History 118a: Conspiracy Planet

Conspiracy typewriter

History 118a, Conspiracy Planet: How conspiracies theories, conspiracies, and conspiracy scandals shape history

Time: TuTh 1:30PM – 3:05PM
Place: Steven Acad 150

Contact your TAs: Muiris MacGiollabhui; Donald Hickey

Overview: This course will explore the history of one of the principal obsessions of our age, the conspiracy theory. Millions of people in the United States and around the world believe in conspiracy theories. Most public opinion polls, for example, show that a majority of Americans think that more than one individual killed President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. Significant portions of the world continue to believe in elaborate plots like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, or that AIDS was deliberately created by governments and pharmaceutical companies, or that on September 11, 2001, the World Trade Center complex was downed not by airplanes, but by a “controlled demolition” masterminded by the United States national security state.

What are we to make of these claims? What do they say about our societies? How do they impact history, or reflect larger historical trends? How do we understand the context of these ideas? And how do we understand them in relation to objectively confirmed conspiracies, of which there are at least as many? How do we know when a conspiracy has really happened, and cannot simply be dismissed as a ‘theory’? Conspiracy Planet will grapple with these questions.


David Aaronovitch, Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Modern History
Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics
Kathy Olmstead, Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11
Cass R. Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule, “Conspiracy Theories”
Jesse Walker, The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory

Buy your books here.

Classroom lecture slides


T-shirt says "It's not a conspiracy when you have the facts."Week 1: Introduction to the class (April 4 and 6)

What is a conspiracy theory? How many are there? How far back do they go? Is there a difference between a “conspiracy theory” and “history” or a “historical account”? How do we define the “smoking gun” element of a conspiracy? How does the scientific method aid us in exploring this problem?

This week read Sunstein, Vermeule, “Conspiracy Theories”

No sections for week one. Sections begin on week two.

Week 2: Should we worry about conspiracy theories? (April 11 and 13)

This week read Hofstadter, Part I, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”; Walker, “The Paranoid Style Is American Politics;” Olmsted, “Introduction.”

Section discussion: Cass Sunstein argues that conspiracy theories flow from larger societal problems. What societal trends does Sunstein find so worrisome? Name three. Do you agree that these tend to encourage widespread belief in conspiracy theories?

Week 3: J’accuse! The wave of anti-Semitic conspiracyism at the turn of the 20th-century through the First World War (April 18 and 20)

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the secret causes of World War I and the Russian Revolution

This week read Aaronovitch, chapters 1 and 2; Olmstead, chapter 1; Walker, chapters 2 to 6

Section discussion: How do Walker and Olmstead differ with Hofstadter about conspiracy theories?

Term paper work: Please submit a one page assignment outlining what text you’d like to explore and what secondary sources you’ll use for the project.

Week 4 (April 25 and 27): Back door to war. Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Japanese Empire

This week read Aaronovitch, chapter 3; Olmstead, chapter 2

Section discussion: Why did Jews become the great secret malefactors of Europe at the end of the nineteenth-century?

Identification test one on Thursday

Week 5 : Who will watch the conspirators? The global rise of the national security state (May 2 and 4)

Josef Stalin’s purge trials; Joe McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade

This week read Aaronovitch, chapter 2; Olmstead, chapter 3

Section discussion: What were the politics of the conspiracy theorists who believed in the “back door” to World War II plot?

Week 6: The assassination of John F. Kennedy (May 9 and 11)

This week read Aaronovitch, chapter 4; Olmstead, chapter 4

Section discussion: Joe McCarthy was right that there were communists in government. Yet he still is remembered as a conspiracy demagogue. Why?

Identification test two on Thursday

Marilyn Monroe bitten by a vampireWeek 7: Marilyn Monroe; Princess Diana; conspiracy culture (May 16 and 18)

This week read Aaronovitch, chapter 4; Walker, chapters 7 and 9

Section discussion: Explore the most widely believed conspiracy theory in the United States, that John F. Kennedy was assassinated by a team of shooters, not just Lee Harvey Oswald. What was it about Kennedy’s personae and legend that makes this claim so convincing?

Week 8: Real conspiracies; real scandals; few consequences (May 23 and 25)

Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal; Ronald Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal.

This week read Olmstead, Chapters 5 and 6

Section discussion: What made Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana such irresistible conspiracy martyrs? How did everything become a conspiracy in the 1960s and 1970s?

Term paper work: please submit a draft introduction for your paper.

Bomb in buildings, 9/11Week 9: Inside jobs and weapons of mass destruction  (May 30 and June 1)

9/11, Saddam Hussein’s Weapons of Mass Destruction, and Birtherism

This week read Aaronovitch, chapter 7; Olmstead, chapters 6 and 7, Walker, chapter 12

Section discussion: Conspiracy theorists often imagine that revelations of secret government wrongdoing will have a dramatic impact on their society. Do the “scandals” associated Watergate and Iran-Contra support this expectation?

Identification test three on Thursday

Colin Powell at United NationsWeek 10: Are we all conspiracy theorists now? (June 6 and 8)

Reading: Sunstein revisited; Hofstadter, “Goldwater and Pseudo-Conservative politics”; Aaronovitch, last chapter (“Bedtime Story”).

Section discussion: The government’s failure to prevent an unprecedented terrorist assault on American soil led to the widely considered theory that the White House itself had launched the attack. In response to the event, the Bush administration created a conspiracy theory of its own. Are we living in the Golden Age of Conspiracy Theories, or has this always been a problem? Has the Internet made things better, or worse? And what is the relationship between conspiracy theories and politics?

Final examination: Wednesday, June 14 12:00–3:00 p.m. Please do not schedule other events for this date and time. Unless you are sick or face a family emergency, you cannot take an alternative final.

Final paper due online. See Google Classroom page for exact day and time.

Requirements for the course

The course will require students to take three identification tests, complete a final essay examination, and write a term paper. The ID tests will each be worth 10 percent of the grade, the final examination essay 25 percent, the term paper 25 percent, and section participation the remaining 20 percent. Section participation is mandatory, as is class attendance. Please read my class attendance and decorum rules.

Students who take this class should be prepared to devote 15 hours a week to its requirements. Around five hours involves attending lectures and sections; the rest should be dedicated to the reading and writing assignments.

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