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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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 SnatchersThe 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.


In the late 1940s and 1950s, Hollywood produced a number of movies that processed the era’s fears and conspiratorial anxieties in works with science-fiction themes.
Red Planet Mars raised themes of conspiracy, a crisis of religious faith, and national peril in a story about American scientists making radio contact with being on Mars. It starred fan-favorite Peter Graves, who later starred in TV’s Mission Impossible.
A more well-known film is Invasion of the Body Snatcherswhich proved to be so popular that it was remade several times, including a well-received version in the 1980s. In the original version from 1956, the story involves seeds that drift through space before landing on earth. Eventually, this results in “pod people,” alien beings that secretly assume the identities of ordinary Americans.
The hidden-enemy theme is often interpreted as a response to the McCarthy era, though the film was made after Senator McCarthy’s fall from influence.  The film’s portrayal of hidden menace can be seen in scenes such as this one:


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.