President John F. Kennedy greets the crowd in Dallas on November 22nd, 1963, shortly before his assassination (Library of Congress).

Grassy Knolls: Conspiracy Thinking in American History

Conspiracy Thinking in American History

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 hosts 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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BRIAN: This is BackStory, and I’m Brian Balogh. 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.

JEFFERSON MORLEY: 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.


BRIAN: 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.

MARA KEIRE: And they said, well, get off at this station, and I will show you some place. But of course, the “some place” would end up being a brothel.

BRIAN: A history of conspiracy thinking in America.

PETER: 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.

ED: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory, with the American Backstory hosts.

Welcome to the show. I’m Ed Ayers, and I’m here with Peter Onuf.

PETER: Hey, Ed.

ED: And Brian Balogh.

BRIAN: Hey there.

ED: In 1864, a man named John Smith Dye published a book called The Adder’s Den. And it was something of a conspiracy theorist manifesto, and it centered on what 19th century Americans called “the slave power.” What Dye, a Northern Republican, meant by “slave power” was this– a conspiracy of Southern slaveholders was controlling the entire US government by blackmail and murder.

JESSE WALKER: So for example, in 1841, William Henry Harrison died. He was the first president to die in office.

ED: This is Jesse Walker, author of a book on conspiracy thinking called The United States of Paranoia.

JESSE WALKER: According to Dye, 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, Dye says, no, no, no. It was actually arsenic.

ED: That was 1841. Nine years later, another president died in office. That was Zachary Taylor. Like Harrison, Taylor was a Whig. And like Harrison, Taylor resisted the expansion of slavery in the American Southwest. So, Dye 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.

JESSE WALKER: According to Dye, on February 23, 1857, agents of the slave power poisoned all the bowls containing lump sugar at the National Hotel in Washington, DC.

ED: The idea here was that Northerners drank tea, while Southerners drank coffee. People who drink tea, according to Dye, 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.

JESSE WALKER: And so when Buchanan drank the tea and then got very sick and barely survived, Dye wrote that he was intimidated by the attempted assassination, and quote, “Became more than ever the tool of the slave power.”

ED: That was the theory. In fact, Buchanan wasn’t even in DC on the day of the alleged sugar attack. And there’s no evidence that Harrison or Taylor were poisoned either. But still, The Adder’s Den was a huge hit.

JESSE WALKER: 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, and New York praised it. Even The Easton Express, which was a Democratic paper in Pennsylvania, called it, quote, “The most powerful book of this century.”

ED: What was the appeal? Dye’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.

JESSE WALKER: 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.

MALE SPEAKER: Generals Harrison and Taylor came to their sudden and lamentable ends by subtle poisons.

MALE SPEAKER: General Harrison lived but a short time after he was installed in office. General Taylor lived but a short time after he took his seat. You, sir, be careful at the king’s table what meat and drink you take.

ED: Although the facts in 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.


PETER: 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, and recent polls report that something like 2/3 of Americans don’t believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.

BRIAN: 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 Dye 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.

ED: 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?

BRIAN: Oh, passing the buck again.

ED: Yeah.

PETER: 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 is surrounded by ministers and advisers, 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 this systematic campaign to destroy American liberty? What’s the explanation? We had been good and 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.

ED: 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 a 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 putatively former slaves.

BRIAN: A lot of boundaries are being crossed, Ed, in the name of slavery.

PETER: Oh, absolutely.

ED: Exactly. 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, 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.

PETER: And the important thing, Ed, is white Northerners are not concerned primarily and immediately about the slavery of the South.

ED: Right.

PETER: 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.

BRIAN: And we 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.

ED: 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 on to this undue power. It seems to me that a conspiracy might be at the heart of that, Brian.

BRIAN: Yeah. 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.


BRIAN: It’s time for a quick break. When we return, a shadowy trust that threatened to steal young women away in the early 1900s.

PETER: You’re listening to BackStory, and we’ll be back in a minute.

We’re back with BackStory, and I’m Peter Onuf.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers.

BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh. 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.

PETER: We’ll begin in 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.

ED: Morgan had been part of the secret society of the Freemasons, and he planned to make money by publishing the order’s secrets. Problem was, Morgan had taken a vow of secrecy, and historian Ron Formisano says the Masons wanted to make sure he kept that vow.

