Conspiracy theories: the politically disaffected and the culturally suspicious…
Chapter 1: Conspiracy Theories Everywhere
Conspiracy theories – the fear of nonexistent conspiracies – are flourishing in the United States. Republican, Democratic, and independent presidential candidates espouse them. Growing political institutions (the Nation of Islam, the militias) are premised on them. A majority of Americans say they believe John F. Kennedy was killed not by a lone gunman but by a conspiracy, and a majority of black Americans hold the U.S. government responsible for the spread of drugs. O. J. Simpson famously beat his criminal rap by convincing a jury of a conspiracy theory: that the Los Angeles police framed him. Two young men, their heads spinning with conspiracy theories about Washington taking freedoms away from Americans, blew up a government building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 (including 19 children) and wounding 550.
This suspicious approach even affects the actions of government. Legislation in New York State requires schools to teach about the Irish potato famine with the intent to show, as New York’s Governor George E. Pataki commented while signing the bill, that the famine was “the result of a deliberate campaign by the British to deny the Irish people the food they needed to survive.” A Conference of the States, planned for October 1995 in Philadelphia, was to have asserted state power at the expense of the Federal government. But when the extreme Right got wind of this meeting, it floated conspiracy theories about its being a sneaky effort to subvert the Constitution and submit the United States to a one-world government – proved by the fact that the conference had been scheduled to coincide exactly with the United Nations’ fiftieth anniversary. So effective was this campaign that one state after another backed out, the conference had to be canceled, and the debate over federalism was ruptured.
A survey of conspiracy theories in American public life shows that these tend to come disproportionately from two broad groups of people: the politically disaffected and the culturally suspicious.
Conspiracy theory is the sophistication of the ignorant.
– Richard Grenier
Among the politically disaffected, the black community and the hard Right are most overtly conspiracy theory-minded. Both dislike the existing order and offer radical ideas about changing it; both resort to an outlook that depends heavily on the existence of powerful forces engaged in plots.
Conspiracy theories may well be most prevalent in black America. A columnist calls these “the life blood of the African-American community,” and a clinical psychologist notes that there is “probably no conspiracy involving African-Americans that was too far-fetched, too fantastic, or too convoluted.” She finds four recurring themes, all centered on the U.S. government: it uses blacks as guinea pigs, imposes bad habits on them, targets their leaders, and decimates their population.
But the sense of being surrounded by evildoers shows up in many ways, ranging from the petty to the cosmic, and does not always focus on the government. In a minor but indicative example, a new and inexpensive drink named Tropical Fantasy appeared throughout the northeastern United States in September 1990 and sold extremely well in low-income neighborhoods during the next half year. The fact that most of its Brooklyn, New York, employees were black made the beverage the more appealing. But anonymous leaflets turned up in black areas in early 1991, warning that the soft drink was manufactured by the Ku Klux Klan and contained “stimulants to sterilize the black man.” Although journalistic and police investigations found this accusation to be completely fraudulent, it struck a chord among consumers, and sales plummeted by 70 percent. Other products, including Kool and Uptown cigarettes, Troop Sport clothing, Church’s Fried Chicken, and Snapple soft drinks, suffered from similar slanders about the KKK and causing impotence, and they too went into a commercial tailspin.
On a larger scale, the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., continue to arouse suspicions among blacks. Nation of Islam leaders point to the FBI’s not protecting Malcolm X; in King’s case, they claim the U.S. government “set up his death.” Joseph Lowery, another black leader, agrees: “We have never stopped believing for a moment that there was not some government complicity in the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.” The activist Dick Gregory, a comedian who long ago gave up laughs for conspiracy theories, also blames King’s death on a government plot, as he does the mysterious murder of twenty-eight blacks in Atlanta in 1979-81 (which he ascribes to government scientists’ taking the tips of their penises to use in a serum for countering cancer).
But the two main conspiracy theories concern fears that the U.S. government takes steps to sabotage blacks and the cluster of accusations promoted by Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam.
AIDS and Drugs. The disproportionate incidence of AIDS and drug use among blacks prompts prominent figures to endorse a conspiracy theory that the U.S. government is behind these epidemics. The comedian Bill Cosby asserts that AIDS was “started by human beings to get after certain people they don’t like.” The movie director Spike Lee announced (in an advertisement for the Benetton clothing shops, of all places) that “AIDS is a government-engineered disease.” On late-night television, rap singer Kool Moe Dee portrayed AIDS as a genocidal plot against blacks, with no dissent from host Arsenio Hall. A mass-circulation magazine for blacks ran as its cover story, “AIDS: Is It Genocide?” Steven Cokely, a well-known former Chicago municipal official, gave the plot an antisemitic twist, telling of Jewish doctors who injected black babies with AIDS as part of a plot to take over the world. Drugs and crime inspire similar fears. In the acclaimed 1991 movie about black life, Boyz ‘N’ the Hood, a character proffers a full-blown conspiracy theory about crack and guns being available to blacks because “they want us to kill each other off. What they couldn’t do to us in slavery, they are making us do to ourselves.”
