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Inefficient? Never on a Conspiracy

June 29, 1997|Richard White | Richard White is a professor of history at the University of Washington

SEATTLE — Last week, the U.S. Air Force issued a 231-page report denying both that aliens landed at Roswell, N.M., in 1947 and that the government has conducted a 50-year cover-up of their arrival. There were no alien autopsies or spaceships. There were only weather balloons, test dummies, charred bodies from a plane crash and equipment designed to monitor Soviet nuclear tests.


Haven't other official government panels concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing John F. Kennedy? And isn't this very same federal government busily conspiring to deliver this country to the United Nations or the Trilateral Commission or the New World Order or whoever is in the market for world domination this week?

You can't trust the conspirators to investigate the conspiracy.

And you can't trust the government to do anything right--except, of course, to conspire and cover up. Then it becomes diabolically efficient. The very people who are wildest for government conspiracies are often the same people who believe the government is incapable of delivering the mail efficiently.

That so many citizens of the world's oldest democracy think their government routinely conspires to lie, to cover up the truth and, ultimately, to deprive them of their liberties is, however, less paradoxical than it seems.

We are a republic conceived in fear of conspiracy. The Declaration of Independence accused King George III and Parliament of a conscious conspiracy against the colonies. The belief that power corrupts and government officials will, if unchecked, conspire against the liberties of citizens runs deep in our political tradition.

Nowhere does it run deeper these days than in the American West. A year or so ago, Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R-Ida.) was grilling puzzled U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees about black helicopters. Black helicopters are, according to the far right, the favored tool of the New World Order; they were, Chenoweth insisted, being used to terrorize Westerners into compliance with the Endangered Species Act. It was fear of a conspiracy against his and our liberties that apparently inspired Timothy McVeigh to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City.

The belief that agencies of the federal government are conspiring against the American people and then covering up their conspiracies is deeply rooted and ubiquitous. But while U.S. history bursts with conspiracy theories, until relatively recently, conspirators, real or imagined, struggled to subvert the government. They were not the government.

At various times, English bankers, the Rothschilds, the Mormons, the Catholic church and anarchists, all supposedly worked to subvert the republic. The shadows of these conspiracies extended into the 1930s. When my mother immigrated to this country in 1936, she had, as a 16-year-old, to swear she was not an anarchist or a polygamist. As paranoid as the witch hunts against many of these groups became, the targets were always typed as subversives, working from without to undermine the elected government.

The Roswell aliens who arrived in 1947 were one shrewd set of aliens. They knew their cultural moment and their proper place: These were aliens for the Cold War arriving in a newly militarized West. Aliens in the 1930s didn't have the Cold War. They showed up in New Jersey, got on the radio with Orson Welles and faced a government that couldn't stop them. In the end, of course, they were just a hoax and everyone was amused and embarrassed. By the 1940s, aliens had learned it was better to be victims than invaders, better to be needy than domineering, better to be out in the wide-open spaces than in New Jersey.

It was now the government that was adept and malicious. The government didn't allow the media to broadcast their presence; the government conspired to deny their existence for a reason of its own: security.

By the late 1940s, government really was far more secretive. Security is, after all, why the Air Force didn't talk about what it was doing around Roswell: perfecting techniques to spy on the Soviet Union. But, more significantly, the government had moved from being the victim of conspiracies to being the seat of the conspirators. Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, the man who set so much of the style of late-20th-century politics, had the genius to locate the mother of all modern conspiracies--the communist conspiracy--within the federal government.

Stirring up fear of communists was hardly new. The red scare after World War I had focused on rag-tag immigrant radicals who could be rounded up and deported. McCarthy had the genius to locate the communist conspiracy in the highest levels of government. He had the genius to make attempts by officials to deny any conspiracy evidence of a cover-up of the conspiracy itself.

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