10 Widely Believed U.S. Government Conspiracy Theories

By: Alia Hoyt
Even the FBI originally thought there was a conspiracy surrounding the assassination of Martin Luther King. But further investigations did not bear that out.
© Bettmann/CORBIS

The U.S. government was created to establish democracy in the "land of the free," which is a pretty great ideal, right? Unfortunately, conspiracy theorists believe that the noble intentions of America's forefathers have strayed widely into oppressive territory, hell-bent on manipulating events and people, punishing activists, whistleblowers and journalists, and keeping down the poor and otherwise downtrodden [source: Hintze]. Whatever you think about the government (and I'm betting you have a multitude of your own opinions), could there possibly be any credence to the allegation that the U.S. Public Health Service claimed they were treating black men for syphilis for 40 years ... but didn't actually do it? Or that U.S. and Canadian citizens were unknowingly being treated as guinea pigs when the government was testing the effects of LSD [source: Sterbenz]? Sadly, these and a number of other reprehensible statements that were once simple conspiracy theories are actually true!

Proof of such long-held claims, which typically become public years later when previously sealed documents are released, is one reason conspiracy theories about the government doing very nefarious things flourish. Another is the massive explosion of the Internet in recent decades, which makes it easier to spread ideas and information (both legitimate and totally wacky) on a wide scale. Here are 10 conspiracy theories about the U.S. government that many people continue to believe, even though the proof is sketchy or nonexistent.


10: There Was Advance Notice About the 9/11 Events

Relatives of the victims of the 9/11 attacks leave flowers, toys and photos on the names written on the monument at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York.
Bilgin Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Sept. 11, 2001, was a life-changing day, even for people who were nowhere near the airline attacks that brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Center and killed nearly 2,800 men and women [source: New York Magazine]. The terror spread as the Pentagon was hit by another plane and news broke that passengers and crew on a fourth, United Flight 93, overtook hijackers and caused the plane to crash into a field, rather than at its intended target [source: History]. Muslim terrorist group al-Qaida claimed responsibility for the attacks. But almost immediately, conspiracy theories started flying around.

Some theorists believed that the U.S. government had advance warning of the attacks, but let them happen anyway. Others claimed that the government actually engineered the attacks, and that al-Qaida wasn't even involved. In fact, some insist that the government created the plot in an attempt to frame Muslims for terrorist activity, justifying war efforts to come in the Middle East [source: What Really Happened]. As evidence, these critics say that the twin towers collapsed too rapidly and in a manner inconsistent with having been hit by a plane, insinuating instead that internally placed explosives were the true culprits for their demise.


However, physicists point out that the architectural design of the towers as "a tube within a tube" made it easy for the towers to be brought down by the energy generated during their collapse, which is estimated to be equivalent to roughly 100 tons (91 metric tons) of TNT per tower. There was also a lack of booming sounds and flashes of light characteristic of explosions [source: Thomas].

9: Alien Experiments Occurred at Area 51

A sign at the Little Aleinn motel on the Exraterrestrial Highway, where Area 51 is located in Nevada, plays up the alien conspiracies idea.
Barry King/WireImage/Getty Images

Located about 150 miles (241 kilometers) from Las Vegas, Area 51 is an ultra-secure U.S. Air Force base where it is said that the government takes particular interest in examining alien technology to further its own capabilities [source: TIME]. These claims are nothing new, but the flames were fanned in 2014 when Boyd Bushman, a retired Area 51 engineer, talked shop. He also happened to be dying, which could be why he suddenly became so generous with the details. In his interview, he described alien life-forms within the base; how he reverse-engineered spaceships and even claimed that alien life-forms are employed by the U.S. government [source: Depra].

Declassified documents have since revealed the site's true function as a secret testing location for spy planes such as those that monitored the Soviet Union during the Cold War [source: Koran]. Area 51 is now known as the National Classified Test Facility, but true conspiracy theorists don't buy it. If alien reverse-engineering is really going on, I want to know why don't we have flying cars like The Jetsons yet? What's taking so long?


