Recently, the claim that the phrase “conspiracy theory” was popularized in the 1960s by the CIA to discredit those who dared to question the Warren
Commission has been popping up in the conspiracy-o-sphere. From the original PsyOp, so the story goes, the application of the phrase spread to encompass
all sorts of nefarious doings, and now people reflexively think that all conspiracy theorists are crazy. The first version that I heard, in fact, was the
claim that the term was actually invented in the 1960s, and that grabbed my attention. Really? Never appeared before the 1960s?
An infuriating feature of conspiracy theory is its propensity to take the standard of evidence that skeptics value so highly and turn it on its head:
extraordinary claims no longer require extraordinary evidence; rather an extraordinary lack of evidence is thought to validate the extraordinariness of the
conspiracy. It is thinking just gone wrong. Worse still, disconfirming evidence becomes evidence in favor of the conspiracy. I strongly suspect that the
“the phrase ‘conspiracy theory’ was invented by the CIA” gambit is a fairly radical extension of this tendency, that the mere fact that so many people
recognize that conspiracy theorizing is a futile and intellectually unproductive exercise is only more proof to the conspiracy theorists that they are
really onto something.
As evidence of this deliberate manipulation of language, theorists offer up a 1967 document released in
1976 via a FOIA request, Dispatch 1035-960. In short, the CIA document outlines arguments that field operatives can use to counter conspiracy theorizing
abroad and advises where those arguments might have the largest effect. The document was released to the New York Times, but conspiracy theorists’
seizure of this notion, that what they do has been deliberately stigmatized by nefarious outside agents rather than by the internal flaws of their
arguments, ignores both linguistic and historical reality in order to flatter their delusions.
While the notion that the phrase “conspiracy theory” was weaponized has been around since at least 1997, it recently received a boost by
the Lance deHaven-Smith’s 2013 Conspiracy Theory in America, published by the University of Texas Press. So, with this stamp of apparent academic
legitimacy (I have my own opinion about that, and this is not the venue to elaborate), conspiracy theorists have begun citing this work as an authority.
Take for example the recent article by Kevin Barrett, “New studies: ‘Conspiracy theorists’ sane; government dupes crazy, hostile,” which was republished at Before
It’s News as “CIA Invention of the Phrase, ‘Conspiracy Theory’ to Block Questions on JFK’s Assassination, is ‘One of the Most Successful Propaganda Initiatives of All Time.’” Barrett’s arguments were well and truly destroyed by the rogues on the July 27 Skeptics Guide to the Universe, so I will not rehash the staggering
lapses in critical thinking they employ. But Barrett also leans very hard on deHaven-Smith’s work:
Both of these findings are amplified in the new book Conspiracy Theory in America by political scientist Lance deHaven-Smith, published earlier
this year by the University of Texas Press. Professor deHaven-Smith explains why people don’t like being called “conspiracy theorists”: The term was invented and put into wide circulation by the CIA to smear and defame people questioning the JFK assassination! “The CIA’s campaign
to popularize the term ‘conspiracy theory’ and make conspiracy belief a target of ridicule and hostility must be credited, unfortunately, with being one of
the most successful propaganda initiatives of all time.” [emphasis added]
Well, we have a claim of fact about the origins of the term “conspiracy theorist.” This is certainly something we can check up on. I will not ascribe this
claim to deHaven-Smith. I don’t recall him making the claim that it was invented by the CIA, only that it was deliberately deployed by the CIA.
A quick search of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) finds that the phrase had been used in May 1964:
New Statesman 1 May 694/2 Conspiracy theorists will be disappointed by the absence of a dogmatic introduction.
This is two years before Dispatch 1035-960 appeared. If you go to the magazine, you will find that this sentence appears in an unsigned editorial,
“Separateness,” about the London Magazine’s recent transition from being an exclusively literary publication to a more interdisciplinary review of
So, no. The CIA did not invent the word “conspiracy theorist.” But this made me wonder how far back I could push the use of a term like “conspiracy
theory.” Using the OED to date vocabulary is a dodgy proposition. The oldest example you are likely to find in an OED definition is
unlikely to be the first time the word was used. It might not even be the first time that the word was written down. It just happens to be the oldest
example that the dictionary’s lexicographers have found. Nonetheless, we’ll use the OED as a starting point and just be confident that the word
has to be at least as old as the first example found there.