With a black leadership falling over itself to endorse such ideas, it comes as little surprise that a 1990 poll showed 29 percent of black New Yorkers stating their belief in AIDS’ being “deliberately created in a laboratory in order to infect black people,” and 60 percent thinking the government was “deliberately” making drugs available to poor blacks.
These views set the stage for the sensational reception given “Dark Alliance,” a three-part series published in the San Jose Mercury News in August 1996. The author, Gary Webb, strongly implied that the Central Intelligence Agency knew about drug dealing in Los Angeles by anticommunist Nicaraguans but did not stop them because it welcomed the funds they sent to the contras fighting in Nicaragua. Cocaine, Webb states in the first article, “was virtually unobtainable in black neighborhoods before members of the Central Intelligence Agency’s army started bringing it into South-Central in the 1980s at bargain-basement prices”; this drug network “opened the first pipeline between Colombia’s cocaine cartels and the black neighborhoods of Los Angeles.” The Nicaraguan traffickers, he also maintains, “met with CIA agents both before and during the time they were selling the drugs in L.A.” This, the series suggested, made the government complicit in the spread of crack, a cocaine derivative.
The Mercury News drew this connection even more directly on the Internet. Its World Wide Web site showed the CIA insignia superimposed over a man smoking crack. In a talk-radio interview available on the Mercury News‘s state-of-the-art Web site, Gary Webb asserted that “the cocaine that was used to make the crack that flooded into L.A. in the early ’80s came from the CIA’s army.”
In addition to reviews by the CIA, the Senate Intelligence Committee, and the Los Angeles sheriff that found no evidence to support Webb’s conspiracy theory, several investigative articles found his evidence lacking. The Washington Post determined that “available information does not support the conclusion that the CIA-backed contras – or Nicaraguans in general – played a major role in the emergence of crack as a narcotic in widespread use across the United States.” The Los Angeles Times stated flatly that “The crack epidemic in Los Angeles followed no blueprint or master plan. It was not orchestrated by the Contras or the CIA or any single drug ring.” The New York Times found “scant proof” to support the allegations. These and other debunkings did force the Mercury News to backtrack somewhat; the editor insisted that “Dark Alliance” had only stated that individuals associated with the CIA sold cocaine that ended up on the streets of Los Angeles, not that the CIA approved of the sales. In addition, the CIA insignia disappeared from the World Wide Web site.
This reversal had little impact on black opinion, however, which widely accepted “Dark Alliance” as truth. Leaders immediately endorsed it. Jesse Jackson accused the government, through the CIA, of being “involved in subsidizing drugs.” Dick Gregory got himself arrested at the CIA headquarters and proclaimed that “There is evidence inside those buildings that confirms that the CIA helped to destroy black folks. That’s called genocide.” Maxine Waters, South-Central Los Angeles’s member of Congress, told a rally that “People in high places, knowing about it, winking, blinking, and in South Central Los Angeles, our children were dying.”
Black journalists picked up the topic and ran with it. Derrick Z. Jackson wrote in his Boston Globe column: “the only conclusion is that Ronald Reagan said yes to crack and the destruction of black lives at home to fund the killing of commies abroad.” Wilbert Tatum, editor of the Amsterdam News, found the thesis “entirely plausible.” An editorial cartoon showed a car full of CIA agents driving in a black part of town, throwing packets of crack out of windows. The conspiracy theory even developed its own form of commerce, as Los Angeles vendors sold baseball caps reading “C.I.A. Crack Inforcement Agency.”
The CIA allegations then provided the basis for yet more sweeping accusations. Kobie Kwasi Harris, chairman of the department of Afro-American studies at San Jose State University, discerned a larger pattern: “If America had a choice they would choose a disorganized, criminal black community over an organized, radical one.” Barbara Boudreaux of the Los Angeles school board announced the existence of “a master plan to have mass genocide for every child born in the world, especially in Los Angeles and Compton.”
Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. Louis Farrakhan deserves close attention, having become not just the leading black conspiracy theorist but also America’s most prominent antisemite. In part, Farrakhan reflects Nation of Islam theology, which understands the white race’s very existence as a conspiracy directed at the elimination of blacks. Along these lines, Farrakhan’s associates at the Black Holocaust Nationhood Conference that took place just before the Million Man March of October 1995 held whites responsible for 600 million black deaths over the past six thousand years. Farrakhan’s newspaper accuses whites of pursuing this goal through many avenues, foremost of which is AIDS, “a man-made disease designed to kill us all.” (By “us,” Farrakhan includes Africans: the U.S. government shipped a billion units of AIDS to Africa, he said, to annihilate that continent’s entire population.) Other mechanisms include propaganda about black inferiority, substandard education, long prison terms, and making guns, drugs, and junk food available. Getting rid of black men through addiction, incarceration, or death also has the advantage of making black women conveniently available to white men, who then control them through a deadly combination of birth control, abortion, and welfare.
