15 February 2009

Theories of Conspiracy

Kathryn S. Olmstead's Real Enemies is a new history of modern American political conspiracy theories, dating back nearly 100 years to this country's entry into World War I. Olmstead is interested in a particular type of conspiracy theory that she seems to define as distinctively American. While past conspiracy theories focused on alleged subversive entities like the Bavarian Illuminati, Americans have become obsessed with the notion of conspiracies within the government, or with conspiracies by governments to extend their control over the people. As Olmstead points out, these ideas developed in response to a real expansion in the power and scope of the U.S. government in the early 20th century, and have flourished ever since in part because our government has conducted conspiracies and cover-ups.

World War I was an unprecedented foreign entanglement for the United States, and one which far from everybody welcomed. Many Americans, particularly those from ethnicities hostile toward Great Britain, saw no reason why this country should take Britain's side against Germany. Along with pacifists and socialists, they were shocked when Woodrow Wilson, who had just been re-elected on the boast that he had kept the country out of the war, pulled us right in. This abrupt change had to be accounted for, especially once Wilson answered opposition with repression, closing newspapers and jailing dissidents. Some blamed dubious counselors like Col. Edward House, while others accused a wider clique of British sympathizers. After the war, attention turned to parties presumed to benefit from a war policy: bankers and munitions manufacturers. Congress actually held hearings to find out whether these groups exerted undue influence on Wilson, but Olmstead reports that the investigators never found a "smoking gun" that would prove any party guilty. Instead, she blames Wilson himself for lying to the American people about his intentions during the 1916 election.

The congressional hearings indicated widespread second thoughts about the war experience that made many Americans reluctant to approach war with Germany a second time. Many of the same people who opposed American entry into the first war resisted the second. There was also a generational continuity: Charles Lindbergh, the hero aviator and a leader of the America First movement, was the son of a Congressman who saw an anti-war book destroyed by the government in 1918. The "isolationists" shared some of the earlier generation's Anglophobia, with some leaders injecting an extra element of anti-Semitism. All seemed to share a fear of Franklin D. Roosevelt and a belief that FDR was stoking a war fever in order to consolidate his own power and become a de facto if not an outright dictator. The New Deal meant another expansion of government power, and those who resisted the trend saw FDR's provocations of Germany and Japan as part of a self-aggrandizing personal agenda. Their fears became conspiracy theories after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Conspiracy theories derived in part from a racist reluctance to admit that the Japanese were capable of pulling off such a coup, as well as from pre-existing resistance to entering the war and dislike of FDR.

In this case, Olmstead explains that there was a cover-up that partly accounts for Pearl Harbor. The U.S. had broken Japan's diplomatic codes, and knew that an attack against American forces was planned for the end of 1941. According to Olmstead, who bases her account on extensive secondary literature, at no point before December 7 did the U.S. government or military know that Japan had chosen Pearl as its target. But because the military did not want to give Japan any cause to suspect that their codes had been broken, the top brass gave only vague information to personnel at Pacific bases, and nothing that would have given the commanders at Pearl cause to prepare for an imminent attack. Whether this can be interpreted as FDR being willing to let an attack happen remains open to speculation, but Olmstead concludes that the charge that the President "knew" about the Pearl Harbor attack is false.

Absence of "smoking gun" evidence didn't stop FDR-haters from seeing a conspiracy at work in his administration. It didn't help that some extreme isolationists got nearly the same treatment as World War I dissidents, though the repression wasn't as widespread the second time around. Any repression only furthered the impression among conspiracy theorists that the government itself was a conspirator against individual liberty. Worse yet, because war meant an alliance with the Soviet Union, anti-communism became a major element of reactionary conspiracy theories. From this point, Olmstead describes an ironic dialectic. Up to this point, an anti-statist ideology pervaded conspiracy theorydom. But once some of the anti-FDR and anti-communist conspiracy theorists got into power through the Republican party after the war, they showed no scruples about using state power to go after the enemies they accused of conspiring against liberty. The one constant from the beginning was the role of J. Edgar Hoover, who worked for Wilson as a young man, for FDR as head of the FBI, and for the Republicans as the nation's leading Red-hunter. But as anti-communism came to be identified with Joe McCarthy's tendency to bend the truth and the often irrational persecution of mere leftists, a left-wing conspiracy theory arose, according to which reactionary forces were conspiring to take control of the government in order to suppress dissent against Cold War adventurism. As Olmstead argues, left-wing conspiracy theories prepared the ground for an epidemic of conspiracy mongering following the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Leftists were ready to believe that reactionary elements persisted in the government, and were capable of killing a potential threat in the form of JFK. Olmstead's own view is that there was a conspiracy following the assassination, or at least a cover-up. She follows Gus Russo and other writers in attributing the cover-up to Lyndon Johnson's twofold fear that revelations about Kennedy's efforts to have Fidel Castro killed would embarrass the government, and that the possible discovery of Cuban ties to Lee Harvey Oswald would have led to an irresistible public clamor for a war that would probably have gone nuclear. But independent researchers in the 1960s could not know Johnson's motives. Any evidence of a cover-up only seemed to point to the government's guilt in the murder. Subsequent revelations about Kennedy-era plots and would-be conspiracies like the infamous Operation Northwoods were evidence enough to convince assassination buffs that the government was capable of anything.

