The Paranoid Streak in American History

Michael Kazin teaches history at American University. His most recent book is "The Populist Persuasion; An American History" (Basic Books)

Did the Central Intelligence Agency conspire in the 1980s to flood the streets of South-Central Los Angeles with crack cocaine? To make that accusation, with only the flimsiest of evidence supporting it, is to call up the specter of political paranoia. What could the nation’s spy agency hope to gain from selling drugs to poor black Angelenos? The charge being hurled by such people as Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif) and Louis Farrakhan seems a grand leap into unreason, an attempt to shift responsibility from individuals who harm themselves and their families to a shadowy power with global sway. Why can’t they be more sensible?

Instead, one should ask, why can’t we? As long as there has been a United States, what historian Richard Hofstadter dubbed the “paranoid style” has been an equal-opportunity affliction. Americans of all races and diverse political persuasions have surrendered to the same impulsive belief: A nexus of evil, outside forces is at the root of our most serious social problems. In fact, it is hard to understand U.S. history without paying attention to such fantasies.

In the 1760s, colonists along the Eastern seaboard were convinced that King George III and his ministers meant to abolish their liberties and yoke their economy to the venal desires of the imperial court. The Founding Fathers made a revolution to thwart the wicked plot, one contemporary historians agree never existed.

A century later, Northerners rallied to arms against a “slave-power conspiracy” which, they insisted, was on the verge of capturing the federal government and banning free labor. For their part, white Southerners were equally certain that Abraham Lincoln was encouraging slaves to murder their masters. Neither claim was accurate, but their widespread acceptance, in separate regions, helped make civil war inevitable.


Since then, neither left nor right has been able to resist the seductive dread of a grand conspiracy. In the 1890s, Populists charged Wall Street financiers with seeking to “turn the world back into the gloom of the Dark Ages with all its attendant evil and misery.” At the same time, conservative businessmen and politicians were blaming every big strike on a bomb-throwing anarchist international. During the late 1930s, anti-fascist liberals regularly accused their isolationist opponents of being Adolf Hitler’s willing puppets; while right-wing Father Charles Coughlin, the enormously popular “radio priest,” told his audience that New Deal interventionists were simply carrying out a plan hatched long ago by the Kremlin and “international bankers.”

The percentage of Americans with a college education has mushroomed since World War II, but this has done little to discourage the faith that secret cabals drive history. Few people would still take seriously Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s 1951 charge that George C. Marshall, a decorated general and distinguished secretary of state, was enmeshed in “a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.” But, more recently, director Oliver Stone’s cinematic expose of a fanciful civilian-military plot to assassinate President John F. Kennedy did splendidly at the box office. The film’s popularity, not least on college campuses, even occasioned a special issue of the American Historical Review, the premier journal for professionals in the field. If all this be paranoia, we have certainly made the most of it.

Why has the impulse to make irrational leaps of faith persisted through the centuries? There are at least two good reasons. First, paranoids do have enemies. Conspiracy theorists usually begin with a justifiable premise: slave-owners did push Congress to protect their investment in human property; big businessmen and their friends in government did squeeze small proprietors and crush strikers with equal ferocity; communists did urge boycotts and military threats to counter Nazi expansion (that is, until Josef Stalin signed his startling pact with Hitler). And, yes, the CIA, during the Cold War, did have a record of toppling politicians and heads of state who defied (official) U.S. wishes. In parts of Indochina, U.S. intelligence agents were even known to look the other way when their Asian hired hands dealt hard drugs to supplement funds supplied by unwitting U.S. taxpayers.

The move from the defensible to the far-fetched occurs because most Americans share the universal tendency to view complex issues in simple, moral terms. This does not mean letting everyone on your side off the hook. In fact, both Waters and Farrakhan hold drug addicts responsible for their bad habits; within the black community, the Nation of Islam is renowned for bringing thousands of junkies and crack-heads back from their personal hells. But the hard work of personal redemption goes easier when one can point a finger of blame at authorities who mean the entire community no good. A strategy of collective self-defense almost requires that the threat to one’s group be inflated and defined in the most menacing of terms. Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson knew all about that.


In a sense, those who tell conspiracy stories are also exhibiting a form of optimism, If we can only unmask the gigantic villainy, then our people can free themselves from its power. Exposure, at any rate, brings its own reward: it motivates one’s sense of righteousness and promotes a stronger mobilization against real enemies--the British army, big businessmen, communists, drug dealers and more.

And this kind of thinking also corresponds to a core belief of traditional Christians, the dominant religious group in the Western world. What is the devil if not the grand conspirator, who marshals his demonic powers to ensnare, corrupt and destroy the common man and woman? It would be foolish, though many atheists have tried, to demand that pious Christians prove the existence of the Devil. Their sense of good and evil, of human error and human redemption would be impossible without him.

So we should pause before dismissing those who indulge in the politics of paranoia. It would, no doubt, be preferable to analyze our ills with sobriety and a recognition of Pogo’s old adage, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” But that is to forget that we all suffer from history--and suffering always exerts its price.