Oct 25 5:30 PM

‘History Decoded’ author Brad Meltzer on how conspiracy theories evolve

From left to right: Book cover for “History Decoded: The 10 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time,” author Brad Meltzer.
(Book cover courtesy Workman Publishing. Photo by Eric Ogden)

Brad Meltzer, New York Times best-selling author and host of “Brad Meltzer’s Decoded” on the History network, joined Antonio Mora to discuss his new book, “History Decoded: The 10 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time,” on the Oct. 22, 2013 edition of Consider This. In this Web exclusive interview, Meltzer shares his perspective on the enduring power of conspiracy theories.

Q. During your “Consider This” interview with Antonio Mora, one of the things you mentioned was, “A great conspiracy always comes out of great fear.” I’m wondering if you can talk more about that.

A. Listen, if you show me a great tragedy, you have all the makings and everything you need for a conspiracy, and to me, if you show me your favorite conspiracy, I'll show you who you are.

I think when you look, even historically, at something like JFK — in the 60s, do you know who we thought killed JFK? It was the Communists — the Russians and the Cubans — our great enemies at that moment in time at the height of the Cold War. We also were afraid of the establishment so we thought it was rich Texas millionaires. In the 70s, at the time of Watergate and Vietnam, you know who killed Kennedy? It was our own government, it was the CIA who did it. And in the 80s, as the “Godfather” movies peaked and gave way to “Scarface,” you know who killed JFK? It was the mob, it was the Mafia. So decade by decade, if you want to know who killed JFK, it's whoever America is most afraid of at that moment in time. It doesn’t just reveal the loss of hope that we suffered, but the death of JFK showed us also our greatest fears and I think that’s always the case.

U.S. President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline, shortly before his assassination in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.
Photo by OFF/AFP/Getty Images

Q. As you investigate these conspiracy tales, are you ever swayed by your sources when you don’t expect to be?

A. You have to be. I mean, listen, everything in life that we're dealing with in all these mysteries — at this point, there are very few firsthand accounts anymore. So what that means is, you're relying on either logic based on forensic evidence … or more likely the case, you’re using the research of someone who looked at that, and you’re trying to decide for yourself, do I believe that we had someone who said, “I was a guard at Fort Knox and I showed up for work one day to guard the gold, and I looked at my gun, and there were no bullets in the gun. And I asked my supervisor, ‘Where were the bullets,’ and he said, ‘You don’t need bullets because we’re not guarding anything. There's no gold at Fort Knox.’” And in that moment, you have to decide do I believe this guard or do I think he's a kook? And as always with any source, you use all those other context cues, and physical cues, and nonverbal cues to figure out whether you do believe that person or not. And I will warn you, when you're dealing with UFOs if the person is blinking a lot, that’s usually the sign you shouldn’t trust them.

Q. Those who reach out and perhaps may be less credible sources; what do you think motivates them to do that?

A. You know, I’ve been contacted by everyone from the lawyer that represents the family of John Wilkes Booth … to someone who told me that he knew [the location of] the real Spear of Destiny that pierced Christ’s side. … And I've had people who've seen UFOs, and people who know where the Confederate gold is from the Civil War. And in each of those things — it's very interesting — the ones that I believe the most tend to be the people who are older, and they're about to die and they want the truth out there. That person is someone who I’m listening to very carefully, because it doesn’t mean that it’s always true, but deathbed confessions tend to be full of truth and guilt rather than manipulation.

Q. Your book is very conversational and I’m wondering, as you set out to explore these conspiracies, how you struck the balance between mentioning your own conclusions and thoughts and leaving the mysteries open-ended for the reader?

A. This book has my voice. That is what you're reading, and we did it for two reasons. One is to make it accessible. History has become something that people cringe [at] when they hear that word, and they think that history is a bunch of dates and facts you memorize — that's not what history is at all. History is a selection process, and it chooses every single one of us every single day and the only question is, do you hear the call? So I really wanted something that people could look at, and read, and realize history is alive around them. And that’s why we did it that way.

