In Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, young Ernest Pontifex is facing a dilemma: He’s given his dead aunt’s pocket watch to the girl he loves knowing that his father’s wrath would fall heavy upon him when he returned home, twice fold for being late for dinner. Though we all know that honesty is the best policy, young Ernest decides that “the best liar is he who makes the smallest amount of lying go the longest way.” And so Ernest shades the lie in a veil of truth by saying that he’d lost it running home through a field because he was late for dinner. In that, he found that he could take a truth and fold a lie within it and bring them both out the longest way possible.
In her article “Lying In Everyday Life,” Bella DePaulo (et al) found that people lie in one of five of their everyday interactions. Whether we lie to protect ourselves or we lie to protect others, we’ve created a tapestry of truths that may not show the entire painting. And these controlled attempts to shade the truth become accepted realities between the speaker and the listener. Most lies live in the shadowy world of one person’s perception of reality.
But at what point do these shadowy truths become an accepted reality? And to what degree do these shadows become light? Here is a list of eight lies that altered U.S. history so dramatically that their shadowy truths became full-fledged realities. The list does not represent a ranking of historical lies or their impact.
Naval Officers Think The Maine Was Destroyed By Spanish Mine
Event: Sinking of the USS Maine
Lie: In this case, there are quite a few of them.
“Crisis at Hand: Cabinet in Session; Growing Belief in Spanish Treachery”–New York Journal
“Maine explosion caused by bomb or torpedo”–The New York World
In 1898, the United States was watching the Cuban Revolution closely. The nation had long desired Cuba and had offered to purchase the island from the Spanish in 1848 but was met with general indifference from the Spanish. On the premise that the government was protecting U.S. business interests on the island, the U.S. navy ordered the USS Maine to Havana harbor.
Indignities Practiced by Spanish Officials On Board American Vessels
As the revolution gained momentum, American sympathy toward the Cubans was manipulated by the press–chiefly by the papers of William Randolph Hearst (New York Journal) and Joseph Pulitzer (The New York World). Their war for readership would become known as “yellow journalism” and their stretching of the truth in Cuba persuaded the American people to demand that McKinley throw U.S. support behind the oppressed Cubans and protect “Refined Young Women Stripped and Searched by Brutal Spaniards While Under Our Flag on the [ship] Ollivette.” In the end, the newspapers had even the Captain of the Maine, who had initially said that it was an accident and that the Spanish were assisting his crew, believing that the Spanish had destroyed his ship and forced McKinley, who had long hoped for neutrality in the Cuban crisis, to ask Congress for a declaration of war on April 20, 1898.
Lasting Impact: One of the first impacts of the circulation war between Hearst and Pulitzer would be on the media itself. The idea of Yellow Journalism lingers today and can be seen in our culture of sensationalization. When AOL runs articles from TMZ as headlines on their website’s home page the reader is eyewitness to this. A satirical account of the conflict between Samsung and Apple out of Mexico in 2012 claimed that Samsung was going to pay their billion dollar settlement to Apple in coins. This was picked up by many news outlets and reported as fact. That people in the past were duped by Yellow Journalism could be excused, they had limited resources to check the validity of the news, but for us today to accept these wildly unfounded statements as true shows how misguided our trust in the media today is. (Here’s a link to Snopes.com regarding the Samsung vs. Apple hoax)
The bigger impact, yes larger than the gullibility of Americans, was the impact that the Spanish-American War had on the future of the U.S. regarding foreign policy. Following McKinley’s assassination, the United States adopted an openly aggressive policy toward Latin America: first with Theodore Roosevelt and his “Big Stick” diplomacy, then with “Dollar Diplomacy” and William Taft, and ending with “Moral Diplomacy” and Woodrow Wilson. In the ten years following the Spanish-American War, the United States would take part in the overthrow of governments (Mexico, Panama/Columbia), armed occupation (Nicaragua, Cuba, Haiti), revolution (Panama from Columbia in order to build the Panama Canal), and the “financial supervision” of banks (Haiti, Dominican Republic). Franklin Roosevelt will try to ease relations during the 1930s with the “Good Neighbor Policy” where he removed our troops from Nicaragua, Haiti and Cuba, but this neighborly policy would not last and the United States would be back in Cuba in 1961-1962, and in Central America through the 1960s to 1980s. We would support brutal dictators like Augusto Pinochet (Chile) just because he wasn’t a communist. We let a fruit company dictate the direction of a nation.
