In the summer of 1960, Sidney Gottlieb, a C.I.A. chemist, flew to Congo with a carry-on bag containing vials of poison and a hypodermic syringe. It was an era of relative subtlety among C.I.A. assassins. The toxins were intended for the food, drink, or toothpaste of Patrice Lumumba, Congo’s Prime Minister, who, in the judgment of the Eisenhower Administration, had gone soft on Communism. Upon his arrival, as Tim Weiner recounts in his history of the C.I.A., Gottlieb handed his kit to Larry Devlin, the senior C.I.A. officer in Léopoldville. Devlin asked who had ordered the hit. “The President,” Gottlieb assured him. In later testimony, Devlin said that he felt ashamed of the command. He buried the poisons in a riverbank, but helped find an indirect way to eliminate Lumumba, by bankrolling and arming political enemies. The following January, Lumumba was executed by the Belgian military.
For Eisenhower, who had witnessed the carnage of the Normandy landings and the Battle of the Bulge, and later claimed to “hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can,” political assassinations represented an alluring alternative to conventional military action. Through the execution or overthrow of undesirable foreign leaders, the thinking went, it might be possible to orchestrate the global struggle against Communism from a distance, and avoid the misery—and the risks of nuclear war—that out-and-out combat would bring. Assassination was seen not only as precise and efficient but also as ultimately humane. Putting such theory into practice was the role of the C.I.A., and the agency’s tally of toppled leftists, nationalists, or otherwise unreliable leaders is well known, from Mohammad Mosadegh, of Iran, in 1953, and Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, of Guatemala, in 1954, to Ngo Dinh Diem, of South Vietnam, in 1963, and Salvador Allende, of Chile, in 1973. Not all the schemes went according to plan; a few seemed inspired by Wile E. Coyote. The C.I.A. once planned to bump off Fidel Castro by passing him an exploding cigar.