A lone protester in Dallas for the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination in 2013. (LA Times photo)
CIA memo on JFK shooting leads entire culture to mock ‘conspiracy theories’ in defense of any official story
“Now it’s conspiracy – they’ve made that something that should not even be entertained for a minute, that powerful people might get together and have a plan. Doesn’t happen, you’re a kook, you’re a conspiracy buff!” – George Carlin
It has been called the “conspiracy theory” conspiracy.
But it’s not just a theory, it’s a fact. And like more than a few conspiracies it involves the Central Intelligence Agency – specifically a campaign in the 1960s to discredit those challenging the findings of the Warren Commission in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The agency achieved this by linking challenges to the official story with “conspiracy theories.”
It is known as CIA dispatch #1035-960. It was distributed in 1967 but not released to the public until 1976 following a Freedom of Information Act request by the New York Times. On the dispatch were marked “PSYCH” (for psychological warfare) and “destroy when no longer needed,” and the subject line was, “Concerning Criticism of the Warren Report.”
Not only was the CIA worried that too many people did not believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone (a poll was mentioned indicating that 46 percent of Americans had doubts about this), but they were also reacting with alarm to suspicions that the agency itself – or even then Vice-President Lyndon Johnson – might have been involved.
Thanks to the early work of researchers like Mark Lane, author of Rush to Judgment, the holes and impossibilities in the official version of the JFK coup were being exposed. People had reason to be suspicious of the “magic bullet” theory, the claim that no shots came from the grassy knoll, the assertion that Oswald both planned and carried out the shooting by himself, and the awfully convenient murder of Oswald by mob-connected Jack Ruby.
The idea was that the dispatch would encourage the CIA’s “elite contacts” and “propaganda assets” to counter the criticism by discrediting the messengers: impugning their motives, dismissing their research, and even suggesting they might be Communists. The hope was to convince the public that the Warren Commission did the most thorough job possible, that critics’ charges lacked foundation, and that “speculative discussion” only plays into the hands of the opposition. It called for its assets in the media to produce news features and book reviews to counter the Warren Commission critics. The CIA would even provide background information that could be used towards this end.
The dispatch even used the word “ploy” to describe the plan. The ploy would accuse critics of being politically motivated, financially motivated, wedded to a theory before the evidence was in, hasty and inaccurate in their research, and infatuated with their own theories. Today, those same charges are commonly made against those who question official stories of many events.
As it happens, the term conspiracy theory had been around for decades before that, but it became more common after the dispatch – a lot more. As James Tracy points out in an article in Global Research, the New York Times database contains 30 mentions of “conspiracy theory” between 1870 and 1960. The term shows up 46 times in the 1960s alone. But that was just the beginning of the explosion in the use of the term. Between 2000 and 2009, for example, it was found 728 times in the Times.
Prior to the dispatch, the term was relatively neutral. It just meant a theory about a conspiracy. But after 1035-960, it began to take on a different connotation. Today, the term is usually associated with ridicule. The suggestions in the dispatch are now used unthinkingly by journalists and members of the public to ridicule “conspiracy theorists.” Now, we don’t have to be told to do this, it has become ingrained in how we see the world.
In his book Conspiracy Theory in America, Lance DeHaven-Smith calls the Kennedy assassination the “Rosetta Stone” for understanding the origins of the conspiracy theory meme. He writes:
The weaponization of “conspiracy theory” all started with JFK.
“The conspiracy theory label took form and gained meaning over a period of several years (or longer) in the context of efforts by the CIA, one of the world’s leading experts in psychological warfare, to deflect accusations that officials at the highest levels of the American government were complicit in Kennedy’s murder. … The CIA’s campaign to popularize the term “conspiracy theory” and make conspiracy belief a target of ridicule and hostility must be credited, unfortunately, with being one of the most successful propaganda initiatives of all time.” (page 25)
Simply put, “conspiracy theory” is about forbidden thought and forbidden speech. It means stop thinking, stop questioning or risk being labeled a tin-foil-hat-wearing kook who probably thinks Elvis is still alive and extra-terrestrials secretly run the government. And most of the time it works. All someone has to do is say you are pushing a conspiracy theory and actual arguments become unnecessary. This stops discussion and even rational thought. It brings out extreme condescension in those who otherwise might be pleasant and reasonably intelligent. No actual evidence needs to be offered because a conspiracy theory is, by its very nature, assumed to be a lunatic idea that is not supported by facts.
DeHaven-Smith writes that those who mock conspiracy theories out of hand “lump together a hodgepodge of speculations about government intrigue, declare them all ‘conspiracy theories,’ and then, on the basis of the most improbable claims among them, argue that any and all unsubstantiated suspicions of elite political crimes are far-fetched fantasies destructive of public trust.”– (page 3)
The most brilliant thing about this propaganda weapon is that the uncritical population it targets propagates it freely without even realizing its purpose or understanding its devastating effects. They don’t see that they are helping those with power to hide their crimes. This saves the elites from having to face some pretty serious questions about what they’re doing to our world. It has the power to disguise the most outrageous acts of deception and destruction – and those who commit them.
