It’s gotten to the point that most people aren’t surprised anymore to learn that most of the stories they absorbed in school about national and world history are, well, less than totally accurate. Books like Lies My Teacher Told Me and A People’s History of the United States offer a starting point for those looking to get a little more perspective and complexity in their historical accounts. It would be interesting if the popularity of these myths had something to do with an international conspiracy, but life is not a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, and if these stories have trumped the truth, it’s because they’re just better stories. Misleading, misguided, and misinformed, yeah, but at least they’ve been entertaining. Here are a few things you need to unlearn:
Nero fiddled while Rome burned: Nero was indeed the emperor of Rome during the Great Fire of 64 A.D., but that’s pretty much where the legend and the truth part ways. Fiddles weren’t even invented for another thousand years, so the instrument in question was likely a lyre. But that’s just a technicality. The bigger issue is that some accounts don’t even place Nero in Rome during the fire but in Antium, and modern scholars feel confident that this was the case. The story sprang up and became a legend as a way to implicate Nero in the fire and turn him into a scapegoat, with critics saying that Nero arranged for the fire to clear space for a palace expansion, but the fire started in a different location. What’s more, Nero’s own palace was damaged in the fire, which would seem to run counter to his desire to improve his buildings. It’s an intriguing theory, but not a very plausible one.
George Washington had wooden teeth: George Washington is understandably the focus of quite a few historical myths, like coming clean about chopping down that cherry tree. This lie is, like many, related to the truth. Washington did have terrible teeth, losing his first adult tooth at age 22. By the time he became president, he only had one real tooth left, probably caused by the use of mercury oxide to treat illness. As a result, he had several sets of false teeth made of varying materials, including hippo and elephant ivory with real teeth from humans and horses. That actually sounds pretty disgusting, all things considered, and not that much better than wood, but he never had a set of wooden chompers. Don’t believe the hype.
Lady Godiva rode naked through town: Godiva was an Anglo-Saxon noblewoman remembered for riding naked on her horse through town to protest the taxes her husband was levying against his tenants. It’s easy to see the appeal of the myth: rebellion, power, naked women. The problem is that the story seems to have been created years after the possible journey. Rather than being the seed of a story grown wild with time, the entire affair was cooked up almost a century after her death in 1080. Without original or reliable sources, the story’s just that: a tale concocted to pass the time.
Christopher Columbus thought the Earth was flat: Everyone knows that in 1492, Christopher Columbus set sail from Spain to prove that the Earth was round. Except, he didn’t. By the time he made his voyage, the planet’s globe shape was accepted as fact by pretty much every learned and powerful member of society. The truth was that Columbus thought the world was round, just a whole lot smaller than it turned out to be, and he figured it wouldn’t take long to sail around the edge and wind up in the Asia. The fake version of the story started spreading with the publication of Washington Irving’s best-seller A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, which took no small amount of liberties with the truth. The author constructed the story to fit his needs, the story became a hit, and teachers started conflating facts with publicity.
The 1929 market crash sent brokers leaping to their deaths: Immediately following the Wall Street crash of October 1929, stories began to spread about distraught businessmen, bankers, and investors killing themselves by jumping out of office windows, unable to deal with the stress and terror of the crash. Yet those stories are urban legends ginned up in the wake of the crash and nothing more. Did people commit suicide in the fall of 1929? Yes. But of the 100 instances recorded in The New York Times, only four were tied to the crash, and only two happened on Wall Street. The rumors began to gather steam thanks to the gallows humor many comedians at the time were using to talk about the crash, most notably Will Rogers in his joke that so many people wanted to jump to their doom that “you had to stand in line to get a window to jump out of.” The deaths weren’t an epidemic, merely two dark instances that provided enough fuel for decades of rumors.
Women burned their bras in feminist protest: After a while, you start to see a pattern with these myths: they’re usually based on true happenings, and they tend to combine separate events into one massive one. That’s what happened with the stories of women in the 1960s burning their bras as a sign of protest against older patriarchal norms and a desire to embrace equality and progress. It’s a powerful image, but totally fake. There aren’t any documented accounts of bra-burning as the movement gained traction, merely anecdotal tales that are hard to corroborate or seem born of a desire to imitate the earlier (and fictional) protests. The most likely explanation is that members of the media saw two things happen at different or even concurrent events: women throwing their bras into trash cans, and men burning draft cards in similar bins. Easy mistake to make, impossible myth to correct.
