American Shadows Conspiracy theories are a feature of today's news and politics. But they've really been a part of American life since its founding. In this episode, we'll explore how conspiracy theories helped to create the U.S. and how they became the currency of political opportunists.
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American Shadows

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American Shadows

American Shadows

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DEBORAH BLUM: If you've ever watched a horror movie in which you had a victim in a dark and shadowy forest, you're not afraid of what you see. You're afraid of what you can't see - what's behind the trees, what might or might not be there. You know, a dark and shadowy forest is a kind of visual manifestation of what a conspiracy theory might be - all these shadows gathering around you with unknown intent.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

JESSE VENTURA: What exactly happened on 9/11? How did they know who did this so quickly like they did Lee Harvey Oswald?

BRIAN STELTER: Fake news, real gunfire.

GLORIA BORGER: The more outrageous the charge...

STELTER: A conspiracy theory called Pizzagate.

BORGER: ...The more they like it.

ALEX JONES: The official story of Sandy Hook has more holes in it than Swiss cheese.

RUND ABDELFATAH, HOST:

You're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, HOST:

Where we go back in time...

ABDELFATAH: To understand the present. All right, fair warning. I've been reading a lot about conspiracy theories for a while. And now, I'm kind of obsessed.

ARABLOUEI: Did you find anything good?

ABDELFATAH: Yeah. There's literally a conspiracy theory about everything.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah.

ABDELFATAH: And apparently, about 50 percent of Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory.

ARABLOUEI: That seems like a lot, actually.

ABDELFATAH: It does, but we should really start by defining what a conspiracy theory is in the first place. So a conspiracy is a secret plan by a group to do something unlawful or harmful. And therefore, a conspiracy theory is a belief that a conspiracy has taken place.

ARABLOUEI: Which includes things that are true - right? - like actual secret plots.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, not all conspiracy theories are false, and not all are as, like, weird as, say, the theory that Elvis Presley is still alive or that we never landed on the moon, you know, especially nowadays - right? - when a lot of conspiracy theories seem politically motivated and kind of, you know, sinister. Actually, that brings us to the conspiracy theory that drew me into all of this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOM FOREMAN: A new fringe conspiracy theory group called QAnon.

ABDELFATAH: QAnon.

ARABLOUEI: Oh, yeah, the people with Q signs at Trump rallies.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NBC NIGHTLY NEWS")

JO LING KENT: At President Trump's rally in Tampa, the image was hard to miss.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, it's been making headlines for a few months now. And long story short, it's a far-right conspiracy theory not based on any truth that began when some anonymous person, who only identifies as Q, started posting really outlandish claims on a message board called 4chan back in 2017. You're with me?

ARABLOUEI: Yes. Yup.

ABDELFATAH: Right, OK.

ARABLOUEI: Yup.

ABDELFATAH: Their basic theory is that some deep state is conspiring against President Trump and his supporters. They've also accused some left-leaning Hollywood actors and politicians, without, you know, any evidence or anything, of participating in an international child sex trafficking ring.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NBC NIGHTLY NEWS")

KENT: Recent searches on YouTube turning up bogus claims about Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg.

ARABLOUEI: Oh, my God.

ABDELFATAH: The thing is conspiracy theories like QAnon are a feature of our news and politics these days, with people like Alex Jones, for example, peddling conspiracy theories.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah. I mean, even President Trump was involved in that birther conspiracy about Obama.

ABDELFATAH: And all this made me want to dig into the history of conspiracy theories in America to try to make sense of this time we're living in.

ARABLOUEI: OK.

ABDELFATAH: Based on what I found, I guarantee by the end of this episode, you'll be convinced that conspiracy theories have not only been instrumental in shaping American politics and culture, but that the U.S. was actually built on conspiracy theories - that they're pretty much a part of who we are.

You're not buying it?

ARABLOUEI: You had me, but that sounds like, honestly, like a very tall order. Like, I'm not sure you're going to be able to do it.

ABDELFATAH: All right, yeah. Challenge accepted. Wait till you hear these stories. I'm going to take you...

ARABLOUEI: Let's see.

ABDELFATAH: ...Through three periods in American history when conspiracy theories played a critical role - the Colonial era, the Prohibition era and the Vietnam War era.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: Part One - revolution.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHNNY CASH: Four score and seven years ago, our forefathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived...

ARABLOUEI: That's Johnny Cash, right?

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, as Abraham Lincoln.

ARABLOUEI: And is he reciting the Gettysburg Address?

ABDELFATAH: Yup, which - let me rewind here - opens with a reference to 1776, the founding of America - four score and seven years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CASH: Four score and seven years ago.

