New episodes come out every Tuesday for free, with 1-week early access for Wondery+ subscribers.
Every scandal begins with a lie. But the truth will come out. And then comes the fallout and the outrage.
Scandals have shaped America since its founding. From business and politics to sports and society, we look on aghast as corruption, deceit and ambition bring down heroes and celebrities, politicians and moguls. And when the dust finally settles, we’re left to wonder: how did this happen? Where did they trip up, and who is to blame? From the creators of American History Tellers, Business Wars and Tides of History comes American Scandal, where we take you deep into the heart of America’s dark side to look at what drives someone to break the rules and what happens when they’re caught. Hosted by Lindsay Graham.
Tue, 24 May 2022 07:01
In this interview, Lindsay sits down with Kathryn Olmsted, a historian who's written extensively about Watergate. The two discuss how Watergate was a turning point in American life. And Olmsted reveals why the scandal helped give rise to a new generation of conspiracy theories.
Listen to new episodes 1 week early and to all episodes ad free with Wondery+. Join Wondery+ for exclusives, binges, early access, and ad free listening. Available in the Wondery App https://wondery.app.link/americanscandal.
Please support us by supporting our sponsors!
To listen to American scandal one week early and add free, join Wondry Plus in the Wondry app. Download the Wondry app in your Apple or Google Play mobile app store today. From Wondry I'm Lindsey Graham and this is American scandal. In June of 1972 five men were caught breaking into democratic headquarters in the Watergate complex. What appeared at first to be a small-scale burglary was later revealed to be an act of political espionage, one that was spearheaded by officials in President Richard Nixon's re-election campaign. President Nixon himself wasn't involved in the planning of the break-in, but as investigations of the burglary grew more intense, Nixon attempted to cover up the crime in order to protect himself and his allies. That cover-up would soon unravel, in facing withering scrutiny from Congress, the FBI, and the press, President Nixon resigned from office. Today Wondry Gate is seen as a seminal moment in American history. The scandal revealed how corruption could taint the highest office in the country, and it raised profound questions about the limits of presidential power. But according to today's guest, the scandal was a milestone in American history for another reason. Catherine Olmsted is a professor of history at the University of California Davis, and has written that Wondry Gate helped fuel the modern rise of conspiracy theories. In books including Real Enemies and Challenging the Secret Government, Olmsted reveals how Wondry Gate damaged the public's trust in American government, and how the scandal set the stage for decades of political unrest. And our conversation will discuss the sensational investigations that came in the aftermath of Wondry Gate, and helped give rise to decades of conspiracy theories. We'll also look at the longer history of conspiracy theories in America, a history that goes back hundreds of years. Our conversation is next. If you're into true crime, the Generation Y Podcast is essential listening. We started this podcast over 10 years ago to dissect some of the craziest and most notable murders, crimes, and conspiracy theories together, and we'd love for you to join us. Follow the Generation Y Podcast on Amazon Music, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Catherine Olmsted, welcome to American scandal. Thanks for having me. Watergate is the seminal American scandal. It is the gadiest of gates. But you've argued that Watergate was a turning point also in American life, and that the scandal changed the way Americans viewed political conspiracy theories. Could you explain what was so powerful about Watergate? Well, by 1974, when Nixon resigned, the American people had learned that their president had been involved in a criminal conspiracy to subvert the democratic process by systematically spying on the campaigns of his opponents, and that these efforts had been paid for with illegal campaign cash. And then when these crimes came to light, the president himself had personally attempted to cover up his involvement by obstructing justice. And moreover, there was no question that this had happened because he had taped himself doing it. So once people learned these facts, they quite understandably wondered, what other crimes have government officials committed, what else has happened, what else do we not know? And of course, the American public does discover much more, because the story didn't end with President Nixon's resignation. Congressional hearings continued into Watergate and beyond. What did they discover? Well, because of public concern about possible government conspiracies related to Watergate, the Democratic leaders in the Senate decided to set up a committee to investigate other possible abuses and crimes committed by U.S. government agents, especially those in intelligence agencies. So it became known as the Church Committee after its chairman, Senator Frank Church of Idaho. And the Church Committee was tasked with uncovering additional secret government plots beyond those revealed in Watergate. And the committee spent 15 months investigating the darkest secrets of the early Cold War. It held sensational hearings in which it subpoenaed