Conspiracy thinking is not U.S. born. The Latin word conspirare—to breathe together—suggests 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 U.S. environment. It drew life from a sense of mission that convinced Americans of their special role in history. Rev. Jonathan Edwards explained: “When God 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” (Cherry, 58). President Woodrow Wilson was similarly mindful of the holy mandate. Presenting his League of Nation treaty to the U.S. 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” (Cherry, 294). God’s people, particularly Protestants, had to be on guard to realize their calling. Revolutionary success would raise aspirations of America’s purpose and would also awaken new conspirators eager to undermine the workings of the republic at home and abroad. U.S. diversity contributed energy to the national dynamic, but 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 a U.S. 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 (Winthrop, 38). 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 would change, 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, 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 horrid service” (Mather, 80-81). 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 this country” (Mather, 16, 19, 58, 70). 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” (Boyer and Nissenbaum, 175). Of the approximately 200 men and women charged in Salem, 20 were executed.
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. . . .” (Hof-stadter and Wallace, 188). 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 would fire 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 systemic plan of reducing us to slavery” (Bai-lyn, 119-120). 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.
Still, Americans would only cross the last bridge to independence 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 Bible’s book of Revelation would go further, 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” (Gruber, 370).
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’ 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 free thinkers 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 engineered the French Revolution. The Order sighted the United States as the next target. Rev. Jedidiah Morse was among the first to sound the alarm, warning that “the world was in the grip of a secret revolutionary conspiracy” (Camp, 32). 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” (Johnson, 61).
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” (Stauffer, 229). In the summer of 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” (Com-mager, 176-178). The threat did not match the response; the new republic would prove 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, would hardly break the surface of U.S. 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 Vermont anti-Mason Edward Barber, from a “haughty aristocracy,” a “monster” that has sunk its “fangs into the bosom of the Constitution” (Goodman, 24). Suspicion ignited activism in 1826 when a New York Mason, William Morgan, who threatened to expose the secrets of his order, was kidnapped 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 the first third party in U.S. history, the Anti-Masonic Party. The future was in the balance. Freemasonry, General William Wads-worth revealed, was the master plot: ” . . . every revolution 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” (Bernard, 430). 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.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was one of several U.S.-born sects that emerged from a region of New York burnt over by repeating waves of religious enthusiasm. It was not the preaching of communitarianism and End Times prophecy that differentiated Mormons in U.S. eyes, or 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” would not be quieted for decades and could still be felt at the end of the nineteenth century.
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 Rev. Jedidiah Morse, was pressing upon the neck of Protestant America (Morse, 89). 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.
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 mobilized 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 the 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 monied “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 (Nye, 80). 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” (Gien-app, 362).
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 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. This legislation repealed the Missouri Compromise that 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 these 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 and northerners would surrender neither without a fight. The bloody war that followed would firm 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 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. 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.
Southern newspapers were heavy with news of the conspiracy against slavery. North of the divide, men and women appeared to move collectively in disobedience to the fugitive slave laws and protection of the underground railroad conspiracy. Who promoted the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and then financed its stage production? How could the Republican Party advance so quickly? John Brown’s attempt to seize the government arsenal at Harper’s Ferry and incite slave insurrection could not have been planned and executed without an extended family of plotters. Southerners were certain that the wave of support that swept the North and raised Brown to heroic rank was manufactured and clear evidence of collusion. The danger was homegrown as well. In 1822, South Carolina authorities uncovered Denmark Vesey’s conspiracy and executed thirty-seven slaves. At least three slaves were convicted and hanged for the Charleston, South Carolina, Fire Scare of 1825-1826, during which a number of the city’s wooden buildings were torched. The bloodiest uprising occurred in Virginia in 1831. Sixty whites perished in Nat Turner’s rebellion and seventy slaves were summarily executed. A traumatized South would subsequently flinch at the very hint of black unrest. By 1861, the South had become an armed camp prepared to defend itself from enemies within and without.
