By: Aaron Good
Four Died Trying goes where no other documentary film project has gone before. It looks at the four major political assassinations of the 1960’s and explains how they were intimately related. President John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Senator Robert F. Kennedy—each of these four martyred leaders were killed for doing the same thing. They each died trying to turn the Unites States of America away from global dominance and toward peace and justice.
The obvious inference we should make is that if these leaders were each killed for doing the same thing, they must have been killed by essentially the same forces or institutions. Were the official story for each case airtight, it would disprove this notion. But that is not what we find. Four Died Trying will demonstrate to any objective viewer that each one of these four official stories is a monumental fraud.
No project has brought together such a wealth of expertise and first-hand experience pertaining to these historically momentous crimes. The filmmakers spent many years tracking down the top experts on the cases—as well as key members of each leader’s family and inner circle. Collectively, the story they tell is one that Americans desperately need to understand.
Why is America in 2023 so obviously a country in decline? Why can’t our vaunted democracy allow us to self-correct when are facing major problems—up to and including existential crises? A large and suppressed part of the answer lies in how we lost four great leaders who tried to confront the dark pinnacle of power in this country.
The United States has always been a collection of contradictions. The English colonists in America eventual fought and defeated the British Empire to gain their independence. Yet even as they considered themselves opponents of imperialism, they obviously had imperialized other peoples—most notably American Indians and African slaves.
The young United States was exceptional in that it became the first country with a democratic constitution that guaranteed political rights to the citizenry. Yet suffrage was initially limited to white land-owning men—later to be expanded to also include propertied men who did not own land. Women, poor whites, Indians, and slaves were excluded.
Although the Declaration of Independence was written by a slave owner and signed by many other slave owners, it was a progressive document in that it was a product of the Enlightenment. It expressed the ideal that “All men are created equal.” Though this ideal has yet to be fully realized, over the course of nearly two and a half centuries, different groups of oppressed men and women would struggle to gain equality in different measures. Among other gains, slavery and Jim Crow were eventually abolished; women won the right to vote.
Commerce and imperialism, however, were always driving forces in US history. At the closing of the Western frontier, the US was at a crossroads. Should the country pursue empire or domestic prosperity? At the turn of the century—with the Spanish-American War, the Philippine War, the “Banana Wars,” and the suppression of the Chinese Boxer Uprising—the US chose empire.
The United States eventually entered World War I to “make the world safe for democracy.” In practice, this entailed state propaganda and censorship on an unprecedented scale. The US ended up on the war’s winning side, but the greed of JP Morgan and European imperialists led to a disastrous peace settlement which contained the seeds of World War II.
It was during the Second World War that US oligarchs made the fateful decision to pursue global empire once the great conflict had been settled. Though packaged as the “American Century,” in practice, this meant that the US gradually assumed hegemony or dominance over territories formerly dominated by European colonial powers. In so doing, the United States essentially took over management of Western imperialism—albeit by establishing a transition from colonialism to neocolonialism or informal control of imperialized nations.
Since the US presented itself as the champion of freedom and democracy, it couldn’t act like Britain during, say, the Opium Wars. In order to deploy the violence needed to police a global empire without tarnishing America’s image, US elites created the country’s first peacetime clandestine service—the Central Intelligence Agency. This allowed US leaders to carry out paramilitary operations and other various form of political and psychological warfare—all with plausible deniability.
Democracy was a major issue for the managers of this empire. On the one hand, democracy was what legitimized US dominance. On the other hand, if countries in the periphery—i.e., the “Third World” or “global south”—were too democratic, their peoples might vote to take control of their own countries’ resources for their own benefit. This was a major risk to US/Western investors. During the Eisenhower administration, democratically elected nationalist leaders in Iran, Guatemala, and Congo were overthrown in CIA-backed coups. The American public was kept in the dark about these policies.
President John F. Kennedy learns of Patrice Lumumba's assassination - Washington DC, February 13, 1961.
(Photo by The Estate of Jacques Lowe/Getty Images)
This was the situation that President John F. Kennedy inherited. As president, he would also need to manage a much less covert US juggernaut—the military industrial complex of which President Eisenhower warned in his farewell address. As a United States senator in 1957, John F. Kennedy gave a speech in which he stated, “[T]he most powerful single force in the world today…is man's eternal desire to be free and independent. The great enemy of that tremendous force of freedom is called…imperialism.” Upon taking office as president in 1961, JFK was on a collision course with the apex of world history’s most powerful empire—the American oligarchy and the national security state that it had created.
