If cold war foreign policy manifested itself in mutual hostility between East and West, the nuclear arms race, and a commitment to methods of covert subversion, its prosecution at home was based on the premise of aggressive anticommunism. Although not a new phenomenon, the identification and systematic elimination of the U.S. Left reached its peak of judicial action and social acceptance during the 1940s and 1950s.

The rise to prominence of several key figures, including Senator Joseph McCarthy and President Harry Truman, future President Richard Nixon, and J. Edgar Hoover, coincided with a postwar political and social climate in which extreme forms of radicalism—preeminently left-wing radicalism—were deemed unacceptable. More than that, as a series of high-profile legal proceedings made clear, the combined forces of domestic leftism were widely alleged to be antithetical to, if not in league against, the American way of life.

After the peak of anticommunist militancy in the mid-1950s, there followed a period when the campaign was forced to move underground and to deploy covert strategies of subversion that ironically paralleled the conspiratorial tactics of the Communists whose destruction they sought.

From “Red Scare” to the “Red Decade”

If the threat of communism was greatly exaggerated by its adversaries, it was certainly not wholly falsified. In large part, the problem derived from the Communist Party (CPUSA)’s characteristically conspiratorial methods of organization and operation, and its apparent total reliance on the Soviet Union in matters of policy and practice. The movement was explicitly structured according to Lenin’s valued principles of hierarchy, secrecy, and total commitment to the cause.

Communist initiates or “cadres,” many of them drawn from the immigrant working class, were expected to spend long hours studying the central texts of Marxism and organizing profile- and fund-raising activities for the party. Moreover, as recent revelations from the Soviet archives and files of the top-secret Venona Project have confirmed, the CPUSA was, from its inception, led by a top echelon of men and women who pledged allegiance to the leadership of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.

Many of these figures sought in Soviet communism a model of discipline and radicalism with which to energize and coordinate the diverse struggles of labor unions and organizations like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) against the dominant power of U.S. capitalism.

When the CPUSA finally emerged out of bitter factional conflict in 1919, it was with both the political and financial backing of the Kremlin. With this support, however, came the understanding that, regardless of more pressing local concerns, the party would unwaveringly toe the line arrived at by the Soviet-led Communist International (Comintern).

It was also this traditional connection to the Soviet Union that would place the party in the greatest danger during periods of fervent anticommunism. In the early 1920s, for instance, with most of Europe still reeling from World War I, and with Bolshevik anticapitalist rhetoric and labor unrest at their most incendiary, membership of the CPUSA was considered by many in the U.S. legal and political establishment to be in itself an act of sedition.

Capitalizing on their tendency toward conservatism and countersubversion, J. Edgar Hoover, then an aspiring Justice Department official, found powerful allies in the industrial, commercial, and law-enforcement communities with whom he launched a vicious counterattack against the radicals and striking workers.

One long-term result of the so-called red scare was the creation of a network of prominent anticommunists whose experience and expertise would prove vital during the much broader assault on the U.S. Left during the postwar years.

Before these powers could prevail, however, there followed a period of relative success for the domestic Communist movement. As the nucleus of a huge “popular front” against European fascism throughout the 1930s, the CPUSA presided over a period that soon came to be known as the “red decade.”

From the Depression years until the era of social restitution brought about by President Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, the Communist-led U.S. Left defined the political agenda, campaigning for everything from workers’ rights to the protection of young blacks against the scourge of lynching in the South.

Crucially important was the Soviet Union’s resistance to the forces of fascism personified in the figures of Hitler, Mussolini, and General Franco in Spain, and the international antifascist coalition coordinated by the Comintern. Involvement in the Spanish Civil War provided many U.S. leftists with the life-changing experience of radicalization. It should be stressed, though, that support for traditionally leftist causes was not limited to membership of the Communist Party in this period.

With a proactive, liberally inclined president in the White House, the Left’s popular agenda was matched by an administration firmly committed to social equality and labor reform, in stark contrast to the laissez-faire monopoly capitalism favored by successive governments during the 1920s.

While very far from a leftist himself, President Roosevelt surrounded himself with an extensive and powerful fraternity of liberal and left-inclined advisors, bureaucrats, and legislators—some of them “fellow-travelers” at the fringe of the Communist Party’s orbit—who manned the many administrative committees and working groups that epitomized the New Deal era. Throughout this period, for obvious reasons, the conservative, anticommunist community remained largely in the background of policy-formation.

The Conspiracy of Communism

If the anticommunist network was notable by its absence during the prewar years, its roots had been struck deep. In-fighting on the Left between supporters of Stalin and exiled Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky, together with the nonaggression pact between Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia in 1939, provided the perfect alibi for conservatives at home to sign into law the Smith Act of 1940.

By making illegal any group that advocated the overthrow of the U.S. government, this legal instrument effectively outlawed the CPUSA and many of its affiliates. Meanwhile, the international Left movement suffered a series of external shocks that would render it increasingly vulnerable to further assault. Perhaps most important were revelations from inside the Soviet Union of Stalin’s brutal purges both of the Soviet high command and of millions of ordinary Russians.

The horror of such stories, too shocking and numerous to ignore, combined with the dramatic volte-face of the Nazi-Soviet pact, led many Communists to desert the party in the United States and worldwide. Thus, as Maurice Isserman argues in Which Side Were You On? (1982), the prewar Popular Front coalition was already fragmenting and the CPUSA was already a much-weakened force by the end of World War II.

Central to the growth of anticommunism in the 1940s and 1950s were the changed realities signaled by the onset of the cold war. In these first few years after the cessation of hostilities, many of the constituent elements that would come to define the cold war era were established, both at home and abroad.

The keynote of the period was struck in 1946 by Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech in which the British wartime leader delineated a world divided between the democratic West and the communist countries dominated by Stalin’s autocratic rule. From this point forward, it was clear that the Western powers’ new enemies would be the Soviet states to the east, and that communism would now replace fascism as the principal ideological adversary of the United States.

Taking their cue from the mutual hostility and brinkmanship that prevailed on the international front, the newly resurgent anticommunist contingent set about eliminating the domestic Left movement. The campaign was prosecuted with a violence and fervor that has led commentators such as playwright Arthur Miller to liken the era to that of the witch-hunts in Salem, Massachusetts, during the late seventeenth century.

Much of the hysteria surrounding the persecution of U.S. Communists may be attributed to the terms of engagement established early on in a series of pivotal legal trials. Throughout the late 1940s, many members of the preexisting anticommunist network testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC)—itself created in 1938 to counter the threat of espionage during wartime—and other similar organs, to the seditious antiAmericanism of the CPUSA and to the treachery of its members and affiliates.

A list of the principal actors in this drama, which captivated the public imagination, reads like a “who’s who” of the heroes and villains of the early cold war years: HUAC members and prosecutors such as Senator Joseph McCarthy, his chief counsel Roy Cohn, future President Richard Nixon, Senator Patrick McCarran, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, together with prominent former Communists and “friendly witnesses” like Elizabeth Bentley, Louis Budenz, Whittaker Chambers, Benjamin Mandel, and J. B. Matthews.

With the aim of “reveal[ing] the diabolic machinations of sinister figures engaged in un-American activities” (Hoover, HUAC Testimony, 1947; in Schrecker 1994), these men and women dominated both the political agenda and the popular headlines of the era.

Their ascendancy, supported by many sympathetic figures in the administrations of Presidents Truman and Eisenhower (not least of all Truman himself), did more than simply destroy the U.S. Left movement. Their accusations of widespread Soviet penetration also had the effect of eroding support for, and breaking the hegemony of, Roosevelt’s New Deal establishment.

The success of the anticommunist campaign on a political and legal level was underscored by an equally critical effort among conservative, liberal, and reformed leftist academics, journalists, and social scientists to provide the intellectual justification for the persecution of U.S. communists.

To use the title of a study by one such theorist, there was a great desire in these years to identify and comprehend the “Appeals of Communism” so that selfappointed social engineers might then be able to eliminate them from U.S. society (Almond el al.).

