When Robert F. Kennedy delivered the tribute to his slain brother at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, he chose his subject matter with great restraint. He wanted Americans still in shock over the November 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy to well understand the legacy the late president would have wanted to leave for the land he had so briefly led.
Thus, while RFK spoke of his brother's leadership during the Cuban missile crisis, he devoted an equal amount of time to his brother's arms control initiatives. It was President Kennedy who, in the first hopeful days of his administration, oversaw establishment of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, which was given a mandate to advise the president on matters relating to international arms control and disarmament.
After the flaring of superpower tensions in 1962, which saw unease between the Soviet Union and the United States rise to such an extent that both resumed weapons testing and eventually came to the brink of open conflict with the Cuban missile crisis, President Kennedy gave his special emissary to nuclear test ban negotiations, W. Averell Harriman, instructions to negotiate the most comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty possible. The focus was on achieving a "three-environment test ban," which would bar atmospheric, outer space and underwater testing of nuclear weapons and defense systems. On Aug. 5, 1963, representatives of the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space, and Underwater, commonly known as the Limited Test Ban Treaty, in Moscow.
After the Senate approved that treaty, President Kennedy turned his attention to new arms control initiatives, including a ban on placement of weapons of mass destruction in orbit. He did not live to see the Outer Space Treaty, which was signed in 1967, toward the end of what would have been his second presidential term.
His brother, Robert, continued to work as a U.S. senator for greater controls on weapons testing and, in particular, for a ban on the militarization of outer space. Bobby Kennedy often framed these efforts in terms of his brother's broad sense of responsibility to make a better world: "(His) idea really was that this country, that this world, should be a better place when we turned it over to the next generation than when we inherited it from the last generation. That is why - with all of the other efforts that he made - the Test Ban Treaty, which was done with Averell Harriman, was so important to him."
We cannot know what direction the struggle for arms control, and ultimately for disarmament, might have taken had Robert F. Kennedy won the presidency in 1968. We do know, however, that when he was killed 34 years ago this week he was in the midst of a campaign that told Americans that peace and progress had to go hand in hand. Four years after Bobby Kennedy's death, allies of the Kennedy brothers would quote the two men as the Senate approved the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which incorporated so much of the vision both men sought to achieve.
Now the United States is six days away from an official withdrawal from the ABM Treaty. President Bush is seeking the withdrawal in order to pursue the warped dream of militarizing outer space with national missile defense weaponry commonly referred to as Star Wars. If he succeeds, he will not merely undo four decades of progress toward arms control. He will provide a reminder, near this anniversary of Bobby Kennedy's death, of why so many Americans still long for a president who would seek a better world.
Copyright 2002 The Capital Times