Do Assassinations Alter The Course Of History?
Volume : SIRS 1991 History, Article 56
Subject: Keyword(s) : KENNEDY and ASSASSINATION
Title : Do Assassinations Alter the Course of History?
Author : Simon Freeman and Ronald Payne
Source : European
Publication Date : May 24-26, 1991
Page Number(s) : 9
May 24-26, 1991, p. 9
"Reprinted courtesy of THE EUROPEAN."
DO ASSASSINATIONS ALTER THE COURSE OF HISTORY?
by Simon Freeman and Ronald Payne
India faces collapse with the violent death of Rajiv Gandhi--or
does it? Simon Freeman and Ronald Payne analyse the importance of
individuals in the march of events
They have paid their tributes, expressed their horror and
pledged, as they always do when one of their number is murdered,
that democracy will triumph in the face of terrorism. Now, in
their weekend retreats, with their foreign affairs advisers and
their top secret intelligence reports, world leaders will have to
judge the true impact on India of the assassination of Rajiv
They will conclude, perhaps a little unhappily for them but
fortunately for the rest of us, that Gandhi's death is unlikely
to be more than a footnote, if a substantial one, in the history
of his country. India will not disintegrate. There will be no
civil war. The Indian military will not stage a coup. Pakistan
will not launch the oft-predicted strike which would set the
Some Indians, perhaps many, may die over the next month in
the kind of primitive ethnic and religious feuding which has
always threatened to destroy the country. But, unless history is
truly mischievous, India will muddle through and get on with the
business of trying to survive.
It is rarely the personal stature of a statesman which
decides how pivotal his contribution to history will be. History
usually depends less on the drama of an assassination or the
status of the victim than on more profound political, economic or
demographic forces. In retrospect, it often appears that assassin
and victim were inexorably drawn together to become the catalyst
for inevitable change.
The most spectacular assassination in modern European
history--the shooting of Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife
at Sarajevo in 1914 by a Serbian student, Gavrilo Princip--was
undoubtedly the immediate cause of the First World War. But few
serious historians today subscribe to the theory that, had
Princip not pressed the trigger that late June day in the cause
of Serbian nationalism, the 19th-century order would have
Dr Christopher Andrew, of Cambridge University, believes
that the assassination merely set the timetable for war. He said:
"Even if the Archduke had not been killed then there might have
been a great war anyway." Other experts now talk not of Princip
but of an explosive cocktail of nationalism straining within
decrepit empires and of fatally dangerous alliances built by
leaders from an earlier world.
It is possible to see Sarajevo as the climax to a period in
which political murders became almost routine. The reference
books on late 19th-century Europe are peppered with the names of
hapless, long-forgotten politicians who were shot, bombed or
stabbed because, so it was thought by the many bands of
extremists, that was the only way to force change.
While there are no precise ways to assess the real
importance of an assassination, historians like Andrew reckon
that there are some general guidelines. In the stable, advanced
democracies of today the murder of a top politician is unlikely
to cause more than outrage and pain.
When the Irish Republican Army blew up the Grand Hotel in
Brighton in 1984 in an attempt to kill Prime Minister Margaret
Thatcher and most of her Cabinet, they hoped that there would be
such disgust at the murders that the British public would force
their leaders to pull out of Northern Ireland. But, even if
Thatcher had died this would not have happened. Her death would
probably have strengthened her successor's resolve not to bow to
The IRA should have known this from the reaction to the
killing five years earlier of Lord Louis Mountbatten,
distinguished soldier, public servant and pillar of the British
Establishment. The murder changed nothing in the province and
only demonstrated, as if it was necessary, that determined
terrorists often find ways to murder their chosen targets.
Similarly, The Red Brigade anarchists who cold-bloodedly killed
Aldo Moro, the Italian prime minister, in May, 1978, achieved
nothing except to ensure that the Italian authorities would hunt
them with even more determination. Nor did the killers of Swedish
Prime Minister Olof Palme accomplish anything. The murder--still
unsolved--drew the usual, but clearly genuine, shocked response
from world leaders. But even at the time they were hardpressed to
pretend that Palme's murder would fundamentally matter to Sweden.
The Third World, on the other hand, is more volatile.
