“Trust no one.”  The landmark TV series The X-Files used that catchphrase in depicting a world riven with conspiracies that reach to the highest levels of the U.S. government.  Dana Scully and Fox Mulder, the fictional FBI agents who attempted to unravel these grand conspiracies, make the occasional appearance in Kathryn Olmsted’s Real Enemies.  Man has been plagued by secret plots since the serpent whispered to Eve in the Garden, but Real Enemies focuses on the period bounded by U.S. entry in the Great War and the Iraq war.

These years abound with genuine conspiracies, while the latter decades coincide with a revolution in public attitudes toward government and other institutions whereby the American public became more suspicious of powerful people in high places.  When President Kennedy’s motorcade entered Dealey Plaza in November 1963, most Americans  trusted the government most of the time.  By the time Richard Nixon left the White House in August 1974, that trust had declined precipitously.  Although cranks and paranoids imagined far more conspiracies than they could actually prove, Real Enemies illuminates numerous instances where “trust no one” is shown to be apt.

John F. Kennedy’s assassination represents the non plus ultra of 20th-century conspiracy theories.  Suspected conspirators included the military, the CIA, Lyndon Johnson, Fidel Castro and the Mafia, to name but a few.  Olmsted notes the emergence in these times of amateur assassination sleuths who distrusted the official version promulgated by the Warren Commission.  In fact, the purpose of that body was not to discover the truth behind significant events, but to ratify the official version of them.  President Johnson worried that the discovery of Cuban or Soviet involvement in Kennedy’s murder could lead to war and related his concern to Chief Justice Warren:

the American people and the world have got to know who killed Kennedy and why, and somebody’s got to evaluate that report.  And if they don’t, why, [if] Khrushchev moved on us, he could kill 39 million in an hour.

Olmsted argues that the various cover-ups relating to the Kennedy assassination had the unintended consequence of reducing the public’s confidence in government and inspired independent investigations.  The most famous of these was by New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison, who was joined by such amateurs as Shirley Martin, an Oklahoma housewife and mother of four who began her own investigation before the Warren Commission was seated, and Sylvia Meagher, who believed that Kennedy was killed for having opposed the military-industrial complex.  Meagher spent six months compiling an index to the Warren Report.  While her efforts greatly helped other amateur investigators, Olmsted notes a problem with Meagher’s pet theory.

Ironically, Kennedy had been the ultimate cold warrior, the candidate who mendaciously flogged the Republicans for allowing a “missile gap” to develop during Eisenhower’s administration.  His murderous anti-Castro policies might have provoked Oswald to act.

Suspicions of presidential machinations and back-room maneuvering have accompanied most major wars fought by the United States in the last century.  During World War I a repressive, nationalistic atmosphere descended upon the country.  A few years after the Allies’ dubious victory, however, Americans started to question the war.  Investigations held during the 1930’s focused on munitions makers, the so-called Merchants of Death, and on the banks, in particular the House of Morgan, which had made loans to Great Britain.  The Senate Munitions Committee, chaired by Gerald Nye, the populist Republican from North Dakota, met between 1934 and 1936.  While unable to uncover a conspiracy on the part of bankers or munitions makers, the committee did expose the lies that Wilson had told alleging America’s ignorance of Allied war aims before he took the country to war in 1917.  This revelation sparked criticism from Democratic politicians and journalists such as Arthur Krock, who effused that “there are lies forced upon statesmen by patriotic duty . . . which are writ in letters of gold in the books of the Recording Angel.”  President Franklin Roosevelt, Olmsted claims, lost interest in the committee’s work when “it stopped attacking the Du Ponts and began championing open government and limiting executive power.”

The Nye Committee’s work led to legislation banning Americans from lending money or selling arms to countries at war, yet it failed to keep us out of the next major armed conflict.  After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, U.S. entry into World War II was inevitable, leading Gen. Robert Wood to tell his fellow anti-interventionist, Charles Lindbergh, that FDR brought the country into war “through the back door.”  The questions arising from the attack made Pearl Harbor Ground Zero for conspiracy theories.  Though FDR had bragged of having kept American boys out of a European war, he strongly favored Great Britain and made provocative gestures toward both Japan and Germany.  Using a decoding breakthrough known as Magic, Army cryptographers had cracked the Japanese diplomatic code in 1940.  Thus, the government was aware of Japanese intentions in the autumn of 1941, while lacking information to indicate where or when Japan would strike.  After the attack, the Roosevelt administration moved to fix blame on the military commanders at Pearl Harbor, Adm. Husband Kimmel and Lt. Gen. Walter Short.  The presidential commission, headed by Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts, was charged only with examining military failures and promptly fingered the Army and Navy commanders in Hawaii.  In time, however, national unity weakened, and the Roosevelt administration released the results of the Army and Navy investigations, which placed much of the blame on Washington.  After FDR’s passing, John T. Flynn published explosive revelations about the Magic decrypts in Robert McCormick’s Chicago Tribune.  While Flynn did not accuse the late president of knowing where and when the Japanese would attack, his revelations nevertheless forced a congressional probe from which no hard evidence emerged to prove what Flynn suspected—that FDR deliberately left Pearl Harbor unprepared for an attack that he knew was coming.

In the early 1970’s, in the wake of the “third-rate burglary” of Democratic headquarters at the Watergate Apartments in Washington, D.C., and Richard Nixon’s infamous paranoia, which caused him pointlessly to engage in spying and dirty tricks to prevail in an election that he won in a landslide, conspiracy theories proliferated.  When the President’s story unraveled and it became evident that, as Merle Haggard sang, Nixon had “lied to us all on TV,” the event marked a turning point in American politics.  And after Seymour Hersh’s article in the New York Times exposed abuses by the CIA, Olmsted writes, it was obvious that “Watergate had unlocked the door to the government’s closet; the congressional investigators would put all of its skeletons on public view.”

These skeletons were revealed by a Senate committee chaired by Sen. Frank Church of Idaho, whom Olm-sted describes as an idealistic politician with “an unshakable faith in the reality of national sin and the power of confession, and the possibility of redemption.”  The Church Committee heard numerous confessions of CIA domestic spying and international-assassination plots, and also of FBI attempts to harass the late Martin Luther King, Jr.  While he succeeded in exposing plenty of national sins, Church failed to restore public trust in the state, which never recovered to the level it enjoyed at its height in 1964.

Though most conspiracy theories are nonsense, Real Enemies demonstrates that actors in and around American government have been engaged in conspiracies against the public interest for decades.  While the ultimate X-Files intrigue—shadowy figures plotting to help extraterrestrials colonize Earth—is far-fetched, Olmsted nevertheless quotes the advice dispensed by a character from the show: “No matter how paranoid you are, . . . you’re not paranoid enough.”


[Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11, by Kathryn S. Olmsted (New York: Oxford University Press) 320 pp., $29.95]