Truth Is the First Casualty in War

Aeschylus? Philip Snowden? Ethel Annakin? Samuel Johnson? Anne MacVicar Grant? E. D. Morel? W. T. Foster? Agnes Maude Royden? Hiram Johnson? Arthur Ponsonby? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The participants in a violent conflict often engage in crude propaganda and advocacy. Here are four versions of a pertinent saying:

  1. Truth is the first casualty in war.
  2. The first casualty of war is truth.
  3. When war is declared, truth is the first victim.
  4. In war, truth is the first casualty.

This adage has been credited to Aeschylus, Hiram Johnson, Arthur Ponsonby, and others. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest close match known to QI appeared in a paper presented at an education conference in August 1915 by Ethel Annakin who was the wife of the British politician Philip Snowden. Annakin disclaimed credit by providing an anonymous attribution. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Someone has finely said that “truth is the first casualty in war”; and never was a greater untruth spoken than that war is waged for the protection of women and homes.

The above citation is given in the important reference “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” from Yale University Press. 2 It is also listed on the helpful website of researcher Barry Popik. 3

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus has received credit for the following fragment which provides a divine justification for deception during wartime when the war is considered to be a just cause: 4

Aeschylus (Fragm. Incert, xi.):—
“God is not averse to deceit in a just cause.”

The above statement differs significantly from the adage under investigation, but its existence may help to explain why Aeschylus has been linked to the adage. See the discussion accompanying the 1950 and 1965 citations presented further below.

In 1758 the famous lexicographer Samuel Johnson penned a short item in “The Idler” which included the following thematically germane statement: 5

Among the calamities of War may be justly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages.

In 1809 “Memoirs of an American Lady” by Anne MacVicar Grant included a statement that was similar to the adage under examination: 6

Truth is the first victim to fear and policy; when matters arrive at that crisis, every one finds a separate interest; mutual confidence, which cannot outlive sincerity, dies next, and all the kindred virtues drop in succession.

In 1904 “The Christian Work and The Evangelist” printed a thematically related brief item: 7

The way the news from the seat of war is stated one day, reiterated the next day and “authoritatively contradicted” the day following forcibly illustrates the fact that truth often takes slow trains in war times and arrives at the station much behind time.

In 1914 “The Albany Evening Journal” of Albany, New York printed a collection of anonymous “Miscellaneous Remarks”. One barb shared vocabulary with the adage under exploration and embodied a similar criticism: 8

In the lists of casualties of this war, Truth occupies a conspicuous place.

During the following weeks the remark above was reprinted in several other periodicals such as “The Literary Digest” of New York 9 and “The Pittsburgh Gazette Times” of Pennsylvania. 10 The “Albany Journal” was acknowledged.

In August 1915 Ethel Annakin delivered a conference paper containing the adage with an anonymous attribution as mentioned previously in this article:

Someone has finely said that “truth is the first casualty in war”; and never was a greater untruth spoken than that war is waged for the protection of women and homes.

In November 1915 “The Irish Citizen” of Dublin, Ireland printed an anonymous instance of the saying: 11

It has been well observed that truth is the first casualty in all war; women are perfectly aware that none of the belligerent countries have anything to boast of with regard to their treatment of women in either war or peace.

In December 1915 “T.P.’s Weekly” of London published a thematically variant: 12

The Extinction of Truth.
In war, truth is at a discount and falsehood at a premium.
James Douglas.

In 1916 the book “Truth and the War” by E. D. Morel appeared. The adage occurred within the introduction written by U.K. Member of Parliament Philip Snowden: 13

“Truth,” it has been said, “is the first casualty of war.” When hostilities break out the one object of each belligerent nation is victory. “All is fair in war,” and to secure and maintain national unity in support of the war every means are taken by the respective Governments to suppress criticism . . .

In February 1917 the “Daily Record” of Lanarkshire, Scotland published an instance with a different word ordering: 14

Since language has been the medium of lies it has never been more cunningly used than now in Constantinople and Berlin. That the first casualty of war is truth is a saying especially adapted for our enemies, whether they look out on the Golden Horn or the Spree.

Also, in February 1917 a variant about free expression appeared in a Lincoln, Nebraska newspaper: 15

In Europe, as has been said, the first casualties of war are free speech and free press. And, we might add, any other freedom that the people may have.

In March 1917 a newspaper in Portland, Oregon reported that a concise instance was used as a speech title: 16

“Truth, the First Casualty of War,” will be the subject of President W. T. Foster’s address before the regular meeting of the Jackson club to be held Friday evening at; Central library hall.

In 1920 “The Coming Day” periodical of London, England attributed the saying to the English suffragist Agnes Maude Royden: 17

Miss Maude Royden has said that in war the first casualty is truth.

In 1928 “Falsehood in War-Time: Containing an Assortment of Lies Circulated Throughout the Nations During the Great War” by Arthur Ponsonby presented the following as an anonymous quotation: 18

“When war is declared, Truth is the first casualty.”

In 1929 U.S. Senators debated an international agreement called the “General Treaty for Renunciation of War as an Instrument of National Policy”. Senator Hiram Johnson of California was unhappy with the agreement because he believed it was merely symbolic and ineffectual. Yet, Johnson did vote in favor of the legislation. “The Baltimore Sun” of Maryland published the following remark from Johnson: 19

“The first casualty when war comes is truth, and whenever there is a war, and whenever an individual nation seeks to coerce by force of arms another, it always acts and always insists that it acts under self-defense.”

