With the recent publication of T.J. Turner’s new alternate history about President Abraham Lincoln’s (non)assassination, Lincoln's Bodyguard: In A Heroic Act Of Bravery Saves Our Beloved President! John Wilkes Booth Killed In Act Of Treason, it is fortuitous that today’s New York Times features an opinion piece on the role of assassinations in changing the course of history.
Written by academic scholars Benjamin F. Jones And Benjamin A. Olken, the essay, entitled “Do Assassins Really Change History?” does not feature much explicit “what if?” reflection, but nevertheless has many counterfactual implications.
Predictably the authors at the outset weigh in on a standard question of historical causality, comparing the relationship between great individuals and structural determinants in the perpetration of assassinations.
They write: “One view, the “great man” theory, claims that individual leaders play defining roles, so that assassinating one could lead to very different national or global outcomes. In contrast, historical determinism sees leaders as the proverbial ant riding the elephant’s back. Broader social, economic and political forces drive history, so that assassinations may not have meaningful effects.
They then go on to note:
“Prominent examples of assassinations raise intriguing questions, but do not settle the matter. Would the Vietnam War have escalated if John F. Kennedy had not been killed? Would the Middle East peace process have proceeded more successfully if Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel had not been assassinated?”
The authors then cite statistics to provide answers:
“To better understand the role of assassinations in history, we collected data on all assassination attempts on national leaders from 1875 to 2004, both those that killed the leader and those that failed.”
“Assassins are often inaccurate, and their victims are usually bystanders. Even if the gun is fired or the bomb actually explodes, the intended target is killed less than 25 percent of the time….”
“A leader’s survival can depend on remarkable twists of fate. Idi Amin, the Ugandan dictator, reportedly survived an assassination attempt in which a live grenade bounced off his chest and killed or wounded several people in a crowd nearby. Kennedy did not escape the bullet that killed him, even though it was fired from 265 feet away and he was in a moving car. But President Ronald Reagan survived being shot at close range, as John Hinckley Jr.’s bullet punctured his lung but stopped just short of his heart.”
Thus far, the essay tells us little that we don’t already know: chance plays a major role in assassinations.
More interesting is the authors’ effort to chart the consequences of failed or successful assassination attempts:
They write: “We compared the 59 assassination attempts in our data that happened to succeed with 192 close calls that happened to fail.”
“We found that assassinations do have an effect on political systems, but with caveats. For one, the effects are largely limited to autocracies. On average, the deaths of autocrats have prompted moves toward democracy, which appear 13 percentage points more likely than when following failed attempts. Democracies, in contrast, appear robust: The deaths of democratic leaders do not lead to a slide into autocracy.”
“Assassinations can also change the path of war. For countries in moderate conflicts, with fewer than 1,000 battle deaths, assassinations feed the flames, as these conflicts are more likely to intensify. On the other hand, for countries already in intense conflicts, assassinations of leaders appear more likely than failed attempts to bring the war to a close.”
“Failed attempts themselves may change outcomes; an autocrat who survives an assassination attempt may crack down on opposition groups, leading a country further from democracy. Our data are consistent with this “intensifying autocracy” effect. Assassination attempts on autocrats thus bring considerable risk: They appear to increase the chance of democratization if the attempt succeeds, but lessen it in the far more likely event that the attempt fails.”
The chief takeaway: “The historical evidence is that assassinations do matter when targeting autocrats, but they primarily bring risk.”
These findings suggest some possible parameters for gauging the plausibility of counterfactual scenarios involving regime change. They would suggest, for instance, that narratives featuring FDR being assassinated in 1933 (see Alan Glenn’s Amerikan Eagle, or even Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle) are unrealistic in proposing a subsequent American turn to fascism.
But the findings may have to be qualified in light of important exceptions. If Joseph Stalin was, as many scholars believe, actually poisoned in 1953, his death had little effect on the authoritarian Soviet system. Many medieval kings in England were assassinated (usually by relatives) without jeopardizing the institution of monarchy.
Most importantly, the essay cannot account for more subtle, but no less important, counterfactual questions involving assassinations in democracies. Even if the institution of democracy survives the killing of its leaders, the actual policies that would have been adopted had they survived might have been quite different. A surviving Lincoln or Kennedy probably would have governed quite differently from their successors.
Still, the finds are suggestive and should be kept in mind by anyone spinning out future counterfactuals.