Robert Kennedy’s Speech In Wilber, Nebraska On May 12, 1968
Transcripts of Robert Kennedy’s campaign speeches in Nebraska are very few in number. This is a rare gem. During his final campaign swing before the May 14, 1968 Nebraska primary, Robert F. Kennedy delivered a speech at the dedication of the Czech Village in Wilber, Nebraska. He delivered this speech in his capacity as a U.S. Senator, rather than as a presidential candidate.
Here is a transcript of this speech.
President Novotny and distinguished guests and Reverend Father and ladies and gentlemen, I am very very pleased to be here. Very very pleased to see all of you and very very grateful for this opportunity for us to have a chance to visit with you. I’m looking forward to my doll (laughter) that’s what my children expected. And one of first things I’d do when I’m elected President of the United States and when I go to the White House, as I walk down from the second floor I’ll have this on. (applause)
Actually, I don’t think I’ll wait until then. (laughter) When I get home. It’s very very beautiful and I am very, very grateful to all of you. And I am very pleased that John Glenn could come and Annie Glenn is here with us to have a chance to see all of you and participate in all of this.
I’ve been to Czechoslovakia a number of different occasions. I was with my oldest brother Joe was in Czechoslovakia at the time the war broke out the beginning of the second World War and he told us with great sorrow about the events that occurred in your land during that period of time. I was there during another very, very sad time in 1948, when Jan Masaryk was murdered and I came in through Bratislava and drove in from Vienna went to Bratislava. I was taken in by the police at the time down by where all those Slovaks are and I was taken in by the police and then I was released because by the work and the effort of the Consulate General of Bratislava who was Claiborne Pell and who is now the Senator from Rhode Island and who serves with me in the United States Senate. But I went up to Prague and I drove up to Prague and participated at that time in the Sokol and then I came back it was a sad period of time obviously a very difficult time for the for the Czechs and the beginning of a very very difficult time. But I was impressed at that time even then with the courage and the determination of the Czech people as I think people were all across the rest of the globe. I came back again during the 1950s and visited Prague for several days. Traveled through Czechoslovakia. Traveled and met a lot of Czech people, a lot of your relatives in the Czech part of Czechoslovakia and again impressed with their determination and their feeling for freedom. And I think that’s what we see nowadays. To say again is an inspiration around the rest of the world.
What is happening in Czechoslovakia today, is demonstrating quite clearly the lesson is ever going to be learned. A lesson that is as old as history itself is that the force nationalism, force of justice is going to be far stronger than any other ideology. It’s going to be far, far stronger than communism. And that’s what the Czech people stand for at the moment. And that’s why I think you are so proud that you are of your Czech background and of your Czech ancestry. Not just what you have done here in Nebraska over the period of the last one hundred years. Not only what you have contributed to this state to the growth of this state and why people are so proud of what you have done and proud of what you have contributed to this state but what you have contributed what your people have contributed to the force of freedom all over the rest of the globe. By the demonstration of courage that is being exhibited in Czechoslovakia at the very moment. So, I’m proud to be here. I’m proud to be associated with you as I know that you are proud of your Czech ancestors. (applause)
None of my children are Czech. (laughter). But if things keep going like they are, maybe one of them will be… (laughter) Just by the force of statistics. (laughter) I don’t know what that means exactly. (laughter) But it sounds like its brought us closer together.
But I’m very pleased as I say and I am very pleased at what you are doing here for the elderly people. I think the the greatest single group of those who suffer from poverty in the United States are our elderly people. Between five and seven million of our Americans, fellow Americans over the age of sixty five suffer from poverty and the legislation that we passed to try to deal with some of these problems is inadequate. Insufficient. The fact that you have taken this personal initiative yourselves, to try to help the elderly people, that I think it’s such an inspiration and what has brought me here today.
The fact is our Social Security system that we set up during the 1930s, we anticipated that it was going to provide for our elderly people and keep them above the poverty level. The fact is that it has not. We raised the minimum benefit to fifty five dollars a month and the last session of Congress to a great deal of pride in that, but how can one single person in the United States at the present time get by on fifty five dollars a month? A person cannot possibly do that. We raised a couple up to eighty five dollars a month but a couple can’t get by on eight five dollars a month in the United States. If this is way well below the poverty level, that has been established by the Department of Congress and the Department of Labor and people do suffer. They suffer from lack of housing, suffer from lack of food, suffer from the lack of medical attention. Our medical bills over the period of the last two years have gone up twenty percent. Our hospital bills have gone up forty percent and it’s anticipated over the period of next eight years that our hospital bills are going to go up another one hundred forty percent. How are our elderly people going to pay those bills? How are they going to be taken care of? And they have a right to live out their lives in dignity and honor.
If we have any responsibility at all it’s to our elderly people. If we have any prosperity in the United States, at the present time, its because our elderly people have given us that prosperity. They have built this country. They have spread our economy, developed our economy so the rest of us can live in relative affluence. That’s all due to the last generation of Americans. We have a certain responsibility, those of us who are in public life and those of us who have uh private life. We have a certain responsibility to our elderly people.
