Book review: Stuff They Don’t Want You To Know – Conspiracy Theories That Won’t Go Away.
By David Southwell and Graeme Donald
Published by: Carlton Books
Publication date: 12 July 2018
Conspiracy theories are odd things.
At one extreme we have the people who believe that the Earth is flat or that the world is ran by a sinister cabal of malevolent lizards. Eccentric? Yes. But in many ways, not much more unlikely than what billions of religious people accept unquestioningly on a daily basis.
Less eccentric perhaps, but certainly ill-informed are those who believe the moon landings were faked. There were, of course, reported to have been seven manned moon landings. Granted, the moon landings may have been faked once. But why would anyone go to the trouble of faking them seven times?
It is a sad fact that twenty years after that supposedly great easily accessible resource of information, the internet came into our lives, such easily refutable theories are today, if anything, more prevalent than they were before.
But let us not get carried away. After all, in 1972, if I had alleged the US president and his administration were implementing a full-scale cover-up to suppress legal investigation into illegal break-ins authorised to discredit their political opponents, I could have been accused of peddling baseless conspiracy theories. However, as we now know: the claims would have turned out to be true.
The Iran-Contra scandal is another example of a real-life conspiracy. We should not let President Trump or anyone else convince us that the existence of a few flat Earthers mean that there are no real conspiracies at all. We should not let any such scepticism divert us from perusing perfectly legitimate lines of enquiry, such as establishing the truth behind Trump’s dubious Russian connections. Conspiracies do happen in real life, after all. Not always, but sometimes.
This book does a good job of summarising the key conspiracy theories. It details their key points while never (or at least, only occasionally) specifically endorsing them. It would be a good coffee table read which would have benefited from a more detailed list of contents. Admittedly, it’s not a huge book but the conspiracies here are listed under ten general headings and these aren’t much help if you’re generally flicking through. Does the JFK assassination come under Politics, Historical, Tragedies or Murdered Or Missing, for example? Clue: it is not the same category as his brother Bobby’s own assassination. A minor criticism, yes, but one which slightly counts against it.
There are a good number of conspiracy theories detailed here and as usual, the Kennedy killings stand out amongst the most compelling ones. This is largely because of Lee Harvey Oswald’s murder two days after JFK’s assassination in 1963 but also because of Oswald’s Cuban links, the Kennedys’ mafia connections and Bobby and Jack’s anti-CIA stance.
Others seem much less credible. Bearing in mind their personalities, the official verdicts on Marilyn Monroe, Jim Morrison, Elvis and Kurt Cobain’s deaths all seen very believable. Yet rumours about their supposed murder or alleged survival continue to persist.
Some issues are more complex. Most of us would reject the most outlandish theories about the September 11th attacks in 2001. But some elements do remain unexplained.
Otherwise: do Freemasons run the world? Well, they may be involved in some localised corruption but, basically no, they do not. Do extra-terrestrials exist? Probably, somewhere, but not here. Was M15 spying on Harold Wilson? Some in M15 definitely were, but even so, the former Labour Prime Minister was undeniably overly paranoid about it.
Hardest to credit, are the enduring rumours about Princess Diana’s demise in 1997. As the famous Mitchell and Webb sketch highlighted, a car accident is surely one of the least assured ways of efficiently assassinating anyone even ignoring the fact that it’s hardly credible the Duke of Edinburgh had either the power or the motivation to arrange it anyway.
This is nevertheless a compelling compendium of contemporary conspiracies incorporating everything from the most credible to the completely crazy.
Some might think it a bit silly that I’ve chosen to record my memories of all of the US presidential elections I can remember. I went through the same process for the recent British General Elections last year but that sort of made sense. I am British, after all. I am not American, have never voted in a US election and being a bad flier, have never been to the US, indeed have never even left Europe. As my hopes of there ever being construction of an Atlantic Tunnel recede, it is possible I may never do, especially as I’m not sure I’d fancy going on it anyway. Why should these elections concern me?
The official answer simply is that the United States remains so powerful that its actions have a huge impact way beyond its own borders. It’s sort of like the butterfly effect but one caused by a ginormous butterfly creating a hurricane by flapping its enormous wings. Cool eh?
But the real reason is that I am just interested. I have always been interested. I don’t know why. As some Americans might say: go figure…
I was pleased when I learnt Americans could all speak English. Personally, I really appreciated the effort. Why couldn’t the French or the Swedish go to the same trouble? Frankly, it smacks of laziness. Regardless, this lack of a language barrier made it easier for my Uncle to move to New York when I was four (an example of the “brain drain” much spoken of in the Thatcher years). Another relative, a cousin moved to the US later. The common language also made it easier for me to consume Dr Seuss books, Bugs Bunny cartoons and episodes of Hart To Hart from an early age.
