Every day, conspiracy theories surface online: a new Loch Ness Monster sighting, allegations that the moon landing was faked, the claim that pigeons aren’t real and are actually government-issued drones (though this one is, admittedly, pure satire). We live in a culture of widespread sharing and connectivity, and a distrust in media and government that is heavily exploited by some to promote the idea of "fake news". However, this distrust in government is neither a new phenomenon, nor is it wholly unfounded. Political scandals have rocked governments the world over.
With a decent amount of time, distance, and often with firsthand interviews and declassified documents, the books on this list examine some of the most well-known political scandals, as well as some that have yet to make a deeper mark on global history.
The Plot to Seize the White House
While many Americans were deeply grateful to Franklin Delano Roosevelt for his efforts to pull the country out of the Great Depression, a small group of dissenters sought to overthrow his government in 1933. As a wave of fascist rule hit Germany in the early 1930s, a dissatisfied contingent of wealthy American business owners followed suit with their ideology.
Now known as the Business Plot, these business owners planned to prey on dissatisfied veterans and turn them against FDR’s government. Their ultimate goal? To install a dictator and halt the New Deal. They might’ve succeeded, had it not been for the courage of one man: Major General Smedley Darlington Butler.
The Pentagon Papers
This book details one of the many incidents that negatively impacted the American people’s trust in the government. A compilation of mostly primary documents, The Pentagon Papers amasses and details the numerous lies that President Lyndon B. Johnson told the American people, and the media, over the course of the Vietnam War.
Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968, commissioned a secret investigation of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam. A military analyst named Daniel Ellsberg went on to leak the documents to the press, after a number revelations from the investigation raised his hackles. This documentation was handed over to The New York Times, allowing the American people to gain a greater understanding of the risks and tactics involved in the tumultuous and unpopular war.
The Art of Political Murder
Once one of Guatemala’s most influential bishops and human rights activists, Juan Gerardi was found murdered in 1998. Author Francisco Goldman details the plot that laddered up to involvement from the Guatemalan military, the loss and impact of this influential figure, and the determined citizens that fought to bring the truth to light.
Gerardi was beaten to death in his garage. This occurred just two days after the Archdiocese reported on the involvement of the military in the deaths and disappearances of roughly 200,000 civilians since the early 1980s. Goldman uses individual accounts to piece together what was considered Guatemala’s “Crime of the Century”.
Crimes and Cover-Ups in American Politics, 1776–1963
While there are many self-identified conspiracy theorists, Donald Jeffries considers himself a conspiracy analyst. Detailing over 150 years of American history, Jeffries unravels the stories that he believes were constructed by “court historians”. This review of America’s history looks back to the Founding Fathers, and reexamines well-known figures and events, such as Abraham Lincoln and the Nuremberg Trials. Jefferies unearths the truth at the heart of these events by reviewing the facts and examining the accepted and widespread retelling of them.
A Very English Scandal
A serving Member of Parliament for North Devon for 20 years, Jeremy Thorpe's father and grandfather had also served as Conservative Members of Parliament. With such a legacy, it’s no wonder that Thorpe grappled with his conservative political allegiance, and its contrast with his personal life as a gay man.
In the summer of 1967, the British government decriminalized homosexuality between consenting adults. This may have been a boon to some closeted citizens, but many in government positions still felt pressure to hide their identities. Such was the case with Thorpe, who would stop at nothing to keep his sexuality a secret. This book highlights the efforts Thorpe and his compatriots made to kill a young man that Thorpe had an affair with—and in doing so, unravels his criminal involvement and his career.
Watergate: A New History
Garret M. Graff untangles the plots and web of conspiracy to present the reader with a straightforward account of one of the most notorious scandals in American history. When five men were arrested while trying to bug and steal materials from the offices of the Democratic National Committee in 1972, it pointed back up a rocky road of government conspiracy and public dissatisfaction with the Vietnam War.
Examining the events of Watergate with a good 50 years’ distance, Graff offers a thorough and comprehensive guide to the events that led to Watergate, and the fallout faced by the Nixon administration, its co-conspirators, and the American people.
The Sarawak Report
The corruption scandal perpetrated by Najib Razak is one that has a long history, and a long paper trail that stretches from Malaysia to Hollywood. Shortly after becoming prime minister of Malaysia in 2009, Razak launched 1MDB, or 1Malaysia Development Berhad. The purpose of this initiative was to invest in various industries, such as energy and real estate. It would be years before anyone realized that the money being pushed into 1MDB was actually going directly into Razak’s pocket.
The Teapot Dome Scandal
With the question of how much corporations have a hand in guiding American government still very much a topic of conversation today, let’s take a look back to 1920. America was closing in on the Jazz Age, and Warren G. Harding was handpicked by Big Oil to run as the Republican nominee for president. At the time, he was a little-known senator from Ohio. Once he’d won the presidency, Harding paid the company back in kind by taking control of the nation’s oil fields and passing them to the men who helped get him elected. Among these fields was the largest reserve in Wyoming: the Teapot Dome.
The Petticoat Affair: Manners, Mutiny, and Sex in Andrew Jackson's White House
Andrew Jackson isn’t exactly the most well-liked president in today’s discourse. The Petticoat Affair is among the least of these reasons. Nevertheless, it is a scandal that marred his presidency. Jackson took issue with the wife of a cabinet member, Margaret Eaton, being snubbed by Washington society. Pulling largely from Eaton’s autobiography, Marszalek examines the slights that led to a political scandal, and to the eventual resignation of much of Jackson’s cabinet.
Iran-Contra: Reagan's Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power
Like Jackson, Reagan has several detractors in today’s political landscape. Along with the negative effects of trickle-down economics, and the dismissal of the AIDS crisis that led to tens of thousands of deaths in the LGBT community, Reagan severely impacted the public’s trust in the government. In 1986, the downing of a plane in South America exposed a plot by the American government to arm the Contras, members of Nicaraguan counter-revolutionaries.
It was revealed that Reagan had signed a directive in 1981 to fund the Contras. The unravelling of the Iran-Contra scandal would go on to reveal that the United States had sold arms to Iran, which had funded the aid to Nicaraguan counter-revolutionaries. The scope of this scandal was wide-reaching, and led to the question of Reagan’s potential impeachment.