Historical essay
Assassination as Cure: Disease Metaphors and Foreign Policy

Assassination as Cure: Disease Metaphors and Foreign Policy

Sarah Swedberg

On January 3, 2020, I was at my mother’s house where CNN is her constant companion. A drone strike ordered by President Donald Trump had killed Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani and nine others. I was horrified and wanted to hear the news, but I was only half-listening because I hate CNN’s so-called analysis and narrow focus on two or three news stories at the expense of others. Over the noise of the TV, my brother and I talked about the CIA-supported 1953 overthrow of the democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, the installation of the dictator Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (the Shah of Iran), and the long-term negative consequences of US policies of coups and assassinations. “People should learn from history,” I said, “but they never do.”

Congressman Adam Kinzinger appeared on the screen as I focused on my bowl of oatmeal, and some of his words made it into my brain. “Look,” he said, “[in] the short term, this is an inflammation because when you ignore an infection coming in and then you finally begin taking the medicine for it, it stings when you put it on, right? It’s going to hurt. But in the long term, it’s what makes you safer.” I leapt up, grabbed a pen and the first piece of paper I could find, and scribbled down, “Adam Kinzinger, 1/3/20, disease metaphor on CNN” to help me find the transcript later. “What are you doing?” Mom asked. “This is what my book is about but in an earlier era,” I answered. “I can’t believe he just used that disease metaphor.”

Representative Adam Kinzinger speaking on the Middle East at the Hudson Institute. (Hudson Institute/Wikimedia Commons)

Kinzinger wasn’t done. He postured that this assassination might lead to “some inflammation in the short term,” but was a good solution. After all, he said, “If you continue to ignore it, it’s going to be, long term, far more dangerous than what we’re going to see maybe in the next few hours.” Kinzinger’s words fit within a long historical tradition of badly used disease metaphors that often accompany bad outcomes.

One example of this comes from my research in American Revolutionary–era North America when one of the most powerful empires in the world thought they were curing the disease of resistance to their policies. Instead, the British made decisions that led to a long and bloody war and the loss of a good deal of their empire’s territory.

Early in April 1775, some Britons were still convinced that the continued protests in North America were the work of a few rabble rousers. In their view, protesting colonists were an infection that could be cured if cut out of the body politic. A show of military might would bring rebelling colonists to heel. The majority would see the dangers in store for them if they continued to resist and therefore would return to obeying Crown and Parliament. These actions would sting, but the infection would heal.

In England, George Cressener wrote to his friend William Knox, “I look on the Bostonians as Men in a high fever, bleeding will bring them to their senses.” Although he used a medical metaphor, the blood was far from metaphorical. In his mind, a quick and decisive military action was a form of heroic medicine that would scare the majority of the colonists back to mental health. This bleeding could force “the better sort” of New Englanders, sick and tired of “being governed by the rabble,” to realize how dangerous the situation had become, reject the leadership of the protesters, and restore law and order.1 Cressener, like so many others of his time, did not or could not understand the colonists’ deep-seated mistrust of the acts of Parliament; instead, he saw the colonists consumed by a fever that led to delusion and madness.

A commission by Thomas Gage, Captain general and governor in chief of the Massachusetts-Bay. (Library of Congress/Pixabay)

In the end, of course, military action begat military action and did not act at all as a cure for the disease of protest. If we apply Kinzinger’s metaphor to April 1775, what General Thomas Gage, the military governor of Massachusetts, thought would be medicine for inflammation only exacerbated it. His orders to capture John Hancock and Samuel Adams and to seize stockpiled weapons in Concord, Massachusetts brought British regulars and the colonial militia face to face on Lexington Green in the early morning hours of April 19, 1775 in what became the first battle in a long and protracted war. The policy of trying to cure the problem of colonial intractability by bleeding failed, and only deepened existing divisions.

I fear the same will happen now and that we will be led into another long and never-ending war in the Middle East, in addition to the one we are still fighting. I can’t know, of course, but when I look into and teach the past, I see the long-term negative consequences that come with the utter assurance that assassination, coup, “shock and awe,” or weapons proliferation will be a quick fix or a cure to illness in the body politic. This is clear to me not just in the period of the American Revolution that I study and write about, but also in the US history I have taught every term since Fall 1997. I am always left with the belief that, as a nation, we should learn from our history but we never do.

Examples are everywhere, but I will include just one for the sake of brevity. Robert McNamara, one of the architects of the American War in Vietnam, admitted that he should have understood Vietnamese history better before making policy. In Errol Morris’s 2003 documentary, The Fog of War, McNamara said that he and others didn’t know the Vietnamese “well enough to empathize. And there was a total misunderstanding as a result . . . We saw Vietnam as an element of the Cold War. Not what they saw it as: a civil war.” This lack of understanding created a disastrous and long war with large numbers of casualties and the eventual defeat of the United States.

The adage that we study history so as not to repeat the mistakes of the past has very little actual history behind it. As historians, we see patterns but those in power, for the most part, don’t care. Recently, writer Andrew Ferguson told us this disregard for history is just fine because, in his opinion, “neither a cultivated intellect nor a knowledge of history is a replacement for good judgment, which is what politics calls for.” But good judgment can only come with the cultivation of intellect and a knowledge of history. When we ignore both, the results are terrible mistakes accompanied by death, destruction, chaos, literal disease, and crisis.


  1. George Cressener to William Knox, January 30, 1775, William Knox Papers, Clements Library, University of Michigan. Return to text.

Featured image caption: A collage of American Revolutionary War public domain images. Clockwise from top left: Battle of Bunker Hill, Death of Montgomery at Quebec, Battle of Cowpens, “Moonlight Battle.” (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Sarah Swedberg is a Professor of History at Colorado Mesa University and a lifelong activist.

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