Countersubversion continued to permeate national debate as the United States industrialized in the second half of the nineteenth century. While the Civil War did much to douse conspiracy thinking rooted in North/South sectionalism, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the South reflected the persistence of prewar patterns. Klansmen recast Reconstruction legislation into a Radical Republican intrigue to turn slaves into masters and “Africanize” the South. The Klan conspiracy against federal policy would claim almost 1,000 lives, both black and white. A tough federal response smothered Klan terror in a wave of prosecutions. Martial law and the suspension of habeas corpus were necessary to remove the threat from South Carolina. In 1915, the Hollywood spectacular Birth of a Nation would reframe historical events to give credence to the Klan’s conspiratorial interpretation.
As the economic order changed, different visions of the future battled for power. Conspiracy would be a prominent theme in the competition. Capitalists denounced radicals for scheming to overthrow the government and cited as proof events like the Haymarket Square bombing in 1886 that left seven policemen dead. The radical response counted strikebreakers, Pinkerton detectives, and blacklists, among other union-busting tactics, on the roll of robber baron sins. Novelists like Ignatius Donnelly painted the conflict more vividly. In Caesar’s Column, published in 1890, Donnelly described the Brotherhood of Destruction, a secret society that rises to destroy the “abominable despotism” of the Hebrew-dominated aristocracy that has brought “the universal misery and wretchedness of the working class . . .” (Donnelly, 45, 124). The Populist Party platform of 1892 put U.S. economic problems in perspective, charging that “a vast conspiracy against mankind has been organized on two continents, and it is rapidly taking possession of the world” (Commager, 143). The intrigue between Wall Street and European banking houses would await more explicit description in the twentieth century.
Economic plots did not replace traditional intrigues. Indian rebellions in the West, culminating in the Ghost Dance Movement of the 1890s, nourished white conspiracy thinking. Catholics’ allegiance to the pope still exposed them to Protestant charges of dual loyalty. A rising tide of immigration from southern and eastern Europe brought fresh troops to papist forces and raised new fears. In the 1890s, the American Protective Association would draw over half a million Americans to its anti-Catholic banner with promises to curb immigration and fight papal power in politics. Nativists discerned the new immigrants’ complicity in other nefarious undertakings. Their drinking habits fed the arrogant “Liquor Power,” which prohibitionists charged with fixing prices, bribing judges, and controlling the “ballot box via the rum hole” (Ostran-der, 66). Meanwhile, corrupt political machines, in league with the saloon menace, tightened their hold on city government with immigrant votes.
Conspiracy thinking spilled over into the new century. Progressive Era muckraking journalists, seeking to spur reform and sell magazines, published sensational and lurid exposes of a diversity of ills plaguing the United States. They targeted the white slave trade, corrupt labor unions, sweatshop abuses, child labor horrors, cover-ups of foul practices in the beef industry, and patent medicine scams. Their pens revealed that business conspiracies in restraint of trade barely scratched the surface of corporate treachery. Corruption even tainted the U.S. Senate. Certainly, the insinuation or discovery of secret deals and hidden cabals that gave their stories a conspiratorial spin enhanced the muckrakers’ appeal.
The entry of the United States into World War I doubled the guard against conspiracy. Hyphenated Americans were suspect, and Germans in particular were the focus of national fears. Former president Theodore Roosevelt worried about German Americans but had a more expansive view of the danger, refusing to define the menace by ethnicity. Thus, he netted U.S. senators who opposed intervention, dissenting native-born Americans, and the Hearst newspapers, which he accused of “play[ing] the Kaiser’s game.” Roosevelt wrote: “The Hun within our gates is the worst of the foes of our own household. . . . Whether he is pro-German, or poses as a pacifist, or a peace-at-any-price man, matters little. He is the enemy of the United States” (Roosevelt, 293-294). Disfranchisement and the establishment of internment camps were his solutions to the domestic threat. Some would dismiss this response as too lenient.
The radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies) was considered even more dangerous. Already suspect for its rhetoric of sabotage and class struggle, the IWW’s opposition to a war for capitalists’ profits drew the fire of government authorities, opinion makers, and local vigilantes. The Department of Justice quickly confronted “Imperial Wilhelm’s Warriors,” staging nationwide raids on IWW branches in September 1917 and arresting Wobblies for conspiracy to disrupt the war effort and antidraft agitation. On trial in Chicago, 101 IWW leaders faced charges of 17,500 offenses, with guilty verdicts sending thirty-five Wobblies to Levenworth Penitentiary for five years, thirty-three for ten years, and fifteen for twenty years. Later trials brought seventy-three more convictions. In all, more than 2,000 Wobblies, socialists, and pacifists were trapped in the World War I witch-hunt that transformed dissent into subversion.
The pressure on dissidents did not ease during the red scare that followed the war. Bolshevik pleas to the workers of the world to throw off their chains and uproot the capitalist system had spurred U.S. resistance to the coming revolution. Prominent among those fanning the fears of conspiracy was Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, who hoped to ride the antiradical wave into the White House. The danger, claimed Palmer, was extreme: “Like a prairie-fire, the blaze of revolution was sweeping over every American institution of law and order. … It was eating its way into the homes of the American workman, its sharp tongues of revolutionary heat were licking the altars of the churches, leaping into the belfry of the school bell, crawling into the secret corners of American homes.” Palmer found the nucleus of the conspiracy in a “small clique of outcasts from the East Side of New York” who were “under the criminal spell of Trotzky [sic] and Lenin” (Palmer, 174, 175, 180). In response, he created within the Justice Department a Bureau of Investigation charged with gathering information on all domestic radicals. Under J. Edgar Hoover’s direction, a file index of 60,000 names was compiled. In November and December 1919 agents without arrest warrants organized coast-to-coast raids and jailed alleged radicals. In January 1920 more than 4,000 suspected communists were seized in coordinated raids in thirty-three cities.
A revived Ku Klux Klan waved the banner of countersubversion in the 1920s. Unlike the Klan of the post-Civil War years, this hooded movement was not primarily southern or terrorist. Preaching a multifaceted program based upon law and order, “100 Percent Americanism,” and militant Protestantism, it enlisted nationally perhaps as many as six million men and women with the most powerful klaverns organized in Indiana, Colorado, Ohio, Texas, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and California. In recruiting members, the Klan resurrected the specter of the Catholic conspiracy. The word again went out that the pope’s puppets were preparing to advance their holy cause. On another front, the papists schemed to ruin the quality of the public schools and Romanize students by placing Catholics on school boards and employing them as teachers. “In the event of their success,” wrote Klan sympathizer Alma White, “there would be a string of beads around every Protestant child’s neck and a Roman Catholic catechism in his hand. ‘Hail Mary, Mother of God,’ would be on every child’s lips and the idolatrous worship of dead saints a part of the daily program” (White 1925, 26).
The Klan recruiters exploited antisemitism, long a tradition in Europe and kindled in the United States by the immigration of two million Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe. Numbers alone heightened suspicion, but most provocative to Americans was an expanding Jewish economic and political sphere. Scornful of American values, the Jews planned to undermine Protestant hegemony. Well-organized “Hebrew syndicates” forced Protestants from positions of economic power. The motion picture industry, considered an early victim of the Jews, was seen as producing debauching films, commercializing the Sabbath, and luring Protestants from churches. Protestant women were warned of the lascivious Jews, “men in whose characters animal passions and greed are the predominant forces” (White 1928, 34). Some even believed that Jewish financiers were aiding the pope in the scheme to disinherit Protestant Americans.
Automobile manufacturer and U.S. folk hero Henry Ford corroborated the Klan’s charges against the Jews. Ford based his ideas on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an account fabricated by the czarist secret police at the turn of the century of an alleged Jewish conspiracy against Christianity. To spread the word, Ford published the Protocols’ claims in his newspaper the Dearborn Independent for ninety-one consecutive weeks and then compiled them in form. He also Americanized the Jewish “program” for his readers: Darwinism, Bolshevism, control of the liquor traffic and prostitution, political machines, the spread of jazz, and the corruption of baseball. According to Ford, Jews were also guilty of dominating the slave trade and manipulating the South into secession in 1861, and he detected the Jewish hand in the recent world war: “International financiers are behind all wars. They are what is called the international Jew: German Jews, French Jews, English Jews, American Jews. I believe that in all those countries except our own the Jewish financier is supreme . . . here the Jew is a threat” (qtd. in Lee, 13). Jews were thus especially cunning for they not only ruled the world’s economy, but with communism had mastered the proletariat. He even discovered that the traitor Benedict Arnold had Jewish associates and that the Rothschilds had financed the Hessians.
