Council on Foreign Relations

Council on Foreign Relations
Council on Foreign Relations

Founded at the close of World War I, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) is an influential organization devoted to the study of foreign policy. Ever since 1952, when Emmanuel Josephson’s Rockefeller Internationalist: The Man Who Misrules the World proclaimed the CFR’s New York office to be nothing less than the center and symbol of the sinister “Rockefeller–Soviet Axis,” right-wing opponents of the group—the John Birch Society (JBS) in particular—have viewed the CFR as a conspiratorial cabal with designs on global power.

Although the fall of the Iron Curtain necessitated modification to the theory of a CFR-Communist conspiracy, the JBS still argues that the Council is really a group of “establishment Insiders” intent on creating a socialist “One World Government.”

CFR members are well positioned for this coup, as they can be found in the highest positions of the government (Henry Kissinger, George Bush, and Bill Clinton); finance (the Rockefellers and innumerable New York bankers); the legal world (Supreme Court Justices O’Connor, Ginsburg, and Breyer); and the media (editors of the New York Times and network news anchors); not to mention in other secret cabals such as the Trilateral Commission and the Bohemian Grove group.

According to the conspiracy theorists, contemporary political developments such as the liberalization of global trade (e.g., NAFTA, GATT) and the rise of the United Nations are the first steps toward the CFR’s ultimate goals: the end of national sovereignty and the enslavement of the entire world under the banner of their centralized, all-powerful “world government.” In this “New World Order,” U.S. military forces will be employed as oppressive agents of the global supergovernment—UN “peace-keeping” missions are merely the tip of this iceberg.

To be fair, there are a great many “charges” that members of the CFR would not care to dispute, but the Council’s outlook on the New World Order is radically different from that of the JBS because of the historical context out of which the whole idea developed.

When the CFR was founded in 1919, Woodrow Wilson’s quest for a utopian international community constituted the starting point for many CFR members’ views on U.S. foreign policy. If World War I was to be the “war to end all wars,” it was essential to produce a new international community that could ease the tensions between nationstates before serious conflicts erupted.

What was needed, argued the Wilsonians, was less jingoistic nationalism and more international cooperation; a movement toward creating “One World” from the divided, fractured world of 1919 (and, indeed, since this was prior to the rabid anticommunism of the cold war, some members thought in terms of a “socialist” world order, which was to become immensely unpopular three decades on).

Of course, for a variety of reasons, lack of full U.S. participation being one, the League of Nations never fulfilled this role, and within a decade Europe was quickly descending into another era of bloodshed. The Council’s investigations into the causes of World War II only reinforced the Wilsonian ideals of many members. The division of the world’s great powers combined with rampant nationalism had produced the preconditions for fascism, genocide, and the near total destruction of Europe.

Council on Foreign Relations
Council on Foreign Relations

Supporters of the CFR today would argue that the Council’s advocacy for a New World Order must be understood in this context, and that the movement toward international cooperation under the aegis of the United Nations heralds an era of increasing peace and prosperity rather than an Orwellian nightmare.

“Mainstream” critics and historians of the CFR like Robert Schulzinger (who actually suggests that much of the Council’s work is cliché-ridden and ineffectual) argue that the Council’s ideas merely mirror the transformations brought on by globalization, and that to read the similarity between the CFR’s ideas and global developments as involving a causal link is simply a mistake.

Thus, as far as the New World Order goes, it seems as though one man’s secular utopia is another man’s apocalypse; the division between the two perspectives is completely unbridgeable, and the apocalyptic side of the divide is inevitably dismissed by mainstream culture as “extreme.”

The charge of elitism, however—the claim that the CFR is a network of “insiders” that form an allpowerful East Coast “establishment”—is less easily dispelled, since the CFR is quite self-consciously elitist. The CFR argues that international relations should be studied by serious, dispassionate minds free from the taint of impurities such as nationalism.

At the outset of the cold war, for instance, George Kennan published his now infamous “X” article in the CFR’s journal, Foreign Affairs, and raised so much public hysteria surrounding the Soviet menace that the Council began to fear that the issue of U.S-Soviet relations would be hijacked by demagogues (and, in view of what loomed on the horizon in McCarthyism, perhaps this fear was not misplaced). If the CFR is “secretive,” argue its proponents, it is because sometimes heightened public consciousness actually works against the proper ends of international politics.

Even mainstream academics, however—people who would themselves no doubt be designated “insiders” by the JBS—might well argue that while the CFR’s cultivation of its status as an elite organization may not accurately be termed conspiratorial, it is not at all clear that it represents a positive development in U.S. political culture.

Japanese Americans

Japanese Americans
Japanese Americans

The Japanese American population became the target of a paranoid campaign in the United States after the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. Thousands of West-Coast Japanese Americans were incarcerated in concentration camps in 1942.

While white America believed these Japanese Americans were potential saboteurs and a “fifth column” within the United States, the belief in a Japanese “conspiracy” was not a new phenomenon—it built on a lengthy history of suspicion and racism toward Japanese Americans since their arrival in the United States in the late nineteenth century.

Japanese began arriving in the United States, principally on the West Coast, from the 1880s and were quickly confronted by racist opposition. Labor and trade unions in particular led the way, seeking to prevent Japanese settling and working in the United States.

Such attitudes emerged from a history of anti-Chinese sentiment; the Japanese were also disadvantaged due to laws that prevented them from becoming citizens (only “white” immigrants could become citizens, dating back to a 1770 law). Only the second generation (known as Nisei), those born in the United States, could be citizens.

In the early twentieth century the newspapers of William Randolph Hearst, along with a number of anti-Japanese organizations, joined in the anti-Japanese crusade, trumpeting the “Yellow Peril.” They predicted that the Japanese would “crowd out the white race” on the West Coast.

The Japanese victory over Russia in the Russo-Japanese War made Japan seem a threatening Pacific power. Further, various Japanese American community organizations were viewed as sinister, and were even sometimes perceived as part of an eventual plot to take over the United States.

Such paranoia had real results in pressuring politicians to take stronger measures against the Japanese. An alien land law enacted in California in 1913 was a response to agitation that Japanese were taking over farmland and crowding out white farmers.

