15 White Lies with Huge Historical Consequences

A few words can have a tectonic shift on the timeline.

15 White Lies with Huge Historical Consequences

A few words can have a tectonic shift on the timeline.


White lies are small, inconsequential, and use some light dishonesty in order to keep everyone happy—or at least cover your rear, right? Well, anyone who has had a seemingly innocent falsehood blow up in their face knows that’s not always the case. A fib can have sometimes dramatic consequences, setting a chain of events into motion that could hardly have been anticipated when the original lie was told. That’s true in both life and history; many an untruth has led to major, unexpected, tectonically earth-shifting results. Herein, 15 white lies, misrepresentations, and propaganda efforts that had some seriously consequences. And, for help on spotting them in everyday life, check out these 15 Secret Tricks for Spotting a Lie Every Time.

Bill Clinton White Lies

“I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”

Bill Clinton probably thought he had little to worry about at the time. The likelihood that his dalliances with intern Monica Lewinsky seemed unlikely to get out—and if they did, in a he said/she said with a twenty-something, POTUS would likely have the upper hand. But his efforts to deny his relationship with Lewinsky ended up causing him plenty of heartburn, humiliation, and eventual impeachment. If he’d just been honest about it, would things have gone any better? It’s hard to say, but his “sexual relations” line would certainly never have become the historic soundbite that it remains today. And for more legendary political quips, 25 All-Time Greatest One-Liners by Politicians.

FDR White Lies

FDR’s Wheelchair

Though it’s now well known that Franklin D. Roosevelt suffered a paralytic illness when he was 39, leaving him unable to walk, during his presidency this was kept quiet. Roosevelt told many that he was getting better, to relieve any doubts they might have about him running for public office again—and again—and his appearances in front of the press were carefully planned to avoid any coverage of his arrival or departure. It was not a secret outright—many in the public and press were aware of his condition—but he downplayed its severity.

Some historians believe that his ordeal may have actually strengthened him as a person and a leader. In an interview with the NPR radio show Fresh Air, historian James Tobin said, “I think he was that man before he became sick, but he only discovered who he really was through the ordeal of polio. So it gave him a kind of confidence in his own strength that perhaps no one can have until you’re tested. I also think it inevitably gave him a kind of passion for people who are suffering that he couldn’t have had if he had not deeply suffered himself. That capacity was perfectly timed for the country’s problems in the Great Depression.”

John F. Kennedy White Lies

JFK’s Health

We think of John F. Kennedy as a virile, youthful leader who was in excellent health when his life was cut tragically short. But while JFK conveyed a fit image, in fact, he suffered from Addison’s disease, which causes a deficiency of hormones that regulate blood sugar and potassium in the adrenal glands.

But it didn’t stop there. “After a sickly childhood he spent significant periods during his prep-school and college years in the hospital for severe intestinal ailments, infections, and what doctors thought for a time was leukemia,” describes The Atlantic. “He suffered from ulcers and colitis as well as Addison’s disease, which necessitated the administration of regular steroid treatments. And it has been known for some time that Kennedy endured terrible back trouble. He wrote his book Profiles in Courage while recovering from back surgery in 1954 that almost killed him.”

In the White House, he worked to hide his ailments, while taking regular doses of anti-spasmodics, antibiotics, and hydrocortisone and testosterone. While there’s little indication these treatments impacted his judgement, it may have contributed to his death. As The Atlantic explains: “On November 22, 1963, Kennedy was, as always, wearing a corsetlike back brace as he rode through Dallas. Oswald’s first bullet struck him in the back of the neck. Were it not for the back brace, which held him erect, the second, fatal shot to the head might not have found its mark.” For more on fibs big and small, check out The 40 Lies Everyone Tells on a Daily Basis.

Lyndon B. Johnson White Lies

LBJ on the U.S.’s Progress in Vietnam

For many years of the Vietnam war, President Lyndon B. Johnson and his administration presented a version of facts that aligned more with how they hoped the war was going rather than how it was actually going. As one high-up intelligence officer put it to his underlings, “The figure of combat strength and particularly of guerrillas must take a steady and significant downward trend as I am convinced this reflects true enemy status.” This systemic embrace of rosy figures led to consistent underestimations of the Viet Cong’s strength and has been credited with causing the U.S. to remain in the war long after any hope for “victory” had passed. And for more issues straight from Washington, brush up on all the times politicians totally lost it (and got physical).

George W. Bush White Lies

Iraq Had WMDs

Like LBJ’s misrepresentations, the claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction are hard to categorize as innocent “white lies,” but they certainly had major historic consequences. Members of the administration of George W. Bush truly believed Saddam Hussein had these weapons and that he posed a danger to the region…even if they didn’t quite have the hard evidence to prove it. The propaganda campaign was convincing enough that the U.S. went to war with the country, toppled Hussein, and imposed its own order on the region, which continues to suffer the consequences, 15 years later. And, it turned out, there were no weapons to be found.

John F. Kennedy White Lies

The Soviets Won’t Send Missiles to Cuba

The Cuban Missile Crisis was sparked more by the lies about the missiles than the missiles themselves. Soviet Ambassador Andrei Gromykos assurances to John F. Kennedy that the Soviet Union would not place offensive missiles in Cuba, given at a moment when JFK knew the had already done so, led to a rapid corrosion of trust and escalation of tensions that brought the countries as close to nuclear war as they’d ever been.