Farrakhan goes beyond the theology he inherited from his mentor, Elijah Muhammad, and displays an inclusive conspiracism of his own making. It began with the very death of Elijah Muhammad in 1975; Farrakhan rejected the official causes (heart failure and arteriosclerotic disease) and insisted that a conspiracy of family members, the U.S. government, and Sunni Arabs did him in. Farrakhan also focuses on Jews, a people the Nation of Islam had previously ignored, adopting many classic antisemitic themes. Jews, he says, are responsible for capitalism and communism, the two world wars, financing Hitler, controlling the Federal Reserve Board and Hollywood, and causing the U.S. government to go into debt. They dominate U.S. politics (“all presidents since 1932 are controlled by the Jews”) and media (“any newspaper that refused to acquiesce to controlled news was brought to its knees by withdrawing advertising. Failing this, the Jews stop the supply of news print and ink”). In all, “85 percent of the masses of the people of earth are victimized” by Jews. The Nation of Islam purveys the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious antisemitic forgery, at its meetings and publishes its own literature of conspiratorial antisemitism.
Farrakhan also makes novel assertions about Jews. They carried out the transatlantic slave trade that he claims killed 100 million Africans. Jews owned three-quarters of all slaves, and they kept the slave system functioning. They inject the AIDS virus into black newborns and puncture a hole in the ozone layer. In a particularly clever bit of revisionism, Farrakhan turns around the active and lasting Jewish participation in black civil rights efforts, claiming that it was self interested. By helping integrate blacks, he says, Jews managed to destroy the autonomous black economic institutions and took over the business for themselves. By encouraging blacks to work within the system, rather than confront it, Jews kept them from escaping the strictures of white supremacy. In all, Jewish “bloodsuckers” have successfully blocked black advancement.
The Hard Right
The Right constitutes the other organized group of malcontents. During the cold war, it feared that a conspiratorial body of Americans, known variously as the Money Power, the Insiders, the Secret Team, or the High Cabal, were ready to sell out their country to the Soviet Union, which would then establish a one-world government. Contrary to expectations, the Soviet bloc’s collapse did not end this fear. A few Rightists still worry about the Kremlin, eyeing the Soviet collapse suspiciously as a charade intended to get Americans to put down their guard. Many more continue to worry about a one-world authority, but changing the object of their worry from the (powerful) Soviet Union imposing communism to the (toothless) United Nations imposing a New World Order. The parallel between these two is quite precise; like Moscow, the U.N. disposes of mechanisms of subversion and an army of occupation.
Rightist groups expect an invasion of the United States by forces under United Nations command, sometimes called the Multi Jurisdictional Task Force. Some imagine the invasion yet to come and interpret the backs of highway signs as embedded with codes for invading troops (for example, in Michigan, blue indicates the presence of water nearby, green a resting place, and brown petrol). Others think it already underway, with some 300,000 Russian, Hong Kong, and Gurkha troops secreted away in locations around the United States. Reports are sometimes highly specific, mentioning 40,000 U.N. troops in San Diego, 14,000 in Anchorage, and a battalion of Gurkhas in Montana.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), ostensibly established to coordinate government actions in time of disaster, will first oversee the U.N. takeover, then become the “secret government” that runs the United States. As befits a planning agency, FEMA has already tested the waters; for example, it scripted the 1992 riots in Los Angeles following the Rodney King trial to test reactions to a gang uprising. Black gangs such as the Crips and the Bloods will also have a major role in enforcing the new order. Other important institutions include the Environmental Protection Agency (which will keep track of vehicles) and the National Education Association (to ensure that children get badly educated).
And where will the U.S. military be during all this? Off in distant lands, creating a New World Order under United Nations auspices. The placement of U.S. troops under U.N. command in Somalia established the precedent, which was then followed in Bosnia.
The new order will not be pleasant. Immigrants will take over the country, and Americans will lose all their constitutional rights, especially the right to bear arms. Controls will be unprecedented: “it will only be a matter of time before humans are tattooed with a similar mark” to the codes in the supermarket. Or tiny microchips will be inserted into Americans’ buttocks to keep track of each person’s whereabouts and activities. (Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, believes the government performed this operation on him during his army service.) Those who step out of line will meet with severe consequences. Dissidents will be removed by unmarked black helicopters to detention camps located at government installations such as air force bases. Some of these have already been prepared; ominously, barbed wire around an unused airfield in California faces inward. As a last resort, four crematoria have been built around the country, each capable of disposing of three thousand corpses a day, or over four million per year.
