One Evil Conspiracy Is Missing

Conspiracy thinking, according to Robert A. Goldberg, is an American tradition. The tendency to blame bad news on the intricate calculations of hidden conspirators, rather than on anything so mundane as the wickedness of isolated individuals, official incompetence, or plain bad luck, is not a trait unique to the United States, Goldberg acknowledges, but he argues that the tendency has taken a particularly energetic form here. So much so, he says, that it is bending the political culture out of shape. In Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America, Goldberg sets out to prove these claims, or at any rate to document them, by studying the principal conspiracy theories of recent years.

Is "conspiracism" really so American? Goldberg maintains that suspicion of authority certainly is. And, as he points out, suspicion of authority, combined with an appetite for conspiracy, goes back to the country's beginning: "Americans would cross the last bridge to independence only when they convinced themselves that their king was not only aware of the plot but a co-conspirator." Anticipating later developments in conspiracy thinking, some Americans identified George III as the Antichrist: "[The] numerical conversion of the Hebrew and Greek translations of 'royal supremacy in Great Britain' totaled 666." Other explanations for British policy were available, of course. They were simpler but less satisfying.

Enemies Within is mostly devoted to five modern classics of conspiracy theory: the Red Menace, the rise of the Antichrist (still popular more than two centuries later), the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the Jewish plot to smash black America, and the hushed-up crash of a UFO in Roswell, N.M. A first and last chapter does draw together some issues and themes.

The case histories are absorbing. Goldberg writes well, with no trace of the pseudo-scientific babble that one has come to dread in this kind of study. Fortunately, the author is a historian, rather than a psychologist or a sociologist, so he is not professionally disqualified from telling an interesting tale for its own sake. His skill as a writer was apparent from his fine biography of Barry Goldwater, published in 1995. Here, the tone is anti-sensational, but not boringly so: On the contrary, it is refreshing to read accounts of these conspiracies shorn of the phony tabloid agitation that usually accompanies them.

Yet, for all this, Enemies Within is frustrating. Timing is partly to blame. After September 11, nobody questions that America really must confront and defeat an evil conspiracy that may threaten its very way of life. Whatever you think about the classic conspiracies dissected by Goldberg, the new one is undeniably real.

The problem this poses for Enemies Within is not, as you might expect, that Goldberg pours scorn on anybody who believes in those other plots, so as to imply that all such conspiracies are the figments of a paranoid imagination—a view now plainly contradicted by the terrorist attacks. Goldberg is, in fact, carefully evenhanded in telling his conspiracy stories—if anything, too much so. He never mocks, even when the leading characters are begging to be mocked.

Indeed, the author shows that not all of the great conspiracy theories are completely nutty. The authorized version of the Kennedy assassination, after all, takes some willingness to believe. And the Soviet Union did, in fact, scheme to undermine America, even if the Red Menace was not as all-encompassing as the "conspiracist" mind-set longed to believe. Goldberg's marshalling of the facts makes it clear that full-throttle conspiracy theories are sometimes mad—and sometimes just a lot less plausible than the orthodox explanations (improbable as the orthodoxy may itself seem now and then). He does this without either laboring the point or laughing at people who are taken in.

So the book's problem is not one of tone, of lampooning a mental trait that all of a sudden looks not so crazy. It is simply that the recent terrorist conspiracy is a disruptive absence. Even though this real conspiracy is quite different from the supposed plots Goldberg does examine—and different not just in being real—it belongs in the book. How can you analyze conspiracies and not this conspiracy? It demands to be assimilated, to be considered with and contrasted against the others. It throws everything off balance by not being there.

One connection in particular cries out to be examined. Again, it concerns suspicion of authority, and especially distrust of the federal government. The powers-that-be have either been subverted by cells of conspirators, the classic stories often say, or are themselves, from top to bottom, prime movers in plots to harm or conceal. Goldberg notes, without taking the point any further, that suspicion of government erodes public confidence in "core institutions," which may then "become unstable and lose their ability to govern." After September 11, this theme is too interesting to be left unexplored. Will suspicion of authority weaken America in the war against terror?

The greatest suspicion has often been directed, inevitably, at covert branches of government, notably the CIA. As Enemies Within hits the bookstores, the CIA is being granted huge increases not just in its resources but also in its freedom to prosecute a secret war against terrorism. What will conspiracy theorists make of this? Presumably, once they have chased down all the leads, they will conclude that the attacks on Washington and New York City were planned by the CIA. The view that Israel planned the attacks, by the way, is widely held in the Arab states. America is good at conspiracy thinking—Enemies Within leaves no doubt on that point—but there is tough competition out there.

Clive Crook, a National Journal opinion columnist, is deputy editor of The Economist.