JOSEPH J. ELLIS: Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CASH: A new nation.

ELLIS: No, they didn't.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CASH: Conceived...

ARABLOUEI: OK, wait. I'm lost. If they didn't do that, what did they do?

ABDELFATAH: This is my master plan.

ARABLOUEI: OK (laughter).

ABDELFATAH: All right, this is Joseph J. Ellis. He's an American historian who specializes in the country's founding years. And he says the first line in the Gettysburg Address is...

ELLIS: Historically incorrect.

ABDELFATAH: Like, pretty much wrong.

ELLIS: They brought forth a confederation of sovereign states, provisionally united to win the war and then go their separate ways, which is exactly what they did.

ABDELFATAH: In other words, the colonies didn't come together to create a country. Their main goal was to get rid of the British. Creating a union, a United States, was an afterthought. And the thing that pushed them to revolution in the first place isn't what you might think either.

ELLIS: The very founding of America is based on a set of conspiratorial visions.

ABDELFATAH: Those conspiratorial visions led to the American Revolution.

ARABLOUEI: So you're telling me that conspiracy theories were the reason America was founded?

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, kind of. Stay with me.

ELLIS: In the middle of the 18th century, the American colonies were the periphery of the British Empire.

ABDELFATAH: So if you were a colonist at that time, you were a subject of the British Crown. And initially, most colonists didn't have too much of a problem with that setup. Monarchs ruled over their colonies, end of story. But then, in 1765 Great Britain passed the Stamp Act.

ELLIS: The Stamp Act put a tax on all forms of parchment and paper that had to be stamped. And that meant newspapers and legal documents, stationery, playing cards.

ABDELFATAH: The Stamp Act was the first time Britain tried to tax the colonies directly. The American Colonists were made to feel like second-class citizens. And it definitely made them mad. But...

ELLIS: Most of the colonists who are protesting the Stamp Act are simply saying, we want to be full-fledged British citizens or members of the British Empire. If you leave us alone and don't tax us, we'll be pleased to stay in the empire. We want to stay in the empire.

ABDELFATAH: So while the Stamp Act did inspire protests and boycotts of British goods that eventually led to the act being repealed, it didn't make most colonists want to leave the British Empire at all.

ARABLOUEI: OK, so what actually made them turn against the Crown?

ABDELFATAH: Well, that's where the conspiracy theorists of the time come in. I'm sure you've heard the name Samuel Adams.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah, there's a beer named after him. And when we were on How I Built This, we actually did the episode about the company.

GUY RAZ, BYLINE: Yeah, I interviewed him. It's Guy here, by the way. What does any of this have to do with your story?

ABDELFATAH: Well, Guy, Sam Adams was one of those conspiracy theorists. He was actually John Adams' cousin.

ELLIS: He's really the Lenin of the American Revolution, a propagandist and a radical.

ABDELFATAH: Some details are hard to pin down about him because he burned most of his letters.

ELLIS: John Adams describes him at the Continental Congress throwing all his correspondence into the fireplace so that you won't know - his fingerprints won't be on things.

ABDELFATAH: Despite his best efforts, there's still a lot that is known about him. He's a New Englander through and through. He even elevated New Englanders to an almost holy level.

ELLIS: Sees those people as a chosen people that have enjoyed a level of independence and autonomy, and now somebody's deciding that they're not going to be permitted to do that anymore.

ABDELFATAH: Sam Adams viewed the Stamp Act, plus all the other royal taxes, as a serious threat to this God-given autonomy, that they were a cover for Britain's real mission, an elaborate conspiracy.

ELLIS: The conspiracy theory is that the British government and the ministry of George III, newly crowned king of England in 1760, is plotting, systematically, the enslavement of the American colonists. And they use the word enslavement.

ABDELFATAH: Adams argued that the British were enacting a diabolical plot to literally make the American colonists into slaves of the empire.

ARABLOUEI: That's messed up. I mean, he was pushing this conspiracy theory of the colonists being enslaved when the colonists themselves were enslaving people.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, it's very messed up. Like, slavery was a part of life for all the American colonists. There's no getting around that.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah.

ABDELFATAH: And, in a way, it makes sense that they'd have deep anxiety about ending up like the people they enslaved.

ELLIS: And it builds into the American Revolution a fundamental contradiction.

ABDELFATAH: Sam Adams may or may not have been aware of that contradiction. But he still argued that Britain wanted to enslave the colonists the way the colonists had enslaved African-Americans. These are Adams' own words.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Sam Adams) The plan of slavery seems nearly completed. Save our country from impending ruin. Let not the iron hand of tyranny ravish our laws and seize the badge of freedom.

