BELIEFS AND INKLINGS ABOUT HIGHER powers and purposes are fine, within reason. Imagining alternate realities is fine, up to a point. Experiencing out-of-your-mind ecstasy is fine, every now and then. And rationalism is essential—but by the same token, it can also be carried to obsessive and excessive heights and depths. In the early 1960s, a mania for a certain kind of hyperrationalist abstraction had U.S. leaders in its thrall. It came along at just the right moment, as the Cold War and then the Vietnam War reached their horrific peaks, to help give reason itself a permanent taint in the American mind.
The mathematician John von Neumann, a father of both the digital and the nuclear ages, left Germany for the United States just before the Nazis took power. As a young man, he created game theory, the distillation of human decision making to its underlying, purely mathematical essentials. He helped to create the atomic bomb and to choose the Japanese cities to be incinerated, work about which he seemed blithe and unchastened. In the 1960s, once the United States and the Soviet Union were both armed with hundreds of nuclear launchers and a thousand megatons worth of warheads, each side capable of destroying hundreds of the other’s cities, our central national defense strategy was reduced to a pure game theory notion that Von Neumann had helped craft: if rational player one believes that rational player two, no matter how massively attacked, will retain the ability to catastrophically counterattack, player one will never attack in the first place. Perfectly logical. The possible downside of the nuclearized “game” was hundreds of millions of deaths, however. People were appalled when they learned of Von Neumann’s jocular acronym: Mutual Assured Destruction, or MAD.
President Kennedy had made a big campaign issue out of America’s supposed nuclear missile inferiority to the Soviets—a complete fiction. He chose as his secretary of defense a caricature of the rational modern technocrat: the Harvard MBA, former accounting professor, and Ford Motor Company president Robert Strange McNamara. McNamara was infatuated with “systems analysis,” the shiny new computerized approach, made possible by Von Neumann’s mathematical work, that presumed to solve complex problems—especially military ones—by reducing them to quantitative data. The most important of McNamara’s whiz-kid assistant secretaries had been a senior figure at the RAND Corporation, the original postwar think tank and the fountainhead of systems analysis. The problem was that the crunched data and equations made systems analysis looklike pure science, and its self-confident brainiac practitioners and their clients certainly believed it was a form of perfect superrationality.
RAND’s most public figure was Herman Kahn, who was also the most influential promoter of the idea that nuclear war wouldn’t be so terrible. Kahn was a consultant to McNamara’s Defense Department as the United States prepared to intervene militarily in Southeast Asia. McNamara and Kahn envisioned beating back Communism in Vietnam as a matter of feeding variables through the Pentagon’s nifty new PPBS—that’s Planning, Programming and Budgeting System—which made waging and winning a modern war look like designing and manufacturing new and improved Fords. “The Vietnam war,” Reich wrote in The Greening of America, “represents a form of madness in which logic is carried to fantastic extremes.” He had a point. In addition to the fact that moral calculus isn’t reducible to actual calculus, the empiricism these best and brightest practiced was often faulty and fake. Enemy body counts are one very limited metric in war, seductive because they’re simply quantifiable, and in this case grossly exaggerated as well. Furthermore, the American rationalists in charge didn’t or couldn’t recognize that the war in Vietnam was driven as much by emotion as by reason, by their exaggerated terror of Communism and their concern for America’s superpower reputation.
At the same time, RAND had just revived war-gaming as a way for military leaders to manage real-life wars. But not that silly antique stuff with little models of ships and airplanes—now there were computers and game theory, with genius math underlying it all. Now wars that hadn’t even happened yet could be imagined and planned and “fought” in advance. The emotionlessness made it all seem even more rational. Herman Kahn’s RAND version of systems analysis, one of his biographers writes, amounted to “speculative fabrications” in which “Kahn’s science became science fiction.” War games were another entrancing and specifically American artifact in the 1960s that confused interesting fiction and the real thing.
