What would the world look like if Robert Kennedy had lived?

What would the world look like if Robert Kennedy had lived?
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Most of us take history as a given, that things had to turn out as they did. But that assumption ignores the question, “What might have been?”

What might have happened if America had continued its World War II alliance with Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam instead of siding with French colonialists in the postwar world? What if President Eisenhower had embraced the Brown vs. Board of Education decision the day after it was issued and ordered school desegregation to start within a year? And would there have been an invasion of Iraq if Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreKey McConnell ally: Biden should get access to transition resources CNN acquires Joe Biden documentary 'President in Waiting' Former GSA chief: 'Clear' that Biden should be recognized as president-elect MORE had been elected president in 2000?

Among all of these moments since World War II, none seems more critical than asking what might have happened if Robert F. Kennedy — assassinated 50 years ago on June 5, 1968 — had been elected president?


If Robert Kennedy had been elected president, he would have ended the war in Vietnam, expanded the war on poverty and extended America’s commitment to racial justice. In short, the America we live in today would be a vastly different place.

Although personally ambitious, Robert dedicated his life primarily to serving his brother’s political aspirations.  A brilliant organizer, he helped get Jack elected to the presidency in 1960.

Prior to the 1960 campaign, Bobby had been a Senate staff member dedicated to ending the tyranny of labor bosses like Jimmy Hoffa.  After being appointed attorney general by his brother, he pursued the Mafia with the same intensity. But as he became more involved in foreign policy issues, his tendency to define issues solely in terms of good versus evil became more nuanced, best reflected in his role in helping resolve the Cuban missile crisis.

In the meantime, his commitment to racial and economic equality continued to deepen. Initially angered when blacks attacked his civil rights views in a 1963 meeting at Harry Belafonte’s house, he soon concluded that if he were in their shoes, he would feel the same way.

But it was JFK’s assassination in November 1963 that transformed RFK. Emotionally shattered, fearful that his anti-Mafia crusade might be connected to the assassination, he experienced a profound existential crisis. Kennedy read authors like Albert Camus, who explored how one could remain a moral person in an immoral world.  All the while, he sought to come to grips with how to live a meaningful life in a cruel world.

After being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1964, he encountered poor and starving people who deepened his commitment to make change happen. Candor replaced political clichés. Coming out of a dangerous coal mine in Latin America, he said, “If I were a miner here, I’d be a Communist, too.”

Increasingly, Kennedy also led protests against the Vietnam War.  Acknowledging his own and his brother’s responsibility for that conflict, he now asked, “Don’t you understand that what we are doing to the Vietnamese is not very different than what Hitler did to the Jews?”

All of this led to Kennedy’s decision to run for president in 1968. As he stormed across the country, he focused equally on bringing peace to Vietnam, and fighting for economic and racial justice. In Indiana, blacks rallied to his cause; but so too did whites, seeing in Kennedy a champion for workers’ rights, as well as decent health care.

At a time when the country was more divided than at any time since the Civil War, Kennedy’s candidacy became perhaps the only possibility that the country could come together.

With primary victories, and a growing list of endorsements from powerful politicians, it’s likely that Kennedy would have won the Democratic nomination — and the presidency — especially given Nixon’s narrow plurality over Vice President Humphrey, who until the last week defended the Vietnam War.

As we mark the 50th anniversary of his assassination, it’s hard not to imagine “what might have been.”

William H. Chafe teaches history at Duke University. The author of 13 books, he served as president of the Organization of American Historians in 1999, and was Duke’s Dean of Arts and Sciences from 1995-2004.