By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
WASHINGTON Conspiracy theories have become a way of life in America, no longer limited to paranoid crazies on the political fringe. Today they are promoted by mainstream news outlets, political figures, and prominent individuals. As soon as Bill Clinton was accused of conducting an illicit relationship with Monica Lewinsky, Hillary was on the air with accusations of a right-wing plot to undermine the president. When terrorist bombs exploded at two American embassies in Africa, suggestions of a scheme by fundamentalist Muslims soon had to compete with claims that the attacks were planned by Clinton to draw attention away from his affair with Lewinsky.
In each case, the facts eventually came out. But facts usually do little to stem the tide of conspiracy theories they have a way of taking on a life of their own. Since conspiracies are by nature secret, they are impossible to disprove: lack of press coverage or government evidence to the contrary only demonstrates that the media and the government are part of the plot.
People have always searched for the hidden hand behind historic events, but conspiracy theories have truly proliferated only in the post-Cold War era. There are no Communists left to take the blame for everything that goes wrong, yet the world seems an increasingly complex and insecure place, where currency trading in Asia can bring down the American stock market, and a semen stain can bring down a presidency.
Today, inexplicable tragedies or negative turns in world events tend to be attributed to one of a vast array of hidden and sinister forces: Maybe they're the work of the international Jewish conspiracy, the focus of the most enduring of all these theories. Perhaps it's the drug lords who operate through Clinton's "Dixie Mafia" from their secret headquarters on an airstrip in Mena, Arkansas. It might be the "Power Elite," the Big Business clique that works under the tutelage of David Rockefeller and his evil theoretician, Henry Kissinger. And of course, it could be aliensbut we don't know for sure, since the government has long conspired to hide all evidence of extraterrestrial visitations.
Government cover-ups, in fact, seem to figure in just about all conspiracy theories. "A random telephone survey of 800 American adults in September 1996 found that 74 percentvirtually three out of four citizensbelieve that the U.S. government regularly engages in conspiratorial and clandestine operations," writes Robert Anton Wilson, author of Everything Is Under Control: Conspiracies, Cults, and Cover-ups. During the Reagan/Bush years, it was the left that was the most vocal in describing a "shadow government"a force seen in such scandals as Iran-Contra and BCCI. In the 1990s, however, right-wing theories of government plots exhibit the most vitality.
The worldviews of militias and other far-right extremists are often conspiracy-based, but the influence of their theories reaches well into the mainstream. In 1995, Texas congressman Steve Stockman accused the Clinton administration of staging the government raid at Waco to build support for its ban on assault weapons, while Representative Helen Chenoweth of Idaho voiced militia complaints that "black helicopters" were being used to enforce the Endangered Species Act.
Some conspiracy theories today make strange bedfellows of common adherents on the left and right, and of hard-boiled politicos and starry-eyed believers in the paranormal. And the current pop-cultural climate has served as a breeding ground for these devious notions. The X-Files and the numerous shows it has inspired combine stories of slimy aliens and modern-day werewolves with complex government schemes to cover up military research into gene splicing and biological weaponry, and the Internet offers sites catering to every possible combination of paranoid analysis.
What follows is a list of some of the world's most enduring conspiracies, along with a few of the more popular and bizzare from among the current crop.
Protocols of the Elders of Zion
Author / Date of Origin: The Czar's Secret Police/early 20th century
The Theory: One of the many versions of the Worldwide Jewish Conspiracy aimed at undermining civil society and establishing Jewish control. The Protocols posit that once every hundred years, the reigning elders of the 12 tribes of Israel gather in a Jewish cemetery in Prague and plot to enslave gentiles and take over world. Promoted in the U.S. in the '20s and '30s by Henry Ford and Ford car salesmen, the Protocols remain popular at gun shows, militia meetings, and other far-right gatherings.
True Believers: The far-right racialist political movement in the U.S. and its counterparts in Europe and Australia
Reality Check: The Holocaust (Response: many of the same groups insist that the Holocaust is a fiction invented to win sympathy for the Jews.)