ONE KIND OF logic was carried to fantastic extremes by the war makers, and then another kind of logic was carried to fantastic extremes by some of the war’s opponents. As the Vietnam War escalated and careened, the antirationalist 1960s flowered. “Over and over,” the student radical and antiwar leader Tom Hayden wrote long afterward, “it came down to that question—what was reality in an unreal time?” The anti-Establishment deliria came in both scary and blissful versions, as always—the way some Christians are premillennialists, counting on a violent and cleansing Armageddon now, while some are postmillennialists, imagining a peaceful redemption of the world.
Both countercultural types were present at the March on the Pentagon to Confront the War Makers, the remarkable protests in Washington, D.C., in the fall of 1967, as the war approached its ferocious peak. In his book about those spectacles, The Armies of the Night, forty-four-year-old Norman Mailer wrote of “the generation [that] believed in LSD, in witches, in tribal knowledge, in orgy, in revolution,” how “now suddenly an entire generation of acid-heads seemed to have said goodbye to easy visions of heaven.” He described chants—“ ‘Out, demons, out—back to darkness, ye servants of Satan’ ”—and the circle of hundreds of protesters intending “to form a ring of exorcism sufficiently powerful to raise the Pentagon three hundred feet.” They were hoping the building would “turn orange and vibrate until all evil emissions had fled this levitation. At that point the war in Vietnam would end.”
In the modern age, purely happy fantasies tend to be apolitical and darker fantasies political—thus the difference between hippies and the New Left. And by the end of the 1960s, plenty of zealots on the left were engaged in extreme magical thinking. They hadn’t started the decade that way. In 1962 a little campus group called Students for a Democratic Society adopted its founding document, drafted by twenty-two-year-old Tom Hayden. The manifesto is sweet and reasonable, decrying inequality and poverty and “the pervasiveness of racism in American life,” seeing the potential benefits as well as the downsides of industrial automation, declaring themselves “in basic opposition to the communist system.”
Then, kaboom, the Big Bang. Anything and everything became believable. Reason was chucked. Dystopian and utopian fantasies seemed plausible. Mailer had written that the New Left, feeling “the militancy of the blacks as a reproof,” were “these mad middle-class children with…their lust for apocalypse.” SDS became the New Left institution, and in 1969 its most apocalyptic and charismatic faction, calling itself Weatherman, split off and got all the attention. Its members believed they and other young white Americans, aligned with black insurgents, would be the vanguard in a new civil war. They issued statements about “the need for armed struggle as the only road to revolution” and how “dope is one of our weapons….Guns and grass are united in the youth underground.” And then they went to work making and setting off bombs. Some got a lot of attention—such as the ones in 1970 at New York police headquarters, in 1971 at the U.S. Capitol, and in 1972 at the Pentagon—but during an average week in 1969 and 1970, at least ten bombs were set off by the far left in America. In 1973 a dozen young fantasy revolutionaries formed the Symbionese Liberation Army in California, announcing they were “under black and minority leadership,” even though all but one were white. They murdered the black Oakland school superintendent, then kidnapped the media heiress Patty Hearst—who became a comrade/character in the SLA’s fiction, using the nom de guerre Tania, and stayed with them a year and a half robbing banks, driving getaway cars, and shooting up a store. If underground militant cells were setting off hundreds of bombs and robbing banks around the country these days, of course, America would be crazed, consumed, talking of nothing else, and probably under martial law. The bombings back then seldom made the national news because a reasonable and rational Establishment was still in charge of the media discourse, determined to help Americans remain reasonable and rational. “It is entirely possible,” Wolfe wrote, “that in the long run historians will regard the entire New Left experience as not so much a political as a religious episode wrapped in semi military gear and guerrilla talk.”
It wasn’t only political extremists who became unhinged. In the 1970s the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency set up the infamous Project Star Gate to see if they could gather intelligence and conduct espionage by means of ESP.* Even before the Weathermen convinced themselves they were American Vietcong, officials at the FBI, CIA, and military intelligence agencies, as well as in urban police departments, convinced themselves that antiwar protesters and campus lefties in general were dangerous militants, and they expanded secret programs to spy on, infiltrate, and besmirch their organizations. Which thereby validated preexisting paranoia on the New Left and encouraged their wingnuts’ revolutionary delusions. It was a symbiotic vicious circle, alarmed and overreaching government fantasists versus alarmed and overreaching antigovernment fantasists.
