Conspiracy Theories and History
A colleague of mine suggested that I have spent too much time discussing conspiracy theories. Maybe. There is, however, a reason why I have decided to retain that discussion. I would like to explain why.
History is both an art and a science. It is an art to the extent that the telling or describing of history benefits when historians bring their creative talents to the task. By creative I do not mean that historians should invent or make things up; on the contrary, historians are social scientists and are obliged to follow the evidence, wherever it may lead. Detailing history in an informative and entertaining manner is an art; many well-known historians are very good at it.
Unfortunately, there are people who claim to be historians who go too far on the creative side. They may ignore evidence from the past, use the existing evidence selectively, orshape their description of historic events to fit their particular personal or political agendas. In the worst cases, they invent evidence to weave erroneous, often bizarre, theories about the past, and suggest that conventional ideas about history are merely used to hide conspiracies that have been concocted to distort the past.
Conspiracy theories are as old as history itself. In a way, they are related to other belief systems, superstitions, belief in the supernatural, and so on. It is difficult for us as human beings to understand why random events, especially those that we view as dangerous or harmful, can happen for no reason. We demand explanations, even if they have little basis in fact or even if they are hardly plausible.
Some conspiracy theories might be termed purely mythological, having no basis in fact whatsoever. Some are rooted in truth, even if only vaguely. Some of the more bizarre conspiracy theories involving things like alien abduction and government cover-up are pure fantasy. Those who have studied conspiracy theories, however, point out that people who are prone to believe in the more bizarre ideas are also likely to believe in things that are at least within the realm of possibility.
Although conspiracy theories and other related belief systems occur in most cultures, Americans seem especially prone to finding conspiracies lurking behind events that impact their lives. It began early in American history. In the years leading up to the American Revolution the British government took a series of actions that eventually lead to rebellion. While there is no reason to believe that Parliament deliberately took steps designed to alienate the colonies, the colonists did not see it that way. Beginning with the Stamp Act of 1765 and including various quartering and other tax acts, the British government was trying to cure its problem of debt. Since the British saw the colonies as a source of revenue, it makes no sense to think that they were deliberately trying to alienate their American cousins.
Following the Tea Act of 1773, which was an attempt to rescue the financially troubled East India Company, Bostonians responded by dumping a valuable cargo of tea into Boston harbor. The British responded with a series of punitive laws called the Coercive Acts, also known to the colonists as the Intolerable Acts, the most painful of which was the closing of the port of Boston. Those acts were the straw that broke the camel’s back. When news of the draconian laws got out, colonists from New Hampshire to Georgia began to believe that there was in fact a conspiracy in Parliament to alienate and enslave the colonies. By the time the Declaration of Independence was adopted, the notion that the British government was deliberately trying to visit destruction upon the colonies was well accepted. Jefferson's words make it clear:
The notion of a conspiracy to destroy the American colonies was thus memorialized.
Modern conspiracy theories range from serious distortions of important historical events to bizarre, almost comical, ideas about cover-ups, conspiracies, and so on. At the bizarre end of the spectrum are theories such as the one that argues that the United States never sent astronauts to the moon. These particular conspiracy theorists conclude that such a journey is impossible, that the landings were actually conducted in a remote corner of a southwestern desert, and that films of the phony moon landings were altered to make the movements of the astronauts appear as if they had really been on the moon. Since this theory is not very widely accepted, it probably does little harm, although it is insulting to the astronauts and scientists who participated in the Apollo program.
Some conspiracy theories, however, have a more ambitious agenda than merely to prove that some historic event was a hoax. Because of the implications that would result if these theories were correct, they can be harmful. I will mention three.
The first is Holocaust denial. For reasons best known to themselves, some historians or would-be historians argue that the Holocaust, as most of us are familiar with it, never occurred, or that the numbers of Jews and others killed by the Nazis have been grossly exaggerated. They claim that it would have been impossible to kill six million Jews, and that the real number was probably “only a few hundred thousand.” Contrary evidence is overwhelming, but that does not quiet the deniers.
In 1996 American historian Deborah Lipstadt was sued by well-known Holocaust denier David Irving for libel. She had published a book in which she claimed that Irving was a Holocaust denier, falsifier, and bigot. The case was heard in a British court, and the judge ruled that “Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence.” He ruled in favor of Deborah Lipstadt. Irving was required to pay for her defense. The ruling did not stop Irving from spreading his falsehoods, however; he was imprisoned in Austria in 2005 and has been refused entry into several countries, including the United States. Irving is merely the most famous—or infamous—of the Holocaust deniers. He has many followers.
The second conspiracy theory I will cite is the one involving President Franklin Roosevelt’s alleged prior knowledge of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The claim is that Roosevelt knew the attack was coming but deliberately failed to alert military personnel in Hawaii that the Japanese raid was imminent in order to force the United States into a war which many Americans did not want. I have discussed this theory at length in the World War II section of my text, Freedom and Responsibility: United States History 1865-2000. Historian Gordon W. Prange dealt with the Pearl Harbor story thoroughly and, in my opinion, definitively in his work, Pearl Harbor: The Verdict of History.
A more recent theory, perhaps more bizarre than the two others I mentioned, nevertheless has a substantial following in the United States. This theory claims that the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, were planned and engineered by President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Claimants offer as evidence the fact that the steel does not melt at the temperature of burning jet fuel. Therefore, the towers could not have collapsed from the heat generated by the crashes. They also claim that photographs reveal charges exploding inside the buildings which had been placed by agents working for the United States government. Their claims are demonstrably false, but that does not prevent this particular group of theorists to continue to expound their views. (Steel does not melt at the temperature of burning fuel, but it is weakened sufficiently to have caused the collapse.)
One might note that the “Flat Earth Society” still exists and holds regular meetings.
Our job as historians is to examine the evidence before arriving at conclusions. We should be willing to look at evidence that disagrees with what we might think about a certain historic event. If, for example, the Civil War was not brought about by slavery, then where is the evidence to support other causes? It will not do to include as evidence unsupported claims made by others. We must be willing to change our opinions when new evidence is revealed. We should avoid the notion that certain historical cases are closed to further analysis. As one historian claimed during the David Irving trial, we are still making new discoveries about the Roman Empire. In our own American history, one commonly accepted view of the American Revolution was changed dramatically by the publication of a book in 1988 by distinguished historian Gordon Wood.
The door is never closed on history. History, as we study and teach it, is not “what happened.” In almost every case of historic events, we will never know everything that happened or exactly how it happened. History is what we believe about the past. If our beliefs are rigid and unbending and closed to new interpretation, then our history is false. If we remain open-minded and curious, if we willingly accept evidence that changes our views, then we are true to our trade and will not easily be tempted to follow the latest conspiracy theory.