by Lloyd deMause
Chapter 1—-The Assassination of Leaders
|“Peace is a helluva letdown.”|
—- Field Marshall Montgomery
When Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, America was in a strange mood.
The country had been experiencing a period of peace and prosperity. The Americans held hostage in Iran had been safely returned home without requiring military action. Our Gross National Product per person was the highest of any nation in history. Although America should have felt strong and happy, it instead felt weak and impoverished. The strongest nation on earth, with the highest personal income at any time in its history and the greatest human freedoms anywhere on earth, America during the Reagan election was filled with visions of imminent moral and economic collapse.1
Our new president voiced our fears: we were not strong at all, he said, but “weak and disintegrating,” in a “ship about to go over the falls,” and “in greater danger today than we were the day after Pearl Harbor.” We had become so impotent, in fact, that we were in immediate danger of being overcome by “an evil force that would extinguish the light we’ve been tending for 6,000 years.”2
During the early months of the Reagan presidency, I was teaching a course in psychohistory at the City University of New York. To show the class how to discover the shared moods of nations, I asked them to bring in current political cartoons, magazine covers, presidential speeches and newspaper columns in order to see what images and emotional words were being circulated in the body politic. When Reagan said in his Inaugural Address that we felt “terror” (of inflation), “doomed,” “frightened” and “disintegrating” (as a nation), and full of “pent-up furies” (toward government), the class was asked to consider what the psychological sources might be for such apocalyptic language at this particular point in time in America’s history.
The class had been studying earlier historical material on national moods, in order to learn how to decode the fantasies that might affect the nation’s political decisions. They learned that leaders are often expected to sense the irrational wishes and fears of their nations and do something to deflect or relieve their anxieties. In studying our book, Jimmy Carter and American Fantasy,3 they saw how nations go through emotional cycles that are lawful and that affect political and economic decisions. They discovered, for instance, that American presidents regularly started their first year being seen as strong, with high approval ratings in the polls, and then were depicted as weakening and eventually as collapsing as their polls decline, which they regularly did, regardless of how successful they actually were. Since leaders are imagined to be the only ones that can control the nation’s emotional life, the nation’s emotional life seems to be getting “out of control” as its leader is imagined to be growing more and more impotent. The class studied how major decisions by presidents over the past several decades were influenced by the four fantasized leadership stages of strong, cracking, collapse and upheaval. Wars, for instance, have never begun in the first year of the president’s term, when he was seen as strong and in control.4
Furthermore, the class saw the disappointment that had been felt when leaders refuse to take nations to war when they were emotionally ready, i.e., when the leader seemed to be “collapsed” and impotent. The main case-study they examined to demonstrate this disappointment with the leader who was “too impotent to go to war” was the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Early in President Kennedy’s term of office, Robert McNamara said,5 the President had become so “hysterical” about having Fidel Castro in power in Cuba that he first helped the refugees invade Cuba and then ordered a military embargo before Soviet missiles were discovered. The embargo against Cuba was a particularly gratuitous act, done only to feed the growing war demands of the nation. Kennedy told a reporter that it was something that “the country rather enjoyed. It was exciting, it was a diversion, there was the feeling we were doing something.”6 After the embargo was announced, eight thousand members of the Conservative Party met in Madison Square Garden and roared out to Kennedy, “Fight! Fight! Fight!”7
When Soviet missiles were later discovered in Cuba put there as the Soviet’s response to the invasion of Cuba Kennedy’s advisors admitted that “militarily it doesn’t mean that much,”8 since Soviet submarines with nuclear warheads had long been in Cuban waters. Yet the president maintained that, rather than feeling “humiliated,” he was ready to risk a nuclear war over their immediate removal, vowing “If Khrushchev wants to rub my nose in the dirt, it’s all over.”9 He bragged to his associates that he would “cut off the balls” of Khrushchev,10 saying “he can’t do this to me”11 and that it was “like dealing with Dad. All give and no take.”12 Even though he admitted he was risking plunging the world into “a holocaust,” he said that Americans wanted military action so badly that if he didn’t act immediately to have them removed, he would risk being impeached.13
Massing a quarter of a million men and 180 ships at the tip of Florida, the president put 156 ICBM’s at “ready for launch” and sent up bombers containing 1,300 nuclear weapons with Soviet cities as targets.14 The nation was “ready to go.” Only 4 percent of Americans opposed Kennedy’s actions, even though 60 percent thought they would lead to World War III,15 probably even an American apocalypse, since the Soviets had armed nuclear missiles in Cuba that Khrushchev had given his local commanders instructions to launch on their own authority toward the U.S. should a military confrontation begin.16
When Khrushchev then backed down (thankfully, otherwise you might not be alive and reading this book) and removed the missiles and the crisis suddenly ended without any war, Americans felt an enormous letdown.17 The media reported on “The Strange Mood of America Today Baffled and uncertain of what to believe…”18 It began to ask what were seen as frightening questions: “Will It Now Be A World Without Real War? Suddenly the world seems quiet…Why the quiet? What does it mean?”19 The prospect of peaceful quiet felt terribly frightening.
