Close Calls: 5 Unsuccessful Assassination Plots and Coups
Close Calls: 5 Unsuccessful Assassination Plots and Coups

Close Calls: 5 Unsuccessful Assassination Plots and Coups

Patrick Lynch - May 28, 2017

Close Calls: 5 Unsuccessful Assassination Plots and Coups
George Washington.

Assassination Attempt on George Washington in 1776

In June 1776, a huge British invasion fleet was making its way to New York Harbor and a group of conspirators hoped to take advantage of the confusion by murdering George Washington. Fortunately for the Continental Army, one of the plotters, Thomas Hickey, a private in Washington’s Guard, was unable to keep quiet and bragged about the plan while in prison. The plot was foiled, so Washington was safe and able to lead his men to a victory over the British.

As a member of Washington’s private Guard, Hickey had easy access to the Commander-in-Chief. The role of the Guard was to protect Washington, watch over the army’s coffers and protect the official documents sent and received by the Continental Army’s leader. As such, you would expect the men trusted with such important duties to be brave and upstanding individuals, but Hickey was not cut from the same cloth as the others.

Indeed, it was his propensity to get himself in trouble that helped uncover the plot in the first place. On June 15, 1776, Hickey was sent to prison for passing counterfeit Bills of Credit along with another plotter by the name of Michael Lynch. The two men were unable to stay silent about their plans and told another prisoner, Issac Ketchum, about the plot along with details of how they recruited and paid others to join in support of the British. Ketchum wasted no time in reporting his findings to the prison guards in an attempt to obtain a favorable outcome in his own case (also involving counterfeiting).

The exact details of the plot are not known regarding whether the conspirators planned to murder Washington or kidnap him and hand him over to the British. What we do know is that top Tory Government officials such as Mayor David Mathews and Colonial Gov. William Tryon were involved. Hundreds of rebels were set to defect to the British army, and after capturing or killing Washington and several important officials, they would cause chaos amongst the rebel forces. The British would use the opportunity to launch an attack and try to demolish the rebellion before it got started.

Loyalist sentiment in New York was still relatively strong, so there was a chance the plan could have succeeded. Washington became aware of a plot against him about a week beforehand when a woman requested an audience with him. She told him his life was in danger and Washington took the matter seriously enough to tell only his closest confidants. On June 22, Washington pounced, and a number of plotters were arrested including Mathews (placed under house arrest) and several members of the Commander-in-Chief’s Guard.

Although Hickey wasn’t close to being the leader of the plot, he was one of the scapegoats as the Continental Army presumably chose to make an example of him. Several of his co-conspirators testified against him in return for leniency. A jury found Hickey guilty, and he was hanged in front of 20,000 spectators on June 28, 1776. He was the only member of the plot to die for his actions. Washington’s Guard remained in place until he disbanded it in 1783. If the plot had succeeded, it would have been a hammer blow to the Continental Army; who knows how it would have fared against the British without its inspirational leader?

Close Calls: 5 Unsuccessful Assassination Plots and Coups
Gamal Abdel Nasser. The Bully Pulpit

Assassination Attempt on Gamal Abdel al-Nasser in 1954

Nasser became the President of Egypt in 1956, but two years earlier, he remarkably survived an assassination attempt where the gunman somehow missed with eight shots. On October 26, 1954, he was speaking to a crowd in Alexandria, Egypt when suddenly, a number of bullets whizzed by him. The gunman, Mahmoud Abd al-Latif, was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and was seemingly a terrible shot.

Some members of the audience were more than a little skeptical about the entire affair. First of all, al-Latif was relatively close to Nasser and should have been able to hit him at least once with eight bullets. The other possible red flag was Nasser’s incredibly cool reaction to the assassination attempt. Instead of fleeing as one might expect, he didn’t flinch and interrupted his speech to exclaim: “Let them kill Nasser. What is Nasser but one among many? My fellow countrymen, stay where you are. I am not dead, I am alive and even if I die all of you is Gamal Abd al-Nasser.”

