Fifty years ago, August 25, 1963 on Sunday afternoon, the President of France stood in the Place du Montparnasse to award a belated medal to World War II veterans who participated in the liberation of that city nineteen years prior. As Charles de Gaulle pinned the medal on one veteran’s chest, a hired assassin perched in a window above the square and fired. The bullet barely missed the President’s head as he leaned over to give the ceremonial kiss on the cheeks of the old soldier. As the assassin attempted to reload for a second shot, a French police detective burst into the room and shot first, killing the would be culprit. No one notices the missed shot. There was no press coverage. De Gaulle, unlike President John F. Kennedy later that year, survived that fateful year. He died at home in retirement at age 80 in 1970.
Except for the first and last sentences, the preceding paragraph, of course, is pure fiction – the denouement of Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal 1971 book and later dramatized in the movies by director Fred Zinnemann. There were in fact no fewer than five attempts on Charles de Gaulle’s life while he was President. Most were connected to the Algerian war and de Gaulle’s acquiescence to independence for that former colony (which legally had been made an integral part of France, like a U. S. State).. The most notorious attempt was that of an August 1962 conspiracy by the OAS and led by air force Colonel Bastien-Thiry that almost succeeded. As a result, Bastien-Thiry had the dubious distinction of being the last person to receive the death penalty in France.
Assassinations of heads of state are nothing new. Julius Caesar famously met his fate on the Ides of March in 44 B.C., but he was far from in the first. In the modern era, six heads of state (including President McKinley) were murdered during the twenty years before World War I. There have been at least a dozen attempts on U.S. Presidents in our history; four were successful. World wide, successful or otherwise, there have been too many attempts in recent memory to recount here.
Do assassinations of head of state or powerful politicians change history? Much depends on whether Thomas Carlyle’s “Great Man” or Lev Tolstoy’s “Mass Movement” theory of history is the better one. No doubt Caesar’s murder led to a civil war and establishment of the Empire, which was really a long term military dictatorship. But that seemed to be the way Rome was going with Caesar alive anyway. Lincoln was seeking a conciliatory Reconstruction rather than a punitive one. Could he have withstood the radicals in Congress? Would that have made any difference for subsequent events?
There is little doubt that Franz Ferdinand’s death at the hand of a Serbian terrorist precipitated World War I. Nevertheless, a similar crisis could have had similar results. The great powers of Europe had been on a collision course for some time.
The 1961 assassination of Rafael Trujillo certainly ended that dictator’s regime, and the Dominican Republic seems to have been much better for it. The 1963 assassination of Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam does not seem to have changed much, he was on the way out anyway. Of course John F. Kennedy’s death had some far reaching effects. It gave his successor Lyndon Johnson a catalyst to pass sweeping civil rights legislation. That was coming under JFK anyway, though it would probably not have been as comprehensive. Would Kennedy have supported a Great Society, though? What about the Vietnam war? There seems to be evidence that JFK wanted no part of full scale intervention, as Johnson did?
The recent elimination of Osama Bin Laden was immensely cathartic for many Americans, but it didn’t change much going forward. Bin Laden had been reduced to impotency by the time it occurred.
Back to France. It is unlikely that a successful assassination of Charles De Gaulle would have changed much. Algeria’s independence was a foregone conclusion. The French were weary of colonial wars by the early 1960s, having been humiliated in Vietnam and still recovering from the effects of World War II. The only real support for Algeria remaining part of France was with the minor pieds noir population there – descendants of French settlers – and some fringe military officers that had formed the OAS. At the time, Algeria was no economic benefit to France; in fact it was a drag. Besides, by the time the most organized conspiracy, that of Bastien-Thiry, was launched, Algeria had already been granted independence and most pieds-noir had evacuated. Furthermore, de Gaulle had already made his mark on France, and the rest of his Presidency was essentially that of a caretaker. Or that of an old man sniping at the U.S. and Britain for imagined slights.
Forsyth relates the 1962 OAS attempt to kill de Gaulle more or less factually at the beginning of his novel. He was a reporter for Reuters in Paris at the time and covered the story first hand. It was the inspiration for his fictional plot. Oh, and for what it’s worth, Frederick Forsyth’s birthday is August 25.