It was in practice largely ineffective, and thus led to increased, rather than diminished, tensions and fears of Japanese conspiracies. The Immigration Act of 1924 hit the Japanese particularly strongly, reducing the number of immigrants to a negligible number.

Thus, when Pearl Harbor was attacked, revealing the vulnerability of the United States and pitching it into a fierce Pacific war, there was already an atmosphere of mistrust and paranoia toward Japanese Americans that was ready to be heightened to hysteria.

There was also a history of racist government policies that, when added to the “exigencies of war” by which so much has often been justified, made the violation of fundamental civil liberties acceptable. In the days following Pearl Harbor, “enemy aliens” became the target of federal and state government security measures.

The 8 December 1941 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle recorded the first roundup of “suspicious characters” and noted that the San Francisco police were mobilized to meet the threat of “sabotage.”

Despite protestations of loyalty from the Japanese American community, belief that they were all potential saboteurs, spies, and fifth columnists ready to aid a Japanese attack on mainland America was pervasive.

By February 1942, many areas were barred to enemy aliens, which, the San Francisco Chronicle argued, would guard against “sabotage and other fifth column activities”; on 3 February the paper also quoted California Attorney General Earl Warren, who declared “every alien Japanese should be considered in the light of a potential fifth columnist.”

Newspapers fomented this anti-Japanese hysteria, and along with a military keen to exercise strong internal security measures and politicians acutely aware of the need to respond to the demands of their constituents, it was perhaps inevitable that some action would be taken.

Military leaders spoke of the threat of the “fifth column”; they were also keen to apportion at least part of the blame for the disaster of Pearl Harbor on a Hawaiian–Japanese American fifth column.

At the same time, people like Walter Lippmann, one of America’s most respected journalists and social commentators, talked of the imminent danger of attack from both without and within the West Coast.

Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, head of the Western Defense Command, sanctioned mass searches of Japanese homes, and a system by which Japanese Americans were forced to register and were prevented from traveling. Slowly rights were stripped from Japanese Americans.

On 13 February, a Pacific Coast congressional delegation sent President Franklin D. Roosevelt a unanimous recommendation urging “immediate evacuation of all persons of Japanese lineage,” and six days later Roosevelt signed Exceutive Order 9066 by which over 120,000 people, a majority of whom were U.S. citizens, were put into concentration camps.

There were legal appeals arguing the unconstitutionality of these actions but little was done. Over the remaining years of World War II, some groups were released and resettled in the East and Midwest; others were pressured to renounce their citizenship and some of these, along with some noncitizens, were repatriated to Japan.

The war years saw the culmination of a deepseated racist mistrust of Japanese Americans; the years following the war saw movements to end legal discrimination against Asian Americans, including the Japanese.

But recognition of what was done in World War II was slow. Ultimately, in February 1976, Gerald Ford signed Proclamation 4417, formally recognizing the events of the war years as a “national mistake.”

In the 1980s, a Commission on the Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians reported on the events and opened the way for redress, financial and otherwise, for the survivors.

The treatment of Japanese Americans from their arrival in the United States until the end of World War II reveals how racial paranoia and fear toward an ethnic group can be exaggerated into a belief in conspiracies to undermine democracy and threaten safety, and given the right circumstances can become a basis for unjust actions and a threat to the very democracy in whose name these actions are invoked.

Father Charles Coughlin

Father Charles Coughlin
Father Charles Coughlin

Charles E. Coughlin (1891–1979), a Catholic priest and extraordinarily popular radio personality, contributed significantly to nationalist antisemitism in the United States before World War II. Coughlin asserted that covert Jewish economic interests had led directly to the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency, and World War II. Coughlin believed the same forces were responsible for later silencing him.

Coughlin’s use of the radio in these accusations has won him notoriety as the inventor of “hate radio” (Warren). Coughlin’s use of radio broadcast his antisemitism to an audience far broader than enjoyed by earlier demagogues. Long after his popularity passed, Coughlin’s theories about the “international Jewish banking conspiracy” continued to thrive among U.S. right-wing movements.

Charles Edward was born in Hamilton, Ontario, on 22 October 1891, an only child to devoutly Catholic parents. The church and his mother dominated young Charles’s life. Ordained in 1916, Coughlin joined the Basilian religious order and performed standard clerical duties in Catholic parishes in southern Ontario. In 1923 Coughlin left the Basilians and moved to suburban Detroit.

Radio Career and Politics

In 1926 Coughlin received an appointment to a lackluster parish in Royal Oak, Michigan, a small suburb north of Detroit. The parish suffered from low membership, inadequate facilities, and Ku Klux Klan harassment. Through the help of a parishioner, Coughlin began The Little Flower radio program (named after the parish’s patron saint, St. Therese of Liesieux) to raise funds. Coughlin’s histrionic speaking abilities quickly generated interest, and the show expanded in radio markets around the Midwest. Within a year Coughlin broadcast his shows nationwide.

Coughlin’s early broadcasts featured an ironic spirit. As his popularity grew, Coughlin began exploring the roots of social ills such as anti-Catholic bigotry. Mail streamed into the Royal Oak parish, causing Coughlin to hire additional secretaries to manage it. During the Great Depression economic issues appeared in each weekly broadcast.

Coughlin excoriated business interests for bleeding the working class of its of savings and his popularity consequently soared. The United States was a Christian nation, Coughlin claimed, and Americans had certain rights granted by God and the Constitution, such as personal autonomy, private property, and the right to work.

Anything threatening these rights was not only unpatriotic but also quite demonic. In the early 1930s Coughlin created Social Justice, a publication containing his broadcasts and other articles sympathetic to Catholic social reform, to further spread his message (Brinkley; Warren).

During the 1932 election Coughlin proclaimed Franklin D. Roosevelt was the only candidate possessing the skills needed to resuscitate the nation. Coughlin fancied himself as one of FDR’s field representatives. The more Coughlin pushed for a federal administrative role, though, the more the Roosevelt administration rebuffed him. During 1934, Coughlin’s broadcasts shifted quickly from praising to critizing Roosevelt and the New Deal.

Coughlin claimed that Roosevelt’s big business connections threatened the very roots of representative democracy. By encouraging his radio audience to write congressional members, Coughlin secured the defeat of Roosevelt’s 1935 attempt to join the World Court as well as the 1938 federal reorganization bill.