THE FANTASY FAR right had its own glorious 1960s moment. Right after Senator McCarthy died, one of his wealthy supporters, Robert Welch, founded the John Birch Society. According to Welch, both Republican and Democratic cabinets included “conscious, deliberate, dedicated agent[s] of the Soviet conspiracy” determined to create “a world-wide police state, absolutely and brutally governed from the Kremlin.” In the early 1960s, the Birch Society started getting huge national media attention. It recruited tens of thousands of members, in chapters in dozens of states, and opened American Opinion bookstores and “reading rooms” around the country. The federal government was now “50–70 percent” Communist and was “under operational control of the Communist party,” Welch claimed in 1961. Obviously academia and foundations and the news media were infiltrated, but the American Medical Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce were also “comsymps,” in Welch’s phrase.
The conspiracy came to be understood as extending well beyond American commies and comsymps serving Soviet and Chinese interests. Communism, according to the Birchers’ new line, was just one piece of a global master conspiracy, a tool of a much grander plot by a “clique of international gangsters.” It stretched back to the eighteenth-century European Illuminati—thus reviving that paranoid fixation in America for the first time in a century. For simplicity’s sake, Welch wrote in 1966, “let’s call this ruling clique simply the Insiders.” For sure all the socialist innovations of the last half-century were their doing—“central banking, a graduated personal income tax,” and the new “Medicare monstrosity”—but also fluoridating the U.S. water supply and expanding civil rights. The main bogeyman concerning racial integration was the chief justice of the Supreme Court, demonized on the Birchers’ IMPEACH EARL WARREN billboards that I remember from my childhood, some featuring Confederate flags. Warren was a former Republican governor and vice-presidential nominee who’d been appointed chief justice by President Eisenhower. And speaking of Eisenhower, Welch had “an accumulation of detailed evidence so extensive and so palpable” that he knew “beyond any reasonable doubt” that Ike—European Allied commander during World War II, beatified two-term Republican president—had been not merely “a stooge” of the commies but was “knowingly accepting and abiding by Communist orders, and consciously serving the Communist conspiracy for all of his adult life.” A crazy fiction.
Because the John Birch Society’s extraordinary rise happened in the early 1960s, before the forces of reason really started losing control, it could be effectively marginalized. The mainstream media did its part—a New York Times headline forthrightly called the Birchers SEMI-SECRET EXTREMISTS, to Time they resembled “a tiresome, comic-opera joke,” and the Los Angeles Times published a multipart investigative series and a front-page editorial condemning them—but the decisive and telling rejection came from the Establishment right. Leaders of the conservative movement, still new and still actually conservative, worried that these noisy crackpots might ruin their chance at the nomination and presidency in 1964.
In 1962 the movement’s two key intellectual voices, William F. Buckley and Russell Kirk, his colleague and a syndicated columnist, met in Palm Beach with their would-be candidate, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona. “Every other person in Phoenix,” the alarmed Goldwater told them, exaggerating, “is a member of the John Birch Society. I’m not talking about Commie-haunted apple pickers or cactus drunks, I’m talking about the highest caste of men of affairs.” They resolved to take down Welch and the Birchers. “I’ll just say,” Kirk proposed, “that the guy is loony and should be put away.” For the next issue of his National Review, Buckley wrote a five-thousand-word hit piece: “How can the John Birch Society be an effective political instrument” with a leader whose “views on current affairs are…so far removed from common sense?” Goldwater piled on in a letter to the magazine, condemning “views far removed from reality.”
Done and done. The leaders of the reality-based conservative movement and Republican Party led, declaring the John Birch Society beyond the pale and rendering it moot as an official player in the national political discourse. Within three years, the fraction of Americans with an unfavorable view of Birchers, according to Gallup, went from a minority to a majority, and when Ronald Reagan ran for the California governorship in 1965, even he called them “kind of a lunatic fringe.”