The earliest appearance of “conspiracy theory’ in the OED goes as far back as 1909 to an article from the American Historical Review:
Amer. Hist. Rev. 14 836 The claim that Atchison was the originator of the repeal may be termed a recrudescence of the conspiracy theory first asserted by Colonel John A.
Parker of Virginia in 1880.
This sentence appears in Allen Johnson’s review of P. Ormon Ray’s The Repeal of the Missouri Compromise: Its Origin and Authorship. The sentence
that follows it makes quite clear that the phrase is being used in the modern sense: “No new manuscript material has been found to support the theory, but
the available bits of evidence have been collated carefully in this volume” (836).
While the OED is generally considered to be a standard reference work, you can actually push the date back even farther using a more recently
developed tool, Google Books. Conspiracy theory is by far the older term. In May 1890, a
theosophical journal called The Path dismissed the 1885 exposure of Helena Blavatsky by the Society for Psychical Research, in which it was discovered that Blavatsky relied on an elaborate
system of informants for her “psychic” insights, as a “conspiracy theory.” In 1881, the phrase appears in
Rhodes’ Journal of Banking: “As evidence of a conspiracy this showing is pitiful, and in any view, the charge is ridiculous, as no conspiracy theory is needed to account for the
facts.” It seems that finance has always been dogged by conspiracy theories.
An even older reference to “conspiracy theory” can be found in the medical literature of 1870, during a public debate about the growth of asylums and the
treatment of inmates in the UK. At issue were bruises and broken ribs that patients acquired in the asylums; were these the result of accidental
self-injury, perhaps a byproduct of methods of restraint, or were these punitive measures or even preventive measures meant to force compliance? It’s not
clear what the result of that debate was, but according to
research by Ian A. Burney, it pitted the Lancet against The Journal of Mental Science. Novelist and prison/asylum reform activist
Charles Reade wrote to the editors of the Pall Mall Gazette about the methods of control used in asylums in January 1870, which he came upon researching a novel about private asylums, Hard Cash. Reade
claimed his evidence was a “[…] higher class of evidence than the official inquirers permit themselves to hear. They rely too much on medical attendants
and other servants of an asylum, whose interest it is to veil ugly truths and sprinkle hells with rose-water.” (19) This evidence was the testimony of
former patients and former keepers:
The ex-keepers were all agreed in this—that the keepers know how to break a patient’s bones without bruising the skin; and the doctors have been duped
again and again by them. To put it in my own words, the bent knees, big bluntish bones, and clothed, can be applied with terrible force, yet not leave
their mark upon the skin of the victim. The refractory patient is thrown down and the keeper walks up and down him on his knees, and even jumps on his
body, knees downwards, until he is completely cowed. Should a bone or two be broken in this process, it does not much matter to the keeper: a lunatic
complaining of internal injury is not listen to. (19)
The Journal of Mental Science, replied to these allegations the following month:
It must, I think, be admitted that the difficulties have been real, or surely they would not have evoked such an extreme hypothesis as that advanced in the Pall Mall Gazette, by a well-known novelist—an hypothesis which seems to involve every element of the sensational novel. (139)
In a comparison of Reade’s hypothesis to another one, the journal remarked:
The theory of Dr. Sankey as to the manner in which these injuries to the chest occurred in asylums deserved our careful attention. It was at least more
plausible that [sic] the conspiracy theory of Mr. Charles Reade […]. (141)
This use of conspiracy theory, I think, is recognizable with our contemporary understanding.
What is clear is that “conspiracy theory” has always been a disparaging term. While proponents of alternative knowledge are correct in asserting that it is
possible to unfairly discredit someone by calling them a “conspiracy theorist,” they must also remember that just because you are called a conspiracy
theorist doesn’t mean you aren’t one.