The book that outraged a nation
I began to study conspiracy theories after learning that many of them have turned out to be true. One of the most shocking is that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt knew when and where Japan was going to strike in the Pacific but intentionally failed to warn U.S. military commanders at Pearl Harbor.
In letting Japan surprise U.S. forces, Roosevelt’s motive was to bring the United States into World War II and foment social panic and outrage to fuel support for the war effort.
My grandfather told me about this when I was five years old. He had been wounded in World War II at Anzio during the U.S. invasion of Italy. He thought America’s top leaders cared little about the nation’s ordinary soldiers. In high school, I learned by happenstance that my grandfather’s story was not mere speculation. I came across a book by Charles Beard that explained and documented Roosevelt’s intrigue and deceit.
Beard was an intellectual giant in the academic disciplines of both history and political science. He is the only person ever elected president of both the American Historical Society and the American Political Science Association. Throughout his academic career, he used a method he referred to as “critical historiography” to uncover a number of antidemocratic intrigues by political insiders.
Beard put forward three major theories alleging elite intrigue to rig U.S. politics and political institutions. First in 1913 he became famous among academics, and infamous among political and economic elites, with the publication of An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. In it, he traced key features of the U.S. Constitution to the founding fathers’ economic backgrounds and personal financial interests.
Second, in 1927 Beard and his wife Mary included in their two volume work on The Rise of American Civilization a theory of how political insiders had rigged the language of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to benefit corporations. Within the academy, the theory came to be called the “conspiracy theory of the Fourteenth Amendment.” The Beards claimed that railroad interests manipulated the amendment’s drafting to open the way for the courts to say it granted the rights of individuals to corporations.
Third, Beard presented his account of the defense failures at Pearl Harbor in the last book he wrote before his death in 1948. The book was President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, 1941: Appearances and Realities. It says President Roosevelt withheld intelligence about the impending attack from U.S. commanders in the Pacific until it was too late for them to act, and then set an investigation in motion that blamed the commanders for being unprepared while it absolved the president and other officials in Washington of any responsibility.
Beard was fully aware that his conspiracy theories were often criticized, in his view incorrectly, for appealing to mass suspicions rather than reason and evidence. He called his own research critical historiography because it started, not from popular speculations, but from the government’s official account of events, drawing on official records to check the official account’s validity.
Beard believed that presidential actions leading to America’s entry into World War II jeopardized the constitutional separation of powers and brought the United States close to Caesarism. Unless Roosevelt and his administration were held accountable for their abuses of power and manipulation of democratic processes, Beard concluded, the precedents set by Roosevelt would allow future presidents to completely ignore their moral and constitutional obligations to keep Congress well informed and to defer to Congress’ role in deciding whether to take the nation to war.
Beard’s fears were well founded. The U.S. Congress has not passed a declaration of war since World War II, even though the United States has fought major wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
Ironically, Beard’s book on America’s entry into World War II was so shocking that scholars developed powerful norms against conspiracy theorizing in general, norms which remain active even now. In the process, the straightforward idea that U.S. political elites might engage in antidemocratic conspiracies, an idea central to the constitutional system of checks and balances, came to be viewed and treated by the political class as a slur against the nation’s leaders and political institutions.
Beard himself was more or less airbrushed out of the history of U.S. social sciences. Today, Beard is vaguely remembered by scholars for his economic interpretation of the Constitution, but his conspiracy theory of Pearl Harbor defense failures is largely forgotten.
After discovering in high school that my grandfather’s story was true, I began to take rumors and theories of political intrigue more seriously, and many were later confirmed. The Watergate hearings in Congress proved that the 1972 presidential election had been stolen by supporters of Richard Nixon. The hearings spearheaded by Frank Church revealed America’s role in many assassinations in other countries. The Iran-Contra hearings exposed the Reagan Administration’s secret war in Nicaragua. The Downing Street Memos showed that President George W. Bush intentionally misled Congress and the American public about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Eventually I began to study elite political criminality as a distinct crime category like white collar crime, juvenile crime, and so on. All because of a story I heard as a child!
Dr. Lance deHaven-Smith is a Professor in the Reubin O’D. Askew School of Public Administration and Policy at Florida State University. His most recent book is Conspiracy Theory in America (University of Texas Press, 2013).
The image featured at the top of this post is of bullet holes remaining from the 1941 attack at Pearl Harbor. It was taken by Howard Gribble.