Opinion: ‘Remember the Maine!’ History shows how lies can trigger wars

Editor’s Note: Jeffrey Sonnenfeld is the senior associate dean for leadership studies and Lester Crown professor of leadership practice at the Yale School of Management at Yale University. Steven Tian is the director of research at the Yale Chief Executive Leadership Institute. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own. Read more opinion at CNN.

“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes,” goes a saying that is often attributed to Mark Twain though Jonathan Swift might be the original inspiration for it.

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld - Christopher Capozziello
Jeffrey Sonnenfeld - Christopher Capozziello

Last week, amid fears that a wider war may break out in the Middle East, President Joe Biden seized the moment to fortify the truth and dampen the dangerous spiral of misinformation, which has often led to wars as we have seen before in history.

Steven Tian. - Steven Tian
Steven Tian. - Steven Tian

The October 17 bombing of the Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza that killed hundreds of civilians was a terrible tragedy. Immediately following the blast, many media outlets recycled dubious pronouncements from the Islamist militant group Hamas blaming Israel. “Israeli Strike Kills Hundreds in Hospital, Palestinians Say” read one initial headline on The New York Times’ website. Arab leaders rushed to condemn Israel.

In an editors’ note Monday, the Times admitted that “early versions of the coverage — and the prominence it received in a headline, news alert and social media channels — relied too heavily on claims by Hamas, and did not make clear that those claims could not immediately be verified. The report left readers with an incorrect impression about what was known and how credible the account was.”

Biden, the US National Security Council and the American intelligence community have expressed confidence that the strike on the hospital was the result of an errant rocket fired from Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a militant group affiliated with Hamas that the US and Israel consider a terrorist organization.

This assessment was based on open source and proprietary audio, video, satellite, radar and infrared evidence, intercepted Hamas communications admitting a stray missile was off course, and videos showing Palestinian militants firing a barrage of rockets near the hospital, then falling short and exploding inside Gaza.

The Israel Defense Forces categorically denied any involvement in the hospital attack, blaming it on a “failed rocket launch” by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The group denied Israel’s accusations.

A CNN analysis suggested that a rocket launched from within Gaza broke up midair, and that the hospital explosion resulted from part of the rocket landing at the hospital complex. Weapons and explosive experts said the available evidence of damage at the site was not consistent with an Israeli airstrike.

Israel had no incentive to bomb a civilian hospital, let alone on the eve of Biden’s arrival as the United States had reopened discussions with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.

Hamas’ accusations seemed to mirror its apparent sabotage of the Abraham Accord extensions 10 days earlier. Biden speculated in a statement last week that Hamas’ motive for the invasion of Israel and massacre of civilians was to derail a Saudi-Israel-US peace deal. “I think one of the reasons why [Hamas] acted like they did… is they knew I was about to sit down with the Saudis,” he noted. “The Saudis wanted to recognize Israel…and they were about to recognize Israel. And that would, in fact, unite the Middle East.”

Nevertheless, despite these facts, now the Middle East is further aflame with massive protests and virulent anti-US and anti-Zionist sentiment.

False information has led to and further inflamed wars repeatedly across history.

The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 to remove Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction was based on a false premise and faulty intelligence.

The battleship USS Maine exploded in the Havana, Cuba, harbor in 1898, killing more than 260 US sailors. President William McKinley initially believed the sinking to be an accident, but the media inflamed public opinion.

Rival newspapers owned by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer blamed the sinking on hostile Spaniards. “Remember the Maine!” became a rallying war cry against Spain. This view was reversed by the US Navy in 1974 showing significant evidence the explosion was an onboard coal fire.

After an initial confrontation between US naval forces and North Vietnamese submarines on August 2, 1964, reports of a second confrontation the night of August 4, 1964, led Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution three days afterward, authorizing President Lyndon Johnson to send US forces to Vietnam and starting the Vietnam War.

Both former US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and top Vietnamese leaders confirmed retrospectively that reports of an attack were false, based on bad intelligence and misrepresentations of intercepted communications.

When the US Congress was considering declaring war after Mexico supposedly invaded American territory and killed American soldiers, a then-obscure congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln demanded to know “the particular spot of soil in which the blood of our citizens was so shed.”

US soldiers were pushing deeper into territory that historians agree was Mexican. Still, inflamed US public opinion led President James Polk to act and Congress to declare war.

Four weeks after Adolf Hitler was sworn in as chancellor of Germany, the Reichstag, home of the German parliament in Berlin, was set ablaze.

Hitler quickly condemned communist agitators using the episode as a pretext to suspending civil liberties, rival political parties, an independent press and the assassination of rivals. Hitler was catapulted from a weak placeholder chancellor into a dictator with unprecedented power who established the Third Reich.

Only after World War II did evidence emerge suggesting the Nazis planned and ordered the fire, and Germany posthumously pardoned a falsely accused scapegoat in the arson in 2008.

These historical examples offer clear lessons that are relevant to today’s conflict. Biden’s Israel speech underscored the deliberate targeting of innocent civilians who were raped, mutilated, tortured and massacred, with bodies burned alive.

He also addressed the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza, exacerbated by the apparent misfired missile of a Palestinian militant group hitting a Gaza hospital in error, and pushed for access to humanitarian assistance to those in Gaza, including $100 million more from the US to Palestinians.

The deeper takeaways underscoring Biden’s speech are the need for the world to stop, catch its breath, attribute culpability accurately and not further vilify victims or allow villains to appear as victims.

In short, Biden reminded us we must, before rushing into hasty escalation:

1. Check facts — think like a detective, not like a partisan.

2. Verify sources — determine what is missing or uncertain.

3. Demand government transparency — get the full story.

4. Beware of the manipulated facts of demagoguery — question motives of the messengers.

The wrongly celebrated “wisdom of crowds” can lead manipulated mobs to spread bigotry, superstition and catastrophic violence.

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