Sometimes, as in India, countries are an uneasy blend of
feudalism and capitalism, dynastic authoritarianism and
democracy. The demise of dictators often leaves a bloody vacuum.
Yet even here, the assassination of a tyrant does not necessarily
signal major upheaval. General Zia ul-Haque, who had ruled
Pakistan since 1977, was blown up in his plane in the summer of
1988. But, though he had long seemed crucial to the continuing
stability of the country, his death seemed to be the fated climax
to the era of military rule.
The murder of Egypt's President Sadat in October 1981 seemed
then to herald some new dark age of internal repression and
aggression towards Israel. But his successor, Hosni Mubarak,
merely edged closer to the Arab world without returning to the
pre-Sadat hostility towards Israel.
The killers of kings and dictators in other Arab countries
have also discovered that they have murdered in vain. Iraq has
endured a succession of brutal military dictators who have died
as violently as they lived. The fact that Iraq has never
experienced democracy is the result of economic and historical
realities, not assassins' bullets. Saudi Arabia has also seen its
share of high level killings yet, today, the House of Saud
remains immovably in power.
But in the United States, where the idea of righteous
violence is deeply embedded in the national consciousness, the
grand assassination has been part of the political process for
more than a century. Beginning with the murder of President
Abraham Lincoln in 1865, the list of victims is a long and
distinguished one. It includes most recently, President John F.
Kennedy in 1963; his brother, Robert, heir apparent, shot in
1968; Martin Luther King, civil rights campaigner and Nobel Peace
Prize winner, gunned down the same year. Ronald Reagan could
easily have followed in 1981 when he was shot and badly wounded.
John Kennedy's death now appears important for different
reasons from those one might have expected at the time. It did
not derail any of his vaunted civil rights or welfare programmes;
rather his death guaranteed that his successor, Lyndon Johnson,
would be able to push the Kennedy blueprint for a New America
through Congress. Nor did it end the creeping US involvement in
But Kennedy has been immortalised by his assassin and the
mythology of his unfulfilled promise will endure long after his
real accomplishments are forgotten.
In a curious, perverse, sense he and his fellow-martyrs
might live on as far more potent symbols of change than if they
had survived into gentle retirement with their fudges revealed
and their frailties exposed.
Why good leaders die and bad ones survive
Few names of hated tyrants appear on the roll-call of world
leaders who fall to the assassin's bomb, knife or bullet, writes
Ronald Payne. One of the curiosities of the trade in political
murder is that those the world generally recognises as bad guys
often live to a ripe old age or die quietly in their beds. Few
who mourn the passing of Rajiv Gandhi would have shed so many
tears had President Saddam Hussein been blown to pieces in Iraq.
There was a time only a few years ago when Americans and
Europeans would have celebrated the violent demise of President
Muammar Gaddafi. Both the Libyan leader and Hussein live on, as
do Idi Amin of Uganda, or Fidel Castro, whom the American Central
Intelligence Agency plotted so imaginatively and ineffectually to
When academics play the game of what might have been, the
consequences of assassinating such monstres sacres as Stalin and
When the Russian dictator died suddenly of natural causes,
the whole Soviet Union was paralysed because no leader dared
claim the right to succeed him. That in itself suggests what
might have happened had Stalin been shot unexpectedly at a more
The timing of a political murder is crucial. Had Adolf
Hitler been assassinated before he achieved full power or before
his invasion of the Soviet Union, the history of Germany, and
indeed of Europe, would have been very different.
Fascinating though such intellectual exercises are, it seems
that as a rule it is the decent, the innocent and the relatively
harmless who perish as assassins' victims.
The reason may not be far to seek. Tyrants watch their backs
pretty carefully. The secret police are ever active. It is easier
to kill statesmen in democracies where the rule of law prevails
and the sad truth is that leaders in those countries which
exercise authority through voting rather than shooting are more
at risk than Middle East tyrants.
A further reason for the survival of the hated monster
figure might be that Western intelligence services have been
forbidden to go in for execution. The CIA and the British secret
intelligence service are now out of the killing business. Even
the KGB's assassination specialists seem to have been stood down.
In any case the Kremlin was hardly keen on the murder of
ruling statesmen even in the bad old days. Soviet leaders
understood the realities of power well enough to know that such
acts were unlikely to further their cause.
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