Sun Mar 2nd, 2008 at 09:21:50 PM EST
I have promised this tidbit for a long time, and now a cold rainy evening aboard Taz offers me the downtime to do some tedious typing. Here, without permission (but a good friend of mine was buddies with the author -- now deceased -- and swears that he wouldn't mind in the least), is a chunk of Appendix B from the interesting little book Harry S. Truman and the War Scare of 1948: A Successful Campaign to Deceive the Nation, by Frank Kofsky, 1993.
It is relevant to several discussions present and past on ET and in other venues, particularly when the subject of Tin Foil Hats has come up. I find it one of the most graceful and reasonable discussions of conspiracy theories in print and am glad to share it. BTW, the entire book is worth a read -- a bit dry, but full of interesting facts and of obvious historical relevance/resonance. Just throw in a few references to Yellow-Cake or WMD or Enrichment, substitute your favourite dusky Muslim nation for "Russia", and see how strangely contemporary the whole thing sounds...
Appendix B: On "Conspiracy Theories" in Fact and Fancy
Accusations in Bad Faith
[excerpted from Harry S. Truman and the War Scare of 1948: A Successful Campaign to Deceive the Nation by Frank Kofsky: italics are the author's, boldface is yr humble editor's emphasis]
Anyone with the gall or naiveté to suggest, in a work about US history, politics, or society, that those who enjoy great wealth or high rank act in concert to achieve their ends can expect to be accused of espousing a "Conspiracy theory of history." In what follows, I will explain why I think such charges are completely unjustified in the case of this book and try to distinguish what I have written from a "conspiracy theory of history."
Not that I expect this effort to do much good. Typically, when a work that depicts people of wealth and power collaborating to attain a given outcome is attacked for offering a "conspiracy theory of history," the assault is led by those who wish to discredit the author's thesis but -- and this point is absolutely crucial -- have been unable to find factual evidence to refute the intepretation they detest. Consequently, these charges, more often than not, reek of bad faith and, even intellectual dishonesty. There is no argument that a scholar can make, no evidence he can supply, that will provide him with immunity from denunciations arising out of such motives.
To see why, in these circumstances, charges of "conspiracy theorizing" are likely to be bogus, we need to bring into the open exactly what they imply. Such accusations contain within them several hidden propositions that are never made explicit, because to do so would expose their authors to ridicule. Which of the following, pray tell, would those who are so ready to cry "Conspiracy Theory!" have us believe? That people with enormous fortunes and/or high political positions do not have greater ability than the ordinary citizen to get what they want? That men and women who spend most of their adult lives seeking to obtain or retain money and influence do so only in order to abstain from employing the advantages these confer? That whose with wealth and power are inhibited by some mysterious force from making use of either to accomplish their purposes? That the rich and well placed not only practice such extraordinary self-denial as individuals, but that they also steadfastly refuse to cooperate with their peers in the pursuit of common political-economic goals?
All of these notions are, of course, absurd on their face. People strive for wealth and power precisely because the more of either one possesses, the more readily one can have his way in every realm -- professional, political, personal. Moreover, the idea that the rich and powerful shrink from uniting with others of the same station is even more laughable. If, in fact, there is one thing that characterizes those at the top of the heap, it is their readiness to organize amongst themselves to secure their desires. No other group in society even comes close in this regard.
Having exposed the hidden baggage that charges of "conspiracy theorizing" carry with them, let us move from the general to the specific. In the preceding chapters I have discussed two sets of events: (1) the campaign of the airplane builders for a presidentially apointed aviation commission that would create pressure for more spending on aircraft procurement, and (2) the attempt by the Truman administration during March 1948 to convince Congress and the country that the Soviet Union could be stopped from invading Western Europe only by immediate enactment of the administration's military and foreign policy programs. To dispel any doubts about the matter, I would like to review my handling of these two themes [...]
In chapter 3, for example, I quote from the speeches in 1945 of Eugene E Wilson and Robert E Gross, the president of the Aircraft Industries Association and Lockheed Aircraft, respectively, urging the creation of "another Morrow board." To argue that the manuacturers' efforts to have such a panel appointed or to have the federal government increase expenditures on military airplanes amounted to a conspiracy would require misreading the evidence so monumentally as to inspire questions about the sanity of the author who did so. My dictionary tells me that the nouns conspiracy, plot, machination, collusion, intrigue all "denote secret plans or schemes." Although industry executives did on occasion seek to manipulate public opinion by working covertly through such groups as the Veterans of Foreign Wars, on the whole nothing could have been less secret than their desire for a presidential aviation board and larger appropriations for aircraft procurement; zealots that they were, they could barely be restrained from babbling about these matters at the drop of a hat. We may, therefore, regard this aspect of the case as closed.