Gerald L. K. Smith, an evangelical minister and one of Huey Long’s organizers in Lousiana, convinced Coughlin to unite his immense radio following and populist program with Francis Townsend’s nationwide pension project for elderly Americans. Coughlin and Smith created the National Union Party (NUP) to organize their supporters into a third political party.

Speculation suggested that the NUP possessed ample ability to challenge the Roosevelt juggernaut in 1936. As a priest, Coughlin could not run for office, so he and Smith chose North Dakota congressman William Lemke instead. However, support quickly eroded, Roosevelt swept to victory, and Coughlin and Smith parted ways acrimoniously (Jeansonne; Warren).

The National Union for Social Justice, which Coughlin had founded in 1934, continued to pursue a Catholic approach to the nation’s social and economic reform. Coughlin maintained singular control over the National Union’s agenda so that it expressed thoroughly Catholic interpretations of populist solutions.

Antisemitism and Catholicism

U.S. Catholicism’s unreconciled message of U.S. materialism and suffering Christianity hastened Coughlin’s descent to join Smith in antisemitic demagoguery. Coughlin praised Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime for its success in limiting Jewish influence on German national interests.

Although his popularity shrank during the late 1930s, even after Germany’s Kristallnacht Coughlin still enjoyed millions of supporters. Much of Coughlin’s popular support came from Catholics who felt the priest was their only advocate within the church. He was the one priest willing to criticize the bishops for their extragavant lifestyles.

Coughlin’s Irish heritage provided the intellectual framework for his antisemitism. The writings of Dennis Fahey, a priest who taught Catholic philosophy and social thought in Dublin, blamed social and economic upheavals on Jewish conspiracy.

Besides killing Jesus Christ, Fahey argued, Jews were responsible for the Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution, industrialization’s social problems, and the League of Nations (Athans). Coughlin quickly incorporated Fahey’s antisemitism into his radio broadcasts and Social Justice articles, as the National Union Party suffered its embarrassing election defeat.

In 1938 the magazine reprinted Protocols of the Elders of Zion.When cautioned about its authenticity, Coughlin merely claimed that the document, forgery or not, accurately predicted global events. His radio broadcasts continued to draw connections between the Depression in the United States, armed conflict in Europe, and international Jewish finance.

Coughlin was rumored to have several economic and political contacts with Nazi figures in the United States and Germany. As the United States entered World War II, Coughlin insisted that Jews had started the conflict to advance their own agenda. As federal authorities and Coughlin’s own clerical superiors moved to silence him, the priest alternated between expressions of militant defiance and meek acquiescence.

Coughlin believed that he was the victim of covert forces committed to his destruction. Christ had thrown moneylenders out of the Temple, and consequently had been crucified; Coughlin portrayed his silencing along similar lines. Coughlin’s remaining audience, composed mostly of German and Irish Catholics in the urban Northeast, only strengthened its resolve to support the priest.

Silencing and End of Career

Coughlin’s popularity and unrelenting antisemitism caused consternation among the church’s authorities. Catholics had faced significant anti-Catholic animosity as recently as the 1920s, which Coughlin’s early broadcasts noticeably diminished. As Coughlin focused more on politics and antisemitism, church leaders sought to distinguish official teachings from Coughlin’s personal position.

However, Detroit’s Catholic bishop, Michael Gallagher, deflected much of the criticism. After Gallagher’s death in 1937, Detroit’s new bishop, Edward Mooney, sought repeatedly to silence Coughlin, forcing his radio program off the air in 1940.

Members of Christian Front, a nationwide organization Coughlin founded for young Catholic men, were arrested for antigovernment conspiracies and gang violence in Jewish neighborhoods. In 1942 Social Justice ceased publication, and Mooney prohibited Coughlin from speaking or writing on any political matter. Coughlin returned to suburban Detroit’s anonymity.

While he deflected allegations of racism during the 1960s, Coughlin has since been noted as an early precursor to white separatist movements and Holocaust revisionism (Kaplan, 67–71; Warren, 5–6). His violence-tinged antisemitic rhetoric concerning the international Jewish conspiracy helps explain the connection. Coughlin died in Royal Oak, Michigan, on 27 October 1979.

Covert Action Quarterly

Covert Action Quarterly
Covert Action Quarterly

The Washington, D.C.–based magazine Covert Action Quarterly (CAQ) began publishing in 1978 under the title of Covert Action Information Bulletin (CAIB). The magazine has developed a following not as a conspiracy-theory-related publication, but as a source for reliable, consistent, and accurate investigative reporting. Originally, CAQ was a watchdog journal that focused on the abuses and activities of the CIA, yet it has gradually evolved into a more general, progressive investigative magazine.

While almost every issue of CAIB focused on the CIA, detailing its activities in Central America and Southeast Asia, in the domestic media, and on university campuses, CAQ has covered a wider range of domestic and international political issues with stories and occasionally entire issues on surveillance technologies, the U.S. prison system, the environment, mad cow disease, AIDS, ECHELON, Bill Clinton, media cover-ups, Iraqi sanctions, and the drug wars.

Contributing authors have included intellectuals, writers, and activists such as Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Michael Parenti, Sara Flounders, Philip Agee, John Pilger, Ramsey Clark, Leonard Peltier, Allen Ginsberg, Diana Johnstone, Laura Flanders, Edward S. Herman, and Ward Churchill.

CAQ was cofounded and copublished by Ellen Ray, William Schaap, and Louis Wolf, along with former CIA agents such as James and Elsie Wilcott, and Philip Agee, author of Inside the Company: CIA Diary. Following in the tradition of CounterSpy Magazine (1973–1984), with whom CAQ’s publishers originally worked, highlights of CAIB included the notorious “Naming Names” column, which printed the names of CIA officers under diplomatic cover.

These were tracked through exhaustive research in the State Department Biographic Register and various domestic and international diplomatic lists. This column, and others like it, came to an end in 1982 when the Intelligence Identities Protection Act was signed into law by Ronald Reagan.

CAIB had to end the “Naming Names” column, but more significantly, the act required that magazines such as CAQ be more wary about the names they published within the articles of their contributors. This was particularly significant after December 1975 when Richard S. Welch, a CIA station chief, was assassinated in Athens, Greece. CounterSpy was criticized by both the CIA and the press for its exposure of the agent’s name.

