Fact Check

Did Robert F. Kennedy Say People Who ‘Stop History in Its Tracks’ ‘Fear the Future’?

They “invoke the security of a comfortable past which, in fact, never existed,” he allegedly said.

Published Mar 1, 2023

 (Yoichi Okamoto/U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons)
Image Via Yoichi Okamoto/U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons
Claim:
In 1964, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy said, “There are people in every time and every land who want to stop history in its tracks. They fear the future, mistrust the present, and invoke the security of a comfortable past which, in fact, never existed."

Robert F. Kennedy was U.S. attorney general, senator, and later presidential candidate before being assassinated in 1968. Before his death, he was a civil rights advocate who called for the end of the Vietnam War and played a key role in navigating the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. 

His quotes have long been viral fodder for the internet. Our readers in early 2023 sent us one such quote in which Kennedy appears to criticize those who oppose progressive movements, saying, "There are people in every time and every land who want to stop history in its tracks. They fear the future, mistrust the present, and invoke the security of a comfortable past which, in fact, never existed." 

The quote is real. Kennedy made these comments in 1964, while still attorney general. He was speaking at the California Institute of Technology, and in a speech titled, "The Opening to the Future," he bemoaned the manner of American involvement in other countries, saying "Far too often, for narrow tactical reasons, this country has associated itself with tyrannical and unpopular regimes that had no following and no future." He called for new ways to reach young people in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. He argued for "progressive" political reform as a counterweight to Communism.

A few moments later, he made the following statement (emphasis, ours): 

To say that the future will be different from the present is, to scientists, hopelessly self-evident. I observe regretfully that in politics, however, it can be heresy. It can be denounced as radicalism, or branded as subversion. There are people in every time and every land, who want to stop history in its tracks. They fear the future, mistrust the present, and evoke the security of a comfortable past which, in fact, never existed. It hardly seems necessary to point out in California—of all States—that change, although it involves risks, is the law of life. 

Nevertheless, there are those, frustrated by a difficult future, who grab out for the security of the non-existent past. Frustrated by change, they condemn the wisdom, the motives, and even the patriotism of those who seek to contend with the realities of the future. 

The full text of his speech is available in the archives of the U.S Department of Justice. 

The New York Times in 1964 described how some interpreted his language "as a campaign salvo at some of the supporters of Senator Barry Goldwater, if not at the Senator himself." They also described his speech as a take on how "the militancy of the right wing could inhibit the United States, in its quest for peace."

Goldwater was a Republican senator at the time who would run for the presidency in 1964. He was known for sparking a resurgence of conservatism in the Republican Party. He controversially voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act because he believed it had too much government overreach, and not because he did not support racial equality. 

Kennedy, according to The New York Times, was critical of the conservative Goldwater, saying in other news conferences that a movement by liberal Republicans to oppose Goldwater was "a little late." 

Given that the text of Kennedy's words are available and recorded in the Justice Department and by The New York Times archives, we rate this a "Correct Attribution." 

Sources

Kennedy, Robert F. "An Opening to the Future." U.S. Department of Justice, 8 June 1964, https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/ag/legacy/2011/01/20/06-08-1964.pdf. Accessed 28 Feb. 2023.

"KENNEDY WARNS OF RIGHTIST PERIL; Asserts That Militancy Could Hamper Quest for Peace." The New York Times, 9 June 1964. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/1964/06/09/archives/kennedy-warns-of-rightist-peril-asserts-that-militancy-could-hamper.html. Accessed 28 Feb. 2023.

McGee, Suzanne. "How Barry Goldwater Brought the Far Right to Center Stage in the 1964 Presidential Race." HISTORY, 20 Oct. 2020, https://www.history.com/news/barry-goldwater-1964-campaign-right-wing-republican. Accessed 28 Feb. 2023.

Menand, Louis. "He Knew He Was Right." The New Yorker, 18 Mar. 2001. www.newyorker.com, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2001/03/26/he-knew-he-was-right. Accessed 28 Feb. 2023.

"Robert F. Kennedy." JFK Library. https://www.jfklibrary.org/learn/about-jfk/the-kennedy-family/robert-f-kennedy. Accessed 28 Feb. 2023.

Nur Nasreen Ibrahim is a reporter with experience working in television, international news coverage, fact checking, and creative writing.

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