If You Can’t Convince Them, Confuse Them

Harry Truman? A. C. Wilson? Adolf Hitler? Richard H. Leask? Anonymous?

Dear Quote investigator: The following maxim is attributed to President Harry Truman:

If you can’t convince them, confuse them

Did Truman really say this? It seems inconsistent with his personality because he was often lauded for being plain spoken and not dissimulating.

Quote Investigator: Harry Truman did use this expression in a speech delivered in 1948; however, he was not advocating the technique described by the adage. Instead, Truman asserted that his political opponents were using the tactic which he viewed as unscrupulous. The details are given further below.

The earliest evidence of a precise match for this saying located by QI appeared in a 1919 publication from the Manchester Literary Club in England. A novel by William De Morgan featured a clever character named Christopher Vance who sometimes resorted to distracting and baffling other characters to achieve his aims. Vance’s strategy was described and encapsulated with a motto in an article by A. C. Wilson printed in the “Manchester Quarterly”. Wilson may have been presenting a pre-existing adage. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1919, Papers of the Manchester Literary Club: Manchester Quarterly, Volume 45, Christopher Vance by A. C. Wilson, (Article by A. C. Wilson about the character Christopher Vance in William De Morgan’s novel “Joseph Vance”), Start Page 179, Quote Page 182, Sherratt & Hughes, Manchester, UK. (Internet Archive Full view) link [/ref]

“If you cannot convince them, confuse them,” might have been his motto, and not a bad one either; at any rate it came off in his case.

In April 1942 a short item was printed on the editorial pages of at least two newspapers in New York and Wisconsin. The saying was attributed to an anonymous observer,[ref] 1942 April 3, Kingston Daily Freeman, (Freestanding short item), Quote Page 4, Column 2, Kingston, New York. (Old Fulton)[/ref] and the declamatory technique was condemned by a linkage to Adolf Hitler:[ref] 1942 April 7, Racine Journal Times, (Freestanding short item), Quote Page 6, Column 2, Racine, Wisconsin. (NewspaperArchive)[/ref]

One observer of today’s scene has this advice to orators: If you can’t convince them, confuse them. Hitler is one who goes on this principle.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Later in April 1942 the item above was further condensed and printed in a newspaper in Iowa:[ref] 1942 April 21, Mason City Globe-Gazette, Look Out Below, (Short freestanding item), Quote Page 4, Column 2, Mason City, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive)[/ref]

Some orators seem to follow the Hitler tactic that if you can’t convince them, confuse them.

In 1947 a representative from the local Chamber of Commerce named Richard H. Leask wrote a letter to a newspaper in Bakersfield, California. He presented an amusing extended three-element version of the adage:[ref] 1947 August 7, Bakersfield Californian, The Reader’s Viewpoint: Who Are They?, (Letter to the Editor from Richard H. Leask, Manager, the Greater Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce), Quote Page 20, Column 3, Bakersfield, California. (NewspaperArchive)[/ref]

There is an old politician’s motto which goes to this effect: “If you can’t convince ’em, confuse ’em: if you can’t confuse ’em, scare ’em.” It is an old political pattern that unfortunately works too well, but it is also a pattern that is always followed by an opposition without any real foundation for its arguments.

On September 18, 1948 Harry Truman spoke in Dexter, Iowa, on the occasion of the National Plowing Match. He lambasted his political antagonists, and mentioned the adage while accusing them of guile. Here is an excerpt from the transcript in the official public papers of Truman:[ref] 1964, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Harry S. Truman: 1948, (Containing the Public Messages, Speeches, and Statements of the President, January 1 to December 31, 1948), (Address by Harry S. Truman at Dexter, Iowa, on the Occasion of the National Plowing Match, September 18, 1948), Start Page 503, Quote Page 505, Column 1, Published by the Office of the Federal Register, National Archives and Records Service, General Services Administration, United States Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. (Internet Archive at archive.org) link [/ref]

On the one hand, the Republicans are telling industrial workers that the high cost of food in the cities is due to this Government’s farm policy. On the other hand, the Republicans are telling the farmers that the high cost of manufactured goods on the farm is due to this Government’s labor policy.