In 1992, Issue 43, Covert Action Information Bulletin changed its name to the current Covert Action Quarterly (“Recommended by Noam Chomsky; targeted by the CIA”), a 64–70-page magazine published four times a year. CAQ had a reputation for beating to the punch more mainstream standardbearers, such as the New York Times.

In 1995, it covered the genocide in Rwanda and U.S. complicity in those events, years before any other publication cared to notice; it ran in-depth investigative articles on the rise of homegrown militias before the Oklahoma city bombing; and it was the first U.S. publication to reveal the existence of ECHELON (the security agencies’ surveillance software). CAQ has been the regular recipient of the annual Project Censored awards for the Top 25 Censored Stories.

The magazine has often had several articles on the list, such as in 1997 with Karl Grossman’s “Risking the World: Nuclear Proliferation in Space,” John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton’s “The Public Relations Industry’s Secret War on Activists,” and David Burnham’s “White-Collar Crime: Whitewash at the Justice Department.”

In 1998, CAQ’s staff (comprising its editor of nine years, Terry Allen, associate editor Sanho Tree, and staff member Barbara Neuwirth) were dismissed by mail and without notice in a manner that seriously damaged the magazine’s reputation, particularly since the magazine was at its strongest during these years.

The conduct of the publishers was strongly criticized in newsgroups and on mailing lists, in articles in the Washington City Paper and the Village Voice, and by writers like Christopher Hitchens and Alexander Cockburn, who called the publishers “So-called leftists act[ing] like people from the Fortune 500” (Ripley, 12).

While the management suggested that the firings were due to interpersonal issues, editors Allen and Tree disagreed, claiming that the differences cut along political and editorial lines. In a widely distributed letter, Allen asserted that the publishers unsuccessfully attempted to have its editors publish articles that presented the Serbs as blameless victims of genocide and that denied the existence of concentration camps under Milosevic, and one that professed to expose Hitler’s secret bunker in Antarctica.

The publishers also took issue with an article that affectionately described Fidel Castro as a “nice old fart.” They also attempted to print articles that dealt with issues in a more conspiratorial fashion, thus playing out the traditional tension between conspiracy theory and the investigative reporting of governmental and corporate malfeasance.

Following a 2001 lawsuit between the publishers, the magazine’s electronic and print rights were split between its publishers, yet both the paper and online versions ( and www. have remained dormant since their inception.

Following the firings, CAQ lost both its contributor base and its ability to organize itself, eventually leading to the demise of the magazine. Excluding an issue assembled by the publishers, and another edited by Rory O’Neill (April–June 2001), who was consequently fired by the publishers, CAQ has not published regularly since the 1998 “purge.”

Crédit Mobilier Scandal

Crédit Mobilier Scandal
Crédit Mobilier Scandal

As with many other conspiracy theories, the Crédit Mobilier scandal involved large sums of money being controlled by “elites” or “special interests.” The Crédit Mobilier company of the United States originated as a construction company to help construct the Union Pacific Railroad.

Oakes Ames, Thomas C. Durant, and others formed the company in 1864 out of an existing Pennsylvania charter as the Pennsylvania Fiscal Agency. Ames and other Union Pacific investors headed the new firm, meaning that they could sell contracts from the railroad to their own company.

Union Pacific bonds, which were to sell at $100 per share, in fact sold well below that. To cover the costs of construction, Durant and Ames founded Crédit Mobilier, in which the railroad would give grossly inflated construction contracts to the company and Crédit Mobilier would use those contracts to purchase Union Pacific stock at par value.

Ames then resold the stock on the open market at market prices, covering the difference with some of the inflated construction costs. In 1867, for example, Ames assigned contracts for the construction of nearly 670 miles of railroad that brought the Crédit Mobilier owners between $7 and $23 million and left the railroad in financial trouble.

Ames ensured the acquiescence of Congress by bribing the members through stock offers: Ames (who was also a U.S. congressman) sold shares of the railroad at a discount to other lawmakers, even allowing them to purchase the stock on credit, paying for the stock out of the dividends earned by the securities.

Sending a list of names to receive stock to an associate, Ames made certain to enlist the services of Representatives Schuyler Colfax and James A. Garfield and Senator James W. Patterson, although Ames’s list soon found its way into Charles Dana’s newspaper, the New York Sun. Publication of the “preferred customer” list set off a firestorm in 1872—an election year.

Congress undertook an investigation of the company. Already, allegations circulated about President Ulysses Grant’s involvement in the “Gold Corner” of 1869 (an attempt by speculators to “corner” the market in gold and thus manipulate prices), while the Reconstruction governments being established in the South were gaining a reputation for graft. Bribing public officials to build railroads, or to benefit from existing routes, was nothing new.

For two decades, Cornelius Vanderbilt had battled Jay Gould, Daniel Drew, and Jim Fisk over several railroads, especially the New York Harlem Railroad. But, as one contemporary writer observed about Crédit Mobilier, “there was a film of decency thrown over the transaction by Mr. Ames,” and many members of Congress willingly accepted the shares.

Famous railroader Collis P. Huntington of the Central Pacific Railroad—the other end of the transcontinental—and other important “captains of industry” were called to testify before Congress about construction costs. Although Congress issued a pair of reports, which tarnished the reputations of Colfax, Patterson, and Rep. James Brooks of New York, as well as Ames, only Brooks and Ames were censured, and no one was prosecuted.

Brooks, ironically, had only received his position as a government director on the railroad after he, as a former Whig, had come out in opposition to the impeachment of the Democratic president, Andrew Johnson. Since the Crédit Mobilier scandal occurred on Grant’s watch, and was followed by the “Whiskey Ring” (the resignation of Grant’s secretary of war for accepting kickbacks), the “salary grab,” and other scandals, the episode damaged Grant’s public image. Crédit Mobilier also made a permanent enemy of cartoonist Thomas Nast, who lost $329 in the scandal, and who supported the Democratic Party after that.

A larger problem stemmed from the federal funding of the railroads through the subsidy system, which encouraged graft and corruption. The government gave land grants to transcontinental railroads to sell as a means to raise construction cash. However, the grants were based on miles of rail laid, ensuring that both the Union and Central Pacific Railroads would lay far more track than needed to link them together.

