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A View From The Overlook: Conspiracies And The Parks


December 7th, the 71st anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, is nearing. The National Park Service, and its unit, the USS Arizona Memorial, will be ready as usual.

The USS Arizona Memorial visitor center has had a multi-million-dollar redesign, with state-of-the-art exhibits reflecting new technology and the latest historical research on what happened that day. Some things never change, however. One of the unchanging verities of the USS Arizona Memorial is that the park ranger must be a diplomat as well as an historian.

True, being a ranger-diplomat is a requirement for service in our geological national parks and monuments such as Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest, and Zion, where the NPS speaks of millions of years with nary a reference to Noah, the Ark or the Flood, much to the chagrin of the tax-paying fundamentalist park visitor.

However, the USS Arizona Memorial is different. The events of December 7th were so devastating to steel, human flesh, and our image of ourselves and our place in the scheme of things that there had to something other than the official explanation, particularly for Roosevelt haters.

There must have been a conspiracy!

Hardly a day goes by at the USS Arizona Memorial that a determined taxpayer does not approach the ranger at the desk and state knowingly, “Roosevelt planned Pearl Harbor didn’t he?”

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The forward superstructure and Number Two 14" gun turret of the sunken USS Arizona afire after the attack. Photo via NPS.

This is a rhetorical question and the reason why our ranger must be a ranger-diplomat. He must not deadpan, “No sir, that would be Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto.”

“DON’T GET SMART RECTUM WITH ME, YOUNG MAN!” would be the sure rejoinder from the taxpayer, as well as grim assurance that he knows his way around his congressman’s office.

No, our ranger must politely and diplomatically point out that according to the latest and best historical research, the destruction of the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor was due to a well-planned and well-executed attack by the Japanese, of which President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had no advance warning.

This will not satisfy our conspiracy minded taxpayer.

“If Roosevelt didn’t know about the attack, he must have been illiterate! Why, the November 30, 1941, issue of The Honolulu Advertiser had a front page headline stating “JAPANESE MAY STRIKE OVER WEEKEND!”

That would be December 7th. This was a coincidence as well as an educated guess, but to Conspiracy Buffs, there is no such thing as coincidence. There is only a Deep Plot by People in High Places. It is almost impossible to dispute Conspiracy Theorists, as they either regard you (pityingly) as a simple, gullible fool who accepts the government “party line” or, (darkly) that you are part of The Conspiracy.

The National Park System has a number of units that commemorate sudden, violent, apparently random acts that changed history. The randomness of these incidents is very troubling to some people. To many, there is no such thing as random occurrence or coincidence.

“Someone must have planned this! They (The eternal “They”) have covered their tracks well, but we will uncover the plot!” (And sometimes they have a point!) Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site (the assassination of Abraham Lincoln) is a case in point. It is complicated by the fact that there WAS an actual conspiracy, but who was involved, and how extensive it was, remains to be seen.

However, the Oklahoma City bombing as well as the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy appear to be the work of deluded loners (Your kindly scribe realizes that conspiracy buffs will go after the verb “appear” like coyotes on a lamb.) The events of 9/11, including Flight 93 National Historic Site are the Elysian Fields of the ever-blooming Conspiracy Theory.

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President Lincoln's box at Ford's Theater. NPS photo.

There indeed was a conspiracy involving upwards of a hundred or less Middle Eastern gentlemen in a group called Al Qaeda led by a religious fanatic named Osama Bin Laden, now forcibly deceased.

“But what about the REAL culprits, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney? (As well as the Israelis, the International Banking Conspiracy, Wal-Mart and the Pope?)"

Well, neighbors, it seems that paranoia is an equal opportunity employer. 
While Pearl Harbor conspiracy theorists tend to be right wing, 9/11 conspiracy buffs tend to be left-wingers. George Bush is assumed to be simultaneously “Our dumbest President” and “Mastermind of a conspiracy so vast it reaches into every nook and cranny of our nation!”

Quite an accomplishment, even for a Texan.

As liberals tend not to enter the fields of aviation, construction, or engineering, let alone the military, the 9/11 conspiracy theories advanced defy the laws of physics, engineering and probability.

Our ranger at the desk at the Flight 93 National Historic Site will be asked why the hole in the Pentagon was not larger, about the puffs of “smoke” as the floors of the World Trade Center telescoped, and unbelievably, if Flight 93 had indeed actually crashed into that field that fateful day?