Americans from all parties were furious with Kennedy for various pretexts. Many began calling for a new Cuban invasion, agreeing with Barry Goldwater’s demand that Kennedy “do anything that needs to be done to get rid of that cancer. If it means war, let it mean war.”20 Kennedy was accused of being soft on Communism for living up to his no-invasion pledge to the Soviets, and when he then proposed signing a Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with them, his popularity dropped even further.21
The nation’s columnists expressed their fury towards the president, and
political cartoonists pictured Kennedy with his head being chopped off by a guillotine (above). Richard Nixon warned, “There’ll be…blood spilled before [the election is] over,”22 and a cartoon in The Washington Post portrayed Nixon digging a grave. Many editorialists were even more blunt. The Delaware State News editorialized: “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. His name right now happens to be Kennedy let’s shoot him, literally, before Christmas.”23 Potential assassins all over the country-psychopaths who are always around looking for permission to kill-saw all these media death wishes as signals, as delegations to carry out a necessary task, and began to pick up these fantasies as permission to kill Kennedy.24
Kennedy’s aides warned him of an increase in the number of death threats toward him. His trip to Dallas, known as the “hate capital of Dixie,” was seen as particularly dangerous. His aides begged him to cancel his trip. Senator J. William Fulbright told him, “Dallas is a very dangerous place…I wouldn’t go there. Don’t you go.”25 Vice President Lyndon Johnson, writing the opening lines of the speech he intended to make in Austin after the Dallas visit, planned to open with: “Mr. President, thank God you made it out of Dallas alive!”26 Dallas judges and leading citizens warned the President he should not come to the city because of the danger of assassination. The day before the assassination, as handbills were passed out in Dallas with Kennedy’s picture under the headline “Wanted For Treason,” militants of the John Birch Society and other violent groups flooded into Dallas, and hundreds of reporters flew in from all over the country, alerted that something might happen to the president.27
Kennedy himself sensed consciously he might be shot. Two months before the actual assassination, he made a home movie “just for fun” of himself being assassinated.28 The morning of his assassination, an aide later recalled, Kennedy went to his hotel window, “looked down at the speaker’s platform…and shook his head. ‘Just look at that platform,’ he said. ‘With all those buildings around it, the Secret Service couldn’t stop someone who really wanted to get you.'”29 When Jackie Kennedy told him she was really afraid of an assassin on this trip, JFK agreed, saying, “We’re heading into nut country today….You know, last night would have been a hell of a night to assassinate a President. I mean it…suppose a man had a pistol in a briefcase.” He pointed his index finger at the wall and jerked his thumb. “Then he could have dropped the gun and briefcase and melted away in the crowd.”30 Despite all the warnings, however, Kennedy unconsciously accepted the martyr’s role. He was, after all, used to doing all his life what others wanted him to do.31 So although a Secret Service man told him the city was so dangerous that he had better put up the bulletproof plastic top on his limousine, he specifically told him not to do so.32 In fact, someone instructed the Secret Service not to be present ahead of time in Dallas and check out open windows such as those in the Book Depository, as they normally did whenever a president traveled in public as Kennedy did.33 Only then, with the nation, the assassin, the Secret Service and the president all in agreement, the assassination could be successfully carried out.
By this point in our studies, my class began to see how assassinations might be delegated by nations to individuals for purely internal emotional reasons. We noted that six of the seven assassination attempts on American presidents took place either after unusually long peaceful periods, like the assassination of James Garfield on July 2, 1881, or after a peace treaty at the end of a war,34 like the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on April 15, 1965, six days after the end of the Civil War.35 It was as if peace was experienced by the nation as a betrayal, that nations expressed their rage at their leaders for bringing peace, and that assassins picked up the subliminal death wishes and tried to kill the leaders.
In studying the nation’s anger that followed Kennedy’s aborted war in Cuba, the class could not help but compare the nation’s emotional mood in 1963 to the feelings at that moment in 1980 following the recently aborted war in Iran, just before Reagan was elected president. Furious with Iran over the long hostage crisis, America had been whipped into a war frenzy similar to the earlier one against Cuba by the media. “Kids Tell Jimmy to ‘Start Shooting” the New York Post headlined, while a commentator summarized the bellicose mood by saying that “seldom has there been more talk of war, its certainty, its necessity, its desirability.”36 Polls showed most Americans favored invasion of Iran even if it meant that all the hostages would be killed, since war, not saving lives, was what the country wanted.37 When the rescue attempt floundered because of a helicopter crash and Carter refused to send in the American troops, planes and ships that were massed for attack, the nation turned its fury toward him, just as it had toward Kennedy after the Cuban confrontation failed to produce war. Carter was buried in a landslide, rather than in a coffin like Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan was elected president.