Indeed, at times, the railroads built away from each other, delaying the connection in order to continue receiving funds. This stood in stark contrast to James J. Hill’s Great Northern Railroad, which received no federal subsidies, and which did not suffer financially in the panic of 1873.

More than the delays in building the Union and Central Pacific Railroads; more than the circuitous routes they used; and more than their ultimate financial distress caused by their original privileged subsidized positions, the Crédit Mobilier scandal revealed the dangers of linking large-scale business projects with the government, outside the control of the market and the discipline of prices.

For the conspiracy-minded, however, the bribery of public officials dovetailed with the influence of such shadowy forces as the Bank of England or the Masons. Crédit Mobilier also implicated Grant, weakening his presidency. Coming on the heels of the infamous “Tweed Ring” (the network of political and financial corruption in New York City presided over by William Tweed from the 1860s), Crédit Mobilier convinced many that government was corrupt at every level.

David Cronenberg

David Cronenberg
David Cronenberg

David Cronenberg is a Canadian film director whose work features horror and science-fiction narratives in which characters find themselves transformed by some viral, technological, or pharmaceutical agent. Such “mutations” are frequently caused by conspiratorial corporations and produce paranoid psychological states and violent outcomes. Cronenberg’s unnerving films have explored the ways in which biological horror and pleasure intermix by portraying transformations that are both sexually charged and pathological.

Born in Toronto, Canada, on 15 March 1943, Cronenberg has had a career mostly spent in Canada. While attending the University of Toronto as an English student, Cronenberg made two short films, Transfer (1966) and From the Drain (1967). He also began two short features, Stereo (1969) and Crimes of the Future (1970), in which his distinctive sensibility began to emerge.

The subjects that were explored in these films, such as medical and psychological experimentation, sexual ambiguity and metamorphosis, violence and torture, would recur and find development in all his later work. The auteurist nature of Cronenberg’s work—in which he tended to fill the roles of writer, director, cinematographer, and editor—was also already evident.

In 1975, Cronenberg’s first feature film, The Parasite Murders (a.k.a., They Came from Within, Shivers), was released. Shivers (as it is now generally known) tells the story of a doctor who produces a parasite that transforms its hosts into sexobsessed psychotics. The film is set in a secluded apartment complex that becomes the setting for the eventual epidemic. Like Cronenberg’s Rabid (1976), the outbreak of a virus and the ensuing community-wide panic drive the plot of the film.

While this reiterates the familiar social paranoia that informed historical events such as the witchhunts of Salem or even the McCarthy period, these plots focus more particularly upon the personal transformation of individuals into some new stage of being, or what is referred to in Videodrome as the “New Flesh.” These scenarios are often represented with ambivalence, in which characters both welcome and abhor the venereal transformations wreaked upon their bodies.

The recurring subject of what Cronenberg has called “creative cancers” (Rodley, 80) has been reinterpreted and remade throughout his films, particularly because this “takeover” of his characters’ identities is never simply the result of an external agent (though this is often the catalyst) but a result of their bodies turning against themselves.

Scanners (1981) tells the story of Cameron Vale, a homeless man with telepathic and telekinetic psychic powers. He is recruited by a recently attacked corporation with its own Scanner program to infiltrate a Scanner conspiracy with plans for global conquest. The scanners are a product of a mass-marketed pharmaceutical (“ephemerol”) developed by the scientist who recruited Vale, and the conspiracy they are fighting is producing a new generation of “Scanner soldiers.”

The play of conspiracy and counterconspiracy in Scanners, which recurs throughout Cronenberg’s films, presents an ethically uncertain universe in which no side is entirely good or evil, and where characters are usually implicated in, if not responsible for, their own destruction.

Recognized by most critics as Cronenberg’s masterpiece, Videodrome (1983) introduces us to Max Renn, a cable television executive who discovers an obscure cable transmission of sadomasochistic films. In his quest to purchase the snufflike offerings of the Videodrome channel, Renn falls victim to the subliminal content embedded in the films, losing his ability to distinguish reality from fantasy. Eventually, he discovers that he has been the unsuspecting guinea pig in a right-wing plot to take over a sexually depraved North America through these transmissions.

As with many of Cronenberg’s films, Videodrome uses an unreliable protagonist whose perspective becomes progressively more delusional. Without the aid of an omniscient perspective, the audience is left to navigate between the paranoid vision of the protagonist and the supposed “reality” of the conspiracy that affects it.

The Borgesian reality-games of Videodrome repeat themselves in eXistenZ (1999), which uses the future of virtual reality gaming as its premise for a world of shifting realities. Both films espouse similar theories regarding the media and the manner in which it has become a part of the human nervous system, affecting and transforming reality.

Cronenberg’s direction of The Dead Zone (1983), based on the novel by Stephen King, is the most explicitly “political” of his conspiracy narratives as well as one of the few successful adaptations of Stephen King’s work. Based on material other than his own, The Dead Zone was not immediately identifiable as a Cronenberg film since it is particularly unmarked by his usual filmic obsessions. It is in some ways a “classic” conspiracy tale, dealing with a psychic character who becomes an assassin in order to prevent the election of a presidential candidate he believes will one day start a nuclear war.

The strong influence of William S. Burroughs on Cronenberg’s films—apparent in their shared fascination with conspiracy, biological mutation, and parasitism—led to his direction of Naked Lunch (1991). Though the film did not attempt to present the reputedly unfilmable novel by Burroughs, it based itself in the mythology of Burroughs’s work and the biographic details of his life, amalgamating the worlds of New York junkies, pest controllers, and Beat writers, with that of American expatriates and conspiratorial plots in Tangier.

While Cronenberg has authored the screenplays for most of his films, his interest in the work of underground writers led to his direction of a film version of J. G. Ballard’s Crash (1996), for which he won the Jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

Because the majority of Cronenberg’s films are characterized by visceral depictions of the body and rely on gruesome special effects, critical appreciation of Cronenberg’s work as something more than exploitation cinema took some time.

Though Cronenberg’s work has never become a part of the mainstream, the early criticism of his films as exploitation has developed into a recognition of the director as someone intimately concerned with telling stories about the human body, disease, and transformation.