The Great Depression gave conspiracy thinking an economic twist, but involved the now usual suspects. At first, conspiracy theorists like radio priest Father Charles Coughlin blamed “plutocrats,” and “money-changers,” and other members of the economic elite for planning the crash: “The sands of intrigue and of evil machinations have filtered through the hour glass of their control” (Kazin, 119). Soon they borrowed from Henry Ford and Adolf Hitler. As outlined in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Jews had brought economic ruin and were a step closer to world domination. The “Jew Deal” of President Franklin Roosevelt, born Rosenfeld, was not America’s salvation but a continuation of the plot. With the support of mainstream business and political leaders, William Pelley of the Silver Shirts and Gerald L. K. Smith joined Cough-lin in bringing charges of Jewish perfidy.
Domestic plotters did double duty in foreign intrigues. Revisionists reexamined the origins of U.S. involvement in World War I and replaced Wilsonian idealism with cynical manipulation. Isolationists in the 1930s alleged that the public had been tricked into war by munitions makers and bankers anxious to protect their investments and to profit from the carnage. Not surprisingly, North Dakota Senator Gerald Nye’s committee charged with reviewing the arms business found that the “merchants of death” had grown wealthy on war. Public opinion, however, took no note of obvious consequences, but instead confirmed conspiracy. Only a small leap in logic would be necessary to find Jewish fingerprints on the plot and revise it to fit current events.
The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor closed the debate on intervention, but released new fears of conspiracy. Did President Roosevelt back-door the United States into the war against Germany by manipulating the Japanese into firing the first shot in the Pacific? Why did Washington delay in warning Pearl Harbor of the impending attack? Were Hawaii commanders Admiral Husband Kimmel and General Walter Short dismissed to cover up the plot? Charles Beard, who spiced his book on the constitutional convention with suggestions of elite intrigue, waded into the controversy early. Avoiding words like “conspiracy” and “plot,” Beard nevertheless exposed presidential calculation. Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull, he wrote, “were expecting if not actively seeking war; and having this expectation, they continued to ‘maneuver’ the Japanese and awaited the denouement” (Beard, 566). The prestige of Beard’s prior work and the Yale University Press imprint gave his charges weight. Military comrades of Kimmel and Short came to their defense and blamed Washington for withholding vital information from Pearl Harbor despite having broken the Japanese diplomatic code. They also found it curious that U.S. aircraft carriers were conveniently away on maneuvers and out of harm’s way on the day of the attack. Suspicious to other revisionists was the delay in opening the official investigation, the suppression of its findings for ten months, and then the final release of the report in 1945 with fifty-two pages withheld. During the cold war, critics who accused Roosevelt of being soft on communism alleged that Pearl Harbor was sacrificed to ensure U.S. involvement in Europe and save his Russian pals. Most recently, John Toland has claimed that “The comedy of errors on the sixth and seventh [of December 1941] appears incredible. It only makes sense if it was a charade, and Roosevelt and the inner circle had known about the attack” (Toland, 321).
Leftists were similarly prone to conspiracy thinking. U.S. communists, like their counterparts in Moscow, repeatedly decried the international capitalist plot to destroy the Soviet Union and the proletariat’s vanguard. The subsequent Soviet alliance with the United States and Great Britain during World War II did little to ease concerns. Communists questioned Allied strategy, which delayed the opening of a second front against the Nazis in France until 1944 while the Soviets bore the brunt of the fighting. Asked party leaders: Was this a capitalist trick to bleed Russia white and leave her too weak to resist postwar imperialism?