The students wondered (as did their teacher) if the nation’s fury had really subsided, or if their rage might continue toward the new president. Even though this made no rational sense-all the hostages, after all, had already been returned safely-it made sense emotionally.
That Reagan might be a target for our death wishes after the aborted Iranian invasion was hinted at by widespread speculation during his campaign regarding a “death jinx” that might strike him. As I mentioned previously, someone had figured out that no American president elected since 1840 in a year ending in zero had lived out his term. Bumper stickers had appeared joking “Re-elect Bush [Reagan’s running mate] in 1984.” Newspapers began running political cartoons and headlines with subliminal messages similar to those that had appeared before Kennedy’s assassination, such as the cartoon of a guillotine being constructed on Reagan’s inauguration platform and an Anthony Lewis column in The New York Times headlined “The King Must Die.”
The climax for these shared fantasies that “the king must die” came in the final week of March. That week, my students brought in numerous magazine covers, political cartoons and newspaper articles that clearly showed these death wishes. Time and Newsweek ran scare stories about a “wildly out of control” crime wave that was supposed to be occurring–although they had paid little attention to crime in previous months and in fact the actual crime rate had been decreasing during those months38–illustrating our angry fantasies and death wishes with identical covers depicting menacing guns pointed at the reader.
The New Republic cover featured graves in Washington. One cartoonist showed Americans constructing a guillotine being built for Reagan (the same guillotine that had been shown off the head of President Kennedy before his assassination).
Other cartoonists showed Reagan next to targets and guns in the White House, with the odd suggestion that perhaps his wife might want to shoot him with guns she has stored beneath their bed. The cover illustration of U.S. News & World Report pictured “Angry Americans” with a subhead that was seemingly unrelated but in fact that carried the message of what all “angry Americans” should now do. The headline read: “FEDERAL WASTE-REAGAN’S NEXT TARGET,” a wording that contains two hidden embedded messages: “WASTE REAGAN” (slang for “Kill Reagan”) and “REAGAN’S [THE] NEXT TARGET.”
In order to see if our upsetting findings were just our own selection process creating a personal bias, we checked them out with another psychohistory class–one taught by Prof. David Beisel of Rockland Community College–who was also using the fantasy technique to monitor the media and who had also been collecting media material. They told us that they had independently been recently finding a predominance of these death wishes in cartoons and covers.39
The next day, one of the president’s staff confirmed to the nation that assassination was “in the air.” The President’s most excitable aide, Alexander Haig, unexpectedly began to discuss in the media “who will be in charge of emergencies” should the president be shot, saying he himself would be next in line of succession, as though succession to the presidency were for some reason about to become a vital question in America. A great furor arose in the press and on TV talk shows as to just who would be “in charge” should the President be incapacitated. That the topic of succession seemed to come out of the blue was totally ignored by the media. Reagan’s death just seemed to be an interesting political topic. The students grew increasingly uneasy as they watched the escalating fantasy.
The class wondered if potential assassins might not also be sensing these subliminal messages, since there are always a large number of psychopathic personalities around the country waiting to be told when and whom to shoot, willing to be the delegate of the nation’s death wishes. Some students wondered if we should phone the Secret Service and warn them about our fears, but thought they might consider a bunch of cartoons and magazine covers insufficient cause for concern.
The class was not wrong about a potential assassin picking up the death wishes and electing himself our delegate. John Hinckley had been stalking President Carter, President-elect Reagan and other political targets during the previous six months, but just couldn’t “get himself into the right frame of mind to actually carry out the act,” as he later put it. After all the media death wishes toward Reagan appeared, he finally got what he called “a signal from a newspaper” on March 30th and told himself, “This is it, this is for me,” and, he said, decided at that moment to shoot the president.40
I was sitting in our classroom, waiting for the students to arrive, looking over some of the Reagan death wish material we had collected. I had been busy during the past few hours and hadn’t listened to the radio before coming to class. Suddenly, I heard a group of students running down the hallway. They burst into the room. “Prof. deMause!” they shouted, terribly upset. “They did it! They shot him! Just like we were afraid they would!”41
1. See Lloyd deMause, Reagan’s America. New York: Creative Roots, 1984, pp. 1-5.
2. All presidential speeches quoted in this book are taken from the Weekly Transcript of Presidential Documents .
3. Lloyd deMause and Henry Ebel, Eds., Jimmy Carter and American Fantasy: Psychohistorical Explorations. New York: Two Continents, 1977.
