8 of History’s Most Destructive Lies

Some lies have more impact than others. Here are eight that caused untold damage.

A man's long, Pinnocio nose slowly transforms into a murder of crows.

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These days lying is in the news — practically every day.

Lie was a word that, not so long ago, politicians and the media rarely spoke outright. But under the current administration, the president and the press have repeatedly accused each other of dishonesty. Many of these fabrications are ignored or quickly forgotten by a public that is no longer surprised by mendacity.

But all lies are not equal. And in the media’s frenzy of fact-checking, that’s one fact that’s too often overlooked. Some memorable lies have been spectacularly false but wrought relatively little harm. For example, think of President Nixon’s assertion that “no one in the White House staff … was involved” in the Watergate break-in (August 29, 1972), or President Clinton’s “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” (Jan 26, 1998). They probably changed no one’s mind, and did little to delay the ultimate consequences for those presidents.

But other lies in history not only were whoppers, but also caused untold damage. It’s important that we do not forget these terrible deliberate deceits — lies that were responsible for unspeakable suffering and, in some cases, millions of deaths.

Here are eight lies that had serious, large-scale, long-term consequences. No doubt there are very many more evil fabrications we have overlooked. We welcome your input. It’s important that we never forget how easily and how often mankind has been played for suckers, with disastrous results.

1. “In today’s regulatory environment, it’s virtually impossible to violate rules.”

That’s what Bernie Madoff said in 2007, addressing a conference on illegal practices in Wall Street. Even as he spoke, he was operating the largest Ponzi scheme in history. When it came crashing down the following year, the investment advisor had bilked 4,800 clients of $18 billion.

Result: After confessing that his firm’s asset management was “one big lie,” he was arrested, tried, and sentenced to 150 years in prison. (To date, $11 billion of the lost $18 billion have been recovered and restored to Madoff’s victims.)

2. “There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction.”

In the aftermath of 9/11, the United States immediately struck back at the terrorist masterminds in Afghanistan. But many people in the Bush administration were convinced that the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein in Iraq was not only conspiring with Al Qaeda but was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction to use against the United States (illustrated in the above quote from Dick Cheney).

Despite there being no credible evidence that this was true — most intelligence and on-the-ground inspections revealed no WMDs — the Bush administration chose to pin its reasons for going to war on information from an Iraqi informant nicknamed “Curveball,” as well as on documents that showed Iraq had obtained a large quantity of uranium for the purpose of making a nuclear bomb. The informant was soon discredited, and the uranium documents were discovered to be obvious fakes, but the wheels were already in motion. In 2002, President Bush told the country that Saddam not only had stockpiled deadly chemical and biological agents, but that he had also been building nuclear bombs. In 2003 the United States launched war against Iraq. It’s not clear who knew the evidence for WMDs was false, or when they knew it. Regardless, the financial and human cost was devastating.

Result: Thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands, if not more, of Iraqis have died in a war that lasted eight years and cost $2.4 trillion. General Colin Powell, who led the U.S. defeat of Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War, would later bitterly denounce his own speech in 2003 as U.N. Ambassador defending the Bush invasion. America and the world are still living with the war’s consequences.

3. “Cigarette smoking is no more ‘addictive’ than coffee, tea, or Twinkies.”

For years, the tobacco industry assured customers that cigarettes were neither unhealthy nor addictive. The makers of Old Gold cigarettes claimed “Not a cough in a carload.” And in 1994, James W. Johnston, CEO of R.J. Reynolds, told a congressional committee, “Cigarette smoking is no more ‘addictive’ than coffee, tea, or Twinkies.”

The reality, of course, is quite different. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 480,000 Americans die every year from cigarettes.

Result: In 1998, the four largest tobacco companies reached a settlement with 46 states to pay $206 billion over 25 years to help cover the medical costs of smoking-related illnesses.

4. “We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves.”

In 1964, Americans were concerned about the country’s growing involvement in the Vietnam War. On October 21, 1964, President Johnson assured the country, as he was running for president, that they had nothing to worry about. Despite his words, the following March, he began shipping Americans by the tens of thousands to Vietnam.

Johnson’s statement began a long campaign by our government to lie to the American people about the fact that almost everyone who knew the facts — from the soldiers to the bureaucrats to the president himself — knew that the war was unwinnable. After Johnson left the White House, President Nixon continued the pretense, even secretly expanding the war into Cambodia.

