It does not seem nearly so long ago as 30 years that the trade of the foreign correspondent caught the fantasy of Hollywood producers, because Hitler was on the loose and Europe was crackling with crises and atrocities and some of the best of the American reporters of that time, John Gunther and Vincent Sheean and Ed Murrow, always seemed to be on hand.

They came to seem like heroic stand-ins for the American people, who were fascinated and repelled at long distance by the violence of Europe. And who, I must say, indulged a good deal of self righteousness in parroting the old American lamination about old, sick Europe.

Well, I was saying that the foreign correspondent was in vogue, and soon, Hollywood created a romantic stereotype of him. First, in the Boy Scout version of Joel McCrea and then the subtler variation of Bogart in a trench coat, who seemed so tough, as tricky as Goebbels, but who, for all his smoker's cough and his cynical appraisal of passing females, was secretly on the side of all good men and true.

This attractive stereotype was not only larger than alive but luckier than any journalist living or dead. He followed unerringly in the tracks of dictators and foreign ministers. He was behind the curtain when a king signed the instrument of abdication. He knew the man who shot the prime minister. He decoded the vital message that gave the date of an invasion. He was always where the action was.

In life, it’s not like that, only by the wildest freak is a reporter, after many years on the hop, actually present at a single, accidental convulsion of history. Mostly we write the coroner’s inquest, the account of the funeral, the trial of the spy – not the hatching of the plot.

Last Tuesday night, for the first time in 30 years, I found myself by one casual chance in a thousand on hand, in a small narrow serving pantry of the Ambassador hotel in Los Angeles, a place that, I suppose will never be wiped out of my memory as a sinister alley, a roman circus run amok, and a charnel house.

It would be quite false to say, as I should truly like to say, that I am sorry I was there. It’s more complicated than that, nothing so simple as a conflict between professional pride and human revulsion, between having the feelings and then having to sit down and write them.

Yet, because I saw it not, for once, as an event to comment on, but as a thunderbolt assault on the senses, my view of this catastrophic episode is probably strange, and I ought not to ascribe to anybody else the shape and colour of the opinions that floated up later from my muddled sensations.

I warn you about this, because I feel unmoved by some ideas that others feel strongly. And on the other hand, I have some fears that others may not share. So, since this is a more personal talk than I could have hoped, I'd better tell you how it came about.

Early last Tuesday afternoon I flew in to Los Angeles. I had seen a score of these election-night entertainments, they are amiable but blousy affairs. But to give me a fresh view of a ceremony that had stalled by familiarity and also to make some compensation to a hostess who had offered me a bed, I’d asked her if she would like to mooch around the town with me and see what we could see.

She was agog with anticipation, for just as a foreign correspondent thinks a movie actress must have a fascinating life, so a movie actress thought a correspondent's life must be glamorous in the extreme.

So, high in the Santa Monica hills, amid the scent of the eucalyptus and the splendid California cypresses, we sat for a while in the evening after the polls closed, and waited for a sign of the outcome. You don’t have to wait long in these computer days, the Oregon result was predicted exactly by the big brain 12 minutes after the poll was closed, when the returns already in were under 1%. Somehow, the big brain was having trouble with California, party politics there are, for various historical reasons, very loosely organised. And for one thing, the northern end of the state tends to contradict the verdicts of the south.

So the computers were silent, but the writing was on the wall, and just before eleven o’clock we took off, for the McCarthy hotel, and there was no doubt when we got there that the college students and the mini-skirt girls and the wandering poets and the chin-up McCarthy staff, were whistling in a graveyard.

There was a rough band that hooked it up all the louder to drown out the inevitable news. They’d pause a while and another ominous statistic would be flashed and then an MC would shout, "Are we downhearted?", and the ballroom crowd would roar its defiance of the obvious.

The Ambassador, a venerable hotel miles away on Wilshire Boulevard, was the Kennedy headquarters and that was the place to be. We took off and, in the long driveway, lined up behind hundreds of cars containing all those sensible people who love a winner. At last, we got into the hotel lobbies and a tumult of singing, dancing, music and cheering. Guards and cops blocked the entrance to the ballroom and a passport and a birth certificate and, I believe, a personal recommendation from Senator Kennedy could not have got you in. My own general press credentials were quite useless, and screaming at each other, through the din of all these happy people, my companion and I decided the whole safari had been a mistake, and we’d go home.

We turned, and started down the corridor. On our left, about 40 or 50 feet along, was another door, and a pack of people trying and failing to get through it. There was a guard and a young Kennedy staff man turning down everybody. The Kennedy men suddenly shouted over the bobbing heads, "Mr Cooke, come on, you can get in here".

