Summer 2010

When They Were Out to Get Us

– Michael C. Moynihan

The strange, paranoid days of the 1970s are back. In fact, they never really went away.

The 1970s—with its flared jeans and dodgy haircuts, pallid disco music, absurdist trends (pet rocks!), and Khomeinist revolution—what a miserable, squalid decade it was. The idealism and irrational optimism of the 1960s, when throngs of teenagers declared the end of bourgeois society, gave way to Cambodia, Watergate, Jonestown, and the Symbionese Liberation Army. Civil rights marchers and peaceniks made way for black power and Black September.

In Strange Days Indeed, British journalist Francis Wheen stylishly chronicles what he calls the “Them decade,” when the grand conspiracy theory was ascendant in the West, having infected the thinking of an astonishing number of clever people—prime ministers, presidents, journalists, and movie directors—as well as the hoi polloi. When something went wrong—a leader deposed, a president shot—it was invariably blamed on the machinations of government, business, and intelligence community conspirators. It was Them. Ordinary people saw a government agent behind every rock. British prime minister Harold Wilson was convinced that his intelligence service was fomenting a coup. Richard Nixon distrusted all but his closest aides.

There was something of a hangover in all of this, a predictable backlash from the mainstreaming of political radicalism of the late 1960s. Looking back on 1973, Wheen observes that in Britain “it seems incredible that the National Theater should stage an earnest three-hour Trotskyist seminar, led by no less a figure than Laurence Olivier,” that supposedly portended a working-class revolution.

In the United States, most every conspiracy theory that involved the White House, Langley, the entire rotten government, was given a hearing (and sometimes confirmed as fact) in Congress. Public revelation of the CIA’s involvement in assassination plots in the Third World, its role in fomenting coups across the globe, and its production of exploding cigars meant for Fidel Castro were treasonous, said singer Bing Crosby. To others, the exposés merely confirmed what they had long suspected: Their government could never be trusted.

Wheen concedes that much 1970s paranoia contained a kernel of truth. After all, it was government paranoia that created the Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), an FBI-led operation to spy on domestic political dissidents in the 1960s. The program’s exposure in 1975 predictably produced a wave of counterparanoia, and, 50 years after its inauguration, COINTELPRO is still grist for conspiracists and paranoiacs.

Wheen sees spasms of paranoia as cyclical: “Historians of the paranoid style have shown that it is not a constant but an episodic phenomenon which coincides with social conflict and apprehensions of doom.” Today, he catches “flickering glimpses ofdéjà vu” in, for example, Michael Moore’s conspiracy-laden 2004 documentary Fahrenheit 9/11. Perhaps. But the advent of Reaganism, Thatcherism, and the “greed decade” hardly provided an interregnum to mainstream conspiracy theorizing. From Father Coughlin’s 1930s sermons about Jewish plots against America to the amateur Poirots investigating the “suspicious” circumstances of Clinton White House counsel Vince Foster’s suicide, the 20th century was always running a fever.

There are plenty of quibbles too. Nixon’s presidency was an unmitigated disaster, but it is a stretch to suggest that he was a “kindred spirit” of paranoid Chinese genocidere Mao Zedong and Soviet dictator Leonid Brezhnev. (Wheen also misquotes Helen Gahagan Douglas, with whom Nixon squared off during a 1950 run for the U.S. Senate, as saying that the Soviet Union was “the cruelest, most barbaric autocracy in world history.” She was referring to the governments that preceded the Bolshevik Revolution.)

While his larger narrative doesn’t quite cohere, Wheen’s anecdotes are crisply told, often terrifying, and usually amusing—as when he describes the 1974 meeting that Britain’s most powerful civil servant, Sir William Armstrong, held with his underlings, where, naked, he ranted that the end of the world was nigh. Wheen’s dramatis personae (Israeli paranormalist Uri Geller, Ugandan dictator Idi Amin) often feel like comic characters invented for their entertainment value. But everything he says is true. And he’s right to suggest that the strange, paranoid days of the 1970s are back. Because they never really went away.

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Michael C. Moynihan is a senior editor of Reason.

Reviewed: Strange Days Indeed: the 1970s: The Golden Age of Paranoia by Francis Wheen, PublicAffairs, 343 pp, 

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons