Political killing in the cold war

Fred Halliday
11 August 2005

The rioting in Khartoum over the death in a helicopter crash of John Garang, veteran leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), and only recently installed as Sudan’s vice-president after the January 2005 peace agreement, highlights one of the recurrent problems of modern global politics: the belief that whatever the evidence, no death of a political figure, in a plane, car or as a result of “natural causes”, can be accidental.

Sudan’s government, newly committed to a coalition with Garang’s former guerrilla opposition in the south, has promised an independent enquiry, but, given the political passions and suspicions involved, few can believe this will resolve the issue. In all of this, the Sudanese are not alone: the death of Yasser Arafat in November 2004, in a Paris hospital, for reasons that are still not clear, has led many in the Arab world to believe he was poisoned by the Israelis.

When King Faisal of Saudi Arabia was stabbed to death by a deranged young male relative in 1975 the Arab world was full of conspiracy theories: “the Russians”, “the Americans”, everyone it seems was involved.

In what was perhaps the most prominent assassination of all in the 20th century, that of President John F Kennedy in Dallas in November 1963, a vast industry of myth, plot and insinuation grew up, from the work of the lawyer Mark Lane (a tireless proponent of alternative theories revolving around the Book Depository and the Grassy Knoll) to the more recent film of Oliver Stone, JFK. A free phone service called “dial-a-conspiracy” even produced a different version each day of a seamless web involving JFK, his brother Bobby, Marilyn Monroe and a cast of thousands.

Such addictive conspiracism serves as background and caution to evaluating an issue on which some recent research has cast new light: the role of political murder in the cold war.

The cold war lasted more than forty years, from the late 1940s to the collapse of east-central European communism in 1989-91. During this period, Europe was (the Greek civil war, and intermittent terrorist campaigns, excepted), largely at peace; but elsewhere, more than 20 million people died in multiple conflicts in what was for most of the period known as the “third world” From Korea to Vietnam, Afghanistan to Guatemala, Angola to Nicaragua, Cambodia to Iran, the cold war reaped a devastating harvest.

But between the comfort-zone and the killing-field, the cold war generated another form of violence – assassination, covert killing, state and judicial execution (the subject of attempted assassination – the CIA is reputed to have initiated around twenty separate operations against Fidel Castro in the early 1960s – would require another article). The revelations of the last decade raise fresh questions about the extent and nature of this violence, and the legacy it leaves to a world now steeped in a new global conflict.

A killing field

Modern history is replete with assassinations that have a dramatic impact on national and international politics:

  • the killing of Alexander II by anarchists in 1881 unleashed repression and anti-semitism in the Russian empire
  • the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in June 1914 in Sarajevo sparked the “great war” that drowned Europe in blood and inaugurated what Eric Hobsbawm calls “the short 20th century”
  • the assassination of the liberal Colombian politician Jorge Gaitan in 1948 (a day after he had met a Latin American youth delegation that included the 21-year-old Fidel Castro) helped spark a civil war – the violencia – that continues to this day.
  • the shooting down on 6 April 1994 of the plane carrying Rwanda’s and Burundi’s presidents, Juvenal Habyarimana and Cyprien Ntaryamira precipitated the Rwandan genocide.

Such examples could be multiplied. The inception and the end of the cold-war era in Europe was marked by political deaths that had a direct relevance to the wider global stand-off between the two superpower blocs:

  • the demise of the Czech liberal politician Jan Masaryk in March 1948 when he fell from the window of Prague palace – a defenestration with many precedents in Czech history, and one never definitively solved – marked a crucial step in the consolidation of communist rule
  • the judicial execution of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena on 25 December 1989, after they had tried to flee from a popular uprising, symbolised the end of communist rule in much of Europe.

During the cold-war period, there were other examples of political killings that had a profound impact on domestic and international politics:

  • the murder of the Congolese nationalist leader Patrice Lumumba by soldiers, with the connivance of the CIA, in 1961
  • the killing of the captive guerrilla leader Ernesto Che Guevara in Bolivia, on the orders of the CIA, in 1967
  • the assassination of two anti-Portuguese guerrilla leaders, Eduardo Mondlane in 1969 and Amilcar Cabral in 1973
  • the death – apparently by suicide with a gun gifted by Fidel Castro – of Chile’s president, Salvador Allende, in the Pinochet coup of September 1973

None of these incidents had consequences as momentous as those of 1881, 1914 or 1994, but they revealed the violence that the confrontation of superpowers sanctioned outside their core domains.

Today, almost sixteen years after the cold war’s end, can new information resolve, or at least broaden understanding of some of these killings? In relation to some of the more spectacular incidents – the Kennedy assassination in 1963, the plane crash that killed President Zia ul-Haq of Pakistan in 1988 – these years have added little to the sum of knowledge. The death of Cape Verde & Guinea liberation hero Amilcar Cabral in Conakry in 1973 was attributed at the time to Portuguese forces, but some now suspect it was the work of elements with the regime of his Guinean hosts.

