Robert Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Vietnam and Dissent

While reading Chris Matthew’s new book, Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit, I read about a CBS news program “Town Meeting of the World” in 1967, where Senator Robert Kennedy and Gov. Ronald Reagan take student questions, most of which were about the war in Vietnam.  I found a copy of that on YouTube and it is a fascinating discussion, including their views on the antiwar movement, and legitimacy of the U.S. involvement in the war.  Gov. Reagan mentions his support for conscientious objection based upon religious beliefs, and mentions Quakers.  But besides that, he basically disagrees with protest during war.  Robert Kennedy broadly defends peaceful protest even in times of war.

DAVID JENKINS: Mr. Reagan, just five minutes ago on this program, you said every man has the right of dissent and I believe that every man has the right to be wrong. No doubt you’d also support the American ideal of freedom. Now, while on this I want to ask you whether you’d support the people who at the moment you say are dodging the draft, and whether you will go on record as supporting people who claim to be conscientious objectors as a means for not joining the war in Vietnam?

REAGAN: Oh, now wait a minute I thank you for giving me a chance, if I left the wrong impression. We agree in this country of the right of people to be wrong, but as I said before, taking advantage of the technicality that we are not legally in a state of war, we have people doing things with which I am in great disagreement. I do not believe in those who are resisting the draft. Now, we draw a line between the conscientious objector on religious grounds. With our great belief in religious freedom in our country, we have always said those whose religion specifically prohibits them, such as our Quakers, from taking human life, we offer them military service in a noncombat role such as being medics and so forth, and they have a great and honorable history, people of this kind, of serving in our wars in that capacity. But I believe if government is to mean anything at all, that all of us have a responsibility, once the action has been decided upon and supposedly by the majority will, that we then, while reserving our right to disagree, we support the collective or the unified effort of the nation. Otherwise, all law and order and all government breaks down, because we might have a citizen who has a conscientious objection to paying taxes and if we allow our citizens to voluntarily quit paying taxes the government breaks down–or obeying the law, or anything else that may come along. We give up certain individual freedoms in the interest of–well, I suppose it comes from our own Constitution our idea that every American or every person has the right, is born with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But my pursuit of happiness, if it comes from swinging my arm, I must stop swinging my arm just short of the end of your nose.

COLLINGWOOD: Senator Kennedy is there anything you want to add to that?

KENNEDY: Well, I expect I disagree somewhat with the Governor. I don’t think that we’re automatically correct or automatically right and morality is on our side or God is automatically on our side because were involved in a war. I don’t think that the mere fact that the United States is involved in the use of force with an adversary makes everything that the United States then does absolutely correct. So I–the idea that we’re involved in this kind of a struggle, if there are those within the United States that feel that the struggle could be ended more rapidly with less loss of life, that the terror and the destruction would be less if we took a different course, then I think that they should make their views known. I don’t think they’re less patriotic because they feel that. In fact, I think that they would be less patriotic if they didn’t state their views and give their ideas, just because the United States is involved in this kind of a conflict as we are at the present time. Not to state any opposition, or say that we can’t state an opposition because of the–the fact that we’re involved in a struggle I think is an error. This is a difficult period of time, but the mere fact that we’re shooting one another across the world doesn’t make the United States automatically right. I think it should be examined. It doesn’t make the course that we’re following at the present time automatically right, automatically correct and I think that those who have a different point of view, no matter what their point of view might be and whether they are in favor of using increased force, or in favor of lessening the force, or even some–of pulling out unilaterally–I happen to disagree with that but I think they have a responsibility and a right to state those views, even though we’re in a difficult period of time.

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