ABDELFATAH: Amid these fears, Adams decided people needed to know about this conspiracy and began to spread the word.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Sam Adams) Is it not high time for the people of this country explicitly to declare whether they will be free men or slaves?

ELLIS: For us, it would be the blogs. For them, it was pamphlets.

ABDELFATAH: He started going to town meetings in Boston and other cities in Massachusetts handing out those pamphlets.

ELLIS: Controlling, in a - in a covert way, the way in which the resistance movement to Britain goes forward.

ABDELFATAH: Over the course of a few years, his grievances against the Crown spread. By the way, some of those grievances were made up. Adams would regularly publish exaggerated or completely fabricated accounts of British hostilities.

ARABLOUEI: This is like early fake news. (Laughter).

ABDELFATAH: (Laughter) Yeah - no, it totally is. Like, you know, Adams was a masterful politician. And he knew that it would be politically useful to stir up and, you know, manipulate people's outrage.

ARABLOUEI: I guess the ends justify the means.

ABDELFATAH: I mean, it worked. Thanks in part to his efforts, the relationship between the colonists and the British was getting worse and worse, especially in Sam Adams' hometown, Boston. Mobs began to fill the streets there regularly, calling for an end to all the taxes. In response...

ELLIS: British troops have been assigned to police Boston.

ABDELFATAH: And then, on March 5, 1770, violence broke out. One day earlier, the city was plastered with fake documents that described a British plan to attack the people of Boston. They were even signed with forged signatures of British soldiers. With all these rumors swirling around, tensions boiled over. And on March 5, a mob of around 50 self-described patriots approached a few British soldiers who were stationed at a post.

ELLIS: And the mobs start throwing snowballs and ice balls and rocks at them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOB YELLING)

ABDELFATAH: The soldiers didn't react for a while. But eventually, they called in reinforcements.

ELLIS: It's unclear exactly who gives the command or exactly what happens.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

ABDELFATAH: Church bells began to ring, summoning more people to the scene. Then suddenly...

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT)

ABDELFATAH: ...A gunshot rings out, then two, three, four.

ELLIS: Several Americans are killed.

ABDELFATAH: And the event comes to be known as the Boston Massacre.

ARABLOUEI: I'm sure this event, the Boston Massacre, only intensified Adams' conspiracy theory.

ABDELFATAH: Sure, his theory was supported by some acts of British aggression. So it does make sense that, like, a random colonist might believe it. But if you read the news reports from that time - and I did find some - they're really exaggerated, and the language used is straight out of Sam Adams' playbook. Plus, they make it seem like the British were looking for a fight on March 5, which wasn't true.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Occasioned by the exorbitancy of the military power, which in consequence of the intrigues of wicked and designing...

ABDELFATAH: Here's the irony, though. In 1769, less than a year before the Boston Massacre, British officials were planning to withdraw troops from the area. But the conspiracy theories and propaganda convinced people that they needed to take to the streets. And as a result, the British cracked down even harder.

ARABLOUEI: So it just kind of fed back into itself and kept growing.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah. From this point on, Sam Adams' job just gets easier. I mean, now the colonists had every reason to believe that his conspiracy theory was entirely true. And revolution was becoming a real possibility.

ARABLOUEI: Did people like Washington and Jefferson - you know, the people we now call the Founding Fathers, did they actually believe in this conspiracy too, that the British wanted to actually enslave the colonists?

ABDELFATAH: Oh, yeah.

ARABLOUEI: Really?

ABDELFATAH: Yeah.

JESSE WALKER: Thomas Jefferson said that we were facing, quote, "a deliberate and systematical plan of reducing us to slavery."

ABDELFATAH: This is Jesse Walker, author of the book, "The United States Of Paranoia."

WALKER: And you can see, you know, Washington, Hamilton, all sorts of Founding Fathers using that kind of language.

ELLIS: What makes the American Revolution work is not that it's top-down or bottom-up, but it's a combination of those two things. And Sam Adams is the missing link between the up and the down.

ABDELFATAH: Plus, conspiracy theories were pretty common at this time.

ARABLOUEI: Weren't the Founding Fathers all, like, Freemasons or something?

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, a lot of them were. And I'm sure you've heard of the Illuminati.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah, I mean, isn't Jay-Z in the Illuminati?

ABDELFATAH: I don't know. He might be. (Laughter).

WALKER: The historical Bavarian Illuminati, the actual organization that people are blaming for everything under the sun today, was founded in 1776.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: ...A long train of abuses...

WALKER: ...Two months before the Declaration of Independence.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: ...Pursuing invariably the same object...

