Common Misquotes about Politics and War

Jul 11 2009

This week, soon to be ex-governor of Alaska Sarah Palin posted a quote on her twitter page that she incorrectly attributed to Plato:


Palin is not the first to misapply the quote to the great philosopher and it has been attributed to Plato in works like Training for Dummies, but the origin of the saying is probably from a gentleman’s guide published in 1670.  Her misquote got me thinking about quotes in general, and as you can tell by previous articles I’m a fan of famous sayings.  So I compiled a list of quotes that are related to military or politics that have been altered, misapplied, or just plain made up.  Here are some of the best…

Incorrect Attributions

“Only the Dead have seen the end of War.”
Like the Palin quote, this has been attributed to Plato.  The actual quote came from the master of historical prose, George Santayana in the book Life of Reason (1953).  One of the first incidents of incorrect attribution of the quote came from one of General George MacArthur’s farewell addresses.

“Don’t fire ’til you see the whites of their eyes.
Although the quote is commonly attributed to Andrew Jackson in the battle of New Orleans, the true origin is from the War of Independence.  Colonel William Prescott said it to his troops before the battle of Bunker Hill, and the full quote is actually “”Don’t fire ’til you see the whites of their eyes. Then, fire low!”

“The end justifies the means”Niccolo Machiavelli’s deeply satirical novel The Prince is the source of this famous quote.  But it wasn’t Machiavelli that said it, to a point.  The quote comes from a fictional character in the book.

“Language is a dialect with a Navy”
One of Otto von Bismarck’s most famous quotes, but he never said or wrote it.  It is an old Yiddish proverb that originally stated “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy”.  The modern variation that Bismarck is given authorship of probably came from one of his students, Joshua Fishman.


“People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”
George Orwell is the man traditionally sourced as the author of this quote, but there’s nothing in print that supports the idea.  He did write extensively about Rudyard Kipling, and some quotes in those writings are very similar.  Orwell considered the quote he was incorrectly credited with penning as ‘grossly obvious’.  The best modern day adaptation of this concept is also one of my favorite quotes of all time.  From the movie A Few Good Men, “I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, then questions the manner in which I provide it”, written by Aaron Sorkin.  Probably the most badass quote in a military movie of all time, I use it in everyday life whenever it even remotely applies.

“The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”
Years after the Civil War, General Philip Sheridan was appointed by President Ulysses Grant to pacify the Great Plains Indians.  Tradition states that Sheridan told Comanche Chief Silver Knife, who stated that he was a ‘Good Indian’, ‘The only good Indians I ever saw were dead’.  It was most likely a message of regret, not an insult, but opponents of the war changed it to the famous quote in an effort to smear the general.  However, there is no real evidence that the exchange ever took place.

“I can see Russia from my house”
Sarah Palin has also been on the receiving side of what became a common saying in 2008.  During an interview with CBS’s Charles Gibson just after being selected as the Republican VP candidate, Palin stated that she was experienced with global affairs because of Alaska’s close proximity to Russia.  While she did say that you can see Russia from an island in Alaska, she never said you could view it from her house.  The origin on that line comes directly from Saturday Night Live and Tina Fey.

“The only traditions of the Royal Navy are rum, sodomy and the lash”
One of the most often misquoted men of the 20th century was Winston Churchill, mostly because he has some of the greatest quotes of all time that were properly credited.  This quote, however, was not one of them, although his personal secretary Anthony Montague-Brown did state that the British icon wished he had been the one to say it.

“I fear that all we have done is awakened a sleeping giant, and filled him with a terrible resolve”
Often quoted, especially after the 9/11 attacks, as a statement by Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto following the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Although the sentiment represented what was probably going through his mind at the time, the quote was made up for the film Tora! Tora! Tora!.

Modified or Out of Context

“Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely”
One of the most common misquotes of the modern age, the original line written by the English historian Lord Acton was “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Great men are almost always bad men.”  Lord Acton was reflecting and criticizing monarchical tyrants such as Napoleon Bonaparte and the various Russian tsars over the years, as well as Julius Caesar.