Americans were furious when, in 1971, defense analyst Daniel Ellsberg released military intelligence — known as the Pentagon Papers — that showed the extent of the deception. They realized they’d been lied to about the conflict because neither Johnson nor Nixon wanted to take responsibility for losing an unwinnable war that we never should have undertaken in the first place.

Result: In addition to the 58,000 American lives it claimed, the war produced a chronic mistrust of the government that, for many, continues to this day.

A cabinet meeting in February of 1969. From left to right: Secretary of State Dean Rusk, President Lyndon B. Johnson, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. (Yoichi Okamoto, Wikimedia Commons)

5.     “There is no famine or actual starvation, nor is there likely to be.”

In the 1930s, Joseph Stalin was determined to wipe out private farms in Ukraine and put the population into Soviet controlled communes. He instituted a policy that began starving this region. Ultimately, between two and four million people starved to death. As could be expected, the Soviet government denied any problems. What is surprising is that many western reporters repeated Moscow’s interpretation of what was happening in the region.

Walter Duranty, a reporter for the New York Times, wrote repeatedly that was no famine (those are his words, above). He wasn’t the only reporter who parroted the Soviet’s line, but he was at a prestigious paper and had actually won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of Stalinist Russia. Duranty also justified the brutality of Stalin’s gulag system as a necessary measure that would ultimately benefit the Russian people.

Result: Duranty’s assertions that there was no actual starvation assured western leaders there was no reason to press for famine relief. His reporting helped the world turn away from the deaths and imprisonment of millions.

A starving family in Ukraine, 1933. (Alexander Wienerberger, Wikimedia Commons)

6. “The German Army was stabbed in the back.”

In 1919, General Paul von Hindenburg told the German people why they lost World War I. He said Germany hadn’t been beaten honorably on the battlefield by the enemy, but by radicals and other undesirables back home who’d overthrown the Kaiser’s monarchy and replaced it with a republic. The real reason for the defeat, Hindenburg said, was “The German army was stabbed in the back.”

In fact, the German army had thrown everything it had into one last, desperate chance for victory. By June, they had simply run out of steam. Moreover, the revolution had begun not by civilians but by members of the German military.

But the lie was swallowed by Germans who were convinced that if only the troublemakers could be silenced, Germany would regain its greatness.

Result: The lie fueled the rise of the Nazi party.

1924 political cartoon. (http://www.history.ucsb.edu/faculty/marcuse/publications/reviews/BarthRev069.htm, Wikimedia Commons)

7. “The Jewish Peril: The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion

(Wikimedia Commons)

In 1905, Russian writer and mystic priest Sergei Nilus claimed that he had proof of a Jewish plan to achieve global domination by corrupting the morals of Gentiles and controlling the world’s media and money. The Jews were also plotting, he claimed, to slaughter Christian children, spread plague, and commit other atrocities.

Despite the fact that the Protocols were shown to be a malicious fabrication, many people stubbornly believed its vile slanders. Henry Ford thought it so important he paid to publish half a million copies. And the Nazis later cited it to justify their slaughter of eight million Jews.

Result: The Protocols continue to be used to fuel anti-Semitic hatred.

8. “We know Dreyfus is guilty of treason because he ‘made everything disappear.’”

In 1894, French military intelligence officers learned the Germans were receiving secret information about new French artillery. After reviewing possible suspects on the French General Staff, they accused Lt. Col. Alfred Dreyfus. His chief qualification for being suspect was his Jewish faith. He was tried by a military court, found guilty, stripped of his rank, and sent to permanent exile on Devil’s Island off the South American coast.

Alfred Dreyfus. (Vanity Fair, 1899)

High-ranking military officials had been determined to pin the blame on Dreyfus. They had secretly supplied the judges with wholly invented evidence. And the fact that there was absolutely nothing that implicated him was actually used against him. The proof of guilt, an officer said, was that “Dreyfus made everything disappear.”

In 1896, new evidence indicated the traitor was actually another officer who was allowed to flee the country. For years, the military ignored the public outcry against Dreyfus’s conviction. Ultimately it yielded to pressure and tried Dreyfus again, and convicted him again.