I was born in December 1976, a month after Jimmy Carter narrowly beat the Republican incumbent Gerald Ford for the presidency. I’d just missed seeing Watergate and Vietnam (on the TV news at least). I am also too young to remember Jimmy Carter being beaten by Ronald Reagan in November 1980 or Carter’s old vice president Walter Mondale being trounced by “the Gipper” (Reagan) four years after that. There is thus not much about elections in this instalment.
I do remember Reagan, however, and despite every cell in my brain telling me otherwise, I liked him and sort of still do. Oddly, despite having a very real fear of nuclear war, Reagan’s rhetoric and massive defence build-up undoubtedly increased already fragile international tensions in the early Eighties. The Cold War was already colder than it had ever been since the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962. He pushed us closer to the brink than anyone else.
Like the little girl with the flower in the famous 1964 campaign ad, I could have thus been killed several times before I even knew what was going on. Never mind everyone else.
Of course, some argue Ronnie’s plan all along was to push the USSR into submission through pressure which Gorbachev ultimately did. In fact, there is no evidence Gorbachev’s reforms had anything to do with western pressure. Certainly, nobody ever seems to have said this out loud if this was the case, even in now declassified private conversations.
Reagan actually probably delayed the end of the Cold War, refusing a total ban on nuclear missiles because he wanted to keep his treasured Star Wars program.
Jokes like this didn’t help: “My fellow Americans,” he began during a public sound check in 1984. “I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”
Arguably, the first bit is okay. No one was liked to think Russia had actually been outlawed. But the chilling words “we begin bombing in five minutes” understandably caused a panic.
Despite this, despite the horrendous deficit he ran up, despite the Iran-Contra affair, I still have a soft spot for Ronald Reagan.
So that’s it. Obama has been re-elected and sworn in for a second term. He can’t run for a third time even if he wants to. So now he can just put his feet up? Right?
Wrong! In fact, every president since the two term limit has been imposed who has been re-elected has experienced a “difficult” second term. Obama should heed their example. And consider: would any of them have run for a third term had they been able to anyway?
Dwight D. Eisenhower (Rep).
Elected: 1952. Re-elected: 1956.
Americans liked “Ike” so much that they gave him two landslides both times beating the same opponent: Adlai Stevenson. But Eisenhower’s second term was undermined by Cold War concerns that the USSR was gaining the upper hand over the US. Castro took over Cuba in 1959 and Eisenhower was harmed by his role in the 1960 U2 spy plane incident after he denied that a US plane piloted by one Gary Powers which had been shot down had been spying. It had.
To some extent, the perception that the USSR was ahead of the US was a nonsense, however. The supposed Soviet “missile gap” over the US much discussed in the 1960 elections didn’t exist. There was a gap but in fact it was the US who had a lead. Republican candidate Vice President Nixon well knew this but was unable to reveal it for security reasons.
That said, thanks to Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin’s journey into space just after Eisenhower left office, there’s no denying the USSR led the space race at this time.
Third term?: Ike was already the oldest US president ever for the time by 1960 (he was 70) so would probably not have run again even if he had been able to.
Richard M. Nixon (Rep).
Elected: 1968. Re-elected: 1972.
January 1973 was the high point of Richard Nixon’s career. He had re-opened relations with China, brought a form of “peace with honour” to Vietnam (or at least ended US involvement) and had just secured a 49 state victory over Democrat George McGovern.
But, in fact, the seeds of Nixon’s destruction had already been sewn. The Watergate investigation was already quietly underway and became spectacularly public with the resignation of four key Nixon aides in May. Nixon famously promised that “there will be no whitewash at the White House”. But had he sought to cover up the legal investigation into the break-in at Democrat HQ at the Watergate Hotel n 1972? If not, why didn’t he hand over the White House tapes on the matter?
In the end, Nixon resigned in disgrace in August 1974 and was succeeded by his second Vice President Gerald Ford. Other than dying in office, (which at least might have enhanced his reputation) his second term could hardly have gone worse.
Third term?: It’s easy to imagine that without Watergate, Nixon who was then only in his early sixties, would have relished a third term had it been possible. Alan Moore’s The Watchmen envisages just that with Nixon remaining in the White House well until the Eighties. But in reality as we know, Nixon didn’t even get through his second term.
Ronald Reagan (Rep).
Elected: 1980. Re-elected: 1984.
