In the last twenty years, one of the most well-known, enduring, and highly contentious conspiracy theories has surrounded the emergence of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Essentially, this theory proposes that HIV was a human-made virus and was either accidentally, or more likely deliberately, introduced into the human population. But beyond this consensus, AIDS conspiracy theories come in a wide variety of forms, especially around the objectives and targets of the conspiracy. Among the issues raised by AIDS conspiracy theories are the relation between science and politics, the history of chemical and biological warfare, race and genocide, and the effects of conspiracy theories in general on health, behavior, and politics.
Almost since the beginning of the AIDS crisis, conspiracy theories were among the explanations that were used to try to account for this new mysterious disease. While official virologists and others were isolating the HIV/HTLV virus in France and the United States, the account of its origin was (and still is) debated. The Green Monkey Hypothesis (the belief that the virus jumped species in Africa) was becoming dominant during late 1980s. Also receiving publicity at this time was the conspiracy-tinged conservative moralism that blamed the victims of AIDS for sinful behavior. But as far back as 1983 stickers appeared in gay urban districts (like the Castro area in San Francisco) proclaiming that AIDS emerged from a government laboratory, not the gay community. Helped along by the gay press and word of mouth, the theory that AIDS was human-made began to receive attention.
In 1984, the Indian newspaper the New Delhi Patriot charged that AIDS was a genetically engineered agent. Citing an anonymous U.S. anthropologist as well as U.S. Army research literature, the article asserted that HIV was created at the U.S. Army’s Biological Warfare Laboratory at Fort Det-rick, Maryland. About a year later, a Soviet journal picked up the story and began to cover the allegations regularly. This series, along with a Pravda cartoon depicting a U.S. scientist exchanging a vial containing the AIDS virus for money from a U.S. military man, made the AIDS conspiracy theory vulnerable to the charge of being Soviet disinformation. But soon a number of researchers and doctors on both sides of the Iron Curtain began to investigate the murky origins of AIDS. The following sections elaborate the variety of conspiracy theories that emerged from these investigations.
The Early Researchers
In 1986 East German scientists Jakob and Lilli Segal self-published a fifty-two-page pamphlet titled AIDS: USA Home-Made Evil. In it they introduce the splice theory of HIV, which most subsequent conspiracy theories adopt. In essence, the splice theory argues that HIV is a result of the scientifically engineered, artificial splicing of two or more already existing viruses (both human and other animal). In the Segals’ account, an artificial splice between a visna (sheep) virus and a human one (HTLV-1) produced HIV. The Segals claimed that this splice was performed at Fort Detrick, Maryland (the U.S. military base for chemical and biological weapons research and development), thereby introducing the chemical-biological warfare (CBW) context to explain AIDS. However, the Segals did not promote the idea that the virus was deliberately introduced into the general populace. They argued that the virus was tested on some U.S. prison inmates, who accidentally spread it to New York’s gay community. The Segals blamed the epidemic on general U.S. malfeasance, especially the unethical use of scientific experiments, and called for more scientific research into the matter.
The Segals’ claims were dismissed by some as KGB disinformation and embraced by others who used the research for their own theories. Perhaps the most infamous of these followers is Dr. William C. Douglass. His book, AIDS: The End of Civilization, accepted the visna/HTLV splice theory and its origin at Fort Detrick, but asserted that the virus was deliberately introduced into the populace. Douglass believed that AIDS was a Communist plot to destroy Western civilization, and that Soviet agents in the U.S. scientific and military communities were responsible for its creation. In addition, Douglass added the claim (which others subsequently picked up) that the World Health Organization (WHO) orchestrated HIV’s spread in Africa, while the Center for Disease Control (CDC) was responsible for its spread in the United States. He also asserted that AIDS could be contracted through casual contact (e.g., mosquitoes and saliva). Douglass’s work concludes with a call to boost law-and-order measures in the United States (including quarantining HIV-positive people), dismantling the WHO and the United Nations, and fighting communism in general. In an ironic twist, the Segals’ theory, which was labeled KGB propaganda by some, was turned into an anticommunist conspiracy theory.