Big Business Plot to Kill JFK With the Help of Nazi Scientists
Author / Date of Origin: William Torbitt (pseudonym)/1970
The Theory: The John F. Kennedy assassination was set up by leaders of the military industrial complex through a cabal that includes NASA, a supersecret "Defense Industrial Security Command" run by Werner von Braun, J. Edgar Hoover's Division Five investigative unit, and the mob. Lee Harvey Oswald was a "mind-control victim." The plot may have been masterminded by Nazi scientists working under NASA cover at a secret site in the Nevada desert.
True Believers: Kennedy assassination buffs
Reality Check: Just plain not enough space on the grassy knoll for all those people
Author / Date of Origin: Various/1954
The Theory: Beginning with a meeting at the Hotel de Bilderberg in the Netherlands in 1954, the "Power Elite" have convened in a different city every year to plot the course of world history. The group includes members of the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations. Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Katherine Graham, Henry Kissinger, George Ball, and George Stephanopolous have all attended meetings.
True Believers: Spotlight, the Washington-based right-wing weekly, and many others, including former Lousiana congressman John Rarick, who read the Bilderberger "history" into the Congressional Record in 1971.
Reality Check: Despite a purported quarter century of meetings, none has been effectively documented (evidence, says the Spotlight, of fear on the part of the press).
Author / Date of Origin: Internet Clinton watchers/1992 presidential election campaign
The Theory: A network of individuals surrounding Bill Clinton conspired to advance the international drug business. Operating out of headquarters in Mena, Arkansas, it involved narcotics trafficker Barry Seal, and its doings led to the death of Vince Foster as well as the mysterious deaths of over 30 others who either learned of the plot or got caught in it by mistake. According to one version, Clinton himself was nurtured by the CIA as an informant during his student days in England.
True Believers: Clinton bashers
Reality Check: Exhaustive investigations show Foster's death to be a suicide, and even Ken Starr seems to have found no evidence to back this theory.
Author / Date of Origin: British Imperialists/the 19th century
The Theory: Only Aryan men, who can trace their heritage back through the Lost Tribes of Israel to the Garden of Eden, can claim to be true inheritors of God's world on earth. And as such, they are the only true citizens of the United States. According to the theory's adherents, people of color aren't really human, just a bad carbon copy, and Jews are "mud people"descendants of Eve's union with the serpent.
True Believers: Neo-Nazis
Reality Check: Even most Christian scholars locate the Garden of Eden in Tanzania, which would mean black people are the direct descendants of Adam.
Author / Date of Origin: French cleric Abbe Barruel/1797
The Theory: Members of this secret society (pockets of which existed in reality) believe in achieving "illumination" through the study of rational philosophy and the humanities. They are supposed to have maintained a secret power cabal that, among other things, launched the French Revolution.
True Believers: The Catholic Church, which condemned the society in the 18th century; Adolph Hitler, who outlawed it in the 1930s; and various far-right groups today
Reality Check: Does it seem like rational humanists are running the world?
Oklahoma City Bombing
Author / Date of Origin: J. D. Cash, Kristen and Glenn Wilburn/April 19, 1995.
The Theory: In this widely popular conspiracy advanced by Cash, a small-town Oklahoma journalist, and the Wilburns, grandparents of blast victims, the bombing occurred when a government sting on neo-Nazis went awry and the FBI failed to stop the explosion it knew would happen.
True Believers: Militias, the John Birch Society, random Internet conspiracy theorists
Reality Check: Although there were bits of tantalizing evidence at the trial indicating a wider conspiracy behind the bombing, provable evidence of this particular scenario has never been produced.
David Rockefeller, Ultimate Powerbroker
Author / Date of Origin: Various/1960s
The Theory: As honorary chair of both the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission, and a principal in the Chase Manhattan Bank (and thus a power to be reckoned with at the Federal Reserve Board), David Rockefeller appears in any number of conspiracy theories as the Insider's Insider. He's the current head of a family that controlled 90 percent of the country's oil in 1890, by 1930 owned substantial portions of 40,000 corporations, and today has influence across a vast array of affiliated banks, insurance companies, and industrial corporations throughout the world. Brother Nelson was governor of New York and vice president of the U.S.