everyone from mafia dawns to CIA chiefs. And it ended by publishing a shelf full of official reports on the FBI spying on civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr. on the CIA's illegal domestic spying program known as Operation Chaos and early versions of NSA surveillance programs. And among other things, committee investigators uncovered a letter that showed that a top FBI official had tried to encourage Martin Luther King Jr. to kill himself by threatening to expose alleged extramarital affairs that their secret surveillance had uncovered. And then the most sensational revelations were that the CIA had arranged several at least eight documented attempts on Cuban leader Fidel Castro's life, as well as orchestrated assassination plots against other foreign leaders. And some of these involved the CIA working with mafia leaders. The castor plots were probably some of the most sensational things that come out of this committee. What exactly happened? Well, the CIA developed a toxin to put in Castro cigars. They developed a deadly fungus, put the fungus in a skin-diving suit, and then through a middleman offered the suit as a gift to Castro. They produced a ballpoint pen that had a hypodermic needle filled with deadly poison. And they recruited an agent to stab Castro with it. And they built an exploding seashell. So these plans were all in addition to simpler ones involving standard mafia hitmen. And to carry out these plots, the CIA recruited mobsters, members of the mafia, who had lost a lot of money in Cuba when Castro took over. In an earlier series on American scandal, the feds versus the activists, we described the FBI's attempts to discredit and even end Martin Luther King's life. And the letter that they wrote is not a subtle one. And then these attempts to kill Castro approach clownish. What do you think Senator Frank Church's purpose was, his intent with making public these sorts of secrets? Well, Church was one of the most idealistic leaders in U.S. history. He was called Senator Cathedral and Frank Sunday School by his colleagues because he was so earnest. And he truly believed that if he exposed all of the U.S. government crimes and abuses of the past, that then the American people would have their trust restored in government, that they would so respect this Senate committee for revealing these crimes, that then they would recommit to their trust in the U.S. federal government. But that's not what happened. And especially in regards to conspiracy theories about JFK's assassination. Right. Well, the Church committee's discovery that the CIA had worked with the mafia to try to kill Castro opened up a whole vast array of potential conspiracy theories involving the JFK assassination. Because once you know that Kennedy's CIA worked with the mafia to try to kill Castro, it's hard not to go down a rabbit hole and ask did Castro try to kill Kennedy in retaliation where the Soviets involved? Did one of the mafia Godfather's decide to kill JFK instead of Castro? Were anti-Castro coupons somehow involved? So it seems that by servicing these dark and sometimes bizarre facts, we haven't really confirmed any existing conspiracy theories. Certainly no one imagined that there was the conspiracy of the exploding shell. But it gave fodder for a new public imagination about what else could be there. Right. Exactly. Because once people learned about these outlandish plots that had really happened, there was documentation, there was testimony that showed that people in the CIA actually designed these devices to kill Castro and engage these mafia hitmen to kill him, then their imaginations could run wild. And this of course is coming at a very bad time in America. The period between 1968 and 1978 is probably one of the most tumultuous in its history. What was the shift in public opinion towards the government in general? Well, there was a steady decline in trust from the mid-60s to the 1980s. So in the early mid-1960s, Americans tended to trust their government. About four in five Americans told pollsters in 1964 that they trusted their government to do the right thing all or most of the time. So almost 80% of Americans believe that in the early mid-60s. And then because of the Vietnam War, that trust started to fall. It's around 54% in 1970. And then of course, Watergate causes an even steeper decline. It's down to about 36% after Nixon's resignation. And Senator Churchman is calling stock that that had to be rock bottom, and that they were going to help restore trust. But in fact, trust continued to fall by a couple of points after their investigation went down to about 33%. You said earlier that Senator Church was an idealistic politician, but I wonder if he did make the political calculus as you hinted at just now that public distrust in government couldn't fall much further. So why not open the books? Well, that's true. And also, I think that he believed that there was far more public support to learn these secrets than it turned out there was. He was running for president in 1976, and he hoped that his chairmanship of this investigating committee could help that bid. But he miscalculated it turned out that most people just didn't want to know about these secrets and crimes. I'm alarmed by the implications of this, that if there are government secrets, then it appears that the very best thing for the government to do is absolutely keep them secret. That seems to be the case that the more the government tells the American public about its mistakes and crimes, the