At the opposite extreme to these “scientific” or psychological interpretations were the writings of former party members like Whittaker Chambers and Louis Budenz for whom communism was nothing less than a secular faith locked in fatal struggle with the forces of Western democracy and religion. For both groups, however, the desired result tended to be the same: the isolation of the Communist “virus” from daily life and the immunization of society against its future threat.

This rhetoric of infection was widely reflected in the popular culture of the day, from the sensationalist tabloid and television reporting of infamous trials like the Hiss-Chambers case and the Rosenberg spy scandal, to the proliferation of movies like I Married a Communist (dir. Jack Gross 1949) and I Was a Communist for the FBI (dir. Gordon Douglass 1951), or science fictions such as Invaders from Mars (dir. William Menzies 1953) and Night of the Living Dead (dir. Don Siegel 1955), which dealt metaphorically with the paranoia and hysteria of the witch-hunts. As one historian has recently written, most of the entertainment that reached the nation’s living rooms during the 1950s supported the status quo.

If the epithet “McCarthyism” has commonly been used to characterize the era, then this is undoubtedly because the Wisconsin senator was the single most infamous and influential anticommunist crusader. For a brief period between 1950 and 1954, McCarthy’s dogged investigation of leftist infiltration within the government, labor unions, entertainment industry, and military seemed to epitomize both the specificity—it was McCarthy who first popularized the wholesale naming of names and the use of “blacklists”—and the ruthlessness of the campaign.

On the other hand, it is true that, by the spring of 1954, with the nation under the new government of President Eisenhower, the mood had changed to such an extent that McCarthy’s own methods came under the spotlight of a Senate investigation.

Nevertheless, in method and outlook, McCarthy most closely resembled the witch-hunters of an earlier age and so represented the clearest symptom of that “psychosocial” disorder that important contemporary commentators like Daniel Bell, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Richard Hofstadter identified as instrumental to the prosecution of the campaign.

For these critics, the rise of McCarthy and his fellow zealots was, like earlier populist movements of both right and left, sustained by the strong reactionary tendency among the “unenlightened” moral majority in U.S. society. It is now clear, however, that the campaign was more widespread than the epithet of “McCarthyism” implies. Certainly, many more individuals were involved, and in a more partisan way than was thought at the time, as recent studies of figures like Hoover, Nixon, and McCarran have proved.

In effect, the early 1950s saw the reappearance of an already-strong, conservative anticommunist fraternity whose influence extended through all areas of U.S. life, but which had been held in check during Roosevelt’s New Deal. No less important was the reformulation and retrenchment of liberalism after World War II.

In the works of prominent philosophers and political theorists like Schlesinger, J. K. Galbraith, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Eleanor Roosevelt, and in the outlook and membership of powerful organizations and lobbying groups like the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), the American Committee for Cultural Freedom (ACCF), and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the outlines of a new concept of “consensus politics” began to emerge.

By its very nature, this form of cold war liberalism tended to place extremism of both left and right outside its purview and thereby to stigmatize both as equal threats to the status quo. Instead, the proponents of consensus politics insisted on shared assumptions of the ultimate wisdom of Western capitalism and the importance of “custom and community sentiment” (Hyman).

Anticommunism after the 1950s

Toward the end of the 1950s, the anticommunist coalition, like the Popular Front before it, began to fragment. This was undoubtedly due in part to McCarthy’s ignominious fall from grace, but also to the d├ętente of the early Kennedy years, and the emergence of a “new left” whose ideological trajectory was beginning to depart from the Marxism of the Communist “Old Left.” Again, like the movement it aimed to destroy, militant anticommunism did not disappear, however. Instead, it changed form, sought new targets, and went underground.

As the New Left began to galvanize around emotive causes like civil rights, solidarity with Castro’s Cuba, and, in due course, opposition to the war in Vietnam, so the forces of the Right developed new methods of opposing their enemies. In the climate of superficial openness and accountability fostered by the new, young Kennedy administration, these methods were necessarily secret.

The techniques of covert surveillance and subversion became the chosen modus operandi of newly empowered strata within the existing anticommunist network. Hoover’s FBI and the CIA were more powerful than ever, especially after Nixon’s election to the presidency.

Indeed, the period from 1968 to 1974 saw an unprecedented growth in covert countersubversion operations by groups linked with one or other of the two agencies that controlled intelligence, the vast majority of them targeted at leftist groups at home and abroad whose very presence allegedly posed a threat to the stability of U.S. society.

Such groups included the governments of sovereign nations like Castro’s Cuba, New Left organizations like the Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPCC) and the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and off-shoots of the civil rights movement like the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Black Panther Party (BPP), and the Weather Underground, many of which suffered not only the routine humiliation of McCarthyite court hearings, but also the intervention of new branches of the anticommunist network like the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO).

As certain conspiracy theorists such as Peter Dale Scott argued at the time, the dramatic Watergate scandal of 1974 showed just how far the personnel and assumptions of the intelligence community, most of them derived from the early cold war years, had penetrated the Nixon White House.

Thereafter, the strengthening of the Freedom of Information Act and the work of investigative journalists and historians allowed for a critical reappraisal of the earlier period and of the conspiratorial actions of central figures like Hoover, Nixon, and McCarthy.

Nevertheless, this process of reassessment could not prevent a return to the dark days of the “high cold war” during the 1980s when President Reagan’s confrontational foreign policy and sanction of covert operations in Latin America and elsewhere provided a sharp reminder that many of the causes of anticommunist paranoia remained active.

Not since the immediate postwar period, however, has domestic anticommunism dominated the political and cultural agenda to the exclusion of all else. As Richard Powers’s biography of J. Edgar Hoover confirmed, the characteristic approaches of many anticommunists in those crucial early years were often indistinguishable from those of the Communist “conspiracy” they sought to eliminate from U.S. life.


Abortion signs
Abortion signs

Beginning with the prolonged campaign to outlaw abortion led by members of the American Medical Association in the 1860s and 1870s, antiabortion advocates in the United States have frequently used the rhetoric of conspiracy when talking about the practice.

The language of conspiracy was used to describe not only the networks set up to provide abortions but also the ways that those who provided abortions allegedly conspired to conceal the “truth” about the practice and its supposed risks from pregnant women and from the general public.

After the 1973 Supreme Court rulings in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton struck down state laws criminalizing abortion, antiabortion activists endorsed a number of political strategies, some of which have been called conspiratorial by feminists and others who advocate abortion rights. Beginning in the 1980s, antiabortion leaders such as Randall Terry of Operation Rescue and Joseph Scheidler of the Pro-Life-Action Network recommended “direct action” campaigns targeting abortion providers.

Demonstrations at facilities providing abortion became commonplace, as antiabortion advocates sought to dissuade women from seeking abortions, using means ranging from silent vigils to physically preventing access to the clinic buildings. Since the leaders of these campaigns openly acknowledged that their goal was to drive abortion providers out of business, feminist organizations argued that they were committing criminal conspiracy against those providers.

In 1986, several women’s health organizations filed suit in federal district court, using antitrust laws to charge members of antiabortion organizations with criminal conspiracy. In 1989, the feminist organizations added violations of the federal Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) laws to their charges against the antiabortion organizations.

In 1998, a civil jury found the defendants in NOW v. Scheidler guilty of violating RICO laws. The defendants appealed the decision, and in 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the antiracketeering laws had been improperly used, nullifying the 1998 decision.

Abortion rights advocates also charge that the increase in acts of direct violence against abortion facilities after 1973 points to conspiratorial action by antiabortion activists. These acts of violence include hundreds of incidents of vandalism, arson and firebombing, the 1982 kidnapping of an abortion doctor and his wife, and a series of shootings at abortion clinics in the 1990s that resulted in seven deaths and a number of injuries.