And I think what you have demonstrated here, the Czech people, what you have demonstrated in this community, is the fact that you care. That it’s not just what the government does, you are not just waiting for a mandate from Washington but you have demonstrated what you clearly intend to do yourselves. That’s why I think it’s such an inspiration here in the state of Nebraska. Not just to you but it’s an inspiration around the rest of the country because it shows what the people who what they care what the people themselves can do and that’s why I’m proud to be with you today. (applause)
Two out of about every five couples here in the United States live under the poverty level. Live under income of less than two thousand dollars a year. I think that we have to change that. I think we have to increase our Social Security benefits so that a single individual receives a payment of at least one hundred dollars a month. I don’t think that’s asking too much. So that a single individual gets at least one hundred dollars a month and a couple gets at least one hundred fifty dollars a month and then I think also we have a penalizing factor that within our Social Security system, if you go out and work you lose the money that you get from the Social Security system or that you lose the money that you get from welfare. I think we have to start to end that.
We began a little bit in the last session in Congress but I think there is a lot more that needs to be done. I don’t think there should be a one hundred percent tax if a person goes out and works and supplements their income as there is at the present time above a certain income and still below the poverty level. So I think what we need in legislation that I have introduced over the period of the last couple of years will raise the Social Security. Would bring a cost of living index within our Social Security so that if our cost of living went up 1 percent, that the Social Security payments would also go up one percent so that people could keep even with that. And that’s terribly important nowadays. Our cost, our inflation last year was three and a half percent. The inflation rate for last, this past March, was up to five percent. That’s unacceptable, obviously in this country and it proposes a particular hardship on our elderly people, who live either on Social Security or live on a fixed income. So I think we should have a cost of living index in our Social Security system and I think it should also be possible for our elderly people, not to just to retire but to contribute their skills, and their ability and their wisdom, even after the age of sixty five.
A lot of people after the age of sixty five or sixty two don’t want to retire. They are not willing to retire and there is no reason for them to retire. They shouldn’t be penalized because they want to continue to work. They shouldn’t have a one hundred percent tax as they do at the present time under our present system because they want to go out and work and they want to supplement their income, rather than just sitting at home. So I intend if am elected president of the United States, to work to ensure that we have a more adequate Social Security payment. To have a index or an increase in the cost of living and three that we also make it possible for an individual, an elderly person not to be penalized if they go to work even if they are on Social Security. I think these are three measures that are extremely important and I intend to do something about it if I am elected president of the United States. (applause)
I think also that we have to ensure there is going to be adequate housing and adequate medical care. I think that we have to have first in the field of medical care. We can’t just rely on hospitals. With the tremendous increase that’s anticipated if we go along the way that we are at the present time, with the tremendous increase that is anticipated, we need more hospital clinics that are going to be available. There are doctors that talk about the problems of our urban centers. The fact is in our rural areas of the United States, there are only half as many doctors per thousand people as there are in our urban centers. We need more doctors and more medical care for our people in our rural areas in the United States and we need more housing.
Even though we have tremendous problems with housing in our urban centers of the country, we still, we have the same kinds of problems in our rural centers and we need rural housing, housing for our rural people and particularly for our elderly. There’s where I think we should bring in the private enterprises to give the tax incentives and tax credits to the private enterprise system so that they will go out and build housing and construct housing, not only in our urban communities but in our rural centers as well. I think this is terribly important. It would decentralize the control. Take the control out of Washington and bring the control back to the people themselves in their local community and bring in the private sector as an active partner of government and get them involved in these major social issues. I think that’s terribly important and a different philosophy. It would be terribly important for the 1970s and for the years ahead. (applause)
And I think that there are things that we could be doing for our elderly people to ensure we have a foster grandparent program that works with great effectiveness at the present time. I think it should be expanded so that our elderly people can work with children and be actively involved. I think they can be actively involved in hospital clinics and I think that they can be actively involved in training younger people who suffer from poverty. Those who are elderly people who know a trade, who know a particular skill, why should they just retire when they would like to work? Why shouldn’t they be used to train our younger people who need this kind of additional education? And additional kind of educational opportunities.
I would like to develop programs, again at the local level. Not out of Washington but bringing the control back to the local level with the federal government coming in and helping to finance it. But the people themselves developing the program and working out the program and deciding what needs to be done. I want to decentralize the control from Washington and bring back as much as possible the control of the local community and let the people themselves work out the programs and develop the programs and develop them with the federal government helping to finance them. I think it makes much more sense than some of the programs that we’ve been having that have been in existence over the period of the last few years.
Our problems now in the late 1960s and the 1970s are different than the problems that they had in the 50s or the 40s or the 30s. And we are going to have to look at them differently. Abraham Lincoln said in 1858: “Our cause is new and therefore we are going to have to think anew and going to have to act anew”. The same thing is true about the United States in 1968. Our problems are different in 1968 than they were in the early 1960s or the early 1950s.
