From Paranoia and Fear to Anger and Mistrust: The Development of Conspiracy Theories In Cold War America, 1947-1970
Gallick, Karista L.
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A conspiracy theory proposes an explanation to an event (or series of events) in which a group of people operate behind the scenes in order to carry out something nefarious. These theories provide explanations that counter the mainstream, widely accepted accounts of events and how these events unfolded. Conspiracy theories center around some sort of cover up; the mainstream account of what happened is put forth in order to hide the truth about what really happened. Many dramatic events occurred during the early Cold War, a time when people felt genuinely afraid of communism, both foreign and domestic. In later Cold War years, this fear of communism dissipated and gave way to feelings of anger towards and mistrust of the government. These sentiments of paranoia, fear, anger, and mistrust led to people believing in conspiracy theories, as people often wondered whether or not the mainstream account of an event was the truth, or if another explanation existed that somebody was hiding. Timothy Melley attributes the rise in conspiratorial thinking and feelings of paranoia in the postwar era to what he called "agency panic," which he defined as, "intense anxiety about an apparent loss of autonomy, the conviction that one's actions are being controlled by someone else or that one has been 'constructed' by powerful, external agents."s In the postwar years, the U.S. government sponsored programs and created laws that compromised Americans' basic rights and privacy in the name of national security. People therefore felt like they were losing their agency and were being controlled by external, more powerful forces and people. In an attempt to recover their agency, Melley argues, people resorted to creating and propagating conspiracy theories; in this manner, people refused to be part of "the system" that was taking over peoples' lives and attempting to carry out something pernicious. People who sought to expose the conspiracy attempted to act as their own agents, in response to feelings of losing agency. Conspiracy theory in the postwar period, according to Melley, gave people a voice when they felt like someone, or something, had taken that voice away from them.