Sacramento News & Review: Suspicious minds

The truth is out there, and America’s conspiracy theorists aim to find it

Just in time for the eighth anniversary of 9/11, author and UC Davis professor of history Kathryn S. Olmsted presents Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11 (Oxford University Press, $29.95), a chronological accounting of the paranoid mindset and its evolution during the past century.

Perhaps “paranoid” overstates the case. As the saying goes, you’re not paranoid if they really are out to get you, and if one-third of the country believes Dick Cheney and his band of merry pirates planned an attack on American soil, Olmsted says, “It is only because it has happened before.”

Specifically, she refers to the so-called Northwoods plans cooked up by John F. Kennedy’s defense secretary, the recently departed Robert McNamara. In essence, Northwoods was a proposed “false flag” operation in which U.S. operatives would plant bombs, hijack airliners and even shoot down the rocket carrying John Glenn into orbit. Then they’d blame it all on Cuba as a pretext for invasion and regime change. As the author points out, some members of the 9/11 Truth Movement use the Northwoods plans—released in the late 1990s, after 40 years of secrecy—to bolster their case that the terrorist attack on America was an “inside job.”

Acknowledging that conspiracy theories have been around for millennia, Olmsted begins her search with George Creel’s Committee on Public Information, the propaganda organ used by President Woodrow Wilson’s administration to drum up support for U.S. intervention in World War I. The campaign was extraordinarily successful at turning U.S. public opinion against Germany; Creel is often credited for being one of the founders of public relations.

However, the government’s propaganda campaign inflamed members of America’s sizeable anti-war contingent, who were convinced Wilson had entered the war at the bequest of Wall Street. Today’s anti-war protesters might not recognize their counterparts from nearly a century ago: Many were conservatives, mixed right in with liberals, socialists and communists. For the next several decades, members of these disparate political groups preached nonintervention in all foreign disputes.

That included World War II. Virtually the day after the Japanese sneak attack, conservative anti-interventionists, including Republicans in Congress, charged Franklin D. Roosevelt had advance knowledge of the aerial assault. For the next four years—during the height of the war—they pushed hard for an investigation. It’s a historical eye-opener, considering the ongoing reluctance of both Republicans and Democrats to fully investigate 9/11, the “new Pearl Harbor.”

Eventually, hearings were held, and investigators found FDR had received some advance notice of Japan’s intentions, but didn’t know the location of the attack. The Pacific Fleet stationed in Hawaii made an obvious prime target, yet the administration did little to warn the base, and later scapegoated its commander. Although questionable actions by the administration were uncovered, the investigation turned up no smoking gun.

The allegations springing from Pearl Harbor and the results of the subsequent investigation are typical of 20th-century American conspiracy theories, Olmsted writes, in part because the U.S. government has replaced shadowy groups such as the Illuminati as the object of conspiracy theorists. The government exists; it can be touched. But when it comes to finding that ever-elusive smoking gun, it has proven untouchable.

This leads conspiracy theorists to challenge the investigation itself, and again in nearly every case the government has only been too willing to provide ample proof. The 9/11 Commission Report is a case in point. For members of the 9/11 Truth Movement, the commission’s investigation is the mother of all whitewashes, exemplified by the exclusion of any inquiry into the mysterious collapse of World Trade Center building 7.

The Truthers can be divided into two factions, says Olmsted: LIHOP, those who believe the government “let it happen on purpose”; and MIHOP, those who believe the government “made it happen on purpose.”

I don’t consider myself a Truther, but there’s plenty of tangible evidence the Bush administration was warned that terrorists might attack the United States using jetliners in the months prior to 9/11. There’s plenty of evidence Dick Cheney is insane enough to have let it happen. That doesn’t prove it’s true.

This irritates my MIHOP acquaintances, who firmly believe WTC buildings 1, 2 and 7 were brought down by controlled demolition. I’ve yet to read a plausible explanation for the collapse of WTC 7, but that doesn’t mean the government did it. The MIHOPs haven’t found a smoking gun yet, but it’s a safe bet they won’t stop until they do.

Which means this could go on forever.

The media, including myself on occasion, have portrayed the Truthers as deluded conspiracy theorists. Olmsted reminds us that such dissenters have sought to create “alternative histories” for the past 100 years, in the process becoming a part of history itself. No one can take that away from them. Nor can anyone change the fact that sometimes, as conspiracy theorists have revealed, they really are out to get us.