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This is backstory, and I'm Brian Ballot. This week in 1963, John F. Kennedy was murdered in Dallas. The official story is that his assassin acted alone. But 50 years later, speculation that there was a conspiracy at work is as strong as ever. When you see how often people in the CIA hid things from the Warren Commission, to me, it's very hard to believe that they did all of that to hide nothing. Today on the show, we're looking at conspiracies that have gripped the imaginations of previous generations, from secret societies that dominated local governments to a powerful cabal that preyed upon innocent young women. And they said, well, get off at this station, and I will show you some place. But of course, the someplace would end up being a brothel. A history of conspiracy thinking in America. Major funding for backstory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Virginia, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation,
and an anonymous donor. From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. This is backstory with the American History Guys. Welcome to the show. I'm Ed Ayers, and I'm here with Peter Onath. Ed. And Brian Ballot. Hey there. In 1864, a man named John Smith die, published a book called The Adders Den. It was something of a conspiracy theorist manifesto, and it centered on what 19th century Americans called the slave power. What die, a Northern Republican, meant by slave power, was this. A conspiracy of Southern slaveholders was controlling the entire U.S. government by blackmail and murder. So for example, in 1841 William Henry Harrison died. He was the first president to die in office.
This is Jesse Walker, author of a book on conspiracy thinking called The United States of paranoia. According to Die, this happened because he told John Calhoun that he wasn't sure he was willing to annex Texas, which the southerners wanted to add to the union as a slave state. And when he died of pneumonia right after that, Die says no, no, no, it was actually arsenic. That was 1841. Nine years later, another president died in office. That was Zachary Taylor. Like Harrison, Taylor was a wig. And like Harrison, Taylor resisted the expansion of slavery in the American Southwest. So, Die concluded it was only logical that Taylor, like Harrison before him, had been poisoned by the slave power. Now this account of the slave power's machinations got more elaborate from there. For instance, there was this description of the attempt on the life of President-elect James Buchanan. According to Die on February 23rd, 1857, agents of the slave power poisoned all the bulls containing lump sugar at the national hotel in Washington, D.C.
The idea here was that northerners drank tea while southerners drank coffee. People who drink tea, according to Die, use lump sugar, while people who drink coffee use pulverized sugar. So, by poisoning only the lump sugar, the slave power agents could wipe out the tea drinking northerners, including Buchanan while leaving the coffee drinking southerners unharmed. And so, when Buchanan drank the tea and then got very sick and barely survived, Die wrote that he was intimidated by the attempted assassination and, quote, became more than ever the tool of the slave power. That was the theory. In fact, Buchanan wasn't even in D.C. on the day of the alleged sugar attack, and there's no evidence that Harrison or Taylor were poisoned either.
But still, the Adders den was a huge hit. The New York Times gave it a good review. The Chicago Tribune excerpted it. Republican papers in a bunch of cities around Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York praised it, even the Eastern Express, which was a democratic paper in Pennsylvania, called it, quote, the most powerful book of this century. What was the appeal? Die's book had tapped a vein of thinking that was already widespread in the North. For decades, northerners had been speculating that the slave power had set its sights on the White House. When Lincoln took office as president, he received letters from ordinary citizens telling him, watch what you eat, watch what you drink. They poisoned Taylor, they poisoned Harrison, they could poison you too. General Harrison and Taylor came to their sudden and lamentable ends by subtle poisons. General Harrison lived for the short time after he was installed in office. General Taylor lived for the short time after he took his seat.
You, sir, be careful at the king's table what meat and drink you take. Although the facts and the letters were off, their warnings were prescient. Lincoln was ultimately assassinated and by a southern pro-slavery conspiracy. The plan was to restore the Confederacy by killing Lincoln and his successors, decapitating the federal government. After decades of conspiratorial thinking, a real conspiracy had finally come to fruition. This week marked the 50th anniversary of another presidential assassination that of President John F. Kennedy. In the years since 1963, Americans have struggled to understand what happened in Dallas that November day. The Warren Commission offered some answers the following year, but its official report hardly put the questions to rest. For decades, alternative accounts have been bandied about suggesting that there may be more to the story.
