Chapter 1----The Assassination
is a helluva letdown."
---- Field Marshall Montgomery
When Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, America
was in a strange mood.
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 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
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!
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
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]
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
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.
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.
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,
19. U.S. News & World Report, December 17, 1962,
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,
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,
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
40. Latham, "The Dark Side of the American Dream,"