his speechwriter Adam Walinsky.

Kennedy's post-Tet address went far beyond his March 2, 1967 speech in attacking Johnson's position. By combining support for the troops with a passionate appeal for coming to terms with the reality of the U.S. intervention, he attempted to extricate from the pro-war forces their putative monopoly on "patriotic duty" in time of war. Kennedy, who made only minor revisions of the final draft, employed imagery reminiscent of the spirit of sacrifice that characterized the nation during World War Two. He called on Americans' higher sense of national purpose, and challenged them to press their government to withdraw from the conflict. He displayed a remarkable faith in the ability of ordinary citizens to recognize and understand the bitter truth about the war, and to take action to force their government to change course.

On the morning of the luncheon, Kennedy met with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, who was at the time the most powerful municipal politician in the Democratic Party. The Irish Catholic Mayor's political base in Chicago -- mainly white working-class people of diverse ethnic origins -- was similar to Kennedy's bases in Boston and New York. Daley had been a good friend of Joseph Kennedy, the patriarch of the Kennedy clan, who in 1945 became one of Chicago's most influential landlords when he purchased the enormous Merchandise Mart. Mayor Daley also had been a key supporter in John Kennedy's successful 1960 presidential campaign to the point of raising suspicions of vote rigging in Cook County. Daley not only had iron-clad control over the Chicago patronage system and the Illinois Democratic delegation, his importance in national politics was augmented by the fact that he would host the 1968 Democratic National Convention that August. Powerfully affected by the death of a close friend's son in Vietnam, Daley watched uneasiness with the war grow among his core constituents. The Mayor welcomed Kennedy's decision to use his speaking engagement in Chicago to step up his criticisms of the war.

Daley told Kennedy that he had tried to explain to Johnson that the war issue had become so damaging that he had little hope of being re-elected unless he changed his policies. Kennedy told Daley that he believed Johnson would remain committed to his course in Vietnam because the war had become a matter of honor to him, to which Daley replied: "There comes a time when you must put your honor in your back pocket and face realities."

The morning Kennedy spoke in Chicago, newspapers reported that N.L.F. main force units and P.A.V.N. regulars had overrun a Marine base at Langvie, east of Khe Sanh, which marked the first use of tanks in the war by the enemy. Large swaths of the Cholon district of Saigon were still engulfed in flames, and the suburbs to the south and west of the capital passed between A.R.V.N. control by day and N.L.F. control by night. Convoys of military vehicles bringing supplies to embattled American troops drove into cleverly deployed ambushes on every major road. American air strikes, napalm, and artillery pummeled the city of Hue into rubble, as television reporters clung to the belts of Marines who fought ferociously to reclaim ruins.

"Our enemy savagely striking at will across all of South Vietnam," Kennedy opened his remarks, "has finally shattered the mask of official illusion with which we have concealed our true circumstances, even from ourselves." He dismissed the Administration's repeated claims that a U.S. military victory was in sight. "Those dreams are gone," he said. Although the "Vietcong will probably withdraw from the cities," the enemy had clearly demonstrated, in Kennedy's view, that "half a million American soldiers with 700,000 Vietnamese allies, with total command of the air, total command of the sea, backed by huge resources and the most modern weapons, are unable to secure even one city from the attacks of an enemy whose total strength is about 250,000." "At one time," he added, alluding to calls for a change in U.S. military strategy, "a suggestion that we protect enclaves was derided. Now there are no protected enclaves." The audience, which included Mayor Daley and his minions in the Chicago Democratic machine, sat enraptured as Kennedy's words grew in drama and intensity.

The first "illusion" Kennedy wished to dispel was "that the events of the past two weeks represent some sort of victory. This is not so," he said. Given that "[t]housands of men and arms were infiltrated into populated urban areas over a period of days, if not weeks" prior to Tet and "few, if any, citizens rushed to inform their protectors of this massive infiltration," the administration had "misconceived the nature of the war." By attempting "to solve by military might a conflict whose issue depends upon the will and conviction of the South Vietnamese people," Kennedy concluded, the United States had sown the seeds of its own failure in Vietnam.

This last statement led Kennedy to the second illusion: "that we can win a war which the South Vietnamese cannot win for themselves." This idea was similar to a point Edward Kennedy had raised in January 1968, which administration officials condemned, that emphasized the internal nature of the conflict, inseparable from Vietnam's history and politics. Yet the "wise and certain counsel" that the United States could not fundamentally alter Vietnam's historical course, Robert Kennedy argued, had "gradually become an empty slogan, as mounting frustration led us to transform the war into an American military effort." Kennedy had criticized the administration's moves to Americanize the war as far back as1965; now he finally denounced it outright.

Kennedy then turned to the corruption and ineptitude of the South Vietnamese government. Borrowing from his brother's refugee report, he rebuked the rampant organized graft in Saigon as one of the key reasons behind the failure of the G.V.N. to win popular support. "Every detached observer," he said, "has testified to the enormous corruption which pervades every level of South Vietnamese official life." Hundreds of millions of dollars were being "stolen by private individuals and government officials," at the same time the American people were "being asked to pay higher taxes to finance our assistance effort." The tragic end product of the regime's criminality, Kennedy said, "is not simply the loss of money or of popular confidence; it is the loss of American lives." The notion that the United States wasted billions of tax dollars in Vietnam could reach a wide swath of American voters who might disagree with Kennedy on most other issues.