Like Nixon, Reagan had secured a 49 state victory. And his second term, in some ways, went well. Initially slow to respond to the peace overtures from the new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev after 1985, Reagan eventually conceded some ground precipitating a clear thaw in the Cold War by the time he left office. In truth, this was more to Gorbachev’s credit than the US president’s.
The big trouble spot of Reagan’s second term came after the revelation of the disastrous scheme to exchange weapons for hostages in Iran and then use the proceeds to finance the anti-Communist Contras in Nicaragua in 1986.
The plot was illegal, unethical and in defiance of Congress. Reagan probably only survived because (unlike Nixon) he had great reserves of personal charm, oversaw an apparently booming economy and because he was close to the end of his presidency anyway. Democrats in Congress had little interest in putting Vice President Bush in the White House ahead of the 1988 election.
Third term? Despite Iran-Contra, Reagan was still popular in 1989 and is the only figure mentioned here to serve two full terms before being succeeded by someone in his own party. That said, Reagan was 77 by the time he left office and was possibly already suffering from the Alzheimer’s disease which would mar his old age. So, no.
Bill Clinton (Dem).
Elected: 1992. Re-elected: 1996.
Clinton is probably the most successful president of the last iffy years but his second term was tarnished by the Monica Lewinsky scandal which almost saw him removed from office in 1998. But while Clinton was undeniably foolish, the scandal has a trumped up feel about it. Unlike Watergate or Iran-Contra, there was no serious crime at the centre of it. Obama should be wary of any sore loser Republicans attempting a similar plot against him.
Third term?: After the humiliations of the Lewinsky scandal, Clinton may well have had enough of high office by 2000. On the other hand, he remained more popular than either Al Gore or George W. Bush who actually fought the 2000 election and was still one of the youngest ex-presidents there has ever been. Despite this, with Hillary Clinton, the First Lady intent on launching her own political career (she was elected as a Senator for New York in 2000), Bill would doubtless have stood down anyway.
George W. Bush (Rep).
“Elected”: 2000. “Re”- elected: 2004.
Bush achieved a historic feat in delivering a second term that was almost as disastrous as his first overseeing a financial crisis and totally mishandling the response to Hurricane Katrina. By 2008, the President – perhaps the worst in US history – was popular with less than a fifth of American voters.
Third term?: Highly unlikely. The name of Bush was mud by the time he left office.a
A paranoid crook who should never have got close to power in the first place, a triumphant success and one of only two men to carry 49 out of 50 states in a US presidential election, Richard Millhouse Nixon was a mass of contradictions. On the centenary of the disgraced US president’s birth in January 1913, what lessons can we draw from his life?
US presidents never resign…except in his case.
Resignation mid-term is the norm as a way out for UK prime ministers: Thatcher, Blair, Wilson: all went this way. Not so in the US. Only three presidents have ever faced the humiliation of impeachment: Andrew Johnson (in the 1860s), Bill Clinton and Nixon. And only Nixon was driven from office as a result… had not his successor President GeraldFord pardoned him soon afterwards, he may well have become the first president to go to jail too.
He was genuinely born poor.
Abraham Lincoln was famously born in a log cabin but most other US presidents have been of far less humbler stock. Not Nixon: he was born into a genuinely impoverished Quaker lifestyle and two of his brothers died during childhood. This unfortunately gave him a huge chip on his shoulder about anyone he perceived to have had a cushy privileged upbringing (for example, the Kennedys).
He was an anti-Communist through and through.
Nixon’s rapid rise to power occurred only by dipping his hands in the murky waters of McCarthyism. It was the key issue of his times but by embroiling himself in the case of State Department official Alger Hiss who had been accused of being a Soviet spy, the young congressman shamelessly courted publicity which most young politicians would have shunned.
He was called “Tricky Dicky” for a reason…
The 1950 campaign for the US senate seat muddied Nixon’s reputation still further. His opponent Helen Gahagan Douglas was a Hollywood actress married to the actor Melvyn Douglas and later the grandmother of Illeana Douglas, a character actress known today for roles in films such as Cape Fear, Grace Of My Heart and Ghost World. The campaign became notorious for Nixon’s dirty tactics. Although she was, in reality, no more left-wing than Franklin D. Roosevelt, Nixon argued she was a fellow traveller for the Communist cause. He famously labelled her the “Pink Lady” claiming “she is pink right down to her underwear” and had thousands of pink leaflets distributed claiming just that.
The tactics worked. Nixon won by a landslide. He was famous and picked by General Dwight D. Eisenhower as his vice presidential running mate less than two years later off the back of this success. Douglas’s political career was over. But the Tricky Dicky nickname would stay with Nixon forever.