Additionally, between 1998 and 2001 hundreds of letters claiming to contain anthrax were mailed to abortion clinics around the United States, though they were found to be hoaxes. A number of these actions, including the 1982 kidnapping, a 1993 shooting, and the 1997 bombing of an abortion clinic and a gay bar, have been linked to an organization calling itself the Army of God, which has published a manual outlining methods of vandalizing and bombing abortion facilities and taking credit for several fatal shootings of abortion providers.

This manual, along with the alleged circulation on the Internet of a “hit list” of abortion providers, caused many to believe that the increase in violence against abortion providers in the 1990s was linked to a nationwide conspiracy of antiabortion extremists. A grand jury investigation conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice from 1994 to 1996, however, found no definitive evidence of a national conspiracy.

African Americans

African Americans
African Americans

Conspiracy theory, urban legend, and rumor have played an important role in African American culture from its beginnings. Recent decades have seen a spate of conspiracy theories emerge from the African American community concerning everything from the origin of AIDS to supposedly racist clothes designers and restaurant owners.

Whatever the possible validity of these stories, these conspiracy theories have served as a way of voicing frustration and suspicion in an increasingly complex social world, one in which racism may not be condoned by the government, but is still acutely felt by many in the black community. But such stories are not products solely of their time; they emerge out of a tradition that began with the first contact between Africans and Europeans.

As folklorist Patricia Turner notes in her book I Heard It through the Grapevine, a study of the role of rumor and legend in the African American community, the telling of conspiracy-minded stories has been a central way for blacks (and whites) to understand their circumstances.

At the outset of the slave trade, for example, Africans who were taken aboard slave ships had difficulty comprehending both their immediate situation and their captors’ intentions. The one explanation they found plausible was that these strange-looking white men were cannibals searching for food. Likewise, the Europeans presumed that all Africans must be cannibals, given their seemingly primitive nature.

From this basis was born a long line of anecdotes, rumors, and beliefs (many of them well founded) among African Americans about the animosity that at least some whites bore toward them, and their powerlessness in the social, economic, and political systems in which they found themselves.

In particular, a theme that emerges from the earliest rumors about European cannibalism and continues in recent years through the conspiracy theories about the spread of crack cocaine is the understanding that the black (usually male) body is a site of contention between blacks and whites.

Historical Context for Conspiracy Theories

The events of U.S. history have provided a context in which such beliefs make sense: the institution of chattel slavery itself, in which the black body was the property of a white owner and could be worked and physically punished until it gave out; lynchings that became nearly common events in the South in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (often sparked by a suspicion that a black male had had, or intended to have, sexual relations with a white woman); the stories emerging from World War II of black soldiers being given particularly dangerous assignments more regularly than their white counterparts.

The Tuskegee experiments in which black males were intentionally infected with syphilis; the willingness of law enforcement officers in the South not only to deny rights to blacks, but also to attack demonstrators with fire hoses and dogs during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s; the disproportionate number of poor blacks sent to fight in Vietnam; and the ongoing incidents of police violence against blacks, particularly in the inner cities.

In these cases, it isn’t simply that blacks are the victims of racism, but that this racism fuels institutionalized physical attacks against individual African Americans, attacks that often end in death. The assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., in the 1960s, as well as the Rodney King beating in 1991, have served as representative examples of the violence that may befall blacks who seem to defy or challenge the system.

A Century of Conspiracies

The U.S. Civil War and the end of chattel slavery brought increased interaction among African Americans and whites, and with it an increasing number of conspiracy theories among both groups. In fact, one of the most persistent conspiracy theories to circulate in the African American community emerged at the time of emancipation.

The threat of possible black ownership of southern land was used by the Confederacy to rally support for its cause among whites. Belief in this possibility spread so widely that by the time the war ended, many former slaves themselves were convinced that the federal government would supply them with a parcel of land.

The promise of “40 acres and a mule” to each freed slave was never actually made, but the belief that the government both made and broke this promise became so entrenched in African American culture that it continues to be cited as evidence of the systematic betrayal of African Americans by the U.S. government.

With the abolition of slavery came greater mobility and opportunities for African Americans. Yet, much of the underlying racism and animosity that had allowed slavery to exist in the first place remained. African Americans often found themselves in communities that did not welcome them. Inevitably, racial tensions arose from the fear, suspicion, and animosity felt by both blacks and whites in the postslavery United States.

The migration of many southern blacks during the late 1800s and early 1900s to the large urban areas of the North seems to have sparked a number of incidents in which conspiracy theory and racially motivated violence fueled each other. The riots of East St. Louis, Missouri (1917), and Chicago, Illinois (1919), were both precipitated in part by rumors of racial violence.

In St. Louis, a meeting of white laborers concerned about losing their jobs to African Americans led to violence when rumors circulated that a black man had recently killed or assaulted whites (the rumors ranged from an accidental shooting of a white man to the murder of two white girls).

A month of sporadic violence followed, with both blacks and whites believing that the other group was planning a wholesale massacre. When the violence erupted into a full-scale race riot, a large number of blacks were killed and mutilated by white mobs.

The exact number of fatalities was itself the subject of conspiracy theories: many blacks felt that the official death toll was kept low to minimize the savagery of white violence, while some whites felt blacks were trying to inflate the list of fatalities by claiming that people who had fled the city had been killed and disposed of.

Similar rumors of violence sparked a race riot in Chicago in 1919. After weeks of growing racial tension and suspicion, violence erupted when a black boy drowned at a segregated beach when he accidentally drifted into the white swimming area.

Some white bathers threw stones to drive him away, and although there was no evidence that any of these hit the boy, the rumor circulated among African Americans at the scene that the boy had been killed by rock-throwing whites while the police looked on. Several days of violence followed.

Race riots also emerged in Detroit, Michigan, in 1943, as well as Harlem, New York, in 1935 and 1943. Again, rumors of assault, rape, or murder of a member of one group by individuals of the other race served as the spark for the violence. And again, the rumors were found to be either baseless, or at least exaggerated.

These cases of rumors precipitating violence suggest that conspiracy theories have provided a way of giving shape and specificity to free-floating racial anxieties within local communities. However, these rumors also contributed to conspiracy theory becoming a larger theme in African American political discourse.

As Turner points out in her work, even blacks who did not have any specific knowledge of the riots in St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, Harlem, or other similar events still were familiar with the themes expressed in the rumors that emerged from them: that the lives and bodies of blacks were not valued by whites and that violence by whites against blacks was seen as acceptable by society.

From early in the twentieth century, various African American leaders and groups have used conspiracy theories to explain the larger subjection of blacks in U.S. society. Marcus Garvey, Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, and Louis Farrakhan, among many others, have suggested that the social, political, and economic struggles facing blacks were the result of concerted efforts by the white majority to keep them from their rightful place in society. Such theories became accepted tenets of more militant groups such as the Nation of Islam and the Black Panther Party.

In the 1980s and 1990s, a series of conspiracy theories emerged from the African American community that suggested specific ways in which the racism of U.S. society at large was still affecting blacks.

One genre of theory involved supposed ties between companies that catered to the black community and racist organizations, particularly the Ku Klux Klan. One conspiracy theory suggested that the Troop Sport clothing company, a manufacturer of sportswear that was popular in urban areas, was owned and run by the KKK.

Versions of this theory suggested that tags or messages hidden on or in the clothing contained racist threats and slurs. The shoe manufacturer Reebok was also alleged to have racist ties. It was suggested that the producer of popular athletic shoes was owned or financially tied to the white government of South Africa and supporters of apartheid.

A related theory emerged in 1991, claiming that Liz Claiborne, the founder of the clothing company of the same name, had appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show and made racist comments. She was alleged to have suggested that she did not make clothes for black women because they could not wear the same sizes as white women and that she simply did not like the idea of making clothes for blacks.

Although Liz Claiborne had never appeared on Winfrey’s show (and was no longer associated with the clothing company at the time of the rumor’s appearance), the allegations were repeated as fact by many, including film director Spike Lee, who called for a boycott of Liz Claiborne clothing by African American women. A nearly identical theory surfaced a few years later, replacing Liz Claiborne with Tommy Hilfiger.