To forestall this scenario, the Right has taken a variety of steps. In 1994, it spurred the Oklahoma legislature to pass a resolution calling on the U.S. Congress “to cease any support for the establishment of a ‘new world order’ or any form of global government.” It also takes active measures, with some ten to forty thousand individuals organized into militias that train with guns during weekends in the backwoods of Michigan, Montana, and other states, preparing for the showdown. They engage in “bluehat spotting,” or watching for U.N. troops in the United States, as well as keeping a sharp eye out for black helicopters (“When I see a helicopter without markings, I refer to it as an enemy helicopter”). They also paint over highway signs – and thereby confuse highway crews, which lose their maintenance records. To get around this problem, the Indiana Transportation Department changed its methods of keeping codes, hoping this would “reassure those in the motoring public who had these suspicions.”
The militias worry not just about defending the homeland; in addition, they increasingly challenge the government of the United States. To many on the Right, Washington has been irretrievably lost to “real” Americans, and they believe it necessary to destroy the U.S. government. William Pierce, the leading exponent of insurrection, avoids charges of seditious conspiracy by presenting his ideas in the form of novels. In The Turner Diaries, called “the bible of the extremist Right,” he recounts with chilling enthusiasm the story of the Organization, an underground racist white group financed through counterfeiting and robbing Jewish stores. The action culminates in a racial uprising and the “Day of the Rope,” when whites who have “betrayed their race” hang from tens of thousands of lampposts. Then follow massacres of Jews and blacks. Ultimately the Organization takes over the government. In a second novel, Hunter, an admiring Pierce tells the story of a single individual who kills miscegenists, Jews, and others unsuited to live in his vision of America. Pierce does not hide his operational ambitions in writing these novels: “I don’t write just for entertainment. It’s to explain things to people. I’d like to see North America become a white continent.”
Humpty Dumpty Was Pushed!
– U.S. bumper sticker, 1970s
Paranoids have the facts.
– Oliver Stone
One doesn’t have to live in the inner city or in Montana to worry about plots; conspiracy theories also flourish among society’s favored. Plenty of centrist, rich, and educated people share this disposition, including presidential candidates and important figures in popular culture.
That several recent candidates for the presidency of the United States espouse conspiracism displays the prevalence of this mentality; that none of them came close to victory points to its limits. Their numbers include three Republicans, one Democrat, and two independents.
Patrick Buchanan. Republican Patrick Buchanan ran for election in 1992 and 1996 and, the second time especially, spoke in the hoary tradition of American populism. “Real power in America belongs to the Manhattan Money Power,” he stated, recalling an archaic term referring to bank and financial interests. He raised the bogey of a New World Order, by which he meant a situation in which Americans no longer retained full sovereignty; instead, the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, World Court, and World Trade Organization would make the key decisions. He deemed American taxpayers the “designated fall guys of the New World Order.”
Pat Robertson. The American evangelist and politician Pat Robertson, a 1988 candidate, is the presidential aspirant with the most elaborate ideas about a plot against the United States; he may also be the single most influential conspiracy theorist in the contemporary United States. But, it bears noting, few of the following ideas are original to Robertson himself, and he kept them almost completely under wraps during the 1988 campaign (though he did occasionally refer to the Council on Foreign Relations, the New York-based think tank and a great bogeyman of American conspiracy theorists). Only in 1991 did he fully reveal his views, in a book titled The New World Order.
Robertson offers two very different scenarios for the New World Order, one financial, the other moral. In the first, he foresees a European seizure of American wealth via a world currency and a single global bank. The conspirator’s identity is Money Power; its motivation is a mixture of greed and a preference for the simplicity of dictatorship over the messiness of democracy. As early as 1865, European bankers arranged for Abraham Lincoln’s murder to prevent him from issuing interest-free currency, which would have broken their hold over the U.S. money supply. In 1912, to maintain that hold, the banking interests engineered a three-way race for the presidency, permitting Woodrow Wilson to win. A year later Wilson and his aide Colonel Edward House institutionalized the Money Power by getting the Sixteenth Amendment passed, permitting Congress to collect an income tax, and establishing the Federal Reserve Board. These two developments are closely connected, for the central bank relies on the income tax to advance an “international financial assault on the freedom and integrity of America.”