Media proves to be an ‘asset’
The mass media has turned this government-promoted meme into something truly powerful through the incessant production of articles and TV reports that dismiss any doubts about things like 9/11, JFK, Sandy Hook, or the Moon landings. Article after article examines the conspiracy theory “phenomenon” and how it should be understood in terms of the psychological makeup of those who fall under its spell. We also hear about how amazing it is that these theories don’t seem to fade away (implying they persist despite having been proven wrong).
When a conspiracy theory is referred to in a mainstream article it will often be accompanied by adjectives like “bizarre.” The Week from the UK makes this work effectively by choosing the most implausible theory they could to lead off an article entitled, “’Elvis is alive’ and ten more top conspiracy theories” with the subheading, “From faked moon landings to reptiles ruling over us, we present the most bizarre theories out there.”
The piece addresses 9/11, the JFK assassination, the CIA’s MKUltra mind control program, Area 51, and a claim I didn’t even know existed that singer Beyoncé has been replaced by her own clone. So the position that the Moon landings were faked and 9/11 was an inside job (both supported by copious amounts of evidence) get lumped in with reptiles, Elvis, and a double dose of Beyoncé.
The article routinely poses questions like, Why do people still believe these theories (as if we should all figure out they’re wrong eventually…)? What is it in our brain that makes conspiracies so attractive (apparently we crave explanations for otherwise inexplicable events, often violent ones)?
In fact, one can’t help feeling like these articles follow some kind of script … Wait, no, I didn’t say that.
The Raw Story web site, published a piece on September 11, 2016 with the headline “Here’s our handy guide to 9/11 conspiracy theories — and how we know they’re b*llshit”. The article explains to us why we should dismiss the “theories” they have chosen to highlight. Like, “9/11 never happened.” (I had never heard this one, but apparently it’s b*llshit.)
The writer explains: “These theories encompass the full range of delusional hooey, including the idea that the World Trade Center towers were brought down by a controlled demolition, which an astonishing number of people believe in spite of the piles of evidence to the contrary.”
As usual, they don’t share any of that evidence with us. And, of course, the psychological angle isn’t left out of the article:
“When we look at the real psychological motivations behind conspiracy mongering, it becomes clear that the people who believe this kind of rot take comfort in the fact that it helps them make a kind of sense out of a random and confusing world. To believe that everything happens because of a huge, all-encompassing plot projects a coherent narrative on to an out-of-control world and gives the lunk-headed believer a sense of specialness and purpose.”
Slate offered its own brand of pop psychology with this piece: “Conspiracy Theorists Aren’t Really Skeptics: The fascinating psychology of people who know the real truth about JFK, UFOs, and 9/11.”
From the article: “The more you see the world this way—full of malice and planning instead of circumstance and coincidence—the more likely you are to accept conspiracy theories of all kinds. Once you buy into the first theory, with its premises of coordination, efficacy, and secrecy, the next seems that much more plausible.”
Harvard law professor and former Obama administration official Cass Sunstein, author of Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas, has actually called for the infiltration and disruption of groups that in some way further “conspiracy theories.” In a Bloombergarticleentitled, “Pssst! Everything’s a Conspiracy,” Sunstein asks rhetorically why people accept these obviously crazy theories:
“The first explanation points to people’s predispositions. Some of us count as “conspiracists” in the sense that we have a strong inclination to accept such theories. Not surprisingly, conspiracists tend to have a sense of personal powerlessness; they are also more likely to conspire themselves.”
It’s also about how people react to terrible events, he explains. “Such events produce outrage, suspicion and fear. Sometimes the perpetrator is self-evident, as in the case of many terrorist attacks, but if there is no clear perpetrator – as with a missing plane, a child’s disability or the outbreak of a disease – people might go hunting for the malicious agent behind it all.”
With Sunstein leading the charge, a new element has been introduced into the discussion of conspiracy theories. They are not only to be mocked and dismissed with a chuckle anymore; now they are to be feared and, if at all possible, stopped.
For example, an article by Kurt Eichenwald appeared in Newsweek in May 2014 under the title, “The Plots to Destroy America: Conspiracy theories are a clear and present danger.” As befitting the media outlet, the tone is much more serious than in articles mentioned above. Eichenwald quotes Brendan Nyhan, a “researcher of conspiracy theories” and an assistant professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College:
“The reason we should worry about conspiracy theories and misinformation is that they distort the debate that is crucial to democracy. They divert attention from the real issue and issues of concern that public officials should be debating.”