People thought The War of the Worlds was real: Before his film career, Orson Welles became a household name for directing and narrating a radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds in October 1938. The program was inventive for the way it played with the nature of reality and programming itself, presenting the fictional narrative of an alien invasion with a mix of straight-ahead, newsy reporting. Pop culture legend has it that many listeners, if not most, mistook the program for a real bulletin and prepared for an invasion by arming themselves, stocking up food, and alerting neighbors. Yet this story is almost assuredly a media creation itself, drummed up to make the broadcast sound more revolutionary and Welles sound even more brilliant. Many news stories reported at the time about people’s fears and even heart attacks over the event were found to be baseless. Nevertheless, the myths became legend, which soon became fact.
Paul Revere made a famous midnight ride: Here’s another case where a popular author took history and gave it a shine. Paul Revere was indeed a player in the American Revolution, and he was one of several messengers helping to arrange resistance to British forces. But he wasn’t considered a hero until 1861, when Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the poem “Paul Revere’s Ride,” which manufactured events out of thin air and turned Revere into a Revolutionary War legend. His poem contradicts recorded facts at every turn, from the length of Revere’s ride to his purpose and success. (The real Revere was one of many messengers, and he didn’t make it far without being captured.) If you’re looking for a heroic rider who helped alert the colonists to war, ignore Revere. The man you want is Israel Bissell.
Isaac Newton was hit by an apple: Many aspects of the story of Isaac Newton are fuzzily recreated for students, most notably the idea that he was hit on the head by an apple falling from a tree, an event that spurred him to study and theorize about gravity. He was actually likely never hit in the head, and the apple story didn’t even appear in print until an essay by Voltaire written the year Newton died. Even more important: the issue of gravity wasn’t in doubt, but whether gravity as a force extended far enough from the Earth to be responsible for the position of the Moon. Newton’s life story is a fascinating one, it just doesn’t get told a lot.
Napoleon was tiny: Despite being emperor of France and one of the most renowned generals in history, Napoleon Bonaparte is remembered as a laughably tiny man, nicknamed “la petit caporal.” He’s even the inspiration for the Napoleon Complex, the inferiority complex described by psychologist Alfred Adler in which shorter people become overly aggressive to compensate for their lack of height. And thanks to a famous painting by Jacques-Louis David, people think he always had his hand stuffed into his coat. He’s remembered and portrayed as a tiny, petulant guy, but in reality his stature was totally normal. He was portrayed in the British press as being small, and the image stuck thanks to the discrepancy between French and British inches. His height was about 1.7 meters, though, making him 5 feet 7 inches tall, a completely average height for his era and today. It’s a myth that’s almost impossible to shake from our collective subconscious at this point, even though it’s radically inaccurate.
The horror of war has the weird ability to produce moving and conflicted works of literary art, as writers work through the best and worst of human emotion to come to grips with what they’ve seen, heard, and experienced. Novels have played a major role — the Civil War gave us The Red Badge of Courage; World War I gave us All Quiet on the Western Front — but works of on-the-ground reporting like the Vietnam-era Dispatches and The Things They Carried offer readers an immediacy and reality different from that found in fictional works or the nightly news. The current war in Iraq is no different, having inspired dozens of worthy titles since the 2003 invasion. The titles on this list are jaw-dropping in their honest and frank depiction of the politics and battles involved in the Iraq War (with some examining Afghanistan, as well), and they offer a variety of eye-opening viewpoints that bring home the complexity and brutality of war. For anyone who cares about what’s happening in the country today, they’re required reading.
Generation Kill, Evan Wright: Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright spent weeks embedded with the Marines of First Recon Battalion as they served as the tip of the spear for the 2003 invasion. (He even bartered away his satellite phone to ride with lead vehicles.) His articles went on to form this book, in which he profiles the men of First Recon and examines the mix of resolve and resignation that sets in as they fight their way to Baghdad. He captures the camaraderie and reluctant heroism with skill, and he also highlights the bureaucracy that can screw up anything. The book was later adapted into a critically praised HBO miniseries.
Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone, Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Rajiv Chandrasekaran served as Baghdad bureau chief for The Washington Post, a role that gave him an intimate view at life in Iraq after the U.S. invasion as coalition forces tried to maintain the peace and support an infrastructure. His book discusses the Coalition Provisional Authority based in the Green Zone, examining the ups and downs of Paul Bremer’s administration there from 2003-2004. For political junkies or people who just want to know more about the behind-the-scenes aspects of war, the book is an enlightening and compelling read. It also served as the inpiration for the 2010 film Green Zone.
What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception, Scott McClellan: Scott McClellan was pree secretary for President George W. Bush from 2003 to 2006, giving him a unique insider’s account on the balance of power during wartime. His 2008 memoir discusses the methods used to make the case for war to the American public, including a “political propaganda campaign” that McClellan says was less than completely truthful about the causes and potential effects of the conflict. An interesting look at war from the domestic side.
Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, Thomas E. Ricks: This is the first installment of Washington Post Pentagon reporter Thomas Ricks’ examination of the Iraq War, followed in 2009 by The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq. In Fiasco, Ricks begins to explore the fantastic array of intelligence and logistical decisions that led to the war and its subsequent management (or mismanagement, as the case may be). The research and interviews on hand place the books in the upper ranks of war analysis, as Ricks moves past assertion into true exploration of war’s consequences.
My War: Killing Time in Iraq, Colby Buzzell: Colby Buzzell was stationed in Iraq as part of the U.S. Army when he began blogging about his experiences in the war. His firsthand account was rare for its honesty and for being directly from a soldier, not filtered through a reporter or any other source. My War collects blog entries and adds other bits of narrative to form a story of a man on the ground in the war, dealing with the difficulty of it all. Profane, bitter, and uncompromising, it’s definitely a challenging but rewarding work.
The Forever War, Dexter Filkins: The Forever War is admittedly a dour title, but Dexter Filkins isn’t the kind to beat around the bush. A foreign correspondent for The New York Times, Filkins was on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan to report on the wars there, and this book covers his experiences going back more than a decade. One of the book’s many strengths is that Filkins avoids explicit political arguments and lets the horror of war and the quicksand of terror do all the talking for him. The violent experiences in this book are shocking looks at the side of war many people back home tend to forget.
The Good Soldiers, David Finkel: David Finkel won a Pulitzer in 2006 for his Washington Post reporting on America’s involvement with democracy efforts in Yemen, and his skills for clear, explanatory journalism are on display in The Good Soldiers. The book describes the months Finkel spent in 2007 embedded with an Army battalion as part of the troop surge, and it’s a potent blend of action and introspection. One of the best pieces of reportage from the war.
War, Sebastian Junger: Sebastian Junger is no stranger to documenting conflict, with credits including The Perfect Storm and the true-crime volume A Death in Belmont. He visited Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley to report on the war for Vanity Fair, eventually turning those experiences into the documentary Restrepo and the book War. The narrative captures the perverse excitement of battle even as it underscores the physical and emotional toll it takes on the men who fight it. Impossible to put down.
Plan of Attack, Bob Woodward: Bob Woodward almost doesn’t need an introduction: He’s been with the Washington Post since 1971 and became one of the most famous reporters in history when he and Carl Bernstein spearheaded the coverage that broke open the Watergate scandal. He’s written four books about the George W. Bush administration in relation to the Iraq War: Bush at War, Plan of Attack, State of Denial, and The War Within. Completists should look at reading the entire series, but it’s also acceptable to jump in with Plan of Attack, an interesting look at the build-up and launch of the Iraq War. It’s a contentious but readable book, and definitely worth the effort.
From Baghdad, With Love: A Marine, the War, and a Dog Named Lava, Jay Kopelman: Written with journalist Melinda Roth, Marine Jay Kopelman’s book focuses on Lava, a stray dog his unit found in Fallujah, and Kopelman’s work to transport the pup back to the United States. It’s a captivating backdrop to Kopelman’s real story about the utter hell of war and his attempt to reconcile himself with the human suffering around him. He writes with candor about the war, and his efforts to save a dog are the ideal way to highlight the value of all life.
