Family Background. Robert Francis Kennedy was born on 131 Naples Road in Brookline, Massachusetts, on 20 November 1925. He was the seventh of nine children born to Joseph Patrick and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy; both of Robert's parents came from distinguished Irish Catholic families of Boston. Rose's father had been the mayor of Boston, and Joseph Kennedy himself was an able financier who earned millions of dollars while still a young man.
Upbringing. When Robert was four, the family moved to the New York City area, where Joseph, Sr., believed that he could be more in touch with financial dealings than he was in Boston. Robert first attended school in Bronxville, New York, where he is remembered as a nice boy, but not an outstanding student. A constant admonition from his mother in his youth was to read more good books--a suggestion he followed. From his father's advice and guidance in Robert's boyhood, the youngster learned values to which he would firmly adhere all of his life. Joseph, Sr.'s goal was for his children always to try their hardest at whatever they were doing. The father could abide a loser, but he could not abide a slacker.
Position in the Family. Robert's position as the seventh child in his family also affected the development of his personality. His older brothers, Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., and John F. Kennedy, were ten and eight, respectively, when Robert was born. After these oldest boys' births, the Kennedys had had four daughters. Robert, although friendly and playful with his sisters, sought the attention and approval of Joe, Jr., and John. To this end, the little boy developed himself as an athlete, mostly by determination, because he was of small stature. Even as a grown man, Robert was considerably shorter than his brothers. Robert attained a height of five feet ten inches, but his slightly stooped carriage sometimes made him look even smaller. He also appeared somewhat frail, although he was muscular and physically active all of his life. Robert had also inherited the Kennedy good looks; he had deep-blue eyes, sandy-brown hair, and handsome, angular facial bones. He was also shy as a boy.
Religious Upbringing. The Kennedys reared their children as Roman Catholics; of all the boys, Robert was the most religious as a youth and as a man. He served as an altar boy in St. Joseph's Church, Bronxville.
Family Moves to London. In 1936, Joseph, Sr., was named by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as Ambassador to the Court of St. James (London, England), and the family moved abroad. The number and physical beauty of the Kennedy children caused them to be public favorites in England. They all received press coverage, were presented to royalty, and attended British schools.
Education. When World War II began in 1939, Joseph, Sr., sent his family home for their safety. Robert then attended preparatory schools, including Milton Academy, in order to gain admission to Harvard; although his grades were not extremely high, he was admitted in 1944. Robert distinguished himself most at Harvard on the football squad. He was too small to be an outstanding football player, but by hard practice and a will to succeed, he did make the varsity team. Among his teammates, he found friends, several of whom he kept throughout his life. These men attest that Robert was always deeply loyal to his friends.
World War II. With the United States' entry into World War II, Robert joined the Navy but did not see battle because of the combat death of his brother, Joe, Jr., a pilot. When he was discharged from the service, Robert finished his interrupted Harvard education and entered the University of Virginia Law School.
Law School and Marriage. While in law school, Robert was introduced to his sister Jean's college roommate, Ethel Skakel. Ethel came from a wealthy Catholic family and was also a vibrant, athletic young woman. She and Robert were married in June of 1950, while he was still a law student. The marriage would produce eleven children, the last of whom was born after Robert's death in 1968.
Service on Committees and Campaigns. Robert's political career dates from 1946, when he helped manage his brother John's congressional campaign in Massachusetts. In 1952, when John ran for the Senate, his younger brother was his campaign manager. Between these campaigns, Robert also worked in the federal government. He served as a legal assistant to Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1953, when congressional inquiries were being made into un-American activities. McCarthy's investigations focused on subversive, Communist activities in the United States. Robert also served, in 1954, on the John McClellan Committee of the United States Senate, which was investigating organized crime in the United States. Among the groups under the committee's scrutiny was the powerful Teamsters' Union, headed by Jimmy Hoffa. Robert displayed relentlessness in questioning Hoffa and in his determination to uncover the corruption in the Teamsters' Union. Some of the press viewing the committee's hearings believed Robert to be too rude and harsh in his persistent examination of witnesses, especially Hoffa. The term "ruthless" became attached to Robert's name; it was, his closest friends and advisers believed, a misnomer. Robert's aggressiveness in the Senate hearings demonstrated his strong desire for success and meaningful achievements in public service.
Worked on JFK's Presidential Campaign. Robert achieved more national recognition when he managed his brother John's campaign for the presidency in 1960. Robert worked feverishly on John's behalf; he passionately believed in John's ideas for the United States. When the campaign ended after a long night of waiting for election returns, Robert was exhausted but exuberant. He was thirty-five years old, and his brother had just been elected the first Catholic President of the United States.
Appointed Attorney General. In announcing his cabinet members in the weeks following his election, John Kennedy wished to include his brother Robert as the attorney general. In private discussions, Robert showed reluctance; he feared that people would charge John with nepotism. Finally, John and Joe, Sr., convinced Robert to accept the cabinet position.
Helped Diffuse Explosive Situations. Robert proved himself to be a good choice for attorney general. He was John's close adviser in many critical instances. The two worked on controlling the volatile civil rights demonstrations that came close to tearing the United States apart in the early 1960's. Some lives were lost in the battle for freedom of education, public accommodations, and voting rights in the South, but more may have been sacrificed if the Kennedy Administration had not intervened with negotiations (and sometimes with federal troops) at critical junctures.