A second genre of conspiracy theory also suggested links between businesses catering to the black community and racists, but added the assertion that these companies were not simply exploiting African Americans economically but also were causing them physical harm.

These included the longstanding urban legend that Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants served rat meat to some customers. In this case, the allegation was that “Kentucky Fried Rat” was intentionally served to black customers.

Another fried chicken restaurant chain, Church’s Fried Chicken, also became the subject of a conspiracy theory. It was suggested that the company (whose franchises were located primarily in urban areas and had a sizable black customer base) was owned by racist whites who added an ingredient to the chicken that would cause black men to become sterile.

A parallel theory held that the makers of Tropical Fantasy, a low-cost soft drink marketed principally in largely black urban areas, was owned by the KKK and added an ingredient to its product that would sterilize or cause impotence in black men. Yet another rumor suggested that Kool cigarettes contained an additive that caused sterility in black men.

Although no evidence emerged to confirm these rumors, they remained popular beliefs among many African Americans. Many cited the Tuskegee experiments on black men as evidence that attacks on African American males, particularly in ways that directly affected their reproductive capacity, were a way in which whites attempted to limit or destroy the African American population.

The Government as Enemy

While the conspiracy theories involving private companies suggested ties between them and overtly racist organizations such as the KKK, other theories asserted that the U.S. government itself had genocidal ambitions against blacks. Such theories hark back to the time of institutionalized slavery when the government allowed African Americans to be bought and sold, as well as the “broken promise” of 40 acres and a mule.

Contemporary visions of the government as the enemy of African Americans include the theory that the murders of several African American boys and young men in Atlanta from 1979 to 1981 were not the work of Wayne Williams, the black man accused and eventually convicted of the murders.

These crimes were believed to have been part of a conspiracy planned by the Center for Disease Control, the FBI, and/or the CIA to collect interferon from the genitalia of black males for use in medical experiments (a theory that was deemed plausible by comedian/activist Dick Gregory and writer James Baldwin).

Other government-centered conspiracy legends include the allegations that poor black women who visit healthcare centers are routinely sterilized or given long-term birth-control implants without their knowledge, as a means of controlling the black population.

A more popular belief is that the AIDS virus is part of a government plan to target the inner cities with a deadly disease to limit their populations. The most widely circulated of such theories is the charge that drugs (crack cocaine in particular) were purposely introduced to inner-city communities by government agencies as a means to destroy the black community.

Variations of each of these conspiracy theories suggest a wide range of government culpability. Those suggesting a weak link between the federal government and conspiracies against African Americans suggest that the government, while not actually creating the problem (e.g., introducing the HIV virus or crack cocaine into the black community as biological weapons), has willingly allowed these crises to run their course without attempting to solve the problem. As long as these phenomena are primarily affecting black Americans, the reasoning goes, the government is content to practice a type of malevolent neglect.

Versions of these theories that suggest the strongest possible connection between the government and attacks against African Americans hold that not only are such acts a willful attempt at genocide, but that government agencies are actually demonic forces of supernatural evil.

One such theory alleged that a numerological analysis of the name “Ronald Wilson Reagan” proves that the president was an agent of the Antichrist. Since each of his three names contains six letters (i.e., “666”), the president was linked to the mark of the beast as described in the Book of Revelation.

Another genre of conspiracy theory involving oppression of African Americans by the government suggests that the government often attacks the black community indirectly through discrediting highprofile leaders or groups.

Again, such theories have historical precedents. It is now known that the FBI routinely carried out surveillance on civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr., and actively attempted to destabilize the Black Panthers.

Such historical realities lend credence to suggestions that highly visible African Americans are subjected to disinformation campaigns conducted by largely white government agencies. When Washington, D.C., mayor Marion Barry was arrested in a drugrelated sting operation, it was suggested that he had been “set up” by whites who wanted to embarrass and harass influential African Americans.

Similar allegations surrounded the conviction of boxer Mike Tyson for rape.

During the riots in Los Angeles that followed the acquittal of the police officers charged with the beating of Rodney King, a widely circulated rumor suggested that the Los Angeles police were allowing the riots to continue in order to make the black community look bad.

Perhaps the best-known example of this genre of conspiracy theory is that of the arrest and trial of O. J. Simpson for the murder of his exwife. Polls showed that many blacks believed the former football star had been framed by racist members of the Los Angeles Police Department.

A recurring theme in African American conspiracy theories is the physicality of the attacks they describe. The black body itself is portrayed as the site of struggle. The attack may involve the clothes that cover the body (e.g., the Troop Sport, Reebok, and Liz Claiborne theories), or may attack the body itself (e.g., the Church’s Fried Chicken and Tropical Fantasy theories).

The physical attacks range from indirect attempts at limiting the black population (as with the theories involving sterilization) to overt murder and genocide (as in the explanation for the Atlanta child murders and some versions of the AIDS-as-biological-weapon theory).

The theories involving crack cocaine and other drugs in some ways combine these various motifs. The drug trade economically exploits poor blacks. It also leads to their death in many cases (through overdoses, drug-related crime, etc.). Finally, it provides an excuse for institutional control of the black body, such as the incarceration of large numbers of African Americans (mostly young males) and mandatory drug tests for inner-city mothers as a prerequisite for prenatal care.

The Popularity and Ramifications of Conspiracy Theory

Surveys suggest that conspiracy theories of one sort or another are taken seriously by a significant percentage of the African American population. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference conducted a survey in 1991 in which 35 percent of the respondents believed that AIDS was a form of genocide, and another 30 percent said they were not sure.

A poll done by the New York Times and WCBS-TV found that 77 percent of the black respondents felt that there was at least some truth to the allegation that the government targeted black elected officials for investigations as a way to discredit them. The same poll showed that 70 percent of black respondents believed the government intentionally allowed drugs into urban, largely black neighborhoods as a way of harming those who lived there.

The ramifications of this popularity of conspiracy theories among many African Americans are a point of debate among those who have studied the phenomenon. For some, the distortions and untruths they see at the heart of many such theories are stumbling blocks to true social and political progress.

Conspiracy theories undermine the sense of empowerment and responsibility necessary to solve the actual problems. Occasionally, such as in the case of AIDS, the suspicion and misinformation communicated in conspiracy theories can have disastrous effects on both individuals and the larger community.

Others argue that conspiracy theory is a cultural practice that has played an important role in the continuing struggle of African Americans to understand their place in a society that is often hostile. Racism, particularly in its institutionalized forms, has been a conspiracy of sorts that has targeted people of African descent in America from the earliest days of colonial settlement.

Specific conspiracy theories may or may not be supported by the evidence, but even those that are demonstrably false are mistaken only in their particulars. They accurately describe the situation many blacks find themselves in and provide valuable social knowledge by making explicit (even if in a metaphorical manner) the very real forces of racism that must be recognized and overcome in order to succeed in society.

Agent Orange

Agent Orange
Agent Orange

A herbicide used as part of the of the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam’s (MACV) 1962– 1970 defoliation campaign in Vietnam, Agent Orange (along with Agents Blue, Green, Pink, Purple, and White) was utilized to reduce dense jungle foliage that might be used as enemy cover and to destroy food crops that might sustain Communist forces.

As with the later Gulf War, Vietnam veterans have accused the government (and the companies that supplied the product) of allowing service personnel to be used as unwitting guinea pigs in the introduction of an untested chemical weapon, and then engaging in a cover-up about the extent of the problem.

The chemical became a technological fix in an attempt to wage an inexpensive and uncomplicated counterinsurgency campaign, in lieu of seriously addressing the problem of denying enemy access to food supplies and concealment by jungle foliage.

In addition to its tactical uses, Agent Orange was also used in the clearing of U.S. base camp perimeters and other militarily sensitive areas. From 1965 to 1971, 3.2 percent of the cultivated land and 46.4 percent of the forest in Vietnam were sprayed with defoliants—approximately 3 percent of the Vietnamese population lived in defoliated areas.