Robertson’s second and far uglier scenario concerns the Illuminati, the Freemasons, and extreme New Age religionists who aspire not to money but to undermine the Christian social order. To achieve this they seek “a one-world government, a one-world army, a one-world economy under an Anglo-Saxon financial oligarchy, and a world dictator served by a council of twelve faithful men.” This tyranny will attempt to “destroy the Christian faith” and “replace it with an occult-inspired world socialist dictatorship.” In another place, he foresees nothing less than a world under “the domination of Lucifer and his followers” in which spiritual forces will be set into motion “which no human being will be strong enough to contain.” Robertson offers Hitler’s attempts at world hegemony as the closest historical parallel to the “giant prison” of the New World Order.
Robertson is also strangely contradictory about the course of American history. Sometimes he implies that the country has been on the wrong track from the very start. Perhaps some founding fathers, he muses, had intended “to bring forth, not the nation that our founders and champions of liberty desired, but a totally different world order under a mystery religion.” In this context, the Masonic imagery on the Great Seal of the United States has great significance. Alternatively, he dates the rot to the time of Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902); since then American policy has moved steadily closer to the New World Order, regardless of whether Democrats or Republicans are in charge. He portrays some U.S. presidents, including Jimmy Carter and George Bush, as “men of goodwill,” but that did not prevent them from doing their part to bring on this wretched future. Robertson sees the Council on Foreign Relations (as well as the Trilateral Commission) as the New World Order’s main agent in the United States. The conspirators have not yet brought down the United States, but they did cause the Great Depression and several recessions; in addition, they “helped destroy” the Soviet bloc, China, Cuba, Nicaragua, and many countries in Southeast Asia and Africa.
Writing in 1991, Robertson finds that recent events point to “a giant plan” in which everything is “perfectly on cue.” Note the particulars: “Europe sets the date for its union. Communism collapses. A hugely popular war [against Iraq] is fought in the Middle East. The United Nations is rescued from scorn by an easily swayed public. A new world order is announced [by George Bush].” Looking ahead, Robertson sees a financial collapse that prompts the U.S. government to turn over its defense and its sovereignty to the United Nations. The U.N. then imposes socialist and anti-Christian rules. The leaders “elect a world president with plenary powers who is totally given to the religion of humanity.” The New World Order is in place.
Lyndon LaRouche. If Robertson regurgitates long-standing fears of secret societies, Lyndon LaRouche offers highly original formulations. His many references to ancient philosophers and world history give his theories a seemingly profound quality that in fact masks extreme incoherence. Indeed, so mixed up are his ideas that they almost defy characterization along the Left-Right spectrum; but he does run for office as a Democrat, he comes out of a radical leftist background, and many of his policies have a left-wing cast. Confusing matters further, LaRouche constantly redefines terms, so that a word has both its normal meaning and something like its opposite. Drug fighters become drug traffickers, Jews become Nazis, and so on. “LaRouche’s followers thus ended up with a topsy-turvy view in which the real Nazis were seen as anti-Nazis, and anti-Semitism was perceived as a moral necessity – to ‘save’ the Jews from themselves.” Conspiracism does not get much more convoluted than this.
A world conspiracy theory has served as the main platform for LaRouche’s many organizations, publications, and repeated presidential campaigns (starting in 1976). He argues that a single oligarchic conspiracy has been bedeviling mankind since the dawn of history. Its headquarters were first in Babylon, then in Rome, Venice, and now in London. The British aristocracy aspires to achieve world hegemony through conspiratorial means; the queen of England is the number 1 danger to humanity. In his view, the British gain power in large part by reducing the status of other populations through war, starvation, and contraception, and in part by drugging them with popular culture and hallucinogens. Once the British have achieved a “new Dark Ages” of unrestrained capitalism, London-based conspirators will reign supreme and will use their power to kill off large parts of the human race through nuclear weapons, AIDS, and other methods. To prevent this catastrophe, LaRouche advocates preparation for total war against Great Britain.
Alone, the British might not pose much of a threat; their strength lies in the many and varied allies and agents they employ, starting with Zionists and also including Orthodox Christians, Jesuits, Freemasons, the Rockefeller family, environmentalists, drug traffickers, and fundamentalist Muslims. Insisting that these many unrelated, even mutually hostile, elements are all working together takes LaRouche to spin bizarre hypotheses. Freemasons established the Jewish organization B’nai B’rith as a proslavery spy ring providing intelligence to the South before the Civil War. The Rothschilds assassinated Abraham Lincoln. British and German aristocrats financed the Bolsheviks, who were really nothing but the old Okhrana (tsarist secret police). The Anti-Defamation League imports drugs into the United States. A bomb in Saudi Arabia that killed nineteen American soldiers in their barracks is “a new flank” in Britain’s “war on the Clinton administration”.
LaRouche also personalizes these accusations, associating all his adversaries with the forces of darkness. The Rockefeller clan, the CIA, and their many agents are always poised to strike at him.
