We have been discussing at the National Air and Space Museum the possibility of pursuing an educational workshop on the place of conspiracy theories in modern America, especially as it relates to aerospace history but also in the broader context of our national history. Does it hold any interest for you? If we go forward with this idea it will be focused on teaching critical thinking and analysis of evidence. What do you think of this possibility?
Of course, as a society we embrace ideas of conspiracy as an explanation of how and why many events have happened all the time. Conspiracies play to our innermost fears and hostilities that there is a well-organized, well-financed, and Machiavellian design being executed by some malevolent group, the dehumanized “them,” which seek to rob “us” of something we hold dear.
Conspiracy theories abound in American history. Oliver Stone’s film, J.F.K., shows how receptive Americans are to believing that Kennedy was killed as a result of a massive conspiracy variously involving Fidel Castro; American senior intelligence and law enforcement officers; high communist leaders in the Soviet Union; union organizers; organized crime; and perhaps even the Vice President, Lyndon B. Johnson. Stone’s film only brought the assassination conspiracy to a broad American public. For years amateur and not-so-amateur researchers have been churning out books and articles about the Kennedy assassination conspiracy. It has been one of the really significant growth industries in American history during the last 45 years.
Numerous other instances of significant movements in American history have also been motivated at least in part by the possibility of conspiracy. The anti-Masonic crusade in the early nineteenth century was prompted by a fear that Masons were conspiring to overthrow the government and establish a totalitarian state in which they were supreme. Near the same time an anti-Catholic effort arose to fight a perceived “papal conspiracy” to take over the U.S. The Populist movement of the 1890s was predicated in part on a belief that there was a grand conspiracy of business interests in the East who sought to subjugate farmers by setting prices and making them dependent on “moneyed interests.” Some have argued that in 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt manipulated events in the Pacific to provoke the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor so he could join the Allies in a war against Nazi Germany. More recently, some argue that there is a conspiracy of scientists, politicians, and others to convince the world of global warming and thereby force changes in the economy and lifestyle. There is a counter-conspiracy that a well-organized conspiracy exists to defeat belief in global warming and thereby ensure that nothing of significance changes.
If we were to go forward with an educational program relating to aerospace conspiracies and their place in our history, I would ask for your list of major conspiracy theories in air and space. I will start with my list. Please understand that I do not specifically subscribe to any of these theories. What do you think of them? What else would you add? What do you think does not need to be discussed? I welcome your thoughts.
Here is my list of major aerospace conspiracies:
- The Wright brothers were not the first to fly—small numbers of advocates argue that Alberto Santos-Dumont, John Joseph Montgomery, or some other experimenter was actually first and that a conspiracy—who is involved in the conspiracy is idiosyncratic—exists to keep the truth from the public.
- Amelia Earhart did not die in a Pacific plane crash in 1937—she was really an American spy captured by the Japanese or she suffered some other such nefarious end.
- Denials of the Moon landings—a small but vocal group insists that humans have never landed on the Moon and that the U.S. government is lying to us about it.
- Extraterrestrials are visiting Earth, and have been since at least 1947 at the time of the “Roswell Incident”—advocates claim that the government knows the truth of this but denies the allegations. This is a broad area that includes Area 51, alien spacecraft, extraterrestrial bodies, and perhaps even live aliens residing in the U.S. while the government is withholding this truth.
- The face on Mars—the Viking orbiter in 1976 took a single photograph of a part of the Martian surface that appeared to look like a human face staring up toward the sky. NASA insists it looks this way because of light and shadow on a hillside but conspiracy theorists belief that this is part of a cover-up to keep the truth of alien life on Mars quiet.
- The 9/11 attacks by airplane into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon were staged by government agents because…the reasons given are broad and often shocking.
- The Apollo 1 astronauts killed on January 27, 1967, were eliminated by NASA dirty deeds to keep them from revealing…choose the secret of your choice.
- The Air Force has a super secret spaceplane, the Aurora, which flies military missions into orbit on a regular basis.
- Contrails from highflying aircraft are actually chemical or biological agents deliberately sprayed at high altitudes for some nefarious purpose undisclosed to the general public.
- The Bermuda Triangle—a region in the western part of the Caribbean bounded roughly by Miami, Bermuda, and Puerto Rico—is a place where presumably a mysterious force makes aircraft and surface vessels disappear and the U.S. government is lying about it.
Do you have other conspiracy theories relating to air and space history that we might discuss?
Roger D. Launius is a senior curator in the Space History Division of the National Air and Space Museum.