Olmstead finds noteworthy the democratization of conspiracy theory in the JFK era. Previously, she suggests, conspiracy theorists were a clique already possessed of some power and influence. But given events that mostly played out live before millions of pairs of Americans' eyes, individual citizens appointed themselves investigators and assumed themselves qualified to question the government account of events. The seeds of distrust sown by generations of official secrecy and deception bore fruit in the widespread assumption that governments always deceive and politicians always have ulterior motives. The return of Richard Nixon did nothing to refute those assumptions. Nixon himself assumed that a liberal establishment was conspiring to destroy him, and acted in kind, creating secret organizations to spy on and harass his alleged enemies. The Watergate scandal only confirmed conspiracists' assumptions about government, as did the Church Committee investigations of covert CIA exploits. The synthesis of nearly a century of dialectic conspiracy theorizing is the "9/11 Truth" movement, which assumes that the government either allowed the 2001 terrorist attacks to happen or perpetrated them itself.

From the 1970s forward, conspiracy theories grew more outlandish as the Roswell legend made aliens a plausible factor in some formulae and George H.W. Bush's declaration of a "New World Order" alarmed all kinds of anti-statists. Olmstead closes her book by arguing that the best defense against irrational conspiracy theories is greater openness on the part of government and a greater insistence on facts to back up any theory propounded by government or individuals. This sounds like too easy an answer that fails to take into account the irrationality that favors conspiracy theories independent of available evidence. Olmstead declares herself reluctant to psychoanalyze conspiracy theory, but there is something about the demand for easy answers and scapegoats, the essential elements of all conspiracy theory, that history alone can't account for. I don't want to say that every conspiracy theorist is crazy, but in many cases the defensiveness that underlies conspiracy theories has something that strikes me as a pathological aspect, an overinsistence on the threat to one's personal freedom or even one's identity that doesn't seem justified by the source of the perceived threat. I also wonder whether there's something peculiarly American about the country's conspiracy theories based on our strong cultural emphasis on individualism and the Cold War fetishization of "freedom" as an end unto itself. Taking that into consideration, it's odd to find that much of the 9/11 conspiracy theory was first popularized in France, while the fact that Muslim countries have 9/11 theories of their own is well known.

Olmstead's book isn't a discussion of conspiracy theory as a concept unto itself. She's not interested in describing patterns or other commonalities of conspiracy theories, since she's mainly interested in describing several specific 20th century American phenomena. That leaves me to say something about conspiracy theories. Theorists will often argue that existing evidence supports their viewpoint, or they will challenge skeptics to produce evidence to disprove the conspiracy. This talk of evidence leaves a question begging: what is a conspiracy? There are some obvious dictionary answers, but I'm not sure if they apply when someone theorizes that a nation or the entire world is ruled by a secret clique. To be a theory, conspiracy theory must be falsifiable in some way. It must be expressed in a way that allows it to be tested and verified -- or proved false. For a conspiracy theory to be meaningful, it must describe an anomalous state of affairs. This automatically excludes those leftists or anarchists who believe that "power" always acts a certain way. A true conspiracy theorist should be able to describe how the nation would be governed, how the world would work, or how recent events would have turned out differently in the absence of the conspiracy. They should be able to do so in more specific terms than "justice would prevail" or "the people would rule." They need a prior understanding on how human affairs or society as a whole might be governed normally, or correctly, in order to indicate where and how a conspiracy has distorted the process. Working from that understanding, they ought to be able to describe how a conspiracy can effectively be dismantled or overthrown -- in more detail than "getting the information out there." If they cannot do this, conspiracy theorists really aren't doing anything more than expressing frustration at their own powerlessness in a complex world. Conspiracy theory may not go away until citizens are not only better informed about their government, but better empowered to play their proper role in it.

Rather than judge Olmstead's book for not being what she didn't mean it to be, I want to recommend it as a reasonably concise yet detailed introduction to some of the major conspiracy theories of American history. It's an interesting narrative in its own right, and might serve as a jumping-off point for people who remain determined to figure out some of the lingering controversies of the past for themselves.

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