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American Conpsiracies: A Textbook for Alternative History
Reviewed by Joseph E. Green
In my recent review of Voodoo Histories by David Aaronovitch, I spent a lot of time explaining why the organization of the book destroyed its credibility. The topics it covered were dictated by media coverage rather than a serious study of history. Coming on its heels, just a month later, American Conspiracies by Jesse Ventura and Dick Russell, rushes right into the breach. Talk about good timing.
The first three sentences of American Conspiracies set the tone of what will be good in this book that was not good in Aaronovitch: "First of all, let's talk about what you won't find in this book. It's not about how extraterrestrials are abducting human beings, or the Apollo moon landing being a colossal hoax perpetrated by NASA, or that Barack Obama somehow is not a natural-born American citizen. I leave these speculations to others, not that I take them seriously."
And on that note we're off.
So how are Ventura and Russell going to explain conspiracies to us? They take 14 separate topics, in order: the Lincoln assassination; the attempt to overthrow FDR; the JFK, Malcolm X, MLK, and RFK assassinations; the Watergate scandal (however, not the Woodward version but the Jim Hougan version); Jonestown; the October surprise; the CIA drug connection; the stolen elections of 2000 and 2004; 9/11; Wall Street; and the "secret plans" to end American democracy. As I noted in my Aaronovitch review, these are much closer to the topics that make sense for a political researcher to investigate – note the absence of reference to Princess Diana.
Each chapter begins with a little box explaining what the situation is, what the official word on it is, and Ventura's take on the subject, and ends with a short paragraph on what he feels should be done about it. These add to the textbook feel of the work – the only thing missing are discussion questions. And, by and large, the book does a good job of synthesizing the main idea of each topic with solid information. One assumes that a great deal of the research came from Russell, and he gets this across well while keeping Ventura's distinctive voice throughout.
As noted, they begin with the Lincoln assassination, which is an acknowledged conspiracy, though seldom written about by political researchers. Their version is an interesting one, based largely on Blood on the Moon by Edward Steers, Jr., but leaves out some of the little details, such as the fact that Mary Todd Lincoln suspected Secretary of War Andrew Stanton's involvement in the plot to her dying day. (The background for this is quite interesting but left to the reader to investigate. Stanton and Lincoln had prior very public disagreements, and Stanton, after Lincoln's murder, had screamed at Mrs. Lincoln and ordered her removed from his sight because she was so upset.) Additionally, while there are conspiracists who assert that Jefferson Davis was involved or even the progenitor of the Lincoln assassination, it is not often noted that Davis had been the target of a Union assassination attempt just weeks before. (See James Hall's article, "The Dahlgren Papers: A Yankee Plot to Kill President Davis," Civil War History Illustrated No. 30 Nov. 1983). On the other hand, this is perhaps too academic a complaint. There is a real benefit to beginning the book with an established conspiracy to appeal to the general reader, and it might bog things down to get into too much detail too fast. In that mindset, it makes sense to take a more conservative approach.
This is also true for the chapters on the various assassinations. In general, they rely on the best works (for example, Pepper and Melanson on MLK, Turner & Christian and O'Sullivan – the book, not the documentary – on RFK, and heavily on John Armstrong, Douglass, DiEugenio and Pease, and Russell himself on JFK) in each area. And in each case the chapters serve as solid introductions for their subjects. While some material should perhaps have been left behind (Barsten's MK-ULTRA thesis in the MLK assassination is a little too out there to be explained in a few paragraphs, although the authors do a creditable job), the material is generally well-handled.
With respect to new material, there is some new research in the book, mostly concerning Mike Connell and election fraud. Connell was an IT person who worked for Karl Rove. Not only had Connell built websites for George W. and Jeb Bush, but also for Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, famous for their poisonous and baseless attacks on John Kerry's military record. (p. 137) Connell knew the dirty details behind both election-fixing and emails that would implicate Rove and Bush in multiple criminal dealings. In December 2008, three months after a subpoena was issued to Connell to testify about these matters, he died in a plane crash. (p. 140) Others have promoted this story – Mark Crispin Miller talked about it on television and raised the possibility of foul play – but Russell and Ventura did some legwork on this case and the conclusions are in book.
The best parts of American Conspiracies tend to rely on Ventura's own background in politics and as a SEAL team member to enhance his credibility in drawing conclusions. This is especially true in the chapter on the CIA drug conspiracy, which draws together a lot of good information and makes some intelligent inferences about it. For example, he discusses the fact that in pure economic terms, drugs make more profit for the U.S. then they do for the countries actually growing and exporting them:
A simple but cogent observation. The book further illustrates:
As with all the chapters, there are certain omissions – to leave out Alfred McCoy from a bibliography in writing about drugs and covert operations is inexplicable.
I have certain quibbles with the book – the information on the 9/11 attacks is a real mixed bag, including some things that I find to be disinformation. But 9/11 is always a contentious issue and Ventura and Russell do focus on several good points, including the all-important Norman Mineta testimony. However, Ventura talks about the Pentagon missile theories and actually urges people to see Loose Change. Like his television program on 9/11, he also relies heavily on the testimony of Willie Rodriguez, who has been a questionable figure in the movement. On the other hand, he does invoke the lack of military and FAA response, and unlike most critics does so having actually been in the military and seen traffic controllers at work. (p. 143) He also talks about a 2003 memo in which the idea to paint a U2 surveillance plane in U.N. colors to fly over Iraq is floated. If Saddam fired upon it, this could be played up as an attack on a U.N. plane and made the instigator of a war. As Ventura notes, this has certain echoes of the Operation Northwoods documents floated during the Kennedy presidency and turned down by JFK. (p. 185) He also notes, quite rightly, that 10 months prior to 9/11, Donald Rumsfeld had approved major "changes to the Army's [Continuity of Government] plan." He correctly identifies this as a "shadow government." (p. 191) In the bibliography of the 9/11 chapter, one finds only Peter Dale Scott's excellent book, The Road to 9/11, and the work of David Ray Griffin, which explains much of what is good and bad in his analysis.
This does point out what is a flaw in the book and in Ventura himself: which is a certain excess of credulity at times. As anyone who has tried to navigate the minefield of political research in general, and 9/11 in particular, one encounters all sorts of bizarre claims and "witnesses" who may be telling no truth, some truth, or the whole truth at various times. It is a weakness of the book that, in having to jump quickly into a topic and then leave it behind for something else, the information tends to be muddled together, good, bad, and questionable, with a certain lack of prioritization. The bibliography shares this trait as well. In his chapter on the Jonestown case, the best work has actually been done in two articles, one by John Judge and the other by Jim Hougan. Hougan is greatly relied upon both in this chapter and the Watergate chapter, and one can find both authors' work in the endnotes. However, there are only two books listed on Jonesstown, and one is John Marks' The Search for a Manchurian Candidate, a fine work but with a limited connection to Jonestown.
Having said all this, one can always find things to argue with in textbooks, and this one remains terrific as an introductory volume. For the dedicated researcher, there are tidbits of new material here and there, but the primary purpose of this book is to serve the uninitiated, and on that score Ventura and Russell park it. The book is readable, fast-paced, and short: well-tailored to today's public. The hope is, of course, that some of those who read this book will move on to deeper and more complex books, but even if they don't, American Conspiracies serves them well.