A Book Review: Real Enemies, Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy WWI to 9/11
Written by Kathryn S. Olmsted (Oxford University Press, 2009)
Paranoia strikes deep / Into your life it will creep / It starts when you’re always afraid / Step out of line, the man come and take you away… The Buffalo Springfield–For What It’s Worth
The homage to paranoia written by Stephen Stills was, in its day, referring to the (as history has proven) fears that many peace activists held of the government back in the late 1960’s. But it could have applied to any number of groups over the last century that transcended the fine line between merely opposing specific policy decisions to challenging the legitimacy of government itself. These days you could almost imagine Glenn Beck playing the song as background music on his daily Fox News cheer-the-teabaggers circus.
University of California (Davis) History Professor Kathryn Olmsted seeks to shed some light on the widespread distrust of government in the United States by looking back over the last hundred years at groups of varying political stripes that advanced conspiracy theories as a key part of their rationale. Starting with the anti-interventionists who believed that Wall Street financiers and arms merchants conspired to push the U.S. into entering WWI and closing with the 9/11 conspiracy theorists, the author examines their hypotheses, tactics and the governments’ reaction to them.
Mostly what she finds is that their paranoia was often justified, if not somewhat misguided. The bottom line here, according to Olmsted, is the State will always take actions to protect its interests. Sometimes that means lying. Sometimes that means spying. And sometimes that means discrediting or silencing pesky dissenters that get in the way of the State achieving its aims.
Real Enemies points out three ways that government had a role in the creation and promotion of conspiracy theories:
**Firstly, officials have often promoted these theories on their own. From Woodrow Wilson to George W. Bush, there has been a belief that “sinister powers” that were responsible for trying to undermine American democracy. In order to combat this evil, it is essential that citizens trust the government in giving them more powers.
**Secondly, the actions of government officials have provided the fuel for conspiracism by using their powers to plot and to obscure real conspiracies.
**Thirdly, by actively suppressing alternative views, public officials have fed citizens’ antigovernment paranoia.
Now I must disclose my own small role in this conspiracy narrative. As an anti-Vietnam War activist, I amassed hundreds of pages of FBI files based on (often inaccurate) reports made by agents about my actions. I was a “true believer” in leftist conspiracy circles and wrote often and passionately about assorted schemes and cabals that I and other researchers uncovered concerning corporate and governmental corruption and abuses of power. History has shown that much of what we uncovered was true.
I wrote about the corrupting power of corporate interests on government in San Diego. With financier C. Arnholt Smith and his clumsy cronies pulling the strings, it was like shooting fish in barrel. Faced with official repression, I (and others) reported on the covert world of the local Red Squad. We even ran “undercover agent trading cards” on page two of the alternative paper, the San Diego Door. (Editor: which were often re-published in the OB Rag.) Then we blew the lid off FBI collusion with a right-wing terrorist group that had been active locally. This got national attention, generating stories in the mainstream media. My credibility as a conspiracy researcher was firmly established.
By 1974 I was one of the editors of the DC-based CounterSpy Magazine. Blowing CIA agents’ covers and revealing government conspiracies was something we did on a regular basis. We didn’t start or stop with the CIA, either. Nor did we limit ourselves to naming names. In fact, most articles were very old school in the sense that we used public sources combined with a sense of the craft that gave the magazine an almost scholarly feel. The FBI, the NSA and even the Agriculture Department’s (hey, gotta keep them commies off the farms, ya know) intelligence operations all graced our pages.
CounterSpy was the brainchild of a group of anti-war veterans whose military service included assignments with assorted clandestine services. I was recruited to give them more depth on the domestic front and because I knew a fair amount about the mechanics involved in publishing. Soon after my arrival in Washington DC, author Norman Mailer adopted the group, promising much needed financial support and credibility.
Author Sam Smith highlights an amusing account of our coming out party with Mailer that was dutifully read into the Congressional Record by a Senate Judiciary Committee investigator:
“Publicity was provided at a March 23, 1974, fundraising wine and cheese party at the home of District of Columbia Gazette editor Sam Smith attended by some 100 guests, each of whom paid $10 each for the privilege of attending. Norman Mailer made a rambling 30-minute speech; the staffers, Timothy Charles Blitz, Perry Fellwock, also known as Winslow Peck, K. Barton Osborn, and Douglas Porter spoke of their counterintelligence activities, and the somewhat besotted liberals in attendance poured two bottles of Portuguese wine into a planter in support of African liberation.”
