Paul Kengor: 50 years ago: An assassination that shook America
It was 50 years ago this week that a shocking moment of violence rocked America: the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy.
The tragedy erupted shortly after midnight June 5, 1968, at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. It should have been a great night for RFK. He had just achieved a grand victory, having won California in the Democratic primary. He was on his way to the party’s presidential nomination.
But not everyone in that building had similar plans.
After giving a jubilant speech, Kennedy was led from the podium toward the hotel exit via a carefully preselected back route through the kitchen. But someone was lurking along that path.
A 24-year-old Palestinian-Jordanian immigrant named Sirhan Sirhan jumped out from behind a cart stacked with trays and began firing a .22 revolver. He lodged three bullets in his intended victim, one directly in the head, entering behind the right ear and piercing Kennedy’s brain. Kennedy went down. He would never stand again.
Why did Sirhan pull the trigger? The answer was simple: The young Palestinian was seeking vengeance for the New York senator’s support of Israel in the Six Day War the previous June.
Sirhan was vehemently anti-Israel when the Jewish state had defeated the Arab states. He vowed revenge, with Bobby Kennedy the chosen outlet for his anger.
His rage at RFK went ballistic. He scribbled maniacally in his diary on May 18, 1968: “My determination to eliminate RFK is becoming more the more (sic) of an unshakable obsession. R.F.K. must die. R.F.K. must be killed. R.F.K. must be assassinated. … Robert F. Kennedy must be assassinated before 5 June 68.”
Looking back, this was maybe the first major manifestation of Middle East terrorism in the United States, long before Sept. 11, 2001.
And yet, it is crucial to understand that this was a deadly act prompted not only by the evil of Middle East terrorism but also — albeit quite forgotten — by the evil of Soviet communism.
What did the Soviets have to do with this dirty deed? The answer: The Six Day 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 (especially in Vietnam), Soviet officials in May 1968 had cooked up false intelligence reports claiming that Israeli troops had been moved into the Golan Heights and were readying to invade Syria. Moscow peddled the malicious disinformation to Egypt and other Arab states hostile to Israel. The Kremlin wanted to provoke a military confrontation with Israel. And it worked. On this, there is no debate. It is a historical certainty.
Moscow had precipitated the Six Day War in June 1967, which, in turn, had prompted RFK’s assassin in June 1968. And the rest is history.
At the time of his death, Robert F. Kennedy was only 42 years old. Had he lived to win the presidency, he would have been 43 at his inauguration, the same age as his late brother at his swearing in. His shooter was 24 years old, the same age as his late brother’s shooter.
Today, 50 years later, the shooter is still with us. Bobby Kennedy is long gone. Who knows what might have been?
Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College.