This year's anniversary triggered a new wave of books about the assassination. In recent polls report that something like two-thirds of Americans don't believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Why do these conspiracy theories continue to hold so much power 50 years later and what do they tell us about our own time? It's easy enough to dismiss these theories, but might there be something about conspiracy thinking that is deeply and fundamentally American? But first, let's return to that book by John Smith Die. We heard about a few minutes ago. The theories in that book, they strike me as incredibly wacky and I want to know why a book that was built around so many crackpot theories was so popular in the 1860s. Brian, great question. I look forward to digging into the slave power conspiracy.
But I'm curious about why the great concern about the presidency and about federal power. Peter, do you have any ideas? Passing the book again. Well, it begins with the American Revolution itself. You know, Americans thought that they had destroyed the whole idea of monarchy. They were free people. They established Republican governments, but it was the return of the repressed and the president became a kind of king figure. And you know what's important about this is that conspiracy thinking makes sense where you have one person exercising tremendous power. And that person surrounded by ministers and advisors and maybe with an agenda, a conspiratorial agenda, maybe they want to kill the king. Maybe they just want to turn him toward their own ends. And that's what Americans thought had happened with George III. Why would we have these taxation policies? Why would we have the systematic campaign to destroy American liberty? What's the explanation? We had been good in loyal subjects. There are things happening that are not transparent.
We don't see them happen, but we can see the results. So we begin with this great revolution against a conspiracy to destroy our liberties. And then we discover that we have emerging in our own midst, a power center that's vulnerable to capture by the slave power. And the slave power comes up in several different episodes, each of which lends greater credibility to its power. The first one is the war with Mexico in the 1840s, when it seems that southern slaveholders in a lust for new land are driving the United States despite the will of the White Northern majority into international war. And then right on the heels of that in 1850, the fugitive slave act, which is telling White Northerners that they have to be the deputies, the allies of slave catchers who are fanning into the North to bring back people who are putridly former slaves. And I think the pivotal moment is the Dred Scott decision of 1857 in which the Supreme Court hidden away in chambers like the English government.
It comes up with a ruling that tells White Northerners that it's the federal government that's going to determine who is and who is not a citizen, not the states the way that it had been. And the important thing is White Northerners are not concerned primarily and immediately about the slavery of the South. They're concerned now that the slave power reaches into the North and they will be the ultimate slaves. They will be in the control of the South. And that's precisely the kind of concern that drove the revolutionaries to break with the British Empire. And we've spent so much time in the 20th century worrying about Northern intervention into the South on civil rights and breaking up Jim Crow. It's just amazing for me to hear all these concerns about a slave power poking its nose where it shouldn't be well beyond slavery in the South into literally defining citizenship in Northern states declaring war on Mexico because of this cabal in the South. And you know what makes it so maddening to White Northerners is that their preponderance in the electoral numbers keep growing.
The North is getting bigger and bigger and the South still seems to be holding onto this undue power. This seems to me that a conspiracy might be at the heart of that, Brian. And I do think that gets to the essence of conspiracy. I'll go 20th century again. But those people who believed in Joe McCarthy in the 1950s, they were asking how could a nation so powerful as the United States who just developed the atomic bomb who had the only standing industrial base in the world after World War II. How could we be tied down to a third rate country in Korea? How could we lose China? How could this be? Well, there's only one explanation. It must be a conspiracy. It's time for a quick break. When we return, a shadowy trust that threatened to steal young women away in the early 1900s. You're listening to backstory and we'll be back in a minute.
We're back with backstory and I'm Peter Onough. I'm Ed Ayers and I'm Brian Vello. Today on the show, we're looking at the history of conspiracy thinking in America. And we're going to turn now to the story of a conspiracy that was so convincing it launched a political party. We'll begin on a small New York town in 1826. A man named William Morgan had teamed up with local printer David Miller to publish a scandalous new book. Morgan had been part of the secret society of the free masons and he planned to make money by publishing the order's secrets. Problem was, Morgan had taken a vow of secrecy and historian Ron Formosano says the masons wanted to make sure he kept that vow. Local masons tried to burn down David Miller's building with his printing press and they failed to do that. They arrested Morgan on a trumped up charge and then he was spirited by a whole relay of stage coaches.
