There is a hunger for conspiracy news in America. Hundreds of Internet websites, magazines, newsletters, even entire publishing houses, disseminate information on invisible enemies and their secret activities, subversions, and coverups. Those who suspect conspiracies behind events in the newsthe crash of TWA Flight 800, the death of Marilyn Monroejoin generations of Americans, from the colonial period to the present day, who have entertained visions of vast plots. In this enthralling book Robert Goldberg focuses on five major conspiracy theories of the past half-century, examining how they became widely popular in the United States and why they have remained so.
In the post–World War II decades conspiracy theories have become more numerous, more commonly believed, and more deeply embedded in our culture, Goldberg contends. He investigates conspiracy theories regarding the Roswell UFO incident, the Communist threat, the rise of the Antichrist, the assassination of President John Kennedy, and the Jewish plot against black America, in each case taking historical, social, and political environments into account. Conspiracy theories are not merely the products of a lunatic fringe, the author shows. Rather, paranoid rhetoric and thinking are disturbingly central in America today. With media validation and dissemination of conspiracy ideas, and federal government behavior that damages public confidence and faith, the ground is fertile for conspiracy thinking.
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About the Author
Robert Alan Goldberg is professor of history at the University of Utah. He is the author of Barry Goldwater, published by Yale University Press.
Read an Excerpt
An American Tradition
... a series of oppressions, begun at a distinguished period
and pursued unalterably through every change of
ministers, too plainly prove a deliberate and systematic
plan of reducing us to slavery.
And it shall come in a day when the blood of saints shall
cry unto the Lord, because of secret combinations and the
works of darkness.
Mormon 8:27, Book of Mormon
To assume that the [Japanese] enemy has not planned
fifth column activities for us in a wave of sabotage is simply
to live in a fool's paradise.
Earl Warren, 1942
Conspiracy thinking is not American born. The Latin word conspirareto breathe togethersuggests both drama and a deeply rooted past. The fear of conspiracy was a prominent feature on the mental maps of the first English settlers in the New World. Early colonists suspected both neighbors and strangers of secret alliances and dangerous plots. Subsequent waves of immigrants not only invigorated traditional beliefs but expanded the pool of potential conspirators. Well into the twentieth century, Europeans would cue their American kin about the means and ends of conspiracy and its perpetrators.
Yet conspiracy imaging has also adapted and developed traits reflective of the American environment. It drew life from a sense of mission that convinced Americans of their special role in history. The Reverend Jonathan Edwards explained: "WhenGod is about to turn the earth into a paradise, he does not begin his work where there is some growth already, but in the wilderness." President Woodrow Wilson was similarly mindful of the holy mandate. Presenting his League of Nations treaty to the Senate in 1919, he announced: "The stage is set, the destiny disclosed. It has come about by no plan of our conceiving, but by the hand of God who led us into this way. We cannot turn back. We can only go forward, with lifted eyes and freshened spirit, to follow the vision." God's people, particularly Protestants, had to be on guard to realize their calling. Revolutionary success would raise aspirations of America's purpose. It would also awaken new conspirators eager to undermine the workings of the republic at home and abroad. American diversity contributed energy to the national dynamic. At the same time, it deepened suspicions of unfamiliar identities and gnawed at the sense of internal security. Resonating with core values and fueled by ethnic, racial, and religious differences, conspiracy thinking became an American tradition.
When Puritans disembarked from the Arbella in 1630, they knew that the Massachusetts colony would soon be a battleground. Their errand into the wilderness was to raise a Bible commonwealth devoted to God's commandments. "The God of Israel is among us," Governor John Winthrop announced, and "we shall be as a city upon a hill," offering the model of holiness that would surely regenerate the world. The Puritans were just as certain that the enemies of the Lord were close at hand. Indian peoples, whether Pequots, Narragansetts, or Wampanoags, became actors in the supernatural drama, the minions of Satan who would wage savage war against the visible saints. Battling for the Lord against the Satanic conspiracy justified cruelty, and atrocities were common. Even the converted "praying" Indians could expect little quarter. Contested spaces and tribal names changed, but the cry of conspiracy, real and imagined, remained constant and echoed throughout the history of the westward movement.