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it”
Joseph Goebbels was never that direct in his extremely detailed oratories, and he focused most of his attention on propaganda against Jews.  The most likely candidate for the incorrect quote came from his essay ‘Churchill’s Lie Factory’ (1941), which contained the quote “The English follow the principle that when one lies, one should lie big, and stick to it. They keep up their lies, even at the risk of looking ridiculous.”

“When I hear the world ‘culture’, I reach for my gun”
Another Nazi propagandist, Hermann Goring, is said to have said this quote, which has become a favorite of neo-Nazi groups in modern days.  Although Goring has never been officially tied to the quote, it did come from a Nazi source.  The 1933 play Schlageter, written by Hanns Johst, contained the dialogue “When I hear the world ‘culture’, I release the safety on my catch on my pistol.

“Would you like to play a game?”
A famous quote from the 1983 movie WarGames, the actual line that the super computer WOPR delivers is “Shall we play a game”.  A slight change that doesn’t change anything in terms of meaning, the variation is an example of the largest modern source of misquotes – lines from movies.  Other famous movie misquotes are ‘Play it again, Sam” from Casablanca and “Do you feel lucky, punk” from Dirty Harry.  In WarGames, a poignant and timely movie made during the height of the Cold War arms race, the computer challenges a teenage hacker to a game of tic tack toe, which was used as a metaphorical device by the writers for the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction and the insanity of nuclear war.

“Blood, Sweat and Tears”
Another quote attributed to Winston Churchill, the actual quote came from the 1926 book Metropolis, by Thea von Harbou.  The full line, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”, appeared in the book and the classic black and white film adaptation, which was directed by von Harbou’s husband Fritz Lang.  Churchill did utter the words ‘blood, sweat and tears’ in an address to the British House of Commons, luckily recorded for posterity, in which he said “I have never promised anything but blood, sweat and tears, now however we have a new experience.  We have victory.  A remarkable victory.  A bright gleam has caught the helmets of our soldiers and warmed and cheered all our hearts.”  The man certainly had a way with words.  As a side note, the famous radio broadcast that included the statement “we will fight them on the beaches, in the street, etc” following the British disaster of Falkirk in World War II, while written by Churchill, was actually delivered over the radio by an actor that had perfected his Churchill impression.  That speech has generally been credited for providing the morale boost England needed to maintain their resolve and survive the war.

Battle of the Bilge’s Own Misquotes

In researching the topic, I was both delighted and dismayed at the fact that I have on two occasions added to the problem by reprinting incorrect or altered quotes in Bilge articles.

“First they ignore at you, then they laugh at you, then they attack you, then you win”
While this one is almost always attributed to Gandhi (as I did on one of the Iran update articles), there is no information as to when and where he did so.  It is easy to imagine him saying it due to his method of peaceful resistance, but the quote actually originated from an address at the Biennial Convention of Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America in 1914.  The complete quote was “And, my friends, in this story you have a history of this entire movement. First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you. And that is what is going to happen to the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America.”  Not nearly as pithy and catchy, and ACWA never really faced the challenges or successes of Gandhi.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”
Used as the introduction to Battle of the Bilge’s profile feature for MRFF’s Mikey Weinstein, and attributed to Edmund Burke, the quote is modified and out of context.  While Burke was the author of the original quote in his essay ‘Thoughts on the Cause of Present Discontents’, the full quote is “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied [sic] sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”  The quote was often used in the 2008 US presidential campaign and a variation of the concept has been used frequently in the epic ABC show Lost, in which lead character Jack Sheppard attempts to rally the survivors with the quote “Either we live together, or we’re going to die alone”, a quote used repeatedly during the show’s first five years.   Even the Lost quote is a variation of the saying “We must all hang together, or we shall surely hang separately”, which has been incorrectly attached to Benjamin Franklin after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Resources and Sources

Wikipedia Misquotes Page
Wikiquotes Misquotes Page Page

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9 responses so far

9 Responses to “Common Misquotes about Politics and War”

  1. California_Dreaminon 19 Aug 2009 at 11:38 pm

    “The only traditions of the Royal Navy are rum, sodomy and the lash”

    You have a lot of well-researched and fascinating info here, but I believe that the above Churchill quote is actually a misquote rather a misattribution. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think he actually said:

    “Naval tradition? Monstrous. Nothing but rum, sodomy, prayers, and the lash.”