But just because the Birch organization and brand was discredited, true believers in that mad vision of a global conspiracy involving Communists and liberals and elites didn’t stop believing and multiplying. My parents were not much for conspiracy theories, but they were Goldwater supporters, and they owned one of the millions of copies of Phyllis Schlafly’s pro-Goldwater polemic, A Choice Not an Echo. “Most of what is ascribed to ‘accident’ or ‘coincidence,’ ” she wrote, “is really the result of human plans.” The same year a guy in suburban St. Louis with a perfect name—John Stormer—self-published None Dare Call It Treason, which explained how the federal government and the press and the entire U.S. not-for-profit sector were dominated by treasonous stooges and co-conspirators. Stormer was a leader of the Missouri GOP. “Is there a conspiratorial plan,” he asked, “to destroy the United States into which foreign aid, planned inflation, distortion of treaty-making powers and disarmament all fit?” It was a rhetorical question. None Dare Call It Treason sold a couple of million copies in its first year, and a million more a year for the rest of the 1960s. The ground was softened for another giant bestseller, None Dare Call It Conspiracy, published in 1972. “The conspirators come from the very highest social strata,” the authors explained. “They are immensely wealthy, highly educated and extremely cultured,” a conspiracy of “the Insiders,” Rockefellers, Rothschilds, “the elite of the academic world and mass communications media,” Illuminati, intent on creating a “world supra-government.” One of its blurbs was from the same Eisenhower administration Mormon who’d led the first cabinet-meeting prayer. None Dare Call It Conspiracy sold five million copies.
THAT FURIOUSLY, ELABORATELY suspicious way of understanding the world started spreading across the political spectrum after the assassination of John Kennedy in 1963. Dallas couldn’t have been the work of just one nutty loser with a mail-order rifle, could it? Surely the Communists or the CIA or the Birchers or the Mafia or oligarchs or some conspiratorial combination must have arranged it all, right? The shift in American thinking wasn’t registered immediately. In his influential book The Paranoid Style in American Politics, published more than a year after the president’s murder, Richard Hofstadter devoted only two sentences and a footnote to it, observing that “conspiratorial explanations of Kennedy’s assassination” don’t have much “currency…in the United States.” Elaborate paranoia was more of an established tic of the Bircherite far right, but because those folks fanatically despised Kennedy, they weren’t motivated to believe in a conspiracy to assassinate him. The left needed a little time to catch up.
In 1964 a left-wing writer published the first American book about a JFK conspiracy, claiming that a Texas oilman had been the mastermind, and soon there were many books arguing that the official government inquiry—chaired by the far right’s bête noire, Chief Justice Earl Warren—had ignored the hidden conspiracies. One of them, Rush to Judgment by Mark Lane, a lawyer on the left, was a New York Times bestseller for six months. Then in 1967 New Orleans’s wacko district attorney indicted a local businessman for being part of a supposed conspiracy of gay right-wingers to assassinate Kennedy—“a Nazi operation, whose sponsors included some of the oil-rich millionaires in Texas,” with the CIA, FBI, and Bobby Kennedy complicit in the cover-up. After NBC News broadcast an investigation discrediting the theory, the DA said the documentary was a piece of “thought control,” obviously commissioned by NBC’s parent company RCA, “one of the top ten defense contractors” and thus “desperate because we are in the process of uncovering their hoax.” The notion of an immense and monstrous JFK assassination conspiracy became conventional wisdom in America.
As a result, more Americans than ever would become reflexive conspiracy theorists. Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow, a complicated global fantasy about the interconnections among militarists and Illuminati and hashish, and the validity of paranoid thinking, won the 1974 National Book Award. In the early ’60s, Hollywood released the Washington conspiracy thrillers Seven Days in May and The Manchurian Candidate, and by the 1970s conspiracy became the smart Hollywood dramatic premise—Chinatown, The Conversation, The Parallax View, and Three Days of the Condor came out in the same two-year period. Of course, real life at the time conspired to make such stories plausible. The infiltration by the FBI and intelligence agencies of left groups had just been revealed, and the Watergate break-in and its cover-up were an actual criminal conspiracy masterminded in the White House.
