Conspiracy Theory Is a Hoax Gone Wrong

The year was 1967; Vietnam loomed large; and one morning the Times featured a news item about how the stock market had tumbled because of what the article called a “peace scare.” At the time, I naïvely believed that the prospect of peace would be as welcome on Wall Street as it was in the low-rent Greenwich Village offices where I worked as the editor of Monocle, an impecunious journal of political satire (our motto: “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”)

Talking about this with my fellow editors, Marvin Kitman and Richard Lingeman, the idea for The Report From Iron Mountain was born: Suppose, we fantasized, that the president had appointed a task force of experts to plan the transition from a wartime economy, and the task force had concluded that we couldn’t afford it because our entire economy was based on military spending.

Our purpose: to focus attention on the reliance of the U.S. economy on war or the threat of war. Our method: Concoct a literary hoax, a purported account of the government’s secret machinations. To give it credibility, we would need an ultrarespectable publisher willing to play along. Luckily for us, at the Dial Press we found a maverick publisher, Richard Baron, who was ready to list the book as fact rather than fiction, and whose editor-in-chief was one E. L. Doctorow.

We had equal luck with our choice of author: Monocle contributor Leonard Lewin, who took the not unreasonable position that in order to write the story of the quashing of a report, there had to be a report to be quashed, so he proceeded to write it, along the way parodying think-tank jargon and taking care that virtually all of the footnotes referred to real, if esoteric, sources.

The result: When the book was published, the Times ran a front-page story entertaining the possibility that this hoax was a real government report. Iron Mountain hit the best-seller list and was republished in fifteen languages; and when the economist John Kenneth Galbraith (in on the hoax from the beginning), reviewed it under a pseudonym for the Washington Post, he testified to “the validity of its conclusions,” adding, “My reservations relate only to the wisdom of releasing it to an obviously unconditioned public.” The consequence: Galbraith was outed as the author of the review. Accused of having written the report, he said, “It could only have been written by one of two people—Dean Rusk or Clare Boothe Luce.” None of this hurt sales.

Five years later, Lewin wrote an essay for The New York Times Book Review confessing all, and that, we thought, was that. Until Lewin discovered in the mid-eighties that the right-wing Liberty Lobby had reprinted and disseminated thousands of copies without his permission, thinking the report was an authentic government document. Lewin sued, alleging copyright infringement, and won a settlement, the result of which was that thousands of copies of the bootleg edition ended up in his living room. Later, in 1995, The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story about how members of the Michigan militia and other far-right groups regarded the book as “a sort of bible.” And when Lewin or myself or my fellow Monocle editors were asked about it and affirmed for the umpteenth time that the book was a hoax, the true believers cited our denials as “proof” that we were indeed part of the conspiracy.

Conspiracy Theory Is a Hoax Gone Wrong