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IDEALISM DIED WITH RFK: PART TWO (OF THREE)

In Bureaucracy, History, Law, Law Enforcement, Military, Politics, Social commentary on August 11, 2020 at 12:07 am

On March 18, 1968, Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy did what few politicians have ever done: He accepted public responsibility for a war that had since become a national disaster—the Vietnam war.

Addressing a packed audience of students and faculty at Kansas State University, he said:

“Let me begin this discussion with a note both personal and public. I was involved in many of the early decisions on Vietnam, decisions that helped set us on our present path.

“It may be that the effort was doomed from the start; that it was never really possible to bring all the people of South Vietnam under the rule of the successive governments we supported—governments, one after another, riddled with corruption, inefficiency, and greed; governments which did not and could not successfully capture and energize the national feeling of their people.

“If that is the case, as it well may be, then I am willing to bear my share of the responsibility, before history and before my fellow citizens. But past error is no excuse for its own perpetuation. Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom, not a guide by which to live.

“Now as ever, we do ourselves best justice when we measure ourselves against ancient tests, as in the Antigone of Sophocles: ‘All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil. The only sin is pride.’ 

Sophocles pushkin.jpg

Sophocles

And he dared to attack the war as more than a military and political disaster: He saw it as a stain on America’s moral fiber: 

“Can we ordain to ourselves the awful majesty of God—to decide what cities and villages are to be destroyed, who will live and who will die, and who will join the refugees wandering in a desert of our own creation?

“If it is true that we have a commitment to the South Vietnamese people, we must ask, are they being consulted—in Hue, or Ben Tre, or in the villages from which the three million refugees have fled?

“If they believe all the death and destruction are a lesser evil than the Wet Cong, why did they not warn us when the Viet Cong came into Hue, and the dozens of other cities, before the Tet Offensive? Why did they not join the fight?

“Will it be said of us, as Tacitus said of Rome: ‘They made a desert and called it peace?'”

Appreciating Bobby Kennedy's Stunning Transformation - HISTORY

Robert F. Kennedy

The students gave him an ovation worthy of a rock star. 

Time correspondent Hays Gorey said the electricity between Kennedy and the K.S.U. students was “real and rare.” “A good part of it is John F. Kennedy’s, of course, but John Kennedy …himself couldn’t be so passionate, and couldn’t set off such sparks.”

Jim Slattery, who would later be elected to Congress from Kansas, reread the K.S.U. speech during the second Iraq war and decided it was so powerful “because Kennedy was talking about what was right!”

As Kennedy started to leave, students rushed the platform where he stood, knocking over chairs and grabbing at him. They stroked his hair and ripped his shirtsleeves.

Later that day, Kennedy addressed another wildly enthusiastic audience—at the University of Kansas, in Lawrence, Kansas.

Then he addressed the glaring disparities between rich and poor Americans—a topic now generally ignored by Democrats and turned into an attack line by Republicans:

“All around us, all around us….men have lost confidence in themselves, in each other. It is confidence which has sustained us so much in the past. Rather than answer the cries of deprivation and despair….hundreds of communities and millions of citizens are looking for their answers, to force and repression and private gun stocks— so that we confront our fellow citizen across impossible barriers of hostility and mistrust.

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Robert F. Kennedy talking with black children

“And again, I don’t believe that we have to accept that.  I don’t believe that it’s necessary in the United States of America.  I think that we can work together. I don’t think that we have to shoot at each other, to beat each other, to curse each other and criticize each other, I think that we can do better in this country.  And that is why I run for President of the United States….

“I have seen children in Mississippi starving, their bodies so crippled from hunger and their minds have been so destroyed for their whole life that they will have no future.  I have seen children in Mississippi—here in the United States—with a gross national product of $800 billion dollars.

“I have seen children in the Delta area of Mississippi with distended stomachs, whose faces are covered with sores from starvation, and we haven’t developed a policy so we can get enough food so that they can live, so that their children, so that their lives are not destroyed, I don’t think that’s acceptable in the United States of America and I think we need a change.”

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