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The Assassination of Robert Kennedy

Robert F Kennedy was assassinated in 1968.
Robert F Kennedy was assassinated in 1968.

An assassin murdered President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Five years later, the president’s brother, Robert, decided to run for the White House. Robert Kennedy proved an able campaigner and supporter of Israel. As a result of his pro-Israeli leanings, an assassin gunned down the presidential candidate following a dramatic California primary victory. For the second time in five years, an assassin murdered a Kennedy.

From 1961-64, Robert Kennedy served as United States Attorney General under his brother and Lyndon Johnson. Kennedy despised Johnson and decided to leave the Justice Department for New York. In 1964, he won one of New York’s senate seats. During his congressional tenure, he supported the Vietnam War and continued to dislike Johnson. After Johnson’s humiliating showing in the 1968 New Hampshire Primary, Kennedy entered the presidential race.

Candidate Kennedy opposed the Vietnam War and campaigned to help the poor. Interestingly, most Americans did not know much about Middle Eastern politics and Kennedy deemphasized the issue as nearly irrelevant to voters. While he sought to bring the country together, the nation ripped itself apart. Riots plagued major cities, anti-war protests alienated people from one another, the left wing radicalized, and assassinations shook Americans to their core. On April 4, an assassin took Martin Luther King Jr. More riots ensued nationwide. However, Kennedy managed to calm people in Indianapolis where he campaigned.

Two months after the King Assassination, Kennedy rallied support in California. A little after midnight local time, he declared victory in the California Primary at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. The candidate congratulated Don Drysdale on setting the consecutive scoreless innings record and then promised to “win this thing.” Senator Kennedy flashed the peace sign and followed his security detail out through the kitchen.

In 1968, the Secret Service did not protect presidential candidates. Kennedy relied on private security. They failed to clear the area and Sirhan Sirhan entered unnoticed. Kennedy stopped to shake a busboy’s hand when the assassin fired hitting the candidate. A crowd, which included George Plimpton and NFL superstar Rosey Grier, tackled Sirhan Sirhan. Three bullets struck their mark with one striking into his brain. Surgeons could not repair the extensive shrapnel damage. Officially, Robert Kennedy died at 1:44 Pacific Time.

The nation mourned another Kennedy while investigators pieced together Sirhan Sirhan’s motivations. They found his diary, which stated the assassin had become obsessed with killing Kennedy. One entry stated bluntly, “RFK must be killed” and he wanted to complete his task by the one-year anniversary of the Six Day War between Israel and several Arab nations. During his trial, the murderer admitted to coming to hate the senator for his support for Israel. Twenty years later, he stated that the Israel issue was the only reason he killed Kennedy. It is unclear why Sirhan Sirhan chose Kennedy as opposed to other pro-Israeli politicians. Whatever the reason, his actions represented the first shots in the strife between America and the Middle East.

A judge sentenced Sirhan Sirhan to death, but the California Supreme Court commuted his sentence to life in prison after they invalidated capital punishment. As of 2012, the parole board had denied his freedom on 14 occasions. Meanwhile, some have argued Sirhan Sirhan did not act for political reasons. Instead, they argued “diminished capacity” or other less likely defenses. Still others believe a conspiracy felled Kennedy and set Sirhan Sirhan up as a patsy. There is little corroborating evidence to support the conspiracy theories.

Robert Kennedy died because a lone gunman decided to punish him for supporting Israel. While the assassin’s mental state may have played a role, Israel was the trigger. Senator Kennedy entered the 1968 campaign to end the Vietnam War, help struggling Americans, and to reunite the country. Instead, he became a victim of his times.