Historical Misquotes, Volume 1: War and Warriors

The comment section for my recent post on Kitty Werthmann features a staggering array of opinions on a variety of controversial subjects. We like that. It also contains the use of several quotes attributed to people who, despite popular convention, never said those things. That, we don’t like as much. So in the style of Brian’s Skeptoid episodes on whether certain people were real or fictional, here’s a list of famous utterances that may or may not have been said by the people who we think said them. Volume 1 features quotes from soldiers and figures related to war.

“Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!” – Caesar Augustus
Verdict: Real, as far as we know

At the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 CE, as many as 35,000 Roman soldiers, led by Publius Quintilius Varus, fought a running battle against Germanic tribesmen, with the Empire suffering one of the worst military defeats in its history. When news of the massacre of 20,000 soldiers and auxiliaries was relayed to Rome, Emperor Augustus is said to have reacted by beating his head against the wall and screaming the above quote. The battle was a crushing loss and marked the end of Rome’s expansion into Germany. As with pretty much every utterance of the time, we can’t prove it was actually said. But Roman historiography is pretty accurate, and Augustus’ explosion of despair befits a man who just found out he’d lost three crack legions to a bunch of barbarians, so I’m calling this one true.

“Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!” – Unknown Colonial Officer
Verdict: Likely real, but not with those exact words

The Battle of Bunker Hill gave us one of the great quotations of American conflict, which most school children can rattle off at the drop of a tri-corner hat. But who said it? And was it even said at all? Given the inaccuracy of the period’s weapons and the Colonial Army’s limited stocks of supplies, it just made good sense for the Americans to hold their fire until the British were in close range. So some variation on “don’t shoot until you can see them” was probably a pretty common order, though given with less poetic panache. Various accounts pin the quote on any number of commanders, with the two most likely being General Israel Putnam or Colonel William Prescott shouting it out as the British advanced on Colonial defenses. Subsequent research revealed that the quote has an even earlier genesis, as standard Prussian military doctrine of the era was to hold one’s fire until the enemy’s eyes could be seen. Colonial officers would likely have known this, and adopted it for their own use. And when it comes to military matters, it’s always a good idea to trust a Prussian.

“Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” – Admiral David Farragut
Verdict: Likely real, but not with those exact words

During the Civil War’s Battle of Mobile Bay in 1864, a large Union fleet commanded by Admiral Farragut attacked a smaller Confederate naval force guarding the entrance to a well-defended harbor. The Rebels had laid out a swath of naval mines (called “torpedoes” at the time), one of which sank the Union monitor Tecumseh. When Union ship Brooklyn slowed down in response, the legend is that Admiral Farragut ordered her to proceed through the minefield despite the danger, yelling “Damn the torpedoes!” at her captain. What’s more likely is that Farragut was ordering the captain of his own ship, Hartford, to run the minefield, then turned to another ship and yelled “full speed.” Over time, the quote got mushed together to become the rallying cry we know. It’s also possible that Farragut said nothing, as the sound of gunfire would have made verbal orders impossible to hear. Whatever the case, Farragut’s ships did run the minefield at Mobile Bay, and won a decisive victory over Confederate forces. Farragut’s quote became a symbol of courage in the face of the enemy, and also the title of a most excellent Tom Petty album.

“My right is hard pressed. My center is yielding. Impossible to maneuver. Situation excellent. I attack!” – Marshall Ferdinand Foch
Verdict: Probably fake

World War I had just kicked off and the French army was already on the verge of breaking against a superior and well-organized German offensive. Foch’s Ninth Army was desperately holding the Marne River, and Foch needed to take action if he were to prevent the German army from crossing the river and having a clear path to Paris. Foch ordered a counter-attack, and is alleged to have wired the message to another General. But there’s no evidence Foch ever sent such a message, and the actual source of the quote is unknown. It’s still possible he said this, though, since Foch did order his troops to counter-attack and the German advance was stopped at a great cost in dead and wounded, leading to the stalemate that would dominate the Western Front for the next four years. Foch’s command, real or fake, galvanized French morale at a critical time, and spurred French troops on to do what had to be done. Foch was later the source of another quote, this one true, that would predict the next great war, when he declared of the Treaty of Versailles: “This is not a peace. It is an armistice for twenty years.”

