Lyndon B. Johnson photo

Address to the Nation Following the Attack on Senator Kennedy

June 05, 1968

My fellow citizens:

I speak to you this evening not only as your President, but as a fellow American who is shocked and dismayed, as you are, by the attempt on Senator Kennedy's life, deeply disturbed, as I know you are, by lawlessness and violence in our country, of which this tragedy is the latest spectacular example.

We do not know the reasons that inspired the attack on Senator Kennedy. We know only that a brilliant career of public service has been brutally interrupted; that a young leader of uncommon energy and dedication, who has served his country tirelessly and well, and whose voice and example have touched millions throughout the entire world, has been senselessly and horribly stricken.

At this moment, the outcome is still in the balance. We pray to God that He will spare Robert Kennedy and will restore him to full health and vigor. We pray this for the Nation's sake, for the sake of his wife and his children, his father and his mother, and in memory of his brother, our beloved late President.

The Kennedy family has endured sorrow enough, and we pray that this family may be spared more anguish.

Tonight this Nation faces once again the consequences of lawlessness, hatred, and unreason in its midst. It would be wrong, it would be self-deceptive, to ignore the connection between that lawlessness and hatred and this act of violence. It would be just as wrong, and just as self-deceptive, to conclude from this act that our country itself is sick, that it has lost its balance, that it has lost its sense of direction, even its common decency.

Two hundred million Americans did not strike down Robert Kennedy last night any more than they struck down President John F. Kennedy in 1963 or Dr. Martin Luther King in April of this year.

But those awful events give us ample warning that in a climate of extremism, of disrespect for law, of contempt for the rights of others, violence may bring down the very best among us. A Nation that tolerates violence in any form cannot expect to be able to confine it to just minor outbursts.

My fellow citizens, we cannot, we just must not, tolerate the sway of violent men among us. We must not permit men who are filled with hatred, and careless of innocent lives, to dominate our streets and fill our homes with fear.

We cannot sanction the appeal to violence, no matter what its cause, no matter what the grievance from which it springs.

There is never—and I say never—any justification for the violence that tears at the fabric of our national life; that inspires such fear in peaceful citizens that they arm themselves with deadly weapons; that sets citizen against citizen or group against group.

A great nation can guarantee freedom for its people and the hope of progressive change only under the rule of law. So let us, for God's sake, resolve to live under the law.

Let us put an end to violence and to the preaching of violence.

Let the Congress pass laws to bring the insane traffic in guns to a halt, as I have appealed to them time and time again to do. That will not, in itself, end the violence, but reason and experience tell us that it will slow it down; that it will spare many innocent lives.

Let us purge the hostility from our hearts and let us practice moderation with our tongues.

Let us begin in the aftermath of this great tragedy to find a way to reverence life, to protect it, to extend its promise to all of our people.

This Nation and its people have suffered grievously from violence and assassination. For this reason, I am appointing, with the recommendation of the leadership of the Congress—with whom I have talked this evening—a commission of most distinguished Americans to immediately examine this tragic phenomenon. They are: Dr. Milton Eisenhower, the former distinguished President of Johns Hopkins University, Archbishop Terence Cooke of New York, Albert E. Jenner, Jr., of Illinois, Ambassador Patricia Harris, Mr. Eric Hoffer, Senator Philip A. Hart, Senator Roman Hruska, Congressman Hale Boggs, Congressman William McCulloch, and Judge Leon Higginbotham.

The commission will look into the causes, the occurrence, and the control of physical violence across this Nation, from assassination that is motivated by prejudice and by ideology, and by politics and by insanity, to violence in our cities' streets and even in our homes.

What in the nature of our people and the environment of our society makes possible such murder and such violence?

How does it happen? What can be done to prevent assassination? What can be done to further protect public figures? What can be done to eliminate the basic causes of these aberrations?

Supported by the suggestions and recommendations of criminologists, sociologists, and psychologists, all of our Nation's medical and social sciences, we hope to learn why we inflict such suffering on ourselves. I hope and pray that we can learn how to stop it.

This is a sober time for our great democracy, but we are a strong and we are a resilient people who can, I hope, learn from our misfortunes, who can heal our wounds, who can build and find progress in public order.

We can. We must.

So I appeal to every American citizen tonight: Let us begin tonight.

Note: The President spoke at 10:07 p.m. in the Fish Room at the White House for broadcast by radio and television.

See also Items 292, 294, 295.

Lyndon B. Johnson, Address to the Nation Following the Attack on Senator Kennedy Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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