Ross Perot. Ross Perot, the candidate who won 19 percent of the presidential vote in 1992 and 8 percent in 1996, raised many conspiracy theories the first time he ran but learned to keep quiet about them the second. He met at least twice with the head of the Christic Institute, a fringe outfit claiming that a conspiratorial group (the “Secret Team”) runs the U.S. government even as it engages in drug trafficking and arms running. He associated with such conspiracy theorists as James “Bo” Gritz and Roy Cohn. He took seriously some woolly charges (dubbed the “October Surprise”) that George Bush in 1980 had gone to Europe to try to stop the release of American hostages in Tehran, and thereby to hurt Jimmy Carter’s electoral chances. Perot went so far as to dispatch a team to the Missouri state prison to investigate a jailbird’s claim about flying Bush home in a supersonic plane from a phantom meeting in Madrid with Iranians. Perot sees a conspiracy of neglect on the part of the U.S. government, and Bush specifically, toward captured American military men in Southeast Asia; officials shy away from this issue to hide their long-established and deeply corrupt relations with drug traffickers. Perot’s rage against these conspirators, an in-depth analysis concluded, was “at the heart, if not the very soul, of his bid for the presidency” in 1992.
Perot also has a streak of personal paranoia that especially colored his first campaign. He has frequently engaged private investigators to look into the backgrounds of employees and adversaries. Worried about attacks from his enemies among Vietnamese, Iranians, Black Panthers, drug traffickers, and their allies in the U.S. government, he routinely monitors the movements and friendships of his family members. His wife did not join him at a political rally in Florida, he announced, because “I love her too much to put her at risk.” He explained having pulled out of the presidential campaign in 1992 for six weeks due to political rivals’ engaging in “dirty tricks” to disrupt his daughter Carolyn’s wedding: “I had three reports that the Republican Party intended to publish a fake photograph of my daughter,” putting her head on another body. Of course, Perot also worries about himself. His Dallas mansion is surrounded by walls, cameras, movement sensors, alarms, and security guards; on occasion, armed with an automatic rifle, he roams the grounds. During the third debate of the 1992 presidential campaign, he announced that “the Vietnamese had sent people into Canada to make arrangement [sic] to have me and my family killed. The most significant effort they had one night is five people coming across my front yard.”
Besides these major aspirants to the presidency, several minor ones fit in the paranoid style. Fred Newman, a one-time acolyte of Lyndon LaRouche who heads the New Alliance party, a group with its own variant Marxist approach to life (“social therapy,” which blames all personal problems on racism and sexism), bears special note. Though antisemitic, the leadership (including Newman himself) is mostly Jewish. It forwards an elaborate and confusing conspiracy theory and has several times run Lenora Fulani as its candidate for president. In his 1996 presidential race, Perot joined forces with New Alliance, which also has a secret inner organization, the International Workers party.
Spiro Agnew is a special case; he did not run for the presidency but very nearly ascended to that position. Had he managed to hang on as vice president a few months longer, Agnew would have succeeded Richard Nixon in August 1974. Instead, he resigned in October 1973 because of evidence that came out about his corrupt practices when governor of Maryland. Looking back on this sequence of events, Agnew years later wrote in a private letter to Paul Findley, a prominent adversary of the Israel lobby: “I trace the advent of my difficulties to a confrontation with this same lobby.” It was not his taking kickbacks but his refusal to visit Israel, he claimed, that led to his ouster as vice president.
Much conspiracism in the United States is modish, reflecting a taste for puzzles and puzzlement. While polite society derides the rude notions of true believers, it also stylishly accepts some of their premises, as though adopting a declass pose proves one’s sophistication. Those who know better are lured by the very outlandishness and disrepute of conspiracy theories. The notion of clandestine elements’ aspiring to universal power intrigues at one level and horrifies at another; it is almost akin to the Halloween celebrations that American adults have so taken to in recent years. One analyst correctly sees this sort of thinking as a form of “distracting thrills” and discerns “habits of mind” that “positively revel in mystification.”
The modish conspiracy theory with the greatest allure remains the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963. This most elaborated and widely believed – in conspiracy theory of recent American history stands as a monument to titillation. Yes, the event shocked Americans and left many incapable of coming to terms with its senselessness, and especially with the notion that so puny an individual as Lee Harvey Oswald could singlehandedly rupture the polity. “If you put the murdered President of the United States on one side of a scale and that wretched waif Oswald on the other side, it doesn’t balance. You want to add something weightier to Oswald. . . . A conspiracy would, of course, do the job nicely.”