Result: The lie did more than convict an innocent man. It split the country between social classes, age groups, and political parties. Even after Dreyfus accepted a pardon in 1906 rather than return to Devil’s Island, the case continued to divide the country, and this lack of unity seriously weakened its ability to defend itself in both world wars. (The French military finally proclaimed Dreyfus innocent in 1995.)

Featured image: Shutterstock

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  1. Caffeine and Sugar are equal to or greater than in level of addiction when compared to nicotine.

    Intelligence of Iraqi WMDs came from a human intelligence source, information from an Iranian opposition group in exile in Iraq, and Israeli intelligence. Iraqis had buried loads of missile and artillery warheads in advance of the invasion and by the time US forces arrived to the Iraqi nuclear program site the entire place had been a combination of moved/scavenged/looted. Including a large estimate of civil grade uranium.

  2. The MSM is one big lie. They lie every single damn day. I trust no entity, no Government, and rarely any person in general. There is no truth anymore.

  3. In January of 2021, a large group of protestors, riled up by Trump, (I won’t demean the office of President of the USA by calling him), marched upon the capital building and proceeded to commit treasonous acts predicated upon the Big Lie that Trump kept repeating even after many (over 60) court appearances where judges threw out the law suits that had been filed in protest of Trump losing the 2020 Presidential Election. No one stole the election from Trump. The one case of voter fraud discovered was in Texas, if I remember correctly. It was a man who had used his deceased mother’s ballot to vote for Trump. Yet he has managed to turn many Republicans in the House and Senate against him. He would have let that domestic terrorist group hang his vice-president, Mike Pence, a man who was loyal to Trump beyond all reason, until trump wanted him to stop the count of the electoral college votes and overturn it. Just so he would be able to stay in office. He would have let them hurt and possibly kill Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House. And he refused to call in the National Guard to come help the DC police officers and get the Capital building back under control from that mob of domestic terrorists. And people died as a result of it.
    Hindsight is 20-20. I wonder how many people who voted for trump in 2016 election wished they had not done so after that day of insurrection was over with? And Trump riled that mob up, had been doing it for months, even before the election. And that’s not even to mention what lies trump told about the Coronavirus and COVID-19 through 2020. And how many lives were lost because they had gotten sick during one or another of his election campaign rallies where he refused wear a mask and almost no one else in the crowds did either and a lot of people got sick and some died because of it? Thankfully trump didn’t win in the 2020 election. Who knows just how far and wide the fallout was/is because trump couldn’t take the idea that he was responsible for so many who died. And yes, trump has a lot to answer for because he directly influenced the insurrection participants which cost lives and for all the other lives list from his lies.

  4. I agree with “person” well said. That’s exactly how I feel except my terrible ADHD stops me from do easily articulating it as you have.

  5. LOL for the most part, it’s amazing to me that anyone who cares about anything is really ready to believe anything about anything based on anything that all “news” media platforms have put out into the public! I’m talking about ALL OF IT! How absolutely every single person who doesn’t question absolutely EVERY little thing??? we can’t even be provided with any proof for anything at all, just because some “reporting” says this or some photos show that…. oh my freaking gosh are you all dumb?! I literally don’t believe anything said about everything, I find reasons why all news could be false for numerous reasons! This insane b.s. on left against the right the fighting between, the power being abused that goes on while you all fight, then believing the one in power of your choosing!?!? are you all for real?!?!? How can anyone believe anything anymore??? For real, HOW????? I feel like the American people will never be able to make sense of that of what is true and important! We don’t need to argue anymore because it’s us, as a whole, that’s being tested on, used and lied to on a daily basis! They keep winning all because of our unity being broken down for so long carried and backed by lie after lie after lie! We’ve been lied, to our parents lied to, THEIR parents AND so forth (for who knows how f..king long?!) ! Stop fighting and let’s stand together as a UNITED, states, rather than so drastically divided!

  6. Lou – what material lie has he told that hurt you or this nation? His lies .amount to nothing more than fishing lies where your buddy boasts how big a fish he caught. He didn’t lie and bear false witness for a Russian hoax. MSM and liberals by virtue of owning the airwaves are the biggest cons of our present day.

  7. Being an Aussie I don’t have any skin in the US election game. But looking from afar it is fairly obvious that anyone who is not a minority will have a hard time over the next few years. I really can’t believe you have let this happen?