Cuban Missile Crisis

Cuban Missile Crisis
Cuban Missile Crisis

On 22 October 1962, President Kennedy made a television address announcing a blockade of the Communist island of Cuba. The broadcast followed seven days of meetings held by the National Security Council Executive Committee (ExComm), a group of advisors specially convened by the president in response to the discovery of Soviet missile bases under construction in Cuba.

The “quarantine” was to prevent further equipment from reaching the island and its announcement caused the Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, to stop his ships. There then followed an exchange of letters and secret back-channel negotiations that resulted in a deal. The missiles would be removed in exchange for a public U.S. pledge of noninvasion; a secret second part, involving the removal of U.S. Jupiter missiles in Italy and Turkey, was only revealed later.

Few conspiracy theories regarding the crisis itself have been given much credence by Western historians. During the cold war, Russian writers (e.g., Nechayev, 1987) argued that there had never been any missiles in Cuba and that the CIA had doctored photographs.

However, glasnost and the opening up of the Soviet archives provided plenty of evidence that there were actually more missiles on the island than the United States thought. It has also been suggested that the peaceful resolution of the crisis and the withdrawal of missiles from Italy and Turkey were part of the reason for the assassination of President Kennedy.

Elements within the military and the CIA are said to have seen Kennedy’s refusal to fight as a sign of weakness and defeat. Coupled with the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion and the noninvasion pledge, Kennedy greatly angered anti-Castro Cubans as well as businessmen whose assets in Cuba were nationalized.

Few conspiracy theories regarding the crisis itself have been given much credence by Western historians. During the cold war, Russian writers (e.g., Nechayev, 1987) argued that there had never been any missiles in Cuba and that the CIA had doctored photographs.

However, glasnost and the opening up of the Soviet archives provided plenty of evidence that there were actually more missiles on the island than the United States thought. It has also been suggested that the peaceful resolution of the crisis and the withdrawal of missiles from Italy and Turkey were part of the reason for the assassination of President Kennedy.

Elements within the military and the CIA are said to have seen Kennedy’s refusal to fight as a sign of weakness and defeat. Coupled with the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion and the noninvasion pledge, Kennedy greatly angered anti-Castro Cubans as well as businessmen whose assets in Cuba were nationalized.

Members of ExComm and Kennedy’s inner circle also took part in a conspiracy of silence and misinformation to protect the president and his brother, Bobby, over the resolution of the crisis. Aside from not revealing the deal to remove the Jupiter missiles from Turkey and Italy, insiders also distorted key events in the crisis to portray the Kennedys more favorably.

In particular, Kennedy aide Theodore Sorenson secretly edited Bobby Kennedy’s posthumously published diary of the crisis, Thirteen Days, making it seem that Bobby had led the anti–air strike faction in ExComm, and that he and Sorenson had devised the solution that solved the crisis.

Key meetings with the Soviet ambassador were also misrepresented. Similarly, another aide waited thirty years before revealing that the president had been prepared to ask the secretary general of the UN to impose a peaceful resolution.

Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo
Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo, the distinguished contemporary U.S. novelist, is the author of thirteen novels—including Amazons (1980), a pseudonymously penned novel by Cleo Birdwell—and two plays. His many awards include the National Book Award for White Noise (1985), the PEN/Faulkner award for Mao II (1991), and in 2000, the William Dean Howells Medal for Underworld (1997).

DeLillo is also the first American to receive the Jerusalem Prize (1999) in recognition of his complete works that, in the words of the prize committee, “express the theme of the freedom of the individual in society” (Time).

DeLillo’s novels are prescient critiques of U.S. culture, engaging specifically U.S. subjects like cultural materialism, sports hysteria, rock music, terror and violence, conspiracies, waste, post–World War II U.S. history, corporate America, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. DeLillo’s works are prophetic as they apprehend and explore latent U.S. ills before they achieve privileged status in the media.

DeLillo understands that many U.S. predilections are connected as Underworld claims: “everything is connected in the end” (826). For his acute perceptions DeLillo has been dismissed by the New York Times Review of Books as the “chief shaman of the paranoid school of American fiction” (Begley, 303), and detractors criticize him for his tenacious exhuming of Americana and for creating what Bruce Bawer calls, “conspiracy-happy protagonists” (35).

Speaking with Anthony DeCurtis on the Zapruder film, DeLillo remarked that “the strongest feeling I took away from that moment is the feeling that the shot came from the front and not from the rear” (291). From this comment, and its implication of an alternative to the Warren Commission’s findings, critics immediately branded him as a conspiracy theorist writing fiction. It is not surprising that DeLillo’s artistic integrity has invited such criticism.

DeLillo’s work is perhaps better understood as daring, exploring the underside or undercurrent of U.S. history and culture. DeLillo’s significance emerges from his willingness to explore alternatives to the mainstream consensus and to address the unaccountability of the many, intricate connections— cosmic, quotidian, and profound—of chance and coincidence in modern and contemporary America.

Much of DeLillo’s writing underscores what he calls in his first novel, Americana (1971), the “true power of the image” (12), particularly media images. For DeLillo, no image is more penetrating and culture-altering than frame 313 of the Zapruder film, the frame capturing the precise moment of Kennedy’s assassination.

The assassination is so pervasive in U.S. culture and so significant for DeLillo that he has asserted in an interview with Adam Begley that U.S. history seems “engineered” since then (303), and that it even “invented” him as a writer (DeCurtis, 285). This is not to say that DeLillo views history as necessarily controlled as part of a massive military-industrial conspiracy, but that he has charted a collective shift in U.S. consciousness since 22 November 1963.

Moreover, a corollary of DeLillo’s works is that they call for a more critical appraisal of our cultural media images by pointing to and critiquing prominent images, like the famous picture of Lee Harvey Oswald holding a Manilicher rifle and purportedly Communist journals. It has been alleged that the photo was adulterated with Oswald’s head inserted afterward.

Don DeLillo has found resonance and connectivity in parallel U.S. events since JFK. He has further tailored his fiction for, and written perspicacious essays on, seemingly disparate events like Oswald’s death (Libra), shot simultaneously by television cameras and Jack Ruby’s pistol, and the Ronald Reagan assassination attempt with, as he writes in “American Blood,” its “choreography of gesture” of Secret Service agents flourishing drawn weapons (24).

