Although conspiracy theories are commonly seen as denying actual history or reality itself, these hypotheses can be viewed as an attempt to make sense of actual events that seem to be connected. In particular, they approach such patterns by suggesting the influence of multiple persons or organizations upon negative events or situations. Some may not be warranted, but those who believe in such grand schemes are largely characterized as foolish at best and mentally unbalanced or dangerous at worst. However, their bad reputation is because conspiracy theories fundamentally go against common beliefs and cannot be directly proven, at least at first.
Here is your guide to those theories that turned out to be true – and left the public scratching their heads in confusion.
1. The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment
In 1932, the United States Public Health Service and Tuskegee Institute began the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male to record the natural history of syphilis and analyze differences between black and white men. The study involved 600 black men in Macon County, Alabama, 399 of whom had contracted syphilis and 201 of whom had not. It was supposed to last only 6 months, but would go on for 40 years, during which the men were merely told that they had “bad blood”. Participants received free medical exams, meals, and burial insurance, but they were never told that they had syphilis and were never treated for it. Many discovered their illness after registering for the draft in World War II, but they were still denied penicillin or an exit from the study.
In 1972, the Associated Press published a story that led to public outcry and the appointment of an Ad Hoc Advisory Panel that found the study ethically unjustified. The study ended and was followed by a class-action lawsuit that was settled out of court for 10 million dollars and lifetime medical benefits. For many, it was too late; by the 1970s, only 128 of the original 399 still lived, while 49 wives and 19 children had also contracted the disease. Despite a presidential apology, the Tuskegee Experiment remains a powerful symbol of American racism and government abuse of the poor.
2. Project MKUltra
For a long time, the United States government denied that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had been running experiments on citizens from the 1950s onwards. However, a Freedom of Information Act filing in 1977 brought 20,000 previously classified documents to light that would lead to a series of Senate hearings on the CIA’s mind control program. When all was said and done, the evidence clearly showed that the government had organized the treatment of American citizens with drugs, hypnosis, subliminal persuasion, sensory deprivation, electroshock therapy, verbal and sexual abuse, and even torture. The goal of all such methods was to experiment with behavioral modifications in the hopes of developing programming for government agents.
Despite the large amount of damning evidence involved, CIA Director Richard Helms most likely destroyed the most damning files on MKUltra in 1973. Furthermore, the government contracted out such projects out to over 80 different pharmaceutical companies, prisons, hospitals, and universities. As a result, a great deal of the program’s operations remains unclear. To this day, as well, no one has been brought to justice for this abusive program or the negative impacts upon participants.
3. Operation Mockingbird
Although contemporary media often face critiques for seemingly collaborating with government officials, the CIA once actively tried to control mass media outlets. Near the beginning of the Cold War, Director of the Office of Special Projects Frank Wisner launched a top-secret project to buy influence at major media outlets. He specifically established Mockingbird based on directions from above to craft an organization to engage in sabotage, propaganda, and subversion of hostile states through domestic and foreign media. Wisner would then enlist journalists and news organizations, including current figures like Philip Graham, publisher of the Washington Post. In effect, they would become veritable spies and propagandists. Agents held posts at ABC, NBC, CBS, the Associated Press, Reuters, Hearst Newspapers, and other key players in news media.
By the 1950s, the CIA had a vast network of agents at America’s most prominent news organizations, businesses, and universities. It was only in the 1970s that Rolling Stone and The New York Times reported on the overlap between the CIA and prominent news organizations. A Congressional report followed in 1976 that documented the CIA’s reliance upon networks of several hundred foreign individuals around the world for intelligence and influence upon public opinion through propaganda. Although Mockingbird was publicly halted, many believe that the program continues to this day.
4. Operation Northwoods
In the past, supposedly wacky conspiracy theorists proposed that the United States military had developed plans to provoke war with Cuba. For a long time, the theory seemed outlandish – at least until Congress passed a law in the 1990s to make records surrounding President John F. Kennedy more transparent. As it turned out, Chairman Lyman Lemnitzer led the military Joint Chiefs of Staff in drawing up and approving just such a plan. In the early 1960s, they developed a detailed guide for a wave of terrorist actions that would build support for a war against their Communist neighbor.
- Citizens would be bombed and shot in the street.
- A Cuban aircraft would shoot down a plane of college students
- Boats of refugees would sink in the Gulf of Mexico.
Other plans also included the explosion of a US ship in Guantanamo bay and the apparent murder of astronaut John Glenn mid-flight – with Cubans and Fidel Castro taking the blame.
This plan to oust Castro by building public and international support never came to be. After presenting the plan to Defence Secretary Robert McNamara in March of 1962, President Kennedy would tell Lemnitzer three days later that there was no way that force could be used to take Cuba. Shortly thereafter, Lemnitzer himself was shifted to another job.
5. The US Government Illegally Spies On Its Own Citizens
Another long dismissed conspiracy theory is the notion that the National Security Administration (NSA) illegally eavesdrops on its citizens. While this particular theory has a long history, it gained new life after the events of 9/11 and a push by government agencies to monitor all communication to prevent terrorist acts. As the Director of National Intelligence recently revealed, the surveillance state is incredibly robust. As the Snowden documents also show, multiple programs, institutions, and companies constantly monitor cell phone, email, and other communication records. The scope of government surveillance is now far beyond the wildest dreams of most conspiracy theorists.
However, constant data collection does not have clear benefits. In 2014, The Washington Post reported that almost 90% of data collected by NSA surveillance was unrelated to terrorism. At the same time, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a lawsuit claiming that this surveillance violates the Fourth Amendment right to privacy and First Amendment rights to free speech and association. Furthermore, collecting every possible piece of data is basically self-defeating. Not only are financial costs hefty, but, even when information like Syria’s use of chemical weapons comes to light, the U.S.A. cannot necessarily intervene. The greatest cost, though, is the loss of privacy, freedom, liberty, and mutual respect that should hold a society together.
These are not isolated instances of government abuse. Much like the Tuskegee Experiment, prisoners, soldiers, and mental health patients in Guatemala were deliberately infected with syphilis by their government in order to test antibiotic treatments. At base, the government is made up of imperfect and fallible human beings like any social institution. We must hold them to clear standards and regular evaluations to prevent injustice from occurring. At the same time, be careful what you dismiss. The next time that you hear a seemingly delusional conspiracy theory, take the time to investigate before you decide that it’s too impossible to be true. Otherwise, you might regret it.
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