The expansion of the United States‘ government and growth of secret agencies has fueled its population’s belief in conspiracy theories, said Kathy Olmsted, a professor in the department of history and author of recently published Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11.
“As government abuses are exposed, as they often are because we live in a relatively open society, Americans look at that evidence and decide, ‘Well, if we know that the government did this, then who is to say the government didn’t do [other things].‘”
Real Enemies published by Oxford University Press, is Olmsted’s third book on government secrets. The book details the increase in state power throughout the 1900s, and is the product of five years of research in university libraries throughout the country where conspiracy theorists have deposited their manuscripts and letters.
“I spent a lot of time in Washington D.C., and exotic places like Laramie, Wyoming – next time I’ll try and choose something that involves research in Venice – but I was all over the map,” Olmsted said of her travels.
Among those whose mysteries Olmsted tries to unravel are scientist Linus Pauling, who faced FBI harassment as a suspected communist during the Cold War, and Sylvia Meagher, an analyst for the World Health Organization who was deeply invested in disproving the government’s version of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
After your first book, what made you want to keep exploring?
My first book was on the congressional investigation of the CIA and FBI after Watergate, and after that came out in 1996 a lot of people began contacting me, and they were really engaged with the subject, and had read congressional reports. [The reports] exposed a lot of crimes and abuses by the FBI, and a lot of the people who began contacting me were convinced they were the victims of secret conspiracies by government agencies, so I started to get interested in the interplay of the relationship between real government conspiracies and conspiracy theories about the government.
Have you taken anything from your books into the classroom with you – and vice versa – does anything from your classroom find its way into your books?
Definitely, I think with all of us our research informs our teaching and our teaching helps us to formulate questions for our research. In this particular case, the most direct application in my teaching has been that I’ve taught classes on conspiracy theories – I teach a seminar for history majors and an upper division lecture class.
In my acknowledgements I thank my undergraduates first because they’ve really helped me. A lot of my undergraduates give me materials – they forward me links to websites, etc. One gave me a box of books on conspiracy theories from the 1950s that he‘d picked up at an estate sale. So I get a lot of information from my undergraduates, but also they ask questions that help me realize what I need to clarify in my writing – they pose new questions or suggest new links that send me off in new directions.
What would you say could be done to mitigate the spread of conspiracy theories?
It’s up to the government to be open and transparent so that people believe that they can find out what their government is up to. When the government is secretive and refuses to disclose information then people tend to suspect the worst.
How do the students you interact with feel about 9/11?
They’re very interested in 9/11. For a lot of students, 9/11 is their Kennedy assassination – they’re fascinated by it and want to understand it and answer its unanswered questions and they see it as a mystery that they can solve and are very engaged with it. 9/11 is what draws them to conspiracy theories – it’s the one they know most about and are most interested in.
What are your feelings on 9/11? Does it merit being defined as a conspiracy?
I’m interested in why so many people believe in conspiracy theories – I don’t believe the controlled demolition theory myself – but I’m interested in why so many Americans would be so distrustful of their government to think it was capable of that mass murder, so what I do in the book is look in to what other things did the Bush administration do to destroy the public’s trust in the government.
I’m interested in why 9/11 theories are so widespread – about a third of Americans believe that the Bush administration was somehow involved, and a majority of those are ages 18-29, so it’s very prevalent among my students, and it’s what got me interested in seeking why so many people would be so distrustful that they would believe that what they had seen on TV was an elaborate ruse that was put on by their government.
Does this say anything about our generation’s [the 18-29 demographic] trust of the media?
Absolutely – the Internet makes alternative versions of events more readily available, so alternative conspiracy theories can spread more quickly.
MIKE DORSEY can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.