Well over 100 miles from the Genesee River area near Rochester, New York to Niagara Falls and he was never seen again. He was presumed murdered and he probably was. Local papers began to report that Morgan had been abducted but law enforcement mostly made up of masons didn't act. Angry citizens asked the governor to intervene but he didn't. He too was a mason and mason run newspapers just denied the story altogether. They poo-pooed the story. They said, oh no this never happened. William Morgan's living happily in Turkey. Smirna Turkey for some reason that was their that was their favorite choice of where this fool had disappeared to. Citizens organized committees across Western New York to investigate the mysterious disappearance.
Some suspects were arrested but masonic judges and jury just let them go or gave them light sentences. Protesters were convinced that Morgan had been killed and the murder covered up by a masonic conspiracy and Ron Formizano says they probably weren't far off. There are those who think history is a conspiracy and they're nuts but there are conspiracies in history and this was a conspiracy. It was a conspiracy that hit a nerve in 1820s America. Start with the fact that mason was a secret fraternity so in a republic everything should be open in a democracy. Anything that secret is automatically suspect and then one gets involved in breaking the law and in the minds of many people this just confirmed their worst fears. Some people then went on to imagine dark deeds and satanic rituals.
To many Americans it seemed like a conspiracy at the very heart of the US government. For decades politicians at all levels tended to be part of the masons from founders like George Washington and Ben Franklin to the biggest politicians of the day like Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay. There was only one thing to do. Put non-masons in power. Protesters formed a new political party called the anti-masons and took over politics in Western New York. The party took up the mantle of progressive causes like abolition and spread the states across the North like Pennsylvania and Vermont, both of which elected anti-mason governors. But the anti-masons never dropped the old conspiracy story about William Morgan's murder in 1826. You have an anti-masonic convention in Maine in 1834 repeating the narrative of eight years before as if it happened yesterday. The anti-masons obsession with the William Morgan conspiracy might seem well a little irrational.
Why keep harping on one mysterious disappearance from one small town for years? But Farmers Honor says to understand the appeal of conspiracy thinking you have to understand its roots. The interesting thing about conspiracy thinking is that at least one historian has described it as an outgrowth of the rationalism of the enlightenment that conspiracy thinking actually replaced magical thinking. In other words, bad things don't happen because the hand of God. Bad things happen because of individuals making decisions. And in a way that's an empowering idea. If the root of political problems was not providential but bad people, conspiratorial people, well other people could also fix those problems. The anti-masons wanted to do just that. Save American democracy by exposing Masonic corruption, truth, and the facts became their rallying cry. All we need to do is get the facts out there in print and we will make converts. And they did. They made so many converts that Mason's had trouble recruiting.
Masonic lodges closed throughout the country which meant the threat of a conspiracy subsided. By the 1840s the anti-masons petered out. But these great reformers stuck around in other parties, becoming judges, senators, even president. Millard Fillmore got his start as an anti-mason. So did Lincoln Secretary of State and political confidant William Seward. So within a generation the young man who jumped into politics to root out a conspiracy of insiders became the ultimate insiders. Thanks to Ron for Masonic for helping tell that story. He's a professor of history at the University of Kentucky. Now to a story about another conspiracy that gripped the imaginations of Americans. This one takes place in the early 20th century. It was then that Americans began to worry that a nefarious international conspiracy was attacking its cities.
The idea was that a cabal of foreigners, usually Jews, were working with American pimps to kidnap young girls and force them into lives of prostitution. One hyperbolic American writer claimed that 70,000 young girls were sacrificed annually to the conspiracy's death and disease dealing machinery. Another explained a girl in the clutches of any one of them has practically no chance of escape since the agents of all of them are on the lookout. Their eyes are everywhere and upon every girl, no black hand, no secret organization of any kind is more silent and insidious or in the end more ruthless. Progressive reformers were especially worried about this white slavery conspiracy. They were convinced that red light districts and major cities were controlled by a shadowy vice trust with tentacles reaching from city brothels to the city council. In their minds, the vice trust not only threatened innocent American girls, it corrupted democracy itself.
