From Lincoln to JFK and Julius Caesar to Martin Luther King, entire books have been written about famous assassinations and how they changed the course of history. Few people, however, take more than a passing glance at those failed attempts that, had they succeeded, would have transformed history just as much, if not more, than those that were successful. While playing the “what if” game is always a dicey proposition, it’s interesting to speculate on how things might have turned out differently but for the incompetence of an assassin—not only in terms of what positives might have been lost, but what negatives might have been avoided as well.
As such, below is my top 10 list of failed assassination attempts that, had they succeeded, would have had tremendous repercussions to this day.
(Note: I’m only including actual attempts here, not plots that were stopped before they had a chance to be carried out.)
10. Charles De Gaulle
President of France, 1962 (re-enactment in video starting 4:50)
While the controversial French President and World War Two leader of the Free French had several close calls with assassins throughout his long political career, none came as close to success as that of August, 1962. Riding in his car down the Avenue de la Liberation, De Gaulle’s vehicle was suddenly sprayed with machine gun fire as it sped through the streets of Paris at 70 miles per hour. (The attack was carried out by a maverick French Air Force officer infuriated with DeGaulle’s decision to grant Algeria its independence.)
Though the attack killed two policemen, shattered the rear window of his Citroen, and took all out all four tires, his driver managed to get away with the President and his wife unharmed. Had he not, it’s interesting to consider what direction France might have gone without the larger-than-life De Gaulle at the helm for the next seven years.
9. Gamal Nasser
President of Egypt, 1954
Most people outside the Arab world have probably never heard of Gamal Nasser, but for almost two decades he was the driving force behind Arab nationalism in the region and the impetus behind the country’s many wars with Israel. As such, had he been hit by even one of the eight bullets fired at him while he was delivering a live radio speech in October of 1954, it’s unlikely the Arab/Israeli wars of 1956 or 1967 would have happened, nor would the deadliest of all Arab-Israeli Wars, the Yom Kippur conflict of October, 1973, have occurred. (Though this last war was engineered by his successor, Anwar Sadat—Nassar having died of a heart attack three years earlier—it was in direct response to the humiliation the Egyptians suffered at the hands of Israel six years earlier.)
Of course, it’s entirely possible one of his many lieutenants would have stepped into his shoes upon his death, but none of them appeared to possess Nasser’s charisma or bellicose tendencies, making the future direction Egypt might’ve taken less certain. It’s possible it would have been less confrontational; but, of course, there’s no way of knowing.
8. Andrew Jackson
President of the United States, 1835
While most people imagine Lincoln’s assassination to have been the first attempt on a sitting American president’s life, few realize how close one of his predecessors came from being the first to die at the hands of a gunman. It happened late in Jackson’s first term when a crazed man walked up to the president as he walked out of the Capitol building’s east portico and aimed two percussion pistols at “Old Hickory.” Remarkably, both pistols misfired, leaving Jackson unharmed but his attacker bloodied and bruised after a thorough thrashing by the burly commander-in-chief, who apparently was as adept at wielding his cane as he was a musket. The man was unceremoniously hauled away by authorities (including a former congressman named Davy Crockett) and, after being deemed insane by doctors, was left to rot in an asylum for the rest of his life. Had the two shots, fired at point blank range, succeeded, the impact on the political direction the country was heading under Jackson’s heavy handed federalism would have been dramatic. Whether it would have been better or worse for the country is debatable but that it would have been different is not.
7. Ronald Reagan
President of the United States, 1981
It’s interesting to imagine what the eighties would have looked like had one of John Hinkley’s hastily fired bullets found its mark and Reagan’s more moderate Vice-President George H.W. Bush become president eight years earlier than he eventually did. Would he have been able to rejuvenate the economy, as Reagonomics did in the mid-eighties, or rally the people to bring pressure on the Soviet Union? While much of Reagan’s agenda would probably still have made it through, it’s difficult imagining the more moderate Bush persuading the populace with the elegance of the “Great Communicator” or demanding that Gorbachev dismantle the Berlin Wall. Still, he did navigate the country through the collapse of the Soviet Union and two wars during his single term, so it’s entirely possible he would have been up to the task eight years earlier. Fortunately, modern medicine and Reagan’s hearty constitution ensured that the world would never find out what the eighties might’ve looked like without the “Gipper” at the helm.
6. Benito Mussolini
Fascist Leader of Italy, 1926
It appears that 1926 was not a good year for il Duce, who was to face—and survive—no fewer than four separate attempts on his life over the span of just seven months. (On the other hand, since none of the attempts succeeded, it may have been a very good year for him, if a very bad one for Italy.) The first attempt was made by an Irish woman who very nearly shot off his nose, while three others—all men—either missed their mark or were caught in the planning stages. In every case, they ended up deader than their intended target. Had any of them proven a little more steady on the trigger, however, the Fascists would have not only lost the driving force behind their movement, but quite possibly even their tenuous hold on power. Who—or what—would have replaced him? Another fascist who might have proven even more capable than il Duce himself? A reinvigorated monarchy? A pseudo-democratic republic? It’s anyone’s guess.