  8. “Lousy Liberals”? “the Bush Hate”? “the Ugly Press”? “the Disgusting Time”? “Lib Backers”? Terry, take a good long look at yourself in a mirror……. It seems to me, that….in one short paragraph, you have provided the very definition of a “Hate Monger”. Was this your intention? What are your “Accurate History” sources?

  9. The world’s biggest lie is the one foisted upon the American public by the CDC and Drs. Fauci and Birx prior to April 3, 2020: that Americans should not wear face masks because they are ineffective to protect against the spread of the coronavirus.

  10. Did you know that three days before the pearl harbor attack several ships of ranking officers were removed
    from the island, and military planes were lined up on air fields, my fathering law was on one of the ships.

    Bay of pigs, no attack, flock of birds.

    1970s when we were told that a plane overshot the carriers deck and fell into the ocean with a nuck on it.
    A good friend of mine was in those manovers and told me the plane was nocked off the deck when another
    destroyer ramed the aircraft carrier killing 7.

    New Orleans lost its aquarium when our military went in and took its diesel thus killing 98% of the sea life.
    Fema was useless as it is now.

    This is i’m sure just a few examples with backing.

  11. There have been many terribly cruel lies told across the span of history, but those deemed “most destructive” narrows the scope to what can be proved. Based on that criterion, consider…
    – The earth is flat. That lie set science back for centuries.
    – The earth is the center of the university. That lie set science back for centuries.
    – Religions. Not God, per se. Just religions. They insist upon themselves to the point of denouncing and even killing “unbelievers.” They have done so since time began. They do so now. To pretend to know and define the mind of God, to limit an omnipotent, omniscient being in such a pathetically mortal way as men saying, “This is what God told me, so you have to do it,” is the greatest lie of all.
    – Hitler was a mad man. Sadly, he was not, though toward the end he had become an unhinged addict. That lie has set a false expectation that evil men must be demonstrably mad. For the most part, they are seem normal, which allows them to ascend to seats of power from which they do great evil a bit at a time – think China, North Korea, Russia and closer to home.
    – Global warming is a hoax. The polar ice caps are melting, ocean levels are rising, species are dying and the future of the world as we know it is threatened.

  12. Germany had all but won world war 1 England was finished, the signing of the Balfour declaration, clearly shows the British buying off Zionist influence to drag america into the war by giving them Palestine, or part there of, in Nov 1917.

    before this, do some real research and you’ll find that prior to this the Zionists actually supported Germany for majority of ww1. This is where the saying ” stabbed in the back” came from. The Zionist elitists (whom were extremely wealthy and had incredible influence) were originally in support of Germany at the beginning of the war and funded a great amount to the war effort only to turn on them and support Britain later on to obtain the “holy land ” and what do you know…….. there’s now an Israel even though their own Tora tells them that god destroyed it never to be rebuilt.

  13. Why did you leave out the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the following cover up by our government. The lie that Lee Harvey Oswald killed Kennedy resulted in the rise of Israel as a nuclear power, which Kennedy opposed, and the expansion of the Vietnam war, which Kennedy opposed. The effects include the continued unrest in the Middle East and Israels suppression of Palestinians and the loss of over 55,000 American lives in Vietnam.

    Why did you leave out the tragedy of 9/11 and the lie that 19 Arabs flew airplanes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon when the facts unquestionably prove that explosives brought down the Twin Towers as well as the 47 story Building 7 at the World Trade Center Complex at 5:20 pm on the afternoon of 9/11 without a plane hitting this building and only minor fires existed. This event changed the world and the way we live for centuries to come.

  14. Early on in the Iraq campaigns, Troops found caches of sarin gas and scud missiles readied to be fired at Iranian border cities. They also fired them at northern Iraqi people groups who were rival of the Hussein regime. And they had two mock airports set up with the same scanners used at most international airports. They were training terror groups to evade existing security of the day. Now it’s debatable to say it rose to the level of necessity of a war. I personally think not. But Iran benefited greatly from us telling out their ancient enemy who rained down sarin tipped scuds on their rural cities. Now the ACA is right in my neighborhood. The biggest thing it did was dumb down General medicine. Have you noticed that per the mandate, you no longer see a physician at most clinical visits. And big insurance networks are creating huge telemedicine centers to centralize major medical decisions. These centers are handlIng medical decisions for hundreds of big medical providers like Humana, Kaiser, and such. Now there is good facets of ACA. The preventative care mandate is good such as covering colonoscopies. But some medical systems are reeling in crushing debt to provide all legally required services. A group of Latinos funded by the nation of Mexico is suing Medi- cal over poor care for non insured immigrants. This is true but most of the blame goes to Es La Ley. It’s the pre-ACA mandate to give care to anyone needing it. Es La Ley has caused the closure of 120 Medi-cal operated centers in California. And that has caused the horrific medical catastrophe in Southern California. Here are two media links.