In the years between 1909 and 1914, these anxieties inspired a whole genre of books and films. They had names like The House of Bondage and Traffic and Souls. Mara Kier is an historian at Oxford who's written about all of this. I asked her to walk me through the typical white slavery plot. Often times it was a story about a young girl going into the city taking a train starting conversation with a older woman or a man who was nicely dressed if a bit flashy, but she wasn't sophisticated enough to be concerned about the boot near in his lapel. She would say, well, where do I go? Where can I find a place to stay? And they said, well, get off at this station and I will show you someplace, but of course the someplace would end up being a brothel. And she would have her clothes taken away or maybe she would be seduced and then abandoned and sold to a madam who would then make her buy new clothes off in lingerie and say that for the room and for the clothes you are now indebted to me. And you have to work off this debt. And of course, I will tell you the way to work off this debt.
So tell me who was behind the white slavery trust in the popular imagination. So it was most obviously and most visibly the pimps and the madams and the dive keepers and they were considered to be horrible human beings. But in the progressive writings, even more horrible were the people who were hiding behind them who maintained a facade of respectability that they were the shadowy higher ups such as the landowners and the real estate agents. Or as you know, to go completely over the top as Chicago writer Robert Harland called the kimono trust who sold lingerie and exorbitant prices to keep the prostitutes indentured. But it was this idea that it's not just the people you can see doing the actions, it's the hidden people who are profiting from it that are the most guilty. Is there any truth to these fears about white slavery and this conspiracy behind it?
Well, I mean, truth is such a, I'm going to be such a cultural historian about it truth is such a sort of wishy washy or it's not wishy washy. I'm going to be wishy washy. I think the thing that's really important is that that people wanted it to be true. They didn't want to think that the labor markets were such that, you know, if a woman gets $7 a week working in a department store, she could get $7 a night working in a decent brothel or even a half decent brothel. And so, I mean, they didn't want to look at those economics and so a story of enslavement is much more appealing, I think, to middle class sensibilities. One thing that they were not accurate about was that it was not a trust that the market structure was very entrepreneurial. It was very diffuse. If a person owned a venue, whether male or female, they may be owned at most three venues.
It wasn't until the districts were closed down and until prohibition that in fact, vice went from being commercialized to being organized. And where do we get this conception of a vice trust from? If in fact, the actual situation was entrepreneurial, perhaps two or three brothels owned by people at the most. What is this idea of a vice trust come from? I think it was strategic. I think it was used to sort of rouse iron to make people upset, to want to change the ways in which the red light districts were working. Basically, Americans were concerned about business consolidation and they were concerned about how really big companies such as US Steel or such as Standard Oil could set any price they want for their products and could set any wages they wanted for their workers. So they saw this control by these very big organizations as essentially undemocratic.
So tell me about these reformers. What did they do in response to the vice trust, as you call it? Well, the most famous and the most notorious piece of legislation was the Man Act. And even now we hear about the Man Act of taking someone across state lines for immoral purposes, how say if some New York politician goes down to DC and has a prostitute go over state lines, they can be brought up on charges on the Man Act. This is coming out of this period and the Man Act was modeled on the Sherman Antitrust Act, which was to break up big combines of business. And it used the Commerce Clause within the Constitution, which said that the federal government had the right to regulate businesses that were multi-state. And so by framing the Man Act and framing the White Slavery Trade as something that was national and something that crossed state borders, it meant that it was within the purview of the federal government, not just the local police.
In other words, if there hadn't been a genuine belief that this was larger than local, that this was at least a national conspiracy, there would have been no basis for national legislation. Right. If part of the concern about White Slavery really had to do with American fears of business trusts and the size of business, did the end of White Slavery correspond with a kind of acceptance of big business and corporations? Do you see that parallel as well? No, I don't. It doesn't disappear. The fear of larger organizations doesn't disappear. But as the market for prostitution change, and particularly with prohibition and the growth of organized crime, it becomes a different set of concerns. And indeed, with prohibition and with organized crime, the worst fears of the progressive reformers happened.
I mean, one of the unintended consequences and one of the great ironies of all this vice trust rhetoric was that there was a change from an entrepreneurial structure, market structure, with small business owners, mom and pop shops, if you will, become run and owned by the mouthhia, by organized criminals, by the Torio Capone gang. So the ironies is that indeed, by closing down, by going so far in terms of prohibiting vice and prohibiting sort of immoral trades, reformers lost the control that things like licensing gave them. Mara Kier is a historian at Oxford University. Her book is for business and pleasure, red light districts, and the regulation of vice in the United States, 1890 to 1933. If you're just tuning in, this is backstory, and we're talking about the long history of conspiracy thinking in America.
