June 5, 2018, marks the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy, a watershed moment in the history of American liberalism and a defining event in one of the most turbulent years of our nation’s history.
The brute facts surrounding the incident are well-known. At the time of his assassination in Los Angeles, Kennedy had just won the California Democratic primary for the 1968 presidential election. Although still behind in the delegate count at the convention, Kennedy’s victory in California afforded him an opportunity to wrest the nomination away from Vice President Hubert Humphrey, whose association with the war policies of the Johnson administration had made his candidacy toxic to the left wing of his party. For liberals, the younger Kennedy—who had been a charismatic, driven, accomplished U.S. attorney general and later senator from New York—represented the opportunity to transcend the bitter partisan and racial divides of the era. His death at the hands of Sirhan Sirhan set the stage for the chaotic 1968 Democratic National Convention two months later, which was marred by antiwar demonstrations and the spectacle of police violence against protesters. A weakened Hubert Humphrey went on to lose the presidential election to Richard Nixon by less than 1 percent of the vote, shattering the Democratic Party and allowing Nixon to assemble the elements of a conservative electoral coalition that would dominate American presidential elections for the next two decades.
What is less remembered are the motives of Sirhan Sirhan and the circumstances that inspired him to end Senator Kennedy’s life in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel half a century ago. The tragedy of Kennedy’s death for American liberalism—the missed opportunity to head off Nixon with a more activist, progressive Democratic Party—has long since overshadowed the real-world implications of his assassination for our nation, and prevented his political heirs from grappling effectively with the problems Kennedy the politician faced during his lifetime. A reassessment of Kennedy’s death is long overdue, especially given the enduring prominence of international terrorism in the present era.
So who was Sirhan Sirhan? Unlike JFK’s killer Lee Harvey Oswald, this assassin is hardly a household name. Of Palestinian Christian descent, Sirhan was born in Jerusalem in 1944 during the twilight years of the British mandate. As a young boy, he moved to the United States with his family, settling in the town of Altadena, a prosperous suburb on the outskirts of Los Angeles. He was never naturalized and remains today a Jordanian citizen.
It isn’t a stretch to say the defining events of his life were the creation of Israel in 1948 and Israel’s decisive victory in the Six-Day War in June 1967, which placed greater Palestine under Israeli control and triggered the mass exodus of several hundred thousand Palestinians from the Occupied Territories. Numerous sources testified to his virulent hatred of Jews, whom he held responsible for destroying his country.
Moreover, Sirhan was fully aware of Senator Kennedy’s role as one of the most prominent supporters of Israel in the United States Congress. Kennedy backed Israel during the Six-Day War and advocated sending arms shipments to the small nation, which eventually culminated in the sale of 50 fighter jets to the small nation in 1969 and 1970. “My only connection with Robert Kennedy was his sole support of Israel and his deliberate attempt to send those 50 bombers to Israel to obviously do harm to the Palestinians,” Sirhan stated to journalist David Frost in 1989. The anniversary of the Six-Day War was of momentous importance to him: “Kennedy must die before June 5th” he wrote in his journal on May 18, 1968, setting the stage for one of the most audacious acts of terrorism in American history.
Prosecutors argued that when Kennedy came to California to campaign in the Democratic primary, Sirhan seized the opportunity to kill Kennedy on the anniversary of the Six-Day War in revenge for Kennedy’s support of his Israeli enemies. Although the trial dragged on for months, the outcome of the proceedings was never in doubt. Sirhan himself torpedoed his defense by insisting on his sanity and requesting the death penalty. The evidence marshaled by the prosecution detailing Sirhan’s notebooks and his activities prior to June 5—he had spent the evening of June 2 reconnoitering the Ambassador Hotel and visited a gun range on June 4—piled up against him. Sirhan was ultimately sentenced to die on April 23, 1969. However, his execution was put on hold after the California Supreme Court in 1972 deemed the death penalty unconstitutional. He remains alive to this day in the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego County and has made 15 unsuccessful efforts to obtain parole. He continues to insist he remembers nothing about the assassination and that he cannot feel remorse for something he does not recall doing. Conspiracy theories abound. Just recently, RFK’s son, Robert Kennedy Jr., asked the Justice Department to reopen the investigation after personally poring over the records and meeting with Sirhan in prison. But for all intents and purposes the case is closed.
The intensely political nature of Sirhan Sirhan’s deed is but one of the manifold ironies of Robert Kennedy’s assassination, which illustrate reverberating issues in American politics and are therefore still of broad interest. Kennedy positioned himself as the defender of the poor, the excluded, and the marginalized. His own newspaper dispatches from Palestine on the creation of Israel for the Boston Post, written when he was just 22 years old, demonstrate his admiration for Israeli Jews, once “scattered and persecuted,” now coming into their inheritance as a free nation. But his support for their historic plight enabled the dispossession of another group—the Palestinians—of which Sirhan Sirhan was certainly a victim.
Tellingly, Sirhan himself has made use of this line of argument in his efforts to obtain release from imprisonment. “I sincerely believe that if Robert Kennedy were alive today, I believe he would not countenance singling me out for this kind of treatment,” Sirhan stated in a parole hearing in 1982. Surely this was the irony of all ironies regarding Robert Kennedy’s death: the senator who dedicated his later years in office to seeking out and uplifting the oppressed was himself killed by a man who saw himself on the short end of his policies, a stunning illustration of the limits of the liberal project Kennedy was trying to apply not only here but overseas.
More troublingly, Robert Kennedy’s death occurred within five years of his elder brother’s, and under similar circumstances. It is important to recall how unprecedented their deaths were to the generation who witnessed them. If time has removed the shock of the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers, it should not obscure just how anomalous they are. Bad luck may be part of the mythos of the Kennedy family, but lightning does not strike the same place twice, and political assassinations are exceedingly rare in American history. Both Kennedy brothers hurled themselves into the most tumultuous and divisive issues of their time—Israeli nationalism and anti-communism—and both appeared to have paid a heavy price.
Robert Kennedy was killed by an avowed Palestinian nationalist, a man whose loyalty to his homeland outweighed his allegiance to the country that gave him refuge after his family fled the Middle East. And while we will never know what motivated Lee Harvey Oswald to kill John Kennedy, the information we do have hints strongly at foreign ideological inspiration. Oswald defected to the Soviet Union in 1959. His Russian wife Marina Nikolayevna Oswald—who knew of her husband’s homicidal ambitions, if not his specific target—described him as an avowed Castroite and Marxist revolutionary, even after he was permitted to return to the United States in 1962. Did the Kennedy administration’s efforts to undermine Fidel Castro’s regime—including ongoing CIA plots to assassinate him—come back to haunt the young president? The specter of foreign intervention in the American political process looms large today, given the recent firestorm over Russia’s alleged involvement in Donald Trump’s election, but it is hardly a new phenomenon, nor is it likely to go away anytime soon.
Perhaps this is the final tragedy of Robert Kennedy’s assassination. Americans may remember him as a political folk hero, but at the final reckoning, his death represented the limits of America promoting democracy outside its borders, and the boundaries of what individual effort can achieve through politics on the inside. That was true even for a figure as charismatic and influential as a John or Robert Kennedy.
Jacob Minyard is a writer based in Southern California.