8: Martin Luther King's Assassination was a Government Plot

A man stands on a balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in the approximate place Martin Luther King Jr. stood when he was killed. In the courtyard beneath it are newsmen, police officials and onlookers, the day after the shooting.
© Bettmann/CORBIS

Arguments about the untimely death of civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. have abounded for decades. He died in 1968 due to gunshot wounds allegedly delivered by James Earl Ray [sources: Ghose]. White supremacist factions loudly voiced and demonstrated their opposition to MLK's ideals, but many conspiracy theorists hold that Ray was actually a scapegoat in a conspiracy mounted by the FBI, the CIA and the Mafia because of King's opposition to the Vietnam War. In 1999, the King family won a lawsuit in which a jury decided that King's death was due to conspiracy, and that Ray may have actually been set up. The King family had sued a man named Lloyd Jowers who said on a TV show that he paid someone besides Ray to kill King. Ray had initially confessed to the assassination, then recanted his admission and died before the lawsuit was decided. Jowers was ill during the trial and did not testify [source: CBSNews].

Exhaustive investigations by the U.S. Justice Department indicate, however, that Ray indeed acted on his own, pointing to initial accounts from Dr. King's camp, forensic evidence and inconsistent statements by witnesses as proof. Further, Jowers denied his story about the second gunman when he was under oath in an earlier case. And the mysterious man named "Raoul" whom Ray said had told him to commit the murder has never been found. The man in a picture identified by Ray as "Raoul" turned out to be a retired autoworker whose employment records show he could never have been with Ray on any of the dates specified [source: Polk].


7: Chemtrails Are Intentionally Poisoning the American People

The contrails made by airplane exhaust are thought by some conspiracy theorists to actually be trails of chemical agents designed to harm people.

Crop-dusting use small airplanes to deliver pesticides to protect valuable crops. In recent decades, chemtrails have caused quite a stink among conspiracy theorists who believe that certain airplanes are leaving behind more than we bargained for. Specifically, we're talking about trails of biological and/or chemical agents designed to harm people who are unlucky enough to be in the way. Scientists have repeatedly explained that these trails (which in their legitimate form are actually known as contrails) are nothing more than vapor trails caused by normal reactions in aircraft engine exhausts. The size and appearance of these trails can vary based on atmospheric conditions, like humidity and temperature. Chemtrail opponents repeatedly deny the validity of these claims, insisting that humans are being unwittingly poisoned.

So what's the point of poisoning your nation's own people? Advocates of this theory claim that chemtrails are an effort by the U.S. government to keep the population under control, and that these toxic agents are also a result of military weapons testing [source: Stone]. If we all start wandering around like mindless zombies we'll have an idea of why and how it's happening, at least.


6: Vaccines Do More Harm Than Good

Vaccine skepticism is nothing new. This 1802 cartoon depicts public fears about being inoculated with cowpox in order to be immune to smallpox.
Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

The anti-vaccine movement picked up steam in the late '90s when a now-widely discredited study was published in The Lancet claimed a significant link between autism rates and childhood vaccinations [source: Mooney]. Back then, few people were freaking out about diseases like measles, polio and pertussis (whooping cough) because – for the most part – they had ceased to exist in the developed world. Although the study that really ignited this hysteria was retracted by The Lancet , many people continue to leave their kids unvaccinated, even as some previously rare diseases are now making a comeback [source: Helmuth]. In 2000, measles was declared eliminated in the U.S. by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, by 2014, there were 644 cases in the country and an even higher final total is expected for the outbreak in 2015 [source: Bernstein and Dennis].

Conspiracy theorists purport that vaccines remain dangerous -- the government is "in on it" with the pharmaceutical industry, providing funding and mandating these immunizations with the intention of turning a tidy profit and other nefarious goals [source: Severyn].


