They called him a lot of things: “Momo,” “Mooney,” “Sam the Cigar.” But in the 1960s, maybe they should have called Sam Giancana “the real president of the United States.”
Sam Giancana was born Gilormo Giancana in 1908 on the West Side of Chicago to Sicilian immigrants. He got his start as a low-level gangster and driver for Al Capone, but worked his way up to the role of hitman. By the 1950s, Giancana was the top man of the Chicago Mafia (the “Outfit”), but a groundbreaking journalistic investigation 40 years later showed that Giancana was at the top of much more than that.
By the 1960s, Giancana was among the political power players of the country itself—and, by extension, the world that the United States claimed hegemony over. The Godfather Part II offers a famous fictionalized version of the real relationship between the United States, US-based Mafias, and the Batista dictatorship over Cuba in an iconic scene: Older mobster Hyman Roth describes the pieces of his Cuban business empire he plans to give to protagonist Michael Corleone while they cut and share a cake decorated with the image of Cuba. But the Cuban Revolution had other plans, and the US went from having the entirety of Cuba as a functional neo-colony to settling for one measly torture center.
Welcome to the sixth entry of the series “How Much Could a Banana Republic Cost?,” where we’re still trying to figure out who and what rules the world. The first post introduced our candidates: Big Green (investors, corporations, or individual plutocrats), Big Guns (armies, militias, and Mafias), and Big Graphs (technocrats and knowledge-based organizations). First up was the Big Green theory, which came in two flavors: a “Monopoly” version where the rich buy up individual and separable parts of our political world, and the “Round Table” version where they work together in concert to rule everything.
Last time, we tried out our first Big Guns approach: the “Strongman” idea, which puts true political power in the hands of those atop the formal violence institutions like the military and the police. The state may claim a monopoly on violence, but actually having one is another story entirely. This draws from the lesson of the second post of the series: The formally acknowledged political officials aren’t necessarily the only ones to consider when we try to describe who rules politically, as powerfully demonstrated by United Fruit Company’s de facto reign in Guatemala and elsewhere in Latin America. The United Fruit Company is, at least, a corporation—that is, a formally acknowledged institution even if not quite a branch of constitutional government.
But even if Big Guns is the right way of thinking about power, maybe the real power holders in today’s world aren’t corporations or investors (as in the Big Green theory), yet still don’t qualify as “Strongman” politicians or generals. Maybe they’re just the people who wield violence and blackmail outside of formally recognized institutions. After all, the US mob had a relationship with the Batista government of Cuba much like the United Fruit Company’s relationship with Guatemala.
Call this the “Godfather” version of Big Guns theory. After all, if political power really grows out of the barrel of a gun, does it matter whether the person holding it has a badge or articles of incorporation? The Cuban revolutionaries that overthrew Batista and spoiled the US mob’s business plans certainly didn’t wait for official recognition from either the Cuban government or the United Nations. As Hyman Roth reminded Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II: Their crime business was bigger than US Steel, the first billion-dollar corporation in American history. The Godfather may have been fictional, but this was a quite realistic portrayal of the possible scale of a criminal enterprise. As Thomas Manuel reminds us, the “honourable” British East India Company, one of the world’s first megacorporations, was also an international opium syndicate that ran India as a narco-state. It just goes to show that bullets are bullets, power is power, and nobody elected ISIS.
Nobody elected Sam Giancana either. While we’re at it, if we look seriously into the explosive investigation of Giancana by his fellow Chicagoan the legendary journalist Seymour Hersh, we might wonder in what sense exactly President John F. Kennedy was elected. Hersh’s book The Dark Side of Camelot exposed the fact that Sam Giancana had been hired by the notoriously mob-friendly patriarch Joe Kennedy to help his son John win the election over Richard Nixon. This kind of domestic election-meddling (eat your heart out, Putin) combined with Kennedy’s long-debated demise represents an underworld version of the kind of complication explored in part two of this series via the United Fruit Company: To precisely what extent are elected officials really in charge?
Hersh’s investigation uncovered much more. During the Kennedy administration, there were several handoffs facilitated by a mutual paramour of President Kennedy and Giancana: Sensitive documents were exchanged for bags of cash. Sam Giancana was also a co-conspirator in assassination plots against foreign leaders with President John F. Kennedy, his brother the US Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and the CIA. Iterations of this cabal plotted to assassinate or eliminate Congo’s Patrice Lumumba, South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem, and the Dominican Republic’s Rafael Trujillo, while failing spectacularly to assassinate Cuba’s Fidel Castro (NBC News has a cute listicle of some of their various attempts: #5 will amuse you).
Sam Giancana once went as far as to tell his brother that the Outfit and the CIA were “two sides of the same coin.” He added a bold prediction: “Soon we’ll be partners in everything.” It’s anyone’s guess as to whether or not that prediction came true, but Giancana did not live to see it either way: He was found dead in his Oak Park home in 1975, shortly after returning to the United States to testify to the US Senate about his knowledge of CIA assassination attempts.
In comparison to the obviously authoritarian Strongman, Giancana’s “Godfather” approach shows us a subtler version of the Big Guns theory: where unseen underworld figures work in and around levers of power to control political outcomes. But the “Godfather” kind of ruler needn’t be subtle. Countries the world over have seen very naked grabs for political supremacy from those outside of the state, from leftist armed separatists in Chiapas and Rojava to rightist military formations like the various Islamic State and allied militias in Iraq and Syria, West Africa, and Mozambique.
But these cases seem the exception rather than the rule. Even admitting the odd example like Giancana, it asks a lot of us to think that global politics in general runs in the way described by the “Godfather” theory. Perhaps the success of investigations like Hersh’s show that this kind of underworld domination of the overworld is untenable in the long run, and can’t be a durable story about political power: Would-be Kennedys and Giancanas would have a lot to hide, and would have to be inordinately successful at hiding it to pull off a puppet master routine on a planetary scale. Thinking that the world works this way is akin to believing in crackpot theories like those justified by reference to a shadowy “deep state,” or confusing fictional entities like the “Hydra” organization of the Marvel comics universe for real-world political possibilities.
But a lot is hidden. How much, you ask? By some estimates, wealth representing a full 10th of the entire planet’s GDP is held in offshore tax havens, and increasingly byzantine techniques (including the use of shell companies) all but guarantee that a sizable amount of that wealth is of questionable legality.
The violent orientation of the Godfathers in this Big Guns theory also might well help with the hiding part. The Corleone family’s reign over the Sicilian Cosa Nostra provoked a famous war with the Italian formal government in the early 1990s, spiraling into a rash of assassinations and bombings in the streets that forced the Italian government into closed-door negotiations (the results of which are speculated about to this day). Journalist Caruana Galizia was murdered by car bomb after reporting on corruption in Malta connected to the famous Panama Papers investigation into the powers that be. A BBC Africa Eye investigation linked the “Black Axe” organization to an international scam network trafficking in billions of dollars that, according to former members, claimed broad swaths of the political leadership of countries like Nigeria and Benin as fellow travelers.
Maybe there’s something to the “Godfather” view. Maybe the real leaders aren’t generals, or presidents, or anyone we tend to formally acknowledge—maybe the real players are offscreen somewhere, counting money and bodies. If you ever meet one of them, make sure to call them “Godfather,” or whatever else they want, and kiss the ring.