Kathryn Olmsted’s Real Enemies is an excellent survey of conspiracy theories in the 20th-century United States. A history professor at UC-Davis, Olmsted makes three arguments. First, the U.S. government perpetrated conspiracies against American citizens in response to alleged anti-government conspiracies. In response, Americans constructed alternative conspiracy theories to explain the conspiracy theories that the government used to cover up its own conspiracies. When the U.S. government criticized and cracked down on the creators and supporters of the alternative conspiracy theories, Americans developed conspiracy theories to explain the government’s suppression.
It sounds confusing, but Olmsted’s presentation is clearer than my own. Let me give you an example. During the Cold War, the U.S. government approved the assassination of Cuban leader Fidel Castro. When John F. Kennedy was killed in Dallas in November 1963, the federal government did not fully disclose all of the information surrounding the assassination in order to protect the Kennedy administration and its culpability in the attempts on Castro’s life. To explain the gaps, Americans, many of them ordinary citizens, looked for evidence to explain how a lone gunman could kill the “leader of the free world.” When criticism arose from the media and the government, these citizens attributed the criticism to a government plot to silence and discredit them.
Olmsted addresses World War I, Pearl Harbor, McCarthyism, the JFK assassination, Watergate, 9/11, and various conspiracy theories of the 1970s-1990s, including Roswell, Iran-Contra, and the distribution of crack in the African American community. I was surprised by how often Dick Cheney’s name was attached to various conspiracies and conspiracy theories over the past four decades. Perhaps he’s the alien overlord or the Antichrist?
Olmsted concludes with the argument that conspiracy theorists “help to keep American democracy healthy and inform the public debate” (235). They demand government transparency, which is a good thing (236). But she admits that “the costs of conspiracy theories far outweigh their benefits” (236). Their paranoia and insistence on an absolute good vs. evil narrative “injects toxins into the public discourse” and “hinder the process of historical discovery” by ignoring evidence that does not fit their firm belief in conspiracism (236).
I recommend this book for anyone interested in American conspiracy theories.