WALKER: So you could say there is, you know, something in the air.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: ...To absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty...

ABDELFATAH: The thing that's really fascinating is that after the American Revolution was over, the conspiratorial mentality that had been directed at Britain was then redirected internally. Everyone became suspicious of everyone else. And some people, like Sam Adams, worried that any national government would produce a new dictator, a new threat to their God-given autonomy. In fact, Washington and the other Founding Fathers had to secretly meet to create the Constitution out of sight.

ELLIS: Without Washington, it's probable the American Revolution doesn't work, either in terms of independence or in terms of nationhood.

ABDELFATAH: Because Washington was the opposite of a dictator. He didn't want to be in power forever, and that allowed him to gain the trust of even the biggest cynics, like Sam Adams. So despite several actual conspiracies to derail the Constitution, Washington eventually managed to unite the states under one banner.

ARABLOUEI: This is a very paranoid way to start a country.

ABDELFATAH: Isn't it? Isn't it incredible how many conspiracy theories were at play in American politics right from the start?

ARABLOUEI: Yeah, I mean, if you go back to the original conspiracy theory that helped start it all, it seems like the taxes may have riled people up. But the theory that pushed people over the edge to actual revolt - like, it played on anxieties people were feeling.

ABDELFATAH: Exactly. You know, Ramtin, it kind of sounds like you're starting to come over onto my side.

ARABLOUEI: (Laughter).

ABDELFATAH: You're starting to be convinced.

ARABLOUEI: I mean, yeah, a little bit. I think it's fair to say that four score and seven years ago...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CASH: (As Abraham Lincoln) Four score and seven years ago...

ARABLOUEI: ...Our fathers conspired to break ties with the monarch because of a conspiracy theory. And then, amid a bunch of other conspiracy theories, a new nation was born.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: Part II, the chemists' war.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: Now we're in 1926. It's Christmas Eve in New York City, and the streets are buzzing with eager children and slightly tipsy adults. One especially drunk guy stumbles into the emergency room at Bellevue Hospital...

BLUM: Screaming that Santa Claus has chased him...

ABDELFATAH: All the way across the city...

BLUM: With a baseball bat.

(SOUNDBITE OF DISTORTED LAUGHTER)

ABDELFATAH: He's having a vivid hallucination.

BLUM: A poisoned alcohol hallucination.

ABDELFATAH: By morning, the man is pronounced dead. And then more and more people start dropping dead across New York City.

BLUM: About 60 deaths in two days.

ABDELFATAH: The pattern was the same. They'd have a few drinks, begin to hallucinate, and then they die.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: At this point, it's becoming clearer and clearer that this is no coincidence. Somebody was poisoning the alcohol.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: This definitely sounds like a conspiracy, but it's also like a whodunit because it's not clear to me yet.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah. I mean, the butler did it, Ramtin.

ARABLOUEI: Oh, come on.

ABDELFATAH: That's it. Case closed.

ARABLOUEI: Come on.

ABDELFATAH: Are you satisfied?

ARABLOUEI: No. Tell me who did it.

ABDELFATAH: I'm not going to tell you who did it - OK? - not yet. First of all, you got to understand the era in which this was all happening.

ARABLOUEI: The 1920s - right? - like, Prohibition era. So alcohol was supposed to be off-limits.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, it was technically illegal, thanks to the 18th Amendment.

BLUM: Which was ratified nationally to ban this trafficking in alcohol.

ABDELFATAH: By the way, this is Deborah Blum.

BLUM: I'm the author of "The Poisoner's Handbook" and "The Poison Squad."

ABDELFATAH: And she walked me through this story. So the government banned the production and sale of alcohol throughout the country in 1920 to...

BLUM: To try to get Americans to behave, which is how they saw it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Bars lined with the boys and bums spending their money, debauching their characters, robbing (ph) their bodies and jeopardizing their immortal souls.

ABDELFATAH: But that didn't mean people stopped drinking altogether because pretty quickly, some people started making alcohol at home and selling it - sort of mom and pop shops for illegal alcohol.

ARABLOUEI: So you're talking about moonshine.

ABDELFATAH: Exactly, and this made a lot of scientists really nervous.

BLUM: Because it's very difficult to avoid making poisonous forms of alcohol.

ABDELFATAH: If the chemistry is off even a little bit, instead of ending up with ethanol, the stuff that's in beer and wine...

BLUM: Then you get what's called methyl alcohol, and that's really poisonous.

ABDELFATAH: It's also known as methanol, and it's basically ethanol's deadly twin. They look and taste pretty similar, but one can kill you, which means you could drink the wrong kind of alcohol and not know it until it's too late.