more it tends to feed the conspiratorial imagination. So in the mid-seminis, we have this rising tide of conspiracy theory and distrust of the government. How did the leaders in Washington respond to this shift in opinion? Well, they responded to the investigations for the most part by saying they'd rather not know what church had uncovered that they preferred being left in the dark. There was an investigating committee in the House at the same time as there was the church committee in the Senate. The House committee was more radical and came up with conclusions that there were systemic structural problems in the US intelligence community. In the end, the House of Representatives as a whole voted to suppress its own investigating committee's report, the kept it classified. And at the end of the day, the reforms that came out of the church committee were not very rigorous or long-lasting. So all of this investigation and revelation did not lead to a change in the way the US government operated. It just led to more distrust among the American people. There was one piece of new legislation, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. What was that? That was the one significant law that came out of the church investigation. It required warrants before the US government, the FBI, or the NSA could listen in on American's phone conversations. The problem there was that the George W. Bush administration later just ignored that law. So to be clear, warrants were required by agencies seeking intelligence on foreign agents, but involving American citizens. Right, that's correct. What other proposals were on the table that perhaps didn't make it? Well, there were some proposals, of course, that probably had no chance of passing that said that the CIA should not be allowed to have covert actions at all anymore than any covert action should be conducted by the military, which has a chain of command and better accountability. And those reformers wanted to turn the CIA into an intelligence gathering and analysis agency period. But more realistically, there were reformers who wanted to rewrite the charters of the intelligence agencies and spell out exactly what they could do, what was legal and what wasn't legal. And that never got much support even from the Democratic administration of Jimmy Carter. And so that never went anywhere. Now, we're talking about a period in American history that perhaps is the native of popular support or belief or trust in the government. Of course, governmental scandals are nothing new. I became fascinated with how scandal-ridden Ulysses S. Grants administration was. So it's been with us for a long, long time. How recent, though, are conspiracy theories in government? Right. Well, conspiracy theories in general, of course, go back a long time. You see them in ancient Greece and ancient Rome. They're in the medieval era with the blood libel against the Jews, the English colonists who come over in the 17th century to North America, they have conspiracy theories. But most conspiracy theories up until the 20th century in the United States are focused on marginalized groups, on people who are outsiders and are believed by native foreign Americans to have some sort of allegiance to foreign power. So there's conspiracy theories about Catholics and about Jews and about immigrants. But conspiracy theories about the government really start to take hold around World War I because that's the time when the US government starts expanding its surveillance powers and the Justice Department and military intelligence starts spying on Americans in World War I because they're empowered by the S.B. and Oshin's Sedition Acts, which effectively criminalized the sent. And so once the US government starts having these secret powers and this ability to spy on Americans, then a lot of Americans who are being spied on start for a very good reason being paranoid about US government conspiracies against them. Well, there's good evidence for being paranoid. I mean, this period immediately after World War I is one of our earliest red scares, the Palmer raids, a series of nationwide raids and deportations of suspected communists and anarchists by federal forces, a violent rounding up of the dissidents. It was something that many Americans thought impossible. Right. There were a lot of violations of US civil liberties during the Palmer raids and during and immediately after World War I. And there was a lot of support for US government suppression of dissent during World War I and immediately afterwards. But by the early 1920s, a lot of Americans have once the immediate hysteria and fear of alien subversion has abated, they start to say, wait, we think we went too far. Maybe the government should not have these powers to spy on and imprison dissidents. But there is a market difference between these early red scares and what began to develop during the Cold War, specifically the era of McCarthyism in which these conspiracies are right for political exploitation. And certainly McCarthy is probably the most emblematic politician of that exploitation. But how else had they been used for political gain? From time to time in US history, especially starting with World War I, US government officials started using conspiracy-laden language in order to inspire the public to unite against an enemy. So the Germans are out to get us or the communists around to get us or the terrorists later are out to get us. And so therefore we need to unite. So you can see official government conspiracy theories