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  • Mike Martinez

Political Assassinations: Allard K. Lowenstein

Chapter 17 of my recently released book, Political Assassinations and Attempts in US History: The Lasting Effects of Gun Violence Against American Political Leaders, discusses the assassination of liberal political activist Allard K. Lowenstein.

Lowenstein was one of a vanishing breed in American politics—a progressive public figure who strove to promote social justice without vilifying his opponents, a man who could reach across the aisle and embrace persons diametrically opposed to his perspective. He counted among his friends the liberal lion Edward M. “Ted” Kennedy as well as the conservative commentator William F. Buckley, Jr. He was a tireless campus activist during the 1960s and 1970s, assuming prominent positions in both the civil rights and the anti-Vietnam War movements. His 1980 murder by Dennis Sweeney, a former protégé, sent shock waves through the community of social activists and served notice that the progressive ideals of the 1960s were dead and buried.

A 1954 graduate of Yale Law School, Lowenstein held a number of important positions advising Democratic officials on politics and policy. Early in his career, he worked with the American Association for the United Nations. In 1959, he served as a foreign policy assistant to Senator Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota. From 1969 until 1971, Lowenstein was a U.S. congressman from New York before becoming chairman of Americans for Democratic Action. In 1977, Lowenstein served as head of the U.S. delegation to the 33rd annual session of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. From August 1977 to June 1978, he was the alternate U.S. Representative for Special Political Affairs to the United Nations, holding the rank of ambassador. Throughout his career, Lowenstein was an eloquent liberal voice in a country that was becoming ever more politically conservative.

One of the many young people who gravitated to Lowenstein was an anti-Vietnam War protestor and former civil rights activist named Dennis Sweeney. As a student at Stanford University, Sweeney became a Lowenstein protégé when the latter briefly served as a dean at the university. Within a few years, however, Sweeney began to suffer from mental illness. By 1980, Sweeney had become paranoid and delusional. He was convinced that his former mentor was involved in a conspiracy against him.

Matters came to a head early in 1980. Sweeney’s stepfather, Gerald, died of a heart attack on February 24 of that year. The grieving stepson flew back to Portland, Oregon, for the funeral convinced that voices inside his head had caused his stepfather’s death. He also believed that Lowenstein was directly responsible because he had sued Gerald Sweeney in court, harassing the poor man and pushing him into an early grave. Investigators never found evidence that such a lawsuit ever existed.

On March 3, not long after he returned from Portland, Sweeney walked into Raub’s Sporting Goods store in New London, Connecticut, and purchased a Llama .380-caliber automatic pistol. On his firearms application, he answered “no” to the question “Have you ever been adjudicated mentally defective or have you ever been committed to a mental institution?” The form went to the New London police department, which found no evidence that Dennis Sweeney posed a risk to anyone. He was allowed to purchase the gun eight days after he submitted his application.

By this time, Allard Lowenstein was working in a private law practice in New York City. Sweeney made an appointment to see his old teacher on Friday, March 14, 1980. He arrived on time for his 4:00 p.m. meeting, but Lowenstein was running late, so Sweeney was invited to sit and wait in an outer office. People who saw him that day described him as “expressionless” and “calm.” He smoked a Winston cigarette while he waited.

Lowenstein eventually floated out and warmly greeted Sweeney, inviting him inside his private office. The door closed and the two men spoke. Witnesses reported that the meeting last between 10 and 20 minutes. No one knows exactly what they said, but they were seated on opposite sides of the desk. They had not seen each other more than three or four times during the preceding 15 years.

The two men stood to say their goodbyes. Sweeney reported that he told Lowenstein, “We’ve got a put an end to this, Al.” A moment later, he whipped the pistol from his pocket. Realizing that Sweeney meant to shoot him, Lowenstein raised his arm and shouted, “No.” Sweeney fired seven times, hitting Lowenstein with five bullets. Three shots came while Lowenstein was lying on the floor.

The gunman made no attempt to flee. He calmly left Lowenstein’s private office, laid his pistol on the receptionist’s work tray, sat down in a chair, and lit another Winston. Frantic office workers called the police and scrambled over to check on Lowenstein. Robert Layton, a lawyer in the firm, approached Sweeney. “I asked him if he had a gun. He said very calmly, ‘I’m not armed anymore.’”

Officers quickly arrived and arrested Sweeney where he sat. They took him to Bellevue Hospital for one night before transferring him to the mental health wing at the Riker’s Island Reformatory for Men. “He’s been controlling my mind for years,” he told his interrogators. “Now I’ve put an end to it.”

Lowenstein’s wounds were extensive. His left arm was broken and one lung was irreparably damaged. He took two bullets in the chest. Transferred to St. Clare’s Hospital in New York City, he was unconscious but alive. Doctors operated for five and a half hours in a desperate attempt to save the patient’s life, but he had lost too much blood and the shock to his system was too massive. He died just after 11:00 p.m. He was 51 years old. “His heart just failed to continue to pump,” Dr. William F. Mitty, Jr., chairman of the hospital’s surgery department, told reporters gathered for an update.

Dennis Sweeney pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity for shooting Allard Lowenstein. Prosecutors did not dispute his insanity. Accordingly, he was committed to the custody of the New York state mental health system. For eight years, he lived in the Mid-Hudson Psychiatric Center in Hampton, New York, the state’s maximum security psychiatric hospital. Doctors eventually transferred him to the Middletown Psychiatric Center, where he worked in the community and earned furloughs to live outside the facility from time to time. By 1992, he was working as a carpenter and cabinetmaker in a woodworking store. In 1995, he was moved to the most lenient psychiatric confinement possible, reporting to the hospital for only one night every two weeks. In 2000, he was released from all state custody.

Dennis Sweeney undoubtedly fit the mold of a Type 4 political assassin. Owing to his schizophrenia, he was suffering from severe cognitive impairment when he shot Allard Lowenstein. A case can be made that he nursed a vendetta against his former mentor for genuine differences arising out of their time working together in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but the old grievances served as but a starting point for Sweeney’s simmering anger. His paranoid delusions about Lowenstein’s nefarious activities pushed the gunman to act. After the sudden death of his stepfather, which he also attributed to the transmitted voices, Sweeney felt that he had little choice but to eliminate the source of his problems. “We’ve got a put an end to this, Al,” he said, and so he did.

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