ARABLOUEI: And I bet a lot of people didn't realize that.

BLUM: Lots of people don't know that, and they poisoned themselves.

ARABLOUEI: Wait, are you telling me this is the big reveal - that those people in New York City on Christmas Eve or whatever poisoned themselves?

ABDELFATAH: No, no, no. We haven't gotten to that part yet. This is just the beginning. See, pretty quickly, an alternative to this poisonous homemade alcohol appeared - the underground world of bootleggers. And they knew how to throw a party.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: First rule of a Prohibition party, don't talk about a Prohibition party.

ARABLOUEI: Come on. That's from "Fight Club."

ABDELFATAH: Second rule.

BLUM: Everyone knew this.

ABDELFATAH: Find a good supplier who could keep quiet.

BLUM: You really needed to know your moonshiner.

ABDELFATAH: And rule No. 3, if the cops come, you run. And there were a lot of cops.

BLUM: Lots of undercover officers trying to find your backyard still and smash it into pieces.

ABDELFATAH: But people still managed to find a way.

BLUM: In New York City, for instance, there were 30,000 illegal speak-easies formed.

ARABLOUEI: Thirty-thousand secret bars - how did the cops miss that?

ABDELFATAH: I guess people were really determined.

BLUM: People really resented the government telling them that they could not do this.

ARABLOUEI: But the bootleggers would've needed a lot of alcohol. So where did they get it?

ABDELFATAH: They just stole it, specifically industrial alcohol - the stuff used in things like cleaners or perfumes.

BLUM: They'd hijack trucks, or they'd go to factories, or they'd pay factory workers, you know, to siphon off X percentage. And because these factories are all across the country because everyone needs industrial alcohol, they're able to just, you know, steal a huge amount of this.

ABDELFATAH: Now, the thing that makes industrial alcohol different from, like, the alcohol you drink is that the government requires that certain contaminants be added to the alcohol.

BLUM: So that it's not drinkable.

ARABLOUEI: The clues seem like they're pointing to the bootleggers at this point.

ABDELFATAH: You'd think so, but the bootleggers were really clever. They hired chemists to remove those contaminants from the industrial alcohol so people could drink it.

BLUM: By about the middle of the 1920s, you see the government starting to say, no matter what we do, no matter how many stills we break, no matter how many people we arrest...

ABDELFATAH: Our tactics are not working.

BLUM: What's our next step of enforcement?

ABDELFATAH: We need a new plan. So at this point the government decided to declare war on the bootleggers.

BLUM: People would later call it a chemists' war because it was essentially a tactical war between government chemists and bootlegger chemists.

ABDELFATAH: On one side of this chemists' war, the government was trying to use chemistry to enforce prohibition, and on the other were bootleggers.

BLUM: Using chemistry to try to undo that enforcement.

ARABLOUEI: I get that in theory. But what does it actually look like in practice?

ABDELFATAH: So the government began to publicly announce its mission to add more poisonous contaminants to industrial alcohol, specifically methanol - which, remember, is ethanol's deadly twin.

ARABLOUEI: Announced how?

BLUM: They actually at one point had a press conference where they invited journalists so they could demonstrate these different formulas - right? - in an effort to say to people, don't drink this because it's going to contain very dangerous things that could kill you.

ARABLOUEI: That's bizarre because the government's basically publicly admitting that they're contaminating the alcohol, and that's going to make people sick.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, hoping it would deter people from drinking.

ARABLOUEI: Did it work?

ABDELFATAH: No, the bootleggers kept selling the alcohol, and people kept buying it. I mean, yeah, it might make them a little sick. But overall, it was worth it. The thing is, each new formula the government rolled out was more and more toxic, more and more likely to kill you. And sure enough...

BLUM: That's where you start seeing people die.

ABDELFATAH: Suddenly people all throughout the country began getting really sick and, in a lot of cases, dying.

ARABLOUEI: So it was the government all along?

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, mystery solved. By some estimates, at least 10,000 people died from alcohol that was intentionally poisoned by the U.S. government.

BLUM: I had a moment where I thought, well, why does this feel like such a secret, right? Why didn't I know about this?

ARABLOUEI: If so many people died, how could this not be common knowledge? It seems unbelievable. Like, how is it possible we haven't heard about this?

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, it seems made up, you know? But, like, the government didn't even try to cover it up, right? They were doing this in plain sight because the way they saw it, those people shouldn't have been drinking in the first place.

ARABLOUEI: Man, yeah.

ABDELFATAH: I think it was largely forgotten because after Prohibition ended, people just moved on. And it fell by the wayside.