A revived will to believe in all-powerful conspiracies spread and grew from the 1960s on, an invasive species that became a permanent feature of the American mental landscape—like a new superkudzu that thrived everywhere, not just in the Southern heat and humidity. Within a few decades, the conviction that a web of villainous elites covertly seeks to impose a malevolent global regime made its way from the lunatic right to the mainstream. Delusional conspiracism wouldn’t spread quite as widely or deeply on the left, but more and more people on both sides would come to believe that an extraordinarily powerful cabal secretly runs America, a dark conspiracy of international organizations and think-tanky groups and big businesses and politicians.
Each camp, conspiracists on the right and on the left, was ostensibly the enemy of the other, but they began operating as de facto tag-team allies. It’s like relativist professors enabling science-denying Christians, and how the antipsychiatry craze in the 1960s appealed simultaneously to left-wingers and right-wingers (as well as to Scientologists). Conspiracy theories were more of a modern right-wing habit before people on the left signed on. However, the belief that the federal government had secret plans for detention camps for dissidents, for instance, sprouted in the 1970s on the paranoid left before it became a fixture on the right.
In fact, this left-right tag-teaming became a motif in the 1960s and ’70s. The modern homeschooling movement, for instance, got going then in both fundamentalist Christian and Woodstockian iterations. The former sought to reduce children’s exposure to ideas from outside the Bible-based bubbles of family and church. In left-bohemian milieux, parents decided that their children are not in this world to live up to expectations; that they must only and always do their own thing; and that tests and grades would turn them into drones of the corporate state. And in the 1970s the courts and state legislatures started deciding okay, whatever, do your own thing, Christian, hippie, it’s all good, school’s optional.
Retreating to self-sufficient rural isolation, living off the grid, became a hippie thing in the 1960s before it took off as a right-wing conceit in the 1970s. The back-to-the-land movement, with the Whole Earth Catalog as its official almanac and souvenir program, floated along on dreams of agrarian utopia. (For a year or two around 1970, I was a teenage Walter Mitty with my own Whole Earth dream.) Survivalism was the same but different. Both shared a vision of themselves as clued-in self-reliant ordinary heroes escaping the urban corporate-government hive because it was decadent, corrupt, and corrupting. One was more New England-town-meeting Transcendentalist, the other more sharp-shooting Idaho-wilderness mountain man. One had more in common with hopeful Christian postmillennials, building a new Eden, the other more like premillennials ensuring their own salvation in the violent end-time. But both were (and are) overcome by the long-running nostalgia for a dream of a purer, pastoral America they’d picked up from the fantasy-industrial complex.
Gun nut became a phrase in the 1960s because gun nuts really didn’t exist until then—and they emerged on the far right and left simultaneously. The John Birch Society, Malcolm X, and the Black Panthers were our first modern gun rights absolutists. The Panthers’ self-conception, as a heavily armed and well-regulated militia ready to defend Oakland’s black community against the police, led quickly to a California law, sponsored by a Republican and signed by Governor Reagan, that made it illegal to carry loaded guns in public. Huey Newton, twenty-five-year-old cofounder of the Panthers, condemned it as part of “the plot to disarm” Americans.
Restricting the sale and use of guns became a salient political issue only after the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, Jr. The gun control laws enacted or seriously proposed were modest. When Congress was passing gun regulation in 1968, the National Rifle Association’s executive vice-president wrote that “the measure as a whole appears to be one that the sportsmen of America can live with.” The GOP platforms of 1968 and 1972 supported gun regulation—and President Nixon, his speechwriter William Safire recalled, told him that “guns are an abomination” and that he would have outlawed handguns if he could. But violent crime had tripled in a decade, and in the late 1970s hysterics managed to take over the NRA, replacing its motto “Firearms Safety Education, Marksmanship Training, Shooting for Recreation” with the second half of the Second Amendment—“The Right of the People to Keep and Bear Arms Shall Not Be Infringed.” Within a decade, the official Republican position shifted almost 180 degrees to oppose any federal registration of firearms.
