The dollar bill (YouTube)
The term ‘conspiracy theory’ has come to signify the wild speculations of anorak-wearing geeks who are convinced the illuminati is at work.
However, the phrase has only relatively recently developed pejorative connotations. It once referred, more broadly, to any type of conspiracy by a malevolent group.
The reason it has changed is because many of these theories fall victim to what they are supposedly aiming to do: separate the fact and the fiction.
But, as these six examples prove, some of the most shocking tales of cover-up and collusion, really happened.
A parade in Pyongyang, North Korea (Flickr/stephan)
The Conspiracy: North Korea was secretly kidnapping Japanese citizens
A long-held conspiracy theory in Japan had it that citizens were being kidnapped by agents of the North Korean government. Indeed, between 1977 and 1983, hundreds of people went missing from coastal towns in the East Asian country – and the nearby Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea was blamed. However, the story seemed too implausible to be true, and with the consistent denial by North Korea itself and by Chongryon (the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan) and the Japan Socialist Party, it became considered the stuff of myth.
Yet, it wasn’t. In 2002, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il admitted the country had abducted 13 Japanese citizens. A total of 17 are now officially recognised by the Japanese government as having been abducted – although the number could run into the hundreds. Five of these abductees have been returned to Japan, but the country is, to this day, demanding answers.
What made the theory seem so unlikely is that it didn’t make any sense. Why would North Korean kidnap individual Japanese citizens? The theory is that younger victims were taken to teach Japanese language in North Korean spy schools, while older victims may have had their identities used by spies. They, and others, were likely killed.
A saloon in the 1920s (WikiCommons)
The Conspiracy: The US government poisoned alcohol during Prohibition
Often a conspiracy grows from a vacuum of evidence, or the idea that a cover-up must have occurred to explain a dramatic event. What is shocking about this ‘conspiracy’ is that it happened in plain sight – and was reported by the press at the time – it’s simply that history forgot about it, making it seem like a ridiculous fabrication. In essence, the US government was knowingly killing people by poisoning alcohol.
According to Slate, after Prohibition was introduced, methods to curtail drinking became more extreme after people (unsurprisingly) continued and bootleggers made a fortune. The short story is that many were redistilling widely available industrial-use alcohol. For years, toxic chemicals had been added to it to stop people drinking it but, given it could be purified, the government acted to double the poisonous components.
According to TIME, Seymour M Lowman, assistant secretary of the treasury in charge of Prohibition, even said 1927, that drunks were “dying off fast from poison ‘hooch'” and “a good job will have been done” if America became sober because of it. Of course, people continued to drink – and around 700 people died through this poisoning until Prohibition ceased in 1933. However, the shocking story only truly re-emerged in recent years.
Project Paperclip Team at Fort Bliss (WikiCommons)
The Conspiracy: The US secretly employed Nazi scientists after the war
There are hundreds of (mostly ridiculous) conspiracy theories about Nazi Germany, many of which concern themselves with the idea that some high-ranking officials faked their deaths and reassimilated themselves into society. While most of these theories are blatantly fabricated, some perpetrators of atrocities did reemerge unscathed after the war. Indeed, it does seem like something a conspiracy theorist would dream up, but Operation Paperclip saw more than 1,500 German scientists and engineers brought to the United States from Nazi Germany after World War II.
The president at the time, Harry Truman, is said to have excluded anyone who was found “to have been a member of the Nazi Party, and more than a nominal participant in its activities, or an active supporter of Nazi militarism” from the project. In reality, many made in through, including Dr Hubertus Strughold, who was accused of conducting experiments on Dachau inmates and epileptic children, and Dr Kurt Blome, the man in charge of the Nazi’s plan to ‘weaponise’ the plague.
According to American journalist Annie Jacobsen, who wrote the book Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America, the US employed the services of these scientists to develop techniques for the investigation of Soviet prisoners, including the use of "truth serum” and mind controlling methods.
The Conspiracy: The CIA ran a mind control programme
The idea that the government is controlling our minds is one of the cornerstones of conspiracy theory. But, as far fetched as it sounds, it has happened. From the 1950s, the CIA secretly and illegally turned human subjects into guinea pigs by testing mind-altering drugs, some 10 years before Timothy Leary’s experiments with LSD brought the drug into public consciousness.
Theorists who had suspected the CIA capable of such practices were vindicated when details of Project MKUltra, as it was known, emerged in 1975. Many documents were destroyed, but the scope and some of the effects of the project came to light. The research took place at dozens of institutions, including hospitals, prisons and universities, many of which were unaware of what was going on. At least two people are thought to have died, one of which was Frank Olson, a 43-year-old civilian germ-warfare researcher, who was covertly given acid and later fell from a window.
The Supreme Court later put it that the programme concerned itself with “the research and development of chemical, biological, and radiological materials capable of employment in clandestine operations to control human behaviour.” The project was the inspiration for the book and film The Men Who Stare at Goats.
Celle prison, the target of a ‘false flag’ attack (WikiCommons/Hundehalter)
The Conspiracy: False Flag operations - AKA countries attacking themselves
The idea that a government would attack its own country in a ‘false flag’ operation is one of the most often repeated themes in conspiracy theories, and has been applied to many acts of terrorism throughout history. Indeed, a quick search reveals countless ‘truther’ websites that speculate over secret perpetrators of attacks and their supposed motives. It is clearly a controversial assertion – and most examples you’ll find are, of course, total nonsense – but ‘false flag’ tactics have been employed in warfare and espionage since at least World War Two. Operations range from simply going undercover to carrying out acts of terrorism in order to blame opposition groups.
Most famous is perhaps Operation Gladio, the codename for a NATO operation in Italy during the Cold War, which became a catch-all phrase for any “stay-behind” operation. The process began, in essence, when the UK and the US decided to create paramilitary organisations in post-war Europe to counter any Soviet invasion through guerrilla warfare. Many have speculated that the Gladio – and perhaps CIA – played a part in the Years of Leads in Italy and terrorists attacks during the time, although it is still the subject of fierce debate.
But examples of countries attacking themselves do exist. During World War Two, British double agents were allowed fire-bomb a power station in the UK to protect their cover. The documents were only recently released but state that agents took precautions to ensure no serious damage was caused. And in West Germany, in 1978, the secret services breached the outer wall of the Celle prison by detonating a bomb. The left-wing Red Army Faction group was blamed – but it soon emerged that the government had, in fact, orchestrated the attack, much to their embarrassment.
The Conspiracy: The government is watching us
Conspiracy theories are often considered to the span from paranoia: the idea that an omnipotent shadowy organising is watching your every move is a common theme, and, of course, a feature of countless dystopian tales. The theory has been easy to dismiss: how could governments possibly have the resources to monitor so many people so much of the time?
It’s the reason why the leaks by Edward Snowden, a former US security contractor, had such resonance across the globe. His disclosures in 2013 revealed that over 60 countries were targeted by the US’s NSA and Britain’s GCHQ. That European leaders, including Germany’s Angela Merkel, were spied on became one of the headline stories, but the mass vacuuming of citizens’ data was the more important point.
The Washington Post revealed that nine out of 10 people on which the NSA spied were not actually the intended targets of its surveillance, suggesting a catch-all approach. The exact number of people who were spied on it still not known – but the number, it is safe to say, is in the hundreds of thousands.
Snowden has been variously painted as a villain and a saint, but his revelations have opened dialogue about surveillance in modern society.
(Credit: David von Blohn/REX/Shutterstock)