True Believers: This one brings in all types of adherents.
Reality Check: Truth be told, David does seem a little too powerful, even for a big businessman.
The Reorganization of the Federal Emergency Management Agency
Author / Date of Origin: Spotlight/1980s
The Theory: Ronald Reagan's National Security Directive #58 allowed the National Security Agency, then under the direction of Oliver North and Bud McFarlane, to infiltrate this otherwise seemingly innocuous government organization concerned with disaster relief and secretly reoriented its mission. Congress created a secret FEMA budget of $2.9 billion, which went into Mobile Emergency Response Support and the purchase of 300 specially equipped and nuclear-hardened vehicles located throughout the U.S. They were designed to shuttle the president and members of his cabinet around the country so they could maintain control after a nuclear strike. Money was also used for elite counterterrorism and espionage training and to compile a computer database of U.S. citizens involved in "Un-American Activities."
True Believers: Spotlight readers on the right. Reagan conspiracy devotees on the left.
Reality Check: FEMA can't even deal effectively with hurricanes and floods, much less nuclear war.
The Death of Princess Di
Author / Date of Origin: The fringe media/September 1, 1997
The Theory: Princesss Diana's death was a "hit" ordered by the Royal Family out of fear that her companion, Dodi Fayed (an Arab), would wield undue influence on the future King of England, Prince William. The theory has seemingly been confirmed by Mummar al-Qaddafi of Libya, who said, "Britain is the vilest of countries" for "executing an Arab citizen who wanted to marry an English princess." Related theories: "strange lights" seen at the time of the crash presage a UFO connection to be revealed in the future. The Princess's opposition to land mines led to retaliation by arms merchants. The deaths were faked to allow the couple to escape.
True Believers: Distraught Diana-maniacs, egged on by radio talk-show hosts.
Reality Check: The theory overestimates the organizational skill of the Royal Family.
Author / Date of Origin: Robert Welch/1958
The Theory: In this update of the Illuminati, a small group of Insiders (who are not necessarily seeking illumination) works behind the scenes to gain power by manipulating just about everybody, including the Communists (Lenin and Trotsky were dupes), anarchists, socialists, and various opportunistic politicians. According to Welch, President Eisenhower was a pawn in the game, and even a card-carrying Communist. Welch, however, is less clear about how the Insiders came to have such power.
True Believers: John Birch-ers
Reality Check: Welch was never even able to say who the Insiders were.
New World Order
Author / Date of Origin: Bo Gritz and friends/1980
The Theory: Gritz, a leader of the far-right racialist movement, exemplifies eclectic present-day conspiracy theorizing in his elaborate description of an "elite organization"which includes such strange bedfellows as Henry Kissinger, the Rothchilds and Rockefeller families, members of Yale's Skull and Bones society, and the queen of Englandthat has been behind everything from the American Civil War to the JFK assassination to the formation of the European Economic Community to the Iran-Contra scandal. "It's always been in the planning," warns Gritz, "and now it's in the execution."
True Believers: Survivalists and other far-right adherents. On some points, leftist believers in the "shadow government" or "the Octopus."
Reality Check: As the Beatles observed, "Her Majesty's a pretty nice girl, but she hasn't got a lot to say."
Author / Date of Origin: Sherman Skolnick, independent investigator in Chicago/December 8, 1972
The Theory: United Airlines Flight 553 crashed a few miles short of Chicago's Midway Airport in 1972, killing 43 people including Dorothy Hunt, wife of E. Howard Hunt, the Watergate burglar. Skolnick questioned whether Richard Nixon had the plane blown up to keep Ms. Hunt from spilling inside secrets. Suspicious details include a pilot named "Whitehouse," whose body had significant amounts of cyanide in the blood; the mysterious disappearance of the flight recorder; and Nixon's appointment of personal cronies Egil Krogh, Alexander Butterfield, and Dwight Chapin to run the crash investigation.
True Believers: Various lefties, encouraged by writings of radical historian Carl Oglesby