Fifty years ago, a little-remembered internationally-televised debate on Vietnam with Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, D-N.Y., heralded the entrance of Ronald Reagan onto the world stage.
Reagan, governor of California, was in the midst of his first quest for the presidency. Previously, he had commented about foreign affairs only very briefly. This debate was to be his first test as a potential commander-in-chief. Reagan appeared from a studio in Sacramento. RFK was in a studio in the nation's capital. The debate moderator was in London along with a group of student-questioners. The subject was the image of America in the world. During this time period, of nascent opposition to the Vietnam War, the students proceeded to use the entire debate to attack the United States and its policies of defending South Vietnam from armed aggression from North Vietnam and the Viet Cong.
RFK was in the midst of struggling to separate himself from the policies of President Lyndon Johnson. But it was RFK and his brother, the slain President John F. Kennedy, who had formed in the early 1960s many of the policies of support for South Vietnam and from which RFK now was turning away. RFK spent the debate agreeing with the student attacks on America and apologized over and over for America's policies.
Prior to the debate, he had been advised that he needed little preparation to square off against Reagan, for after all, according to RFK's advisors, Reagan was just an actor who happened to stumble into the governorship of California. But Ronald Reagan had prepared well. He had been mentored many times on Vietnam by former President Dwight Eisenhower, had meticulously studied fact sheets and notebooks, and had practiced debating with Edwin Meese III, Gov. Reagan's legal affairs secretary at the time.
Reagan triumphantly won the televised debate with RFK. Reagan knew his facts and challenged every incorrect assertion that the students had. He gave a sterling defense of American policy — of wanting to help a threatened ally keep its freedom from communist aggression. RFK limped away and told his aides he never again would debate Ronald Reagan. Even RFK's advisors and the liberal media agreed that Reagan had triumphed.
The sole American in the student panel in London, on a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford, was Princeton graduate, basketball star, and future Sen. Bill Bradley. Bradley and Reagan both reminded the audience of America's beneficence at the end of World War II. When the subject of recent communist aggression elsewhere in Asia was discussed, Bradley mentioned how India had turned to America for help after Chinese aggression.
What seemed like a minor point at the time, but in retrospect the most important comment Reagan made (reviewed by this author elsewhere), was his first public call to tear down the Berlin Wall. During the remainder of that first presidential campaign, Reagan in 1967 and 1968 would make many such calls to knock down the Berlin Wall.
Republicans watching the debate at home realized at once that Reagan, who just six months earlier had won the governorship of the nation's most populous state by almost one million votes, was the GOP's rising star. Facing the prospect of the GOP potentially nominating Richard Nixon again for the presidency the next summer, and with Nixon having lost the infamous television debate with JFK in 1960, many Republicans began to push for Reagan — now the definite winner of the foreign policy debate against RFK — to be their future nominee.
Fifty years ago, Ronald Reagan first pushed for America to stand firm with its allies in Southeast Asia when they were threatened by aggression from communist neighbors. With America, Japan, and South Korea all now facing similar direct threats of aggression from communist North Korea, President Trump can look back at Ronald Reagan's firm stance exactly fifty years ago as a role model to follow.
Gene Kopelson is president of the New England chapter of the Theodore Roosevelt Association and a published historian. Kopelson's Reagan's 1968 Dress Rehearsal: Ike, RFK, and Reagan's Emergence as a World Statesman, is available from Figueroa Press and amazon.com.
If you would like to write an op-ed for the Washington Examiner, please read our guidelines on submissions.