5. Franklin Roosevelt
President-Elect of the United States, 1933
It’s hard to imagine weathering the twin storms presented by the Great Depression and World War Two without Roosevelt at the helm, but that almost was the case. It (almost) happened in February of 1933 when the then president-elect was riding in an open car in Miami, Florida. A crazed Italian immigrant named Giuseppe Zangara fired five shots at him, missing him but managing to hit and kill the mayor of Chicago, Anton Cermak (who had been riding in the car with Roosevelt). Had Zangara succeeded, Vice-President John Garner would have been sworn in as the 32nd President and the thirties could well have been very different. Better? Worse? There’s no way of knowing what kind of president Garner would have made, but it’s hard to see how the more diminutive Garner would have gotten the New Deal, Social Security, or Lend-Lease through a hostile congress.
4. Abraham Lincoln
U.S. President, 1864
Lincoln’s assassination at the hands of actor turned southern agitator John Wilkes Booth in 1865 was the stuff of legend as well as an unmitigated disaster for the South, Yet, imagine if an earlier attempt in August of 1864 had succeeded. While not generally known to most people, someone took a shot at the president while he was riding in his carriage around Washington, missing his head by inches (and putting a hole in his trademark top hat). Had their aim been just a little better, the Great Emancipator would have been succeeded by Hannibal Hamlin (who?) which may have well given the upcoming election to Lincoln’s overly cautious former commander, General George McClellan. How either Hamlin (had he won reelection) or McClellan would have prosecuted the last year of the war—much less dealt with southern reconstruction—is a source for some debate. Lincoln’s death, if combined with a lame-duck Hamlin and a conciliatory McClellan, might have encouraged the South to hold on just a while longer and resulted in an armistice rather than a victory, dramatically changing the history of America.
3. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin
Russian Revolutionary and Founder of the USSR, 1918
Shortly before he became the undisputed leader of the Soviet Union, Lenin was nearly done in by a female assassin and fellow communist named Fanya Kaplin, who got off three shots at the man just as he was about to step into his car. Though seriously injured (he was hit in the arm and jaw), he recovered and used the attempt on his life to both bolster his popularity as well as instigate a reign of terror against his opponents.
But what would’ve happened if Fanya’s aim had been better? Would the Communists have prevailed against the Mensheviks or defeated the royalist White Army without their philosophical and political leader? Certainly the future would have been much more up for grabs without Lenin in charge, though it’s difficult to tell how it could have been much worse for the Russian people. It’s at least a safe bet that Stalin—the man who would eventually succeed Lenin and turn Russia into one giant gulag—was in no position to take power at that point, making it difficult to know who might’ve finally seized the reins of power. This makes this one of those failed attempts that’s difficult to assess whether its success would have been beneficial for Russia or detrimental; in either case, it certainly would have been different.
2. Wilhelm II
German Kaiser, 1901 (video is footage of Wilhelm II and son, not actual assassination attempt)
When an anarchist took a shot at the Kaiser while the king was visiting Bremen, Germany in March of 1901—only mildly injuring the man—few realized just how costly that miss would prove to be. How so? Had the shot found its mark, it’s possible World War One never would have happened and the course of history—especially in Europe— would have been dramatically altered. Of course, one can’t put all the blame for Europe’s descent into madness in 1914 on the bellicose Wilhelm II, but it’s entirely possible that a more practical and cool-headed leader might have been able to keep events from spiraling out of control as quickly and completely as they did. Would that man have been the Kaiser’s son, Wilhelm III? Probably. The only question then would be whether the boy king (he would have been just 19 years old when he succeeded his father in 1901) would have been the man to change history thirteen years later or would he have gone down the same tragic path his father took? We will never know.
1. Adolf Hitler
Leader of Germany, 1944
The details of just how close a band of conspirators headed up by a disfigured Army Colonel named Claus von Stauffenberg came to killing Hitler in his Prussian hideout in July of 1944 is the stuff of legend (and has even been made into a recent movie starring Tom Cruise). But, consider what it would have meant to the war in Europe had it succeeded. Clearly the conspirators would’ve had the upper hand and, with the help of key anti-Nazi elements within the Army—who saw the war as a lost cause at that point—might well have succeeded in ousting the Nazis and negotiating a quick surrender to the allies, shortening the war by ten months and saving millions of lives in the process. With Germany entirely unoccupied by foreign invaders at that point, it would not only have greatly reduced the level of death and destruction that was to be seen over the next few months, but would have undoubtedly altered the political landscape of Europe and likely changed the complexion of the looming Cold War, probably in the ally’s favor. As it was, the bomb that was planted under Hitler’s briefing table was a little too far away from der Fuhrer when it went off, dooming Germany in the process.
by Jeff Danelek