being spun by government leaders. Well McCarthy is really the master of using a conspiracy theory for political gain. And I think he points the way to the future for other demagogues. What he does is quite knowingly, intentionally inflate a conspiracy theory. He knows that there were a few communist spies in the government in World War II. And he uses this fact to then spin a conspiracy theory about hundreds of communist spies in the government currently. And he does that specifically with political goals in mind. He wants to weaponize conspiracy theories and use those conspiracy theories against the democratic Truman administration. And ultimately he gets so drunk with power. He continues to make these allegations when there's a Republican in the White House, which in part leads to his downfall when he continues to spend these conspiracy theories once his own parties in power. But McCarthy really benefits politically from the anti-communist conspiracy theory. And it shows how you can get away with lying to the public if your goal is to make people very afraid. If you're into true crime, the Generation Y podcast is essential listening. We started this podcast over 10 years ago to dissect some of the craziest and most notable murders, crimes, and conspiracy theories together. And we'd love for you to join us. Generation Y is one of the longest running true crime podcasts out there. And we are still at it, unraveling a new case every week. We break down infamous cases like the evil genius bank robbery, and lesser known cases like the case of Kimberly Rico. Did she actually kill her husband after they took part in a murder mystery game? We cover every angle, breaking down theories, diving deep into forensic evidence, and interviewing those close to the case. And with over 450 episodes, there's a little something for every true crime listener. Follow the Generation Y podcast on Amazon music or every listen to podcasts, or you can listen ad-free by joining Wondry Plus in the Wondry app. So let's progress a little bit through history, through time. You know, Nixon resigns in 1974 and only about 10 years later, America's embroiled in another crisis and conspiracy. Tell us what the differences and maybe similarities were with Iran Contra. Well, some people believe that Iran Contra was even more disturbing than Watergate. The Iran Contra affair exposed international racketeering, drug dealing, and subversion of the Constitution. On the orders of the CIA director, a staff member for the National Security Council secretly sold U.S. missiles to the government of Iran and then transferred the profits to a CIA backed army in Central America, even though Congress had explicitly banned sending U.S. government funds to this army. And even though U.S. policy at the time was to denounce Iran as a government that promoted terrorism. So you have this hypocrisy as well as actual crimes. Moreover, there was a Senate investigation right after Iran Contra that said that some of the officials within the CIA ignored evidence that their Central American allies were selling drugs in the United States to finance their war. And perhaps most important for conspiracy theories, there was testimony at the Congressional investigation of Iran Contra that revealed that the CIA director at the time or that alleged that the CIA director, a man named William Casey, had wanted to create a CIA outside of the CIA in order to evade all democratic checks and balances. So for all of those reasons, I mean, there's the drug dealing, there's this version of the Constitution, there's the line, there's the hypocrisy, and then there's this allegation that there was an attempt to create the CIA outside the CIA, you get an explosion of conspiracy theories after Iran Contra. Were these conspiracy theories just amplified by yet another scandal or were they different somehow? The conspiracy theories continue in the vein of the post-Watergate conspiracy theories that there are people within the government who don't have the public's best interest at heart. You have plotters within the executive branch, you have criminals, you have people who abuse their power. There is a big range of conspiracy theories after Iran Contra. I mean, there's people on the left to believe that it shows that the CIA and the Reagan administration helped to bring drugs into black neighborhoods with the goal of destroying the black community. Those conspiracy theories are on the left. You also have conspiracy theories on the right with militia groups believing that the investigations into the scandal prove that there's a deep state, a secret government that's working against the American people. And then, you know, most bizarrely, you have a lot of people with no ideological attachments at all who believe for various complicated reasons that Iran Contra proved there was a conspiracy involving the US government and aliens from outer space who allegedly crashed at Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. I wish that we were in a moment in which it would be possible to just outright dismiss claims like that, but it's become clear that they are sincere beliefs held by a large portion of Americans. Yes, no, I think it's very true. I mean, I teach conspiracy theories here at UC Davis and I have some very smart students who believe a lot of the more bizarre theories. And it's sincere on their part. It's not because they're weaponizing it for political benefit, like political leaders do. It's because they sincerely believe them. Well, each of these moments we described, you know, all the way back to Tee-Pot-Dome and then to Iran Contra and 9-11-2 in the modern age. These are all each unique cultural moments and they are rife with their own conspiracy theories. But is there any commonality? Is there a reason why at different times people have been more or less inclined to believe in a conspiracy theory? Well, I would say a couple of things about that. One is that they're at times of obvious intelligence failures. There are always conspiracy theories. So Pearl Harbor is an intelligence failure. The JFK assassination is an intelligence failure. 