Of the herbicides used by the U.S. military, Agent Orange had the reputation of being one of the most effective chemicals in defoliating inland and mangrove forests and the best herbicide for the rainy season (due to its oil-soluble composition). Due to this, between 1965 and 1970, approximately 11.2 million gallons of Agent Orange were dumped on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

The majority of this was sprayed from specially equipped C-123 aircraft during Operation Ranchhand, with smaller amounts coming from helicopters, boats, trucks, and even backpack-sized units worn by individual soldiers. Ranchhand defoliated approximately 4,747,587 acres of forest and destroyed 481,897 acres of crops.

Agent Orange contained the chemicals n-butyl esters of 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) and 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T) as well as varying amounts of 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzop-dioxin (TCDD), a member of the dioxin group.

TCDD is considered to be one of the most toxic chemicals known to mankind, with sufficient evidence of an association between exposure to the defoliant and chloracne, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease, and soft-tissue sarcoma.

There is also suggestive evidence of an association between Agent Orange and respiratory cancers (lung, larynx, trachea), prostate cancer, multiple myeloma, acute and subacute peripheral neuropathy, spina bifida, and porphyria cutanea tarda. The results of three epidemiological studies also suggest that a father’s exposure to herbicides may put his children at a greater risk of being born with spina bifida.

In addition to untold numbers of Vietnamese civilians and soldiers, many U.S. military personnel were exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Vietnam veterans and their family members brought a class-action lawsuit against seven manufacturers of Agent Orange that was settled out of court by the establishment of a fund to compensate those exposed for any resulting disabilities. The total number of U.S. military personnel exposed to herbicides in Southeast Asia is unknown, but it is estimated that the number lies somewhere between 2.6 and 3.8 million.



In the last twenty years, one of the most wellknown, enduring, and highly contentious conspiracy theories has surrounded the emergence of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).

Essentially, this theory proposes that HIV was a human-made virus and was either accidentally, or more likely deliberately, introduced into the human population. But beyond this consensus, AIDS conspiracy theories come in a wide variety of forms, especially around the objectives and targets of the conspiracy.

Among the issues raised by AIDS conspiracy theories are the relation between science and politics, the history of chemical and biological warfare, race and genocide, and the effects of conspiracy theories in general on health, behavior, and politics.

Almost since the beginning of the AIDS crisis, conspiracy theories were among the explanations that were used to try to account for this new mysterious disease. While official virologists and others were isolating the HIV/HTLV virus in France and the United States, the account of its origin was (and still is) debated.

The Green Monkey Hypothesis (the belief that the virus jumped species in Africa) was becoming dominant during late 1980s. Also receiving publicity at this time was the conspiracytinged conservative moralism that blamed the victims of AIDS for sinful behavior.

But as far back as 1983 stickers appeared in gay urban districts (like the Castro area in San Francisco) proclaiming that AIDS emerged from a government laboratory, not the gay community. Helped along by the gay press and word of mouth, the theory that AIDS was human-made began to receive attention.

In 1984, the Indian newspaper the New Delhi Patriot charged that AIDS was a genetically engineered agent. Citing an anonymous U.S. anthropologist as well as U.S. Army research literature, the article asserted that HIV was created at the U.S. Army’s Biological Warfare Laboratory at Fort Detrick, Maryland. About a year later, a Soviet journal picked up the story and began to cover the allegations regularly.

This series, along with a Pravda cartoon depicting a U.S. scientist exchanging a vial containing the AIDS virus for money from a U.S. military man, made the AIDS conspiracy theory vulnerable to the charge of being Soviet disinformation. But soon a number of researchers and doctors on both sides of the Iron Curtain began to investigate the murky origins of AIDS. The following sections elaborate the variety of conspiracy theories that emerged from these investigations.

The Early Researchers

In 1986 East German scientists Jakob and Lilli Segal self-published a fifty-two-page pamphlet titled AIDS: USA Home-Made Evil. In it they introduce the splice theory of HIV, which most subsequent conspiracy theories adopt.

In essence, the splice theory argues that HIV is a result of the scientifically engineered, artificial splicing of two or more already existing viruses (both human and other animal). In the Segals’ account, an artificial splice between a visna (sheep) virus and a human one (HTLV-1) produced HIV.

The Segals claimed that this splice was performed at Fort Detrick, Maryland (the U.S. military base for chemical and biological weapons research and development), thereby introducing the chemical-biological warfare (CBW) context to explain AIDS. However, the Segals did not promote the idea that the virus was deliberately introduced into the general populace.

They argued that the virus was tested on some U.S. prison inmates, who accidentally spread it to New York’s gay community. The Segals blamed the epidemic on general U.S. malfeasance, especially the unethical use of scientific experiments, and called for more scientific research into the matter.

The Segals’ claims were dismissed by some as KGB disinformation and embraced by others who used the research for their own theories. Perhaps the most infamous of these followers is Dr. William C. Douglass. His book, AIDS: The End of Civilization, accepted the visna/HTLV splice theory and its origin at Fort Detrick, but asserted that the virus was deliberately introduced into the populace.

Douglass believed that AIDS was a Communist plot to destroy Western civilization, and that Soviet agents in the U.S. scientific and military communities were responsible for its creation.

In addition, Douglass added the claim (which others subsequently picked up) that the World Health Organization (WHO) orchestrated HIV’s spread in Africa, while the Center for Disease Control (CDC) was responsible for its spread in the United States. He also asserted that AIDS could be contracted through casual contact (e.g., mosquitoes and saliva).

Douglass’s work concludes with a call to boost law-and-order measures in the United States (including quarantining HIV-positive people), dismantling the WHO and the United Nations, and fighting communism in general. In an ironic twist, the Segals’ theory, which was labeled KGB propaganda by some, was turned into an anticommunist conspiracy theory.

Another influential conspiracy theorist in this vein is Dr. Robert Strecker, head of the Strecker Group. Strecker’s major work is a low-budget video titled The Strecker Memorandum, which was made available via mail-order. The video primarily consists of Strecker lecturing to a handful of people (including the video’s producer) and explaining his theory on a chalkboard.

Strecker argues there that HIV is a result of a visna virus being spliced with a bovine (cow) virus, and that this new virus was deliberately introduced into the populace via vaccine programs by the WHO in Africa and the CDC in the United States. Strecker also promoted the casual contact model of the virus, believing that AIDS was contagious—a kind of viral cancer (and that there were at least six different varieties of AIDS).

Strecker only insinuated that a Communist plot was behind AIDS, instead placing the history of unethical experimentation on humans in a CBW context. Strecker called for research into electromagnetic cures and a curtailing of intravenous drug use, sexual promiscuity, and blood products.

Both Strecker and Jakob Segal were interviewed for a Sunday Express (London) story on 26 October 1986. This British tabloid story was the first time a prominent Western paper had published an AIDS-as-biowarfare theory without ridicule, and it engendered a hostile response by the U.S. State Department (which accused the New Delhi newspaper that published the earlier AIDS biowarfare story of being a Communist front). Six months later, on 11 May 1987, the Times (London) carried a cover story linking AIDS to the WHO’s African smallpox vaccine programs.

Strecker and the Segals influenced Dr. Alan Cantwell, who gave this conspiracy theory a new political angle. Cantwell is perhaps the most prolific of AIDS conspiracy theorists, beginning with the books AIDS: The Mystery and the Solution, AIDS and the Doctors of Death, and The Secret AIDS Genocide Plot and continuing into the twenty-first century with numerous articles in publications such as Paranoia and Steamshovel Press.

While Cantwell agrees that HIV was human-made (though he leaves the possibility open that it is an old virus), deliberately introduced into humans, and spread via the WHO and the CDC, he does not agree with the right-wing politics of some of his colleagues.

Instead, Cantwell claims that the “military-medical industrial complex” involved in CBW is responsible for AIDS. Cantwell introduces the idea that the objective of AIDS is genocide, especially against gays. He also adds that one of the side effects of this genocidal program is the introduction of a New World Order.

