Humans love conspiracy theories, and always have—there’s even evidence that ancient Romans had a few. Today, with the advent of the internet, they seem to be everywhere. But even though the term is generally pejorative, that doesn’t mean people aren’t out to get you. What follows are some conspiracy theories that turned out to be (at least partially or presciently) true.
1. It wasn't a weather balloon that crashed in Roswell, New Mexico.
In 1947, the Army Air Forces announced that a mysterious object that had crashed in the desert outside Roswell, New Mexico, was not a flying saucer but in fact a weather balloon. As the years went on, interest in the crash site waxed and waned, but from the late '70s to the '90s, interest surged, and many believers alleged that the government was covering up what really crashed at Roswell. As the Los Angeles Times noted in 1994, “The ‘Roswell incident’ has been repeatedly dismissed by the Defense Department as nothing more than UFO fantasies triggered by the discovery of a downed weather balloon.”
As it turned out, there was a cover-up: What had crashed in the desert wasn't a weather balloon. But it wasn't a UFO, either. Instead, it was probably a balloon from Project Mogul, a Cold War attempt to spy on Soviet nuclear weapons development that used balloon-borne acoustic detection.
The cover-up came to light in the early ‘90s, after a New Mexico representative asked the General Accounting Office to pressure the Pentagon into declassifying documents related to Roswell. According to The New York Times, that led to an Air Force report on the subject, which was released in 1994. It concluded that the Roswell find was “most likely from one of the Mogul balloons that had not been previously recovered” [PDF]. According to a journal maintained by one of the people working on Project Mogul in New Mexico, one of the balloons launched in June '47 was never recovered after its mission. The Air Force report considered it probable that it was this balloon, battered by surface winds, that landed on a ranch in 1947. (Also, according to the report, "Air Force research efforts did not disclose any records of the recovery of any 'alien' bodies or extraterrestrial materials.")
The report also speculated that the weather balloon story could have been chosen as the official line either because the relevant authorities actually thought it was a weather balloon or perhaps because they knew of the highly classified Project Mogul and were trying to cover it up. The military would not have wanted its spy activities or technology to come to light, so even UFOs would have been a better option than the truth.
Of course, some think that the cover-up remains.
2. American scientists militarized the weather.
As part of their 2014 book, American Conspiracy Theories, Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent trawled through thousands of letters to the editors from over a century of newspapers to determine which ones had a conspiratorial slant to them. The letters either proposed a conspiracy or argued against a conspiracy that seemed to be in the air at the time. They found writers proposing or debunking conspirators as diverse as the Boers, conservationists, both Theodore and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and even the Prime Minister of Malta. One of the letters they discuss is a 1958 comment about “American scientists trying to find [a] method for controlling the weather.”
In the 1950s, controlling the weather was a major topic of discussion: There were Congressional hearings and articles in major publications about how such a thing might be possible. In 1963, Fidel Castro accused the United States of weaponizing Hurricane Flora, which killed at least a thousand people in Cuba. According to an article in a 1958 issue of Popular Science, American scientists worried that “[t]he Russians may be ahead of us in weather control.”
Publicly, weather modification was moving merrily along—and the threat of weather warfare was being downplayed. One expert during this time reassured a Senate Select Committee, “I would like ... to emphasize again that I consider it highly improbable that advances in the science of weather modification will make possible any extensive use of 'weather warfare.’” The expert cautioned that it couldn’t be completely ruled out, however, and said more research was needed.
Years later, rumors began emerging of weather warfare in the Vietnam War, with a 1972 Science article saying, “For the past year, rumors and speculation, along with occasional bits of circumstantial evidence, have accumulated in Washington to the effect that the military has tried to increase rainfall in Indochina to hinder enemy infiltration into South Vietnam.” But Nixon’s Secretary of Defense, Melvin Laird, flatly told a senator “we have never engaged in that type of activity over North Vietnam.”
It didn’t take long for people to recognize that this was not a denial of potential activity in Laos, Cambodia, or South Vietnam. While the senator didn’t follow up with Laird, reporters asked a Pentagon spokesperson, who also denied rain-making over North Vietnam. But when pressed about other regions, the spokesperson responded, "I can't enlarge on that.”
In 1974, they were forced to. That year, the government admitted to attempting to make it rain to slow down movement along the Ho Chi Minh trail, and Laird apologized for misleading Congress, saying that he had “never approved” the efforts. The New York Times also reported he wrote a 1974 letter to a subcommittee saying, contrary to his earlier denials, he had “just been informed ... such activities were conducted over North Vietnam in 1967 and again in 1968.”
3. The U.S. government has investigated UFOs for years.
What could be a more definitive conspiracy theory than the U.S. government spending millions of dollars on UFO research? As the Washington Post’s Cleve R. Wootson Jr. put it in 2017, “For decades, Americans were told that Area 51 didn’t really exist and that the U.S. government had no official interest in aliens or UFOs. Statements to the contrary, official-sounding people cautioned, were probably the musings of crackpots in tinfoil hats.”
But according to Albert Greco in his 2004 book Conspiracy 101: Beginning to Be Crazy (according to the foreword, "a beginner course in the world of conspiracy theory"), the Air Force, and then the CIA, had been actively investigating UFOs, at taxpayer expense, since the late '40s. Greco also noted, with more than a little sarcasm, that the 1950s “were filled with more government investigations into easily explainable, totally natural, anything but alien events. According to the government there was no validity to these reports of UFOs; but they were going to continue to spend millions of American tax dollars to investigate them.”
And in 2017, conspiracy theorists got official confirmation that the government was, in fact, looking into UFOs—or at least it had been, for a time.
