They Said What?

A happy history of lies and propaganda

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Here's a history test no currently breathing American citizen should fail: Name a president whose "only reading materials were government documents and Bible scriptures" and whose tenure was linked to an increasingly unpopular war started under geopolitically murky, if not clearly phony, circumstances.

That would be James K. Polk, who pushed for war with Mexico in 1846 after the Mexican army killed American soldiers in disputed territory along the Rio Grande River. A key question was whether U.S. forces were on foreign soil at the first moment of engagement. As recounted in You Said What? (Harper Paperbacks), Polk "began to prepare his declaration of war, at no time recognizing that…the attack had occurred in disputed land. By not addressing the point, he was able to make the strongest case possible to a skeptical Congress." Among the doubters was Abraham Lincoln, then a Whig representative from Illinois, who voted against war, demanding that Polk "Show me the spot!" on which U.S. blood had been spilled.

Polk lied through omission, a common sort of deception among the "lies and propaganda" campaigns gathered in this volume by editor Bill Fawcett. One hundred and twenty years later, another president, Lyndon Johnson, took advantage of the fog surrounding the Gulf of Tonkin incident to ratchet up the American military presence in Vietnam. What's more, Johnson systematically pursued what his spokesmen called a "policy of minimum candor" when discussing U.S. aims and troop commitments. "He left office branded a liar because he could not tell the whole truth about the war," You Said What? reminds us. And then there's the current president, who like his fellow Texan has failed to explain fully the causes and costs of war—and has dismal approval ratings to show for his efforts.

Fawcett, whose previous collections include You Did What?: Mad Plans and Great Historical Disasters and How to Lose a Battle: Foolish Plans and Great Military Blunders, proceeds from the useful premise that "the lies told in an era give us some real insights into history." Short but well-researched entries by various contributors cover topics from the legendary Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley's invention of assassination plots by hippies at the 1968 Democratic National Convention to Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke's Pulitzer Prize–winning invention of an 8-year-old heroin junkie to the tobacco industry's varied and insidious attempts to convince the public that cigarettes were harmless. The section on Watergate lays out the disorienting and disturbing machinations of the Nixon White House in clear detail. That's no small task, You Said What? notes, as "the biggest scandal in American history began with a lie and contained so many different lies told by so many different people that it's almost impossible to keep track of who wasn't lying."

There's a refreshingly libertarian edge to much of the material, especially regarding the ways in which governments baldly manipulate the truth in wartime. "In war," Winston Churchill is quoted, "truth should be accompanied by a bodyguard of lies." The Food and Drug Administration comes in for well-deserved abuse for putting politics ahead of science, as it did in the case of t-PA, a "clot busting" drug that was kept off the market in the 1980s for no good reason. The perpetrators of the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study, who monstrously withheld treatment from hundreds of infected black men, are similarly taken to the woodshed. Joseph Stalin, who garners more ink than any other individual in the collection, is aptly named the "greatest liar in history…the man whose lies and paranoia caused at least thirty million deaths."

Even when the topics are as feather-light and superficial as Eric Clapton's "undying but temporary passion for Patti Boyd-Harrison"—he wrote "Layla" and "Wonderful Tonight" for her, but their marriage didn't last—You Said What? performs a public service. We've got more access to more information today than ever before. That can be incredibly liberating—no one has a monopoly on knowledge anymore—but it also demands that each of us be far more careful about the information upon which we rely. Never before in human history has a bullshit detector been more necessary. By reminding us of past episodes of dissembling, manipulation, and even good-natured idiocy, You Said What? edifies even as it entertains.

Fawcett's collection also reminds us that sometimes liars get their comeuppance. The Whig Party, which had opposed James Polk's "unnecessary war," took the White House after Young Hickory refused to stand for re-election. Polk "passed away 103 days after leaving office, the shortest post-presidency on record."

Nick Gillespie (gillespie@reason.com) is editor-in-chief of Reason. A version of this originally appeared in the New York Post.

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