9-11 is an intelligence failure. In all three of those cases you had, the US government should have known or even did know that something was going to happen but didn't put the pieces together. And so, of course, that inspires some Americans to say, I bet they were part of the plot. Also, in times of crisis, in times of uncertainty, of course, people, not just Americans, but all human beings, turned to conspiracy theories in order to make meaning out of the chaos that they see around them. I think that there's a natural human tendency to want to see patterns, to want to see order, and to reject explanations, especially of tragic events that just say, oh, it was just a random coincidence. It was just some horrible thing that happened and there was nothing that we could have done. Instead, people want to see a plot, a plan, a reason they want somebody to be in charge, even if it's evil people. And I think that those tendencies are more pronounced in times of crisis, of economic crisis, or war, or massive intelligence failure, assassinations, political assassinations, all of those things, bring out people's desire to look for order and meaning in purpose. And sometimes that means conspiracy. I think we could probably all understand that in these violent moments, these breaks from the ordinary that are so shocking and upsetting to us, that we do look for meaning. But there seems to be a buffet of different options, and some people go for the most bizarre. What is the attraction on the very fringe? Well, I think that people on the fringe, the fringes, both the left and the right, already distrust the government, the media, all official explanations, because they are on the fringes. And so they think that they should be in the center. But they haven't been able to convince people to share their ideas and why it's because there's a conspiracy against them. So they're just more inclined to see conspiracies and plots. Recently, of course, I think we've seen a lot more energy on the right in imagining conspiracies. And there's a lot of scholars who are interested in investigating why that's the case. But in general, political scientists have this formulation where they say conspiracy theories are for losers. And if your side is lost in election, you're more inclined to believe in conspiracy theories than the side that won. You are one of these scholars who are attracted to studying conspiracy theories. What brings you to this topic? I published my first book in 1996. It was called Challenging the Secret Government. And it was on the post-watergate investigations of the CIA and FBI. So it focused particularly on the church committee, which exposed co-intelpro and operation chaos and the Castro plots. I also discussed in the book the other congressional investigations that exposed MK Ultra, the CIA's drug testing experiments. So I published this book in 1996. It was my dissertation with an academic press. So it's not a high profile book by a long shot. Yet I started getting lots of phone calls and letters in the mail from people all around the country who read my book, who it turned out, sought out all scholarship on the church committee. And they told me they believed they were victims of the secret government programs that had been exposed by the congressional committees that I had written about. And sometimes they said that they had been victims of FBI or CIA illegal spying programs in the 60s that they had been anti-war rallies and they had been spied upon. And they would have very persuasive stories. Sometimes people would tell me that they were victims of MK Ultra, the CIA's drug testing program. And their stories were usually not so persuasive and they tended to talk a lot about CIA transmitters in their dental implants. And so I began to get fascinated by the difficulty of evaluating conspiracy theories about US secret agencies because secret agencies and necessarily deal with secrets. It's hard for a historian or just an ordinary citizen to distinguish between some of the more outlandish theories and the fact that the CIA plotted to kill Fidel Castro with an exploding seashell. And so I got interested in the relationship between real government conspiracies and conspiracy theories about the government. And I wanted to explain how anti-government conspiracy theorists often build from real facts about real government conspiracies and then construct from those facts some very bizarre theories. And I wanted to analyze how these instances of proven government conspiracies help explain the hold of anti-government conspiracy theories on the public imagination. And you actually have an anecdote about how difficult it is sometimes to discern fact from fiction. So I called you. Yes, this was the most bizarre story. A woman called me when I was in my office. So on my office phone she called and said she was calling from a pay phone in Sacramento, which is a big city near Davis where I