Dwight Eisenhower White Lies

Eisenhower Was Furious About Sputnik

While the usual story is that the 1957 launch of the first artificial Earth satellite by the Soviet Union infuriated the American administration (and this was the perception it encouraged at the time), in fact, Dwight Eisenhower was pleased with the development.

While the launch and the advanced stage of the program of our Cold War enemy caught the public by surprise, the president and his administration were quite aware with how far along the Soviet’s were and were not as anxious about Sputnik’s launch as they let on. What worried them more? The legal issues of this new fronteier and whether other countries could dispute the United States’ right to such a satellite, or even shoot it down. By going first, the USSR protected the U.S. from having to pioneer this new field of international—or rather, interplanetary—law. And more on the extraterrestrial, check out the 30 Craziest Predictions About the Future That Experts Say Are Going to Happen.

Statue of Ramses II White Lies

Ramses II’s Successes

History is written by the winners—even when they were actually losers. In 1288 B.C., Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II launched an attack on the neighboring Hittite Empire. They failed to capture the main city of Kadesh, and had to retreat back to Egypt. As Egyptologist John A. Wilson wrote, “[Ramses II] was badly taken by surprise in that battle and returned to Egypt without achieving his objectives.” But instead of accepting defeat, Ramses declared the battle had been a huge success for his side and documented his “victory” in scenes and texts throughout the region. For centuries, writers and historians took his version of events at face value—until more recently discovered documents and artifacts from the era have revealed the real story of the events.

Statue of Julius Caeser White Lies

Julius Caesar’s Early Successes

Julius Caesar would follow Ramses’ model of misrepresentation. In his accounts of his service in the Gallic Wars, he presented himself as heroic, powerful, and effective in battle, exaggerating almost everything about his work.

Livius outlines his method: “If we are to believe him, the outcome of the war depended on one single siege. This may have been correct, but the fact that fighting continued for two more years suggests that things may have been more complex. The outcome of the siege was—according to Caesar—decided on one single day; during that day, one single fight really mattered; and that clash fight was decided by one man, Julius Caesar, who appeared on the scene when things were going wrong. In other words, it was Caesar who personally won the fight, the battle, and the war. This is splendid propaganda.”

The propaganda had its desired effect, though, helping pave the way for his rise to power as Emperor and shaping history in the process.

Midway Museum White Lies

Midway’s Plant Break Down

In 1942, American forces intercepted that the Japanese were planning a major attack against a place called “AF.” While codebreakers at Station HYPO at Pearl Harbor had reason to believe this meant Midway, their superiors had doubts. So those at HYPO told a lie: broadcasting a radio message that Midway’s desalinization plant had broken down. As Slate explains, “The radio message was duly intercepted by Japan and reported by a message encoded in JN25 stating that AF’s desalinization plant was out of order. That message was intercepted by Station HYPO. AF was thus confirmed as Midway.”

The lie enabled the U.S. to ambush the Japanese and sink four carriers with only the loss of one U.S. carrier—a major victory for the Allies.

Chernobyl Abandoned Room White Lies

Chernobyl is “Being Remedied”

Hours after the reactor was damaged at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1986, the Soviet government released a statement significantly underplaying its danger: “There has been an accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. One of the nuclear reactors was damaged. The effects of the accident are being remedied. Assistance has been provided for any affected people. An investigative commission has been set up.”

In fact, the accident would directly cause the deaths of 31 people and an additional 15 people indirectly, not to mention the hospitalization of more than 130 servicemen.

Charles Ponzi White Lies

Ponzi’s Impressive Returns

Italian immigrant Charles Ponzi promised his investors that they could make 50 percent profit within 45 days and 100 percent profit in 90 days. Of course, he was just paying his investors with the investments from other investors, raking in some $20 million before it collapsed. The inventor of the now-dubbed Ponzi scheme not only bilked those who trusted him, but sparked reforms—as well as many imitators.

Bernie Madoff Sign White Lies

Bernie Madoff’s Returns

Investment adviser Bernard Madoff took Ponzi’s scheme to the next level, for years using the overly rosy numbers to keep his thousands of clients happy, while pocketing their investments. All told, his fraud cost almost $65 billion and many of the world’s most rich and famous learned a valuable lesson about when returns appear too good to be true.

Piltdown Man White Lies

Piltdown Man

Archaeologist Charles Dawson believed in 1910 that he had discovered the “missing link” between humans and their earlier ancestors in the Piltdown quarry of Sussex, England, in 1910. The pieces of skull and jaw that he found were authenticated by paleontologist Arthur Smith Woodward, and the discovery caused a sensation and plenty of attention for the two men. Unfortunately, tests conducted in the 1950s would reveal that the jaw was that of an orangutan and the skull fragments that of a man from 600 years before. It remains unclear how deliberate the untruths were, but everyone was happy to go along with the fiction at the time.

Alfred Dreyfus White Lies

Dreyfus Affair

Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French Army during the late 19th century, was accused of selling military secrets to Germany, tried, and sentenced to life in prison. Suspicions arose almost immediately that the letters used to incriminate him had likely been forged, and for 12 years his innocence and guilt was debated, with the case used to stoke virulent anti-Semitism and paranoia. It would turn out that the letters had in fact been forged by Major Hubert Joseph Henry, leading to Dreyfus’ eventual pardon (and Henry’s suicide). The scandal transformed France’s political landscape. And if you’re keen on lying like any of these history-shifting folks, check out the 15 Genius Ways to Lie Like a Spy.

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