Ever since the Warren Commission concluded that a lone gunman assassinated President John F. Kennedy, people who doubt that finding have been widely dismissed as conspiracy theorists, despite credible evidence that right-wing elements in the CIA, FBI, and Secret Service—and possibly even senior government officials—were also involved. Why has suspicion of criminal wrongdoing at the highest levels of government been rejected out-of-hand as paranoid thinking akin to superstition? Conspiracy Theory in America investigates how the Founders’ hard-nosed realism about the likelihood of elite political misconduct—articulated in the Declaration of Independence—has been replaced by today’s blanket condemnation of conspiracy beliefs as ludicrous by definition. Lance deHaven-Smith reveals that the term “conspiracy theory” entered the American lexicon of political speech to deflect criticism of the Warren Commission and traces it back to a CIA propaganda campaign to discredit doubters of the commission’s report. He asks tough questions and connects the dots among five decades’ worth of suspicious events, including the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, the attempted assassinations of George Wallace and Ronald Reagan, the crimes of Watergate, the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages deal, the disputed presidential elections of 2000 and 2004, the major defense failure of 9/11, and the subsequent anthrax letter attacks. Sure to spark intense debate about the truthfulness and trustworthiness of our government, Conspiracy Theory in America offers a powerful reminder that a suspicious, even radically suspicious, attitude toward government is crucial to maintaining our democracy.
In this important book Prof. deHaven-Smith lucidly explains how the powerful have deflected attention from their crimes by encouraging the public to distrust "conspiracy theories". He describes how distrust of power was of fundamental importance in creating the structures of American government, and how Cold War efforts to lull the suspicion with which Americans had historically regarded their leaders has led to a breakdown in democracy.
deHaven-Smith traces the ideological underpinnings of this effort to discourage public suspicion to the thinking of Karl Popper and Leo Strauss, and reproduces a 1967 CIA dispatch which appears to be the point of origin for the dissemination of the term "conspiracy theory" with its present pejorative connotations; it was originally intended as a meme to discourage criticism of the Warren Commission Report.
He writes without hysteria or hyperbole, and makes a very compelling case; one need not always agree about specific points regarding various "conspiracies" which arise in the course of discussion (e.g. the JFK assassination, 9/11) to see the value of his argument. There's scarcely a page which does not offer fresh insights and perspectives on our present epidemic of government mendacity. His suggestions as to how the situation might be remedied are by far the weakest part of the book––perhaps his publisher (University of Texas Press) felt the book was too dismal without indications of future salvation, however improbable.
Easily one of the best political books I've read in years. It will help you to think logically and critically about what you read in the news, or hear from politicians. Strongly recommended.
This book explores how the term ‘conspiracy theorist’ was first weaponized by the CIA to discredit those skeptical about the findings of the Warren Report, i.e., those who suspected foul play during the JFK assassination. The term has come to be used by those in power, in particular their media mouthpieces, to marginalized dissident discourses that are critical of the regime. Though it’s merely a form of ad hominem, it discredits opinion in the public mind by cheapening the image of those who are out of line with consensus opinion. The end result is that the public associates the irrational and outlandish (think kooks, tinfoil hats, etc.) with criticism of power. The lesson: it’s unreasonable to criticize the regime; conformity is good. Thus, power goes unchecked.
This is an example of an ingenious linguistic and conceptual framework to preserve and protect the interests of the powerful from those who would challenge them.
Edit July, 2023:
In regimes of power, truth is the opinion of the powerful.
I heard this book recommended on the Red Scare podcast by Mark Crispin Miller, who also functions as the series editor of the Discovering America series, of which this book is a part.
He mentioned the book to lend support to his claim that the concept of the conspiracy theory has been actively propogated by the CIA, through the media, to discredit accusations of elite wrongdoing. In the wake of the Kennedy assasination, when suspicion on his VP, Lydon Johnson, and disbelief in the Warren report were widespread, the CIA sent out a dispatch discussing methods of changing public opinion through propaganda and manipulation of discourse. The CIA did not literally coin the term "conspiracy theory" and the term only began to enter the American lexicon in 1964. The extent to which their intervention was widespread and effective isn't entirely knowable, but the existence of this document (known as CIA dispatch #1035-960) at the very least proves that the CIA did attempt to manipulate the public in this way. A survey of the way in which the term was used lends further creedence to the claims of deHaven-Smith and Miller.
DeHaven-Smith proposes an alternative framework to the conspiracy theory: the SCAD, or State Crime Against Democracy. This places the blame and focus for suspicious events squarely on political institutions, where deHaven-Smith feels it belongs. Those "conspiracy theories" which are verifiably true (e.g. The Gulf of Tonkin Incident, Watergate, the Iran-Contra affair) fit into this category. Certainly, this form of conspiracy theory is more plausible than flat earth or satanic interdimensional reptiles infiltrating the American political class. DeHaven-Smith does not dwell on this point, but he is also correct that these laughable theories allow people to dismiss SCADs by association. (This book was published in 2012 before the ascendance of Qanon or the increased visibility of nuts like David Icke and Alex Jones.)
A recent tik tok video by a college student named Abbie Richards makes a similar distinction through the use of a reverse pyramid diagram. The categories are sorted in order of evidence for their validity and harm to society. DeHaven Smith has a resource in the appendix similar in concept though different in ideology and execution.