Nixon lost the presidency in 1960 because of the TV debate…or did he?
We all know the story. Nixon was robbed of the presidency in 1960 by a slicker, handsomer opponent. Radio audiences thought Nixon had won the famous debate with the young John F. Kennedy but on TV, JFK nailed him. Voting irregularities in Chicago further ensured JFK’s narrow win.
But it is wrong to attribute Nixon’s defeat in 1960 wholly to a triumph of style over substance. Nixon was already widely distrusted. He had almost been dropped from the vice presidential ticket in 1952 over claims he had profited from campaign contributions. Only the famous “Checkers speech” on TV, the sentimental address in which he referred to his daughter’s dog Checkers, was his salvation. But TV would prove his undoing in 1960.
Yet this is not wholly true either. For one thing, as with Obama and Romney in 2012, while the vote between Kennedy and Nixon was very close, the Electoral College margin between the two candidates in the final vote was actually quite wide (303 for Kennedy, 219 for Nixon, although Nixon, oddly, carried more states). Whatever happened in Chicago, Nixon wasn’t even close to winning. Distrust had played its part too. In 1952 and 1956, Eisenhower’s opponent Adlai Stevenson had milked fears over the ageing Eisenhower’s health to exploit concerns that Nixon not the beloved Ike would end up being president. The president had had a heart attack in 1955. In 1960, a Democratic poster depicted a cartoon of a shifty looking Nixon and asked memorably: “Would you buy a used car from this man?”
If in doubt…blame the press.
Nixon soon reached rock bottom losing in a landslide to Edmund G “Pat” Brown in the 1962 California Gubernatorial election. The father of the present Governor Jerry Brown, the Democrat was doubtless helped by President Kennedy’s deft handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis. How Nixon would have handled it, we will never know. At any rate, Nixon appeared to quit politics. Like his future biographer Jonathan Aitken (and others), he was keen to blame the media for his own failings:
““For sixteen years, ever since the Hiss case, you’ve had a lot of fun. You’ve had an opportunity to attack me, and I think I’ve given as good as I’ve taken. I leave you gentlemen now, and you will now write it, you will interpret it, that’s your right. But, as I leave you, I want you to know, just think how much you’re going to be missing — you don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”
But it was not to be. Nixon returned (in fact he had never had any real intention of quitting) and achieved the presidency ….
The Comeback Kid.
No presidential nominee has ever lost the presidency, returned to regain the nomination and then gone onto win the presidency. The sole exception is Richard M. Nixon.
Vanquishing the Kennedys.
JFK narrowly beat Nixon in 1960. Bobby Kennedy might well have beaten him again had he not been gunned down during the summer of the 1968 campaign. Nixon instead faced and narrowly beat the vice president, Hubert Humphrey in 1968 but feared the third brother Ted Kennedy would dethrone him in 1972. He even started a file on Ted Kennedy’s sex life. There was no need. The Chappaquiddick Incident in July 1969 (In which a young girl was found drowned in the Senator’s car from which Kennedy had mysteriously escaped) wrecked the youngest Kennedy brother’s presidential dreams forever, though not his career. Ironically, Kennedy had declined an invite by Nixon to attend an event celebrating the Apollo 11 moon landings that very weekend. Had he gone, the accident would never have happened and history might well have played out very differently.
Vietnam and China.
Nixon’s firm anti-Communist credentials were such that with the aid of Henry Kissinger, he was able to end the war in Vietnam (albeit still in a humiliating but unavoidable US defeat) and spectacularly re-open relations with Communist China in 1972. A president with a more liberal reputation could never have got away with this. A landslide re-election win was assured. Nixon won 49 states, his opponent Senator George McGovern, only one.
Nixon had won narrowly in 1968 only by using a mole to sabotage Vietnam peace talks which threatened to deliver Humphrey a last minute victory. The Humphrey team was well aware of this but feared releasing the information on it as they had acquired it by wire-tapping. Their own polling suggested they would beat Nixon anyway. This turned out to be wrong.
In 1972, the Nixon team sabotaged their most feared Democratic opponent Ed Muskie’s primary campaign partly through silly tricks (releasing mice in a press conference with the message “Muskie is a ratfink” on their tails) but also by spreading rumours Muskie’s wife was an alcoholic. Muskie cried on TV, effectively finishing the Nixon team’s work for them.
Nixon would doubtless be amused to see phone hacking in the news again. But in 1972, it was the journalists, notably the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who were the heroic ones.
Nixon’s enemies list.