Another influential conspiracy theorist in this vein is Dr. Robert Strecker, head of the Strecker Group. Strecker’s major work is a low-budget video titled The Strecker Memorandum, which was made available via mail-order. The video primarily consists of Strecker lecturing to a handful of people (including the video’s producer) and explaining his theory on a chalkboard. Strecker argues there that HIV is a result of a visna virus being spliced with a bovine (cow) virus, and that this new virus was deliberately introduced into the populace via vaccine programs by the WHO in Africa and the CDC in the United States. Strecker also promoted the casual contact model of the virus, believing that AIDS was contagious—a kind of viral cancer (and that there were at least six different varieties of AIDS). Strecker only insinuated that a Communist plot was behind AIDS, instead placing the history of unethical experimentation on humans in a CBW context. Strecker called for research into electromagnetic cures and a curtailing of intravenous drug use, sexual promiscuity, and blood products.
Both Strecker and Jakob Segal were interviewed for a Sunday Express (London) story on 26 October 1986. This British tabloid story was the first time a prominent Western paper had published an AIDS-as-biowarfare theory without ridicule, and it engendered a hostile response by the U.S. State Department (which accused the New Delhi newspaper that published the earlier AIDS biowarfare story of being a Communist front). Six months later, on 11 May 1987, the Times (London) carried a cover story linking AIDS to the WHO’s African smallpox vaccine programs.
Strecker and the Segals influenced Dr. Alan Cantwell, who gave this conspiracy theory a new political angle. Cantwell is perhaps the most prolific of AIDS conspiracy theorists, beginning with the books AIDS: The Mystery and the Solution, AIDS and the Doctors of Death, and The Secret AIDS Genocide Plot and continuing into the twenty-first century with numerous articles in publications such as Paranoia and Steamshovel Press. While Cantwell agrees that HIV was human-made (though he leaves the possibility open that it is an old virus), deliberately introduced into humans, and spread via the WHO and the CDC, he does not agree with the right-wing politics of some of his colleagues. Instead, Cantwell claims that the “military-medical-industrial complex” involved in CBW is responsible for AIDS. Cantwell introduces the idea that the objective of AIDS is genocide, especially against gays. He also adds that one of the side effects of this genocidal program is the introduction of a New World Order. Cantwell calls for better education, better health practitioners, and fighting back against power to stop the epidemic. In a similar vein, G. J. Krupey (whose conspiracy research does not focus primarily on AIDS) has perhaps the hypothesis closest to a left-wing AIDS conspiracy theory. In his article “AIDS: Act of God or the Pentagon?” Krupey follows Cantwell’s model, but adds that an AIDS panic could potentially justify the suspension of civil liberties and the installation of martial law. Krupey states that a radical cure is needed, one that is not just medical, but political. A structural change in governing practices is required in which access and participation are opened up on a far more democratic scale.
While the early researchers came from a variety of medical professions, geographical locations, and political positions, what unites them is the fact that they criticize science’s connection to corruption and military research (CBW) yet rely on scientific evidence to prove their own conspiracy theories. In addition, most of the conspiracy theories cite the 1969 congressional testimony of Dr. Donald MacAruthur, deputy director for the Department of Defense’s research and technology. Speaking to the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Defense Appropriations with regard to military chemical and biological warfare programs, MacArthur was speaking on the subject of synthetic biological agents. Asked about the feasibility, time, and cost of producing a synthetic biological agent, MacArthur responded: “Within the next five to ten years, it would probably be possible to make a new infective microorganism which could differ in certain important aspects from any known disease causing organisms. Most important of these is that it might be refractory to the immunological and therapeutic processes upon which we depend to maintain our relative freedom from infectious disease.” For the conspiracy researchers, MacArthur was essentially calling for a new synthetic virus that would attack the human immune system, and his words predated the AIDS epidemic by ten years. This testimony, along with the general history of overt and covert biowarfare research (which became officially banned in the early 1970s, while becoming privatized for defense purposes), of scientific experimentation on unwitting subjects, and of calls for global population control, brings together the early conspiracy theories.
The Nonviral Theories
Another set of theories emerged in the 1980s that have been classified as conspiracy theories, even though they share little with the above theories. These are the nonviral theories of AIDS, whose most well-known proponents are Dues-berg (Why We Will Never Win the War on AIDS, 1994, and Inventing the AIDS Virus, 1996), Jon Lauritsen (The AIDS War: Propaganda, Profiteering and Genocide from the Medical Industrial Complex, 1993), Jad Adams (AIDS: The HIV Myth, 1989), and Jon Rappaport (AIDS, Incorporated: The Scandal of the Century, 1988). Nonviral theories posit multifactorial causes of AIDS (combination of drugs, behavioral practices, social factors—malnutrition, pollution) and even multi-diseases (that AIDS is often a misdiagnosis of various other conditions). Purposeful targeting of groups is not usually a major component of nonviral theories. Rather than conspiracy, they emphasize collusion (medical, pharmaceutical, and governmental institutions) and cover-up (countervailing evidence is ignored and suppressed because it might threaten research funding and careers of mainstream scientists). These nonviral theories concern the origins of AIDS, while AIDS conspiracy theories concern the origins of HIV. They often get lumped together with conspiracy theories because of their marginal, dissident status in the scientific community, along with their critical stance toward the corruption of that community.
