In 1968, America was a wounded nation. The wounds were moral ones; the Vietnam War and three summers of inner-city riots had inflicted them on the national soul, challenging Americans’ belief that they were a uniquely noble and honorable people. Americans saw news footage from South Vietnam, such as the 1965 film of U.S. Marines setting fire to thatched huts in the village of Cam Ne with cigarette lighters and flamethrowers, and realized that they were capable of committing atrocities once considered the province of their enemies. They saw federal troops patrolling the streets of American cities and asked themselves how this could be happening in their City upon a Hill.
The field house was a hulking stone structure with exposed steel rafters and a dirt ring to accommodate livestock shows and rodeos. Because Kennedy attracted a record-setting crowd of 14,500, students stood in stairwells, sat cross-legged on the basketball court and under the press tables, and perched on the rafters and scoreboard, dangling their legs in space. Their signs said, bobby is groovy! and kiss me, bobby. Others said, gene for integrity and traitor!
The Kennedys walked onto the dais with Kansas State president James McCain, Governor and Mrs. Docking, and former governor Alf Landon. The students jumped up, cheering, stamping their feet, and scuffing up clouds of dust that dimmed the light and hung like smoke. They cheered because Kennedy was youthful and handsome, John Kennedy’s brother, and he reminded them of happier times. Seventeen-year-old Kevin Rochat, the son of a K.S.U. official, cheered because he thought everything had gone wrong since J.F.K.’s assassination, and only his brother could make it right. Ralph Titus, who managed the university radio station, believes these conservative students cheered because Vietnam had made even them uneasy.
Kennedy edited his speech during the introductions, sometimes glancing up to study the students in the front rows, as if he were changing the text according to their expressions. He saw girls in long skirts who had never worn makeup, and short-haired boys in neckties who were brave enough to leave their prairie towns but not to burn their draft cards. As Kennedy began, his voice cracked, and those near the stage noticed his hands trembling and his right leg shaking.
...He told the K.S.U. students that their country was “deep in a malaise of the spirit” and suffering from “a deep crisis of confidence”—the kinds of phrases that no politician has dared utter since President Carter was pilloried for speaking of a national “crisis of confidence” during his notorious “malaise speech,” in which he never used the word “malaise.”
Kennedy opened his attack on President Johnson’s Vietnam policy with a confession and an apology. “Let me begin this discussion with a note both personal and public,” he said. “I was involved in many of the early decisions on Vietnam, decisions which helped set us on our present path.”
He acknowledged that the effort may have been “doomed from the start” and admitted that the South Vietnamese governments, which his brother’s administration had supported, had been “riddled with corruption, inefficiency, and greed,” adding, “If that is the case, as it may well be, then I am willing to bear my share of the responsibility, before history and before my fellow citizens. But past error is no excuse for its own perpetration. Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom Now, as ever, we do ourselves best justice when we measure ourselves against ancient texts, as in Sophocles [from Antigone]: ‘All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and he repairs the evil.’ The only sin, he said, is pride.”
Kennedy’s apology elicited the loudest cheers of the morning so far, perhaps because these students appreciated hearing an adult admit to a mistake, or because they too had once supported the war and Kennedy’s mea culpa made it easier for them to admit that they too had been wrong. He framed his opposition to Vietnam in moral terms, telling them, “I am concerned—as I believe most Americans are concerned—that the course we are following at the present time is deeply wrong.… I am concerned—as I believe most Americans are concerned—that we are acting as if no other nation existed, against the judgment and desires of neutrals and our historic allies alike.”
He urged his audience to consider “the young men that we have sent there; not just the killed, but those who have to kill; not just the maimed, but all those who must look upon the results of what they are forced and have to do,” and to consider “the price we pay in our own innermost lives, and in the spirit of this country.” This was why, he said, “war is not an enterprise lightly to be undertaken, nor prolonged one moment past its absolute necessity.”
At first he seemed tentative and wooden, stammering and repeating himself, too nervous to punctuate his sentences with gestures. But with each round of applause he became more animated. Soon he was pounding the lectern with his right fist, and shouting out his words.
Rene Carpenter watched the students in the front rows. Their faces shone, and they opened their mouths in unison, shouting, “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” Hays Gorey, of Time, called the electricity between Kennedy and the K.S.U. students “real and rare” and said that “a good part of it is John F. Kennedy’s, of course, but John Kennedy … himself couldn’t be so passionate, and couldn’t set off such sparks.” Kevin Rochat was close to weeping because Kennedy was so direct and honest. He kept telling himself, My God! He’s saying exactly what I’ve been thinking!
Kennedy concluded by saying, “Our country is in danger: not just from foreign enemies; but above all, from our own misguided policies—and what they can do to the nation that Thomas Jefferson once said was the last, great hope of mankind. There is a contest on, not for the rule of America but for the heart of America. In these next eight months we are going to decide what this country will stand for—and what kind of men we are.” He raised his fist in the air so it resembled the revolutionary symbol on posters hanging in student rooms that year, promised “a new America,” and the hall erupted in cheers and thunderous applause.
As he started to leave, waves of students rushed the platform, knocking over chairs and raising more dust. They grabbed at him, stroking his hair and ripping his shirtsleeves. University officials opened a path to a rear exit, but Kennedy waved them off and waded into the crowd. Photographer Stanley Tretick, of Look magazine, watched the mêlée and shouted, “This is Kansas, fucking Kansas! He’s going all the fucking way!”
One of Kennedy’s favorite authors was Ralph Waldo Emerson. According to journalist Warren Rogers, he had marked three passages in the copy of Emerson’s essays that he kept on his desk at home in Hickory Hill. One declared, “If the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him.” Kennedy was about to discover if Emerson was right.