Nyhan offers this familiar explanation for how the inner minds of conspiracy theorists work: “Researchers agree; conspiracy theories are espoused by people at every level of society seeking ways of calming the chaos of life, sometimes by simply reinforcing convictions. “The world around us can feel more disordered and chaotic for various reasons,’’ he explains. “Conspiracy theories provide a way to restore feelings of control and order.’’
For example, it features a section heading, “Conspiracy as contagion.” In this section, the author explores the “psychological research” that tells us that those who believe in one conspiracy theory are highly likely to believe in others.
“This ability to hold two contradictory thoughts goes to the nature of conspiracy theories and their believers. Psychological research has shown that the only trait that consistently indicates the probability someone will believe in a conspiracy theory is if that person believes in other conspiracy theories.”
As deHaven-Smith explains, this demonizing of those who draw connections between different conspiracies has a chilling effect.
“This aversion is learned. Americans know that voicing suspicions about political elites will make them objects of hostility and derision.”
The theme that conspiracy theorists are dangerous is also echoed by Canadian journalist Jonathan Kay, the author of Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground. In Orwellian fashion, Kay actually believes that the harmful effects of “conspiracism” need to be taught to children in schools. In an interview this writer did with Kay in November 2011, he said:
“Every conspiracy theory is different, but they tend to follow the same basic pattern in the way that racists tend to follow the same basic pattern and other forms of toxic “isms” follow the same pattern.
“I think you should teach kids, especially in the context of the Internet where they receive all kinds of propaganda, you should teach them how to recognize the basic ingredients of a conspiracy theory. Some people say there’s this small group of people, and they control the world, and they’re creating terrorist attacks and wars and depressions, and it’s all led by a guy in a smoke-filled room, the Bilderbergers or whatnot – I think people should be sceptical of that.”
The movies and conspiracy theories
While the news media have been very effective at pushing the idea that “conspiracism” should be attacked, movies and television have played an important part as well. They do a lot to popularize the existence of conspiracies while at the same time marginalizing and ridiculing those who believe they exist. Why the contradiction? Because making a movie about a fictional conspiracy does not help us to understand how real conspiracies work or help us to recognize them in real life. Instead, conspiracies are reduced to mere entertainment – in other words, fantasy.
For example, the 1997 thriller aptly called Conspiracy Theory with Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts, is about a wacko conspiracy-obsessed taxi driver named Jerry Fletcher who embodies the worst stereotypes of someone who thinks everything is a secret plot. The twist is that he’s actually a victim of MKUltra mind control, and his instability is the result of what was done to him. But before we find that out, we are treated to a lampooning of all kinds of “conspiracies.”
In the opening of the movie, Jerry rattles off his checklist to any passengers in his cab who will listen – not that they have a choice. He talks about George Bush and his New World Order speech and theorizes that it was intended to get “conspiratologists” all excited and therefore destroying their own credibility. He tells us that George Sr. is a 33rd degree Mason in addition to being the former CIA director.
Jerry explains passionately that fluoride is being added to the water supply to take away people’s ability to think freely and creatively and make them slaves to the state. He thinks the Vietnam War was started because Howard Hughes lost a bet to Aristotle Onassis. And he thinks that right-wing militias aren’t concerned about the day UN troops come to take over America, they ARE the UN troops, and “when the time comes they’ll just take over, and we’ll all be toast.”
You get the idea. But here’s the line that really lays it out: When Roberts asks Jerry if he can prove any of his theories, he says, “No, a good conspiracy is an unprovable one. If you can prove it, they must have screwed up somewhere along the line.”
The thing is that in Jerry’s ravings there are elements of both absurdity and truth. But the truth gets lost because it is shown as being just part of Jerry’s paranoia. Oh, did I mention that he makes fun of people who write on the Internet and publish newsletters and “manifestos.” His newsletter, called Conspiracy Theory, has five subscribers – get it?
So the film reinforces every negative stereotype and then adds the twist that Jerry is the victim of a real conspiracy. Films like Enemy of the State, The Bourne Ultimatum, Shooter and countless others show us that conspiracy theories can be true, but this is done in the form of a “twist” on reality. In other words, if we see it in a movie or on a TV show then we can tell someone who thinks these conspiracies are real that, “You’ve been watching too many movies.” Another message is that even if a conspiracy theorist gets something right, they’re going to get a whole lot more wrong – because they ARE paranoid after all. So really, the idea is to laugh at what they say – even if the odd thing turns out to be true. Hey, even a stopped clock is right twice a day!
I’m not sure that the creators of CIA dispatch #1035-960 realized just how successful their “conspiracy theory” label would continue to be half a century later. But the effect has been huge, and those who do think the activities of the political elites need to be scrutinized and challenged on a regular basis continue to have their work cut out for them.