“A Peaceful Transfer of Power is No Longer a Given in U.S.” by Martin Benjamin (Ethiopia)


by Martin Benjamin (Ethiopia 1962–64)

San Francisco Chronicle
October 15, 2020


Most Americans over the age of 65 remember where they were and what they were doing when they learned that President Kennedy had been assassinated.  I was in the Peace Corps in Gondar, Ethiopia teaching 10th and 11th grade math and history.

Late the night of November 22, 1963 a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer trudged up the hill from his house to ours shouting “Kennedy’s been shot.”  Four of us then gathered round a shortwave radio and learned from the BBC World Service that the President had died.

The next day news of the assassination spread among our students and colleagues.  The students were very upset.  Some were weeping.  Their concern was not only for the President and his family, but also for the school’s twelve Peace Corps teachers and themselves.  With Kennedy’s death, they believed we would pack up and return home, depriving the school of about half its qualified teachers.

Martin and his students in Gondar, Ethiopia

At first, we were puzzled.  Why did they think this?  We soon learned that the concept of orderly succession was not then part of Ethiopian history or culture.  The students assumed we would want to participate in the long term social and political turmoil involved in determining Kennedy’s successor.  As our Ethiopian colleague, Ato Demissie, half-jokingly said of the concept of orderly succession, “We don’t have that idea.  It took us two years to learn that Menelik II (Emperor from 1889-1913) was dead!”

We assured the students we would not be leaving because less than two hours after Kennedy was pronounced dead Lyndon Johnson had been sworn in as his successor.  We then explained the rudiments of constitutional government, including peaceful elections and orderly transition and succession.

Inspired by Kennedy’s youthful idealism, we felt a muted sense of pride in our form of government.  Still, we were teachers, not flag-wavers.  There was no condescension on our part, no sense of nationalist superiority.  If anything, most of us thought of ourselves as internationalists.

Fast forward to the current presidential campaign.  If I were now to encounter some of my former Ethiopian students, what could I say to them?   Could I still favorably compare orderly political change in the U.S. with the turbulence historically associated with changes of Ethiopian leadership?  Or is the kind of political chaos – possibly even violence – our students assumed would follow the assassination of President Kennedy about to be triggered by the coming election?  This is an open question.

During his 2016 campaign Donald Trump waffled on whether he would accept the results of the election if he were to lose.  He also raised – perhaps even invited – the possibility of armed resistance if Hillary Clinton were to win and support tighter gun controls.  Raising the question as to whether there was something “Second Amendment people” – gun enthusiasts – could themselves do to prevent more restrictive gun controls he coyly said, “maybe there is, I don’t know.” Even after his electoral victory, the President proved a sore winner, falsely attributing Clinton’s nearly 3 million more popular votes to noncitizens.

Approaching the 2020 election the prospects of one or more sources of chaos, including a constitutional crisis, are great.  There are too many possible scenarios to list here but underlying many of them is the likelihood that President Trump will do everything in his power – regardless of damage to the national fabric – to avoid having to consider himself a “loser.”  Indeed, it sometimes seems as if his sole criterion for the legitimacy of the electoral process is a particular outcome – a victory for Donald Trump.  If Trump wins, the election will have been legitimate.  If Biden wins, it will not.

My greatest fear is a combination of Trump’s refusing to acknowledge a clear and legitimate loss with encouraging “Second Amendment people” – the sort of assault-rifle toting gangs in camouflage who have already flexed their muscle in states like Michigan and in at least one case actually pulled the trigger – to take to the streets.  What happens then?  Will largely Trump-supporting police officers enforce the law?  What will the Justice Department do?  The military?  This, it seems to me, would be exactly the sort of political turmoil and chaos that in 1963 my Ethiopian students thought would follow the assassination of President Kennedy.

Fifty-seven years after assuring my students of orderly transitions of political power in the U.S., I have lost much of my youthful idealism.  The Vietnam War and the Invasion of Iraq were sobering.  The unleashing white nationalism and the militarization of the police together with what appears to be the eclipse of democracy and the rule of law are further demoralizing.  If I were to encounter some former Ethiopian students and they were to ask about transitions of power, what could I say to them now?

 Martin Benjamin is professor emeritus of philosophy, Michigan State University.  He taught at Mills College 2007-2015 and currently teaches in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Cal State, East Bay.

















