During the mid-1960s, there was increasing public skepticism about the Warren Commission findings a lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald, was solely responsible for President Kennedy’s assassination, and growing suspicions top-ranking American leaders were involved. So as a means of damage control, the CIA distributed a secret memo to all its field offices requesting they enlist their media assets in efforts to ridicule and attack such critics as irrational supporters of “conspiracy theories.”
Soon afterward, there suddenly appeared statements in the media making those exact points, with some of the wording, arguments, and patterns of usage closely matching those CIA guidelines.
The result was a huge spike in the pejorative use of the phrase, which spread throughout the American media, with the residual impact continuing right down to the present day. Thus, there is considerable evidence in support of this particular “conspiracy theory,” explaining the widespread appearance of attacks on “conspiracy theories” in the public media.
Although the CIA appears to have effectively manipulated public opinion in order to transform the phrase “conspiracy theory” into a powerful weapon of ideological combat, the necessary philosophical ground actually had been prepared a couple of decades earlier. Around the time of the Second World War, an important shift in political theory caused a huge decline in the respectability of any “conspiratorial” explanation of historical events.
For decades prior to that conflict, one of our most prominent scholars and public intellectuals was historian Charles Beard, whose influential writings heavily focused on the harmful role of various elite conspiracies in shaping American policy for the benefit of the few, at the expense of the many, with his examples ranging from the earliest history of the United States down to the nation’s entry into WWI.
Obviously, researchers never claimed all major historical events had hidden causes, but it was widely accepted some of them did, and attempting to investigate those possibilities deemed a perfectly acceptable academic enterprise.
However, Beard was a strong opponent of American entry into the Second World War, and he was marginalized in the years that followed, even prior to his death in 1948. Many younger public intellectuals of a similar bent suffered the same fate, or were even purged from respectability and denied any access to the mainstream media.
At the same time, the totally contrary perspectives of two European political philosophers, Karl Popper and Leo Strauss, gradually gained ascendancy in American intellectual circles, and their ideas became dominant in public life.
Popper, the more widely influential, presented broad, largely theoretical objections to the very possibility of important conspiracies ever existing, suggesting these would be implausibly difficult to implement given the fallibility of human agents; what might appear a conspiracy actually amounted to individual actors pursuing their own narrow aims.
Even more importantly, he regarded “conspiratorial beliefs” as an extremely dangerous social malady, a major contributing factor to the rise of Nazism and other deadly totalitarian ideologies. His own background as an individual of Jewish ancestry who had fled Austria in 1937 surely contributed to the depth of his feelings on these philosophical matters.
Meanwhile, Strauss, a founding figure in modern neo-conservative thought, was equally harsh in his attacks upon conspiracy analysis, but for polar-opposite reasons. In his mind, elite conspiracies were absolutely necessary and beneficial, a crucial social defense against anarchy or totalitarianism, but their effectiveness obviously depended upon keeping them hidden from the prying eyes of the ignorant masses.
Hence, Strauss’ main problem with “conspiracy theories” was not that they were always false, but they might often be true, and therefore, their spread potentially disruptive to the smooth functioning of society. So as a matter of self-defense, elites needed to actively suppress or otherwise undercut the unauthorized investigation of suspected conspiracies.
Even for most educated Americans, theorists such as Beard, Popper, and Strauss are probably no more than vague names mentioned in textbooks, and that was certainly true in my own case. But while the influence of Beard seems to have largely disappeared in elite circles, the same is hardly true of his rivals.
Popper ranks as one of the founders of modern scientific philosophy, with an individual as politically influential as left-liberal financier George Soros claiming to be his intellectual disciple.
Meanwhile, the neo-conservative thinkers who have totally dominated the Republican Party and the Conservative Movement for the last couple of decades often proudly trace their ideas back to Strauss.
So, through a mixture of Popperian and Straussian thinking, the traditional American tendency to regard elite conspiracies as a real but harmful aspect of our society was gradually stigmatized as either paranoid or politically dangerous, laying the conditions for its exclusion from respectable discourse.
(Editor’s note: Open Society is the tradition of Karl Popper. However, the traditions of Beard and Strauss are important as well, especially in understanding our current circumstances in America. Out with the dogma. In with critical thinking.)