So we got an interesting comment on a website, guys. Shane, who's a high school teacher writes, my students repeatedly fixate on the same few stories. Did FDR know about Pearl Harbor and let Japan attack on purpose? Is there really an area 51? Is there evidence of aliens? Was 9-11 carried out by the US government or with the knowledge of the US government? What's with the masons and the big eye and pyramid on our money? That must mean something sinister, right? What is interesting to me, he says, is that they're all about distrust of government, and yet they seem to have a strangely contradictory sense of government as both bumbling and all knowing. So Brian, a lot of this is 20th century. It seems to me that you might be able to help us get started on this. I do think that certainly since World War II, the government is seen as all knowing, no surprise there. This is when the CIA is created right after World War II.
After 9-11, this is when we create the Department of Homeland Security, we devote an extraordinary amount of resources in the government to knowing everything. And who could argue that the government is not bumbling? Because much of what Congress has done, certainly since the late 60s and mid-1970s, is reveal plots by the American government. Plots that failed, coups that were not successful. And I don't think it's surprising that exactly when the government begins a huge expansion from World War II onward, conspiracy theories become more and more focused on the government as opposed to other parts of society. But I wonder whether the government was the object of conspiratorial thinking back in the 19th and the 18th century Peter and Ed. Well, Brian, the federal government did not loom in my period.
It didn't even work. Government are us. That those were our people, itself government, that identification of the people with their government, that's democracy. The conspiracies were all against that self government because the whole world was rigged against us. That is all the kings, all the aristocrats, all the autocracies, the Catholic church, all these powerful institutions which are hierarchical and therefore anti-American, which could pull strings. That's the thing about the American government. You can't pull strings behind the scenes because it's us and because there is transparency, we can see what's happening. When you have great institutions like the Catholic church, when you have emerging institutions like the great banks, when you have the Rothschilds, when you have the Bank of England, when you have these powerful individuals who control great wealth and who are not responsible to us, then threats are coming from everywhere and anywhere except from us. The idea that the threats are from within, that's a very modern idea.
And precisely because the federal government has seen this so weak, it creates the conditions for all other kinds of conspiracy. Exactly right. Because there's nobody in charge. So if the Pope wants to come in and take over the country, who's going to stop him? And that's such a good point, Ed, because I know at the very beginning of the 20th century, many people would explain the rise of a more powerful national government as a way to deal with, in essence, a conspiracy by the trusts, by the large money interest to monopolize business in the United States, to control the railroads. And it's really only the government that can step in to counter. So it's in effect the recognition of danger, risk, vulnerability, conspiracies out there in the big world that requires the U.S. government to become like the things it fears, that we fear. So we've invented a national security state in order to protect our liberties, that, of course, and dangers our liberties.
It's time for another short break, but don't go all the way. When we get back, a journalist argues that getting to the bottom of the JFK assassination is still critical, 50 years later. You're listening to backstory, and we'll be back in a minute. This is backstory. I'm Brian Ballot. I'm Ed Ayers. And I'm Peter Onuf. We're marking the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination with a look at the history of conspiracy thinking in America. In the 1940s, researchers claimed they had found an effective weapon against tooth decay, especially in children. Their solution was simple. We just needed to add a little bit of fluoride to everybody's drinking water. Public health officials eagerly embraced the strategy, so eagerly, in fact, that some people began to worry. Why were those public health officials rushing? What's the rush to put this stuff in the water? Was this stuff even healthy?
After all, there were plenty of people who knew that fluoride could be toxic when it was taken in larger doses. So as the Cold War gathered steam, a few Americans started to ask some other very unsettling questions. You may recognize this scene from Stanley Kubrick's 1964 Dr. Strangelove. In the film, General Jack Ripper is certain that the Communists are behind a vast fluoride conspiracy. It's incredibly obvious, isn't it? The foreign substances introduced, you know, our precious bodily fluids, without the knowledge of the individual. Certainly without any choice. That's the way a hard core economy works. It sounds ridiculous, but Kubrick was satirizing a very real fear. Andrew Case is a historian at Michigan State's Lyman Briggs College. He told me that by the 1950s, anxieties about a communist conspiracy were helping to fuel a backlash against fluoride.