That’s plain hokum. It’s an old political trick. “If you can’t convince ’em, confuse ’em.” But this time it won’t work.

The next day the speech was reported on in many newspapers including the New York Times, the Richmond Times Dispatch of Virginia, and the Times-Picayune of Louisiana. The maxim was printed, but the informal abbreviated utterance “’em” was replaced by “them”:[ref] 1948 September 19, New York Times, “Text of Truman’s Address at Dexter, Iowa, Opening His Western Drive”, Quote Page 3, Column 4, New York. (ProQuest)[/ref][ref] 1948 September 19, Richmond Times Dispatch, President Says ‘Gluttons of Privilege’ Back GOP, Start Page 1, Quote Page 21, Column 5, Richmond, Virginia. (GenealogyBank)[/ref][ref] 1948 September 19, Times-Picayune, Truman Pleads for Rural Vote, Start Page 1, Quote Page 6, Column 4, New Orleans, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]

That’s plain hokum. It’s an old political trick. “If you can’t convince them, confuse them.” But this time it won’t work.

In December 1948 the saying appeared in a newspaper review of the movie ‘Sealed Verdict’. The reviewer found the treatment of international law in the film implausible:[ref] 1948 December 17, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, “Ray Milland at Paramount in ‘Sealed Verdict'”, Quote Page 18, Column 3, Rochester, New York. (Old Fulton)[/ref]

It would seem that Hollywood, like so many others, has yet to solve this question of International law for itself and its policy in this film, as a consequence seems to be, if you can’t convince ’em, confuse ’em. If you don’t mind coming away somewhat muddled over the mumbo-jumbo of the “Sealed Verdict” message, you’ll probably be amply rewarded with the myriad plots and counterplots which are its substitute.

In 1958 the Chicago Tribune published a profile of Fred Gymer who created a business by publishing parody slogans subverting conventional inspirational adages:[ref] 1958 January 5, Chicago Daily Tribune, “You, Too, Can Write a Motto”, Quote Page C27, Column 1, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)[/ref]

Why not kid the pants off the stuffed shirts, he asked himself? Give them their mottoes—cynical, sarcastic mottoes poking fun at pompous testimonials for hard work and success: “Flattery Will Get You Somewhere, Start Talking”; “This Job Is More Fun than Making Money”; “With Better Management Here, We Could Have Longer Coffee Breaks.” Thus the Let’s Have Better Mottoes association was born. …


In 1959 a columnists suggested that the some makers of automobile tires were following the maxim to sell their products:[ref] 1959 February 25, Big Spring Daily Herald, Ted’s Tire Talk by Ted Phillips Quote Page 7, Column 1, Big Spring, Texas. (NewspaperArchive)[/ref]

In my opinion a few tire manufacturers operate on the theory that “If you can’t convince them — confuse them.” The “them” being the public.

In 1960 a former drug company employee claimed that the adage was used as a guide by pharmaceutical sellers:[ref] 1960 April 13, The Daily News (Huntingdon Daily News), “Worthless Drugs Pushed, Solons Learn”, Quote Page 3, Column 1, Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive)[/ref]

Dr. A. Dale Console of Princeton, N.J., who resigned as head of the medical department of Squibb Laboratories to return to private practice, said the motto of the drug industry is: “If you can’t convince them, confuse them.”

In 1977 the influential collection “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” by Laurence J. Peter ascribed the saying to Truman without providing any context:[ref] 1977, “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” by Laurence J. Peter, Section: Laws, Quote Page 296, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified on paper) [/ref]

Truman’s Law — If you can’t convince them, confuse them.
—Harry S Truman

In conclusion, the adage was in circulation by 1919. Currently, the earliest use in print was from the pen of A. C. Wilson. Harry Truman helped to popularize the expression when he used it in a speech in 1948, but he was not endorsing the approach outlined by the maxim. He was criticizing it.

(Great thanks to Ms Tjemong whose query gave impetus to QI to formulate this question and initiate this exploration. Thanks to Saul Zeman who pointed out a misspelling.)

Update History: On January 7, 2021 a misspelling was fixed.

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