Skeptoid listeners are always asking for conspiracy theories that turned out to be true. Here’s the best I could come up with.
Ever since the earliest days of Skeptoid, listeners have been asking me for two things: Do an episode on paranormal claims that turned out to be true, and do an episode on conspiracy theories that turned out to be true. For both types of requests, I’ve always answered “Great, just find some for me.” Nothing. Ever. Crickets chirping. So when I went on the Joe Rogan podcast, which has an enormous conspiracy theory following, I asked straight out: Please send me examples of conspiracy theories that turned out to be true. I was buried in email… to the degree that such a thing is possible.
Judging conspiracy theories can be a tricky business. For one thing, they’re often uselessly vague. I can say “The government does things we don’t know about,” and then virtually anything can come out in the news and I can claim to have been right. For another thing, the world is full of real criminal conspiracies, and I can always point to any one of them and claim “Hey, this is a conspiracy theory that was proven true.” So I have a simple pair of requirements that a conspiracy theory must adhere to in order to be considered the type of conspiracy theory that we’re actually talking about when we use the term.
- First, it must be specific enough to be falsifiable. This is the fundamental requirement that every scientific theory must comply with to be considered valid. By way of example, compare a vague version of the chemtrails conspiracy theory to a specific disprovable claim. You can’t just say “Some airplanes spray some unknown chemical.” That’s so vague that you could claim you were proven correct the next time a crop duster sprays a field. But if you say “United Airlines tail number NC13327 is equipped to spray VX nerve gas, and that one right there is spraying it right now,” then that’s a claim that can be disproven with a single inspection. You make a claim that specific, you’re proven right, I’ll stand behind you 100%.
- Second, it must be known to the conspiracy theorist before it’s discovered by the media or law enforcement. Simply repeating what someone else’s proper investigation has led them to does not constitute developing a theory. Woodward and Bernstein did an intense investigation and put together evidence bit by bit until they had the whole story of the Watergate scandal; at no point did they sit back in their chairs, propose an elaborate conspiracy, then watch as every detail unfolded exactly as they predicted. If you want to impress me with your conspiracy theory, you have to discover it (in detail) before other investigators piece together the proof and make it public for you. Otherwise you’re just claiming credit for reading the newspaper.
So now let’s look at the most common “conspiracy theories proven true” that I was sent:
1. The Gulf of Tonkin
This was overwhelmingly the most common story sent to me from listeners of the Rogan podcast. It was the American excuse to enter the Vietnam War. A small naval battle took place between US forces and North Vietnamese torpedo boats, after which Congress gave President Lyndon B. Johnson the authority to order military action in support of certain Southeast Asian countries who were threatened by Communist forces. Basically, a thinly-veiled authorization for Johnson to go to war with North Vietnam.
The conspiracy part comes from the claim that the naval battle never actually took place, or that it was a fake “false flag” attack by American conspirators trying to give Congress the excuse they wanted. There’s probably a grain of truth to this. There was indeed one real engagement on August 2, 1964, in which planes and ships were damaged on both sides and the North Vietnamese suffered a number of casualties. There’s no doubt there. But it was the second attack two days later on August 4 that was fishy. American forces fired heavily on radar targets only, and nobody ever reported any visual sightings of North Vietnamese forces.
Throughout the day on August 4, as the action was unfolding, Captain Herrick of the destroyer USS Maddox cabled Washington a number of times, and reported in no uncertain terms that he believed there were no enemy forces. This information was public from the beginning. Even as Johnson was drafting his resolution, Senator Wayne Morse was holding public press conferences to reveal that the second attack was without evidence.
Provoking attacks may seem pretty unethical to most of us, but the fact is it’s been a common military tactic since the Romans and the Carthaginians. At no point were the details of the Gulf of Tonkin incident unknown, so it never existed as a conspiracy theory.
