The Assassins

Everything about assassination seems un-American. The word assassin comes from “hashish.” The first assassins, almost a thousand years ago, were the “hashshashin,” the “hashish-users,” a fanatical Moslem sect in Persia who considered murder of their enemies a sacred duty. Violence may be, in the words of the black militant H. Rap Brown, “as American as cherry pie,” but for most Americans political assassination was an Old World phenomenon of bomb-throwing Bolsheviks and Balkan fanatics. Even though four presidents fell to assassins’ bullets and others were targets of assassination, the staff of President Johnson’s National Commission on Violence concluded in 1969 that the general pattern was not one of conspiracy but of “freelance assassins in varying states of mental instability.” The wave of assassinations that cut down, in less than a decade, President Kennedy, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X must have made many Americans wonder whether this alien aberration was becoming a feature of American life.

In the summer of 1975, there was the nagging suspicion that for some Americans, in some shadowy recess of government, the idea of assassination had long been a way of life. Because of this, Senator Church’s committee, pushing on with the investigation of intelligence abuses from which President Ford had recoiled, found itself enveloped in tension. The CIA felt threatened by an assault on its deadliest secrets. The White House saw America’s reputation in the world endangered. Senators found themselves walking a tightrope across an abyss of dark deeds plotted under two Democratic and two Republican presidents. And, if all this were not painful enough, they would end up with the nightmarish question of whether assassination cast upon the Cuban waters might somehow have returned to Dallas.

Under Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon the CIA had been involved, in varying degrees, in plots and coups against at least eight foreign leaders.

In 1960, against Lumumba. He had threatened to bring Soviet troops into the Congo. Plans had been made, poisons shipped, access to Lumumba sought. But he was killed by others before the CIA plans could be realized.

In 1961, against the Dominican dictator Trujillo. His brutality had inspired fear of another Castro-style revolution. He was killed by Dominican dissidents, who had received American arms, though it was unclear whether these were the guns used.

In 1963, against Ngo Dinh Diem. His repressive actions had led to fear of an uprising in Vietnam. He was killed in a generals’ coup, supported by the CIA, but without evidence that the United States wanted him dead.

In 1970, against General René Schneider, the Chilean army chief of staff. He had stood in the way of a CIA-supported military coup against Allende. The CIA backed a plan to kidnap Schneider, but apparently did not foresee that he would be killed when he resisted abduction.

By the time of the coup against Allende in 1973, the CIA claimed it had “separated” itself from the military …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.