So in 1954, there's a bill that's introduced into Congress. It never really gets out of committee. And the proposal would have banned federal state and municipal authorities from introducing fluoride compounds into water. One of the women that testifies in that hearing is a woman named Golda Franson, who is a San Francisco housewife and also a leader of anti-fluoridation movements, not just in California, but in other places as well. And she really lays it out in this hearing when she says, quote, I know that fluoridation is a communist scheme. Frankly, the master plan, but I cannot prove it, for those who haven't formed me, cannot testify. They would be liquidated if they did. And another form of precious bodily fluid, liquidation, liquidation. But inside of that quote, it sort of captures lots of elements of conspiracy thinking. There's a master plan, but we also can't reveal the master plan.
And there's lots of forces at work, some of which you can see and many which you cannot. How did notions that communists were putting fluoride in the water fit with larger concerns about communism at the time? I think it's really the notion of mass medication, right? So something applied regardless of individual choice. And a lot of times fluoride compounds were added to public water supplies at the behest of a city council or local leadership without a popular referendum. And sort of experts from public health from universities, scientists would say this is a way to go about it because they would lose oftentimes when it went to popular referendum. The fact that the public health service and local officials were proceeding with fluoride ahead of public acceptance of fluoride leads it into this kind of realm of the state moving against the will of its people. And I think it's a slippery slope type thing. If it starts with this, where does it end?
Yeah, so how do we get from a referendum, where at least one argument is this is a communist plot, to Stanley Kubrick making fun of this in 1964 and Dr. Strangelove, what happens? Well, I think there's a lot of things that happen. It becomes dangerous in some ways to be to have these sorts of ideas about fluoride or about communism. And it literally becomes absurd, right? And that's what Kubrick is calling out is the absurdity of fluoride and liquid it could lead to, right? Ripper is driven mad by his obsession with fluoride enough to launch the doomsday plan, right? Right. And what could be more absurd than that than a man, you know, consumed by his own bodily fears and putting the world at risk as a result? Well, if I could just add Joe McCarthy, the famous anti-communist crusader turning on the U.S. Army kind of undermines whatever legitimacy he has and many argued at the time in the 1950s actually undermined America's ability to stand up to communism. Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.
So if I understand correctly, you're saying that conspiracy theory kind of put fluoride on the map or certainly got a lot of attention in the 1950s. And then associating fluoride with right wing cooks took it off the map. I think that's fair to say that by painting it in a corner, red painting it in the corner, perhaps it becomes the most absurd thing and you see a huge increase in the number of fluoride referendum and states pass mandatory fluoridation laws. I think Connecticut is the first one in the early 1960s. And over the course of the 1960s and 1970s, the percentage of American water supplies that are fluoridated gradually increases over time. And yet I gather there were some concerns totally unrelated to communist conspiracy emerging in the mid to late 1960s about fluoride. Could you tell me about those? Yeah, so one of the things that I've I've tracked is what I call the naturalist anti-flordationist natural antis and these are folks that did not deny that fluoride was an important part of the body's health. They reject fluoride when it's artificially produced and artificially entered into our water supplies.
And one of the things that we see is, you know, people with more education and who are less sort of isolated from American political life begin to take on the anti-flordation stance in late 1960s or early 1970s. And they're responsive to this notion of choice that if I want fluoride in my body, I can have it. I shouldn't be applied broadly speaking to the entire population. Now, Andrew, you're talking about educated people now who are questioning fluoride. They couldn't possibly be susceptible to conspiracy thinking, could they? This is the thing is that there's a, you know, conspiracies have a way of running across the political spectrum. And a lot of ways if you swap out the communist lingo that's very 1954 and look at the way it's, you know, described as a collusion of alkoa and the US public health service. Alkoa, I didn't see that coming. How does alkoa enter the picture? Yeah. So sodium fluoride is a, is a byproduct of aluminum production. So alkoa is also the one is selling the fluoride compounds to municipal water supplies.