If Indian peoples stood outside the walls, Satan also counted allies within. During the seventeenth century, New Englanders repeatedly heard and believed the accusation of witchcraft, a reminder of the importance of their holy work. Magistrates presided over more than 240 cases, reviewing evidence that the Devil was "loose" in Massachusetts. He had, the Boston minister Cotton Mather reported after consulting the Book of Revelation, "decoyed a fearful knot of proud, forward, ignorant, envious, and malicious creatures, to list themselves in his service." In making their "Diabolical Compact" with Satan, members of the "witch gang" were granted supernatural powers to torment God's anointed and agitate their communities. Now they gathered at "prodigious witch meetings," to "concert and consult" about "the methods of rooting out the Christian religion from the country." In all, Puritan courts condemned thirty-six women and men to death. Those who confessed to escape the gallows only fueled the fire of conspiracy thinking.
Events in Salem village in 1691 and 1692 accounted for most of the victims. Over a period of ten months, forty-eight young girls denounced mainly isolated, middle-aged women of low social and economic status for "entertaining" Satan and attempting to lure them into a conspiracy. Proof of the plot was abundant. Repeatedly, townspeople witnessed the torment of the accusers, who shrieked and writhed, tortured by invisible hands. Salem minister Samuel Parris drew the line sharply: "Here are but two parties in the world: the Lamb and his followers, and the dragon and his followers.... Here are no neuters. Everyone is on one side or the other." Of the approximately two hundred women and men charged in Salem, twenty were executed. This was a small number, Cotton Mather declared, for "It is not one Devil alone, that has Cunning or Power enough to apply the Multitudes of Temptations, whereby Mankind is daily diverted from the Service of God; No, the High Places of our Air, are Swarming full of those Wicked Spirits."
Historians have mined the records for generations and have broached diverse scenarios to explain the happenings in Salem: personal animosities, local conflicts, population pressures on exhausted land, and the imperial challenge to the Puritan theocracy. Against this backdrop, they naturally mount a defense of the innocent and carefully note the counterconspiracythe collusion among the accusers, who were abetted by politically ambitious officials and clergy eager to defend their authority. The playwright Arthur Miller, tuned to the conspiratorial atmosphere of Salem, made it a metaphor for his own times, the witch hunt of the 1950s known as McCarthyism. There were, Miller wrote of Salem, "wheels within wheels in this village, and fires within fires!"
Witches troubled Americans less in the eighteenth century. New foes were not long in appearing. The citizens of New York City found that the enemy within the gate was a Trojan horse of their own making. In 1712 slaves rose in a "bloody conspiracy" to avenge "some hard usage" at the hands of their masters. Bound by a blood oath and armed with guns, knives, and hatchets, they set a fire to lure their white masters into a killing field. For the nine whites who died, twenty-one blacks were condemned to death: "Some were burnt," wrote Governor Robert Hunter, "others hanged, one broke on the wheel, and one hung alive in chains." Events three decades later reflect the dance between the real and the imagined. In 1741, the rumor of black conspiracy was sufficient cause to hang proactively eighteen blacks and burn another eleven at the stake. The fear of slave conspiracies fired white imaginations for more than a century, with actual plots swelling the power of countersubversives.
The chant of conspiracy offered the Revolutionary generation both explanation and a spur to action. Why had the British violated the peace that so long had characterized imperial-colonial relations? What design could be divined from the diverse parliamentary measures and taxes passed in the 1760s and 1770s? American newspaper editors, politicians, and clergymen searching for a rationale quickly rejected as groundless the Empire's avowed defense needs and requirements of administrative efficiency. More consistent with experience, they discerned a diabolical and willful pattern to events. In this, the colonists had learned their lessons well from England's opposition leaders and a recent history scarred with Jacobite uprisings and French conspiracies. Liberty was in danger. Corrupt government ministers, arrogant in their power, were plotting to destroy the rights of Englishmen and women. Thomas Jefferson spoke for many: "A series of oppressions, begun at a distinguished period and pursued unalterably through every change of ministers, too plainly prove a deliberate and systematic plan of reducing us to slavery." When combined with the sense of American exceptionalism and traditional distrust of government, the image of conspiracy became vivid. In linking events, conspiracy thinking accelerated the rush to revolution.
The articulate shared their vision of conspiracy, and a broad colonial consensus organized against the threat. In 1765 widespread resistance confronted the collectors of the Stamp Tax, and a boycott of British goods pressured repeal. Jonathan Mayhew warned fellow Americans not to relax their guard against "evil-minded individuals ... who spared no wicked arts, no deceitful, no dishonorable, no dishonest means.... Power aims at extending itself, and operating according to mere will.... While men sleep, then the enemy cometh and soweth tares." Committees of correspondence circulated a conspiracy interpretation that made the writs of assistance, a standing army, restrictions on trade, and taxes into shackles of slavery forged to weaken the will and ability to resist tyranny. Declared the Boston town meeting in 1770, "many recent events ... afford great reason to believe that a deep-laid and desperate plan of imperial despotism has been laid, and partially executed, for the extinction of all civil liberty." When Protestants perceived a link between legislation granting Canadian Catholics religious toleration and the Coercive Acts that punished Boston for its Tea Party and restricted the power of town meetings throughout Massachusetts, the mask was off the conspiracy. The pope stood behind the English throne. The revolutionary cause had become holy, a crusade against not only tyranny but papal power.
Still, Americans would cross the last bridge to independence only when they convinced themselves that their king was not only aware of the plot but a coconspirator. In sealing the connection, Thomas Jefferson enshrined conspiracy in the Declaration of Independence, proclaiming the people's right to revolution "when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism." Americans more steeped in the biblical Book of Revelation would go farther, identifying King George III as the Antichrist. They had discovered that the numerical conversion of the Hebrew and Greek translations of "royal supremacy in Great Britain" totaled 666. Across the Atlantic Ocean, British ministers similarly talked conspiracy to explain the changing fortunes of empire. Even the king was convinced that he had been the victim of a "desperate conspiracy."
Conspiracy thinking did not abate when the British threat was turned aside. In the 1780s and 1790s, a struggle for control of the new republic played out in conspiratorial charge and countercharge. Political activists who curried favor by imagining their opponents as aristocratic counterrevolutionaries were tarred in reply as demagogic proponents of "mobocracy." Shays's Rebellion, the conflict over the ratification of the Constitution, and the Whiskey Rebellion provided abundant grist for countersubversives in an age flush with conspiracy explanations.
Nor was America immune to new foreign contagions. Particularly insidious to New England Federalists was the Order of the Illuminati, a secret society of freethinkers that preached resistance to state authority and vowed to destroy ecclesiastical power. Birthed in Bavaria in 1776 by professor of law Adam Weishaupt, the Illuminati was said to have penetrated France by means of the secret Freemason fraternal order and then to have engineered the Revolution. The Order sighted the United States as the next target. The Reverend Jedediah Morse was among the first to sound the alarm, warning that "the world was in the grip of a secret revolutionary conspiracy." In words that were echoed during the Red Scare of the 1950s, Morse convinced listeners: "I now have in my possession complete and indubitable proof ... an official, authenticated list of the names, ages, places of nativity, [and] professions of the officers and members of a society of Illuminati."
Congress acted in the wake of the Illuminati scare and amid concerns that French intrigues in national politics had, in President John Adams's words, placed America "in a hazardous and afflictive position." In summer 1798 it passed the Alien Act, which authorized the president to arrest and expel foreign nationals involved "in any treasonable or secret machinations against the government." The Sedition Act followed, limiting the freedoms of speech and press and setting fines and terms of imprisonment for those who "unlawfully combine or conspire together with intent to oppose any measure or measures of the government." The threat did not match the response; the new republic proved less fragile than its creators assumed. Somewhat more substantive was the abortive plot of Vice President Aaron Burr to split the western territories from the United States. This scheme, too, hardly broke the surface of American history.
