Author: Kathryn S. Olmsted
Publisher: Oxford University Press
ISBN: 978-0-19-518353-6

University of California Professor of History Kathryn S. Olmsted asks in the introduction to Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War 1 to 9/11, how can we explain the profound distrust that many Americans have of their government? She goes onto state that in one of the world’s oldest constitutional democracies more than one third of the population actually believe that officials of their own government plotted to carry out terrorist attacks on U.S. soil in order to trick the people into war. And as she illustrates in her book, it is little wonder that we have such cynicism, “it has happened before.”

This just about sets the theme of this explosive exposé wherein Olmsted turns her expertise in helping us understand contemporary conspiracy theories. According to Olmsted, it is essential that we examine and explore “the history of proven government conspiracies, because for all their seeming outlandishness, the successive generations of antigovernment conspiracy theorists since World War 1 have at least one thing in common: when they charge that the government has plotted, lied, and covered up, they’re often right.”    

To advance her arguments and to comprehend why conspiracy theories are endemic to American democracy, Olmsted provides evidence that American conspiracy theories underwent a fundamental transformation in the twentieth century. The theory that there were alien forces such as Catholics, Masons, Mormons, and Jews that were bent on capturing the federal government was replaced by a conviction that the federal government itself was the conspirator. Many of these theories based their contentions that government officials lied to citizens, dragged peaceful Americans into unwanted wars, and then spied on and oppressed those who opposed the war.

As Olmsted convincingly notes, these portrayals were not so far fetched as they appeared in an era when the federal government grew so powerful that they in fact were able to accomplish these abominable goals.

Olmsted does a masterful job in tracing the history of the fear of conspiracies within the U.S. federal government from the birth of the modern state in World War 1, to Pearl Harbor, Communism and the McCarthy Era, JFK’s Assassination, Nixon and Watergate, conspiracy theories from the 1970s to the 1990s, 9/11 and ending with the current war on terror.

Some of the more fascinating conspiracy theories examined include the ones advanced by President Theodore Roosevelt’s critics that made some valid points. Many of these theories were the result of Roosevelt’s secretive Asian foreign policy. He did make decisions that he knew might provoke the Japanese into an attack, and he made these in response to events in Europe. In fact, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he portrayed himself as being shocked by it as were other Americans. Finally, he did attempt to bury key documents and to force Pearl Harbor commanders to assume full responsibility for the disaster.

Another is the U.S. government’s harassment of Linus Pauling, one of the greatest scientists who could have helped the frontiers of American science as well as showcasing the superiority of capitalism. According to Olmsted, the answer to his harassment lies in the conspiracy theory of communist subversion. Pauling was branded by America’s internal security agency as an enemy of the state.

No doubt, one of the champions of conspiracy theories, as Olmsted demonstrates, was Richard Nixon, where during his administration, paranoia and conspiracy became fundamental operating principles of the executive branch. As we now know, his cohorts in crime strongly accepted conspiracy theories, actually participated in them, and cynically advanced some of these theories as a means to deflect attention from their own crimes.

In her concluding chapter, Olmsted effectively sums up all of her arguments in stating that from World War 1 until the present, various actions of the U.S. government have aided in the creation of these conspiracy theories in three ways. Firstly, officials have often promoted these theories of their own. From Woodrow Wilson to George W. Bush, there was a belief that it was the 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, it is government officials through their actions that have provided the fuel for conspiracism by using powers to plot and to conceal real conspiracies. Thirdly, by actively supporting the suppression of alternative views, public officials have fed citizens’ antigovernment paranoia.

Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War 1 to 9/11 belongs in everyone’s library, to read not in one mouthful, but in small bites. Olmsted’s use of provocative and compelling examples and anecdotes is a testament to her talent and superb research skills that convincingly sways her readers in understanding the full significance of conspiracy theories as it applies to keeping American democracy healthy and informing the public debate.  

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