All you have to do is look at what is happening in Czechoslovakia. Obviously our relationship with Eastern Europe. Obviously our relationship with Czechoslovakia is going to be far different now that it was a year ago or two years ago or five years ago or ten years ago. We have to adjust to that. And the programs and plans that we have for our elderly people or the programs and plans that we have for our poverty problem or the programs we had in dealing with our foreign relations problem are going to be far far different now and must be different. We have to adjust to those changes. That is what is of great concern to me, whether we will adjust, whether we will have the wisdom to adjust and whether we will say we did this ten years ago, we did this five years ago and therefore we are going to continue to do it now. We can’t do that.
Our relationship to Western Europe is going to change. Since the Cuban Missile Crisis, it’s obvious that the countries of Western Europe are going to be far more independent of the United States than they were after the Cuban Missile Crisis. When they were in the 1950s when they needed, felt they needed the protection of the United States far more than they do at the present time. We have to adjust to that. We have to have the agility and the wisdom to be able to adjust to a new Czechoslovakia. We have to have that here within our own country but that’s not impossible, that’s not impossible. We’ve done that in the past and we will do it in the future.
We have to adjust to what the problems that face our farmers here in the United States. It’s unjust, it’s unacceptable within out country that a farmer is receiving ten percent less income than he did a year ago. It’s unjust here in the United States that a farmer receives here in the state of Nebraska receives fourteen percent less for his wheat and ten percent less for his corn than he did a year ago. It’s unjust that a farmer here in which has an effect on this community as well as on the farmer himself that the farmer has the purchasing purchasing power as the same as it was in 1936. We can do things about that. What we are doing in the United States at the present time, which we must recognize in the United States is that we are penalizing the farmer for being so efficient and being so effective.
I traveled through the farm areas of the Soviet Union, between the Caspian Sea and outer Mongolia. An area as big as all of Western Europe, where they grow their corn and where they grow their wheat. And the fact is what is different between what we do here in the state of Nebraska and what you are doing in the surrounding area and what they’ve done there is that you have been so efficient and you have done so well. They are not at 1/25 as effective as you are here in the state of Nebraska, as you are here in the surrounding area. But you are penalized for being so efficient. They can make an atomic bomb. They can make a nuclear delivery system. They can go to the moon. Even communist China can do all of these things. But they cannot do what we have done, what you have done here in the state of Nebraska on farms. They can’t be as efficient as you have on farms and the farmers here and the family type farmer has been in the state of Nebraska and the surrounding area. Why should we penalize the farmer for being as efficient and as effective as he has been here in the state of Nebraska? I think he should be rewarded, instead of penalizing him as you have in the past. (applause)
And I come from old farm stock myself. You can tell that, can’t ya? (laughter) Now why do you laugh? (laughter) New York’s moving in that direction. (laughter) We’re first in sour cherries. (laughter) Does that have sort of an appeal for you? Can you feel that when you look at me that you are talking to a fellow farmer or somebody who…the fact is that we can do somethings. Like we talk about people coming from other sections of country.
George Norris came from the state of Nebraska and yet he was one of the ones that helped develop the TVA. Franklin Roosevelt came from the east and yet he focused a great deal of attention of the farmer and what needed to be done about the farmer here in the United States. We’ve had people from other sections of the country that people from Czechoslovakia helped develop this country. The fact is that we can work together. We can deal with what the kinds of problems. But one of the first things we have to do in this country is to focus attention on what the problems are and then start to act on them. And that’s what I intend to do if I am elected President of the United States. (applause)
I’m going to…not that I come here and promise that all of these matters that deal with our elderly people and our farmer or what the problems are with our urban centers are going to disappear. But what I do say is that we can do something about it. We can make progress. Jan Huss made that quite clear, you know, what can be done by an individual. And you people here and the people that preceded you of Czech ancestry made it quite clear what people can do with the land, what they can do with a country. You should be so proud as you are, of what you have done here and your Czech ancestry and what those who preceded you came here, what they did. That’s what this country stands for. That’s what this country stands for. The that fact that people can make progress. That they can take a great problem as you took and your ancestors took it and they can turn it to public good and for their own families and for themselves. That’s what I want to see. That spirit in the United States of America. That’s what this country stands for. That’s what you have stood for. That’s why you have been an inspiration in this state. That’s why you will continue to be an inspiration in this state. And that’s why you will continue to be an inspiration around the rest of the country. And that’s why your people are an inspiration to all of the world in the cause of freedom and justice in Czechoslovakia over the period of the past few weeks. And that’s why I am proud to be associated with you today. (applause)
So, I’m pleased to be here. I would uh hope that you would remember that there is an election on Tuesday. (laughter) This is a non-political gathering so I won’t say anything other than that I hope that you remember all of those little tiny children at home when they are looking at their father and say where is your daddy now…He’s out in Nebraska and then on Wednesday morning, how did he do? (laughter) And see can you picture those little children with tears running down their cheeks. (laughter) You wouldn’t want that to happen, would ya? No. No. (applause) So thank you very much. (applause)…Thank you father. I need all the help I can get. (laughter)
The speech can be heard here at this link: