This year marks not only the 50th anniversary of the shooting of John F. Kennedy but also the 45th anniversary of the shooting of Robert F. Kennedy, which occurred in June 1968. Was there a common source motivating the assassins of both Kennedys—that is, Lee Harvey Oswald and Sirhan Sirhan?
That renowned political philosopher Mick Jagger speculated on a source. “I shouted out ‘Who killed the Kennedys?’” asks the lyrics in the 1968 song by The Rolling Stones. “When, after all, it was you and me.” The song was titled, “Sympathy for the Devil.” It was, The Rolling Stones suggested, the Devil who had killed the Kennedys, along with his accomplices.
I must say I can’t disagree with that one—a rare area of agreement between me and Mick Jagger.
There is, however, a more earthly answer. And it was provided, surprisingly, by a rising political star in the immediate hours after the shooting of Bobby Kennedy. That star was the new governor of California, Ronald Reagan.
RFK was shot in Governor Reagan’s state. Reagan was no stranger to Bobby Kennedy. He had debated him a year earlier on national television, which didn’t go well for RFK, with Reagan clearly outshining him. Kennedy told his handlers to never again put him on the same stage with “that son-of-a-bitch.”
That debate occurred five years after Bobby Kennedy had intervened to get Reagan fired from his long stint as host of the top-rated GE Theatre on CBS—a fact unknown until it was revealed by Michael Reagan in his excellent book, The New Reagan Revolution. Typical of Reagan, he harbored no bitterness toward RFK (to the contrary, see Jeffrey Lord’s piece at yesterday’s TAS). That was quite unlike Bobby Kennedy, a man who personally knew how to hold a grudge.
On June 5, 1968, Reagan was full of nothing but sympathy for RFK. He appeared on the popular television show of Joey Bishop, one of the extended members of Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack. Bishop and Reagan were old Hollywood friends, and Bishop extended the governor a platform to address the shooting. A transcript of Reagan’s appearance on that show was grabbed by his young chief of staff, Bill Clark, who died just a few months ago. Clark shoved it in a box that ended up in the tack barn at his ranch in central California. It lay there until I, as Clark’s biographer, dug it out three decades later.
That rare surviving transcript reveals a Reagan who spoke movingly about RFK and the entire Kennedy family. Condemning the “savage act,” Reagan pleaded: “I am sure that all of us are praying not only for him but for his family and for those others who were so senselessly struck down also in the fusillade of bullets…. I believe we should go on praying, to the best of our ability.”
But particularly interesting was how Reagan unflinchingly pointed a finger of blame in the direction of Moscow. Reagan noted that Kennedy’s killer, Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian Arab and also a communist, had shot Kennedy because of his support of Israel during the Six Day War that had occurred exactly one year earlier. On that, we now know beyond dispute what Reagan knew then: That war had been shamelessly provoked by the Kremlin.
Looking to exploit divisions in the Middle East and further exacerbate America’s foreign-policy problems at the time (we were mired in Vietnam), Soviet officials cooked up false intelligence reports claiming that Israeli troops had been moved into the Golan Heights and were readying to invade Syria. They peddled the malicious, phony information to Egypt and other Arab states for the explicit purpose of creating a military confrontation with Israel. The Israeli leader, Levi Eshkol, immediately denounced the accusation, telling the Soviet ambassador to his face that there were no Israeli troops there whatsoever, and offering to personally drive him to the Golan at once. Acting on orders, the ambassador flatly refused, shouting “Nyet!” at Eshkol and storming out of the prime minister’s residence. The Egyptians, too, checked their intelligence sources and found no evidence of Israeli troops in the Golan. Nonetheless, the pieces were in motion, and one thing dangerously led to another until everything spiraled out of control. Within mere weeks, the Six Day War was on—precipitated by the Kremlin. The egregious depths of Soviet disinformation spawned a major Middle East war.
RFK supported Israel in that war. Sirhan Sirhan never forgave him for that. He killed him for that.
Again, Ronald Reagan knew about the Soviet role in instigated the conflict, which he apparently pieced together via various reports at the time. As a result, he linked Bobby Kennedy’s assassination to the USSR’s mischief in the Middle East. “The enemy sits in Moscow,” Reagan told Joey Bishop. “I call him an enemy because I believe he has proven this, by deed, in the Middle East. The actions of the enemy led to and precipitated the tragedy of last night.”
Moscow had precipitated the Six Day War in June 1967, which, in turn, had prompted RFK’s assassin in June 1968.
But Reagan wasn’t finished positioning blame where it deserved to be placed. Eight days later, on July 13, 1968, Reagan spoke in Indianapolis, not far from the then-home of a young R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., brilliant editor of this brilliant publication, and home of M. Stanton Evans, the longtime conservative author who today writes on (among other things) the Cold War but at the time was editor of the Indianapolis News.
Both the Indianapolis News and Indianapolis Star reported on Reagan’s speech, but the only full transcript I’ve seen was likewise located in Bill Clark’s private papers. In that speech, Reagan leveled this charge at international communism, with an earlier Kennedy assassination in mind: “Five years ago, a president was murdered by one who renounced his American citizenship to embrace the godless philosophy of communism, and it was communist violence he brought to our land. The shattering sound of his shots were still ringing in our ears when a policy decision was made to play down his communist attachment lest we provoke the Soviet Union.”
Reagan was spot on. As many conservative writers are currently noting, liberals in the immediate moments after the JFK assassination sought to blame everything but Oswald’s love of communism, love of the Soviet Union, and love of Castro’s Cuba as motivations for what he did. Some blamed the climate of alleged “hate” and “bigotry” and “violence” in Dallas for the shooting. They ached to blame the right, fulfilling James Burnham’s timeless maxim: “For the left, the preferred enemy is always to the right.” Amazingly, they attempted to label Oswald a “right-winger,” which was utterly upside down. He was a left-winger, as far left as one could get. Oswald was a completely committed communist. He was head over heels for Castro’s Cuba in particular. He adored Fidel. After defecting to and then leaving the Soviet Union after a long stay there, he went back to Texas (with a Soviet wife) and then tried everything to get to Havana and serve the revolution there. JFK and Fidel despised one another; each wanted the other dead. Guess who Oswald sided with on that one?
The Warren Commission later agonized over the possible motivations of Oswald. In the end, it determined that it “could not make any definitive determination of Oswald’s motives.” To its credit, the commission “endeavored to isolate the factors which contributed to his character and which might have influenced his decision to assassinate President Kennedy.” It listed five factors, which appear on page 23 of the huge commission report. Among the five, the fifth underscored Oswald’s “avowed commitment to Marxism and communism,” and noted specifically his ardor for Moscow and Havana. The commission concluded that this did indeed contribute to Oswald’s “capacity to risk all in cruel and irresponsible actions.”
Nonetheless, Oswald’s passion for international communism, from Russia to the Western Hemisphere, has been downplayed by the American left and many Americans generally from the literal moment we learned that John F. Kennedy had been shot.
One American who was never blind to that motivation was Ronald Reagan. More than that, Reagan wasn’t naïve to the role of international communism in the shooting of RFK either.
For the record, this is not to say that Lee Harvey Oswald or Sirhan Sirhan acted as conscious, deliberate agents trained and ordered by the Soviets or the Cubans, though some—such as Ion Mihai Pacepa—have examined that possibility and reported some fascinating findings. Their actions, however, cannot or should not be separated from the malevolent force of international communism, which unquestionably played a role in their ultimate deadly actions.
Who killed the Kennedys? Ronald Reagan told us the answer 45 years ago.
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