As we've demonstrated before, the only things crazier than the stories concocted by the paranoid are the real conspiracies history's creepiest movers and shakers have pulled off right under our noses. Secret schemes that shaped the world around us are hiding in the footnotes of our history books, if you just know where to look. For instance ...
The Conspiracy Theory:
Ask a crazy conspiracy theorist enough questions, and you'll eventually get to a dark boardroom full of evil billionaires secretly manipulating world events ... like puppeteers, but with money. They come in all shapes and sizes -- the New World Order, the Illuminati, Masons, Scientology, the Jews, the "gay mafia" that allegedly controls Hollywood. To get a nuanced understanding of how the average conspiracy theorist thinks the world runs, watch the scene in Trading Places in which two old guys ruin Dan Aykroyd's life over a one-dollar bet, and punch yourself in the part of your brain that contains a sense of humor.
Dan Aykroyd is the only man who can rant about conspiracies without sounding crazy. Because Ghostbusters.
Fortunately, modern societies reward companies that give people what they want, and we have laws designed to punish fat cats who try to gang up on the little guy. Unfortunately, breaking those laws pays extremely well in certain circumstances. While they may not be as smart or capable of weather control as we give them credit for, the extremely wealthy do occasionally meet up in dark boardrooms and make decisions that make themselves richer, and you more miserable. And that, boys and girls, is why you drove a car to work this morning.
The Illuminati's sacred goal is to make sure the world's public transit always smells like urine.
There was a time in America when even small towns hummed around on electric trains and trollies. Around the end of World War I, urban railways accounted for 90 percent of trips taken in vehicles, and there was no reason to believe they were going anywhere. Urban railways meant that the average workaday citizen didn't have to invest time and money in learning to drive, paying for gas and maintaining a car. At the time, driving a car was considered a novelty. A fun thing to do on a Sunday that allowed the moderately wealthy to feel fancy without having to buy a boat. Plus, the railways were so lucrative that the local government didn't have to pay a dime to maintain them, since small businesses did the work for them. Everyone was a winner, except for a handful of very rich people who had overestimated the demand for automobiles back when they were known as horseless carriages.
"Most expensive motor car"? Definitely onto a winner there with the poor people.
In 1921, only 10 percent of Americans owned cars, and after losing $65 million in a year, General Motors had to face the fact that cars just weren't worth it for the other 90 percent. Today, the ascendance of the automotive industry is a foregone conclusion, but at the time it seemed more like a bunch of rich guys had forgotten that not everyone was rich. Imagine if the wealthiest people in your city invested all their money in limousines, under the assumption that everyone would stop taking cabs because why take a taxi? Limos only cost a couple hundred dollars extra!
This is where less successful men would have come to terms with the fact that they'd backed the wrong horse. Capitalism had spoken, and its answer was: "We'll take the clearly superior alternative that doesn't cost half a year's paycheck up front." Instead, General Motors decided to find a way to make cars worth it to the average citizen. After waiting for the laughter in the room to die down when someone suggested that they lower car prices, the car industry looked at the people who rode electric rails to work and decided to make them what's known in the mafia as "an offer they can't refuse."
"That's some real nice infrastructure you got there, America. Pity if something happened to it."
According to a Senate report, in the 1930s, GM, Goodyear, Firestone Tire and a bunch of oil companies joined together to form a number of fake rail companies. They would buy up all the small companies that operated America's small town railway systems, then destroy the systems, and soon enough America would run on gasoline-powered tires. By the mid-1950s, the fake rail companies had replaced 900 of the 1,200 public railway systems with gas-powered buses and cars and were ready to take on the biggest electric railway system in the world: Los Angeles. Yes, the city that's famous for bumper-to-bumper traffic once hummed along on 1,500 miles of electric railways. GM bought out the local railway companies, and a few years later there wasn't a single electric streetcar operating in Los Angeles. Today, the smog over LA is so thick that most of the people who live there have no idea they that live at the foot of a beautiful snowcapped mountain range.
LA without smog.