Cantwell calls for better education, better health practitioners, and fighting back against power to stop the epidemic. In a similar vein, G. J. Krupey (whose conspiracy research does not focus primarily on AIDS) has perhaps the hypothesis closest to a left-wing AIDS conspiracy theory. In his article “AIDS: Act of God or the Pentagon?”

Krupey follows Cantwell’s model, but adds that an AIDS panic could potentially justify the suspension of civil liberties and the installation of martial law. Krupey states that a radical cure is needed, one that is not just medical, but political. A structural change in governing practices is required in which access and participation are opened up on a far more democratic scale.

While the early researchers came from a variety of medical professions, geographical locations, and political positions, what unites them is the fact that they criticize science’s connection to corruption and military research (CBW) yet rely on scientific evidence to prove their own conspiracy theories.

In addition, most of the conspiracy theories cite the 1969 congressional testimony of Dr. Donald MacAruthur, deputy director for the Department of Defense’s research and technology. Speaking to the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Defense Appropriations with regard to military chemical and biological warfare programs, MacArthur was speaking on the subject of synthetic biological agents.

Asked about the feasibility, time, and cost of producing a synthetic biological agent, MacArthur responded: “Within the next five to ten years, it would probably be possible to make a new infective microorganism which could differ in certain important aspects from any known disease causing organisms. Most important of these is that it might be refractory to the immunological and therapeutic processes upon which we depend to maintain our relative freedom from infectious disease.” For the conspiracy researchers, MacArthur was essentially calling for a new synthetic virus that would attack the human immune system, and his words predated the AIDS epidemic by ten years.

This testimony, along with the general history of overt and covert biowarfare research (which became officially banned in the early 1970s, while becoming privatized for defense purposes), of scientific experimentation on unwitting subjects, and of calls for global population control, brings together the early conspiracy theories.

The Nonviral Theories

Another set of theories emerged in the 1980s that have been classified as conspiracy theories, even though they share little with the above theories. These are the nonviral theories of AIDS, whose most well-known proponents are Dr. Peter Duesberg (Why We Will Never Win the War on AIDS, 1994, and Inventing the AIDS Virus, 1996), Jon Lauritsen (The AIDS War: Propaganda, Profiteering and Genocide from the Medical Industrial Complex, 1993), Jad Adams (AIDS: The HIV Myth, 1989), and Jon Rappaport (AIDS, Incorporated: The Scandal of the Century, 1988).

Nonviral theories posit multifactorial causes of AIDS (combination of drugs, behavioral practices, social factors—malnutrition, pollution) and even multi-diseases (that AIDS is often a misdiagnosis of various other conditions).

Purposeful targeting of groups is not usually a major component of nonviral theories. Rather than conspiracy, they emphasize collusion (medical, pharmaceutical, and governmental institutions) and coverup (countervailing evidence is ignored and suppressed because it might threaten research funding and careers of mainstream scientists).

These nonviral theories concern the origins of AIDS, while AIDS conspiracy theories concern the origins of HIV. They often get lumped together with conspiracy theories because of their marginal, dissident status in the scientific community, along with their critical stance toward the corruption of that community.

African American Genocide Theories

Probably the most publicized of AIDS conspiracy theories is the African American genocide theory. This theory in general claims that AIDS was created to exterminate blacks, both African Americans as well as Africans.

It is a theory espoused by the Nation of Islam’s medical director, by celebrities Spike Lee, Bill Cosby, and John Singleton, and by numerous radio talk-shows such as Black Liberation Radio. Representative texts of this theory include Haki R. Madhubuti’s essay, “AIDS: the Purposeful Destruction of the Black World?” which appears in his 1990 book Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous?

Here Madhubuti uses the work of Douglass and Strecker, placing it in the context of the history of scientific experimentation on blacks (especially the Tuskegee experiment). In this version, CBW is linked to the systematic oppression of Africans around the world, and HIV is the latest weapon in this deliberate genocide.

African American genocide theories of AIDS have engendered the largest response to AIDS conspiracy theories. Health educators have cited these conspiracy theories as an obstacle to trust in their efforts. Most disturbing for the educators is the link between conspiracy theories and a belief in casual contact.

A study on how suspicion of government activities regarding AIDS impacts on behavior was carried out by social psychologists Gregory M. Herek and John P. Capitanio. The study correlates AIDS-related distrust to beliefs about casual-contact transmission and to personalrisk reduction behaviors.

It found that beliefs about casual contact were not related to beliefs in the genocidal purpose of AIDS, but the authors still speculated that the lack of trust in health educators springs from suspicions about malicious intent on the part of the government.

In a separate study, Stephen Thomas and Sandra Crouse Quinn argue that public health professionals must recognize that African Americans’ belief in AIDS-asgenocide is a legitimate attitudinal barrier with an understandable basis in history (including the Tuskegee experiment). The authors call for a dialogue in order to develop and implement HIV education programs that are scientifically sound, culturally sensitive, and ethnically sensitive.

Health behavior has not been the only concern when it comes to African American conspiracy theories. Coupled with the CIA-crack conspiracy theory, the AIDS conspiracy account has been defined as part of “black paranoia,” whether as a collective psychological state of mind or an “understandable” historical and social phenomenon.

One politically inflected version of this approach is David Gilbert’s 1996 cover story in Covert Action Quarterly, “Tracking the Real Genocide: AIDS—Conspiracy or Unnatural Disaster?” Gilbert’s article makes the provocative claim that conspiracy theories are both politically disabling and health endangering.

He provides a two-tiered critique of these beliefs—scientific and political (but focusing on the latter). By diverting attention from the social conditions and economic structures that shape the contemporary AIDS crisis, conspiracy theories perform a disservice to their promoters.

Gilbert essentially argues that conspiracy theories contribute to the toll of unnecessary AIDS deaths. Unlike more mainstream criticisms of African American AIDS conspiracy theories, Gilbert’s argument does not dismiss them as paranoid. He depicts them as misguided, but with deadly effects.

The responses to African American AIDS conspiracy theories demonstrate the response to AIDS conspiracy theories more generally. David Gilbert follows other political progressives’ and activists’ perspective in their concern over conspiracy theories.

John S. James, an AIDS activist, argued in 1986 that germ warfare conspiracy theories were not useful. Even if the theories were proven true, according to James, the result would be punishing the guilty, not saving lives.

Conspiracy theory distracts from a better use of political and educational activism, which is to inform the public about the neglect and mismanagement of treatment research. When the New York Native folded in 1997, the gay news magazine was credited with pioneering AIDS coverage in the early 1980s, as well as criticized as a forum for conspiracy theories.

For James, as for many others, the conspiracy is a conspiracy of silence, a pattern of ignorance about and mismanagement of AIDS treatment research by scientists, government officials, doctors, and journalists.

Cultural theorist and activist Simon Watney echoes this sentiment when he argues that AIDS may not be a conscious policy to exterminate gay men, but the long-term consequences of government action and inaction may have the same effects as if it were intentional. Watney suggests that origin stories may be irrelevant to the crisis. Moreover, for many activists, alternative origin stories have a strong link to oppressive reactionary agendas (e.g., Duesberg).

Recent Developments

In the past few years, AIDS conspiracy theories have connected with other conspiracy theories, influenced political activism, and have gone global. Dr. Leonard Horowitz’s tome Emerging Viruses: AIDS and Ebola—Nature, Accident, or Intentional? represents a synthesis of previous theories.

Horowitz links the CBW context to black genocide, but the overall context is a history of U.S. political wrongdoing (including the Nazi roots of the CIA, intimidation of domestic dissenters, global populationcontrol programs, and foreign-policy misconduct leading to a New World Order).

Horowitz also founded and heads Tetrahedron, Inc., a nonprofit educational corporation, which provides employee assistance and education, professional development seminars, and health education products and programs, and organizes Horowitz’s extensive lecture tours. He has implemented his conspiracy theory into an organization devoted to educational reform, political activism, and health awareness.