Conspiracy theories are as old as the bible and certainly older than the Republic. I asked Joe Craig, historian at Saratoga National Historical Park, if there were any conspiracy theories about the Revolutionary War.

Is the Pope Catholic?

That seemed to be the problem. The Revolutionary War was a trick, a diversion to further a Papist Plot! It seems that Lord North and Lord Bute, King George’s most-trusted advisors, were traitors! (Is it not always so?) Secret Catholics, they were conspiring with Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie of Culloden fame) now living in France, to overthrow the British government, hang or exile George III, and reinstate the Stuart dynasty on the throne of England in the form of Prince Charlie. The Roman Catholic Church would replace The Church of England and heads would roll.

How was this to be accomplished?

Cleverly, neighbors, cleverly. Lord North would see to it that an ever-increasing number of taxations and interferences in local government in the American colonies, such as the Quebec Act that granted religious freedom to the hated French Canadian Catholics, as well as forbidding further settlement beyond the crest of Appalachians.

No one of these things was particularly bothersome, but together, and over a period of time, they would cause dissention. Lord North knew this. Unaddressed by compromise or conciliation, dissention would turn into open rebellion. Lord North knew that. All that he need do is assume the role of a pig-headed Establishment aristocrat (not a difficult role to play in North’s case) and soon the colonies would be in raging rebellion.

But how would this benefit Prince Charles? Simple! The British army and navy would inexorably be drawn into a conflict 3,000 miles away, leaving the British coast undefended. A relatively small force of 20,000 picked men could land on the south coast of England and Charles Edward Stuart could be in London and on the throne of England in three days!


How do we know this stuff? Well, back in 1775, a patriotic British sea captain by the name of Captain Hanson happened to be in Paris on business (he was a timber merchant). There he happened to strike up an acquaintance with the secretary of Prince Charles. One day, Captain Hanson stopped by the secretary’s office for a chat. The secretary was unexpectedly called away on an errand. While waiting for his friend's return, Captain Hanson amused himself by going through a packet of letters carelessly left on a desk (The British are naturals at spy craft!).

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Did Bonnie Prince Charlie conspire in a bid to overthrown the crown? Photo from Wikipedia.

The letters were from Lord North outlining the plot and reporting its progress. Realizing he had something of value, Captain Hanson absconded with the letters and hied himself over to London where he confronted Lord North and demanded a bribe for their return.

Lord North agreed on a price of 1,000 pounds. Captain Hanson returned to New England, where he discovered to his horror that the plot was working! The battle of Lexington had been fought and the Revolution was on! Britain was about to be dragged in a quagmire of unwinnable war!

Could it be stopped?!? Could the plot be exposed and the Revolution called off? Hanson would try. He convinced an influential clergyman, the Reverend Edward Stiles, who had enough pull to get Hanson an audience with skeptical members of the Continental Congress.

“Did he have the letters?” Well, no, but he had exact copies!


And so, the Revolution continued. Did the plot exist? No. Lord North and Lord Bute, whatever their defects, were loyal Englishmen. What if the Revolution had been called off? Well, our history would have been as dull and stodgy as Canada’s, we would have a parliamentary system of government, and we would not have an electoral college. Aside from that, conspiracy theory will always be with us.

PJ Ryan enjoyed a 30-year Park Service career that landed him assignments at places such as Jewel Cave National Monument, Joshua Tree National Park, and even the Washington, D.C., headquarters. PJ hasn't lost interest in observing the world of the national parks. For a more regular dose of his observations, be sure to read Thunderbear.


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PJ - Thanks for an entertaining and informative piece. It's a good reminder that working with the public on a daily basis can be both challenging and entertaining, especially when the job involves "interpreting" historical events that can stir strong emotions and opinions.

Interesting article. I did not realize that the Revolution was brought about by the Vatican!

John D. MacDonald believed that people embrace conspiracies because the thought that horrible things can happen randomly is too scary. It is more comforting for them to think that horrible things are brought about through complex machinations, so either they are too unimportant to be targeted, or if they educate themselves, they can avoid it.

Thanks for another funny and fascinating bit of reading.

Enjoyed it

Nice to see the balance though I think PJ dismisses some of these conspiracies with too much certitude.

Of course, it's all Obama's fault anyway. Everybody knows that. ;>)

Delightful! Surprised no one here has yet offered us a sip of "UN Agenda 21" and crumpets! That seems to be the conspiracy theory de jour for all Federal lands issues hereabouts.

EVEN paranoids are right some of the time, Amarillo.

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