Four Died Trying will chronicle the confrontation between President Kennedy and these dark forces. That is just the beginning. For the first time in a major documentary film series, audiences will learn how four great American leaders evolved until eventually they were each killed. They were each murdered in essentially the same way. They were seeking the same things, and thereby antagonizing the same dark strata of power. These are profoundly important facts that the American public must confront. To that end, the filmmakers describe the project:
Filmed primarily from the vantage point of their children, close associates, and witnesses to their assassinations, the series considers the "turning” each of these men were making in the last year or so of their lives. Were they embracing ever-broader conceptions of the struggle for peace, social change and economic justice, and what forces may have stirred in opposition? What lessons do their lives and deaths hold for us today, as the world once again trembles on the cliff of an uncertain future?
These and other questions will be answered over the course of this series. Based on my own scholarship, I would argue that civilization and human history have thus far been propelled by powerful empires. The West created democracy but has always found ways for imperial interests to override the rule of law. After World War II, the US was the most democratic great power, but it also had the greatest imperial ambitions—the whole world, no less. US elites managed this blatant contradiction through the use of clandestine arts. After World War II, covert action gradually replaced overt despotism and militarism. The US even recruited and repurposed Axis fascists to serve as covert shock troops for the empire.
As a consequence of America’s imperial evolution, the US regime has fundamentally changed. Jim Garrison, played by Kevin Costner in Oliver Stone’s JFK, put it succinctly:
What kind of national security do we have when we've been robbed of our leaders? What national security permits the removal of fundamental power from the hands of the American people and validates the ascendancy of an invisible government in the United States? That kind of national security, gentlemen of the jury, is when it smells like it, feels like it, and looks like it, you call it what it is: Fascism!
New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, played by Kevin Costner in Oliver Stone's JFK (1991)
As a social scientist, I would qualify this by describing our system as parafascism—a term coined by my dear friend Professor Peter Dale Scott. The larger point is that the US regime has a clandestine veto power over democracy. An invisible apex of power can override democracy covertly through acts of “plausibly deniable” violence. Leaders who threatened the imperial status quo can be dispatched covertly so that the US Empire can maintain its democratic façade. President Kennedy departed from the imperial consensus in a number of ways. He refused to go to war on multiple occasions; he sought peaceful coexistence with Cold War rivals; and he ordered a US withdrawal from Vietnam. For all of these departures, President Kennedy was the first of four major US political figures to suffer this fate in the 1960s.
In 1965, the great Malcolm X was assassinated. By breaking with the Nation of Islam, moderating his views on race, and internationalizing the struggles of black people in the US and in Africa, Malcolm was confronting the world’s most dangerous forces. He was willfully risking his own assassination, as he knew.
The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. similarly confronted these forces by coming out against the Vietnam War shortly after achieving major civil rights victories. King came to believe that the US could not redeem itself until it confronted the “giant triplets” of racism, militarism, and poverty. Calling the US government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” King was organizing a multiracial Poor People’s March on Washington to demand that Vietnam War spending be redirected toward programs to fight poverty. King’s family came to believe that the fear of such a spectacle was what ultimately motivated the clandestine state to assassinate King in April of 1968.
The idea for a Poor People’s March on Washington came from King’s friend, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who suggested the idea in late 1967. After JFK was assassinated in 1963, Robert Kennedy quickly surmised that the murder was the work of the CIA with its allies in the mafia and Cuban exile community. Echoing King’s critique of America’s “giant triplets,” RFK’s 1968 presidential campaign called for healing the racial divide, peace, and economic justice. He also planned to reinvestigate his brother’s assassination once he attained the presidency. Instead, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1968 just after his dramatic victory in the California primary.
Four Died Trying premieres on November 22, the 60th anniversary of the JFK assassination. Subsequent releases will be timed around the anniversaries of the other assassinations: February for Malcolm X, April for Martin Luther King, and June for Robert F. Kennedy. Filmmakers John Kirby and Libby Handros deserve our gratitude and admiration for the years of work that they have put into this project. As fate would have it, I was spending much of that time working in a similar vein as a political science doctoral student. I can’t help but feel like our collaboration was meant to be. As we approach the premiere of Four Died Trying, please stay tuned here for more articles and posts in this vein!
Aaron Good (PhD) is the author of American Exception: Empire and the Deep State, the host of the American Exception podcast on Patreon, and the co-host of Devil's Chess Club with David Talbot and Bryce Greene.