Exactly fifty years ago, on Jan. 30, 1968, Americans turned on their evening television news shows and received their second shock of the week. Barely seven days earlier, the North Koreans had hijacked the USS Pueblo. Now, North Vietnam and the Viet Cong had launched a surprise attack — the Tet Offensive.
In this time period, Americans had no idea that news hosts were giving the news their own biased, liberal slants. CBS' Walter Cronkite bemoaned the first reports out of the conflict, saying the American and South Vietnamese war efforts were doomed and thus succeeded in handing a huge psychological victory to America's and South Vietnam's enemies. In 1968, without any conservative media to tell the other side, the ultimate fact that Tet turned out to be a huge military defeat for the Viet Cong and North Vietnam never made it into the American psyche. Liberals in the media of 1968 had succeeded with their own version of the Fake News of the future Trump era.
During that tumultuous spring, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, D-N.Y., was completing his political metamorphosis. In the early 1960s when he had been his brother's advisor and attorney general, he and JFK had been staunch supporters of South Vietnam. But by 1967, RFK had been turning away from the policies of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.
By March 1968, RFK said he was considering running for the presidency as an anti-war candidate now officially against the policies of his slain brother's successor, Lyndon Johnson. After Johnson stunned the world by announcing he would not seek re-election, RFK formally proclaimed his candidacy.
On the Republican side, Richard Nixon was the acknowledged front-runner yet he never made his policies on Vietnam clear. In 1968, the only candidate on either side who unambiguously wanted to win the war was Reagan. RFK's April announcement triggered Reagan to re-energize his campaign. Buoyed by his Vietnam debate triumph against RFK a year before, Reagan's first task was to compose five white paper speeches attacking the foreign policy and defense failures of the Kennedy-Johnson years.
The American public today, as well as many historians, are unaware of Reagan's speeches on world affairs in the 1960s. By early May, Reagan's speeches were completed and he knew the most opportune time to deliver the first verbal blow against RFK would be at an upcoming governors' meeting in Honolulu.
At the Royal Hawaiian Hotel on May 11, 1968, Reagan delivered "The History and Significance of the U.S. Role in the Pacific." Reagan laid the blame for America’s foreign policy ills — and especially for Tet — squarely at the foot of Robert F. Kennedy. Reagan began by lashing out at critics of the Vietnam War and specifically asked how the recent Tet offensive, which the U.S. and South Vietnam decisively had won militarily, could have been turned into such a loss at home? Reagan reviewed that media commentators had created the false impressions that we had lost. Reagan corrected the record:
"It was the communist attackers who took the staggering losses..and who broke at the end and pulled back. Why did this message never get through to us? Why here at home have we suffered a smashing, catastrophic, psychological defeat? A defeat we imposed on ourselves. Why, with all the power and wealth and human resources at America's command have we not been able to end this war on reasonable and honorable terms?"
Reagan then switched from attacking the liberal media and answered his own questions by zeroing in on RFK. Reagan did this by using earlier quotes from JFK and RFK and by asking when and why had RFK changed and why had he failed on his and his brother's earlier commitments to South Vietnam:
"It could be that we've listened too closely to the new isolationists. To the voices of defeat shouting down those who defend our position and our duty to be there. The most vicious attacks...come from within the party which made that intervention necessary...Nearly all these policies were developed by the late President Kennedy when these same critics were advisors close by his side. The junior senator from New York lately said that he was wrong about Vietnam in the beginning but he hasn't told us where he thinks he went wrong.
'The United States has determined that the Republic of Vietnam shall not be lost to the communists for lack of any support that the United States can render.' President Kennedy spoke those words on August 2, 1961. Does Bobby now think it was a mistake to go along with his brother's pledge? President Kennedy spoke again five weeks after that and made clear that South Vietnam should not go the way of Laos...Does Bobby now suspect it was here that his brother really went wrong?"
Then Reagan attacked RFK's own inconsistencies and contradictions:
"'We are going to remain in Vietnam and we will remain there until we win.' The person who said that in Saigon in 1962 was the closest of all to the president. Does Bobby now deplore his own judgment? For those were his words."
Reagan ended his speech by citing Kennedy’s inaugural trumpet call, to bear any burden in the pursuit of liberty, but Reagan was ashamed that Kennedy’s brother and other Democrats in 1968 “no longer hear that trumpet nor recognize its grand notes.”
Afterwards, Hawaii Republican Sen. Hiram Fong, a Nixon supporter, told the press that Reagan had delivered a “great, incisive, firm speech,” which Fong had wished “all Americans could have heard.” The Associated Press quoted John F. Kennedy’s inaugural pledge to “pay any price, bear any burden” for the defense of liberty and headlined Reagan’s scorn for RFK—“who inherited the power but who no longer hears that trumpet nor recognize its grand notes." United Press International cited Reagan’s call not to bargain away what America and South Vietnam already had won.
Four years earlier, in "A Time for Choosing," his first national political address, Reagan had chastised the West for not standing up against the Soviet Union's imprisonment of Eastern Europe behind the Iron Curtain. Now, in the spring of 1968, Reagan was the one candidate who used his bully pulpit to castigate RFK and other Democrats for wanting to throw away free South Vietnam, America's ally, to the communist wolves.
Ronald Reagan had taken to heart those inspiring words from the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy. Later that summer at the 1968 GOP convention, candidate Reagan would not succeed in his quest to prevent Richard Nixon from becoming the GOP nominee, and Reagan would return to California and win re-election in 1970. Not long after Reagan would leave office in Sacramento, South Vietnam would fall to the communists later in 1975, and Reagan would lament what had happened. But even he could not foresee that scarcely a decade later, in the late 1980s as president, he would be the one who, along with Pope John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher, and Mikhail Gorbachev, would oversee the fall of communism without firing a single shot, and as a result, bring freedom to millions.
Historian Gene Kopelson is the author of Reagan's 1968 Dress Rehearsal: Ike, RFK, and Reagan's Emergence as a World Statesman (Figueroa Press, 2016).