But disproportion and disbelief hardly account for the enormous and enduring popularity of conspiracy theories about the Kennedy killing, all of which share the common assumption that Oswald was a patsy who got framed. So successful have the Kennedy “assassinologists” been that, according to opinion polls, some two-thirds of Americans in 1963 suspected a conspiracy and 56 percent of the population still did so in 1991. Almost thirty years after the 1963 assassination, polls showed three-quarters of the American population believing Oswald was part of a conspiracy and an equal number suspecting an official cover-up of the case.
Another favorite topic of modish conspiracy theorists concerns a malign group’s taking over the government of the United States. Unlike the Right, which fears the Council on Foreign Relations or the Insiders, sophisticates play with imaginative notions about a clandestine takeover of the White House, the military, or (most commonly) the Central Intelligence Agency. These institutions get turned into conspiratorial outfits that exist within outwardly normal institutions. As the lead character in the movie Three Days of the Condor (1975) put it, “Maybe there’s another CIA inside the CIA.” In other versions, a secret group of CIA officials controls the American government and, through it, the rest of the world too.
Should a decent American citizen verge toward discovering the existence of the inner sanctum, he pays dearly. According to Joe Trento of the influential National Security News Service, a Washington-based organization, “You can’t be anybody in this town successfully in terms of official position without their approval. . . . if you do something they don’t like, you’re going to end up in trouble.” In one case concerning a top-secret military program, the conspirators supposedly bombard the wretch with disinformation about evil aliens and brain implants, eventually driving him crazy. Dozens of individuals connected to the Kennedy assassination are said to have died unnatural deaths.
A common theme concerns the U.S. government’s suppressing information about its own mischief. Prominent examples of cover-ups include the Kennedy asssassination, Vietnam-era soldiers missing in action, and a cure for cancer. Immediately after the Federal building in Oklahoma City was bombed in April 1995, the Right theorized about a first explosion’s having gone off just milliseconds before the truck bomb (i.e., it was an inside job). Similarly, when TWA flight 800 went down off New York City in July 1996, killing all 230 onboard, conspiracy theorists insisted that the cause was a missile sent up by the U.S. Navy. Perhaps the most colorful suspicions concern unidentified flying objects (UFOs) from space, and specifically the supposed crash of a UFO near Roswell, New Mexico, in July 1947. The air force is said to have conducted a high-level inquiry into the incident in the early 1950s, named Operation Majestic 12, which it then covered up. Some conspiracy theorists even see the aliens establishing a “Secret Government” in the United States and filling positions in the existing Federal government; indeed, the Trilateral Commission came into existence to negotiate with these outer-space beings because they had broken their promises.
The enduring popularity of such conspiracy theories makes them highly commercial. The estimated six million people each year who visit the site of the Kennedy assassination are a significant source of revenue to Dallas. Dealey Plaza itself has become “a conspiracy theme park, with self-anointed ‘researchers’ on hand every day peddling autopsy pictures.” Those wishing to experience the assassination more vividly can ride in an open Lincoln Continental convertible limousine from Love Field through Dealey Plaza, hear rifle sounds when they reach the spot where Kennedy was killed, then speed off to Parkland Memorial Hospital. Then they can visit a museum devoted to conspiracy theories about the assassination and featuring a 108-foot-long mural connecting it to many of the other famous deaths in recent American history. True devotees attend annual three-day conventions in Dallas, where seminars delve into details, and self-proclaimed witnesses sign their autographs.
Beyond Dallas, the Kennedy puzzle has become a mainstay of popular culture, acquiring an iconic quality. For those who want a piece of history, artifacts are for sale, but pricey. The gun Jack Ruby used to kill Oswald last sold for $200,000. Board games, t-shirts, and bumper stickers deal with the subject. Oliver Stone’s JFK, a conspiracy-saturated $50 million film about the president’s assassination, appeared in late 1991 and caused a huge surge in conspiracism. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards and Warner Brothers distributed a “JFK Study Guide” for use in high school and college history courses. It then inspired a host of other productions on the same theme such as In the Line of Fire (1993), a thriller, and a November 1996 episode of The X-Files in which an army captain killed Kennedy on behalf of his military superiors. Two thousand books have been published on this subject in thirty years; in February 1992, no fewer than four books about the Kennedy assassination filled the American best-seller lists (listed under “nonfiction,” though that may be a misnomer). A growing number of CD-ROMs and Internet sites deal with the issue. (For a listing of World Wide Web resources on this and other topics, see appendix C.) Such signs of unabated fascination point to the murder’s becoming abstracted. It is hard to argue with Gerald Posner, the leading student of the Kennedy assassination, that “the JFK murder has, regrettably, become an entertainment business.” What began as an ugly reflection of the cold war ended as murder-mystery story and cult.