Smallest amount of lying goes the farthest way: Fortune. Pulitzer gets writing awards named after him. Hearst gets to build a massive castle in California (and a granddaughter who gets kidnapped). The United States becomes the policeman of Latin America.
Event: Boston Massacre
Lie: Paul Revere’s engraving titled “The Bloody Massacre Perpetuated In King Street”
In propaganda, words mean everything. In this case, one word that Paul Revere chose would reverberate through an entire colony and set the stage for a revolution the world had never seen before.
That word: “massacre.”
The revolution: America’s.
But, Revere’s engraving is one big lie. Merriam-Webster’s defines massacre as “1 : the act or an instance of killing a number of usually helpless or unresisting human beings under circumstances of atrocity or cruelty. 2 : a cruel or wanton murder.” The Boston Massacre was hardly that. Revere’s image–most likely copied from another engraver, Henry Pelham–shows a regiment of British soldiers lining up and firing at a crowd of colonists. It almost appears orderly, like a firing squad. But this is nothing like the reality of the events. Here, Revere has shaded the truth. That British soldiers were wandering the streets of Boston is true. That their presence was more than irksome is also true. That some fifty colonists decided to take it upon themselves to attack a British sentinel is omitted from the image. When the commander in charge, Thomas Preston, brought in reinforcements those men were met with snowballs, rocks, sticks, and any other projectile that the colonists could throw. A mob was forming. It is true that a British soldier fired into the crowd–probably more out of self-defense than anything–but a trial would acquit and release Preston and his men (Two would later be found guilty of manslaughter). After the shooting was done, three men died on the scene, eight were wounded (two would die later) and a revolution was born.
A massacre? Probably not. Five men.
A firing squad? Definitely not.
And for the little white lies. White lie #1: In the image it would appear that this happened in broad daylight when, in fact, the “massacre” occurred after nine at night. The only hint at that would be the tiny crescent moon. Does this matter? From the perspective of the British, yes. Who knows what is lurking in the dark streets of Boston at night? White lie #2: It was winter and there was snow on the ground; the very snow that the mob was using to conceal stones inside as they through them at the soldiers. Does this matter? If the British are going to say that they were attacked, best to conceal the weapon from the general public, right? The only hint at the temperature/season that Revere provides is the whisp of smoke coming out of the chimney. White lie #3: Revere has the British soldiers firing with Captain Preston holding his sword as though he is giving the orders to attack. The shadowed truth that Revere is telling here is that it is probable that Captain Preston gave an order to fire, but only in self-defense. And, as an aside, doesn’t the British soldier at the top look like he is having way too much fun? White lie #4: This one is interesting. Sometimes when we lie, we are really telling the truth, but hope the person doesn’t see through it. In this case, Revere has discretely hidden a sniper in the haze of gunshot. If you look in the window of the “Butcher’s Hall” (coincidence?), you will see a sniper firing a rifle. Whether this is a British soldier or a colonist is not clear. Here is a transcript of Captain Thomas Preston’s testimony and trial.
Lasting Impact: The American Revolution was no sure thing. The Boston merchant class and elite, including men like John Hancock and Samuel Adams, had a vested interest in revolting from England. But that was not the case for most colonists. Estimates vary from one-third to one-in-six colonists as being loyal to the British crown on the eve of revolution. Many in the South saw revolution as a threat to their way of life; England was promising freedom to slaves in return for their pledge of loyalty. By the war’s end, some 80,000 colonial Loyalists left America for England and Canada, including Thomas Hutchinson–descendent of Anne Hutchinson–who was burned out of his house and driven from the United States under threat of tar and feathering from colonial Patriots. In this light, Revere’s engraving is the greatest political propaganda piece in history. It swung the tide of colonists who were disinterested in revolution into the camp of revolutionaries. Within months, anti-British rhetoric was sweeping the colonies via pamphlets, speeches, and two other engravings depicting the Boston Massacre. The colonists now had their reason to fight.
Smallest amount of lying goes the longest way: Immortality. In his personal life, Paul Revere was a mediocre silversmith and not an artist, though he did create the first seal for the united colonies. That he stole/borrowed the image from Henry Pelham is undeniable; Pelham publicly accused Revere of using his image without permission. Revere’s military career was far from distinguished–he was arrested and later acquitted of disobeying orders. He is immortalized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” though Revere himself was captured before he reached Concord (it was really William Dawes and Samuel Prescott who finished the ride and warned the colonials in Concord). Revere’s engraving etched his name into our history, and without his engraving, we might not have our history.
Read Part 2 of “Lies that Altered U.S. History” here