live. And that she had read a story about me in an alternative newspaper in Sacramento. And she needed some advice because the FBI was chasing her and her boyfriend because her boyfriend had worked for the CIA and they were accusing him of being a Russian spy. And she wanted some advice on how to handle the FBI. I should she approach them and tell them the truth. And I thought she was one of my the CIA is putting implants in my teeth people. I thought she was one of the crazy people. So I just said, you know, talk to them. There you can trust them. I can't remember. I just got her off the phone. And then she sent me a letter with names and details. And I put it in a file that I put all of the crazy letters I received. And then a few years later there was a new story about an alleged Russian spy who had been caught by the FBI. And the name rang a bell. And I went and looked in my file. And in fact it was her boyfriend. And she had been telling me the truth as she knew it. And it got me thinking about how you don't know the difference. How hard it is to tell the difference between stories that seem completely crazy about secret government agencies and real conspiracies that they have committed. I think with the rise of social media or difference of political discourse these days, we've probably all encountered many more crackpot ideas than we thought possible. And yet people do sincerely believe them. And it is probably difficult sometimes to really differentiate fact from fiction even in these extraordinary cases. But at the same time, we've also all probably been told that just confronting a conspiracy theorist with facts only entrenched their belief. So I guess this is two parts to the question. Knowing that you're well acquainted with the body of research, how do we differentiate fact from fiction inside a conspiracy theory? And how do we disentangle someone from false beliefs? Well, there are certain rules that everyone can follow when they read something that alleges a conspiracy in the government. First of all, you check the author who is writing this and why do they have legitimate credentials in this topic. And you check the tone and style. Is it balanced, sensationalist? And then check the source. Is it reliable? Is it quoted in other media outlets? Is the allegation backed by peer-reviewed scientific or historical studies? And you can also check, of course, the fact-checking websites, the political facts and the snopes are very good and have teams of reporters if you put your theory into the search box. You can come up with all kinds of stories that they have done investigating these conspiracy theories. So that's the first part of your question. The other about how do you debunk conspiracy theories or convince someone that the conspiracy theory that they hold is not true? That is difficult. It depends on how wetted they are to the theory. If they truly believe it, really anything you do is unlikely to work. If they're only curious or if they still have some sort of open mind, what you do is you don't ridicule them. Don't overwhelm them with information. You don't yell at them, but instead you engage on the facts. You ask them to show you where they got this, you look at the source, and then you provide an alternative fact-based explanation. You've mentioned that it's important not to discredit or shame a person who might hold a conspiratorial thought, but to may perhaps show empathy. And I think that's understandable because there are concrete real examples of outlandish conspiracies that turned out to be true. So how do these true histories of conspiracy? How are they not evidence? How can the person you're talking with be dissuaded that they're not right given the fact that conspiracies are true sometimes? Well, just because there's evidence of real conspiracies in the past does not mean that every conspiracy theory about the government today is correct. You have to examine each theory on its merits, and you have to investigate it the same way that Woodward and Bernstein investigated watergate. You have to look at the documentation, you have to look at the interviews of people, you have to look at reputable sources that have looked at these documents or interviewed these people, and decide if the theory is based on fact. And so for example, you might be intrigued that the CIA has in the past tried to kill foreign leaders, but does that mean that every foreign leader who dies now was killed by the CIA? No, obviously not. So you have to look at each instance individually and apply historians or journalists' tools to examine that source and decide whether it's true or not. So I understand that it's very compelling to say like, oh, well, there was the Gulf of Tonkin, so therefore there have been conspiracies in US history, but that doesn't necessarily mean that George W. Bush planned 9-11, you know, you can't get from A to B. You have to do the work of looking at the evidence behind that particular conspiracy theory. You said that you should rely on the media to help you fact check your conspiracy. That seems really problematic when you don't trust the media. Right. I know. It's a very difficult problem to solve. And I think perhaps the only solution is long term that we need to have media literacy courses in high school and college so that students can learn how to verify and evaluate sources, because of course what you're saying is correct. A lot of people go down the rabbit hole because they refuse to look at the New York Times or the Washington Post or the