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Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11

16 customer reviews
ISBN-10: 0195183533
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Editorial Reviews


"...exquisitely researched and annotated new book...her compilation presents a startling read of public history."--Chicago Tribune

"...energetic narrative shows an increasingly complex national security apparatus both prompting conspiracy theories and promulgating its own. Convincing study of how alternative histories develop."--Kirkus Reviews

"Though most conspiracy theories are nonsense, Real Enemies demonstrates that actors in and around American government have been engaged in conspiracies against the public interest for decades."--Chronicles

"Real Enemies is a study of paranoia in American politics, and of course, as Kathryn Olmsted shows, the paranoia begins far too often in the Oval Office. Olmsted makes it clear, however, that it didn't start with Richard Nixon or George W. Bush. Political paranoia, it turns out, is as American as political demagoguery."--Seymour M. Hersh, author of Chain of Command

"Kathryn Olmsted has written a brave, provocative, and audacious book. Her willingness to subject the systemic effects of consistent patterns of official government deception--together with the popular conspiracist 'blowback' this deception inspires and empowers--to scholarly scrutiny invites us to ask troubling but necessary questions about the nature of our political leadership."--Eric Alterman, author of When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences

"Once in a while, a talented historian writes a book about a neglected topic that millions of Americans think about all the time. Real Enemies is one of those rare and indispensable studies. With grace and impeccable judgment, Kathryn Olmsted illuminates one of the darker regions of the nation's political history. Richard Hofstadter would be pleased."--Michael Kazin, author of A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan

"A revealing study of the impact of conspiracy theories on American society and politics...[With] careful, mature analysis, Kathryn Olmsted investigates every major conspiracy theory and monger in U.S. history." --Book of the Month Club 2

About the Author

Kathryn S. Olmsted is a professor of history at the University of California, Davis. She has written two previous books on secrecy in the U.S. government.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (January 2, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195183533
  • ASIN: B005ZO8KOY
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 1.2 x 6.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,378,666 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

19 of 22 people found the following review helpful By William J. Christensen on November 6, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a great book if the idea of reviewing past histories of "conspiracy theories" are of interest to you, from WWI to 9/11. The book is just packed full of information and documents to back up the concepts of the author. It reads like a PhD thesis----packed full of information and is not a book that will put you to sleep. It took concentration from me, even though it was well written. And It will take me at least a couple of reads to really get a handle on most of the topics. It is just very interesting look at conspiracy theories of all types with explanations of how they got started including extensive documentation and bibliography at the end. It would be a good research book and you could expand on any of the topics that may interest you by use of its excellent and extensive bibliography.
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Format: Hardcover
Kathryn Olmsted is Professor of History at the University of California, author of a biography of Elizabeth Bentley and of `Challenging the Secret Government: the post-Watergate Investigations of the CIA & FBI'.

In `Real Enemies' (published in 2009), Olmsted tackles the tradition of anti-government conspiracy theories in the USA. The origin of the tradition can be found, she demonstrates, in the actions of various administrations throughout the 20th century which have led to an escalating climate of paranoia and suspicion. The catalogue of subterfuge, cover-ups and half-truths perpetrated by various US administrations begins with President Woodrow Wilson's alleged machinations to take the USA into the First World War on the allied side, and concludes with the Bush 43 administration's clumsy mishandling of the 9/11 Commission and attempts to implicate Saddam Hussein in the 9/11 attacks & fictional WMD programs. On the way we are treated to revealing chapters on FDR's interference in the Pearl Harbor investigation (where attempts were made to scapegoat local naval commanders in Hawaii and exonerate others more demonstrably culpable of neglect-of-duty); the `Red Scare' of the 1950s championed by Senator McCarthy; the JFK assassination & Warren Commission report; the Watergate scandal and the Iran-contra affair of the 1990s.

As an academic historian Olmsted displays admirable investigative rigour, sticks to the facts and to demonstrable evidence, and writes with a refreshingly direct style.

Throughout the 20th century the power and reach of the US Government has (for mostly defensible reasons) grown exponentially, concurrent with the appropriation of escalating taxpayer revenue.
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15 of 19 people found the following review helpful By W. Green on January 2, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
REAL ENEMIES is a quick summary of the "facts" related to conspiracies alleged to have occurred over the past century. The author Olmsted finds that with the increase in government power and the democratization of information, conspiracy theories have been increasing. Of course such theories are speculation based on available information. Proof of criminal conspiracy requires facts showing that at least two people willingly agreed to commit a crime and took some action toward that end. Attempting to prove conspiracy involving government officials is difficult because the criminal "defendants" can control the release of the "facts" and the investigative system.

Some "conspiracy" theories: Did President Wilson deceive the public leading to the American participation in World War I? Did Roosevelt know about Pearl Harbor but allow it to happen so the USA would be forced to enter World War II? Did Lyndon Johnson and others warp the "facts" to hide the truth about the JFK assassination? Did Nixon create a criminal snoop machine and then attempt to hide the truth? Did the Reagan government conspire to use illegal means to fund rogue military operations? Did "W" Bush create or take advantage of the events of 911 go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan?

The answers to all of these questions as presented in this historical summary could be: "yes", "maybe" "sort of", "possibly", "it depends of your point of view", and so on. Justifications for the possible illegal actions of officials are often cited: Wilson and Roosevelt needed to deceive the public in order to pull America into necessary wars and Lyndon Johnson and Hoover packaged an official JFK "lone nut" story to avoid igniting a nuclear war.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Social Historian on August 17, 2014
Format: Paperback
When Americans think about conspiracy theorists, images of wacky and "un-American" individuals come to mind. Who can actually blame them? Although conspiracy theorists come from diverse backgrounds, they broadcast their messages through numerous methods, and the ones that most people encounter is heckling (like many 9/11 conspiracy theorists at political rallies). Historian Kathryn Olmsted shows that conspiracy theories have been largely shaped by the emergence and growing power of the modern bureaucracy. Although conspiracy theories have existed for centuries, before World War I they were targeted toward perceived alien forces that were plotting to take over the government. It was not until the First World War, when the government exercised tremendous power by drafting large numbers of young men into the military, repressing civil liberties, and jailing dissenters, that conspiracy theories were targeted towards the state. From then on, the government itself was believed to act in malicious ways that undermined democracy.

Olmsted's work shows us the influential role non-state actors have in governmental affairs. Despite that theorists have rarely acted as a collective group nor do they approach the government directly (unless they are part of the government), their influence has grown with new technologies such as the Internet and film production, making alternative theories more accessible to a larger audience (take the Boston Marathon bombing for example, although no government officials proposed any theories, alternative narratives proposed by ordinary citizens received responses from some major media outlets).
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