African American Genocide Theories Probably the most publicized of AIDS conspiracy theories is the African American genocide theory. This theory in general claims that AIDS was created to exterminate blacks, both African Americans as well as Africans. It is a theory espoused by the Nation of Islam’s medical director, by celebrities Spike Lee, Bill Cosby, and John Singleton, and by numerous radio talk-shows such as Black Liberation Radio. Representative texts of this theory include Haki R. Madhubuti’s essay, “AIDS: the Purposeful Destruction of the Black World?” which appears in his 1990 book Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous? Here Madhubuti uses the work of Douglass and Strecker, placing it in the context of the history of scientific experimentation on blacks (especially the Tuskegee experiment). In this version, CBW is linked to the systematic oppression of Africans around the world, and HIV is the latest weapon in this deliberate genocide.
African American genocide theories of AIDS have engendered the largest response to AIDS conspiracy theories. Health educators have cited these conspiracy theories as an obstacle to trust in their efforts. Most disturbing for the educators is the link between conspiracy theories and a belief in casual contact. A study on how suspicion of government activities regarding AIDS impacts on behavior was carried out by social psychologists Gregory M. Herek and John P. Capitanio. The study correlates AIDS-related distrust to beliefs about casual-contact transmission and to personal-risk reduction behaviors. It found that beliefs about casual contact were not related to beliefs in the genocidal purpose of AIDS, but the authors still speculated that the lack of trust in health educators springs from suspicions about malicious intent on the part of the government. In a separate study, Stephen Thomas and Sandra Crouse Quinn argue that public health professionals must recognize that African Americans’ belief in AIDS-as-genocide is a legitimate attitudinal barrier with an understandable basis in history (including the Tuskegee experiment). The authors call for a dialogue in order to develop and implement HIV education programs that are scientifically sound, culturally sensitive, and ethnically sensitive.
Health behavior has not been the only concern when it comes to African American conspiracy theories. Coupled with the CIA-crack conspiracy theory, the AIDS conspiracy account has been defined as part of “black paranoia,” whether as a collective psychological state of mind or an “understandable” historical and social phenomenon. One politically inflected version of this approach is David Gilbert’s 1996 cover story in Covert Action Quarterly, “Tracking the Real Genocide: AIDS—Conspiracy or Unnatural Disaster?” Gilbert’s article makes the provocative claim that conspiracy theories are both politically disabling and health endangering. He provides a two-tiered critique of these beliefs—scientific and political (but focusing on the latter). By diverting attention from the social conditions and economic structures that shape the contemporary AIDS crisis, conspiracy theories perform a disservice to their promoters. Gilbert essentially argues that conspiracy theories contribute to the toll of unnecessary AIDS deaths. Unlike more mainstream criticisms of African American AIDS conspiracy theories, Gilbert’s argument does not dismiss them as paranoid. He depicts them as misguided, but with deadly effects.
The responses to African American AIDS conspiracy theories demonstrate the response to AIDS conspiracy theories more generally. David Gilbert follows other political progressives’ and activists’ perspective in their concern over conspiracy theories. John S. James, an AIDS activist, argued in 1986 that germ warfare conspiracy theories were not useful. Even if the theories were proven true, according to James, the result would be punishing the guilty, not saving lives. Conspiracy theory distracts from a better use of political and educational activism, which is to inform the public about the neglect and mismanagement of treatment research.
When the New York Native folded in 1997, the gay news magazine was credited with pioneering AIDS coverage in the early 1980s, as well as criticized as a forum for conspiracy theories.
For James, as for many others, the conspiracy is a conspiracy of silence, a pattern of ignorance about and mismanagement of AIDS treatment research by scientists, government officials, doctors, and journalists. Cultural theorist and activist Simon Watney echoes this sentiment when he argues that AIDS may not be a conscious policy to exterminate gay men, but the long-term consequences of government action and inaction may have the same effects as if it were intentional. Watney suggests that origin stories may be irrelevant to the crisis. Moreover, for many activists, alternative origin stories have a strong link to oppressive reactionary agendas (e.g., Duesberg).