In other words, fantasy was starting to hold its own against reason. Three national politicians had been gunned down over the course of a few dozen months. There were persuasive explanations for each assassination: three individuals each driven by his own fantasy to shoot a famous politician. And there was a reasonable political response: legislation to lightly regulate gun ownership. But the assassination victims were exciting and beloved celebrities whose spectacular killings made them seem still more like fictional characters. One of the assassins was himself assassinated, while in police custody, by a shady character, on live TV. Afterward, two fantasies became entrenched American idées fixes: conspiracies are the key underlying mechanisms of existence, and unlimited gun ownership is both the irreplaceable symbol and means of preserving one’s liberty.
AMERICANS FELT NEWLY entitled to believe absolutely anything, to mix up fiction and reality at will. I’m pretty certain that the unprecedented surge of UFO reports was not evidence of extraterrestrials’ increasing presence but a symptom of Americans’ credulity and magical thinking suddenly unloosed. We wanted to believe in extraterrestrials, so we did. What makes the UFO mania that started in the 1960s historically significant rather than just amusing, however, was the web of elaborate stories that were now being spun, not just sightings and landings but abductions and government cover-ups and secret alliances with interplanetary beings. Those earnest beliefs planted more seeds for the extravagant American conspiracy thinking that by the turn of the century would be rampant and seriously toxic.
As I’ve said, a single idée fixe like this often appears in both frightened and hopeful versions. That was true of the suddenly booming belief in alien visitors, tending toward the sanguine as the 1960s turned into the 1970s, such as the ones that Jack Nicholson’s character in Easy Rider earnestly describes as he’s getting high for the first time. “We was down in Mexico two weeks ago—we seen forty of ’em flying in formation. They’ve got bases all over the world now, you know. The government knows all about ’em….These leaders have decided to repress this information….So now the Venutians are meeting with people in all walks of life, in an advisory capacity.” In the ultimate late-1960s movie, it was whoa truth telling as much as comedy, a summary of an emerging American article of faith. The same year Easy Rider came out, one evening in southern Georgia, a failed gubernatorial candidate named Jimmy Carter saw a moving moon-sized white or green light in the sky that “didn’t have any solid substance to it” and “got closer and closer,” stopped, turned blue, then red and back to white, and then zoomed away.
The first big nonfiction abduction tale appeared around the same time, in a bestselling book about a married couple in New Hampshire, recounting the episode they believed happened to them while driving their Chevy sedan late one night. They saw a bright object in the sky that the wife, a UFO buff already, figured was a spacecraft. She began having nightmares about being abducted by aliens, and more than two years later both of them underwent hypnosis. The details of the abducting aliens and their spacecraft that each described were different and changed over time. The man’s hypnotized description of the aliens bore an uncanny resemblance to the ones in an episode of The Outer Limits broadcast on ABC just before his hypnosis session. Thereafter hypnosis became the standard way for people who believed they were abducted to recall the supposed experiences. And the couple’s story established the standard abduction tale format: humanoid creatures take you aboard a spacecraft, communicate both telepathically and in spoken English, medically examine you, insert long needles into you, then let you go.
The couple were undoubtedly sincere believers. The sincerely credulous are also perfect suckers, and in the late 1960s a convicted thief and embezzler named Erich von Däniken decided to take advantage of as many Americans as possible. Chariots of the Gods?posited that extraterrestrials had come to Earth thousands of years ago to help build the Egyptian pyramids, Stonehenge, and the giant stone heads on Easter Island. That book and its many sequels sold tens of millions of copies, and the Chariots documentary had a gigantic box-office take in the early 1970s. Americans were ready to believe Von Däniken’s fantasy to a degree they simply wouldn’t have been a decade earlier, before the 1960s sea change. Certainly a decade earlier NBC wouldn’t have aired an hour-long documentary in prime time based on it. And while I’m at it: until we’d passed through the 1960s and half the ’70s, I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have given the presidency to some dude, especially a born-again Christian, who’d recently seen a huge color-shifting luminescent UFO hovering near him.
* Charles Tart, the “consensus trance” professor, was a consultant. So were parapsychologists from the Stanford Research Institute who claimed to have validated the charlatan Uri Geller’s psychic spoon-bending in the 1970s.