It's really about them finding a profitable use for what would otherwise be a waste product. And it's worth mentioning that aluminum manufacturer, almost by definition, is a monopoly or oligopoly. Right? Alkoa, there aren't many alkoas out there competing with each other. Right. Right. And there's, I don't remember all of the details, but, you know, there's like a former alkoa executive who, you know, is on so and so committee. And, you know, the, the, the pieces all kind of fit together as always as you, as you would suspect. So the naturalist anti-fluoridation, a sea fluoride as part of a bigger organization of big businesses and big science that are trying to put this material in our water. And also continue to feed us certain types of food that if our teeth weren't fortified, would be really bad. So refine grains, sugars, all of that. So it can keep eating all the junk. Exactly. Exactly. And one of the riddles, of course, is, you know, why would the American Dental Association want to put something in your water that in theory means that we would go to the dentist less?
Right. Is is one of the riddles that is never really well answered. And the bigger story is is that, you know, fluoride really was a progressive public health idea in the 40s and the 50s about giving children regardless of their socioeconomic background, the access to good dental health. And that's what the progressive dentists of these states were really interested in the 1950s. Well, and I take those folks at their word that they weren't part of, of course, that's part of me being a part of a conspiracy and all of that sort of stuff of me defending, you know, I'm at a state university, part of a big land grant system. So that's of course what you'd expect somebody like me to say. Yes, it's exactly what I would expect. Andrew, thank you for joining us on backstory. And I want to remind all our listeners that under the Affordable Health Care Act, they will be able to keep their own fluoride. Absolutely, absolutely. And their tinfoil hats.
Andrew Case is an instructor in history at the Lyman Briggs College at Michigan State University. As of this year, an estimated 40,000 books have been written about the presidency of John F. Kennedy. We can be sure that a good percentage of them have at least addressed the question of Kennedy's assassination. But it was one film that has had arguably the largest impact on American's understanding of that day in Dallas. And that's the 1991 blockbuster, JFK. It portrayed a vast conspiracy to kill the president that involved the CIA, FBI, Mafia, and even White House players. In an attempt to address the public commotion that followed the film's release, Congress passed what's known as the JFK Records Act. It mandated the declassification of all government records relating to the assassination.
That really became the point at which I began to go to the National Archives and read systematically through the new material and try to understand what was the story that had not come out before. This is Jefferson Morley. At the time, he was working as a reporter for the Washington Post. Since then, he's become an assassination maven of sorts. I sat down with him to talk about what drew him to the story in the first place. By that time, I really sort of had a fear and loathing of theories. And I decided I would never write about JFK assassination theories, and I never have. But rather that I would always try and just report new facts. And so I decided to focus very narrowly on the CIA and a classic kind of investigative reporter's question. What did the CIA know about the Harvey Oswald and when did they know it? And in fact, what the records that I found showed is that the CIA had been watching the Harvey Oswald very closely for four years before President Kennedy was killed. From when he defected to the Soviet Union in October 1959 until he returned from Mexico City in October 1963.
And if it had been known in November 1963, just how closely senior CIA officers had been watching Oswald, a lot of people would have lost their jobs at the CIA. It was a remarkable intelligence failure by very high ranking CIA officials. And is that the big takeaway from your research, from your perspective, a massive intelligence failure or is there more? It's very hard to tell. Was there intelligence failure a matter of negligence or was it a matter of reckless disregard? And I think we don't have enough information to answer that question. A lot of CIA files have been destroyed. But there still are 1100 CIA documents related to the assassination that have never been made public. And so it's possible that in that material we will get some decisive new insights into the causes of the assassination. So let me ask you, who killed Kennedy?
You know, I don't know. And I get in trouble with my conspiracy-minded friends for saying that. You know what I say? There's a lot of implausible theories about who killed Kennedy. And the notion that one man killed Kennedy for no reason is one of them. I think it's more likely that Kennedy was killed by his enemies within his own government, which is something that Bobby and Jackie Kennedy thought, that's something that Fidel Castro thought. It's not an irrational or crazy way to look at it. And you know, if you had to put money on it, it's your bet that that is the case, that there was a conspiracy to kill Kennedy that came from within the government. I mean, I'm genuinely not sure. But, you know, I lean that way. I think that's more than 50% likely. How much more over 50% varies from day to day? Sometimes I go up to 80 and sometimes I go down to 50.5%. So what makes you go up to 80?
