Dr. J.'s Commentary: On Conspiracy Theories


Submitted by BuzzFlash on Tue, 10/09/2007 - 10:27am. Steven Jonas

In BuzzFlash.com's Review (10/5/07) of The Road to 9/11: Wealth, Empire, and the Future of America by Peter Dale Scott, it is said in part that "Dale raises vital unanswered questions about the emergence of the secret state within a state in the United States, while avoiding the pitfall of descending into adamant conspiracy theories." I'm not quite sure what the term "adamant conspiracy theories" means. However, when one is accusing the present Republican Administration of engaging in one or more conspiracies, say to topple Constitutional Democracy here at home, the other invariably side responds with, "oh, that's just another conspiracy theory ["adamant" or otherwise] you lefties like to throw around."

As Paul Krugman said in his New York Times column of May 8, 2006: "For the last few years, the term 'conspiracy theory' has been used primarily to belittle critics of the Bush administration -- in particular, anyone suggesting that the Bush administration used 9/11 as an excuse to fight an unrelated war in Iraq. . . . The truth is that many of the people who throw around terms like 'loopy conspiracy theories' are lazy bullies who, as Zachary Roth put it on CJR Daily, The Columbia Journalism Review's Web site, want to 'confer instant illegitimacy on any argument with which they disagree.' Instead of facing up to hard questions, they try to suggest that anyone who asks those questions is crazy."

Unlike the conspiracy theory-bashers on the Right, Krugman does cite a definition of the term, from Wikipedia. It defines "conspiracy theories" as "attempts to explain the cause of an event as a secret, and often deceptive, plot by a covert alliance." One can also note that from its Latin root, the word "conspiracy" means literally (and simply) "with a secret." In English usage, it refers to a secret plan, developed and implemented by a secret group. Further, if and when the desired outcome is achieved, the secret plan always includes a basis for claiming that that outcome is not the result of any conspiracy. Public deniability is an absolutely essential element of such efforts. In this light, let us consider some foreign policy actions undertaken by Republican administrations since the 1950s.

In 1953, the government of the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh, was overthrown in a coup secretly organized by Theodore Roosevelt's son Kermit, working for the CIA. The coup was claimed to be indigenous at the time. The formerly pro-Nazi Shah was re-installed on his throne and an essentially fascist regime was established. The secret U.S. involvement couldn't possibly be termed a conspiracy, could it?

In 1954, the French Indo-Chinese War was brought to a peaceful end by the Geneva Agreement, guaranteed by Great Britain and the Soviet Union. The U.S. was not a party to it. Under the agreement, the nation of Viet Nam was temporarily divided into two formerly non-existent parts, North and South. A national election was to be held by 1956. It was widely assumed by all parties that the Vietnamese Communist leader, Ho Chi Minh, would be elected president. Secretly, the Eisenhower Administration, with the Dulles brothers, Allen at the CIA and John Foster at State, encouraged the temporary government in the South to cause the election plan to be aborted. The fact that the elections were never held lead directly to the U.S.-Vietnam War. The U.S. always officially denied that any such interference in Vietnamese domestic affairs ever took place. The U.S. role in all of this could not possibly be termed a conspiracy, could it?

In 1954, the democratically elected government of Guatemala's President Jacopo Arbenz was overthrown by a military coup secretly organized by the CIA (another Allen Dulles "triumph"), although it was claimed to be indigenous at the time. The secret U.S. involvement couldn't possibly be termed a conspiracy, could it?

In 1973, the democratically elected government of President Salvadore Allende of Chile was overthrown in a military coup secretly organized by the U.S., under the leadership of then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and CIA Director Richard Helms. At the time, any and all U.S. participation was denied, even though Kissinger had started a secret anti-Allende campaign even before he took office in 1970. The secret U.S. involvement couldn't possibly be termed a conspiracy, could it?

In 1984, the Reagan Administration secretly began organizing an armed opposition aimed at overthrowing the left-wing government of Nicaragua that had taken power following the overthrow of the widely detested dictator, Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Since any such support was prohibited by U.S. law, Reagan's boy Ollie North secretly arranged to sell arms for Iran (at the time on the State Department's own "any-contacts-prohibition" list) to raise money "off-the-books" to support the so-called "Contras." The "Iran-Contra" deal and its spawn couldn't possibly be termed a conspiracy, could it?

One must fairly point out that it has not been only Republican administrations that have engaged in secret foreign policy adventures that qualify under the definition above as conspiracies, but couldn't possibly be either, just the product of "loopy left-wing imaginations." The Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, planned under Eisenhower, but was approved by John Kennedy. There was the unannounced assemblage of an invasion fleet along the Southeast coast of the United States in the summer of 1962, presumably aimed at Cuba (although one cannot be sure; Grenada, perhaps?), the invasion plan (if there was one) subsequently aborted by the agreement that ended the Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1962, the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic was overthrown, and he was replaced by a democratically elected President, Juan Bosch, a moderate left-winger. A military coup unseated Bosch in 1963. It was in turn overturned in 1965. But a second military coup, in that year, was secretly supported by Lyndon Johnson and was successful. In 1964, Johnson secretly supported a military coup that overthrew the democratically elected President of Brazil, Joao Goulart.

None of these plans hatched in secret, implemented at first in secret, with subsequent administration denials of involvement in public, could possibly be defined as conspiracies, "adamant" or otherwise, now could they? Nah, American governments just don't do conspiracies, now do they? Certainly not for an event as dreadful as 9/11 (the history of which is the subject of Dale's book) surely, or the subsequent invasion of Iraq on entirely false pretenses, surely. Nah. Couldn't be.

This column is based in part on a column of mine that appeared on The Political Junkies on May 18, 2006, that in turn was based in part on a Commentary of mine that was published on BuzzFlash on May 8, 2006.

Steven Jonas, MD, MPH is a Professor of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University (NY), a weekly contributing author for The Political Junkies, and contributing editor for The Moving Planet Blog.