This Week in History: RFK is shot a year after Six Day War

Robert Kennedy is shot by a Palestinian man from Jerusalem upset by the senator's pledge to supply Israel with Phantom fighter jets.

Robert Kennedy assassin Sirhan Sirhan 311 (R) (photo credit: Reuters)
Robert Kennedy assassin Sirhan Sirhan 311 (R)
(photo credit: Reuters)
On June 5, 1968, exactly one year after the outbreak of the Six Day War, a young Palestinian Christian man from Jerusalem attended an election victory party at Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel. As the party – celebrating an important primary victory of a promising and inspiring young Democratic presidential candidate – wound down, Senator Robert F. Kennedy headed out through the hotel’s rear entrance in order to avoid the large, energetic and excited crowds gathered that night to support him. Waiting in the hotel's kitchen, however, was Sirhan Sirhan, who emptied his .22 caliber revolver into the presidential hopeful.
Born in 1944, Sirhan Sirhan fled his Jerusalem home during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Soon thereafter, he and his entire family moved to the United States where he attended school, including several years at a local college. But despite his many years in the US, Sirhan’s heart remained with the Palestinian people. Following the Arab defeat in the 1967 Six Day War, he told American news program Inside Edition in a 1989 interview, he was “downcast and crestfallen.”
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On the day of the assassination, Sirhan had spent hours firing his gun at a Los Angeles shooting range. On his way home, he stopped for a hamburger and while browsing through the Los Angeles Times, noticed an advertisement for a parade that night celebrating the anniversary of the Six Day War. Sirhan decided he would “go down there and see what they were up to.”
But he never made it to the LA Jewish community’s celebratory parade. Instead, along the way, he discovered that Senator Robert Kennedy was holding a victory part at the Mid-city Ambassador Hotel. At the party, Sirhan began drinking, later admitting, “the early hours were sort of enjoyable to me.” But he had a fateful and deadly obsession with the presidential candidate. As Kennedy made an unplanned exit through the kitchen heading towards the hotel’s back entrance, Sirhan waited in the kitchen along with a sizable press contingent. He fired a total of six shots, three of which hit the senator including one shot to his head.
Kennedy died 24 hours later in a Los Angeles hospital and was buried in Washington’s Arlington National Cemetery near his older brother, John. The reasons for his death were oft questioned and speculated about, but through interviews conducted with Sirhan over the years, his motivations became clearer.
Some weeks before the assassination, Kennedy had declared his support for supplying Israel with a large quantity of fighter jets in the aftermath of the Six Day War. The declaration was significant in several ways. Firstly, it represented the first time the United States was considering supplying Israel with higher quality weapons than other the Arab states in the region. The move represented the beginning of the US’s still-running commitment to establishing and maintaining Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge over its neighbors. But for Sirhan, there was yet another, personal significance to Kennedy’s declaration.
Robert Kennedy, the younger brother of assassinated US president John F. Kennedy, had been a hero to Sirhan Sirhan. “He was my champion, he was the defender of the downtrodden,” he later said in an interview, believing himself to be the downtrodden that RFK had pledged to defend. But when Sirhan heard that Kennedy was promising to supply military jets to Israel, he felt personally betrayed. He began filling pages of his personal journals with scribbles reading: “RFK must die.”
For many Americans at the time, Robert Kennedy had been a symbol of hope as the country was bogged in national crisis. The United States was in the middle of a costly and widely-opposed war in Vietnam, a bloody civil rights movement at home, and two of the era’s most inspiring political figures had recently been assassinated: US president John F. Kennedy had been shot five years earlier and civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated just two months prior. Robert Kennedy, who after winning the California Democratic primary election on June 5 was likely headed to the White House, was running on a platform of ending US involvement in the Vietnam War, empowering America’s poor and helping realize the goals of the civil rights movement. The disenchanted American public was desperate for new leadership, and they saw it in Robert Kennedy.
Sirhan, however, feeling betrayed by what he described as RFK’s hypocrisy in acting to end the Vietnam War, “and in the next breath [sending] more bombs and Phantom jets to Israel to kill human beings – Palestinians." He had lost the sense of hope that he himself and so many Americans had associated with Kennedy. Sirhan later went much further in justifying the assassination, making a bizarre comparison: “If you were German or a Jew in Hitler's Germany and you had the opportunity to assassinate Hitler, I’m sure that they would have tried to do that,” saying he believed he was saving his people from destruction.
At his trial, Sirhan described his mindset as stemming from “20 years of malice of forethought." He claimed that the emotional scars he sustained watching his brother and others being killed during the 1948 war in Jerusalem contributed to a sense that he must act to save his people. “Having experienced what I have experienced in Palestine, atrocities, killings, the violence and just the uprooting of massive populations, did have more of an impact on me than it did on others.”
Sirhan Sirhan remains in a California prison to this day.