“We have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.” – Adolf Hitler
Verdict: Real

Hitler’s arrogant declaration to his generals on the eve of 1941’s Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, was an expression of his contempt for the Soviet people and the lack of preparedness of the forces arrayed against him. Exactly when he said it and to whom it was said is unclear, but the veracity of the quote is confirmed by numerous sources. Indeed, the Nazi “kick in the door” nearly did bring the Soviet Union down, as German forces enjoyed staggering success against poorly led, ill-trained and under-equipped Soviet troops. In the first months of the invasion, the Germans ran wild, capturing scores of cities and reaching the gates of Moscow, before stalling out in December, inflicting five million total casualties on the Soviet army in the process.

“Not a step back!” – Joseph Stalin
Verdict: Real

Stalin’s infamous Order 227, prohibiting his troops from retreating, no matter the circumstance, was formally known as “The Order of the National Commissar for the Defense of the Soviet Union,” and published on July 28, 1942. It was intended to prevent desertion, punish “cowards” and instill discipline through a combination of fervent patriotism and fear. Soon, penal battalions full of shirkers and laggards would be clearing minefields, commanders thought to be disloyal would be removed and/or shot and “blocking units” would set up behind charging Soviet divisions, with orders to shoot anyone who fell back. “Not a step back!” was the perfect rallying cry for a dictator more concerned with punishing disloyalty than safeguarding the millions under his command, and would result in untold deaths among the Soviet military.

“In the first six to twelve months of a war with the United States and Great Britain I will run wild and win victory upon victory. But then, if the war continues after that, I have no expectation of success.” – Isoroku Yamamoto
Verdict: Real

Admiral Yamamoto gave this prophetic statement to Japanese prime minister Fumimaro Konoe shortly before the commencement of hostilities with the West in 1941. His words proved to be true to the letter, as Japan racked up scores of victories in China, the Philippines, Guam, Wake Island and Singapore before being stopped by the US Navy at the Battle of Midway – exactly six months after the Attack on Pearl Harbor.

“I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” – Yamamoto
Verdict: Fake

While this famous quote would appear to be a concise summation of his pessimism about war with the United States, there’s no record of Yamamoto ever saying or writing it. It was attributed to him after the war, and later used in the 1970 film about the attack on Pearl Harbor, Tora! Tora! Tora! How it ended up in that film involves a long chain of events, which I’ve quoted from Wikipedia:

The director of Tora! Tora! Tora!, Richard Fleischer, stated that while Yamamoto may never have said those words, the film’s producer, Elmo Williams, had found the line written in Yamamoto’s diary. Williams, in turn, has stated that Larry Forrester, the screenwriter, found a 1943 letter from Yamamoto to the Admiralty in Tokyo containing the quotation. However, Forrester cannot produce the letter, nor can anyone else, American or Japanese, recall or find it.

Such a letter has never been found anywhere in Yamamoto’s archive, so I tend to think the quote was an invention of the screenwriter. The myth was perpetuated further when the first half of the line was used again in the 2001 film Pearl Harbor, though use of a fake quote is only among the lesser crimes against history perpetrated by that movie.

“You cannot invade the mainland United States. There would be a rifle behind every blade of grass.” – Yamamoto
Verdict: Fake

Another phantom Yamamoto quote, also with no source or corroboration to back it up, and generally regarded to be made up. While the quote has become popular on the internet and with gun-rights advocates, it doesn’t have any relevance to Japan’s situation in the war. Japan never intended any kind of landing in the mainland US, waging war instead to build up her economy, create defensive rings around the Home Islands and to safeguard her natural resources. Even if Japan had wished to eventually conquer the world (as Nazi Germany explicitly did), she had nowhere near the resources necessary to carry out such a dramatic offensive. Even performing the needed reconnaissance for a landing on the West Coast was far beyond Japan’s means, much less transporting the millions of men and thousands of tons of equipment that would be needed.