4. See Lloyd deMause, Foundations of Psychohistory. New York: Creative Roots, 1982, pp. 172-243; no American war began in the first year of any president except Lincoln, but in reality the first military actions of the American Civil War and the secession of seven Southern states occurred before he was inaugurated, so the war actually began during the final phase of President Buchanan.
5. Michael R. Beschloss, The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960-1963. New York: HarperCollins, 1991, p. 375.
6. Ibid., p. 549.
7. Ibid., p. 487.
8. “A&E Investigative Reports.” March 29, 1997; Donald Kagan, On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace. New York: Doubleday, 1995, p. 508.
9. Richard Reeves, President Kennedy: Profile of Power. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993; Theodore C. Sorensen, The Kennedy Legacy. New York: Macmillan, 1969; James N. Giglio, The Presidency of John F. Kennedy. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1991; deMause, Foundations, p. 190.
10. Beschloss, The Crisis Years, p. 375.
11. Donald Kagan, On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace. New York: Doubleday, 1995, p. 521.
12. Ibid., p. 234.
13. Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1969, p. 67.
14. William L. O’Neill, Coming Apart: An Informal History of America in the 1960’s. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1971, p. 69; Robert S. Thompson, The Missiles of October: The Declassified Story of John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992.
15. Harris Wofford, Of Kennedys and Kings: Making Sense of the Sixties. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1980, p. 292.
16. William E. Burrows and Robert Windrem, Critical Mass: The Dangerous Race for Superweapons in a Fragmenting World. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994, p. 94.
17. DeMause, Foundations, pp. 216-220.
18. U.S. News & World Report, February 25, 1963, p. 31.
19. U.S. News & World Report, December 17, 1962, p. 54.
20. Beschloss, The Crisis Years, p. 381.
21. Ibid., p. 641.
22. Time, November 22, 1963, p. 1.
23. Delaware State News, October 18, 1963, cited in William Manchester, The Death of a President: November 20-November 25, 1963. New York: Harper & Row, 1967, p. 46.
24. For the unconscious relationship between assassins and their victims, see Charles W. Socarides, “Why Sirhan Killed Kennedy: Psychoanalytic Speculations on an Assassination,” The Journal of Psychohistory 6(1979): 447-460; and James W. Hamilton, “Some Observations on the Motivations of Lee Harvey Oswald,” The Journal of Psychohistory 14(1986): 43-54.
25. Manchester, The Death of a President, p. 39.
26. Beschloss, The Crisis Years, p. 665.
27. Woffard, Of Kennedys and Kings, p. 343.
28. Aaron Latham, “The Dark Side of the American Dream,” Rolling Stone, August 5, 1982, p. 18.
29. Robert MacNeil, Ed. The Way We Were: 1963–The Year Kennedy Was Shot. New York: Carroll & Grof Publications, 1988, p. 185.
30. Manchester, The Death of a President, p. 121.
31. Doris Kearns Goodwin, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987; Thomas C. Reeves, A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy. New York: The Free Press, 1991; Nancy Clinch, The Kennedy Neurosis: A Psychological Portrait of an American Dynasty. New York: Grosset, 1973.
32. MacNeil, The Way We Were, p. 189.
33. “The Men Who Killed the President.” The History Channel, June 19, 1996.
34. This period is termed an “introvert Phase” of American history in Jack E. Holmes, The Mood/Interest Theory of American Foreign Policy. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1985, p. 32.
35. The other assasination attempts during peaceful periods besides Kennedy, Lincoln and Jackson were Franklin D. Roosevelt, February 15, 1933, and Gerald Ford, September 22, 1975, both peaceful periods; only Harry S. Truman, November 1, 1950, was shot at during a military action.
36. New York Post, January 8, 1980, p. 3; Village Voice, February 25, 1980, p.16.
37. For press frenzy and polls on Iran invasion, see deMause, Reagan’s America, pp. 28-35 and deMause, Foundations of Psychohistory, pp. 304-310.
38. See Frank Browning, “Nobody’s Soft on Crime Anymore,” Mother Jones, August, 1982, pp. 25-31; Christopher Jencks, “Is Violent Crime Increasing? The American Prospect , Winter, 1991, pp. 96-106.
39. See Robert Finen and Jonathan Glass, “Two Student Views.” The Journal of Psychohistory 11(1983):113, where they report that “classes had been picking up traces of a fantasy for Reagan’s death in the media…[When] the news came: a shooting in Washington! I was in shock. Here, in less than a week, was confirmation of a psychohistorical prediction!”
40. Latham, “The Dark Side of the American Dream,” p. 54.