A curiously goofy look at great deceptions in politics, war, history, books, newspapers and medicine.
Versatile author/editor Fawcett (It Seemed Like a Good Idea…: A Compendium of Great Historical Fiascoes, 2000, etc.) actually wrote only the prologue and epilogue to this teeming survey, and bylines under the chapter titles are all the credit he gives those who penned the rest. But the editor (or someone) does maintain a sprightly overall tone; entries are accessible rather than scholarly, even when mired in the details of mendacity-marathons like the Iran-Contra scandal. The juiciest section, “The First Casualty of War Is Truth,” encompasses the flimsy justifications invoked for America’s 1846 war with Mexico, the Nazis’ 1939 invasion of Poland and the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II, not to mention Lyndon Johnson’s endorsement of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem as “the Churchill of the decade.” Roman Emperor Constantine’s placement of Christmas in December—Jesus was probably born in the spring—makes a rich story, as does the Nazi fabrication of Teresienstadt as an ideal concentration camp for the visiting Red Cross delegates. Cleopatra, “the beauty of her age,” had a hooked nose and large, uneven teeth, we learn, and examples of authors falsely claiming to tell the truth run from Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe to James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. Washington Post journalist Janet Cooke’s sad tale about an eight-year-old heroin addict won her a Pulitzer in 1980, though she had to give it back when she confessed to lying. Medical deceptions are particularly plentiful, such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study’s shameful hoodwinking of its poor, black subjects and the collusion between government and press to keep the public ignorant of just how crippled polio had left FDR. In closing, Fawcett chooses Joseph Stalin as the greatest liar in history and elucidates why.
Superficial, but entertaining and even useful for the watchful citizen.