RON FORMISANO: 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 stagecoaches 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.

PETER: 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.

RON FORMISANO: They pooh-poohed the story. They said, oh, no, this never happened. William Morgan’s living happily in Turkey, Smyrna, Turkey. For some reason, that was their favorite choice of where this fool had disappeared to.


ED: Citizens organized committees across western New York to investigate the mysterious disappearance. Some suspects were arrested, but Masonic judges and juries 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 Formisano says they probably weren’t far off.

RON FORMISANO: There are those who think history is a conspiracy, and they’re nuts. But there are conspiracies in history. And this was a conspiracy.

PETER: It was a conspiracy that hit a nerve in 1820s America.

RON FORMISANO: Start with the fact that Masonry was a secret fraternity. So in a republic, everything should be open. In a democracy, anything that’s 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. Now, some people then went on to imagine dark deeds and satanic rituals.

ED: 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.

PETER: So there was only one thing to do– put non-Masons in power.


PETER: Protesters formed a new political party called the Anti-Masons and took over politics in western New York.

ED: The party took up the mantle of progressive causes like abolition and spread to states across the North, like Pennsylvania and Vermont, both of which elected Anti-Mason governors.

PETER: But the Anti-Masons never dropped the old conspiracy story about William Morgan’s murder in 1826.

RON FORMISANO: You have an Anti-Masonic convention in Maine in 1834 repeating the narrative of eight years before as if it happened yesterday.

PETER: 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 Formisano says to understand the appeal of conspiracy thinking, you have to understand its roots.

RON FORMISANO: 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.

ED: In other words, bad things don’t happen because of 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.

PETER: The Anti-Masons wanted to do just that– save American democracy by exposing Masonic corruption. Truth and the facts became their rallying cry.

RON FORMISANO: All we need to do is get the facts out there, in print, and we will make converts.

ED: And they did. They made so many converts that Masons had trouble recruiting. Masonic lodges closed throughout the country, which meant the threat of a conspiracy subsided.

PETER: 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. And so did Lincoln’s Secretary of State and political confidant, William Seward. So within a generation, the young men who jumped into politics to root out a conspiracy of insiders became the ultimate insiders.


ED: Thanks to Ron Formisano for helping tell that story. He’s a professor of history at the University of Kentucky.

PETER: 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.

BRIAN: 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.”

PETER: Progressive reformers were especially worried about this white slavery conspiracy. They were convinced that red light districts in major cities were controlled by a shadow vice trust, with tentacles reaching from seedy brothels to the city council. In their minds, the vice trust not only threatened innocent American girls, it corrupted democracy itself.

BRIAN: 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 in Souls. Mara Keire is an historian at Oxford who’s written about all of this. I asked her to walk me through the typical white slavery plot.

MARA KEIRE: Oftentimes, there was a story about a young girl going into the city, taking a train, starting conversation with a older woman or a man who is nicely dressed, if a bit flashy. But she wasn’t sophisticated enough to be concerned about the boutonniere 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 some place. But of course, the “some place” 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, often 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.

BRIAN: So tell me who was behind the white slavery trust in the popular imagination.

MARA KEIRE: 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– to go completely over the top– as Chicago writer Robert Harland called, “the kimono trust” who sold lingerie at 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.

BRIAN: Was there any truth to these fears about white slavery and this conspiracy behind it?

MARA KEIRE: Well, I mean, I’m going to be such a cultural historian about it. Truth is such a 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 people wanted it to be true. They didn’t want to think that the labor markets were such that 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, though, where 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 maybe 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.

BRIAN: So 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? Where does this idea of a vice trust come from?

MARA KEIRE: I think it was strategic. I think it was used to rouse ire, 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. And so they saw this control by these very big organizations as essentially undemocratic.

BRIAN: So tell me about these reformers. What did they do in response to the vice trust, as you call it?

MARA KEIRE: Well, the most famous and the most notorious piece of legislation was the Mann Act. And even now we hear about the Mann 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 Mann Act. This is coming out of this period.

And the Mann 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 Mann 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.

BRIAN: 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.


BRIAN: Now, Mara, 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?

