Biden’s “National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism” report last week declared that “enhancing faith in American democracy” requires “finding ways to counter the influence and impact of dangerous conspiracy theories.” In recent decades, conspiracy theories have multiplied almost as fast as government lies and cover-ups. While many allegations have been ludicrously far-fetched, the political establishment and media routinely attach the “conspiracy theory” label to any challenge to their dominance.
According to Cass Sunstein, Harvard Law professor and Obama’s regulatory czar, a conspiracy theory is “an effort to explain some event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who have also managed to conceal their role.” Reasonable citizens are supposed to presume that government creates trillions of pages of new secrets each year for their own good, not to hide anything from the public.
In the early 1960s, conspiracy theories were practically a non-issue because 75 percent of Americans trusted the federal government. Such credulity did not survive the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Seven days after Kennedy was shot on November 22, 1963, President Lyndon Johnson created a commission (later known as the Warren Commission) to suppress controversy about the killing. Johnson and FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover browbeat the commission members into speedily issuing a report rubberstamping the “crazed lone gunman” version of the assassination. House Minority Leader Gerald Ford, a member of the commission, revised the final staff report to change the location of where the bullet entered Kennedy’s body, thereby salvaging Hoover’s so-called “magic bullet” theory. After the Warren Commission findings were ridiculed as a whitewash, Johnson ordered the FBI to conduct wiretaps on the report’s critics. To protect the official story, the commission sealed key records for 75 years. Truth would out only after all the people involved in any coverup had gotten their pensions and died.
The controversy surrounding the Warren Commission spurred the CIA to formally attack the notion of conspiracy theories. In a 1967 alert to its overseas stations and bases, the CIA declared that the fact that almost half of Americans did not believe Oswald acted alone “is a matter of concern to the U.S. government, including our organization” and endangers “the whole reputation of the American government.” The memo instructed recipients to “employ propaganda assets” and exploit “friendly elite contacts (especially politicians and editors), pointing out… parts of the conspiracy talk appear to be deliberately generated by Communist propagandists.” The ultimate proof of the government’s innocence: “Conspiracy on the large scale often suggested would be impossible to conceal in the United States.”
However, the CIA did conceal a wide range of assassinations and foreign coups it conducted until congressional investigations in the mid-1970s blew the whistle. The New York Times, which exposed the CIA memo in 1977, noted that the CIA “mustered its propaganda machinery to support an issue of far more concern to Americans, and to the C.I.A. itself, than to citizens of other countries.” According to historian Lance deHaven-Smith, author of Conspiracy Theory in America, “The CIA’s campaign to popularize the term ‘conspiracy theory’ and make conspiracy belief a target of ridicule and hostility must be credited…with being one of the most successful propaganda initiatives of all time.” (In 2014, the CIA released a heavily-redacted report admitting that it had been “complicit” in a JFK “cover-up” by withholding “incendiary” information from the Warren Commission.)
The Johnson administration also sought to portray critics of its Vietnam War policies as conspiracy nuts, at least when they were not portraying them as communist stooges. During 1968 Senate hearings on the Gulf of Tonkin incident, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara denounced the “monstrous insinuations” that the U.S. had sought to provoke a North Vietnamese attack and declared that it is “inconceivable that anyone even remotely familiar with our society and system of government could suspect the existence of a conspiracy” to take the nation to war on false pretenses. Three years later, the disclosure of the Pentagon Papers demolished the credibility of McNamara and other top Johnson administration officials who indeed dragged America into the Vietnam War on false pretenses.