Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Robert F. Kennedy (1961–1963): Attorney General

Robert Francis Kennedy was born on November 20, 1925, in Brookline, Massachusetts. He was the seventh of nine children and the younger brother of President John F. Kennedy. Robert, known mostly as "Bobby," attended Milton Academy and went on to receive a B.A. from Harvard University in 1948. During the summer following his graduation, he worked for the Boston Post as a war correspondent. In 1951, Robert Kennedy graduated from the University of Virginia Law School, serving for a short time thereafter as an attorney in the Criminal Division of the Justice Department.

He left in 1952, however, to manage his brother John's successful campaign for the U.S. Senate. Robert Kennedy became assistant counsel for the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, then headed by Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI). He quickly resigned in July 1953, however, as a result of disagreements over the subcommittee's procedures. Kennedy then rejoined the subcommittee in 1954 as chief counsel for the minority party Democrats, and he later became chief counsel for the racketeering committee investigating illegalities in the management of trade unions.

In November 1959, Robert Kennedy became manager of his brother's presidential campaign. Following the Kennedy victory, the President-elect tapped his brother, on December 16, 1960, to be Attorney General. In that capacity, Robert Kennedy exposed the racketeer control of labor unions. His work on behalf of civil rights led to passage of the Kennedy administration's civil rights bill in July of 1964 and to protections regarding the black American's right to vote. Kennedy also set his sights on antitrust prosecution and reducing the growth of crime.

As the brother of the President, Robert Kennedy also had a unique role as adviser to the commander-in-chief. Robert was John's closest aide, especially after the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion. He was included in the decision-making process for all major foreign and domestic policy issues. During the Cuban missile crisis, Robert was a member of the Excom, the specially assembled group organized to determine America's response to nuclear weapons in Cuba. The attorney general would eventually voice opposition to air strikes on the island, opting instead for a "quarantine."

He played a crucial role in securing Excom support for a blockade of Cuba. Robert Kennedy also played a crucial role, through back-channel conversations with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, in gaining the removal of the missiles. Robert Kennedy resigned the attorney general post in 1964, following his brother's assassination, and waged a successful campaign to become a U.S. Senator from New York.

In the Senate, he worked for the cause of the urban poor and emerged as an outspoken critic of President Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam policy. Kennedy joined the race for the 1968 presidential election in March of that year, winning the primaries in Indiana, Nebraska, and California. On June 5, while campaigning in Los Angeles, Robert Kennedy was shot by Sirhan B. Sirhan, a Jordanian living in California. He died the following day.