At several points in the speech Kennedy stressed the centrality of the political nature of the struggle in South Vietnam: "Political and economic reform are not simply idealistic slogans or noble goals to be postponed until the fighting is over," he said, but "they are the principal weapons of battle." The U.S.-backed Saigon government failed miserably at winning the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese because "[p]eople will not fight to line the pockets of generals or swell the bank accounts of the wealthy." Kennedy forcefully took on the administration's contention that the Republic of South Vietnam had a viable mass base: "We have an ally in name only. We support a government without supporters. Without the efforts of American arms that government would not last a day."

The third illusion Kennedy countered was the belief that "the unswerving pursuit of military victory, whatever its cost" was "in the national interest of either ourselves or the people of Vietnam." For the Vietnamese, he said, "the last three years have meant little but horror." The country had been "devastated by a weight of bombs and shells greater than Nazi Germany knew in the Second World War," and "[w]hole provinces have been substantially destroyed." He cut through the staid euphemisms of Johnson's technocrats that were designed to hide the human suffering wreaked by U.S. policy.

Kennedy's fourth illusion was "that the American national interest" was identical with "the selfish interest of an incompetent military regime." He assailed the Administration's public relations campaign to portray General Thieu as a "freely elected" committed democrat. He flatly rejected Johnson's claim that the United States had a "vital interest" in propping up Thieu as a defense against the spread of Asian Communism. The only thing the United States gained in the bargain, Kennedy argued, was a debilitating land war in Asia. "We are told," he said, "that the battle for South Vietnam is in reality a struggle for 250 million Asians"; however,

. . . the war in Vietnam does not promise the end of all threats to Asia and ultimately to the United States; rather, if we proceed on our present course, it promises only years and decades of further draining conflict on the mainland of Asia -- conflict which, our finest military leaders have always warned, could lead us only to national tragedy.

Kennedy dismissed the "domino theory," which posited that if one nation fell to communism dozens of its neighbors must follow. The other Asian "dominoes," he said, faced no substantial threat from the collapse of the Thieu regime. Nor should U.S. prestige rest upon the success or failure of a corrupt military junta. This stand, consistent with the tenets of the Cold War while refuting the logic of falling dominoes, allowed Kennedy to reach a broad constituency, and perhaps even influence elite opinion.

Kennedy argued that United States' interests would be best served by a policy of disengagement. The American promise to South Vietnam had been largely fulfilled:

We have an interest in maintaining the strength of our commitments -- and surely we have demonstrated that. With all the lives and resources we have poured into Vietnam, is there anyone to argue that a government with any support from its people, with any competence to rule, with any determination to defend itself, would not long ago have been victorious over any insurgent movement, however assisted from outside its borders?

As he did with the domino theory, Kennedy struck down the administration's assertion that U.S. "credibility" in the eyes of the international community was at stake in Vietnam. From the time of his trip to Europe in February 1967, Kennedy had understood this was not the case; in fact, the opposite was true: the spectacle of U.S. military aggression in Southeast Asia led important allies to question U.S. motives in world affairs.

The fifth and final illusion, which Kennedy addressed was Johnson's apparent belief that the United States possessed the power to "settle this war in our own way and in our time on our own terms." "Such a settlement," he said, "is the privilege of the triumphant; of those who crush their enemies in battle or wear away their will to fight. We have not done this, nor is there any prospect we will achieve such a victory." In Kennedy's view, the tenaciousness of those who fought against the United States, coupled with the corruption of the Thieu regime, had swept away any hope of a decisive U.S. military victory. The time for a peace settlement had arrived. The United States could no longer harden its terms "every time Hanoi indicates it may be prepared to negotiate."

In a conciliatory gesture, Kennedy went on to contextualize the conflict, making it clear that he was not placing the blame for the failures of the war solely on Johnson's shoulders. "For twenty years," he said,

first the French and then the United States, have been predicting victory in Vietnam. In 1961 and in 1962, as well as 1966 and 1967, we have been told that "the tide is turning"; "there is 'light at the end of the tunnel,'" "we can soon bring home the troops -- victory is near -- the enemy is tiring." Once, in 1962, I participated in such predictions myself. But for 20 years we have been wrong. The history of conflict among nations does not record another such lengthy and consistent chronicle of error. It is time to discard so proven a fallacy and face the reality that a military victory is not in sight, and that it probably will never come.

By conceding he had been a participant in the search for a military victory in Vietnam back in 1962, as well as including 1961 and 1962 in his "chronicle of error," Kennedy proved his willingness to accede his own role, and the role of President Kennedy in meddling in Vietnam's internal affairs, and laying the foundation for the current war. As he had done in March 1967, Kennedy accepted his share of the disapprobation, admitted his error, and then sought to correct it. He might have acted too late to satisfy his critics, but Kennedy's mea culpa showed, in contrast to Johnson, that he believed stopping the war was more important than maintaining a facade of personal infallibility. The admission made Kennedy more vulnerable to the constant charges from the war's supporters that his conversion from hawk to dove had been politically motivated.

Concluding his February 8 address, Kennedy reiterated his call for disengagement, and expressed a deep empathy with the American troops: "the best way to save our most precious stake in Vietnam -- the lives of our soldiers -- is to stop the enlargement of the war," and "the best way to end casualties is to end the war. This is a great nation and a strong people," he said, "[a]ny who seek to comfort rather than speak plainly, reassure rather than instruct, promise satisfaction rather than reveal frustration -- they deny that greatness and drain that strength. For today as it was in the beginning, it is the truth that makes us free." With that, Kennedy finished his remarks and members of the press and his Democratic colleagues broke into sustained applause. Those present sensed that a burden had been lifted from Kennedy's shoulders; he had crossed the Rubicon with his denunciation of Johnson's war.