Among the most vocal in crying conspiracy were federal authorities. Franklin Roosevelt set the administration’s tone, denouncing opponents of his foreign policy as “appeaser fifth columnists” in the service of a totalitarian world conspiracy (Horowitz, 185). He summoned J. Edgar Hoover of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and charged him with gathering information on the activities of U.S. fascists and Communists. Zealous FBI agents, on cue from their director and Justice Department prosecutors, fashioned a dragnet to trap prominent anti-Semites and right-wingers like Gerald Winrod, William Pelley, Lawrence Dennis, and Elizabeth Dilling. They and twenty-six others were indicted and tried for conspiracy to encourage insubordination in the armed forces and violation of the Smith Act, which made it illegal for anyone to advocate or even belong to an organization that advocated the overthrow by force of the U.S. government. This case ended in mistrial and the defendants were freed, but the government had exacted punishment in lost time and resources. Only Pelley, who in a previous trial had been found guilty of conspiracy to impair the war effort, would serve time in prison.
The federal government was more successful in its countersubversive action against Japanese Americans. In February 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, removing all Japanese Americans living on the West Coast to relocation camps in the interior. Guilty only by reason of ethnicity, 112,000 men, women, and children saw their liberties sacrificed to regional and national fears, both latent and current. California Attorney General Earl Warren, who would later serve as chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, made the case for evacuation. “I believe,” he testified, “that. . . the greatest danger to continental United States is that from well-organized sabotage and fifth-column activity.” He reported that a review of California landownership maps revealed “that it is more than just accident” that Japanese Americans had settled near airplane factories, manufacturing plants, dams, railroads, power lines, sugar refineries, and air bases. The absence of evidence of disloyalty or sabotage was, in fact, proof of their treachery: “I believe we are just being lulled into a false sense of security. . . . When, nobody knows of course, but we are approaching an invisible deadline” (Warren 11011-11012, 11018). Although challenged, the Supreme Court would uphold the presidential order and the countersub-versive reasoning on which it was based.
In the second half of the twentieth century, the alarm of U.S. countersubversion grew louder and more insistent. A chorus of messengers gave warning, their pleas for defense merging, resonating, and reinforcing. Ignoring few leads, believers made conspiratorial puzzle pieces of Marilyn Monroe, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, Vietnam POWs, the moon landing, Watergate, Bill Clinton, Princess Diana, Y2K, and even the “man shortage” of the 1980s. In this context, five major plot lines drew legions of theorists, generated large media shares, and won significant mainstream support. They were the “Master” conspiracy that birthed the New World Order, the rise of the Antichrist, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the plot against black America, and the UFO incident at Roswell. The cries of these conspiracy theorists were especially urgent for they were convinced that time was running out for the United States. The plotters had not only breached the walls of key institutions, but had taken control.
In the immediate postwar years, U.S. foreign policy setbacks and Communist advances in Europe and Asia gave opportunity to those who saw a conspiracy behind events. Led by Republican Party leaders, large numbers of Americans became certain that undercover Soviet agents and their sympathizers had infiltrated libraries, schools, universities, the motion picture industry, and even the highest levels of the federal government. With the lessening of cold war tensions and the election of Dwight Eisenhower to the presidency in 1952, public fears subsided. Some, however, believed that the threat had merely gone underground and thus had become more dangerous. This was the contention of businessman Robert Welch, who organized the ultra-right John Birch Society in 1959, vowing to roust hidden Communists who continued to undermine the United States from within.
In the 1960s, Welch revealed to his followers that his focus on Communist intrigue was misplaced; communism was merely a subplot of the “Master” conspiracy. He fingered the descendants of Adam Weishaupt and his Illuminati as the conspirators who sought to conquer the world. Financiers, government leaders, socialists, liberals, and Communists were merely pawns of an “inner core of conspiratorial power” whose members were “cunning and ruthless” and their reach “worldwide” (Welch, 3). Concealed behind their puppets, the identities of these “Insiders” were unknown even to Welch. With tentacles in international banking and trade, national political parties, and influential newspapers, the plotters engineered revolution, assassination, war, and depression to speed them to global dictatorship. Other manifestations of the plot were a rising divorce rate, birth control, pornography, civil rights agitation, and the fluoridation of water supplies. The United States was in the Insiders’ grasp, claimed Welch, and soon to become a province of what he called in 1972 the “New World Order.”