Cuban Missile Crisis. Another tension-fraught moment during which Robert aided his brother was the Cuban Missile Crisis. In October of 1962, United States surveillance had determined that Soviet nuclear missiles were being established on secret bases in Cuba. For thirteen days, President Kennedy, his cabinet, and his advisers met to discuss their possible reactions to these missiles, for they could not let them be fully installed. While some cabinet members and military leaders advocated an invasion of Cuba and/or bombing the island, John Kennedy was determined not to begin a war that could easily lead to a nuclear confrontation. During these thirteen days, Robert Kennedy was one of the leading proponents of a naval quarantine of Cuba. This was the method of protest that John did follow. The result of the quarantine was that Soviet ships, bringing in more missiles and installation equipment, turned back. The United States also removed some of its own missiles from Turkey to appease the Soviets. President Kennedy was greatly relieved that his advisers advocating war had not convinced him.
JFK's Assassination. Tragedy then entered the Kennedy presidency: John was assassinated on 22 November 1963, in Dallas, Texas. Many Americans suffered and mourned, but none so deeply as Robert. His associates in the Justice Department noted his sullenness and depression in the months following John's death. Robert had spent almost all of his political career working on John's campaigns and projects; Robert had never held an elective office at this point in his life. He was spiritually allied to John's plans for the United States, and he was lost without his brother.
Elected as Senator. At first, Robert remained attorney general under President Lyndon B. Johnson, to ease the transition of administrations. In 1964, however, when a Senate seat was vacant in New York, Robert decided to seek that office. His running was welcomed by people who believed that he would continue John's work. Yet some New Yorkers were upset by the fact that Robert was a Massachusetts' native seeking office in their state. To those people opposed to Robert's campaign, his supporters reviewed his life as a boy in New York. The campaign was a success; Robert Kennedy became a United States senator when he defeated the Republican Kenneth Keating. When Robert took the oath of office to begin his work as a senator, his younger brother, Edward, was present as a senator from Massachusetts.
Advocate of the Lower Classes. Robert proved to be an energetic and outspoken senator (a role not usually assumed by a freshman). He worked hard to see that his late brother John's civil rights legislation was passed. Robert also toured in many nations during the first years after John's death. Robert was always greeted with great enthusiasm and admiration wherever he went. In these travels abroad, as well as in his extensive touring throughout the United States, Robert was astonished at the deep poverty and endless discrimination under which many people suffered. He began to advocate more strongly legislation providing government aid and training for such groups as rural blacks, inner-city blacks, migrant farm workers, and American Indians. Some people who disliked Robert Kennedy accused him of visiting the poor for his own publicity, but many of those who traveled with him said that he was genuinely moved by and truly sympathetic to the plight of the lower classes in the United States. He often said that he knew he had been born into the privileges of a wealthy family, and he felt a real obligation to help those so much less fortunate than he.
Opposition to the Vietnam War. In 1966, American opinion of the expanding conflict in Vietnam supported President Johnson's policy to fight hard and subdue the Communists. Robert Kennedy, however, began to advocate negotiations and political compromises as the only sensible way of bringing the war to an end. He more openly opposed President Johnson's policies in the months that followed, when American forces heavily bombed North Vietnam. The years 1966 to 1968 (and beyond) were marked by intense domestic debate, particularly centering on opposition to the increasingly bloody and costly war in Vietnam. Robert Kennedy became involved in the effort to negotiate quickly an honest and just settlement of the war. To this end, he struggled for several months with the decision of whether to run for the presidency. Kennedy believed that President Johnson's military escalation to defeat North Vietnam was a doomed and tragically wrong policy. Roundly criticized both by political opponents and by large numbers of citizens, Johnson decided not to run for reelection; he announced this decision to the American people on 31 March 1968. Robert Kennedy had declared that he would seek the Democratic Party's nomination to run for president earlier that same month.
Assassination. With Johnson out of the race, Kennedy began to campaign intensely for an office which he believed he could win. His one formidable opponent was the Democratic senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, also an antiwar activist. McCarthy defeated Kennedy in an Oregon primary for Democratic voters in late May. Kennedy, however, surged back with a win in the California primary, held in the next week. As Kennedy left a platform after thanking his campaign workers for his California success, he was assassinated. He died in a Los Angeles hospital on 6 June 1968, at age forty-two.
Loss of a Compassionate Leader. Robert Kennedy's untimely and tragic death robbed the United States of one of its most dedicated and compassionate public officials. In office or not, Kennedy was always passionately advocating equal rights, a decent education, adequate housing, and freedom from hunger for all Americans. He particularly befriended migrant farm workers and American Indians, at a time when few national leaders were speaking on behalf of these minorities. Kennedy showed deep personal sympathy for the poor people he visited across the nation and vowed to end their degradation and suffering.
Source of Inspiration. Robert Kennedy did not live to see an end to suffering among America's poor or to see an end to the tragic war in Vietnam. Yet he left behind him many scores of admirers who believed in his social policies and who advocated justice and decent lives for all Americans. Robert Kennedy's greatness lies not only in the struggles he entered during his lifetime but also in the inspiration he gave people to help their fellow Americans in need.
- Kennedy, Rose F. Times to Remember. (Doubleday and Co., 1974).
- Plimpton, George. American Journey. (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970).
- Schlesinger, Arthur M. Robert Kennedy and His Times. (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1978).
- Witcover, Jules. Eight-five Days: The Last Campaign of Robert Kennedy. (G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1969).