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  • Well said Marty. I was in DireDawa and still remember that November ’63 evening and the reactions
    of the students. 2020 is certainly a far different time both here and in Ethiopia. Which of us is on the

    • I arrived that morning at the Philippine college where I taught and was told about Kennedy’s death and told to immediately make a speech to 1000 students gathered for the morning flag salute. I told them not to worry, Lyndon Johnson would make a successful president. I didn’t know about the Vietnam years ahead.

  • Thank you, Marty, for reminding us of a very different time in Ethiopia and in the U.S, I regret having missed you in Gondar. I visited PCVs there many times during a two-year period after you left. I was at Peace Corps/Washington at the time of the assassination. You can imagine what gloom shrouded our offices. Sargent Shriver immediately began making funeral plans for the slain President. History books credit Bobby Kennedy with this role, but he was too devastated to act at that time. Your article is most timely.

  • I would note that it has been the Democrats who have not accepted the results of the 2016 election and have tried to unseat Trump with wild accusations of colluding with the Russians to win that election. The Democrats stated from the election that they intended to remove Trump from office. There was no acceptance of the results as had been the custom. And now we have rioting, looting, shooting, arson, and death including famously the burning down of a Minneapolis police station on the part of left wing fascists tied to the Democrats. The suggestion that one has to fear Trump supporters of causing chaos if he is not elected is ludicrous when one considers that it has been the other side of the coin that has not yet accepted that he won in 2016 and is at this moment causing chaos in our cities. I fear Democrat fanatics who will probably go beyond their antics of the last four years in protesting Trump’s reelection. There is the danger to our democratic system of government.

    • There is a report from the Senate Intelligence Committee released in August of 2020:

      “It provided a bipartisan Senate imprimatur for an extraordinary set of facts: The Russian government disrupted an American election to help Mr. Trump become president, Russian intelligence services viewed members of the Trump campaign as easily manipulated, and some of Mr. Trump’s advisers were eager for the help from an American adversary.” https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/18/us/politics/senate-intelligence-russian-interference-report.html

      I voted Democratic in 2016. I do not remember any statement which would justify your comment: “The Democrats stated from the election that they intended to remove Trump from office.”

      I deplore the looting and the violence which has caused havoc in cities and corrupted the very valid protests against police violence targeting Black citizens. I think the Democrats could have been more forceful in protesting the violence and yet supporting the legitimate cause.

    • Please, Leo, you been drinking too much foxy Kool Aide. Remember that Hilary Clinton conceded the election on election night. The Democrats did not go to court for a recount in Wisconsin or Pennsylvania where Trump’s margin was paper thin at less than 1%. They did not contest the results. The next day Clinton in a formal concession speech said:

      “Last night, I congratulated Donald Trump and offered to work with him on behalf of our country. I hope that he will be a successful president for all Americans. …We must accept this result and then look to the future. Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead. Our constitutional democracy enshrines the peaceful transfer of power and we don’t just respect that, we cherish it.”

      Sure, the Democrats were bitterly disappointed, but if you followed the debate within Democratic circles, you would have found that while there was a lot of finger pointing, most of it was at what the Democrats did wrong and none of it was directed at the Trump and the Republicans for trumped up charges of cheating. And they began working to defeat Trump in 2020, a task now on the brink of success. They did not dwell in the past as Trump has when, for example, he rants–still!–about Hilary’s emails and then castigates his own Department of Justice for not having arrested Clinton, Obama and Biden and change them with treason. Yes, treason. Check the record: he has said that.

      Contrast Hilary’s concession speech with what Trump is now saying: “if I lose the election it is because of cheating.” He’s encouraged his armed militia followers who plotted to kidnap the governor of Michigan to go in to polling stations. And he has refused to say he would accept the results of the election. That, Leo, is the danger to our democratic system of government.

  • Thanks for this very timely article, Marty. I, too, was in Gondar, Ethiopia that evening, November 22, 1963. Fred Gage and I were at the home of Canadian doctor, Gaston Rancourt, and his wife huddled around their radio listening to the BBC. And I remember being proud of my government’s smooth transition from Kennedy’s administration to Johnson’s. I also remember students and colleagues concerned that our own families might not be safe in America with a change in administrations. Mostly though I remember the overwhelming feeling of sadness that the Ethiopians felt. This was especially true of the poorest of the poor. The next day a beggar woman, who had absolutely nothing to her name, came up to me in the post office square and put a warm bottle of CocaCola into my hand while profusely crying. Saying “Kennedy, Kennedy.” To this day I remember the feeling I had then of being overwhelmed with pride, loss, and responsibility for being part of a government that offered such hope to the most downdrodden of the world.. .

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