5 Conspiracy Theories that Turned Out to Be True... Maybe?
Ever since the earliest days of Skeptoid, listeners have been asking me for two things: Do an episode on paranormal claims that turned out to be true, and do an episode on conspiracy theories that turned out to be true. For both types of requests, I've always answered "Great, just find some for me." Nothing. Ever. Crickets chirping. So when I went on the Joe Rogan podcast, which has an enormous conspiracy theorist following, I asked straight out: Please send me examples of conspiracy theories that turned out to be true. I was buried in email... to the degree that such a thing is possible.
Judging conspiracy theories can be a tricky business. For one thing, they're often uselessly vague. I can say "The government does things we don't know about," and then virtually anything can come out in the news and I can claim to have been right. For another thing, the world is full of real criminal conspiracies, and I can always point to any one of them and claim "Hey, this is a conspiracy theory that was proven true." So I have a simple pair of requirements that a conspiracy theory must adhere to in order to be considered the type of conspiracy theory that we're actually talking about when we use the term.
So now let's look at the most common "conspiracy theories proven true" that I was sent:
1. The Gulf of Tonkin
This was overwhelmingly the most common story sent to me from listeners of the Rogan podcast. It was the American excuse to enter the Vietnam War. A small naval battle took place between US forces and North Vietnamese torpedo boats, after which Congress gave President Lyndon B. Johnson the authority to order military action in support of certain Southeast Asian countries who were threatened by Communist forces. Basically, a thinly-veiled authorization for Johnson to go to war with North Vietnam.
The conspiracy part comes from the claim that the naval battle never actually took place, or that it was a fake "false flag" attack by American conspirators trying to give Congress the excuse they wanted. There's probably a grain of truth to this. There was indeed one real engagement on August 2, 1964, in which planes and ships were damaged on both sides and the North Vietnamese suffered a number of casualties. There's no doubt there. But it was the second attack two days later on August 4 that was fishy. American forces fired heavily on radar targets only, and nobody ever reported any visual sightings of North Vietnamese forces.
Throughout the day on August 4, as the action was unfolding, Captain Herrick of the destroyer USS Maddox cabled Washington a number of times, and reported in no uncertain terms that he believed there were no enemy forces. This information was public from the beginning. Even as Johnson was drafting his resolution, Senator Wayne Morse was holding public press conferences to reveal that the second attack was without evidence.
Provoking attacks may seem pretty unethical to most of us, but the fact is it's been a common military tactic since the Romans and the Carthaginians. At no point were the details of the Gulf of Tonkin incident unknown, so it never existed as a conspiracy theory.
The FBI's domestic Counter Intelligence Program was a terrible thing from the beginning. It operated since 1956, and also less formally for nearly 50 years before that. Their purpose was to discredit and harm American groups mainly associated with civil rights, characterizing them as hate groups that threatened national security. The program was blown in 1971 when a group of eight men, calling themselves the Citizens' Commission to Investigate the FBI, broke into a small FBI office in a perfectly planned and executed raid. They seized some 1,000 documents detailing COINTELPRO operations and mailed them to newspapers. The FBI was unable to identify any of the burglars before the statute of limitations ran out, so they got away with it clean. As a result, the FBI was forced to terminate this often-illegal program.
COINTELPRO fails both qualifications to be a conspiracy theory that was proven true. There are no records of anyone having made a specific and accurate claim prior to 1971 about what COINTELPRO was doing. Lots of people and groups had always believed the government was subverting them in some way, but there were no specific accusations. I can state right now that the government continues to subvert some groups in some way, and I'm right, but I also don't have any claims that are specific enough to be falsifiable. Nobody had any falsifiable claims about COINTELPRO until investigators did the legwork to reveal it.