A shaft of light

But about other murders and deaths during the forty-year global freeze, new information has come to light:

  • Dag Hammarskjold, the United Nations secretary-general killed on 18 September 1961 in the Congo was in a plane that crashed rather than being shot down, as a result of attempts by Belgian agents – working to split Katanga from the Congo – to force the plane to land against its consent (as reported by Matthew Hughes in the London Review of Books)
  • Mehdi Ben Barka, the Moroccan socialist leader kidnapped and killed in Paris in October 1965 – when he was working with the Vietnamese and Cubans, to launch the Tricontinental Organisation in Havana – has often been attributed to the CIA and Mossad, but he seems to have been the victim of Morocco’s security chief Mohamed Oufkir (himself to die in a failed coup against King Hassan II)
  • Georgi Markov – the Bulgarian dissident with privileged insight into the circle of long-term dictator Todor Zhivkov, who became a BBC journalist in London and was stabbed with a poisoned umbrella on Waterloo Bridge in 1978 – was killed by an Italian contracted by the Bulgarian intelligence services (as revealed by the Sunday Times)
  • Haile Selassie, the veteran Ethiopian emperor, was last seen being bundled into a Volkswagen by revolutionary army officers in 1974: it is now known that his successor as head of state, Mengistu Haile-Mariam, had him killed in captivity and his body buried underneath the palace lavatory the military dictator used.

A harvest of sorrow

The biography of Mao Tse-tung by Jung Chang and my brother Jon Halliday contains fascinating, macabre, revelations about the death of three of Mao’s most important opponents within the Chinese Communist Party leadership: Lin Piao, Liu Shao-chi and Peng Te-huai.

Liu and Peng, opponents of Mao’s more grandiose political and economic schemes, were imprisoned, tortured and left to die in misery and obscurity; their deaths were concealed from the Chinese people as long as Mao lived. Lin, at one point Mao’s chosen successor, sought to flee to Russia after a failed coup attempt; his hurried commandeering of a Trident jet without sufficient fuel led to a crash in Mongolia.

Meanwhile, United States national security agency intercepts of Chinese radio traffic during the Tiananmen massacre of June 1989 indicate that the situation was even more confused than appeared at the time, and that the Chinese army did have a clear plan deliberately to kill students protesting in Beijing’s central square.

The mid-1970s inaugurated a period of superpower negotiation in the cold war known as “détente”. But it was also a moment when the collateral damage of violent (and, for a time at least, unexplained) deaths intensely impacted on those of us active and engaged in the political arguments of the period:

  • Orlando Letelier, Chile’s ex-foreign minister, exiled by Pinochet’s coup and director of Washington’s Institute for Policy Studies in (for whom I then worked), who was blown up with a colleague, Ronni Moffitt, on the way to work in September 1976; the result of collaboration between the Chilean secret police (Dina) and Cuban and American right-wing extremists
  • David Holden, middle-east correspondent of the Sunday Times, who was shot in still unexplained circumstances in Cairo in September 1977; his paper’s year-long investigation concluded that “for every possible explanation, there was a good reason why it could not be the case”
  • Malcolm Caldwell, a lecturer in southeast Asian studies at SOAS, London, who was killed in Phnom Penh in December 1978, on the eve of the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia
  • Ruth First, South African Marxist scholar and writer, who was killed in Maputo by a parcel-bomb sent by Pretoria’s security services in 1982.

A door to the future

How far any of the cold war’s individual deaths, assassinations and killings altered its course is debatable. The full facts about some of these murders may never be known. It may also be that the incidents with longer-term effects are not always the most spectacular:

  • Akbar Khyber, an Afghan communist, died in April 1978 during a demonstration in Kabul; few people may have noted, or now recall, this incident, but it sparked the communist seizure of power a few days later
  • Nur Muhammad Taraki, the Afghan communist leader, was smothered by his sinister rival, Hafizullah Amin, in October 1979; this act persuaded a doddering Leonid Brezhnev to order the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in which Amin himself was killed … and which provoked the militant jihadi campaign of the 1980s.
  • Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian Islamist leader, was killed with his two sons by a car bomb in Pakistan in 1989; again, few noticed at the time, but Azzam (rather than his then-protégé Osama bin Laden) both controlled the jihadi forces who had fought in Afghanistan and opposed the extension of the Islamist war to targets in the non-Islamic world. Whether or not his subordinate organised the killing, it was the death of Abdullah Azzam that delivered leadership to Osama bin Laden, and thus opened the door to 11 September 2001 and all that has followed.
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