Concerns about the Freemasons reappeared in the 1820s. In the "age of the common man," a rapidly growing, exclusive, secret society ran counter to a prevailing ideology that rejected privilege and pretensions of superior status. The republic must be saved, proclaimed the Vermont anti-Mason Edward Barber, from a "haughty aristocracy," a "monster" that has sunk its "fangs into the bosom of the Constitution." Suspicion ignited activism in 1826 when a New York Mason who threatened to expose the secrets of his order was kidnaped and murdered. Authorities were unable to solve the crime, sparking rumors that fraternal discipline had held them in check and allowed the guilty to escape justice. This touched off a mass movement that spread to New England and the Midwest and launched a third party, the first in U.S. history. The future was in the balance. Freemasonry, General William Wadsworthrevealed, was the master plot: "Every religion and conspiracy which had agitated Europe for the last fifty years may be distinctly traced [to it], and the secret workings of this all pervading order can be clearly seen." The Reverend Nathaniel Emmons of Massachusetts concurred: it was the "darkest and deepest plot that ever was formed in this wicked world against the true God, the true religion, and the temporal and eternal interests of mankind." Among the prominent Americans supporting the anti-Masonic movement were John Quincy Adams, William Lloyd Garrison, and Thurlow Weed.
Concurrent with the anti-Masonic furor, Americans added Mormons to the company of plotters. Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs was blunt: "The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated ... if necessary, for the public peace." The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was one of several American-born sects that emerged from a region of New York burned over by repeating waves of religious enthusiasm. It was not the preaching of communitarianism and end-times prophecy that differentiated Mormons in American eyes nor their claim as the one true church. Rather, it was the vengeance of Mormon enterprise in building their city of God. Americans imagined Mormons as soldiers who moved in lockstep to the command of their prophet Joseph Smith. Converts to Mormonism seemed to have escaped from freedom, obeying orders to vote as a bloc and pooling financial resources for the church's good. The prophet's revival of the practice of polygamy affronted moral sensibilities and made the situation more urgent. A broad coalition of religious, political, and economic opponents forced the saints to flee New York, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois, with haven finally found in Utah. Fear of the "Mormon Power" and its "ecclesiastical despotism" was not quieted for decades and could still be felt at the end of the nineteenth century. Perhaps a reflection of the true Americanism of the church, the index of the Book of Mormon contains one-half page of citations for "secret combinations," with appended supplementary references.
Even more appalling to Protestant Americans was the papist plot that flared in the decades before the Civil War. The "tyrant of the Tiber" had for centuries proven a tenacious adversary. Now he renewed the assault, and "the cloven foot of this subtle foreign heresy," warned Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph and son of the Reverend Jedediah Morse, was pressing upon the neck of Protestant America. Nativists accused Catholics of placing their allegiance to the pope above their loyalty to the United States. Catholics, enslaved by the secrets they had disclosed in the confessional, were herded to the polls and voted as commanded. Once the Catholic hierarchy had control of government, it would end the separation of church and state, ban the Bible, and destroy the freedoms of press, speech, and religion. The Irish immigration was an essential component of the papal conspiracy. Here were the foot soldiers of the pope's crusade, ready to bully Protestants into submission while voting Catholics to power. The sins of the Catholic Church were not merely political. "Its whole energy," insisted Presbyterian minister Lyman Beecher, "has been put forth to corrupt the principles and debauch the morals of mankind; ... it has been the great teacher of fraud, perfidy, perjury, and murder; ... it has deluged the nations with the blood of the saints."
A brisk market developed for anti-Catholic conspiracy theories. Books like "ex-nun" Maria Monk's Confessions, purportedly exposing the sexual secrets of the nunnery, satisfied readers with more prurient appetites. Fears degenerated into violence in 1834 when a Protestant mob in Charleston, Massachusetts, burned the Ursuline Convent; ten years later in Philadelphia rioting left twenty dead and scores wounded. During the 1850s, the American Party, more popularly known as the Know-Nothings, championed nativist concerns in politics and showed significant strength in New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. Protestants did not find relief from their fears of popish plotting for another century.
Fears of Masons, Mormons, and Catholics faded as the North and South drifted apart and toward civil war. In making sense of decades of sectional conflict rooted in economic difference and ideological divergence, leaders on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line found comfort in conspiracy thinking. Their newspapers, sermons, and stump speeches cut subversive images in bold relief, recasting the unintentional and coincidental as malevolent premeditation. Both northerners and southerners, finding these signals consistent with traditional beliefs and fears, were receptive and used them to assert sectional identities and mobilize energies for struggle. In a cycle of action and reaction, conspiracy charges frayed and eventually tore the bonds of union.
