It has now been 80 years since the disappearance of the American aviatrix Amelia Earhart, yet the mystery surrounding her fate still fascinates Americans.
Earlier this month, Twitter went agog amid revelations of a photo from the National Archives purportedly showing Earhart, her navigator Fred Noonan, and their plane, a Lockheed Electra. The photo was supposedly taken in 1937 in the Jaluit atoll of the Marshall Islands, then occupied by Japan. It revived decades-old speculation that Earhart and Noonan were U.S. spies taken as POWs by the Japanese. This theory was popularized by the late CBS journalist Fred Goerner in his 1966 book The Search for Amelia Earhart. (The only good thing to come out of Goerner’s tale was Iain Matthews’s “The True Story of Amelia Earhart,” perhaps the best song ever written about a conspiracy theory.) It was also the centerpiece of a History Channel documentary, Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence, which aired on July 9.
I watched the documentary with my father. While he was generally impressed with the presentation, I was skeptical. Beyond the photograph and some bells and whistles, there was nothing that I hadn’t read before. In fact, it covered much of the same ground as the late-1970s/early-1980s TV series In Search Of . . . , hosted by the late Leonard Nimoy, from which I first learned about Earhart.
Not surprisingly, the authenticity of the photo came into question shortly after the broadcast. Kota Yamano, a Tokyo-based military historian and blogger, found it in a 1935 travelogue about the South Seas in Japan’s National Archives after a 30-minute online search.
If the Japanese had captured Earhart and Noonan, why would they have kept it to themselves? The Japanese were master propagandists; surely they would have reveled in boasting they had one of the most famous Americans in the world in their custody. Nor do I think President Franklin Roosevelt would have left Earhart to die, because Eleanor Roosevelt was a close friend of the flier. Indeed, shortly after FDR’s inauguration in 1933, Earhart took the first lady on a night flight from D.C. to Baltimore and briefly let her take control of the plane. Moreover, in mid 1937, America was still four and a half years away from war with the Japanese, who at the time were far more concerned with the Soviet Union and even more so with China, which they invaded five days after Earhart’s disappearance.
Besides, it was just over five years ago that another archival photograph supposedly solved the mystery of Earhart’s disappearance. It purportedly showed her Lockheed Electra protruding from the sea off Gardner Island (now known as Nikumaroro). This prompted a State Department announcement (made by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself) that the federal government would lend support to The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) in its search for Earhart that summer, the 75th anniversary of her disappearance. TIGHAR believes that Earhart and Noonan crashed-landed on Gardner Island and perished as castaways. Of course nothing came of the search. The support of the federal government amounted to little more than another photo opportunity to showcase Clinton as a feminist icon.
What is clear in all this is that Earhart’s whereabouts remain unknown. The simplest explanation for her disappearance remains the most plausible — the “crash and sink theory” advanced by Elgen Long, a pilot and navigator who was the first person to fly around the world solo over both the Arctic and the Antarctic. Long, who turns 90 next month, has argued that Earhart and Noonan were supposed to refuel at Howland Island before embarking on the last leg of their journey to Honolulu, but could not locate it. They simply ran out of fuel, crashed, and sank to the bottom of the Pacific.
What is clear in all this is that Earhart’s whereabouts remain unknown. The simplest explanation for her disappearance remains the most plausible.
So why are so many Americans unable to accept this theory? Why is it easier for some of us to believe that Earhart and Noonan were taken prisoner or ended up as castaways? Is it because these theories are more sensational? Or is it because alternative facts have overwhelmed healthy skepticism?
Unfortunately, governments have a habit of lying to their people. Conspiracy theories are nothing new, but what is different in our present age is how they have been legitimized at the highest levels of power. Michael Moore’s 2004 film Fahrenheit 9/11 claimed, among other things, ties between the Bush and bin Laden families. A month after its release, Moore was a guest of honor at the Democratic National Convention and got to sit in the box of former president Jimmy Carter. And our current president has a few 9/11 conspiracy theories of his own. As a candidate, Donald Trump claimed that President Bush had “advance notice” of 9/11 and speculated that Ted Cruz’s father could have been involved in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Trump is also a fan of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who has accused the U.S. government of involvement in 9/11, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Boston Marathon bombing, and the Sandy Hook shooting. In December 2015 Trump granted Jones an interview, during which he described Jones’s reputation as “amazing.”
As long as the American public accepts alternative facts as truth, bizarre and implausible conspiracy theories will flourish — about Amelia Earhart, government figures, or anything else. This means it is likely that we will continue to hear superficial stories about Earhart being an American spy or a castaway instead of looking deep into the Pacific Ocean, where she and her plane are most likely to be found.
— Aaron Goldstein blogs at The 1 and Only Aaron Goldstein.