Who invented the Conspiracy Theory

The use and abuse of history is best seen in the proliferation of conspiracy theories offering tantalizing answers to the unsolved questions of history. Conspiracy Theory and Historical Truth. Looking Beyond the Roundtable of Non-Scholarly Sources.

Conspiracy theories and historical fact do not mix. Conspiracy theories arise out of speculation, often the “what ifs” or “what really happened?” Conspiracy stories are frequently fueled by insufficient data or contradictory evidence about a particular event. Often, this data is sealed for decades, prohibiting an unbiased scrutiny of the facts.

Was there a man on the “grassy knoll” in Dallas on November 22, 1963? Did FDR receive British intelligence reports of a pending attack on Pearl Harbor? Why weren’t the “dots” connected before the events of 9/11? It is precisely such questions – which often cannot be sufficiently answered, that lead to speculation. But speculation is not history.

The Sinking of the Lusitania May 1915

Decades after the end of World War I, scholars wrote about the criminal sinking of the Lusitania by a German U-boat, that killed more than 1,200 men, women, and children. It was an unprovoked attack against an unarmed passenger vessel carrying no war materiel. Yet over fifty years after the event, official archives were opened and it was found that the ship had, in fact, been transporting munitions to Britain, a factor in its swift sinking. Later dives on the wreck confirmed this.

Colin Simpson’s book, The Lusitania, published in 1972, relied on the newly opened archives yet probably did more to close one chapter of semi-conspiracy while opening several more, including the role of Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty. That Churchill manipulated the event in order to bring the U.S. into the war is well within his character. Yet to suggest that he orchestrated the sinking for that purpose is yet another conspiracy theory.

Pearl Harbor and the JFK Assassination

Conspiracy theorists suggest, among other things, that Churchill knew about the impending attack on Hawaii but elected not to warn Franklin Roosevelt. Similar theories hold that British intelligence did pass on the information but that FDR chose not to act on it. John Toland, not a historian in the conventional sense, wrote Infamy: Pearl Harbor and Its Aftermath in 1982. His book explores the many anomalies of information and intelligence before the attack. The implication is that someone in Washington, DC must have known or had a pretty good idea.

The same types of implications are brought to bear regarding the assassination of President Kennedy, despite the conclusions of the Warren Report and the FBI findings at the time. To this day, many Americans dispute the official reports, blaming organized crime, the CIA, Lyndon Johnson, Fidel Castro, and the Soviet Union. There were enough motives to engulf many, yet every attempt to “prove” a theory opens the doors to further conspiracy stories.

Conspiracy Stories are Distracting

In the movie Annie Hall, Woody Allen jumps out of bed and begins to audibly recount the events of the Kennedy assassination. His wife immediately attacks him verbally, saying that he is using the event to keep them from having sex. In many ways, Woody Allen got it right: conspiracy theories are not history; they are the banter of distraction.

One of the questions University of Pennsylvania historian Steven Hahn asks in his recent article on Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (“A Rebellious Take on African-American History,” Chronicle Review, August 7, 2009) is “Why are there historical subjects we so easily avoid or disown, even when they are of genuine significance?” Hahn is not suggesting historians embrace conspiracy theories, but his article focuses on looking at old history in a new way, asking new questions and looking in other directions.

Avoiding the abuse of historical analysis means the blood, sweat, and tears of good research and good questions. Conspiracy theories are the stuff of dinner table discussion by “middle America,” the folks who have but a smattering of historical understanding yet treat the “dots” preceding 9/11 as a reality-based soap opera. Not the stuff of real history.

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