Birch Society members spread the alarm, narrowing the search for the Insiders to the members of the internationalist Council on Foreign Relations and Trilateral Commission. Books, pamphlets, film, talk radio, and the Internet carried the message to the grass roots and by the end of the century members of militia units, Aryan Nations, the Ku Klux Klan, and skinhead brotherhoods had made the cause their own. In their hands, the conspiracy became another Jewish attempt to control the world. While mainstream Americans did not feel the intensity of these countersubversives, they had learned to be vigilant at the very mention of the New World Order.
The secular crusade against the New World Order drew strength from a conspiracy theory steeped in biblical imagery. Since the seventeenth century, Christian Americans have attempted to decode the book of Revelation and discern not only the timing of Jesus’ Second Coming, but signs of the advent of the Antichrist or “beast.” After World War II, believers were sure that their generation had been chosen to see the cosmic drama unfold. Fixing attention was biblical prophecy become history when Jews ended their 2,000-year exile to reclaim Israel in 1948 and then capture Jerusalem in 1967. The faithful were alerted and knew the meaning of other signs—the worship of “false Christs,” lawlessness, violent storms, and intense earthquakes. Clearly, the millennium was at the door.
Taking his cue from those who exposed the Master conspiracy, Rev. Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition, spied the Antichrist lurking in the shadows, readying the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission as his vehicles to global power. Said Robertson, “He will be like a combination of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Genghis Khan, Mao Tse-Tung, and other dictators who have butchered millions of people.” The Antichrist, Robertson warned in 1984, was on the march in the United States: “The demons have what are called ‘principalities and powers.’ It is possible that a demon prince is in charge of New York, Detroit, and St. Louis” (Robertson, 116, 155). Others were convinced that the “mark” of the beast was already affixed on the universal price code, smart cards, ATMs, microchip implants, and fiber optics.
Rev. Jerry Falwell, writer Hal Lindsey, and scores of conspiracy-minded evangelicals echoed Robertson, offering Rapture as the escape hatch to born-again Christians who sought to avoid the Tribulation reign of the beast. Their calls for repentance grew more intense as the countdown to the year 2000 approached, because they knew it had cosmic significance. The failure of the new millennium to end history did not break evangelical momentum. Eyes were now on 2007, the 2,000th anniversary of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. Evangelists continue to sow seeds, opening more than 200 millennial websites, generating scores of new books and audio- and videotapes, and even producing full-length motion pictures that dramatize the End Times scenario.
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963 may be the most intensively studied event in U.S. history. It is flush with detail and offers hundreds of eyewitnesses, extensive ballistics evidence and autopsy results, and even a film that frames action to the split second. Bibliographies now count more than 3,000 entries, including films, plays, television programs, and a dozen newsletters. Conspiracy thinking permeates most of these efforts. Born of bereavement and drawing strength from the memory of a lost Camelot, conspiracy theories challenge the conclusion of the official account that indicted a lone gunman. Once conspiracists were convinced that they had exposed the cover-up, new theories and a counterhistory appeared. The assassination, they contend, was actually a coup d’etat that robbed the nation of its future. Filmmaker Oliver Stone made the case in the motion picture JFK, released in 1991. Stone has the furtive character “X” reveal the conspiracy, tracing it to the White House, CIA, FBI, and the “military-industrial complex.” Kennedy had to go because “he wanted to call off the moon race in favor of cooperation with the Soviets. He signed a treaty with the Soviets to ban nuclear testing, he refused to invade Cuba in ’62, and he set out to withdraw from Vietnam. But that all ended on November 22, 1963″ (Stone, 112).
Opinion surveys repeatedly testify to the success of countersubversive arguments, showing that for the large majority of Americans an assassination conspiracy is the conventional wisdom. The hold of conspiracy on the public mind was so great that a congressionally mandated commission created in the 1990s to declassify four million pages of documents could not close the case. The “magic bullet” and the “grassy knoll,” conspiracy’s shorthand terms, remained fixed in the national lexicon.