“And when we get to Berlin, I am personally going to shoot that paper hanging son-of-a-bitch Hitler.” – General George Patton
Verdict: Real

One of many fantastic and true General Patton quotes, this one comes from his legendary speech to the Third Army on June 5th, 1944, right before the D-Day landing. Elements of the speech were chopped up and used in the famous opening scene of the film Patton, with a huge American flag thrown in for good measure. The speech itself is a masterpiece of vulgarity, bombast and spirit, and is well worth reading (warning: it contains a large amount of salty language). Unfortunately, Patton never got his chance to personally shoot Hitler, as the US halted its drive toward Berlin in the final days of the war, and ceded capture of the city to the Soviets.

“Rommel, you magnificent bastard! I read your book!” – General Patton
Verdict: Fake

Patton is the source of a number of quotes and incidents that have been weaved into the public’s understanding of the complicated general. Some of them happened as portrayed, some of them are re-purposed and some never happened at all. This quote, shouted out by Patton after having routed German troops in North Africa, is one of the most famous, and is also totally made up by the screenwriters. In fact, the book that Patton references, Tank Attacks, was never completed by Rommel, as he was forced to commit suicide before finishing it.

“We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” – Unknown US officer
Verdict: It depends on who you talk to

Perhaps the most eloquent expression of the frustration and difficulty of fighting the Vietnam War came from reporter Peter Arnett’s writing about the US attempt to free the town of Ben Tre from Communist occupation in February, 1968. Arnett wrote in his AP Wire story:

“‘It became necessary to destroy the town to save it’, a United States major said today. He was talking about the decision by allied commanders to bomb and shell the town regardless of civilian casualties, to rout the Vietcong.”

Somewhere along the line, as with most unattributed quotes, the line mutated into its more familiar form. Since Vietnam, it’s been used by anti-war activists to show the futility of the conflict and mocked by supporters of the war who think Arnett made the quote up, and that it was actually the Viet Cong who destroyed the town. It’s also been used in numerous other contexts with “village” replaced by something else that had to be destroyed in order to be saved. As to who gave the original quote to Arnett, he’s never revealed his source, and an investigation by the Pentagon turned up nothing. Whether or not he made it up is known only to two people, and neither one of them are talking.

With the ubiquity of microphones, press conferences and social media, it’s become harder for an unsourced quote to make its way into popular culture. But as always, when you hear what purports to be a famous line from a military commander, whether he’s alive today or went head to head with Germanic tribes two thousand years ago, it’s a good idea to take a look and see for yourself if it was actually said.

About Mike Rothschild

Mike Rothschild is a writer and editor based in Pasadena. He writes about scams, conspiracy theories, hoaxes and pop culture fads. He's also a playwright and screenwriter. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/rothschildmd.
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11 Responses to Historical Misquotes, Volume 1: War and Warriors

  1. Stephen Propatier says:

    As usual awesome post. I always thought the Yamamoto quote about the sleeping giant was real because he did school in the US and had a good grasp of our Pre-WWII industrial potential. Very plausible. Just goes to show always check the facts. Gun advocates love the idea that japan did not invade because we have a lot of guns. The size of the Pacific ocean is the reason why they never considered a significant attack or invasion on mainland america. Although later in the war they did try to formulate long range bombers, to hit the US, but they never had the resources for it.

  2. jeffwagg says:

    Excellent work!

  3. Steve says:

    The one I always wonder about is the oft quoted ” they couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance” supposedly said by Major General John Sedgwick, moments before being shot by confederate snipers at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House during the Civil War.

    Any thoughts on this one Mike?

    • As with most quotes of the era, there’s a pretty good chance it’s apocryphal, but it’s also just as likely that he said some form of it before being hit. I’ve got enough quotes to do at least one more whole post, so I’ll do some more looking into it!

  4. Bruno Van de Casteele says:

    amazing post! I hope you have material for more than one post … looking forward to it.

  5. Patroy says:

    I know anti gun folks like to say the yamamoto quote is fake, and do it snickering, but the fact is, there would be a rifle behind every blade of grass and that makes me sleep better at night.

    • Teddy Wong says:

      In case you haven’t noticed, NOBODY is shooting ANYBODY except mass murderers and the like.
      Americans are ALL talk, NO action.
      Sleep well thinking otherwise.

      • Sean says:

        Yet, more violent crimes are stopped by citizens carrying concealed weapons than all shooting of innocent people, including the mass shooting. Ahh, back to sleeping well. More people are killed by cars and accidental hospital deaths, maybe we should get rid them? What about drownings? More people die of drowning, maybe we should get rid of large bodies of water? No, because like guns they do more good than harm. Don’t be indoctrinated by mass media into make irrational decisions. When England finally outlawed pistols violent crime, including murder skyrocketed ever since. SLEEP WELL.