Don DeLillo here shrewdly notes that Americans are so culturally steeped in the lore of JFK’s assassination that even Reagan’s agents displayed a palpably self-conscious awareness of the gravity of their videotaped moment as the drama unfolded, and that event’s historical antecedence in JFK’s assassination. In an age of ubiquitous video cameras and amateur-video footage, Don DeLillo contends that it is no longer possible to live without an urgent selfconscious awareness, even during the mundane happenings of common existence.

For DeLillo, the United States unalterably changed in 5.6 seconds at Dallas’s Dealey Plaza. Connecting subsequent events with the Kennedy assassination is not paranoid, as DeLillo’s detractors have claimed. Rather, it demonstrates a circumspect understanding of the power of U.S. media images, and how no event after JFK can be performed without reference to the assassination on some level.

His work often returns to doublings and mirrored events. In Libra, Lee Harvey Oswald and Kennedy’s lives are linked; DeLillo himself claims an affinity for Lee Harvey Oswald, noting that they lived close to each other as children in the Bronx. The basis for DeLillo’s largest and perhaps most complex novel, Underworld, is the 4 October 1951 New York Times’ double headline of “Giants capture pennant” and “Soviets explode atomic bomb.”

The headlines’ interpenetrating “shot-heard-around-the-world” resonance and synchronicity is just one of many chance events of twentieth-century America that engage Don DeLillo. For Don DeLillo, our age is increasingly technologically bounded, and while these gains are beneficial they are also bewildering and isolating. DeLillo’s fiction, then, operates as a counter to U.S. existential loneliness and despair.

His fiction is a restorative by turning our collective attention back to the ordinary elements of human life, noting the sometimes alarming moments of conjunction in disparate episodes. Finding these instances of revelation and transcendence in seemingly typical junctures is a hallmark of his fiction.

Democratic-Republican Societies

Democratic-Republican Societies
Democratic-Republican Societies

Democratic-Republican Societies were popular associations that existed in the United States from around 1793 to 1799. The impetus behind these short-lived societies was a stated desire to guard against the government conspiring against the people.

In 1792, Philip Freneau, an early Republican newspaper editor, summarized that defensive and mistrusting sentiment in his National Gazette when he spoke of the need for such societies “for the purpose of watching over the rights of the people, and giving an early alarm in case of governmental encroachments thereupon.”

Such groups he considered “absolutely necessary in every country, where the people wish to preserve an uncorrupted legislation” (National Gazette, 25 July 1792). The Charleston Society stated their founding principle clearly: they had only “one general purpose, that of watching narrowly public characters” to guard against encroachments on the rights and liberties gained during the American Revolution.

The Democratic Society of the City of New York declared in its 1794 constitution “THAT all legitimate power resides in the People” (Foner, 151). Societies, of which there were about fifty, were formed in rural and urban settings, in all but two states. Especially active and important groups were formed in Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina.

Members, of which there were thousands, were varied in their social status and occupations, and were drawn from many ranks of society, counting in their numbers artisans and farmers, but also doctors and lawyers, and other professionals. Members were also diverse in terms of their religious and political affiliations, even including some Federalists.

As U.S. political culture became increasingly polarized in the mid-1790s, Democratic-Republican Societies were at the heart of debate about the nature of the early American Republic. Members toasted the French Revolution at their meetings, waxed enthusiastically in newspaper articles published in the expanding press, and warmly greeted Citizen Edmund Charles Genet, the French ambassador, when he visited the United States in 1793.

The societies also tended to be mistrusting of the second Federalist administration of President George Washington, which they thought aimed to expand the powers of the national government, especially the executive branch, and to encroach upon the liberties of the common man.

Many Federalists came to believe that the societies themselves were conspiring to overthrow the government, a theory that was often broadcast in newspapers of the day like John Fenno’s Gazette of the United States or from pulpits like that of David Osgood of Medford, Massachusetts. Parallels were drawn between the Democratic-Republican Societies and the Jacobin Clubs of the French Revolution.

Charges against the Democratic Societies became more pronounced and were leveled with more conviction after the outbreak of the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania in 1794. Historians are not yet agreed on the exact role of the societies and their members in that insurrection. There was a degree of overlap between society membership and the Whiskey Rebels, but a lack of solid evidence means the precise connections may never be known with certainty.

To many at the time, however, a lack of solid evidence did not seem to matter. Washington thought that blame for the insurrection lay squarely on the shoulders of the societies. The rebellion, he wrote, was “the first formidable fruit of the Democratic Societies” (Allen, 593). In a famous statement, Washington spoke of certain “self-created Societies” which had “spread themselves over this country, have been laboring incessantly to sow the seeds of distrust, jealousy, and of course discontent; thereby hoping to effect some revolution in the government”.

Democratic-Republican Societies increasingly came under criticism as being hotbeds of conspiracy, a view summarized by a critic in the Kentucky Gazette when he described the Democratic Society of Kentucky as a “horrible sink of treason,—that hateful synagogue of anarchy,—that odious conclave of tumult,—that frightful cathedral of discord,—that poisonous garden of conspiracy,—that hellish school of rebellion and opposition to all regular and well-balanced authority” (31 August 1793). By 1796 membership in most Democratic-Republican Societies was waning and by 1800 they had all but disappeared, although their spirit lived on, in part, through the Republican Party they helped bring to power.

Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick
Philip K. Dick

The speculative fiction of Philip K. Dick (1928–1982) transformed the paranoid plots of 1930s–1950s pulp fiction about conspiratorial threats from outside by infusing them with anxieties emerging in the 1960s–1970s regarding the disintegration of psychological structures under the pressure of postmodernity (the turning of every last realm of public and private life into a commodity; disinformation produced by media elites; the construction of a consensus reality through manufactured illusion; technologies of behavior modification).

Dick’s most important books—Time Out of Joint (1959), The Man in the High Castle (1962), The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), Ubik (1969), A Maze of Death (1970), A Scanner Darkly (1977), The Divine Invasion (1981), Valis (1981), The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982)—extrapolate the idea of revelation, the ideological nucleus of the conspiracy genre, into something at once sublime, uncanny, and insidious. The humdrum lives of his “little guy” protagonists are totally disrupted as they discover themselves implicated in “an intricate, sustained illusion-system of massive proportion” (The Game Players of Titan, 110).