The Muslim Brotherhood hated Nasser because he extended the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty for another five years a few weeks before the attempted assassination. According to the Treaty, Britain was allowed to re-enter Egypt if Turkey was attacked. The Brotherhood accused Nasser of selling out Egypt to the West. Notions that it was staged were somewhat dispelled when al-Latif and five other leaders of the Brotherhood were hanged on December 9, 1954. Nasser used the assassination attempt as an excuse to round up Communists and prominent members of the Muslim Brotherhood. By the end of the year, over 200 Communists and 500 members of the Brotherhood were behind bars.

Some historians believe that if the attempt was successful, there would have been no Arab-Israeli Wars from 1956 onward. One of his lieutenants would have stepped in and seized power in the event of Nasser’s death, but it is unlikely that they would have pursued conflict quite as aggressively as he did. Even the last Arab-Israeli war, the horrific Yom Kippur War in 1973, which was started by Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, was a direct response to the embarrassment suffered by Egypt in 1967.

Close Calls: 5 Unsuccessful Assassination Plots and Coups

Project 571 – The Plot to Oust Chairman Mao in 1971

This failed plot was given the name Project 571 because the numbers 5, 7, and 1 sound like ‘armed uprising’ in Chinese. The plan involved overthrowing the leader of China, Mao Zedong, better known as Chairman Mao, and was planned by supporters of Lin Biao, the Communist Party of China’s vice-chairman. In the aftermath of the plot, the Chinese government claimed that Biao was at the head of the conspiracy. In reality, the leader of the coup was probably his son, Lin Liguo.

The original claim was that by 1970, Biao believed Mao no longer trusted him, and he had a desire to become supreme leader of China. The official narrative suggests that Biao and his wife began planning the murder attempt in February 1971. The following month, Liguo held a secret meeting with his closest supporters at a Shanghai air base, and it was here that he drafted Project 571.

The first official Outline was created by Yu Xinye on March 23/24. In it, the group had eight different ways to kill Mao including blowing up a railway bridge as his train crossed it and shooting him with a handgun. Mao was apparently oblivious to the attempt on his life, but in August 1971, he scheduled a meeting to discuss the political future of Biao and met other important members of his cabinet in Beijing. On September 5, Biao reportedly heard that Mao was planning to execute him so he sped up the plot and on September 8, he gave the order to carry out Project 571.

The group decided to sabotage Mao’s train, but their plans were ruined when Mao changed his route on September 11. There was apparently multiple attempts on Mao’s life that day, but his bodyguards saved him. He arrived safely in Beijing the following day, and Project 571 was a complete failure. Biao’s group knew all was lost, so they made plans to flee. Their first idea was to travel to Guangzhou to coordinate another attack on Mao with the Soviet Union. Once they found out that the Chinese Prime Minister, Zhou Enlai, was investigating the incident, they elected to flee to the Soviet Union instead.

On September 13, the major players in Project 571, including Baio and his son, boarded a small plane. However, in their haste, they did not ensure the plane was filled with enough fuel. The plane ran out of fuel over Mongolia and crashed, killing all nine people on board. Meanwhile, Chairman Mao was carrying out a purge on his armed forces. Everyone identified as being close to Baio or his family was purged in a matter of weeks. Within a month, an estimated 1,000 military officials had been purged. Mao circulated copies of Project 571 amongst the Communist Party; contradicting his earlier declaration that everyone within the Party was fully supportive of him.

Most scholars don’t believe that Baio was created Project 571 because the writers seemingly lacked the ability to mobilize large forces and did not possess much military knowledge. The military plans were of a fairly low standard; a black mark against the idea that Baio created the plan. He was one of China’s most successful generals and would have created something a lot more complex. In the plan, the writer said that he would rely on the Air Force. Baio had a lot of support from ground forces so there is no way he would have relied on aerial attacks.

Finally, Baio was close to Mao and shared his ideology. While there is a suggestion that the two had a falling out, it is unlikely that he would risk everything on a coup that had little chance of succeeding. In the Chinese Civil War, Baio was an expert in delaying combat until he knew his chances of victory were high. In all likelihood, his son was involved in Project 571 and doomed his father in the process.