They Said What? A Happy History of Lies and Propaganda

Article excerpt

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. …