Professor Kathryn Olmsted on political science and paranoia

The history of anti-government conspiracy theories


Kathryn Olmsted has studied plenty of conspiracy theories, but she doesn’t aim to solve them. A professor in the Department of History at UC Davis, Olmsted explores popular conspiracy theories in a social context in the course Politics and Paranoia: Conspiracy theories in 20th century America. Olmsted’s 2009 book, Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11, examines how the expansion of the federal government gave rise to public distrust, looking at the JFK assassination, the attack on Pearl Harbor and 9/11 through this lens. Check out her lecture, Just Because You’re Paranoid Doesn’t Mean They’re Not Out to Get You on YouTube.

What got you interested in conspiracy theories?

I wrote a book about congressional investigations of the CIA and the FBI right after Watergate. The main investigation was called the Church Committee, after Sen. Frank Church, who headed it. When I was researching that book, I was really intrigued by how many people wrote Sen. Church because, as he discovered that the CIA and FBI had engaged in real conspiracies, many Americans came to believe that the government was conspiring against them personally. I was just struck by the thousands of letters that he received from people who said, “The FBI has followed me: the CIA has tried to do mind-control experiments on me.” I got interested in the dynamic relationship between real government conspiracies and conspiracy theories about the government. As the government discloses real conspiracies from the past, this sort of feeds the paranoia of a lot of American citizens.

Why do you think people turn to conspiracy theories to explain war?

It’s usually people who oppose that particular war. You see this over and over again, even in World War II which most Americans remember as “the good war,” there were people who were opposed to it at the time. Mostly on the far right, [people] thought that the U.S. should be fighting communists rather than Nazis. So they promoted the theory that Franklin Roosevelt knew about Pearl Harbor in advance and deliberately withheld that information in order to trick the American people into entering WWII. So you can see conspiracy theories by opponents of wars in just about every war, starting with World War I.

Is it common for the same conspiracy theory to feed distrust of government from the left and right?

It’s pretty common in the last 30 years. It’s a relatively new phenomenon starting in about the 1980s. You start seeing more and more of what are called “fusion” conspiracy theories, where people on the right and the left share the same conspiracy theories about the government, even though they wouldn’t agree on just about anything else. You really start seeing it after the Iran-Contra scandal, when of course there were a lot of people on the left who saw that real government conspiracy and believed that the Reagan administration was guilty of a lot of other of crimes. It’s also true on the right, where they think that Iran-Contra is proof of a deep state and use it to fuel their own anti-government conspiracy theories.

What do students expect when they enter your class, and what do they get out of it?

Well I tell them the first day that we’re not going to prove conspiracy theories. We’re not going to investigate or find out who really killed Robert Kennedy. Lots and lots of people have done that. They’ve tried to and they haven’t been able to do that. In 10 weeks in an undergraduate program—that’s not gonna happen. So I say that the class is about understanding why Americans at various points in their history believed in certain conspiracy theories. It’s like a window into the culture and the fears of the time.

Can you explain how your book Real Enemies links conspiracy theories to the rise of the security state?

My argument in the book is that in World War I, the U.S. government for the first time criminalized dissent—it was against the law to speak out against the war effort—and also started massive surveillance of the population to see if they were breaking this law, or if they were some way consorting with the enemy. Once the government starts getting more power—more secret power, more surveillance power—that is when more and more Americans start suspecting their government of conspiring against them. Because it has the power to do so and in some cases it is actually conspiring against them.

What would you like more people to know about conspiracy theories?

There are real reasons to suspect the U.S. government of lying and covering up and doing some horrible things over the years. However, if then you start to believe every anti-government theory that you read on the Internet, then that leads to a profound cynicism. Skepticism is healthy, but cynicism can be corrosive. So you have to be skeptical of the government, but if you then reach the point where you say you can never trust anything anyone in the government ever does, then that makes it impossible for us to solve problems as a society.