Another example of conspiracy theories affecting political activism is the case of the Brotherly Lovers, an AIDS activist group based in Pittsburgh, who have attempted to spearhead a classaction petition for a government investigation into the possible artificial, biowarfare origin of HIV.

AIDS conspiracy theories have also been integrated into other popular conspiracy theories. In an article entitled “The AIDS-ET Connection” Phillip S. Duke claims to furnish a unifying hypothesis about AIDS—the gray alien agenda. The goal of this agenda is to rid the earth of human life and establish an alien settlement.

In this theory, AIDS has been deliberately introduced into the human population by these aliens as a way of freeing up space for colonization. Bill Cooper, prominent late U.S. conspiracy theorist, has also suggested that CBW may be part of an alien agenda.

Cooper’s work is even more significant because in 2000 it was cited as an influence on a South African health minister’s account of AIDS in Africa. At the same time, the South African president, Thabo Mbeki, controversially suggested that Duesberg’s nonviral theory should be studied as a possible explanation for the continuing tragedy in Africa.

Most recently, Edward Hooper’s best-selling The River has created newfound controversy with its claims that HIV originated in the 1950s with the vaccination of over a million African children. Hooper does not claim that AIDS was deliberately created and spread by humans, but that an experimental form of oral polio vaccine was contaminated with SIV (the ancient simian equivalent of HIV), and this negligence led to the current AIDS epidemic.


AIDS conspiracy theories raise the general issue of science in relation to both conspiracy theories and their critics. When is science questioned, and when is it cited as evidence? Such AIDS conspiracy theorists as Cantwell, Strecker, Douglass, and Horowitz have drifted away from conventional science to the marginal status of “renegade” scientists, but their narratives retain scientific techniques.

They seek authority through their own pedigrees, they conduct research, and their reports contain the language and styles of citation and evidence employed in mainstream AIDS science. The most recent debates over Edward Hooper’s The River revive the question of how alternative or dissident scientific accounts challenge and/or support conventional science.

In general, AIDS conspiracy theories are typically positioned as a distraction from real research and activism. But just as there are a variety of accounts that can be grouped under the term AIDS conspiracy theory, so are there a variety of responses to them.

Some of the preceding sections have demonstrated a few of those responses (Gilbert, Fiske, James, Watney, the studies on behavior). Others include cultural analyst Peter Knight’s analysis of AIDS conspiracy theories as they are related to cultural panics over the body in the 1980s and 1990s, and John Fiske’s controversially sympathetic assessment of the AIDS-asblack-genocide account.

Fiske calls the account a “counterknowledge,” which involves reworking facts, events, and information the dominant knowledge has repressed or dismissed as insignificant. Above all, according to Fiske, a counterknowledge must be socially and politically motivated. Fiske proceeds with a series of close readings of radio talk-show dialogues, primarily culled from Black Liberation Radio.

In these accounts, AIDS is folded into a genocidal framework, and it is this resonance with African American history and lived experience that Fiske argues is lacking among mainstream whites, and thus produces an aversion to the concept of genocide. Fiske does not simply affirm the truth of the genocide account. Ultimately he argues that when it comes to AIDS conspiracy theories, people need to examine their strategies of disbelief.

As cultural theorist Paula Treichler argues, conspiracy theories are part of the larger “epidemic of signification” that the AIDS epidemic has generated—an epidemic that must be examined, not ignored or casually dismissed. AIDS conspiracy theories crystallize the stakes involved in the overall problematization of conspiracy theories, especially with regard to the behavioral and political effects of conspiracy theories.

Alien and Sedition Acts

Alien and Sedition Acts
Alien and Sedition Acts

Part of the most serious crackdown on peacetime dissent in U.S. history, mounted amid the most threatening crisis that the young nation ever faced, the Alien and Sedition Acts of the 1790s also comprised the most prominent “headline event” in U.S. history to be directly and openly rooted in fears of conspiracy.

The XYZs of Political Paranoia in the 1790s

Although the young American republic was theoretically more stable and centralized than ever before, the first decade under the Constitution ratified in 1789 was fraught with political fears arising from both genuine threats and overreactions to wholly unexpected developments.

Perhaps the most important of these unexpected developments was the rapid emergence of political divisions that matured into parties competing to name the nation’s chief executive, a circumstance unprecedented in world history. Although parties are now considered a basic aspect of U.S. democracy, this was far from intended by the founders.

Believing that a republic could never survive the strain of constant battles for power, and that good, trustworthy leaders would never want to engage in those battles, the framers of the Constitution intentionally designed the new system to prevent the development of political parties or any other kind of organized competition for control of the national government.

The hope was that the increased size and diversity of the territory being governed, coupled with a multilayered structure of representation that included an appointed senate and an indirectly elected president, would make it impossible for the country’s many local political factions and interests to organize themselves sufficiently to control the national government.

Without the need to please or compete for public favor, learned, enlightened statesmen would be able to deliberate more or less in peace at the national capital, making wise, well-reasoned decisions for the good of all.

To the founders, parties and other forms of organized opposition to government were inherently conspiratorial, especially when a legitimate republican government existed. When the people already ruled, efforts to defeat or stymie their chosen leaders were considered plots against the people themselves by cabals of “artful and designing men” out for private gain, tyrannical power, or some other sinister purpose. Those who followed such evil leaders showed themselves to be mere “tools” or “dupes,” unworthy of the rights of independent citizenship.

In a comment that somewhat hyperbolically reflected the feelings of many colleagues, Thomas Jefferson expressed revulsion at the very idea of joining a political party: “Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent. If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.”

Despite this deep aversion to parties, the choices facing the young nation were simply too momentous and too divisive to be contained by the makeshift structure that the framers had devised. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton came into conflict immediately over financial policy and broader matters such as the basic structure of the new government and the future character of the nation.

Jefferson became convinced that Hamilton was the leader of a “corrupt squadron” who sought “to get rid of the limitations imposed by the constitution” with the “ultimate object” of “a change, from the present republican form of government, to that of a monarchy” modeled on Great Britain’s (Jefferson, 986).

Hamilton, for his part, was equally certain that Jefferson and his lieutenant James Madison led “a faction decidedly hostile to me and my administration, and ... subversive of ... good government and ... the union, peace and happiness of the Country”.

Believing that they were fighting for the very soul of the new nation, Jefferson, Hamilton, and their respective allies instinctively reached out for support among their fellow politicians and the citizenry at large, eventually spawning a party conflict whether they intended to or not.

Unfortunately, U.S. politicians of the 1790s engaged in party politics without really ever learning to approve of the practice. They saw themselves as taking necessary if sometimes distasteful steps to save the republic, and their opponents as conspirators against it, plain and simple.

Especially among the Federalist supporters of the Washington and Adams administration, there was no sense that there could be any such thing as a “loyal opposition,” and it was perhaps inevitable that steps would be taken to curb opposition to the government when the opportunity arose.

Political paranoia became far worse in the latter half of Washington’s presidency, when the French Revolution grew more radical and war broke out between France and Great Britain. The question of which side to take in the conflict, if any, came to define U.S. politics, and pushed foreign subversion to the head of the list of fears. Although highly exaggerated in practice, fears of foreign subversion in this period were probably more plausible than at any other time in U.S. history.

The United States was no world power in the 1790s, but occupied a situation much closer to those of developing or Third World nations during and after the cold war: small, weak, and subject to harsh buffeting by political, economic, and cultural winds coming from the more developed world.

Revolutionary France expected U.S. support as a sister republic and in return for France’s aid to the U.S. during the American Revolution. Beginning with “Citizen” Edmond Genet’s arrival in 1793, French envoys did their best to draw Americans into the conflict with Great Britain and influence American politics in favor of the French cause.

Genet greeted crowds of well-wishers, handed out military commissions, and outfitted privateers, while later French ministers fed politically calculated information through friendly newspaper editors. The British kept a lower profile, but successfully pressed to keep the United States militarily neutral and commercially dependent on British trade (by means of the controversial Jay Treaty), while staying in secret, sometimes illicit, conflict with various U.S. officials.

