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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.


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.

Who was Zangara? He was born in Calabria, in the boot of Italy, a poor boy in a poor region. His mother died when he was 2. His father pulled him out of school when he was 6 and put him to hard labor that Zangara blamed for a lifetime of severe (or imagined) stomach pains.

At the age of 23 he migrated to America and managed to get fairly steady employment as a bricklayer and construction worker. A frugal loner, he nurtured a lifelong hatred of political leaders whose only purpose, he believed, was to protect the wealthy.

His political "philosophy," if such a grand name can be applied, was a mixture of anarchism and socialism that he picked up from the political chatter of his times. He wanted to burn all the money in the world, figuring this would lead to a society in which all would be equal. And above all, he wanted to kill heads of state, whether King Victor Emmanuel of Italy, or Herbert Hoover or, when finally given the chance, Franklin Roosevelt.

"I want to kill the president because I no like the government," Zangara told the judge who sentenced him to die. "Because I think it is run by capitalists, all crooks, and a lot of people make a lot of money." Just before he taunted his executioner to "pusha da button," he cried: "Viva Italia! Goodbye to all poor people everywhere."

He insisted he did not wish to kill Mayor Cermak, who died after doctors (in Picchi's opinion) blundered by not removing a bullet from his spine. Zangara told interrogators Cermak was not a president, not the boss man of America. This did not prevent conspiracy theorists of the time from speculating that Zangara was a hit man hired by Chicago gangsters out to get the reformist mayor. Newscaster Walter Winchell peddled this theory, a fantasy matched only by those who figured Zangara was either an agent of the Mussolini government in Italy or a member of a secret Neapolitan society.

dTC Such speculations have their counterparts in present-day theories that President Kennedy was targeted either by mobsters or by the Castro government in Cuba. The difference, of course, is that Oswald was done away with only two days after JFK was killed while Zangara was around long enough to proclaim he was a lone gunman.

So while Oswald indeed changed history, as did Booth and Guiteau and Czolgosz, Zangara was left to join such other failed and largely forgotten would-be presidential assassins as Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola (Harry Truman), Lynette Alice Fromme and Sara Jane Moore (Gerald Ford) and Richard Lawrence (Andrew Jackson).

Because of the importance of Zangara's intended victim, who ranks as one of the great men of history, this obscure episode clearly deserves the "sober analysis" that Blaise Picchi has given it. Future FDR biographers: Take note.

Joseph R. L. Sterne was, for many years, editorial page editor of The Sun and before that a political and foreign correspondent. He is now senior fellow at Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies.

Pub Date: 12/27/98

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