Vice Presidents Collage

Analyzing Assassination Plots Against VPs

To any readers from law enforcement or intelligence: this is an analysis of historic assassination attempts on high U.S. officials. It is not an endorsement in any way shape or form. I absolutely DO NOT believe in taking human lives nor would I encourage anyone to do so. This is an academic exercise linked to my ongoing research into the U.S. vice presidency.

I’ll get back to posting Down the Hall: The VP (not quite) Weekly soon.

Thomas Marshall may have been our funniest vice president (the competition is surprisingly stiff) but he was not a particularly important one. In his memoirs, which are perhaps most notable for almost never mentioning President Wilson, with whom he served for eight years, he wrote:

In the city of Denver, while I was vice-president, a big husky policeman kept following me around until I asked him what he was doing. He said he was guarding my person. I said: “Your labor is in vain. Nobody was ever crazy enough to shoot at a vice-president. If you will go away and find somebody to shoot at me, I’ll go down in history as the first vice-president who ever attracted enough attention even to have a crank shoot at him.”

Marshall was being a bit foolhardy. When he was VP, three presidents in living memory had been assassinated, a former president had been shot on the campaign trail just a few years earlier, while the country and the world was awash in political violence. Kings and ministers had been assassinated. It isn’t clear when the Denver incident occurred, but the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, setting off World War I, had either happened recently or was only a few years away.

We are again in an age of political violence, in America and around the world. The assassination attempt on the prime minister of Slovakia, the assassination of Shinzo Abe, violent protests around the world, and nation states more than willing to use assassination as a foreign policy tool are all symptoms. So it’s timely to revisit Marshall’s assertions:

  1. Have there been attempts to kill the vice president?
  2. Were those attempts committed by someone acting with rational motives?

Terms of Discussion

We need to discuss these two questions. For point one, what is an assassination attempt? For this analysis, the plot had to be in motion. That is, it could not be someone simply saying they wanted to kill the VP, there had to be an individual or group acting in proximity to the VP, that at least had a plausible possibility of carrying out the assassination.

The second term is tougher. Crazy is a term that demeans mental health, a very serious issue that is finally getting some of the attention and sympathy it deserves. Many, many of the political assassinations were carried out by people who clearly suffered from severe mental health issues. Their motives for carrying out their action did not have a motive that was meaningful to most people. Contrast John Wilkes Booth assassination of Lincoln, which was clearly linked to his Confederate sympathies with John Hinckley’s attempt on the life of Reagan. Hinckley was a clearly disturbed person. His motives were not political and not understandable to most people. This may be more of a spectrum than a binary distinction. The assassins of presidents Garfield and McKinley, Charles Guiteau and Leo Czolgosz, are interesting and potentially ambiguous cases. Guiteau assassinated Garfield believing that this would place the “Stalwart” faction of the Republicans back in charge. He believed this was necessary, at least in part, because the administration refused to appoint him to a consulship in Europe, which he believed he deserved for his efforts on behalf of Garfield’s election. Guiteau’s contributions to the campaign were minimal, and his life overall was disordered and pathetic. Czolgosz was a committed anarchist who believed McKinley was a tool of the capitalist ruling class. But other anarchists thought he was creepy and avoided him. He was always going on about secret societies and they thought he might be a government agent.

High-functioning successful people, at least in the U.S., do not tend to get into the business of assassinating presidents – but Czolgosz and Guiteau did have understandable political motives. It’s also the case that disturbed people often latch onto the broader social context around them (consider the man who attacked Paul Pelosi, who was inspired by Trumpist rhetoric.) For our analysis, we’ll look at each case separately.

Overview of Assassination Attempts on VPs

The first attempt on a VP’s life was the duel between VP Burr and Alexander Hamilton. It is unclear if Hamilton would have killed Burr. Often in duels of the time, both parties fired into the air and declared honor restored, but on that fatal July 11 in Weehawken, things got out of hand. This latter is my opinion, but it is also possible that Burr intended to kill Hamilton. I tend to favor chaos over conspiracy in my analyses (and in life). Regardless, on some level the Vice President’s life was in danger. The resulting disaster destroyed Burr politically, although it appears his career was already dead (he did perform a crucial national service before leaving office). Hamilton’s death had a greater impact, shattering the last vestiges of the Federalist Party.

The assassination of Lincoln was part of a broader plot to decapitate the U.S. government. Booth’s co-conspirators also targeted Secretary of State Seward and Vice President Johnson. Seward’s assassin, Lewis Powell, managed to stab an ailing Seward, but did not kill him. Johnson’s intended assassin, George Atzerodt, was the weak link. He had rented a room in the hotel where Johnson was staying. But on the night of the plot, April 14, 1865, he got drunk at the hotel bar, lost his nerve and left. This plot would probably not have restored the Confederacy, as Booth hoped. But Johnson’s succeeding Lincoln enabled the slavocracy to begin restoring its power, thwarting the goals of Reconstruction.

More recently, Richard Nixon, as Vice President, was nearly torn apart by mob in Caracas, Venezuela on a tour of Latin America in 1958. Nixon had travelled throughout South America and arrived in Caracas on May 13. The country was in turmoil, the dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez had just been overthrown and the head of the military junta was allied with the Communist Party. The U.S. had been allied with Jimenez and awarded him asylum when he was overthrown. The CIA station chief in Caracas had recommended the Venezuela visit be scrapped.