In the late 1830s abolitionists, opposing slavery as an immoral institution that robbed blacks of their humanity, initiated an attack on the slave-power conspiracy. Large plantation owners and slaveholders, the "slaveocracy," were leveraging their wealth and power to intimidate the federal government and advance the slavery evil. These "Lords of the Lash," in league with the northern moneyed "Lords of the Loom," cried Wendell Phillips, had plotted slavery's expansion by annexing Texas, provoking the Mexican War, and organizing filibustering expeditions to secure new lands in Latin America. In the 1850s, the abolitionists were joined in countersubversion by the more numerous antislavery activists. Unlike abolitionists who opposed slavery because of its consequences for black people, they focused on the slave power's conspiracy against white northerners. If not conspiracy, how could a long history of abuse of constitutional rights be explained? The House of Representatives' gag rule restricting the right of petition, mob attacks on the freedoms of speech and press, the banning of antislavery literature from the mails, and unwarranted searches in southern cities revealed the hidden hand raised against antislavery advocates. "Incidents are no longer incidents," concluded antislavery proponent Stephen Embro. "They are links in the chain of demonstration, infallible, plain, conclusive."
The slave power also posed an economic threat. Western land beckoned to white yeomen farmers, offering a ladder of mobility. Yet without territorial curbs on the plantation system, the promise of economic opportunity was empty; northern farmers knew that they could not compete against slave labor. The slaveocracy, however, would not accept restraints, for it demanded virgin soil for cotton production and new markets for a surplus slave population. New slave states also maintained southern parity in the U.S. Senate and balanced the northern-dominated House of Representatives. Cunningly, slaveholders concealed their territorial ambitions behind a plan to build a transcontinental railroad and with northern confederates passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. This legislation repealed the Missouri Compromise, which had restricted slavery's domain for thirty years. Land long closed to the advance of slavery had now opened. A sense of betrayal ignited indignation in meetings across the North. From them emerged the Republican Party, which stood on a platform of free soil, free labor, free men. Three years later, the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision prohibited Congress and its agents from restricting slavery in the territories. Many, including Abraham Lincoln, were convinced that the conspiracy had reached the highest levels of government. Powerful foes had besieged the Constitution and the northern economic future. Northerners would surrender neither without a fight. The bloody war that followed would confirm them in conspiracy thinking. Surely, Abraham Lincoln's death by conspiracy in the final act of the Civil War was their irrefutable proof.
White southerners took pride in a distinctive way of life; Dixie was the land of the large mansion houses where cotton was king. Slavery was their foundation, and whites were convinced that it was God-given, scientifically sanctioned, and uniquely productive. The antislavery movement thus challenged the core of their community. Whether they owned slaves or not, the majority of southerners were determined to resist the threat to law, property, and racial order. South Carolina Congressman James Hammond expressed a shared opinion: "I warn the abolitionists, ignorant and infatuated barbarians as they are, that if chance shall throw any of them into our hands, they may expect a felon's death." But the danger of "incendiary" abolitionist literature touched deeper fears. While they persuaded themselves that slaves were happy and docile, southerners armed for their lives in preparation for black insurrection. Those who spoke in countersubversive tones did not lack for examples. In spinning the incidents of conspiracy into a tight web, the South built solidarity and resolve. At the same time, it lost perspective and created a menace out of scale and more cohesive than the evidence allowed.
Excerpted from Enemies Within by Robert Alan Goldberg. Copyright © 2001 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
Table of Contents
|Chapter 1.||An American Tradition||1|
|Chapter 2.||The Master Conspiracy||22|
|Chapter 3.||The Rise of the Antichrist||66|
|Chapter 4.||The View from the Grassy Knoll||105|
|Chapter 5.||Jewish Devils and the War on Black America||150|
|Chapter 6.||The Roswell Incident||189|
|Chapter 7.||Mainstreaming Conspiracism||232|