The “Enemies List” which Nixon drew up during his presidency gives a unique insight into just how paranoid he had become. In addition to politicians like Ed Muskie, Walter Mondale and Ted Kennedy (more accurately described as legitimate political opponents. Nixon’s view of them as “enemies” was unhelpful) the list also included figures as diverse as John Lennon, Bill Cosby (!), Gregory Peck and Barbara Streisand.
Once it emerged Nixon had routinely recorded conversations in the White House a legal battle emerged to gain access to the tapes. Nixon refused on the grounds of “executive privilege”. The tapes when revealed had some mysterious gaps on them (Nixon’s secretary had apparently accidentally wiped one section), showed that Nixon swore a lot (the phrase “expletive deleted” was used a lot) and, worst of all, proved his role in covering up the investigation into the break-in. Impeachment proceedings began. Though “not a quitter”, Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment in August 1974. He spent his last twenty years attempting to restore his shattered reputation. He died, soon after his wife Pat, in 1994.
Nixon achieved much mostly in the field of foreign policy. But for all his talent, he was deeply flawed and perhaps unsuited to high office. He wasn’t the US’s worst president (that might be George W. Bush) but his remains an unhappy period for the US presidency.
Okay! So it’s becoming horrendously clear Mitt Romney is an unusually poor presidential candidate. But he’s not the first disaster area to be nominated by a major US political party. Here are a few others:
5. Richard M. Nixon (Rep. Lost 1960, won 1968, 1972). It might seem odd to choose a candidate who was victorious twice to go in a list of bad presidential candidates. But Nixon’s success if anything exposes the flaws in the system. In 1968, with Nixon’s poll lead narrowing, the Nixon team used an insider to actively sabotage Vietnam peace talks fearing a sudden breakthrough would give his opponent Hubert Humphrey a last minute boost. Interestingly, the Humphrey campaign learned of Nixon’s chicanery at the time but chose not to expose him as they expected to beat him anyway. They were wrong. Four years later, the Nixon team again used all manner of dirty tricks to crush their most feared Democratic opponent Ed Muskie in the primaries releasing mice into a Muskie press conference and smearing Muskie’s wife as an alcoholic. Break-ins later in the campaign ultimately led to the Watergate scandal. Nixon would win heavily in 1972 but his victory would be short lived. He must rank amongst the most corrupt post-war presidential candidates.
4. Michael Dukakis (Dem. Lost 1988). What went wrong for Duke? In the summer of 1988, having beaten seven rivals to the nomination, his soaring Kennedy-esque rhetoric gave him a 15% lead over his Republican opponent Vice President George HW Bush. But in the last months of the campaign, Dukakis, who like Romney was a Governor of Massachusetts barely put a foot right. He unwisely refused to respond to any attacks the Bush campaign launched upon him and was soon irretrievably tainted as a tax and spend liberal (a bad thing in the US). Even his principled opposition to the death penalty in the TV debates went against him. Despite being quite a bland candidate himself, Bush ended up romping home to a forty state victory.
3. John McCain (Rep. Lost 2008) An ex-Vietnam POW, McCain may have been a fine candidate in, say, 1992, but by 2008, he was much too old and grumpy for the task. His repeated attempts to distract attention from his opponent’s superior campaign by repeated references to “Joe the plumber” proved a failure. His worst decision, however, was undeniably his poorly researched choice of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as running mate. Initially boosting the flagging McCain effort, the decision backfired horribly once Palin’s many shortcomings became all too apparent. McCain soon had his chips.
2. Barry Goldwater (Rep. Lost 1964). Although the GOP occasionally flirts with extremism, they rarely embrace it. The moderate Senator Bob Dole saw off Pat Buchanan in 1996 for example while Mitt Romney beat the even more odious and unprincipled Rick Santorum earlier this year. 1964 was different however. In the year after President Kennedy’s assassination, they rejected the moderate future Vice President Nelson Rockefeller in favour of the alarmingly pro-nuclear Senator Goldwater. “Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice,” Goldwater (sometimes nicknamed Au H2O by science geeks) would opine. He also advocated a form of racial apartheid. The result? The Johnson team produced one of the best campaign ads ever (showing a little girl being blown to smithereens by a nuclear attack). Ex-actor Ronald Reagan was moved to defect from the Democrats to the Republicans. Everyone else went the other way. President Johnson beat Goldwater by a record margin.
1. Mitt Romney (Rep. 2012). Okay! So it’s not over yet. Things may improve for the hapless Mr Romney. But as it stands, this looks like the only poll Romney’s going to come top of this autumn…