At the airport, Nixon and the U.S. party was greeted by an angry mob and a planned visit to lay a wreath at the tomb of Simon Bolivar was cancelled. Nixon, his wife, and the rest of his party headed straight for the U.S. Embassy. A mob surrounded the car and began rocking it. Nixon’s 12-man Secret Service detail prepared to open fire. Nixon ordered them not to. When the crowd cleared enough to move, Nixon ordered a sharp right turn deviating from the planned route. (Nixon had surmised, probably correctly, that these crowds were not spontaneous, and another ambush lay up ahead.) This is probably what allowed the vice president’s party to make it to the Embassy, which was protected by the Venezuelan Army. He held a series of meetings with the Venezuelan junta and the next day with representatives of major Venezuelan labor unions (who apologized for the violence.) Nixon left Venezuela seven hours early, his route to the airport secured by the Venezuelan Army. President Eisenhower had ordered the mobilization of U.S. forces to, if necessary, rescue the vice president. The plan was code-named “Operation Poor Richard.”

Nixon returned to the U.S. a hero and was generally admired for his conduct. Nixon’s life was full of harrowing and difficult experiences: a difficult childhood, Eisenhower’s callous treatment of him as vice president, and the devastating political defeats in 1960 and 1962. Nixon was a deeply wounded man. The brush with death in Venezuela was yet another trauma. Did it contribute to the paranoia that destroyed his presidency? Did it lead him to certain presumptions about Latin American politics, political protests, and developing world politics in general?

The Taliban’s attempt on Cheney’s life occurred on February 27, 2007. A Taliban suicide bomber reached the second checkpoint into Bagram Air Force Base and detonated his vest. Cheney was at Bagram, preparing to head to Kabul and meet President Karzai of Afghanistan. At the time, the U.S. military claimed this was mere coincidence. Craig Whitlock reports that news of Cheney’s presence at Bagram had leaked and with a little luck, the Taliban might very well have killed him. Cheney’s influence by this time was at a nadir and the administration was primarily occupied with Iraq. Had the Taliban succeeded, it would have been a huge moral victory for them. Would it have hastened U.S. withdrawal or led to a massive expansion of the war in Afghanistan? Would it then have derailed the U.S. surge in Iraq?

The most recent attempt on the life of a Vice President was January 6, when a mob assaulted the U.S. Capitol intending to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Vice President Pence, in his role as President of the Senate, played a symbolic role in affirming the election results. The mob’s precise intentions were unclear (it was a mob after all), but violence against the VP was part of the calculus. It is too soon to say what the impact of this event was or will be. Did it galvanize the American people into the realization that their democracy was fragile?

Perhaps.

Comparing Assassination Attempts on VPs with those on Presidents

I haven’t collected the full data, but if you compare serious assassination plots against VPs vs. the serious assassination plots on presidents, there is a striking difference. Many assassination attempts on presidents, most notably that on Lincoln, but also the 1950 attempt on Truman’s life by Puerto Rican nationalists, had a rationale to them. But at least the same number were carried out by unhinged individuals. The first assassination attempt on a president was against Andrew Jackson, by an unemployed housepainter who believed he was heir to the English throne. (The assassin’s pistols misfired and Jackson began whacking him with is cane.) More recently Hinckley was clearly mentally ill as was the unemployed man who flew his plane into the White House in 1994.

If a substantial portion of the assassination attempts on Presidents look irrational, the assassination attempts on vice presidents are almost entirely rational. We can quibble over definitions. But in each attempt on the life of a vice president, the perpetrator had a grievance that was understandable to most people (even if they disagreed with that grievance or the attempt.)

Conclusions

It is also interesting to look at the plots against VPs and how they reflect U.S. politics. The Burr-Hamilton duel reflected the patrician politics of the early republic in which political affairs were generally managed by a relatively small group of notables.

The attempts on Nixon and Cheney were both attempted abroad and related to U.S. foreign policy, while the attempts on the lives of Johnson and Pence sought to change the outcomes of U.S. democratic processes. Two of the attempts on VP lives were by mobs. Finally, only a quarter into the 21st century we have already seen two attempts on the lives of VPs.

The number of instances is too small to draw firm conclusions (this isn’t a quantitative study), but the recent increase in attempts on the life of the VP parallels the rise in the prominence of the vice president. With this rise in prominence, it is likely that VPs will be targeted by individuals with delusional as well as political motives. As a woman of color, VP Harris has attracted a tremendous animus that is beyond political. It is unclear if that has translated into operational threats, but the potential exists.

On the other hand, the tremendous security around presidents and vice presidents makes it less likely that an individual can manage an assassination (although the reported lapses problems at the Secret Service are concerning.)

Off-hand, I cannot think of a case of a mob, nation-state, nor non-state armed group seriously targeting a sitting president. Most of the assassination attempts on presidents were lone gunmen. The recent attempts on vice presidents have been by mobs or formidable non-state armed groups – this is a different and worrying problem.

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