I also felt like there's a responsibility to not insist that you know the answer all the time. I say it right in the introduction, “Do not call me and tell me you didn’t give me the answer to this one, but you did give me the answer to the other one, so where’s the answer to the first one?” There’s a reason these are the greatest conspiracies of all time. There’s a reason these are the greatest unsolved mysteries of all time. Anyone who’s telling you that they know those answers, they’re lying.

JFK isn't the only thing that died that day. Really, the American dream was shot, and some say arguably killed, that day.

Q. Which of the still-unsolved conspiracies that you discuss in the book do you think are most likely to endure, and which are most likely to be solved?

A. I think the two that will never be solved and will always endure are UFOs and JFK. They are the core of the mother lode of conspiracies. Again, I think they also both reveal the most about us as people. I think the fear and the worry that we're not alone in this universe raises far more than just “little green men.” It raises our place in the universe and how we view ourselves in it.

Oddly, it's the same with JFK. JFK isn't the only thing that died that day. Really, the American dream was shot, and some say arguably killed, that day. JFK was the man who had the perfect life. He had the beautiful spouse, the beautiful good looks, the beautiful family, and he lived in the big White House mansion. That was the American dream at the time. And in one moment — by a high school dropout — it was all taken away, and I think that fact alone makes people scared and worried about their place in the universe. Everything that you love and is important to you [could] be taken away in one fell swoop. And again, the reason that we'll never solve it is because Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald. Period. You can have every theory you want, and there are great questions to still be asked about the assassination of JFK, but we’ll never get an answer because the only person who really knows what happened, Lee Harvey Oswald, is gone.

Q. If it turned out that there was a revelation to come through that could shake it all up — and I know you just said that it’s not possible, but if it were — what impact do you think that [the revelation] would have if it were uncovered now or at some point in the future?

A. I always say to people, pretend tomorrow someone steps forward and says, “I worked with Lee Harvey Oswald. I helped kill JFK.” Do you really think that people would believe him? I mean, I just think they would eat him alive. I think they would say, “this is a nut, this is a kook.” There’s no way — unless he had some more proof and an actual video — and even then people would say he faked it. And maybe this is just the cynic in me. Listen, I wish that person would step forward, and if they do it's going to be soon, because just by pure math they’re going to be dead soon. No one thought we would ever find out who Deep Throat was until Mark Felt got old and said, “You know what? I don’t want to die with a secret.”

All of us who live in this modern world today — we are walking newspapers. We publish our thoughts, we put out our editorials on Facebook and Twitter, and we all walk around with the power to sway.

Q. Reddit has made headlines recently in terms of people banding together in an online forum to solve things — the Boston bombings is one example, I know there have been others — I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on this crowd-sourcing approach and how the Internet drives theories?

A. I think the Internet is beautiful when it brings together facts. I think the Internet is dangerous when it brings together theories. … Let’s look historically. When Abraham Lincoln was killed, two weeks went by before some people knew that the president was dead. When JFK was killed, we had the Zapruder film, we had film that was being taken behind the limo by one of the Secret Service agents, but really otherwise that's all we had. That was it, those are the documents of the moment.

In the Boston bombings, by collecting the cellphone [evidence from the scene], we had suspects, we had views, we had angles, we had exactly how they did it. It was fantastic. ... The danger though, is, when everyone starts theorizing, it’s not that it’s a danger for people to put their theories out there — that’s a beautiful thing. The problem is that in the midst of all that information going out there, also misinformation starts going out there and then no one really cares about the truth anymore. Go put the word 9/11 in Google and you can barely find the truth anymore because you’ll find so many conspiracy theories. Because right now, don’t forget, we are — all of us who live in this modern world today — we are walking newspapers. We publish our thoughts, we put out our editorials on Facebook and Twitter, and we all walk around with the power to sway. And it's a beautiful power, but we have to also remember it’s burying us [sometimes in] misinformation.

Brad Meltzer’s interview has been condensed and edited. You can follow Meltzer on Twitter and Facebook.


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