Republicans generally took the side of France, or opposed closer ties to Great Britain; the Federalists generally took the opposite approach, and increasingly regarded France as a dire threat to U.S. independence, the Christian religion, and everything else they held dear.

More important than what the French or British actually did was the growing conviction, within each of the emerging parties, that the other side was working, out of greed or fanaticism, in treasonous collusion with a foreign aggressor.

Republicans regarded the Federalists as the “British party” and their leader Jefferson infamously labeled Washington, Hamilton, and Adams as traitors (in an inadvertently published letter), “men who were Samsons in the field & Solomons in the council, but who have had their heads shorn by the harlot England” (Jefferson, 1037).

However, the Federalists gave far more than they got in this respect, calling their opponents “Jacobins” after the most radical, conspiratorial, and ultimately bloodthirsty faction of the French Revolution. This was equal parts a venomous partisan label and a sincere statement of who and what many Federalists thought was driving the opposition to their policies, an international revolutionary conspiracy.

Through the battles over Hamilton’s financial system, the French Revolution, and the Jay Treaty, the incipient party conflict had matured to the point of a contested presidential election by 1796, pitting Vice-President John Adams against former Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson.

Deteriorating relations with France in the wake of the Jay Treaty, including attacks on U.S. shipping, French threats, and the distinct possibility of war, put the Federalists in a strong position. Adams won, and soon after the XYZ Affair inflamed the country against France and set up the belligerent national mood that made the Alien and Sedition Acts possible.

The Press, Immigration, and the Origins of the Alien and Sedition Acts

The Alien and Sedition Acts were the domestic planks of an aggressive national security program passed by the Federalists in preparation for an allout war against France that many of them desired but never managed to make happen.

A military build-up was also put in motion, including the construction of a fleet of war-ships and a vastly enlarged army that included forces designed to rapidly mobilize against rebellious Americans as well as foreign invaders.

This early homeland security legislation’s specific targets were determined by two aspects of the party conflict that disturbed the Federalists most: the role of the press and the role of immigrants in the growing popular opposition to the policies of Washington, Hamilton, and Adams, and in the democratization of U.S. political culture more generally.

The press was seen as a powerful political weapon that had fallen into the hands of conspirators, mercenaries, and fools. As the founders and other U.S. politicians perceived it, the press was the “great director of public opinion” and capable of destroying any government by turning its own people against it. “Give to any set of men the command of the press, and you give them the command of the country,” declared an influential Pennsylvania Federalist (Addison, 1798, 18–19).

Although still a relatively primitive medium by modern standards—a standard U.S. newspaper featured only four pages, filled haphazardly with a seemingly random assortment of miscellaneous material without real headlines or illustrations— newspapers (along with pamphlets) were thought to have been instrumental in bringing about both the American and French Revolutions, as well as numerous political developments in Great Britain.

Founders on both sides of the 1790s political spectrum, including Jefferson, Hamilton, John Adams, and Samuel Adams, had relied on the press as their “political engine” during the movement for independence from Great Britain.

The founders began their new nation assuming that, with British tyranny defeated and republican government established, the press would now serve a more passive political role. It would build loyalty to the new regime, chiefly by providing the people with basic information about their government’s activities, such as copies of the laws that had been passed.

As the first Washington administration gathered, it seemed more than enough when Boston businessman John Fenno showed up in the national capital and started the Gazette of the United States (the G.U.S.), a would-be national newspaper intended to “endear the general government to the people” (Pasley, 57) by printing documents and congressional proceedings, along with letters, essays, and even poetry hailing President Washington and Vice-President John Adams as gods among men.

When fundamental disagreements broke out among the leading founders, however, the press was quickly drawn into the growing partisan conflict. To those who saw Hamilton as a not-sohidden hand guiding the country toward monarchy and aristocracy, the G.U.S. began to seem positively sinister, an organ for government propaganda that might be able to overbear the voters’ better judgment.

Jefferson and Madison sought to counter the influence of the G.U.S. by helping create a new Philadelphia newspaper, the National Gazette, to lead the public charge against Hamilton’s policies. The editor, the poet Philip Freneau (a college friend of Madison’s), was given a no-work job in Jefferson’s office.

The newspaper provided Jefferson with a surrogate that would fight in the war for public opinion and still allow him to remain above the fray and within the administration. When he was exposed as the National Gazette’s sponsor and confronted by President Washington, Jefferson claimed that Freneau’s paper had “saved our constitution” from Hamilton.

Although the National Gazette folded in 1793, it set a number of important precedents. In some places, it was the birthplace of the party system, since it was in the National Gazette’s pages that the very idea of an opposition political party (as opposed to a mere group of like-minded legislators) was first floated. Again and again in the following century, politicians and parties looked to newspapers as their primary public combatants in the bruising battles that followed the Jefferson-Hamilton split.

The Philadelphia Aurora, founded by a grandson of Benjamin Franklin, took over as the leading Jeffersonian paper, and around it developed a loose national network of local newspapers that spread the opposition movement’s ideas around the country by copying from each other. Such newspaper networks became the primary means through which nineteenth-century U.S. parties sought to influence the U.S. public and a vital component of their campaigning.

The Federalists of the 1790s thought of themselves as the nation’s rightful ruling class, “the wisest and best” rather than a political faction that had to compete for public favor and control of the government. The development of an opposition party and an opposition press was threatening, offensive, and patently a conspiracy.

During the congressional debates on the Sedition Act, arch-conservative congressman John Allen of Connecticut read from a New York newspaper in which the strongest words used against President Adams were that he was “a person without patriotism, without philosophy” and “a mock Monarch.” Allen flatly declared that, “If this be not a conspiracy against Government and people,” he did not know what a conspiracy was (Debates and Proceedings in Congress).

The opposition press was doubly or triply bad because of the fact it was largely manned by men that the aristocratically minded Federalists considered thoroughly unfit to “undertake the high task of enlightening the public mind.”

Whereas in colonial times most newspaper writing was done by men of education and social prestige—the lawyers, ministers, and merchants of the major towns—the political writing of 1790s fell increasingly to much lesser sorts of men, especially the generally selfeducated artisan printers who produced the hundreds of new journals that popped up across the country. “Too many of our Gazettes,” lamented Rev. Samuel Miller, “are in the hands of persons destitute at once of the urbanity of gentlemen, the information of scholars, and the principles of virtue”.

The Alien and Sedition Acts’ strongest supporters feared a kind of social and political subversion, in which worthy officials stood to lose their stations and reputations to upstarts and nobodies who would sling mud and rouse the rabble. “It is a mortifying observation;” Judge Alexander Addison wrote in one of many published charges to his grand jury, “that boys, blockheads, and ruffians, are often listened to, in preference to men of integrity, skill, and understanding”.

Even more threatening than the printers were the immigrants. The British government harshly repressed the radical democracy movements that had grown up in England, Scotland, and Ireland in response to the French Revolution. Working-class journalists were among the most influential activists in those movements, and many of them were forced into exile during the mid-1790s to avoid mobs and jail.

Not a few of these transatlantic “Jacobins,” including the Alien and Sedition Acts victims James Thomson Callender, William Duane, and John Daly Burk, ended up in the port cities of the United States, doing the work they knew best, for Democratic Republican newspapers. Duane became editor of the Philadelphia Aurora, the Republicans’ most widely read journal, and thus in many respects the national voice of the party.

Along with the refugee journalists came a politically noticeable number of other immigrants whom the Federalists found suspicious, especially the Irish who became a major presence in the capital city of Philadelphia during the 1790s. In the spring of 1797, Federalists tried to impose a tax on certificates of naturalization, hoping to keep out what Rep.

Harrison Gray Otis of Massachusetts called the “hordes of wild Irishmen” who might “disturb our tranquility” (Debates and Proceedings in Congress). The Federalists’ prejudice ensured that the Irish and other recent immigrants would become an important voting bloc for their opponents.