MARA KEIRE: No, I don’t. It doesn’t disappear. The fear of larger organizations doesn’t disappear. But as the market for prostitution changed, 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 mafia, by organized criminals, by the Torrio-Capone gang. So one of the ironies is that, indeed, by closing down, by going so far in terms of prohibiting vice and prohibiting immoral trades, reformers lost the control that things like licensing gave them.


BRIAN: Mara Keire 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.

PETER: If you’re just tuning in, this is BackStory, and we’re talking about the long history of conspiracy thinking in America.

ED: So we got an interesting comment on our 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.

BRIAN: 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.

PETER: Well, Brian, the federal government did not loom in my period.

BRIAN: It lurked.

PETER: It didn’t even lurk. Government are us. Those were our people. It’s self-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.

ED: And precisely because the federal government is seen as so weak, it creates the conditions for all other kinds of conspiracies to flourish.

PETER: Exactly right, Ed. Yes.

ED: 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?

BRIAN: 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 moneyed interests, to monopolize business in the United States, to control the railroads. And it’s really only the government that can step in to counter.

PETER: So it’s in effect the recognition of danger, risk, vulnerability, conspiracies out there in the big world that requires the US 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, endangers our liberties.


ED: It’s time for another short break, but don’t go away. When we get back, a journalist argues that getting to the bottom of the JFK assassination is still critical 50 years later.

PETER: You’re listening to BackStory, and we’ll be back in a minute.

This is BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers.

PETER: 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.

BRIAN: 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 the 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.



GENERAL JACK D. RIPPER: Have you ever seen a Commie drink a glass of water?

GROUP CAPT. LIONEL MANDRAKE: Well, no. I– I can’t say I have.

BRIAN: 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.

GENERAL JACK D. RIPPER: It’s incredibly obvious, isn’t it? A foreign substance is introduced into our precious bodily fluids without the knowledge of the individual. Certainly without any choice. That’s the way your hardcore Commie works.

BRIAN: 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.

ANDREW CASE: So in 1954, there is 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 Franzen, 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 have informed me cannot testify. They would be liquidated if they did.”

BRIAN: [LAUGHS] Another form of precious bodily fluid liquidation.

ANDREW CASE: Liquidation, right. Right. But inside of that quote, I mean, it captures lots of elements of conspiracy thinking. There’s a master plan, but we also can’t reveal the master plan, right? And there’s lots of forces at work, some of which you can see, and many which you cannot.

BRIAN: How did notions that Communists were putting fluoride in the water fit with larger concerns about Communism at the time?

ANDREW CASE: I think it’s really the notion of mass medication. 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 experts from public health, from universities, scientists would say, this is the way to go about it because they would lose, oftentimes, when it went to popular referendum.

I mean, 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?

BRIAN: Yeah. So how do we get from a referenda, where at least one argument is this is a Communist plot, to Stanley Kubrick making fun of this in 1964 in Dr. Strangelove? What happens?

ANDREW CASE: Well, I think there’s a lot of things that happen. It becomes dangerous, in some ways, to have these sorts of ideas about fluoride or about communism. And literally, it becomes absurd. And that’s what Kubrick is calling out, is the absurdity of fluoride.

And look what it could lead to. I mean, Ripper is driven mad by his obsession with fluoride enough to launch the doomsday plan, right? And what could be more absurd than that? Than a man consumed by his own bodily fears and putting the world at risk as a result.

BRIAN: Or if I could just add, Joe McCarthy, the famous anti-Communist crusader, turning on the US 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.

ANDREW CASE: Mm-hmm. Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

BRIAN: 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 kooks took it off the map.

ANDREW CASE: Yeah, I think that’s fair to say that by painting it in a corner– red painting it in a corner, perhaps– it becomes the most absurd thing. And you see a huge increase in the number of fluoride referenda. 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.

BRIAN: And yet I gather there were some concerns totally unrelated to Communist conspiracy emerging in the mid to late 1960s about fluoride. I Could you tell me about those?

ANDREW CASE: Yeah, so one of the things that I’ve tracked is what I call the naturalist anti-fluoridationists, 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 enters into our water supplies.

And one of the things that we see is people with more education and who are less isolated from American political life begin to take on the anti-fluoridation stance in the late 1960s, early 1970s. And they’re responsive to this notion of choice, that if I want fluoride in my body, I can have it. It shouldn’t be applied, broadly speaking, to the entire population.