Now, I'm not saying that the government is all sunshine, puppies and roses. However, it seems unlikely that elected officials and the best scientific minds in the world (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and the like) are all so under the spell of Big Pharma that they're choosing to poison our kids and look the other way. Especially when it is well-known that these vaccine-preventable diseases often cause severe illness or death if contracted.

5: The CIA Created AIDS to Wipe Out Gays and Blacks

About 100 researchers, public officials, activists and community leaders participated in a town hall meeting focused on HIV/AIDS infection among African-Americans in Washington, D.C. in 2009.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

We now know that HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), the source of the deadly disease AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), is contracted most often by sexual contact or intravenous drug use. But in the 1980s, there were fears that you could get HIV simply by touching an infected patient or even sharing a toilet seat [source: AIDS.gov]. Since the virus appeared to affect certain groups more than others – gay men and minority groups, such as African-Americans – conspiracy theorists began to ponder the possibility that AIDS was engineered by the CIA in an effort to reduce these populations [sources: AIDS.gov, Media AIDS].

Although both of those groups have certainly suffered significant injustices over the years, being a government-issued target for this currently incurable disease does not appear to be one of them. HIV is very similar in nature to simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), which was probably transmitted decades ago to humans by eating infected monkeys or apes, or by contaminating wounds with their infected blood [source: Media AIDS].


Higher levels of unprotected sex with infected individuals, as well as various other social and economic concerns, are blamed for the disproportionately high infection rates suffered by these groups [source: AIDS.gov]. But the disease knows no boundaries, and has affected people of all ages, genders, sexual orientations and races, to the incredibly sad tune of 39 million deaths worldwide since the epidemic's onset. A further 35 million are currently living with HIV [source: CDC].

4: The Moon Landing Was Faked

Pilot Harrison H Schmitt stands on the lunar surface near the U. S. flag during NASA's lunar landing in 1972. Some conspiracy theorists think all moon landings were faked because a flag couldn't wave in a windless place.
Universal History Archive/Getty Images

In regard to Neil Armstrong's 1969 walk on the moon, it was certainly one small step for a man and the launch of one giant conspiracy theory for cynics everywhere. Allegedly, every moon-involved shebang was fabricated in an attempt to win the Space Race. Among the evidence? The flag waved. You couldn't see reflections of photography cameras in the space helmets. There was no crater from the landing. Shadows were weird. Stars weren't visible. The list of complaints and apparent inconsistencies is endless.

Let's take the most popular argument against the credibility of the moon landing, the apparent waving of the American flag, which, as critics are quick to point out, can't happen in a windless, vacuum environment. Scientists offer two explanations for this "phenomenon." First, the astronaut had to twist the flagpole to secure it into the moon's surface [source: TIME]. Anyone who's ever endeavored to set up a beach umbrella knows that requires significant movement. Second, inertia from when the astronaut released his hold on the flag kept it moving [source: Than].


Since the vast majority (and by that I mean nearly all) of Earth's population has never been to the moon, we are largely uneducated on the many ways it is atmospherically different from our own little planet. As a result, it's tough to make a serious argument about how things "should be," because we don't really know or understand the variables involved.

3: FDR Knew Pearl Harbor Was Going to Happen

Japan landed a devastating attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. But there's no proof that the U.S. government knew of this in advance.
Photo12/UIG via Getty Images

Long before 9/11, the deadly Japanese bomb attacks on Pearl Harbor rocked a nation that had grown accustomed to being left alone, thanks to sheer geography and military capabilities. The U.S. had largely pledged to stay out of the way of Europe's ongoing carnage during World War II. On Dec. 7, 1941, however, the death of 2,400 U.S. troops at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii caused President Franklin D. Roosevelt to band together with the Allied forces to take down Germany, Japan and Italy [source: Goddard]. A serious surge of patriotism and outrage stoked the fire of imminent U.S. involvement, significantly helping FDR's case for war. So, was this changing of the tides due to an unforeseeable, catastrophic attack? Or was it a government manipulation designed to affect public opinion, and thus make it acceptable for the U.S. to take sides?

