A Century of Conspiracies
Real Historical Conspiracies
Your book examines actions FDR took that may have forced Japan into attacking the U.S. at Pearl Harbor. What were those actions and why did he take them?
FDR didn’t force the Japanese into attacking at Pearl Harbor, but he did take some actions that made the Japanese imperialists believe that war with the United States was inevitable. Roosevelt’s administration cut off the sale of oil to the Japanese government, for the very good reason that the Japanese were raping and pillaging China. Japan therefore needed to find another source of oil, so it decided to attack the Dutch East Indies, which had rich pools of petroleum. The Japanese imperial government calculated that an attack on the Dutch colonies might prompt U.S. retaliation. And so the militarists in Japan decided it would be the wisest course to preemptively attack the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor.
Your book looks at the government’s harassment of scientist Linus Pauling. Why did they do this and what was the effect on his work and the advance of science?
Linus Pauling was one of the most brilliant scientists of the 20th century. Yet, at the height of the Cold War, the U.S. government was more concerned with his leftist political beliefs than his scientific discoveries. In 1952, the State Department’s passport office decided that it was not in the “best interests of the United States” for Pauling to attend a conference in Europe. Some scholars have speculated that he suffered his greatest scientific disappointment as a result. Had he been allowed to attend the conference, he might have seen the X-ray images of DNA taken by British scientists, and he, rather than the Cambridge University team of James Watson and Francis Crick, might have solved the riddle of the double helix.
The FBI never found any evidence that Pauling was a Communist, but agents of the U.S. government still tried their best to ruin his career. They prevented him from speaking and traveling, urged private donors to stop funding his lab, and persuaded his university to launch an internal investigation of his politics.
The government harassment of Pauling shows the self-defeating aspect of official conspiracy theories. FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover had a conspiracy theory—that Pauling was an agent of Communist Russia—and thus America’s internal security agency branded one of its most innovative minds as an enemy of the state.
Is Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks work a danger to national security or a valuable service in making governments more transparent?
When Chinese leader Zhou Enlai was asked about the effects of the French Revolution, he said it’s too soon to say. I think we really don’t yet know about the effects of the WikiLeaks [disclosures]. Assange is an intriguing person with ambitious goals. It’s not yet clear whether his leaks have helped to prompt important discussions or have compromised U.S. security.
Some of Assange’s staffers at WikiLeaks have started a new operation, OpenLeaks, with the sole goal of transparency and not with the intention of undermining the U.S. government.
Will conspiracies be easier or harder to hide as technology advances?
In the Internet age, it’s much harder for governments to keep information secret. However, there’s so much information that it can be hard to separate the truly revealing nuggets from tedious gossip.
Do you plan to publish any more books about conspiracies?
No. I’ve gotten enough crazy email to last a lifetime.
Any guess as to the next big thing in the realm of conspiracy theories?
No, but I can ask the guys in that spaceship hovering outside my office.
Kathryn Olmsted is a history professor at the University of California, Davis. She is the author of three books on government secrecy. In addition to Real Enemies, she has written Challenging the Secret Government: The Post-Watergate Investigations of the CIA and FBI (University of North Carolina Press, 1996) and Red Spy Queen: A Biography of Elizabeth Bentley (University of North Carolina Press, 2002).