That year, the Pentagon confirmed the existence of the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program, which The New York Times reported was a $22 million program in a $600 billion budget. Started at the behest of then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in 2007, the program was reportedly shut down in 2012 (though The New York Times says that some officials have worked on it on the side since). According to the Washington Post, the purpose of the program was “collecting and analyzing a wide range of 'anomalous aerospace threats' ranging from advanced aircraft fielded by traditional U.S. adversaries to commercial drones to possible alien encounters." Experts were quick to discount the little green men part of the UFO research, though, with former space shuttle engineer James E. Oberg saying, “There are plenty of prosaic events and human perceptual traits that can account for these stories ... Lots of people are active in the air and don’t want others to know about it. They are happy to lurk unrecognized in the noise, or even to stir it up as camouflage.”
4. Magnetic materials in money can be used to determine the number of bills a person is carrying.
The Lone Gunmen, from TV's The X-Files, might be pop culture's most famous conspiracy theorists. (They took their name from the conspiracy surrounding president John F. Kennedy's assassination.) In the season one episode "E.B.E.," Lone Gunman John Fitzgerald Byers tells Mulder and Scully about "a dark network, a government within a government, controlling our every move." The proof, he says, can be found in a $20 bill. He takes one from Scully and rips it up, revealing the anti-counterfeiting strip: "They use this magnetic strip to track you. Whenever you go through a metal detector at an airport, they know exactly how much you’re carrying.”
Snopes has debunked this story, saying that according to rumors, the security thread is “to allow the government to know exactly how much money anyone is carrying at any particular moment ... The rumor is bunk. The strip’s sole purpose is the foiling of counterfeiters.” But while that last statement is likely true, there's also evidence that the Lone Gunmen were technically kind of right.
In 2011, Christopher Fuller and Antao Chen, both of the University of Washington, released a study called “Induction detection of concealed bulk banknotes.” They reasoned that because American currency has magnetic materials it should be possible to detect how much money someone was carrying on them. According to a 2012 New Scientist article, the physicists “found an ordinary handheld metal detector was able to pick up a dollar bill from 3 centimetres away, and placing the notes behind plastic, cardboard and cloth did little to block the signal. Adding further bills in $5 increments increased the strength of the signal, making [it possible] to count the number of bills,” though they do caution that denominations couldn’t be determined from this technique. According to New Scientist, "large bundles of notes would contain enough magnetic material to be detected at a distance, potentially allowing police to catch people attempting to smuggle cash over the border."
5. People who are "chipped" can be tracked by satellites.
According to the Detroit Free Press, the '90s publication Relevance, with its high quality paper and nice layouts, was “one of the slickest examples of conspiracy theorizing.” Physician Philip O’Halloran, the man behind the publication, wrote in one issue that biochips, implanted under the skin, “will emit low-frequency FM radio waves that can travel great distances, e.g., several miles up into space to an orbiting satellite. The transmission would provide information on the exact location of the ‘chipee.’" A year later, a psychologist writing in a New York newspaper said that mental health professionals who heard someone describing what O'Halloran proposed “might make a diagnosis that the person was suffering from a severe paranoid disorder,” before going on to discuss the origins of these kinds of views.
But O'Halloran's idea was prescient: Just three years later, in 1998, a professor of cybernetics at Reading University in England named Kevin Warwick received a chip implant, which according to a contemporary Independent article “emits a unique identifying signal that a computer can recognise to operate various electronic devices, such as room lights, door locks or lifts.” While that was still a long way off from what O’Halloran was proposing, in 2018 The Atlantic reported on a group that is working on making GPS-enabled chips to track relatives with dementia. In the future, there might be GPS tracking of other groups—something that was dismissed as a paranoid disorder just a few decades ago.
6. The government poisoned alcohol during Prohibition.
Just because the government made booze illegal doesn't mean people stopped drinking during Prohibition. But when those who chose to get tipsy started dying, accusations flew that the government was poisoning alcohol to enforce Prohibition. “When the government puts poison into alcohol, a large percentage of which the government knows will ultimately be consumed for beverage purposes, such action is reprehensible and tends to defeat the very purpose of prohibition,” a 1926 issue of The Camden Morning Post opined. A number of people, including a senator, put the blame for the deaths firmly at the hands of the government, and said that the practice was, essentially, "legalizing murder."
In fact, the government was poisoning alcohol, and freely admitted to it—and even published an entire short book on the subject. However, according to the government, the purpose wasn't to enforce Prohibition, but for Federal Revenue purposes: Booze meant for consumption would have to be taxed, but denatured booze was tax-free.
In 1906, Congress passed the first tax-free denatured alcohol act, which was designed to safeguard industries that required industrial alcohol. In order to keep suppling the industries that required alcohol, the government began to denature the alcohol (adding something to make the alcohol unfit for consumption) to make it “wholly unfit for beverage purposes.”
After reports of several deaths in the 1926 holiday season, the poisoning became an increasingly controversial tactic, though the government denied that their denaturing of the alcohol had anything to do with it. According to a 1929 Congressional Record, an expert who testified regarding deaths in New York City said that “There was not the slightest evidence adduced at any point, so far as I am aware, that these deaths were caused by industrial alcohol, either in the form in which it was denatured under Government supervision or after it had been manipulated by criminals.” Instead, the expert said, the deaths were caused by drinking straight wood alcohol. In the Minerva's Mail column in Nebraska's The Lincoln Star, Minerva drove the point home, saying, "The thing that kills the unfortunate, who in his craving will drink anything, is the alcohol itself in its raw state ... it is hard and raw and disastrous in its effects on the stomach."