Special announcement: I’m sorry that we are unable to hold our last meeting due to the unprecedented COVID-19 situation. However, I hope that you have found the last few weeks of our course interesting. I’ve greatly enjoyed the opportunity to meet with all of you and share some experiences and thoughts. It has been a great pleasure, and perhaps I will see you again at some future point. Best wishes to you all.
Greetings, WISE members!
On this page, I’ll post suggestions for readings and other material for members of my W.I.S.E. courses in the winter and spring 2020 sessions.
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C21. CONSPIRACY CULTURE AND HOLLYWOOD FROM THE RED SCARE TO WATERGATE
Course description: In this course, we examine an earlier era when conspiracy thinking was on the rise – the late 40s to mid-70s.We look at the role Hollywood films played in reflecting, and in some cases spreading conspiracy ideas. We will consider many of the conspiracy-themed films from these years, among them Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Manchurian Candidate, and All the President’s Men.
Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 essay, The Paranoid Style in Amerian Politics from Harper’s magazine is available online for free here.
Walt Disney’s testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in available as a YouTube video here.
The films that we considered in Week 1 are:
- Conspirator (1949)
- The Red Menace (1949)
- I Was a Communist for the F.B.I (1951)
- Invasion U.S.A. (1952)
- Big Jim McLain (1952)
- Suddenly (1954)
Note: Most of the films we’re discussing in this course are available from public libraries, on home video, or from one or more of the popular television streaming services.
The “Flying saucers” and UFO craze that emerged in 1947 and lasted for many years was not the first time that humans had seen strange things in the skies, but in the context of the postwar world’s Atomic Age, such sightings generated much interest and concern. The U.S. government looked into such reports, and the Air Force instituted Project Blue Book to gather and analyze reports of unexplained aerial phenomena. (A story about declassified documents from the Project can be found here.)
By the late 1950s, reports about UFOs became so widespread that famed psychologist Carl Jung examined the subject and concluded that the phenomenon was largely an example of mass psychological projection–a “modern myth” that served as a way to deal with the fears and anxieties of the nuclear era. (A blurb about Jung’s book, Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies, is available from Princeton University Press here.)
1950s science-fiction movies were about many things, mainly about making money for the studios that produced them. Yet, they were also a reflection of a time when many many Americans were sometimes suspicious of their neighbors and feared that hidden forces were shaping events that could have disastrous consequences.
In today’s session we also talked about the 1950s as an “age of conformity,” as it is sometimes described, and about sociologist David Riesman and his bestselling book, The Lonely Crowd. The introduction to that book, which is still read today, is available online from the National Humanities Center and can be accessed here.
In this week’s session, we also considered what some people call a religious revival of the 1950s. This item (here) from the University of Southern California provides some enlightening perspective and background information to that development.
Finally, if you are interested in William R. Murrow’s comments about Sen. Mccarthy’s accusations, you can watch the original CBS broadcast in the video below.
In director Lewis Allen’s 1954 thriller Suddenly, one of the era’s heartthrobs, Frank Sinatra, plays a cold-blooded assassin for hire. It was a bold choice for a movie topic in the tense climate of the 1950s, and in some ways, it eerily foreshadowed the following decade, in which political assassinations in the US would rock American confidence.
Suddenly — Full movie
The Man Who Knew Too Much – Hitchcock (1956)
“Master of suspense” Alfred Hitchcock was a popular and well-known director int he 1950s, a decade in which he released two suspense films with conspiratorial themes: The Man Who Knew Too Much, a 1956 remake of one of his own previous films, and North by Northwest, a sophisticated and witty film from 1959.
Both films share the theme of an innocent man unknowingly caught up in international intrigue. The tones of the two films differ, however. The Man Who Knew Too Much, while containing some of Hitchcock’s trademark satirical wit, largely emphasizes the danger. By contrast, North by Northwest, while also depicting elements of danger, has a lighter, more congenial attitude. Indeed, although the life of the lead character portrayed here by Cary Grant, is in danger throughout North by Northwest, neither the character nor the audience ever seems to believe a bad outcome will ever happen.