BRIAN: Now, Andrew, you’re talking about educated people, now, who are questioning fluoride. They couldn’t possibly be susceptible to conspiracy thinking, could they?

ANDREW CASE: No, this is the thing is that conspiracies have a way of running across the political spectrum. In a lot of ways, if you swap out the Communist lingo that’s very 1954 and look at the way it’s described as a collusion of Alcoa and the US Public Health Service–

BRIAN: Now, Alcoa. I didn’t see that coming. How does Alcoa enter the picture?

ANDREW CASE: Yeah. So sodium fluoride is a byproduct of aluminum production. So Alcoa is also the one that 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.

BRIAN: And it’s worth mentioning that aluminum manufacturer, almost by definition, is a monopoly or oligopoly. Right?

ANDREW CASE: Absolutely.

BRIAN: There aren’t many Alcoas out there competing with each other.

ANDREW CASE: Right, right. And I don’t remember all of the details, but there’s a former Alcoa executive who is on so and so committee. And the pieces all kind of fit together, as always, as you would suspect.

So the naturalist anti-fluoridationists see 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 refined grains, sugars–

BRIAN: I see. So it’s so we can keep eating all the junk.

ANDREW CASE: Exactly. Exactly. And one of the riddles, of course, is 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. It’s one of the riddles that is never really well-answered.

And the bigger story is that 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 in the 1950s. And I take those folks at their word, and that they weren’t part– of course, that’s part of me being a part of a conspiracy and all of that sort of stuff, of me defending– I’m at a state university, part of a big land grant system, so that’s, of course, what you would expect somebody like me to say.

BRIAN: 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.

ANDREW CASE: Absolutely. Absolutely. And their tinfoil hats.


BRIAN: Andrew Case is an instructor in history at the Lyman Briggs College at Michigan State University.

PETER: 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 Americans’ 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.

BRIAN: 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.

JEFFERSON MORLEY: 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.

BRIAN: 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.

JEFFERSON MORLEY: 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 Lee 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 Lee 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.

BRIAN: And is that the big takeaway from your research, from your perspective, a massive intelligence failure? Or is there more?

JEFFERSON MORLEY: It’s very hard to tell was their 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 1,100 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.

BRIAN: So let me ask you, who killed Kennedy?

JEFFERSON MORLEY: 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.

BRIAN: And 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?

JEFFERSON MORLEY: I mean, I’m genuinely not sure. But I lean that way.

BRIAN: I understand.

JEFFERSON MORLEY: 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%.

BRIAN: What makes you go up to 80?

JEFFERSON MORLEY: 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 counterargument, people say, oh, Jeff, you know they’re a secretive agency. They were just hiding the fact that they were embarrassed.

Really? I think when people go to that lengths, when they risk– 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.

BRIAN: Jeff, we are in the midst of a disastrous rollout of the Affordable Health Care Act. The government, it 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.

JEFFERSON MORLEY: 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 the government’s handling of the investigation.

BRIAN: But 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.

JEFFERSON MORLEY: 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, 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.


JEFFERSON MORLEY: Two, 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, are secret from inception to eternity.

BRIAN: 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.

JEFFERSON MORLEY: Yeah. 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 in 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 issued.

BRIAN: This is when it declines.

JEFFERSON MORLEY: That’s exactly when it declines.

BRIAN: You’re absolutely right.

JEFFERSON MORLEY: 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.

BRIAN: Jeff, thanks so much for joining us on BackStory today.

JEFFERSON MORLEY: Glad to be here. Thank you.

BRIAN: Jefferson Morley moderates the website He’s the author of Our Man in Mexico– Winston Scott and the Hidden History of the CIA.


PETER: That’s going to do it for us today, but we’ll be waiting for you online. Pay us a visit at 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 BackStoryRadio. Don’t be a stranger.

ED: BackStory is produced by Tony Field, Jess Engebretson, Nina Earnest, and Andrew Parsons. Emily Charnock is our research and web coordinator, and Jamal Millner is our engineer. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.

BRIAN: 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, an anonymous donor, and the History Channel– history made every day.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is professor of history at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf 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. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.