3. Government Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
COINTELPRO was in its heyday when one of its targets, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated by a sniper in 1968. King's family always believed that the government was behind it, and that James Earl Ray, who was convicted of the killing, was an innocent scapegoat. Conspiracy theorists claim the King family was ultimately proven right in 1999 when they won a civil wrongful death lawsuit filed against a man named Loyd Jowers and unnamed co-conspirators. If a court finds that a conspiracy was responsible for the death of someone, that means it must be true, right?
Well, often it does, but certainly not in this case. Nobody had ever even heard of Loyd Jowers until 1993, twenty four years after the investigation convicted James Earl Ray. Jowers went on the television show Prime Time Live and told a fairly wacky tale, about how he and the Mafia and the US Government conspired to murder King. His story was full of contradictions and made little sense, and the general feeling was that he was just some random guy out to make a name for himself and hopefully get a book deal.
A few years later, King's widow Coretta Scott King filed a civil suit against Jowers and unnamed co-conspirators, asking for damages of $100. The government didn't even bother to show up (in part because no one in the government was named), and only one reporter actually stayed for the whole case. Mrs. King essentially won by default, which is what happens when no defendant shows up. The case was so trivial that it wasn't worth anyone's time to contest. Given that every single criminal investigation of the murder found James Earl Ray to be the killer, the conspiracy theorists can hardly claim credit for getting this one right.
Incidentally, Jowers died shortly after paying the $100, so his lucrative book deal never quite materialized.
4. The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments
From 1932 to 1972, a program operated by the US Public Health Service operated a clinic in Tuskegee, Alabama, providing free health care to the local black sharecroppers, many of whom were infected with syphilis. Contrary to some modern versions of the story, the study did not actually give anyone syphilis who didn't have it. Instead, they continued their studies of the progression of the disease, even after 1940 when syphilis became easily treatable with penicillin — a treatment they withheld from their patients.
600 patients were studied over the forty years, about two thirds of whom had syphilis. Some died, went blind, or suffered other effects of the disease, all untreated by a government clinic that easily could have cured them. The study began as a genuine community-based public healthcare study; but over the years, as scientists came to believe that blacks and whites responded differently to the disease, it gradually became an all-out exploitation of helpless victims. It was useful science, but with abhorrent ethical standards, or none at all.
No outsiders are known to have ever suspected the nature of the program, thus it never existed as a conspiracy theory. Peter Buxtun, a former Public Health Service investigator, blew the whistle in 1972 and provided full details to the newspapers.
5. CIA Drugs for Guns
For a long time, the US Central Intelligence Agency has worked to maintain fragile relationships with small foreign governments or factions within them. During the Korean War, the CIA employed Chinese warlords to get intelligence reports from peasants. During the Nicaraguan conflict, the CIA employed men like Panama's Manuel Noriega for similar reasons. In both cases, the people the CIA worked with were involved in the drug trade. To the CIA, condoning their drug shipments to the United States was a small price to pay for what the government saw as a far more important objective: intelligence.
In all likelihood, most details about such relationships have yet to surface, but investigative reporters have always found plenty. The most famous indictment of CIA involvement with drug traffickers was written by Gary Webb for the San Jose Mercury News and later expanded into his 1998 book Dark Alliance. Sadly, amid overwhelming criticism from all sides, Webb soon took his own life. But not even Webb's investigation, nor those who have followed him, ever turned up evidence of charges made by some of today's conspiracy theorists like the CIA purposefully got people addicted to cocaine, or sold it themselves to fund weapons purchases.
In this case, the conspiracy theories have never been evidenced, and the facts that have come to light were discovered by patient and detailed investigators on the ground and immediately published. I can't find a single case of a conspiracy theorist having made a specific, falsifiable claim that was later proven true by investigators.
If you have a conspiracy theory, you cannot work backwards. You cannot start with your theory, and then set about looking for information that supports it. The investigators who have revealed the conspiracies we now know to have existed did so by investigating, piecing together what they learned, and then reporting their findings to the world. If you believe or support a conspiracy theory that has not yet come to light and been confirmed, history shows you're almost certainly wrong, and could probably stand to be a bit more skeptical.
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