  15. I’m curious about having the supposed greatest lies of all time be within the last 150 years. Had the world been a model of probity prior to that?

  16. Regarding the issue of Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction … Hussein air dropped poisonous gas upon the Kurdish people, killing entire city populations at a time. We witnessed bodies in the streets – dead fathers mothers clutching the bobues if their dead children. Then the claims that there were no weapons of mass destruction.

  17. 9. the Act of War Treason Suicidal Homicidal Genocidal Ecocidal Planetcidal, not all enumerated, Ignorance, Moronic, Imbecilic, Eugenically Disenfranchisement of the Children, their future , a Future, against “We the People” the Constitution Humanity, Life, All Life itself – aka Citizen’s United

  18. R Reul, Michael Paul stated “our current president”, so unless you’re just being “bitchy”, our current President is Donald Trump. Everybody’s president. Now, you may not like it,but that is another fact that some refuse to accept. I enjoyed this article.

  19. The U.S. News Media should be held accountable for their continued false narrative that frames our current President as being unfit to hold that Office, Their portrait of him is a slap in the face to any open-minded, intelligent Patriot. The message the media is sending to citizens is that the Media no longer can be trusted as an honest venue for anything political. Adding to that, and proven in their own words, is evidence their reporting is politically slanted so as to inflame their listeners and readers, thereby producing a more salacious story, and, more revenue.

  20. Perhaps Lou you should have been brave enough to name the president you are speaking of, because there are many of us who are not sure about exactly which president you are referring to.

  21. The comments from James Leonard, terry and Gerard Andree show why big lies can be so effective in manipulating public opinion. There are people even now who are so committed to believing something that no passage of time and no additional facts will ever budge them from their bias. Everyone else on the planet understands now how Dick Cheney’s team cooked the intelligence on Iraq, vouching for “Curveball” and undermining the prudent cautions of Colin Powell and Valerie Plame’s husband Joe Wilson until many democrats reluctantly believed and went along. Amazing that here are still a few diehards who cling to the reality they need.

  22. RE: There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction.The article hangs responsibility for lying on the Bush administration, but what the Clinton group? “He will use those weapons of mass destruction again, as he has ten times since 1983.”–Sandy Berger, NSA, Feb. 1998 “Hussein has … chosen to spend his money on building weapons of mass destruction and palaces for his cronies.”– Madeline Albright, Secretary of State, Nov. 1999 Also Al Gore echoed the same view in Sept 2002 and in Oct 2002 saying “I believe that a deadly arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in his hands is a real and grave threat to our security.”Sen. John F. Kerry voted to invade Iraq.In fact for years most all the intelligence believed there were WMDs in Iraq.

  23. A prime candidate for the “big lie” is Barack Obama’s claim that “if you like your doctor, you can keep him”. A lie is an assertion contrary to a known truth. Obama knew that was a lie at the time he spoke it.

  24. I agree with Terry. It must be remembered that the conclusion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was that not only of President Bush but also of the separate investigations done by the special inspector for the United Nations, the British government, the French government and the German government. Photographs that were used by Colin Powell in his address to the United Nations clearly showed establishments of weapons that could not later be located when the invasion took place 6 to 8 months later simply because in the interim Iraq and it’s allies, e.g., Syria, had dismantled them and secreted them out of the country.

  25. well,I don’t believe that these are the best choices for the worst lies.
    And in particular,you lousy liberals are still caught up in the Bush Hate aren’t you.Check your accurate history–they did have WMBs,Bush and Congress knew they did,and Bush opted not to fight the ugly press about them.The disgusting time that the enemy demanded before the inspectors could find the weapons let them be moved and taken apart and buried or taken to one of our other current enemies.Read history and stop being the hate mongers and lib backers for God sake.

  26. Interesting article but I’m perplexed as to why the president of the United States who lied more than any other president is not spoken of. Surely a good researcher could easily find the damage he’s done to both our great nation and possibly the world.


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