BLUM: Why do people believe in conspiracy theories? Because of things like this - because of the real conspiracies that were, in fact, people in power plotting and anticipating and accepting harm to people without power.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: Since then there have been plenty of other government health conspiracy theories about, for example, the CIA inventing crack cocaine.

ARABLOUEI: That's not true.

ABDELFATAH: No, it's not.

ARABLOUEI: OK.

ABDELFATAH: Or a federally funded forced sterilization campaign.

ARABLOUEI: True?

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, unfortunately.

ARABLOUEI: Wow.

ABDELFATAH: The Flint water crisis, AIDS, the list goes on. It's a mixed bag - some theories proving to be true, others totally false. But the combined result of all of them is a lot more skepticism towards the government and a willingness to believe the conspiracy theories in the first place.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah.

ABDELFATAH: And what happens in the next era we're about to jump to blows the conspiracy theory floodgates wide open.

ARABLOUEI: I don't know what to think anymore.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, I know.

ARABLOUEI: My whole world's shattered.

ABDELFATAH: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: Part III, the things left out.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Wayside, wayside, this is the situation room. I read from the AP bulletin...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: There is a bulletin from CBS News. In Dallas, Texas, three shots were fired at President Kennedy's motorcade...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The president and the governor were rushed to Parkland Hospital near the Dallas Trademark, where Kennedy was to have made a speech. Over.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: From Dallas, Texas, the flash apparently official, President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time.

ABDELFATAH: On November 22nd, 1963, the 35th president of the United States, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated. The now-famous photos of him slumped over in the car, with Jackie Kennedy to his left frantically reaching towards the back of the car, are haunting. Within hours, police had a suspect in custody, Lee Harvey Oswald.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEE HARVEY OSWALD: I really don't know what the situation is about. Nobody has told me anything except that I am accused of murdering a policeman.

KATHRYN OLMSTED: And the fact that the government immediately identified a 24-year-old loser as the gunman made it somehow seem like that couldn't possibly be the answer, that Oswald was not nearly important enough to have killed Kennedy.

ABDELFATAH: That there must be some other, more sinister connections still out there that hadn't been found yet.

OLMSTED: So I think that really was a shattering event for Americans who lived through that. And it did materially increase a lot of conspiracy thinking.

ABDELFATAH: This is Kathryn Olmsted. She's a professor of history...

OLMSTED: ...At the University of California, Davis.

ABDELFATAH: So almost immediately after Oswald was arrested, conspiracy theories began popping up left and right.

ARABLOUEI: That makes sense to me because you'd need some kind of shocking explanation to explain the shocking event.

ABDELFATAH: And the assassination - which, remember, happened in 1963 - really sets the tone for this whole era because as the decade goes on, more and more things happen that further erode people's faith in the government and pushes the paranoia to a whole new level.

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UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: And with the most deadly of all weapons available to the Russians...

ABDELFATAH: The country was reeling from the Red Scare.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: That the United States will maintain its interests...

ABDELFATAH: The Vietnam War was ramping up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: ...And its presence in your country.

ABDELFATAH: And anti-government protests were regularly making the headlines, not to mention all the civil rights protests happening in cities across the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Singing, unintelligible).

ABDELFATAH: Plus, JFK's assassination was one of several during this decade.

WALKER: You had four big assassinations in the '60s.

ABDELFATAH: Again, Jesse Walker.

WALKER: JFK in '63, Malcolm X in 1965.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I saw Malcolm had his hand up. He had said - he said, stay cool...

WALKER: And then both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy in 1968.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

ROBERT F. KENNEDY: All of our fellow citizens...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Senator Robert Francis Kennedy...

KENNEDY: People who love peace all over the world...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Died at 1:44...

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ARABLOUEI: Dude, this was a really intense time in American history.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, so much was going on. And naturally, people had a lot of questions. But the government, at least, wasn't providing too many answers.

OLMSTED: Which led to more left-wing conspiracy theories but also a great deal of fear on the part of conservatives that those movements were really challenging some of the pillars of American identity.

WALKER: There was constant conspiracy theorizing in the halls of power about what was behind, you know, the riots, what was behind the counterculture.

ABDELFATAH: So basically the conspiracy theorists stepped in to fill the information vacuum. Some were really serious. There were the political conspiracy theorists, the people blaming communism for everything. And then there were the more imaginative ones.

ARABLOUEI: Please tell me they involve aliens.

ABDELFATAH: (Laughter). Weirdly, a lot of them did.

ARABLOUEI: Yes.

ABDELFATAH: Aliens, intergalactic orders, all that.

ARABLOUEI: I love alien conspiracy theories. That's seriously my favorite.

ABDELFATAH: I feel like I'm not surprised at all. Like...

