When They Were Out to Get Us

The paranoid days of the 1970s


The 1970s—with its flared jeans and dodgy haircuts, pallid disco music, absurdist trends (pet rocks!), and Khomeinist revolution—what a miserable, squalid decade it was. The idealism and irrational optimism of the 1960s, when throngs of teenagers declared the end of bourgeois society, gave way to Cambodia, Watergate, Jonestown, and the Symbionese Liberation Army. Civil rights marchers and peaceniks made way for black power and Black September.

In Strange Days Indeed, British journalist Francis Wheen stylishly chronicles what he calls the "Them decade," when the grand conspiracy theory was ascendant in the West, having infected the thinking of an astonishing number of clever people—prime ministers, presidents, journalists, and movie directors—as well as the hoi polloi. When something went wrong—a leader deposed, a president shot—it was invariably blamed on the machinations of government, business, and intelligence community conspirators. It was Them. Ordinary people saw a government agent behind every rock. British Prime Minister Harold Wilson was convinced that his intelligence service was fomenting a coup. Richard Nixon distrusted all but his closest aides.

There was something of a hangover in all of this, a predictable backlash from the mainstreaming of political radicalism of the late 1960s. Looking back on 1973, Wheen observes that in Britain "it seems incredible that the National Theater should stage an earnest three-hour Trotskyist seminar, led by no less a figure than Laurence Olivier," that supposedly portended a working-class revolution.

In the United States, most every conspiracy theory that involved the White House, Langley, the entire rotten government, was given a hearing (and sometimes confirmed as fact) in Congress. Public revelation of the CIA's involvement in assassination plots in the Third World, its role in fomenting coups across the globe, and its production of exploding cigars meant for Fidel Castro were treasonous, said singer Bing Crosby. To others, the exposes merely confirmed what they had long suspected: Their government could never be trusted.

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