I found "Conspiracy Theory in America" most useful when it traced the intellectual roots of conspiracy theory denial back to Karl Popper and Leo Strauss. The former regarded conspiracy theories as unscientific and founded on man's irrationality. Like a secular religion, conspiracy theories infected citizens with fanaticism and made open societies impossible. Popper deserves credit for promulgating the common argument that secrets are hard to keep and real life is too messy and complex for even powerful people to control. Of course, this idea has a long and vibrant history (you can find it in the expression "the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry"), but Popper placed it in the most commonly heard context as a riposte to accusations of conspiracy.
Leo Strauss, influential in neo-conservative circles in American politics around the turn of the 21st century, believed that people needed "noble lies" and "salutary myths" as a way to define themselves and bind together. Strauss felt that an atomized and ineffective society would result if we didn't believe in certain founding myths ("America is most free and democratic nation on earth," for example). Strauss felt that some degree of conspiracy and public manipulation was justified in order to create a harmonious society. This view is known as "conspiracy realism" because it assumed that conspiracies are real and justifies them as necessary. The devil's bargain of happily trading all digital privacy in exchange for protection from terrorism is a form of this thinking.
As an introduction to this intellectual history, the book is great. Other parts of the book I found unpersuasive and felt they dragged. The section on the symbolism and branding behind 9/11 and the claim that this is circumstantial evidence that the event was planned is a prime example. It reminded me of when I would write an essay for school and try to hit a word count without doing any research.
There were some minor instances of begging the questions when I felt deHaven-Smith assumed the implausibility of the single bullet theory of the JFK assasination without sufficiently going over the forensics. My sense of mainstream forensics is that the single bullet theory is more or less entirely validated.
Overall a useful reference and introduction, but a mixed bag in terms of the details of the more uncertain conspiracy theories it concentrates on.
I got this book for free at my university's library. I'm currently using it as research for my dissertation.
For me, academic books are very hard to read because they're wordy and pretty boring (in my opinion), but this one wasn't. I'll admit, I was skim-reading towards the end, mostly because it was heavy in politics which I'm not very interested in (and it's not relevant to my essay), but this was good. I liked the way the evidence for each conspiracy was presented, and the general format in which the book is written.
It's not exactly a book I would read for fun, but it helped me a lot with my research, so for that, I'm giving this book 4 stars.
Since I read the first page, this book had every single bit of my attention. I have always been curious about JFK’s death ever since learning about it in my U.S. History class. Every paragraph carried valuable information about the mysteries of JFK’s and a little bit of MLK’s death and the government conspiracies that followed. In addition, it includes theories that support the conspiracies, but also reasons why there should not be any suspicions at all against the government. I really loved when they would go into details about the little pieces of evidence that were sometimes hidden away or ignored. The book goes into detail about how their deaths affected people, but also, who benefitted from these tragic events and what happened next. Reading all the information only made me think about what is true versus what might be being concealed and kept a secret. For example, the car he was riding in when he was shot was cleaned of all the blood and the bullet holes were removed as soon as he was taken to the hospital. Evidence of the shooting was being taken away, but why? Finishing the book only made me more curious on what other ideas other people might have on what actually happened. This book reminded me a lot about the movie JFK by Oliver Stone because the movie was also very information but it would also expand small details; leaving you thinking about everything and questioning what else might be covered up.
This is a well-balanced, well-researched book on how the concept of conspiracy theories developed. DeHaven-Smith provides a grounding on the relevant philosophies of Popper and Strauss, and how their thinking influenced powerful men starting in the mid-20th century to possibly concoct conspiracies. Then, in the 1960s, the term "conspiracy theory" came into use (first by the CIA in defense of the Warren Commission) and, quickly, grew pejorative.
DeHaven-Smith does a terrific job of explaining how and why people come to believe in conspiracy theories, and how these people could easily be correct, without dogmatically pushing any particular conspiracy.
My only complaint is that DeHaven-Smith doesn't delve into the (rightful) deterioration of public trust which conspiracy theories (or rather, the topics of conspiracy theories) has caused. Then again, adding this discussion could double the size of the book.
A solid book on the origins of conspiracy theories in America, and the introduction and explanation of State Crimes Against Democracy. Unfortunately, I feel like this book is a bit lost in terms of its audience. It presents itself as something that could be used as introductory material to the study of the world of deep politics, but at the same time assumes a familiarity of a number of deep events that I wouldn't expect most new to the subject to have. For someone not already with that background, the references would be too easy to ignore without more detailed descriptions and sources, but doing so would become too cumbersome for the point the book is trying to make which is that these deep events need to be studied holistically, not individually, to come to a firm understanding of how they work in our society.
Didn't love this but it was useful for grounding this topic in social science and political theory. Only briefly touches on the mid-century turn to behaviorism in social science, but I'm v interested to read a fuller critical treatment of this (if anyone reading this has one to recommend, please do). The discussion of Popper & Srauss was clear and helpful, and I keep finding myself thinking back to it. I love how he broke down 9/11 = 9-1-1 as like semiotic symbolism or w/e but that was more just for fun.
Everyone should read this, especially if they love to call out others as being "conspiracy theorists".
Lance delves deep into the history of the terminology and the weaponization of free speech by covert government officials.
While I disagree with the whole "democracy"aspect of this book, because we have a republic and there's a huge difference between the two governmental forms, I didn't allow that to deter me in the important information presented in this book.
Very different to what I expected... well worth the time to read... a measured history and dissection of the "odd-ball" phenomenon, which perhaps is not as entirely off the wall as it's made out to be.