I mean, when you see the official malfeasance that followed the assassination, when you see how often people in the CIA hid things from the Warren Commission, people in the FBI destroyed evidence. To me, it's very hard to believe that they did all of that to hide nothing. Yes. The counter-argument, people say, oh, Jeff, you know, they're secretive agencies, they were hiding the fact that they were embarrassed. Really? I think, you know, when people go to that lengths, when they risk, you know, destroying evidence, that's obstruction of justice. When people risk a felony, they're doing that to hide nothing important. As a reporter, I'm skeptical. Jeff, we are in the midst of a disastrous rollout of the Affordable Health Care Act. The government that would appear can't even build a website that works. My question about this has always been, how could a conspiracy from within the government be carried out so efficiently and then covered up so effectively, perfectly, you might say, for 50 years now? Well, I wouldn't say that it's been covered up perfectly because, after all, most people think that there was a conspiracy and they think that because of the evidence that they've seen about, you know, the government's handling of the investigation.
Jeff, I mean, you yourself really don't know what happened. When I say perfectly, I mean, if somebody like you can't tell me who killed Kennedy, then, well, nothing's perfect, but it seems pretty near perfect. Well, what we have is, we have a lot of evidence in front of us, and if you think of evidence as bricks in a wall and proof is the wall, you know, we don't have a wall of proof in the Kennedy assassination. But we do have these stacks of bricks, which tell us one Oswald was the object of close and constant attention to the people who were paying attention to him were not surveillance personnel. They were operations officers, and so their job was to mount covert operations and covert operations as one CIA man famously said our secret from inception to eternity. And along with that, it sounds like you are almost more concerned with the cover up that followed whatever reasons Kennedy was assassinated for than the assassination itself.
Yeah, I think that I mean, the cover up is what matters to us today. The intellectual authors of Kennedy's death, if there were any besides Oswald are all dead. So there's not going to be a criminal trial. One thing that's very striking about the Kennedy assassination is if you look at Americans confidence and government over time, it's very high from the end of World War II. And it begins to decline in about October 1964 when the Warren report is this is this is when it declines. That's exactly when you're absolutely right. And it goes down and it hasn't really recovered. And I think clearing the air, I think historical reconciliation around this would be a way of regaining confidence in our collective purpose. Jeff, thanks so much for joining us on backstory today. Glad to be here. Thank you. Jefferson morally moderates the website He's the author of our man in Mexico, Winston Scott, and the hidden history of the CIA.
That's going to do it for us today, but we'll be waiting for you online. Pay us and visit a backstory and let us know what conspiracy theory best represents our current moment. As always, you can find a lot of other backstory extras on our Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr pages. Our handle is backstory radio. Don't be a stranger. Backstories produced by Tony Field, Jessica Bretson, Nina Ernest, and Andrew Parsons. Emily Charnock is our research and web coordinator and Jamal Milner is our engineer. Backstories executive producer is Andrew Wyndham. Major support for backstory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the University of Virginia, Weinstein Properties, and Anonymous Donor, and the History Channel, history made every day.
Brian Ballot is professor of history at the University of Virginia, Peter Onaf is professor of history emeritus at UVA, and senior research fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is president and professor of history at the University of Richmond. Backstories was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
Grassy Knolls: Conspiracy Thinking in American History
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On November 22nd, 1963, 50 years ago, President John F. Kennedy was killed while riding in a motorcade in Dallas - a tragedy that inspired conspiracy theories that persist to this day. Why have alternative assassination theories proven so resilient over the years? And why do other conspiracy theories persist in public memory? This episode takes a look at conspiracy thinking throughout American history, and finds a long tradition stretching all the way back to the Founding. From a political party formed to combat the secretive power of Freemasons, to whispers of a "slave power" conspiracy in the 19th Century, to an outcry over a criminal network fostering "white slavery" in the early 20th Century, and, of course, an abundance of Communist conspiracies during the Cold War - the Guys and their guests discover that while conspiracy theorists might sometimes be on the fringes of American society, conspiracy thinking has always been mainstream.
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Chicago: “BackStory; Grassy Knolls: Conspiracy Thinking in American History,” 2013-00-00, BackStory, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed July 25, 2024,
MLA: “BackStory; Grassy Knolls: Conspiracy Thinking in American History.” 2013-00-00. BackStory, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. July 25, 2024. <>.
APA: BackStory; Grassy Knolls: Conspiracy Thinking in American History. Boston, MA: BackStory, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from