    I’ve often heard the theory, on the internet, that Churchill never made this imminentally quotable comment but that, according Anthony Montague-Brown, he wished he had said it.

    My 2006 copy of The Oxford Concise Dictionary of Quotations–even though it is put out by Oxford, is in the fifth edition, and has a whole section devoted to misquotes–makes no mention of this theory. Personally, I have to go with Oxford as the authority on this one and assume that rather than just wishing he had said this, Churchill did in fact say it. One thing that argues in favor of that conclusion is the distincly Churchillian ring of the phrase.

  2. Matthew LoFiegoon 20 Aug 2009 at 8:08 am

    You might be right on that one, Churchill quotes are so pervasive that it is hard to tell sometimes if it was him or not. My favorite quote of his is when he reportedly had the following discussion at a dinner party:
    Female Guest: ‘Mr. Churchill, if you were my husband I would poison your drink’
    Churchill: ‘Madame, if you were my wife, I would drink it’

    Yes, it is a true story that he stated that he wished he had said the Navy quote.

    Thanks for the excellent comment!

  3. sandersonon 06 Jun 2011 at 7:54 pm

    re “blood, sweat and tears” I think you mean Dunkirk, not Falkirk

  4. Donon 24 Nov 2013 at 2:08 pm

    A really big misquote that was said by Ronald Reagan in a public speech was attributed to Abe Lincoln – but Lincoln never said it… The misquote started because there was a place mat sold by a company that had quotes all over it including the one in question – it had some Lincoln quotes too – and so people got confused and thought Lincoln said it… the quote was about how “the rich” should not be persecuted because they have the money and help the poor… can’t remember how exactly it went – but it has often been misquoted… Do you know it???

  5. Matthew LoFiegoon 24 Nov 2013 at 2:43 pm

    Nice, great comment Don. I only saw it recently so it stuck in my head:

    “You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong”

    The origin looks to be that a minister named Boetcker produced a book of sayings that was eventually turned in to The Ten Cannots, an early Libertarian influencing document.

    Some of the sayings from that book were printed on the back of a flyer in 1942 by a group opposed to New Deal policies. One quote used was “You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift.”, and in addition to some of Boetcker’s work, had genuine Lincoln quotes printed on it.

    From there it was attributed to Lincoln and Reagan included it in his 1992 address to the RNC. That was one of the last big appearances for Reagan.

    Here’s some info on Boetcker:

  6. RRRRon 10 Dec 2013 at 3:39 pm

    Machiavelli’s “The Prince” was neither a novel nor a satire. It was a guide offering advice to heads of state on how to rule effectively.

  7. Matthew LoFiegoon 11 Dec 2013 at 9:17 am

    Thanks, RRRR, I’ll definitely concede that The Prince was not written as a novel in any traditional sense. But I tend to agree with Rousseau by interpreting the work as satirical.

  8. JCRRon 04 Nov 2014 at 3:56 pm

    Re: The Prince, Although in the past and definitely at Rousseau’s time it was considered by some to be a form of satire, the tide is turning and most see it now as an earnest scientific approach to statecraft, where Mac neither approves or condemns some of the more outrageous governing tactics, eventhough in the very technical sense he clearly feels there are limitations to how terrible a prince can be and still govern effectively.

  9. Matthew LoFiegoon 05 Nov 2014 at 8:28 am

    He certainly had a front row seat to witness the terrors (and effectiveness) of governing during his travels with Cesare Borgia. How incredible would it be if we were able to somehow witness the intersection of Machiavelli, Borgia and Leonardo Da Vinci during their short time together?