        • Noah Dillon says:

          Actually, data on that point is not very clear. I can’t find any studies claiming more violent crimes were stopped by guns than all shooting victims. It seems really unlikely, unless you really fudge your counting. But researchers have has a lot of difficulty finding causal relationships between the prevalence of gun ownership and crime (either its decline or its growth). Anyone who claims that this is a simple issue with clear data is spouting nonsense.
          http://www.factcheck.org/2012/12/gun-rhetoric-vs-gun-facts/

          And this thing about cars and drowning and stuff is a red herring. It’s actually not very comparable.

          I also don’t see where your claim about UK murder rate comes from. It’s been falling since before the gun ban was put into effect.
          http://blog.skepticallibertarian.com/2013/01/12/fact-checking-ben-swann-is-the-uk-really-5-times-more-violent-than-the-us/

          • Vladpryde says:

            “Actually, data on that point is not very clear. I can’t find any studies claiming more violent crimes were stopped by guns than all shooting victims”

            There’s two ways to look at it:

            1) Morons in the Leftist media don’t report the lawful use of self-defense with a firearm (especially not now, since it’s the “cool thing to do” to blame guns rather than criminal behavior) because it doesn’t fit in with their agenda. Instead, we’re forced to look for them through sites like this:

            http://gunssavelives.net/

            2) Many cases go un-reported because most cases involving lawful self defense with a firearm do not result in shots fired. Most of the time, simply drawing the gun is a deterrent enough. Not always, of course, but most of the time.

            I don’t know if you can put all of that into a “stat”, and gather it on some “fact check” website somewhere. There are MANY different variables to take into account when judging firearm use as a “crime deterrent”.

            “And this thing about cars and drowning and stuff is a red herring. It’s actually not very comparable”

            Like hell it isn’t. Cars kill more people than guns when abused by criminals and negligence. Yet, we don’t put restrictions on horsepower or performance parts.

            Nope. We only see that with guns.

            And the only red herring here is someone who conveniently ignores this fact.

          • Noah Dillon says:

            Please bear in mind that I’m not advocating for gun restrictions; I’m just trying to be reasonable about what data shows and what it doesn’t. It sounds like your argument is that you know it’s true that more crimes are prevented with guns than are committed with guns because there’s no evidence for it. That doesn’t follow. I see several anecdotal reports on the website you provided, but that, as you note, isn’t really useful statistical data. There are a lot of variables to take into account, that’s true. You’ll note also that the website I provided said as much and provided a lot of statistical evidence that undermines both claims commonly used not only by gun rights advocates, but also the bad information peddled by the anti-gun lobby. Your claim seems to dismiss the complications as incalculable (and therefore irrelevant?) because, if I read you correctly, unknown large numbers of people use guns to defend against a menace, but once the menace is gone they don’t report that it was ever there. That seems unlikely. If someone tried to break into my home, even if they were prevented, I would still report it since it’s likely they might try to do the same thing to someone else, right?

            The problem with comparing guns to cars and water is that guns have one purpose: to inflict violence. They’re a tool for causing violence. That’s, again, not an argument for them to be banned or restricted. It’s just to say that the comparison to a vehicle or a lake is nonsensical and fallacious. We don’t ban lots of things that have the potential solely to harm: poisons, tobacco, etc. But we also don’t compare them to vehicles or lakes, either. Even if cars or drowning kill more people than firearms, they also provide other uses, which, from an actuarial sense, far outweigh their potential for negative outcomes, and the cost of “banning” them would be enormous. Again: that doesn’t mean that I’m advocating for a gun ban. It just means that the argument about lakes and cars doesn’t stand up to scrutiny as a useful comparison.

            You’ll notice, too, that this doesn’t have much of anything to do with the subject of this essay.

            And also that gun rights in the United States have actually expanded over the past decade. You can now carry guns in more places than you could 10 or 15 years ago.

            I’m just going to say this one more time: I’m not advocating for gun restrictions. I’m merely trying to have a sensible, skeptical, fact-based conversation with you.

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