Declassified documents, publicized in a 2011 book, show that FDR and his cohorts were warned in a memo three days before the attacks that the Japanese were eyeing Hawaii as a target. Conspiracy theorists point to that as ammunition for their claim that the U.S. government knew exactly when the "sneak attack" was going to happen. However, the book's author said the U.S. government "believed the Japanese were contemplating a military action of some sort, but they were kind of in denial because they didn't think anybody would be as audacious to move an army thousands of miles across the Pacific, stop to refuel, then move on to Hawaii to make a strike like this" [source: Bedard].


2: FEMA Concentration Camps Will Imprison Antigovernment Activists

A photo similar to this one of a North Korean prison camp was doctored and used as 'proof' of FEMA concentration camps.
DigitalGlobe via Getty Images

People dealing with natural disasters in the U.S. are pointed in the direction of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which was created to help citizens through dicey situations like tornado damage, flooding, fires and the like. Apparently, the agency has sinister, Nazi-esque ulterior motives, if you believe conspiracy theorists. Members of the modern day "Patriots" movement allege that FEMA has established concentration camps mandated by the U.S. government and the United Nations, suitable for the imprisonment of those who subscribe to the Patriots' antigovernment militia subculture, particularly those who aren't keen on having their firearms confiscated [sources: Potok, Zaitchik].

If you're wondering when these supposed camps will be put into use, you're not alone. Some people say that they already are being presented as "low cost housing" for homeless people being kept against their will [source: Watson]. Others are waiting for the proverbial bottom to fall out of the government as we know it, which will eschew our constitutional "inalienable rights" as a result of some government-engineered catastrophe which will launch a state of martial law [source: Zaitchik].


Sadly for fans of this theory, the visual "proof" of the existence of these camps has been accounted for. Photos purporting to be of the camps are actually of forced labor colonies located in North Korea, while others are actually of a National Guard training center in Michigan (most definitely not a prison camp). Even video footage of an alleged camp was taken from a 1990s documentary featuring an Amtrak maintenance facility [source: Popular Mechanics].

1: The New World Order Is Bent on Global Domination

This 1867 engraving shows an Illuminati initiation; some people believe the Illuminati is part of the New World Order.
Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

The New World Order (NOW) conspiracy theory is based on the belief that one, giant mega-government will eventually take over rule of the world in a not-so-pleasant fashion. A number of devious organizations, such as the Illuminati, the United Nations, NATO, the World Bank and the Bilderberg Group are reportedly involved in implementing a worldwide change to a single government system characterized by militarized and total corporate control, with no middle class, only rulers and servants. The Bilderberg Group, a conference of thought leaders attended by the likes of Bill Clinton, David Rockefeller and various European royalty, is considered to be a shadow world government [sources: Hunt, Lendman].

While you could cite many, many reasons as to why the NWO does not exist, let's use just one: the nature of power. In a book called "Who Rules America?" sociology professor G. William Domhoff made the following arguments for why a one-world government conspiracy doesn't work:

  • It doesn't fit what we know of power. For instance, it assumes that rich capitalists would rather rule the world than just make money.
  • It assumes that world leaders are extremely clever and never make mistakes.
  • It assumes that a conspiracy can remain secret forever when evidence shows that most private plans get eventually exposed, whether by the press, agitating groups or whistleblowers.
  • It is certainly true that groups like the CIA have been involved in overthrowing foreign governments and spy plots, but these were all authorized by U.S. government officials, not by some shadowy secret entity.

Of course, conspiracy theorists would say, that's what "they" want you to think.

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 10 Widely Believed U.S. Government Conspiracy Theories

The government is far from perfect and I'm sure plenty of shady stuff happens on a daily basis, but I have a hard time swallowing most of these conspiracy theories. Bad things happen, often via poor decisions by good people, but most of these sensationalistic theories are better suited to film, books and television. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

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