We soon learned that Mailer’s financial backing was limited by a succession of ex-wives seeking alimony and an on-going dispute with the Internal Revenue Service about back taxes. The publicity surrounding Mailer’s endorsement did lead us into campus speaking engagements, which, for a time, provided us with a steady income. I went on the road, speaking at college campuses, showing a copy of the Zapruder film and talking about everything from the Kennedy assassination to CIA covert operations.
During this period, Counterspy evolved into a slicker and more popular periodical. Publishing secret agent’s identities was good for circulation. Looking back on it, it wasn’t that different from what the popular men’s magazines were doing—sandwiching sometimes insightful editorial content in between titillating “exposés”. Growth enabled us to recruit more staff through an internship program; soon decisions that used to be made over draft beer were the subject of daylong meetings. Philosophical discussions evolved into hair-splitting ideological debates. Success and recognition also led to arrogance and ego-clashes. And the paranoia was everywhere.
Then, in December, 1975, Richard Welch was gunned down as he was returning from a holiday party in Athens, Greece. Welch happened to be the CIA Station Chief in Greece. Counterspy had blown his cover in his capacity as head of the Agency office in Lima, Peru a few months earlier. While a slew of evidence would later emerge showing that Welch’s death was caused in large part by the CIA’s indifference to security standards, at that point all roads led to CounterSpy as far as the public was concerned.
Over the next few days, a media firestorm developed. The Agency’s press office, along with a few well-placed “friends”, led the assault, insisting to their sources in the press that CounterSpy was responsible for the terrorist assassination. Reporters demanded answers; TV camera crews camped outside our Dupont Circle offices; we were the lead story on the CBS evening news. The questions followed a predictable pattern, ending up with the espionage world’s equivalent of “When did you stop beating your wife?”.
The editorial page denunciations in the following weeks were followed by random death threats. Our collective paranoia soared as we were shunned in many formerly friendly quarters. It was time to circle the wagons, a move that seemed wise a few months later with the car-bomb assassination of activists Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffit just a few blocks from the CounterSpy offices in DC.
This isolation served to intensify the internal conflicts already present within the group. At a clandestine meeting called in a “safe location” (we assumed that our normal haunts were all bugged), these conflicts came to a head. What seeming started out as yet another criticism-self criticism session turned ugly quick. I stood horrified as I was (falsely) accused of being an undercover agent for the government.
Now the shoe was on the other foot. The “outer” became the “outed”. After three years of living, working and breathing CounterSpy, I was cut off. Shunned by former associates, unemployed and fearful that I could be a target of retribution from either side, I sank into the depths of depression. I became paranoid about the paranoids. Until I realized that life does go on.
So I learned about the world of conspiracies the hard way. And the lesson that I want to share here is that it is incredibly easy once you start down that road to become what you are seemingly opposing. None of us that were involved with CounterSpy were evil people; we just became consumed by what were doing and lost sight of the bigger picture of life. It’s not that conspiracies don’t happen—they do, and often.
As Real Enemies details repeatedly with extensive footnotes, most conspiracies are grounded in some truth. There WAS a cover-up involving the Kennedy assassination. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001 were used by the Bush administration to launch an assault on Iraq and our civil liberties. There were (some) Communists in government back in the New Deal days. Woodrow Wilson misled the public about our entry into World War One.
One thing that this book does a great job of pointing out are the connections between right-wing conspiracies and racist/hate agendas. Today’s teabaggers have a very clear family tree chock full of hate-mongers that have not hesitated to paint Jews, ethnic minorities, gays and progressives into the fabric of their theories.
The problems with conspiracies and their enthusiasts on both sides of the political aisle come with overlaying a preconceived point of view on a set of facts. And that’s where we need to tread lightly. The truth is out there. Just don’t jump to conclusions. And, get a life!