The Man Who Knew Too Much theatrical trailer:
Scenes from North by Northwest :
A 1962 film, The Manchurian Candidate, returned to the themes of impending danger and deep conspiracies. It involves brainwashing, assassinations, and could be politely called “mother issues.”
In this film, a long-duration assassination plot emanates from the Korean War. A brainwashed American POW has since returned home, completely unaware that he was brainwashed. In fact, the solider was repatriated to the US to lie in wait–he is a sleeper agent unaware that he’s a sleeper agent. He goes about his life in a more or less ordinary way until one day, he is activated and given a mission: assassinate a high-profile politician.
The opening scene sets the stage:
Kennedy, Castro, conspiracies…
The early 1960s was nearly a perfect storm for creating conditions that fueled conspiracy thinking. There were plots that were very real, some of which were carried out, others of which were thwarted or abandoned. Then there were speculations about plots that may or may not have actually been planned. The Cold War, Fidel Castro’s takeover of Cuba, controversial decisions by newly elected President John F. Kennedy — these factors and more contributed to suspicions and theorizing.
A video from CBS News:
We should also keep in mind since-declassified CIA mind-control experiments that began in the 1950s and that became public only years later. A report about that is available in this video from National Geographic:
By the 1970s, reported CIA schemes to assassinate foreign leaders were the subject of much controversy and resulted in Congressional investigations.
Summary of 1975 Congressional investigation into plans to assassinate foreign leaders
Read the full text, declassified and redacted by the U.S. government here.
And finally, only three weeks before JFK’s tragic and untimely death, South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem’s regime was toppled in a coup that was carried out by factions within the South Vietnamese military. It later came to light that the U.S. seemingly gave a green light to the coup which had resulted in the deaths of Diem and his brother, the leader of South Vietnam’s secret police.
Whether, in apparently going along with the coup, American leaders knew that Diem would be killed is an open question. Quite possibly, they believed he would only be removed from office and sent into exile. In any case, the coup created new complications, and just a few days after the coup, Kennedy reflected on what had transpired. An account of these reflections is here.
President Johnson appointed the Warren Commission to investigate John F. Kennedy’s murder and to dampen any fears or anxieties that the assassination was carried out by an enemy nation. The full Warren Report is still available directly from the U.S> government here.
Both Dr. Strangelove, director Stanley Kubrick’s famous movie, and the lesser-known movie Seven Days in May were scheduled to be released in December of 1963. However, given the circumstances and the national trauma surrounding Kennedy’s death, bother were pushed back and did not debut until 1964.
Seven Days in May, a film starring Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster, was released in 1964 after having been delayed due to John F. Kennedy’s death in November of 1963. (The film was originally scheduled for release in December, but Burt Lancaster is said to have strenuously wanted it delayed out of respect for the late president.)
The story is a straightforward conspiracy to overthrow the elected government of the U.S. Perhaps the most surprising part of the story is that this conspiracy originates not with external powers of typical villains, but instead from within the highest levels of the U.S. military. The motive? Patriotism. The general leading the coup feels that the sitting president is jeopardizing the country’s future by signing a deal with the Soviet Union.
Douglas and Lancaster are outstanding in this film, which was directed by John Frankenheimer, who had previously directed The Manchurian Candidate.
In 1967, the radical documentary filmmaker Emile de Antonio directed a film based on Mark Lane’s book, Rush to Judgment. Lane was highly critical of the Warren Report and was among the most prominent of the early JFK conspiracy theorists.
By 1967, there were already many questions about the Warren Commission’s conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone and that there was no greater conspiracy in the president’s tragic death.
Conspiracy theorizing grew in the late-1960s era of assassinations.
One of the most significant conspiracy-theory movies with a political theme was 1973’s Executive Action, which again starred Burt Lancaster. Mark Lane helped create the story of this fictional movie. The screenplay was written by Dalton Trumbo, who was previously blacklisted in the Red Scare of the 1950s.
A newspaper review of Executive Action is here.