Conspiracy Theories

A Short History of the New World Order

The evolution of a phrase


Amid reports that the alleged LAX gunman Paul Ciancia left a note that included the initials "NWO"—widely believed to be a reference to the New World Order—Lizzie Crocker of The Daily Beast has written a short piece about the history of the phrase. I make a few appearances in her story:

I'm in love with this malicious intent/You've been taken but you don't know it yet

It might be easy to mistake the NWO as a concept born out of Tea Party politics, since the movement occasionally throws the term around, especially when talking about the Obama administration. But Jesse Walker, author of The United States of Paranoia, says that the idea has been a constant in modern American political life and its historical roots run deep….

According to Walker, the [debate over the] League of Nations introduced the term to the political and cultural lexicon after the First World War to describe "evolving world institutions." The New World Order was also the titular subject of writer H.G. Wells' 1940 treatise, published one year after the outbreak of World War II, which advocated that nation states band together to prevent future outbreaks of war ("I am not going to write peace propaganda here," Wells wrote.) The idea of a one-world government also appears, in a thinly-veiled form, in Wells' 1933 book The Open Conspiracy: Blue Prints For a World Revolution (whose subtitle he later changed to, "What Are We To Do With Our Lives?"), which encouraged a "mental sanitation process" to erase nationalistic ideals from people's consciousness so they can accept their new roles as "world citizen[s]."

From there the article goes on to describe the John Birch Society's discovery of the phrase, as figures such as Nelson Rockfeller and Richard Nixon deployed the term in various contexts in the 1960s. And then we jump to the '90s and President George H.W. Bush, who used the words "new world order" while sketching a vision of the post–Cold War world. Bush's fondness for the phrase helped unleash a new wave of New World Order fears, not just on the populist right but in the counterculture.

One point I stressed in the interview is that it's possible for critics of the New World Order to use the term to describe broad political trends or to use it to describe a conspiracy allegedly driving those trends. It is not an innately conspiracist concept, though it is frequently bound up with conspiracy stories.

If you're interested in reading Wells' book The New World Order, it's online here. The Open Conspiracy is here. And it's been a while since I last did a roundup of United States of Paranoia links, so:

• Arthur Goldwag, who has written a couple of books about conspiracy theories himself, reviews the book on his blog.

• Seth Blake reviews it in the Los Angeles Review of Books.