Atlantic or the New Yorker because they believe they're in on the conspiracy. And they don't understand that the mainstream media, they might make mistakes and they might have biases, but they are trying to play by the rules of objective journalism. And I don't know how to get that point across except by getting people early when they're in high school and college. Let's think about the real world consequences of conspiracy theories because certainly it's gone beyond telling your bodies what you think really happened and became a real political motivating force as we've seen with QAnon. What is the risk if conspiracy theories continue to become mainstream? Well, there are a lot of obvious problems with conspiracy theories. They're dangerous to individuals. They can be dangerous to groups. They can inspire violence. They can undermine public health and safety. But I would say even more generally, the growing inability of Americans to agree on a common set of facts is very troubling because if we can't agree on the facts and if we can't agree on factual statements about collective problems, then we can't figure out ways to solve them. And I mean, not to be all doom and gloom here, but we could be talking about the end of democracy. If a sizable portion of the public believes that the elections won by the other side are never legitimate, then we could get to a point where there are no more elections. So it's very worrisome. Now, throughout your career, you've studied these conspiracies and the illicit covert and criminal actions of the government through Watergate, Iran Contra, Legion's Vother Abuses, how do you personally maintain any trust in government yourself? Who says that I do? No, I would say that the bulk of the federal government is filled with dedicated civil servants who just want to do their job. And I trust the people at the CDC and the Treasury and the Social Security Administration. I think they're trying to do the right thing and serve the public interest. And I differentiate between that vast part of government work with secret agencies who have, it is true, been proven to have lied in the past. Well, that differentiation is still problematic because those are very powerful branches of the government. Right. Well, it is, it is, I mean, it's a perpetual problem. How do you have secret agencies in a democracy? I think that I have to trust the overseers in Congress to have hearings and do investigations to keep secret agencies democratically accountable. I guess finally, why don't we end our discussion with a meditation on the difference between when thinking about government, skepticism and cynicism? Right. Well, I think in a democracy, you need to be skeptical of official pronouncements. You need to hold your elected officials accountable. And you need to make sure there are checks and balances that ensure they're telling the truth. So skepticism is a strength in a democracy. And Woodward and Bernstein were skeptical. They were conspiracy theorists and it turned out they found a real conspiracy. Cinecole citizens, however, just say, oh, I think they all lie in cheat. Yeah, Nixon got caught, but that's the only difference. All the other presidents have done the same thing. So why should I even bother to vote? Why should I pay attention to any sort of government activity or participate in any sort of collective action? Because they're all corrupt. I mean, that's very dangerous. That's very dangerous to democracy, to have a large portion of citizens who are that cynical. Catherine Olmsted, thank you so much for coming on American scale. Thank you very much for having me. That was my conversation with Catherine Olmsted, a professor of history at the University of California Davis and the author of books, including challenging the secret government, the post-wadrigate investigation to the CIA and FBI and real enemies conspiracy theories and American democracy, World War One, to night 11. From wondering, this is episode six of Watergate from American Skin. In our next series, we look at an environmental disaster in a community that took on one of the largest chemical companies in the world. In the mid 1990s, a mysterious plague struck a cattle farm in West Virginia. The farm's owner went looking for answers and teamed up with an unlikely partner from the world of corporate law. But as the two dug deeper, they uncovered a chilling secret about a company's toxic waste, a cover of the threatened thousands of lives. If you like our show, please give us a five star rating and leave a review and be sure to tell your friends. I also have two other podcasts you might like, American history tellers and business movers. Follow on Apple podcasts, Amazon music or wherever you're listening right now, or you can listen to new episodes early and add free by subscribing to Wondry Plus in Apple podcasts or in the Wondrium. You'll also find some links and offers from our sponsors in the episode. Nums supporting them helps us keep offering our shows for free. Another way you can support the show is by filling out a small survey at Wondry.com slash survey to tell us what topics we might come next. You can also find us and me on Twitter. Follow me at Lindsay A. Graham, Lindsay with an A Middle Initial A and thank you. American Scanell is hosted, edited and executive produced by me Lindsay Graham for Airship, audio editing by Molly Bach, music by Lindsay Graham. Our scene and producer is Gabe Riven, executive producer, our Stephanie Jens, Jenny Lauer Beckman and Marshall Louis for Wondry.