The Great Forgotten Debate
Forty years ago, Reagan taught RFK a lesson that ought to be remembered.


Paul Kengor

T he life of Ronald Reagan continues to be profiled by an apparent ever-flowing stream of new books. What are surprising are the many new revelations: Just when we thought we knew everything about the man, some enterprising scholar digs up something new.

While not a total revelation — it was caught by a few early Reagan biographers — there was an event that occurred 40 years ago this month that has gone underreported and certainly unappreciated. The event concerns not only Reagan’s political life but that of an equally well-known rising star of the time: Robert F. Kennedy. It should be a permanent part of our mental history of Reagan’s rise, if not a permanent video exhibit at the Reagan Library and Museum.

On May 15, 1967, there was a fascinating debate between California’s new Republican governor, Ronald Reagan, and New York’s new Democratic senator, Robert F. Kennedy. The subject: the Vietnam War. The debate was titled “The Image of America and the Youth of the World,” and was billed by CBS as a “Town Meeting of the World.” It was broadcast from 10:00-11:00 P.M. EDT by CBS TV Network and CBS Radio Network. It was produced by later 60 Minutes brainchild Don Hewitt and hosted by CBS News correspondent Charles Collingwood. The debate was watched by a huge audience: 15 million Americans.

There was total agreement, including among media sources who revered Bobby Kennedy, from the San Francisco Chronicle to Newsweek, that Reagan overwhelmingly won the debate. “To those unfamiliar with Reagan’s big-league savvy,” reported Newsweek, “the ease with which he fielded questions about Vietnam may have come as a revelation.” Newsweek judged that “political rookie Reagan … left old campaigner Kennedy blinking when the session ended.” Not having a crystal ball into the tragic year ahead for Kennedy, Newsweek pondered whether the debate might be a “dry run” for a future set of “Great Debates” between these two promising presidential aspirants.

The late historian David Halberstam acknowledged that “the general consensus” was that “Reagan … destroyed him.” Lou Cannon, in a 1969 book on Reagan and California assemblyman Jesse Unruh, agreed that “Reagan clearly bested Kennedy.” Another of Reagan’s first biographers, Joseph Lewis, recorded that the “tanned and relaxed” Reagan “talked easily and precisely without a hint of uncertainty or hostility,” and “deflated” the “anguished” Kennedy, who “gulped in restrained agony” when answering questions. Kennedy, said Lewis, “looked as if he had stumbled into a minefield.”

Lewis’s metaphor was a good one, since the hostile questioners treated both Kennedy and Reagan like war criminals. Truthfully, this was not a debate between Ronald Reagan and Bobby Kennedy. Rather, it descended into a venomous America-bashing session by a panel of extremely rude international students, who seemed to bask in their big chance to unleash their torrent of anger on the two available representatives of the country they despised. Newsweek rightly described the leftist students as “interrogators.” Among them, there was one American student, Bill Bradley, the Princeton basketball star, future NBA all-star, and future U.S. senator, who at the time was studying at Oxford, and appeared troubled and overwhelmed by the level of bile directed at his country. Also among them was a beaming Soviet student, clearly thrilled with what he was witnessing from this group of young dupes who had obviously swallowed every dose of Kremlin propaganda hook, line, and sinker.

Reagan and Kennedy ended up debating the group of students, not one another. And it was there that Reagan was so effective, whereas Kennedy was passive, meek, and apologetic. Alarmed viewers looking for a defense of the United States as anything other than history’s greatest purveyor of global misery were frustrated by Kennedy’s lame responses but buoyed by Reagan’s strong retorts.

The fiasco began with a “question” from a female British student, who started: “I believe the war in Vietnam is illegal, immoral, politically unjustifiable, and economically motivated.” That opening salvo set the tone. In one particularly repulsive moment, the students mockingly laughed out loud when Reagan said (obviously correctly) that the people of Mao’s China had never chosen their government. At that moment, Mao Zedong was smack in the middle of his Cultural Revolution, where he was busy fulfilling his rightful role as the greatest mass murderer in the history of humanity: 60-70 million dead in under two decades. And yet, in an up or down vote, this group of students might well have elected Mao secretary general of the United Nations.


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