It’s generally believed that when things are going well in America, the president receives too much credit, and when things are going poorly, he receives too much of the blame. That’s just the nature of the beast in American politics. Recently, President Obama’s approval ratings have sunken to new lows, mostly because of the public’s perception that he isn’t correctly handling the economy, federal budget deficit and situation in Afghanistan. These numbers have taken an added significance in recent weeks because of the approaching midterm elections – the average midterm House seat loss for a president with an approval rating below 50 percent is 36, according to Gallup. You better believe presidents care about how they’re perceived, especially in the Gallup Poll, which has been measuring their popularity for more than 70 years. Here are eight presidents who hated the well-respected poll when the going got tough and their approval ratings sank to their lowest.
Harry Truman – 22 percent approval
The end of Truman’s presidency was rough. Numerous federal employees including key members of his administration had been exposed for corruption, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist paranoia was spreading and the Korean War was in its third year. He entered the 1952 Democratic primaries with little support from voters in his party and eventually lost the New Hampshire primary to Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver. After seeing the writing on wall, Truman dropped out of the race.
Richard Nixon – 24 percent approval
Nixon’s legacy is forever tied to one infamous word: Watergate. The scandal ruined his presidency as he was implicated in an attempted cover-up of the break-in of the Democratic National Committee Headquarters in the Watergate building. During months of media scrutiny, Nixon’s approval rating plummeted as impeachment hearings occurred and he lost the support of many of his fellow Republicans. A week before his resignation on August 9, 1974, his approval rating was the lowest of his time in office – just 24 percent. The rating was released three days before the “smoking gun” tape had been made public, indicating that he knew of the cover-up.
George W. Bush – 25 percent approval
Bush owns the distinction of having the highest approval rating in the history of the Gallup Poll. Ten days after 9/11, 90 percent of the nation approved of his performance in office. By his second term, that kind of support was a distant memory. His rating fell a whopping 65 percent in seven years thanks to the public’s perception of how he was handling the Iraq War, the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, the Guantanamo Bay controversy, the response to Hurricane Katrina, and the economic downturn of 2008. Consequently, he also possesses the highest disapproval rating in the history of the Gallup Poll – 69 percent.
Jimmy Carter – 28 percent approval
It was a tumultuous four years in office for Carter, who endured economic recession, inflation and the Iran hostage crisis. His lowest approval rating came amid the energy crisis during the summer of 1979, and he left office in 1981 with the second – now third – lowest approval rating for a departing president. Interestingly, despite the fact that many Americans disliked him as a president, many also believed he was a good man who was well-intentioned.
George HW Bush – 29 percent approval
Like his son, George HW Bush experienced both extremes of the Gallup Poll ratings. His highest approval rating – 89 percent – coincided with the successful completion of the Gulf War in 1991. Much to his dismay, his lowest rating – 29 percent – came during the end of his presidency when he was seeking reelection, which seemed all but assured a year earlier. Americans were frustrated that he reneged on his promise of “no new taxes,” and many were affected by the economic recession and increasing unemployment. Once he lost much of his Republican support base, his popularity waned and his days in office were numbered.
Ronald Reagan – 35 percent approval
Reagan is regarded as one of the most popular presidents of all-time, but he did endure moments of unpopularity while in office. His lowest approval rating didn’t come during the Iran-Contra scandal, but rather in early 1983, after the unemployment rate had reached then-all-time highs during the 1982 recession. As evidenced by the presidencies of Reagan, George HW Bush, Ford and Carter, the state of the economy has a big effect on the public’s perception of their job performances.
Lyndon Johnson – 35 percent approval
The end of Johnson’s first full term in office was filled with controversy as Americans became aware of how much the Johnson administration’s depiction of the Vietnam War differed from reality. The media became more critical of the president and the war, and with the continued reports of mounting casualties, the public became increasingly discontented. Additionally, the aggression in which he pushed his Great Society programs incensed his opponents. With enemies on the right and left, it came as no surprise when his approval rating fell to 35 percent in the August before he left the White House.
Gerald Ford – 37 percent approval
After declaring “our long national nightmare is over,” the American people, who had just witnessed the profound corruption of the Nixon administration, were ready to accept Ford as their president. However, the good feelings didn’t last long. Ford pardoned Nixon a month after he was sworn into office, causing his approval rating to plummet. It reached its lowest point as a mild recession occurred and the unemployment rate reached then-all-time highs during the spring of 1975, eventually leading to the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976.