Some groups in modern America were especially prone to conspiracy thinking. Disproportionately among the vigilant were African Americans. Polls found that more than 60 percent of African Americans believed that the CIA had flooded their neighborhoods with drugs and one-third were convinced that government scientists had created the AIDS virus to ensure black genocide. On the streets, word passed that the Ku Klux Klan or the federal government had placed chemicals in food and drink to render black men sterile. Collaterally, opinion surveys have consistently shown that African Americans are twice as likely as whites to harbor strong biases against Jews.
For blacks whose place in U.S. society is often precarious, conspiracism not only offers self-protection and empowerment but reiterates shared values and asserts a collective defense. Conspiracy thinking has also been used as a weapon in the struggle for power in the black community. Most striking, it has been instrumental in the quest for authority of the Nation of Islam and particularly its leader Louis Farrakhan. Farrakhan rallied support by confirming the conspiracy: “They’re using chemical weapons, biological warfare, germ warfare already on black people. AIDS is not an accident any more than small pox was an accident with the Indians. Sending them blankets and killing them with disease. . . . You need to wake up and see that your life is threatened” (Gardell, 327). He detected, as well, a secret hand behind ghetto violence: “The Uzis, the AK-47s, your enemy is feeding you automatic weapons now. You don’t make weapons, Brother. Where did you get the weapons? . . . This is all calculated. This is all part of the conspiracy” (Farrakhan). Far-rakhan’s rhetoric of countersubversion is a call to battle that identifies friends and targets foes while marking off the distance from rival leaders and groups. Uncompromising before white power and its alleged black lackeys, Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam appear the community’s most defiant and effective advocates, making them immune to challenge from within.
For those who believe that the earth has been visited by extraterrestrials, the Roswell incident is the holy grail, and many have joined in the search, making it the most studied event in UFO history. According to researchers, an alien craft crashed outside of Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947 and the federal government recovered the bodies of four extraterrestrials. Enhancing the drama of this story is the theme of conspiracy. Believers argue that Majestic 12 (MJ-12), a secret group within the federal government, is engaged in a plot to cover up the evidence of extraterrestrial contact. The number of individuals engaged in the conspiracy is large and the effort ongoing and thorough. According to authors Kevin Randle and Don Schmitt: “Files were altered. So were personnel records, along with assignments and various codings and code words. Changing serial numbers ensured that those searching later would not be able to locate those who were involved in the recovery. The trail was being carefully altered” (Goldberg, 200). Meanwhile, the plot continues with the federal authorities conspiring to discredit Roswell activists and deceive the public.
Roswell was, moreover, only the first instance of deception, setting the pattern for official denials about UFO sightings, abductions, cattle mutilations, crop circles, and even hidden alien bases. The story has been well packaged for popular consumption, but it was mainstream media experts who ensured that Roswell and these other signs of extraterrestrial contact spread from the community of UFO believers to a wider public. By the fiftieth anniversary of the Roswell incident in 1997, tabloids, cable television, and motion pictures had made the UFO phenomenon and Roswell not only icons of conspiracy but staples of U.S. popular culture.
This brief survey spotlights the centrality and persistence of conspiracy thinking in U.S. history.
Since their arrival, Americans have positioned themselves defensively to repel subversives— supernatural, extraterrestrial, and mundane. While repeatedly under siege, the perimeter holds fast and dangerous outsiders remain at bay. Sometimes, as in the 1850s, 1930s, and today, conspiracy theorists are convinced that the enemy has penetrated key institutions. Conspiracy thinking draws power by merging with and reinforcing traditional American values and beliefs: a sense of mission, Protestant supremacy, concern about encroachments on liberty, antielitism, maintenance of the racial order, and the sanctity of private property. In the midst of diversity, conspiracy theories nurture a sense of peoplehood while discovering the enemies of the American dream. The exposure of real plotters, meanwhile, acts to energize these beliefs and validate the images they birth. Critical to the tenacity and flexibility of countersubversive interpretations are their articulate champions. Politicians, religious leaders, journalists, government officials, and leading industrialists, along with other role models, have cleared a path for ordinary men and women. If the eccentrics among the conspiracy minded have received a disproportionate share of attention, it is necessary to remember that their mates inhabit all social, economic, and political groups.