Column No. 106 By Steven Jonas, MD, MPH -  May 18, 2006

In his New York Times column of May 4, 2006, “The Paranoid Style,” David Brooks let loose a strong critique of Kevin Phillips, author of American Theocracy: Tying Religion and Politics to an Impending U.S. Decline.  He accused Phillips of engaging in “conspiracy theorizing” focused on the Republican Right and Republican Administrations, in both the foreign and domestic policy arenas.  “When the left feels disinherited, liberals seize upon the conspiracy fantasies of Kevin Phillips” he said. “Conspiracy theory” is a charge that the Republican Right just loves to trot out whenever they are faced with analyses by their critics that a) lay bare various plots and plans they have engaged in about which they have not been, shall we say, fully forthcoming, and b) for which they have little to respond with in dealing with the substance of the critiques.

As Paul Krugman pointed out in his New York Times column of May 8, 2006, “Some people say that bizarre conspiracy theories play a disturbingly large role in current American political discourse. And they're right. For example, many conservative politicians and pundits seem to agree with James Inhofe, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, who has declared that ‘man-made global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.’“

Krugman went on: “For the last few years, the term ‘conspiracy theory’ has been used primarily to belittle critics of the Bush administration — in particular, anyone suggesting that the Bush administration used 9/11 as and excuse to fight an unrelated war in Iraq. . . . The truth is that many of the people who throw around terms like ‘loopy conspiracy theories’ are lazy bullies who, as Zachary Roth put it on CJR Daily, The Columbia Journalism Review's Web site, want to ‘confer instant illegitimacy on any argument with which they disagree.’ Instead of facing up to hard questions, they try to suggest that anyone who asks those questions is crazy.”

Brooks falls into this latter category, and like all of the right-wing scriveners who use the term, fails to define it. Krugman cites the Wikipedia which defines “conspiracy theories” as “attempts to explain the cause of an event as a secret, and often deceptive, plot by a covert alliance.” One can also note that from its Latin root the word “conspiracy” means literally (and simply) “with a secret.” In English usage, it refers to a secret plan, developed and implemented by a secret group.  Further, if and when the desired outcome is achieved, the secret plan always includes a basis for claiming that that outcome is not the result of any conspiracy.  Public deniability is an absolutely essential element of such efforts.  In this light, let us consider some foreign policy actions undertaken by Republican administrations since the 1950s.

In 1953 the government of the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh, was overthrown in a coup secretly organized by Theodore Roosevelt’s son Kermit, working for the CIA.  The coup was claimed to be indigenous at the time. The formerly pro-Nazi Shah was re-installed on his throne and an essentially fascist regime was established.  The secret U.S. involvement couldn’t possibly be termed a conspiracy, could it?

In 1954, the French Indo-Chinese War was brought to a peaceful end by the Geneva Agreement, guaranteed by Great Britain and the Soviet Union.  The U.S. was not a party to it.  Under the agreement the nation was temporarily divided into two parts, North and South (Pres. Reagan to the contrary notwithstanding, this was an entirely artificial creation that had no roots anywhere in Indo-Chinese history). A national election was to be held by 1956.  It was widely assumed by all parties that the Vietnamese Communist leader, Ho Chi Minh, would be elected president. Secretly, the Eisenhower Administration, with the Dulles brothers, Allen at the CIA and John Foster at State, encouraged the temporary government in the South to cause the election plan to be aborted.  (That kind of abortion, the Republican Right likes.) That they were never held, lead directly to the U.S.-Vietnam War.  The U.S. always officially denied that any such interference in Vietnamese domestic affairs ever took place. The U.S. role in all of this could not possibly be termed a conspiracy, could it?

In 1954, the democratically elected government of Guatemala’s Pres. Jacopo Arbenz was overthrown by a military coup secretly organized by the CIA (another Allen Dulles “triumph”), although it was claimed to be indigenous at the time.  The secret U.S. involvement couldn’t possibly be termed a conspiracy, could it?

In 1973, the democratically elected government of President Salvadore Allende of Chile was overthrown in a military coup secretly organized by the U.S., under the leadership of the then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Richard Helms, Director of the CIA. At the time, any and all U.S. participation was denied, even though Kissinger had started a secret anti-Allende campaign even before he took office in 1970.  The secret U.S. involvement couldn’t possibly be termed a conspiracy, could it?

In 1984, The Reagan Administration secretly began organizing an armed opposition aimed at overthrowing the left-wing government of Nicaragua that had taken power following the overthrow of the widely detested dictator, Anastasio Somoza Debayle.  Since any such support was prohibited by U.S. law, Reagan’s boy Ollie North secretly arranged to sell arms for Iran (at the time on the State Department’s own “any-contacts-prohibition” list) in order to raise money “off-the-books” to support the so-called “Contras.”   The “Iran-Contra” deal and its spawn couldn’t possibly be termed a conspiracy, could it?

The Georgite invasion of Iraq cannot be properly called a conspiracy for it was based upon a not-so-secret plan for Middle East dominance and petroleum-supply security drawn up by Project for the New American Century in the mid-1990s.  However, it was nevertheless not acknowledged as having anything to do with the Iraq invasion, and certainly the highly sophisticated plans that were developed to mis-lead the American people as to the true reasons for the U.S. do indeed constitute a conspiracy, by definition.  But according to Brooks, the fact that Administration knew it was lying couldn’t possibly be termed a conspiracy, now could it?

One must fairly point out that it has not been only Republican administrations that have engaged in secret foreign policy adventures that qualify under the definition above as conspiracies, but couldn’t possibly be either, just the product of “loopy left-wing imaginations.”  There was the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, planned under Eisenhower, but approved by John Kennedy.  There was the unannounced assemblage of an invasion fleet along the Southeast coast of the Untied States in the summer of 1962, presumably aimed at Cuba (although one cannot be sure; Grenada, perhaps?), the invasion plan (if there was one) subsequently aborted by the agreement that ended the Cuban Missile Crisis.  In 1962, the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic was overthrown, and he was replaced by a democratically elected President, Juan Bosch, a moderate left-winger.  A military coup unseated Bosch in 1963.  It was in turn over-turned in 1965.  But a second military coup, in that year, was secretly supported by Lyndon Johnson and was successful.  In 1964, Johnson secretly supported a military coup that overthrew the democratically elected President of Brazil, Joao Goulart.  According to Brooks, none of these plans hatched in secret, implemented at first in secret, with subsequent Administration denials of involvement in public, could possibly be defined as conspiracies.

From this review, surely are we forced to come to the same conclusion as David Brooks: “when the left feels disinherited, liberals seize upon the conspiracy fantasies of Kevin Phillips.” Aren’t we?  No, neither Republican nor Democratic administrations ever participate in foreign policy conspiracies, now do they?  No conspiracies there, not even under the bed.  These conspiracy theories are all just fantasies.  Aren’t they?  Let’s re-look at Mr. Phillips’ book in the light of the history briefly reviewed above, I say.  Go get ‘em, David Brooks.


This column is based in part on a column of mine that appeared on the webmagazine BuzzFlash (http://www.buzzflash.com) on May 8, 2006.