At a time when it takes fewer than 100,000 in sales to make the U.S. best-seller lists, books flogging conspiracy theories claim far greater sales. Over one million sold for Pat Robertson’s New World Order; two million copies in two months for Phyllis Schlafly’s Gravediggers; five million copies in print for None Dare Call It Conspiracy; six million copies of the similarlynamed None Dare Call It Treason in just eight months after publication in 1964, and then another million. (The author claims this represents “an all-time [American] record for the sale of so many books in so short a period.”)
More than a few novels dwell on the secret society tradition. Foucault’s Pendulum playfully presents several centuries of secret society conspiracism (“If the Plan exists, it must involve everything”). Thomas Pynchon’s works take place in a fantasy of conspiratorial networks. The Illuminatus! Trilogy is a three-volume science-fiction novel based on the Illuminati phobia by two former Playboy magazine editors, Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson. Relying on what the authors call “guerilla ontology,” the novel attempts to create doubts in the reader’s mind about the nature of reality. It tells of two competing conspiracies, between order and chaos, and includes virtually every known conspiracy theory plus a few the authors made up for good measure (for example, that Adam Weishaupt quietly murdered George Washington and then replaced him). Illuminatus! became a cult best-seller, spawning a board game and spurring Wilson on to mine the same rich vein by writing many more imaginative books about conspiracies.
Feature films on conspiratorial themes abound and do well commercially. In addition to the Kennedy theme, prominent examples include The Wilby Conspiracy (19xx), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Seven Days in May (1964), The President’s Analyst (1967), The Package (1989), Total Recall (1990), Point of No Return (1993), Shadow Conspiracy (1997), and The Conspiracy Theory (1997). Television series with a conspiratorial content include Dark Skies, The Fugitive, The Lazarus Man, Millennium, The Pretender, Profiler, Twin Peaks, and The X-Files. Some of these stories toy with petty conspiracies; Capricorn One (1978) exposes the first manned flight to Mars as a hoax filmed on a stage set (and may have the distinction of portraying black helicopters for the first time as the enemy of righteous Americans). But world conspiracy theories make a more tempting subject. “People are funny,” announces a character in the television series Nowhere Man. “They tend to fancy notions like democracy, freedom of speech, free elections. It’s an illusion, of course.” A computer game called Interstate ’76 simulates a conspiracy by the oil-exporting states to destroy energy supplies in the United States, and so cripple the country.
Reviewing the prodigious output of conspiracist materials from the vantage point of 1997, one analyst notes that what was once specific to politics has had a “domino effect” in the realm of culture. “In the last year or so, conspiracy thinking has been used as a narrative model by everyone from novelists to the makers of blockbuster movies.”
Consistent with this thrill-seeking approach, some American conspiracy theorists reach for anarchic hyperbole. To them, all the world is a staged reality. Though not a believer himself, Charles Paul Freund of the Washington Post captures this fear:
Let’s say that everything you know is not only wrong, it is a carefully wrought lie. Let’s say that your mind is filled with falsehoods – about yourself, about history, about the world around you – planted there by powerful forces so as to lull you into complacency. Your freedom is thus an illusion. You are in fact a pawn in a plot, and your role is that of a compliant dupe – if you’re lucky. If and when it serves the interests of others, your role will change: Your life will be disrupted, you could go penniless and hungry; you might have to die.
Nor is there anything you can do about this. Oh, if you happen to get a whiff of the truth you can try to warn people, to undermine the plotters by exposing them. But in fact you’re up against too much. They’re too powerful, too far-flung, too invisible, too clever. Like others before you, you will fail.
Unconstrained, conspiracism leads to doubts about everything, bringing life itself under suspicion. In this spirit, Jonathan Vankin writes that “civilization is a conspiracy against reality.” Oliver Stone, one of Hollywood’s most renowned movie producers, asks the conspiracy theorist’s ultimate questions: “Who owns reality? Who owns your mind?” His answers allow little room for debate: “I’ve come to have severe doubts about Columbus, about Washington, about the Civil War being fought over slavery, about World War I, about World War II and the supposed fight against Nazism and Japanese control of resources . . . I don’t even know if I was born or who my parents were.” Thus does thrill-seeking twist itself into absolute nihilism.
What is the importance of conspiracy theories and their potential to do damage? To reply requires an understanding of their background, for paranoid ideas current in the United States today are anything but new; nearly all their basic themes originated in other places and times. While a Farrakhan or Robertson may seem to respond to current issues and personalities, he is actually following an almost prewritten scenario, fitting his concerns into a text written decades or centuries earlier. Knowledge of the established literary traditions of conspiracism provides the context for the here and now and explains their likely consequences. Accordingly, this study focuses on the origins and evolution of conspiracy theories with a look over to Europe and back two and a half centuries.
Before taking up these historical subjects, however, we pause to consider the subject at hand and the peculiar challenges that it poses to research.