So we were sandwiched, or folded in, through the mob and emerged as through a chute into an open place, a cool, almost empty room, a small private dining room of the hotel. It was fitted up as a small extra press room and there were about half a dozen women telegraph operators, two newsmen I knew and half a dozen others, a radio man untangling cables and a photographer. And one or two middle-aged women and a fat girl in a Kennedy straw hat, a young reporter in a beard and, I suppose, his girl.

It was a perfect way through to the ballroom for inbetween was a serving pantry that led through a passage right into the ballroom. "You don’t want to get in there," a friend of mine said "It's murder in there. And when Bobby gets through his speech, Pierre Salinger has promised us he’ll come through into this room, and talk with us – the senator that is." It was an unbelievable break.

So we sat down and we had a drink, and heard the telegraph girls tapping out copy, and tried to bear the TV set in the corner that was tuned up to an unbearable decibel level.

A few minutes later, the commentators gave way to the ballroom scene and Bobby was up there with his ecstatic wife, and he was thanking everybody and saying things must change and so... on to Chicago. It was about eighteen minutes after midnight, a few of us strolled over to the swinging doors that gave on to the pantry. They had no glass peepholes but we'd soon hear the pleasant bustle of him coming through as the waiters and the coloured chef in his high hat and a bus boy or two waited to see him.

There was suddenly, a banging repetition of a sound that, I don’t know how to describe, not at all like shots, like somebody dropping a rack of trays. Half a dozen of us were startled enough to charge through the door, and it had just happened. It was a narrow lane he had to come through, for there were two long steam tables and somebody had stacked up against them those trellis fences with artificial leaves stuck on them, that they used to fence up the dance band off from the floor.

The only light was the blue light of three fluorescent tubes, slotted in the ceiling. But it was a howling jungle of cries and obscenities and flying limbs and two enormous men, Roosevelt Grier the football player and Rafer Johnson, I guess, the Olympic champion, piling on to a pair of blue jeans. There was a head on the floor, streaming blood, and somebody put a Kennedy boater hat under it and the blood trickled down like chocolate sauce on an iced cake.

There were flashlights by now and the button-eyes image of Ethel Kennedy turned to cinders. She was slapping a young man and he was saying, "Listen lady, I am hurt too" and down on the greasy floor was a huddle of clothes and staring out of it the face of Bobby Kennedy. Like the stone face of a child, lying on a cathedral tomb.

I had and have no idea of the time of all this, or even of the event itself, for when I pattered back into the creamy green genteel dining room, I heard somebody cry "Kennedy shot" and heard a girl moan, "No, no not again" and my companion was fingering a cigarette package like a paralytic.

A dark woman nearby suddenly bounded to a table and beat it and howled like a wolf, "Stinking country, no no no no", and another woman attacked the shadow of the placid TV commentators who had not yet got the news. And then a minute, maybe, or an hour later, or a day, the cops and the burly Johnson shot through the swinging doors with their bundle of the black curly head and the jeans. And I recall the tight, small behind and the limp head, and a face totally dazed.

Well, the next morning when I saw and heard the pope in his gentle, faltering English, I still could not believe that he was talking about this squalid appalling scene in a hotel pantry that I had been a part of, and would always be a part of.

I have no doubt that this experience is a trauma and because of it, no doubt, and five days later I still cannot rise to the general lamentations about a sick society. I, for one, do not feel like an accessory to a crime. And I reject almost as a frivolous obscenity the sophistry of collective guilt, the idea that I, or the American people, killed John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and Robert Frances Kennedy.

I don’t believe, either, that you conceived Hitler, and that in some deep, unfathomable sense, all Europe was responsible for the extermination of six million Jews. With Edmund Burke, I do not know how you can indict a whole nation.

To me, this now roarlingly fashionable theme is a great folly. It’s difficult to resist because it deflects an attack on one’s own conscience to some big corporate culprit. It sounds wise and deep but it is really a way of opting out of a human situation, a situation that includes pity for the dead Kennedy, sympathy for the American nation, and the resurgence of its frontier traditions in a later time. And, not least, compassion for Sirhan Sirhan.

I said as much as this to a younger friend and he replied, "Yes, but and I too, I don’t feel implicated in the murder of John or Bobby Kennedy, but when Martin Luther King is killed, the only people who know that you and I are not like the killer are you and I."

It’s a tremendous sentence and exposes, I think, the present danger to America. The more people talk about collective guilt, the more they will feel it. And after 300 years of subjection and prejudice, any poor Negro or desperate outcast is likely to act as if it were true that the American people, and not their derelicts, are the villains.


Letter from America audio recordings of broadcasts ©BBC

Letter from America scripts © Cooke Americas, RLLP. All rights reserved.