Nightmarish disclosures that cannot be rationalized away to maintain the illusion of free will, in combination with the suggestion that the paranoid nightmares might be not fantasies but glimpses of the vast underlying system of society, incompletely comprehended, allow Dick’s conspiracy narratives to function simultaneously as casestudies of paranoia and as allegorical critiques satirizing the totalitarian tendencies of postwar U.S. capitalism.

Rehearsing the various mechanisms and detours of paranoia, Dick’s protagonists proceed to construct more and more elaborate explanatory models in compensatory response to profound feelings of personal insubstantiality and social impotence.

Dick reconceived the common science fiction device of the “pocket universe”—a discrete microcosmic enclave of incubated ignorance—as a virtual reality perpetrated by governmental or corporate media. He presciently depicted dystopian near-future societies characterized by systems of simulation that serve to control the population by infiltrating consciousness and structuring the individual’s sense of self.

Plots concerning the capture of audiences and markets by oligarchic networks render in fictional terms his recognition of how an emerging society of the spectacle was beginning to induce people to invest in hegemonic models of the world that were against their best interests.

Dick’s deeply ambivalent work typically merges the angst-ridden folklore of mind control (e.g., the implantation of false memories) with the superficially more hopeful folklore of alternate realities (e.g., via drug-enhanced psi powers).

By blurring the demarcation between “actual” events and psychic processes, and thereby surrendering cognitive suppositions to endless permutation, Dick’s destabilizing narratives throw into question all criteria for establishing credibility or future action. For example, A Scanner Darkly depicts the gradual blurring of demarcated role-identities as a police undercover agent is required to surveil a drug user/dealer he had been pretending to be, but in fact has now become.

Here the unimpeachable founding premise, so dear to conspiracy theory, is tinged for comic effect with digressive thought processes typically conduced by certain pharmaceuticals: “‘I mean, it’s my theory that I did it,’ Barris said. ‘Under posthypnotic suggestion, evidently. With an amnesia block.... Possibly ... to cause dissension to break out [about] whom we can trust, who is our enemy, and like that’” (A Scanner Darkly, 53).

The compulsively suspicious scrutiny applied by Dick’s protagonists to their circumstances typically effects an uncanny return of metaphysical speculation in accord with his validation of pop culture: “the symbols of the divine show up in our world initially at the trash stratum” (Valis, 212). As Dick’s critique of capitalist production-consumption regimes became increasingly absorbed in indeterminacy, the conspiratorial agendas of oligarchies were personified as entrepreneurial trickster demigods.

In Ubik a ubiquitously promoted product approximates deity in promising to be all things to all people, although—as “a further hoax, to bewilder them that much more” (Ubik, 212)—it might not exist at all. Similarly, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch concerns a battle for the market between two hallucinogenic drugs, Can-D, a palliative, and Chew-Z, a wafer that seems to place the receiver in communion with a demonic higher reality.

Like so much of U.S. conspiracy thinking, Dick’s paranoid scenarios ultimately situate the economic and the political on essentially gnostic metaphysical foundations (“I think we’re living in some other world than what we see” [Time Out of Joint, 138]). Like their creator, Dick’s protagonists live in a universe of intimations, visitations, and epiphanies.

And like him, they seem to be inspired by the thought of being conspired against because conspiracy makes you feel that you are at the center of the universe. Goaded by the violent incursions of indiscernible political or commercial power, their complicity resides in the ingenious way they reconstruct their daily existence by linking seemingly incongruent phenomena and events.

Obsessively scanning the environment for clues and traces of unseen powers, they speculate themselves into cul de sacs, where they repeatedly revisit unsolvable enigmas: “‘The clues we are getting don’t give us a solution; they only show us how far-reaching the wrongness is.... [They have] introduced confusion rather than verification.... What’s it mean?’.... Ragle found himself poking through reality.... a splitting rent opening up, a great gash” (Time Out of Joint, 180).

Dick’s speculative fictions almost uniquely occupy the nexus where various “high” and “low” traditions of U.S. conspiracy thinking and paranoid world-designs converge. More accessible because less densely allusive than Melville or Pynchon, Dick tapped the conversation between U.S. vernacular and popular cultures, overhearing subliminally encoded communiqués of sublime revelation and subversive admonition.

For this reason his ideas seem comparable to those of other eccentric autodidacts of the U.S. tradition of carnivalesque metaphysics: Charles Fort’s assurance that “we are property”; Richard Shaver’s account of malign robots inhabiting “the Hollow Earth”; Elijah Muhammad’s revelation that the white race was devolved from the black by a cosmic “big head scientist” [sic]; L. Ron Hubbard’s claim that humans derive from incorporeal entities who became entrapped and self-forgetful while playing at “the game” of incarnation.

However, Dick’s bouts with psychological dysfunction, legendary binges on mind-altering substances, and heartfelt terror of FBI cooptation lend existential authenticity to his (knowingly) outrageous conspiratorial fabulations.

In 1974 he reputedly received coded pictographic revelations beamed from a “Vast Active Living Intelligence System”—an event fictionalized in Valis, his magnum opus. The Exegesis, a two-million-word, 1,000+ page commentary on this experience develops the premise that time/space are delusional—an experimental labyrinth devised as a game by higher beings.

Dick sporadically believed he had been contacted by the original, now immortal, Christian resistors to the tyranny of the Roman Empire, who had come into Watergate America to help bring down Richard Nixon (“The Savior woke me temporarily, & temporarily I remembered my true nature & task, through the saving gnosis, but I must be silent, because of the true, secret, transtemporal early Christians at work, hidden among us as ordinary humans” [Sutin 1995, 288]).

His more radical epiphanies notwithstanding, Dick’s vision of how consensus reality might be produced by the conspiratorial manipulation of simulacra has passed into the mainstream through Hollywood films based on his novels (Total Recall, Blade Runner, Minority Report) or reflecting the appropriation of his conceptual paradigm (Capricorn One, The Truman Show, The Matrix). His analysis has much in common with postmodern practitioners of “the hermeneutics of suspicion” such as Jean Baudrillard and Frederic Jameson, who have praised his work.