Of course, you can't just form an illegal monopoly and get away with it. In 1947, the government convicted 10 of the biggest corporations in America of conspiracy, and fined GM $5,000. GM was able to survive the fine, since the illegal conspiracy had made it one of the most successful companies of the 20th century. And all they had to do was destroy the infrastructure of some of America's biggest cities and screw the next dozen or so generations who lived there out of clean, affordable transportation.
Sure, but it was probably all worth it to play streetcar Jenga.
The Conspiracy Theory:
You can usually tell an insane conspiracy theory by asking what the bad guy's motivation was. Woodward and Bernstein uncovered an actual conspiracy by knowing to "follow the money." Less sane conspiracies answer the question of motive by screaming "Everybody's lizards!" So you can be forgiven if you're a little skeptical when someone claims that there was a conspiracy to destroy the life and career of Martin Luther King Jr., one of the great heroes of the 20th century. It's like learning that Henry VIII sexually assaulted Martha Washington in order to sire a son, or that terrorists conspired with Karl Malone and John Stockton to poison Michael Jordan before the flu game. The good guy is too good. The bad guy's too pointlessly evil. Vast government conspiracies need a motive beyond just being villainous creeps, right?
The FBI just hasn't been as menacing since they installed those "No Smoking" signs.
For reasons that range from outright racism to paranoia in the face of a powerful revolutionary, the FBI secretly made Martin Luther King Jr. an unofficial enemy of the state. Reading the details of the FBI's response to King's famous rise to power makes you wonder why it hasn't been made into a movie, while making you simultaneously realize that it would be impossible to make the truth not seem like an over-the-top exaggeration.
We always rely on our perfect memory for life-changing events.
For instance, King's "I Have a Dream" speech was the defining moment of the civil rights movement. It brought the struggle of African-Americans into stark focus for white Americans while giving the oppressed black community a reason to hope. It is considered by many to be the most important speech given in the 20th century, but at FBI headquarters, it was considered a sign that King was the "most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country." That's from a memo that went around the FBI right after King's speech.
This wasn't just idle, water cooler racism, either. The heads of various departments met to "explore how best to carry on our investigation ... to produce the desired results." While that might sound sinister, later memos cleared up that they were only interested in "neutralizing King as an effective Negro leader." OK yeah, we're definitely getting a sinister vibe over here.
Our Hoover-sense is tingling.
The meetings produced a many-pronged approach involving all the basic stuff that bad guys are only supposed to do in movies, like bugging every room he stayed in and every phone conversation he had. Records reveal thousands of discussions inside the agency, tens of thousands of memos discussing his every action, and FBI head J. Edgar Hoover's raging hate-boner for one of the most important moral leaders of the 20th century. The FBI files give historians unique insight into Hoover's motivation, like the article about King receiving an award, on which Hoover personally scrawled "disgusting," or the article about King meeting with the Pope, on which he wrote "I am amazed the Pope gave an audience to such a degenerate," or the article about King being nominated for a Nobel Prize, on which he wrote "King could well qualify for the 'top alley cat' prize!"
In case you're not up on your casual 1960s-era racism, "alley cat" is a term for an urban street cat that has multiple sexual partners. The FBI's extensive wire-tapping had revealed that King, unlike any person in a position of power in the history of the United States, was carrying on an extramarital affair. We like to imagine that Hoover scrawled his disapproving references to King's embarrassing sexual indiscretions while dressed as a woman, and that his boss, Robert Kennedy, read them while having sex with one of the three women he and his brother bragged about needing to sleep with to prevent headaches.
Oh stop it, you terrible racist tease.
The culmination of the FBI's operation -- at least the part that made it into their official records -- was an anonymous letter to King in which they called him a fraud, compared him to Satan and told him that if he didn't want his affair to be revealed, he knew what he had to do. The celebrity hate mail was found in the FBI files long after an assassin had taken care of the FBI's problem for them, but analysts believe they were suggesting that King should kill himself if he didn't want to be disgraced.
MLK here, looking really disgraced at the signing of the Civil Rights Act.