The second sequence of events, the Truman administration's war scare, is more complex. On March 2, Secretary of Defence James V Forrestal, Secretary of State George C Marshall and Under Secretary of State Robert A Lovett agreed that they would cooperate in fomenting such a scare; also present at this luncheon meeting were John J McCloy, president of the Internationall Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and Sidney W Souers, executive secretary of the National Security Council and a close associate of the president. Thus, these five individuals were in on the plan from the very outset. Two days later, on March 4, Forrestal broached the idea to another eight people [...] The entry in Forrestal's diary about this so-called "Cabinet Lunch" ends with the observation that "everyone present agreed that the public needed information and guidance on the deterioration of our relations with Russia." It was, in other words, time to set up the propaganda machine and start turning the crank [...]
It is most unlikely that Marshall, Lovett and Forrestal would have proceeded this far without first having secured permission from the president. Truman's assent would have been necessary if for no other reason than because he had an essential role to play -- without him, the show could not be staged. In the course of working out his own ideas about how the scare could best be managed, it would have been natural for the president to have discussed it with his closest associates and advisers, such as Secretary of the Treasury John Snyder and Clark M Clifford. At a conservative estimate, therefore, it would appear that at least 20 people, and quite possibly more, shared knowledge that the administration was planning to fabricate tales of an imminent Soviet offensive. It strains our sense of the word's meaning to think of a scheme involving such a loose-knit collection of souls as a conspiracy, if for no other reason than the difficulty a group of this size and composition would have keeping information secret.
For all of that, it would be quite misleading to deny that certain aspects of the war scare were completely conspiratorial in nature. Here I have in mind especially the Clay telegram of March 5 and the circumstances surrounding its origins. If the behaviour that produced the telegram was not conspiratorial, then we are in need of a new definition for that term. There was, in reality, no other choice for those who saought to make use of the telegram except to conspire. Clay would not have sent such a cable had there not been a request for it from Washington; yet were it to become widely known that this notorious message was actually conceived in the labyrinths of the Pentagon, the document would have been rendered worthless on the spot. In order for it to perform the task for which it was intended, it was necssary that Clay, General Stephen J Chamberlin, James Forrestal, Secretary of the Army Kennth Royall or whoever was privy to the plot resolutely conceal the way in which the telegram had come into being.
How, therefore, do we go about reckoning the balance? Was the war scare the result of a conspiracy or was it not? The answer, it sees to me, cannot be a simple matter of yes or no, because the scare itself was not entirely of a piece. On the one hand, the administration did not go to great lengths to disguise the fact that it was preparing to inflict such a scare on the Congress and the public. In that sense, the effort that produced the war scare was a collaborative, but not necessarily a conspiratorial, one. On the other hand, however, certain elements of the scare -- the Clay telegram most notably -- were highly conspiratorial in nature. I do not see how any other judgment is possible, given what we know both about why Clay chose to send the cable in the first place and the way it was put to use by Forrestal and the army thereafter. Like it or not, Clay's message has to be seen as the product of a cabal devised expressly for the purpose of eliciting and exploiting it. Just because most conspiracy hypotheses are far-fetched does not mean that real conspiracies never exist.
[... a lengthy detour into specific documents in the case...]
From the documents we have just examined, we can see that one need not have an overexcitable imagination to discover conspiratorial elements in the words and deeds of such notables as the secretary of the air force, the secretary of defense, the former director of the Office of Strategic Services and the president of the Chase National Bank. Regardless of how outlandish or nonsensical most "conspiracy theories" may be, the fact of the matter is that members of the ruling class and the power elite in the late 1940s showed themselves ready to resort to conspiratorial machinations whenever they deemed it necessary. There are those who may profess their displeasure at this statement; but that, I dare say, will not alter its truthfulness one whit. My purpose in emphasizing this point is not in the least frivolous. One of the things we need most to understand -- and one of the things historians most often fail to discuss -- are the precise means by which the dominant class and those who serve it go about accomplishing their goals in politics. In this appendix I have tried to broaden our perspective by calling attention to an aspect of power wielding that usually is tucked demurely out of sight. By no means do I think that what I have written here is the last word on this subject, nor was that in any way my intent. Far from seeking to bring the discourse to a close, what I wish to do instead is suggest how it might begin.