The FBI’s domestic Counter Intelligence Program was a terrible thing from the beginning. It operated since 1956, and also less formally for nearly 50 years before that. Their purpose was to discredit and harm American groups mainly associated with civil rights, characterizing them as hate groups that threatened national security. The program was blown in 1971 when a group of eight men, calling themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, broke into a small FBI office in a perfectly planned and executed raid. They seized some 1,000 documents detailing COINTELPRO operations and mailed them to newspapers. The FBI was unable to identify any of the burglars before the statute of limitations ran out, so they got away with it clean. As a result, the FBI was forced to terminate this often-illegal program.
Nov. 22 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. Get ready for more of this:
“John F. Kennedy was murdered by a conspiracy involving disgruntled CIA agents, anti-Castro Cubans, and members of the Mafia, all of whom were extremely angry at what they viewed as Kennedy’s appeasement policies toward Communist Cuba and the Soviet Union.”
That’s according to Jesse Ventura in his new book, They Killed Our President: 63 Reasons to Believe There Was a Conspiracy to Assassinate JFK. Ventura’s “smoking gun” is a memo written three days after the assassination by Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach to Bill Moyers, an aide to newly sworn-in President Lyndon B. Johnson.
“The public must be satisfied that Oswald was the assassin; that he did not have confederates who are still at large; and that the evidence was such that he would have been convicted at trial,” Katzenbach wrote.
Alone, it sounds ominous. But not when viewed in the context of the sentence that precedes it: “ It is important that all the facts surrounding President Kennedy’s assassination be made public in a way that will satisfy people in the United States and abroad that all of the facts have been told and that a statement to this effect be made now.”
My hunch is that Katzenbach was already anticipating that, 50 years later, guys like Ventura would seek to prosper by spinning yarns. Katzenbach died in 2012. But Moyers is still with us, and I asked him what he thought of the current use of the memo he was sent 50 years ago. He told me he hasn’t kept up with any of this since leaving the White House.
“Some of my old colleagues and I collaborated a few years ago in a protest to the History Channel over a scurrilous documentary about LBJ and the assassination, but that’s been the extent of the attention I’ve given it,” he said over email. “The Warren Commission settled the matter for me, and conspiracy theories of any kind have always seemed a waste of time. I don’t even believe George W. Bush was behind the 9/11 attacks, and as a result am a constant target of those conspiracy theorists.”
When I recently asked Ventura, the former governor of Minnesota, who fired the shots that killed Kennedy, he could not answer. (“That’s impossible. How can you ask me to do that?”) How many people were in on it? (“It’s hard to say.”)
Typical was this exchange between us:
MS: You wrote the book They Killed Our President. Who are “they”?
JV: No one will ever know, no one will ever know. All I know is, Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t.
Part of Ventura’s explanation is that Oswald had a body double. I kid you not.
- JFK assassination conspiracy theory “blown out of the water” in new book, author says (illuminutti.com)
- Beware the conspiracy theorists as JFK date nears (thenewstribune.com)
- Ventura: LBJ Had The Most To Gain From JFK Assassination (minnesota.cbslocal.com)
- JFK’s brain taken by his brother Robert, book claims (theprovince.com)
Jessie Walker discusses his new book, The United States of Paranoia:
“Political paranoia, and conspiracy theories in particular, have been a part of the United States since before there was a United States,” explains Reason Magazine books editor Jesse Walker, author of the new book The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory. “Even when a conspiracy theory says absolutely nothing true about the object of the theory, if it catches on it says something true about the anxieties and the experiences about the people who believe it.”
Rejecting the assumption that these beliefs are the purview of outsiders on the fringes of society, Walker details how even those at the very heart of American power – from John Quincy Adams‘ fear of Freemasons to LBJ‘s insistence that communists were stoking race riots – have held these views.
- Why do people lie about their belief in a Conspiracy Theory? (illuminutti.com)
- What Conspiracy Theories Say About Us: Jesse Walker on The United States of Paranoia (reason.com)
- HAARPing mad – an assessment of the HAARP conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists. (illuminutti.com)
- Is it a Conspiracy Theory, or is it Satire? (illuminutti.com)
- The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory (cato.org)
- A nation of truthers (salon.com)