So if you thought King was heroic before, try to imagine the balls it would take to continue going out in public after the FBI tried to blackmail you into offing yourself, and then realize that your mind's eye doesn't have the bandwidth to imagine balls that big.
The Conspiracy Theory:
Election season is when conspiracy theorists really earn their paychecks. It's the one time when politicians don't run screaming from them, since even the most insane rumors about their opponent can sway public opinion. In 2000, Bush was able to win the primary after a rumor circulated that John McCain's adopted daughter was actually the love child from an illicit interracial affair. In 2004, Bush got hit with claims that he orchestrated the 9/11 attacks, or knew they were going to happen, or was secretly cool with it, while he in turn accused his opponent of having exaggerated his record in Vietnam, and also wind surfing.
Better known as "communist yachting."
And it's not just our sensationalist media. Crazy conspiracy theories have been affecting American elections for almost as long as we've had them.
Of course, you've probably heard about that one time the paranoid election conspiracy theories were true -- when the Nixon campaign bugged the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. But you might not know about the first, far more evil election conspiracy Nixon orchestrated to get elected in the first place.
"Yes, children, follow my pipe music into the caves, where you shall be locked inside forever!"
The presidency went to Richard Nixon's head like a Four Loko chugged from a chalice of dissolvable PCP. Watergate wasn't the most sinister or even reckless thing Nixon did in office -- we'd humbly submit the time he openly discussed putting out a hit on a journalist he didn't like. It takes a messy brain to get busted for committing low level espionage while you're the president of the United States. It takes a Bond villain to commit treason and get away with it so hard that instead of being put to death like you're supposed to, you become the goddamn president. That's what Nixon pulled off in '68, and he only had to extend the Vietnam War by five years to do it.
"You'll want to wash that hand off right away."
The 1968 presidential election featured Nixon in the Republican corner, squaring off against sitting vice president Hubert Humphrey. Humphrey was running on what was known as the "peace plank" -- his assurance that the Johnson-Humphrey administration was in the process of negotiating an end to the increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam. For Humphrey, everything hinged on the Paris Peace Talks, where the Johnson administration had brought Vietnamese leaders from the North and South together, and claimed to be making progress. Most Americans weren't buying it, and Nixon was leading Humphrey by a large margin for most of the campaign.
But everything changed in the weeks before the election when Humphrey called for a bombing halt in Vietnam, and both the North Vietnamese and the Johnson administration agreed to it. Just three days before the election, peace seemed imminent in Vietnam, and Humphrey was starting to look like a total boss. He surged in the polls, making up an insane amount of ground just a week before the election. As October turned to November, the election was a tie, and Humphrey had all the momentum.
Meanwhile, Nixon was showing people a great trick to make a pencil disappear.
And then something weird happened. The day before the election, America's South Vietnamese allies suddenly withdrew from the peace negotiations. It seemed suspicious that America's own ally would pull out, and doubly suspicious that it happened on the eve of the presidential election. In taped phone conversations that would only be revealed later, Lyndon Johnson explained how things had broken so conveniently for the Republican candidate: Nixon's campaign had been telling "the [South Vietnamese] allies that 'You're going to get sold out'" if they agreed to the offer on the table. In an effort to screw Humphrey's election, Nixon had intentionally sabotaged the peace talks. As Johnson would later point out, this is technically treason, since it means Nixon directly sabotaged the interests of the United States for his own personal gain.
Hey, someone had to set the bar for Dick Cheney.
And it worked. Without the momentum of the peace talks, Humphrey lost the popular vote by an extremely narrow margin. Had the peace talks continued to succeed through election day, Humphrey almost certainly would have continued to surge past Nixon, and more importantly, the Vietnam War might have ended in 1968, saving tens of thousands of American lives. Instead, Nixon was elected president and let the war drag on for five more years before he and Henry Kissinger finally brokered peace. The agreement they did it with was almost identical to the one that had been on the table when Nixon's people had blown up the peace talks five years earlier, with one important distinction: Nixon and Kissinger got to take credit for it.
Nixon demonstrates the fisting technique he used on the free world in 1968.