ARABLOUEI: Yeah, it's so fun to imagine.

ABDELFATAH: You would be an alien conspiracy theorist.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah, of course.

ABDELFATAH: You believe in, like, Area 51 and all that?

ARABLOUEI: I believe we're not being told something.

ABDELFATAH: (Laughter) All right.

ARABLOUEI: Absolutely.

ABDELFATAH: We'll talk about that later. Anyway, some people took a third approach somewhere in between the first two.

PAUL KRASSNER: My name is Paul Krassner. And I am a weird guy who just got lucky to always say what I felt. And I had no one to answer to.

WALKER: So Paul Krassner is a satirist and standup comedian and journalist. He has done straight journalism. And he started his own magazine called The Realist.

KRASSNER: Started in 1958.

WALKER: Sort of like a place for interviews and commentary and so on.

ABDELFATAH: Krassner is considered one of the pioneers of American satire.

WALKER: And one of his sort of innovations was he didn't label which were the actual journalistic articles and which were the satires.

KRASSNER: People don't know what's true or not true.

ARABLOUEI: It kind of sounds like The Onion.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, sort of - If The Onion sometimes printed real news stories too. Like, imagine how confusing it would be if The Onion mixed in made-up stories with true stories? Do you think you'd always be able to tell the difference?

ARABLOUEI: No.

WALKER: I mean, it's sort of the same way that disinformation works. Only he was doing disinformation as satire.

KRASSNER: Oh, well, yeah, in a certain sense, satire was fake news.

ARABLOUEI: Fake news - so he's saying this about his own work.

ABDELFATAH: Hindsight is 20/20, right?

ARABLOUEI: But I don't understand why he did it, right? Like, was it just for fun?

ABDELFATAH: It's a good question. And I actually asked him a few times to really, like, try to understand. And I think, yeah, it was partly for fun - sort of an entertaining social experiment. But he was also part of the countercultural movement of the '60s and liked the idea of sort of catching people off-guard and forcing them to think beyond the words in front of them.

Whether he intended it or not, a lot of Paul Krassner's stories - or he called them hoaxes, actually - ended up fueling conspiracy theories during this era because, like any good conspiracy theories, his hoaxes had that crucial mix of truth and lies that we've been talking about.

ARABLOUEI: So what was his, like, famous signature hoax?

WALKER: His most infamous hoax of the '60s - and, I would say, ever - was a piece he did in 1967 called "The Parts That Were Left Out Of The Kennedy Book."

ABDELFATAH: The article claimed to have details about Kennedy's life and death that had never been told before, the parts that were left out. And it opens with a true story about JFK and his VP at the time, who later became president, Lyndon B. Johnson.

WALKER: Then he moves on to some stuff that's known but hasn't been reported, Kennedy's infidelities.

ABDELFATAH: Probably the best-kept secret among American journalists at the time.

ARABLOUEI: OK, so so far everything in the article sounds true.

ABDELFATAH: Right.

WALKER: And then he starts making things up that are steadily less credible. And of course there's the infamous climax of the - of the article.

ABDELFATAH: That probably wasn't the best choice of words considering what you're about to hear.

WALKER: Somebody catches LBJ in an act of necrophilia with the wound in John F. Kennedy.

ARABLOUEI: What did I just hear?

ABDELFATAH: (Laughter).

ARABLOUEI: Is - wait a minute. Wait a minute.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, why don't you process that?

ARABLOUEI: Is he saying that LBJ...

ABDELFATAH: (Laughter).

ARABLOUEI: ...Had relations with JFK's gunshot wound?

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, it's a gross...

ARABLOUEI: Oh, my God.

ABDELFATAH: I know it sounds insane. And for the record, it is insane because it's 100 percent untrue. LBJ did not do unseemly things to JFK's dead body. But when this article was printed in 1967, a lot of people actually believed this story...

ARABLOUEI: What?

ABDELFATAH: ...At least for a short time.

ARABLOUEI: Rund, this is unbelievable.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah. But people will believe something outrageous if it supports how they already feel about something. And people did not like LBJ very much.

KRASSNER: Exactly. And so it was a seduction.

ARABLOUEI: Daniel Ellsberg, the famous leaker - when he met Krassner, he said...

KRASSNER: Told me that he believed it because he wanted to.

ARABLOUEI: Because, you know, a lot of people hated Lyndon Johnson.

ABDELFATAH: Johnson was disliked by a wide range of Americans. It was a really divisive time, and he was a really divisive figure.

