Humans, not movements, are what shape history FDR, Churchill, Hitler came close to death - and their absences would have changed the course of the world.

BOOKS : THE ARGUMENT

December 27, 1998|By Joseph R. L. Sterne | Joseph R. L. Sterne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

History, like baseball, can sometimes be "a game of inches." While scholars debate whether history is made by great men or by immutable laws of destiny, they often overlook the matter of chance, of the roll of the dice, of the bullet that hits or misses its target.

It was fashionable not so long ago, when Arnold Toynbee was intoning the inevitable death of our civilization, that history was described as impersonal as the tides of the seas. Humanity was swept along, in the view of these social determinists, like so much flotsam.

There could be twirls and eddies as periodic crises erupted, but the eventual fate of nations and civilizations was decreed by inexorable forces far beyond the control of mere humanity.

Such was the philosophy of Spengler, Hegel, Marx and other exponents of historical fatalism, and for decades their views ruled the intellectual roost. But the field was never yielded by the likes of Thomas Carlyle, who decreed that the history of the world is the history of what great men have accomplished, or by William James, who contended that "no significant change has ever come about which is not the work of great men."

Now consider the situation when just plain luck, good or bad, is factored in. If Winston Churchill had been killed when he looked the wrong way on a New York Street in 1931, or if Adolf Hitler had been mowed down in the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, or if Franklin D. Roosevelt had been assassinated 17 days before his inauguration in 1933, the history of this century would have been altered in ways scarcely imaginable.

The truth of that is dramatically underscored by "The Five Weeks of Giuseppe Zangara," by Blaise Picchi (Academy Chicago Publishers, 272 pages, $26.95). Even if Picchi does not belabor the point, the Zangara case offers a strong argument for the great-man thesis of history.

"Joe Zangara?" you may ask. Ours is a generation that knows from its history books of John Wilkes Booth, the murderer of Abraham Lincoln. It is a generation still seared and uncertain about the death of John F. Kennedy, caught in the cross-hairs of his alleged killer, Lee Harvey Oswald. The more knowledgeable among us might flicker recognition when encountering the names of Charles J. Guiteau and Leon Czolgosz, the assassins, respectively, of Presidents James A. Garfield and William McKinley.

But Zangara? He missed his target. And even if he had succeeded, his victim would have been merely a president-elect. The accomplishments of the greatest president of this century are known only in retrospect. And it is these accomplishments - in restoring a nation's self-confidence, in leading it to victory in its last "good war" - that make the Zangara episode so intriguing now that it has been rescued from near-oblivion.

Near-oblivion? Is that an exaggeration? Hardly. FDR biographer Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. devotes only six error-filled paragraphs to his hero's narrow escape from death. Frank Freidel allots but ++ two paragraphs and James MacGregor Burns just one! On a short list of Roosevelt biographers, only Nathan Miller (a former Baltimore Sun reporter) and Kenneth S. Davis pay more than cursory attention to the Zangara case.

Now comes Picchi's book. Not until this new study has anyone examined the Roosevelt near-assassination as a criminal case that holds up American jurisprudence and American medicine to embarrassing scrutiny. Not until this new book has any writer delved deeply into the background, motivations and psyche of the assassin.

There is no doubt that Zangara, an Italian immigrant who fit the stereotype of the dangerous foreigner, tried to kill the president-elect at an evening rally in Miami on Feb. 15, 1933. A swarthy, dark-haired man slightly over 5 feet tall and weighing 105 pounds, he teetered on a chair only 25 feet from the open limousine carrying FDR and fired five shots from a .32-caliber pistol he had purchased two days earlier for $8.

He wounded three persons superficially, one woman severely and Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak fatally. He missed Roosevelt by inches. It took Florida justice only five weeks to try, convict and execute the defendant, who was clearly delusional and eager for death, lasting fame and martyrdom. He got only the first of these objectives.

The evidence suggests that Zangara's court-appointed lawyers did a deplorable job of defending him. Catering to a popular rush to judgment, they cross-examined him with questions that would be more appropriate coming out of the mouths of prosecutors.

They failed to develop an insanity defense when one was clearly in order. And they did not even coach their client to plead for judicial mercy, taking at face value his professed willingness to die for his crime. Only when the death sentence was pronounced did Zangara rebel at what was happening to him, calling the judge a "crook man." Only when he saw there were no photographers present, did he express outrage as he sat in the )) electric chair awaiting his execution.

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