In the past few years, AIDS conspiracy theories have connected with other conspiracy theories, influenced political activism, and have gone global. Dr. Leonard Horowitz’s tome Emerging Viruses: AIDS and Ebola—Nature, Accident, or Intentional? represents a synthesis of previous theories. Horowitz links the CBW context to black genocide, but the overall context is a history of U.S. political wrongdoing (including the Nazi roots of the CIA, intimidation of domestic dissenters, global population-control programs, and foreign-policy misconduct leading to a New World Order). Horowitz also founded and heads Tetrahedron, Inc., a nonprofit educational corporation, which provides employee assistance and education, professional development seminars, and health education products and programs, and organizes Horowitz’s extensive lecture tours. He has implemented his conspiracy theory into an organization devoted to educational reform, political activism, and health awareness.
Another example of conspiracy theories affecting political activism is the case of the Brotherly Lovers, an AIDS activist group based in Pittsburgh, who have attempted to spearhead a class-action petition for a government investigation into the possible artificial, biowarfare origin of HIV.
AIDS conspiracy theories have also been integrated into other popular conspiracy theories. In an article entitled “The AIDS-ET Connection” Phillip S. Duke claims to furnish a unifying hypothesis about AIDS—the gray alien agenda. The goal of this agenda is to rid the earth of human life and establish an alien settlement. In this theory, AIDS has been deliberately introduced into the human population by these aliens as a way of freeing up space for colonization. Bill Cooper, prominent late U.S. conspiracy theorist, has also suggested that CBW may be part of an alien agenda.
Cooper’s work is even more significant because in 2000 it was cited as an influence on a South African health minister’s account of AIDS in Africa. At the same time, the South African president, Thabo Mbeki, controversially suggested that Duesberg’s nonviral theory should be studied as a possible explanation for the continuing tragedy in Africa. Most recently, Edward Hooper’s best-selling The River has created newfound controversy with its claims that HIV originated in the 1950s with the vaccination of over a million African children. Hooper does not claim that AIDS was deliberately created and spread by humans, but that an experimental form of oral polio vaccine was contaminated with SIV (the ancient simian equivalent of HIV), and this negligence led to the current AIDS epidemic.
AIDS conspiracy theories raise the general issue of science in relation to both conspiracy theories and their critics. When is science questioned, and when is it cited as evidence? Such AIDS conspiracy theorists as Cantwell, Strecker, Douglass, and Horowitz have drifted away from conventional science to the marginal status of “renegade” scientists, but their narratives retain scientific techniques. They seek authority through their own pedigrees, they conduct research, and their reports contain the language and styles of citation and evidence employed in mainstream AIDS science. The most recent debates over Edward Hooper’s The River revive the question of how alternative or dissident scientific accounts challenge and/or support conventional science.
In general, AIDS conspiracy theories are typically positioned as a distraction from real research and activism. But just as there are a variety of accounts that can be grouped under the term AIDS conspiracy theory, so are there a variety of responses to them. Some of the preceding sections have demonstrated a few of those responses (Gilbert, Fiske, James, Watney, the studies on behavior). Others include cultural analyst john,s analysis of AIDS conspiracy theories as they are related to cultural panics over the body in the 1980s and 1990s, and John Fiske’s controversially sympathetic assessment of the AIDS-as-black-genocide account. Fiske calls the account a “counterknowledge,” which involves reworking facts, events, and information the dominant knowledge has repressed or dismissed as insignificant. Above all, according to Fiske, a counterknowledge must be socially and politically motivated. Fiske proceeds with a series of close readings of radio talk-show dialogues, primarily culled from Black Liberation Radio. In these accounts, AIDS is folded into a genocidal framework, and it is this resonance with African American history and lived experience that Fiske argues is lacking among mainstream whites, and thus produces an aversion to the concept of genocide. Fiske does not simply affirm the truth of the genocide account. Ultimately he argues that when it comes to AIDS conspiracy theories, people need to examine their strategies of disbelief.
As cultural theorist Paula Treichler argues, conspiracy theories are part of the larger “epidemic of signification” that the AIDS epidemic has generated—an epidemic that must be examined, not ignored or casually dismissed. AIDS conspiracy theories crystallize the stakes involved in the overall problematization of conspiracy theories, especially with regard to the behavioral and political effects of conspiracy theories.