Daniel Ellsberg, by the way, would go on to expose one of the greatest real conspiracies of the 20th century. In 1971, he leaked the Pentagon Papers, which revealed that the Johnson administration had repeatedly lied to Congress and the public during the Vietnam War. So it's fair to say that Ellsberg had always been pretty suspicious of Johnson, more inclined to believe conspiracy theories about him.

Eventually, though, most people did realize the article was a hoax, and Krassner continued to publish more hoaxes for years to come.

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ABDELFATAH: This whole era of conspiracy theories culminated with a government investigation in the mid-1970s that tried to get to the bottom of a lot of questions that, up until then, the conspiracy theorists had been making up answers to. It was called the Church Committee.

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FRANK CHURCH: We have a particular obligation to examine the NSA in light of its tremendous potential for abuse.

WALKER: This was one of the big congressional investigations of the mid-1970s. In this case, Senator Frank Church had a committee that just looked at all sorts of...

OLMSTED: Secret government activities.

WALKER: At the FBI, at the CIA, at the IRS. I believe the NSA was in there.

OLMSTED: That resulted in lots of authoritative government reports about real government conspiracy.

WALKER: Things like...

OLMSTED: The FBI was systematically spying on and harassing Martin Luther King for years.

WALKER: ...The CIA, as part of experiments in trying to find a mind-control drug, secretly dosing people with LSD without telling them about it. Or when you're, you know, finding out about...

OLMSTED: The CIA infiltrating anti-war groups and women's liberation groups even though it's not supposed to operate in the United States.

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ARABLOUEI: This is like "X-Files." It reminds me of that, honestly.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah, yeah.

ARABLOUEI: It's weird stuff. Like, shocking stuff. And it seems to me that it would confirm a lot of what people were already having suspicions about. And clearly, that's going to add fuel to all the conspiracy theories floating around.

ABDELFATAH: It makes an already disorienting era even more disorienting. Like, if the government is capable of all this, it's really natural to think, you know, what else are they capable of?

WALKER: Clearly, these things make it easier for people to imagine further things. And that's just as true in the '20s or today as it is in the '70s.

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ABDELFATAH: So Ramtin, have I convinced you? Are conspiracy theories as American as apple pie?

ARABLOUEI: Oh, man. As much as it pains me to admit this, Rund, because I...

ABDELFATAH: Oh, please do.

ARABLOUEI: You know I don't want to give you the pleasure of knowing that, yes, I'm actually very convinced because I...

ABDELFATAH: Good.

ARABLOUEI: One of the things that I didn't realize is just how far back conspiracy theories go - all the way to founding the country - and how deep they were in the thoughts of those people.

ABDELFATAH: I mean, part of me thinks, yeah, the story is so American, and that's partly why it stayed with us - this conspiratorial sort of thinking.

ARABLOUEI: Yeah.

ABDELFATAH: But it's also very human, right? I mean, it's the way that people all over the place make order out of chaos and...

ARABLOUEI: Right.

ABDELFATAH: ...You know, process the world. And I don't see that need going away anytime soon. I think the reason it seems worse today, like we're in some kind of golden age of conspiracy theories, is because of the Internet. That's the real game changer, right?

ARABLOUEI: Yeah.

ABDELFATAH: Because imagine someone like Sam Adams using the Internet to spread his ideas. Like, he could've been another Alex Jones.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: That's it for this week's show. I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei. And you've been listening to THROUGHLINE.

ABDELFATAH: This show was produced by me and Ramtin.

ARABLOUEI: Our team includes...

JAMIE YORK, BYLINE: Jamie York.

JORDANA HOCHMAN, BYLINE: Jordana Hochman.

LAWRENCE WU, BYLINE: Lawrence Wu.

NOOR WAZWAZ, BYLINE: Noor Wazwaz.

MICHELLE LANZ, BYLINE: Yo, yo, yo. It's Michelle Lanz. (Singing) Say my name, say my name.

N'JERI EATON, BYLINE: N'jeri Eaton.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks also to Anya Grundmann.

ABDELFATAH: Chris Turpin.

ARABLOUEI: Ron Elving.

ABDELFATAH: Darian Woods.

ARABLOUEI: And Ayda Pourasad.

ABDELFATAH: And I want to give a special shoutout to the members of Drop Electric, who make the music for our episodes every single week, Anya Mizani, Neel Singh, Navid Marvi, Sho Fujiwara and, of course, Ramtin Arablouei.

ARABLOUEI: And let's keep the conversation going. If you have an idea or thoughts on the episode, hit us up on Twitter, @throughlineNPR, or send us an email to throughline@npr.org.

ABDELFATAH: If you like the show, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts.

ARABLOUEI: And tell all your friends to subscribe.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks for listening.

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