On Friday, Americans and indeed large swathes of the world mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of US President John F Kennedy.
The assassination of elected officials and other political figures is a surprisingly common feature of US history. But while Kennedy was by no means the first, nor the last, American to suffer such a terrible demise, the fact that he was a massively popular serving president during the most sensitive phase of the Cold War period has made his fate particularly iconic, perhaps even more so than the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
But Kennedy’s assassination also differs from others in US history in that, even 50 years after the fact, an overwhelming majority of Americans overtly reject the official version of events according to which Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone conspirator. As recently as 2003, a Gallup poll showed that some three-quarters of US citizens were convinced a larger plot was involved, and a similar poll from April of this year found that 59 percent of the populace believes that more than one gunman had participated in the events that took place in Dallas, Texas on this day back in 1963.
Barring some spectacular and wholly unexpected revelation, those who find it absolutely essential that the truth behind the murder of John F Kennedy be exposed to the light of day will have to wait until the year 2029, when the House Select Committee on Assassinations’ files on the matter are set to be opened up.
This is by no means the only “unsolved” political assassination in US history. While such events represent one of the worst aspects of what is more broadly known as politics, they are unfortunately fairly common. The following are just a few of the more notable examples:
On June 5, 1968, less than five years after the assassination of his brother, Robert Kennedy was gunned down at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, California, in the midst of a presidential campaign he had largely been expected to win.
Kennedy, like many liberal politicians of his era, had developed a strong admiration for the fledgling state of Israel, having visited the Palestine of the British Mandate period in 1948 and written dispatches about his experiences there for the Boston Post.
Sirhan Sirhan, a Jerusalem-born Palestinian Christian, was charged and convicted of the shooting, to which he eagerly admitted in court, though he claimed to have no recollection of the act itself. He claimed his grievances with Kennedy were solely a result of his support for the Israeli project, but questions surrounding his mental state, as well as inconsistencies in crime-scene evidence have led to a number of conspiracy theories ranging from the possibility of a second gunman to, of course, the involvement of the Central Intelligence Agency.
On February 14, 2005, an enormous bomb-blast rocked the Lebanese capital Beirut. Veteran Mideast journalist Robert Fisk, whose apartment was only blocks away from the explosion, described the scene in vivid detail “I ran down the Corniche, everyone else fleeing in the opposite direction, and walked into a mass of rubble and flaming cars. There was a man, a big, plump man lying on the pavement...a sack, it seemed, except for the skull, the top missing. And there was a woman’s hand in the road, still in a glove. There were bodies burning in a car, flaming away, a terrible hand hanging outside a motorist’s window.”
The car-bomb killed 22 Beirutis, and left a 15-foot deep crater in the famous Corniche, but its target was only one man, the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Hariri was known as “Mr. Lebanon” and was a deft as well as ruthless political player, and perhaps the rare figure thought capable enough to govern the restive Mediterranean nation.
His opposition to the heavy-handed presence of the Syrian intelligence apparatus in Lebanon had most fingers pointing directly at the regime of Bashar al-Assad next door, and his Lebanese allies in the Hezbollah. The assassination set off massive protests that successfully rid Lebanon of the Syrian presence, and though a special UN tribunal has been established to locate those responsible, it has subsequently been unable to proceed with its work due to a number of controversies and politicking, as well the advent of even more significant political events. So far, while it is generally thought that some combination of Syrian intelligence and Hezbollah members were responsible for the killing, a number of other theories of the crime are also popular.
On December 27, 2007, newly former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who had not long before before been allowed to re-enter the country from a period of forced exile, was shot in her vehicle as she was leaving a pre-election rally for the Pakistan People’s Party. Bhutto was well aware of the dangers associated with coming home; not two months before, a suicide bomb attack targeting her had killed 136, including 50 of her body guards, and left 450 more injured.
An Al-Qaeda commander claimed responsibility for the attack, while the Pakistani government claimed that Baitullah Mehsud, a Taliban figure later incinerated along with his family in a drone attack, was responsible. But Bhutto supporters in the PPP were not convinced, and Mehsud himself denied that he had anything to do with the killing, and deadly rioting ensued.
One of the main points of contention was that the assassination had taken place in Rawalpindi where the military’s heavy presence, should theoretically preclude the possibility of such an attack.
Subsequently, Pervez Musharraf, the sitting Prime Minister, was charged with at least knowing of the plot beforehand. So far, however, the actual perpetrators have yet to be brought to justice.
On January 17, 1961, one of the most significant anti-colonialist figures of the 20th century as well as the first Prime Minister of the Republic of Congo, Patrice Lumumba, was executed by firing squad after being detained in a successful coup plot.
Lumumba, like most third-world leaders of his time, was suspected of having great sympathies with the USSR, and the involvement of Western powers in his death was almost always taken as a given.
Subsequently, the Belgian government has apologized for its responsibility in the murder, and it has been further revealed that the CIA as well as British intelligence were eager to see the man disappear. While declassified, though partially redacted, CIA documents have indicated that the nebulous agency had indeed been plotting against Lumumba, no direct connection has ever been established. The British equivalent to the CIA, the MI6, has generally been accused of a more direct involvement in the assassination, and Western powers had indeed been funding Lumumba’s opposition in the Congo, but so far no hard evidence has been revealed.
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