Also, in 1929 Johnson received credit for the memorable adage in several other newspapers such as “The Binghamton Press” of New York: 20

The idea was not novel, but the expression of it had all the terseness and sharpness of an epigram and vastly more truth than most epigrams contain. Senator Hiram Johnson said, “The first casualty when war comes is truth.” That told the story better than it has ever been told before of why wars are so hard to obviate by treaties or in any other way.

In 1948 “The Macmillan Book Of Proverbs” credited Johnson, but moved the date back to 1918. QI has located no evidence to support the earlier date: 21

The first casualty when war comes is truth.
Hiram Johnson, Speech, U.S. Senate. (1918)

In 1950 syndicated columnist Malcolm W. Bingay published a piece containing several sayings about telling lies including the following from Aeschylus: 22

Aeschylus said that “God is not averse to deceit in a holy cause.” It takes very mild mental gymnastics to make any politician or statesman or soldier believe that his cause is holy and therefore proper to lie about.

A few sentences later in Bingay’s article the “first casualty” adage was labeled an “ancient proverb”. QI has located no evidence that the saying was ancient:

There is an ancient proverb, too, that in war “Truth is the first casualty.” There never was a war that was not started by falsehood.

Misattributions are inadvertently facilitated whenever sayings are grouped closely together. For example, a careless reader of Bingay’s article might have incorrectly reassigned the “first casualty” statement to Aeschylus. Alternatively, the misquotation may have been precipitated when the two sayings appeared in close proximity in some other article or book.

In 1965 historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. published a biographical work titled “A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House”. Schlesinger remarked that Kennedy enjoyed using quotations, and he kept a notebook containing noteworthy statements. Unfortunately, Kennedy somehow acquired the Aeschylus misattribution: 23

Some quotations he carried verbatim in his mind. Others he noted down. The loose-leaf notebook of 1945-46 contained propositions from Aeschylus (“In war, truth is the first casualty”) . . .

This Pulitzer Prize-wining 1965 book probably helped to popularize the linkage of the saying to Aeschylus.

In 1972 “The Saturday Review” printed an article discussing a publisher named “1st Casualty Press” of Brooklyn, New York. The periodical provided a rationale for the name: 24

The name of the press comes from Aeschylus; “In war, truth is the first casualty.”

In conclusion, the earliest known instance was employed by Ethel Annakin in August 1915; however, she credited an unidentified “someone”. Thus, the creator remains anonymous. In 1916 the U.K. politician Philip Snowden who was married to Annakin also helped to popularize the expression.

The ascription to the ancient tragedian Aeschylus is unsupported. This unlikely attribution was published by 1965.

Hiram Johnson employed the saying by 1929, but QI has uncovered no evidence that he used it in 1917 or 1918 as suggested by some references.

Image Notes: Painting of the Battle at Pons Milvius by Raphael circa 1520. Image has been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Christopher Field, Mark Schulman, Peter Gainsford, Peter Olausson (faktoids), and DarksideJohnny whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to researchers Barry Popik, Jonathan Lighter, Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, Fred R. Shapiro, Stephen Goranson, Nigel Rees, and others who have explored this topic.)

Notes:

  1. 1915, Journal of Proceedings and Addresses of the Fifty-Third Annual Meeting and International Congress on Education, Held at Oakland, California, August 16-27, 1915, Section: Papers and Discussions, Article: Woman and War by Mrs. Philip Snowden (Ethel Annakin) of Liverpool, England, Start Page 54, Quote Page 55, Published by The National Education Association of the U.S., Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Quote Page 265, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  3. Website: The Big Apple, Article title: “The first casualty of war is truth”, Date on website: January 2, 2011, Website description: Etymological dictionary with more than 10,000 entries. (Accessed barrypopik.com on April 9, 2020) link
  4. 1869, Beautiful Thoughts from Latin Authors, Compiled by Craufurd Tait Ramage, Second Edition, Section: Horatius: Born B.C. 65 — Died B.C. 8, Entry: A Noble Virgin, Start 116, Quote Page 149, Edward Howell, Liverpool, England. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1761, The Idler by Samuel Johnson, Volume 1 of 2, Number 30, Date: November 11, 1758, Start Page 165, Quote Page 169, Printed for J. Newbery at the Bible and Sun, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1809, Memoirs of an American Lady: With Sketches of Manners and Scenery in America, as They Existed Previous to the Revolution by Mrs. Grant (Anne MacVicar Grant), Chapter 63: General Reflections, Quote Page 323, Printed for Samuel Campbell by D. and G. Bruce, New York. (Internet Archive Full View) link
  7. 1904 April 2, The Christian Work and The Evangelist, Volume 76, Number 1937, Things of To-Day, Start Page 457, Quote Page 458, Column 1, Bible House, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1914 September 26, The Albany Evening Journal, Miscellaneous Remarks, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Albany, New York. (Old Fulton)
  9. 1914 October 10, The Literary Digest, Volume 49, Number 15, The War in Brief, Quote Page 676, Column 1, Funk & Wagnalls Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  10. 1914 October 13, The Pittsburgh Gazette Times, (Filler Item) One Victim, Quote Page 4, Column 6, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1915 November 20, The Irish Citizen, Current Comment: The First Casualty, Quote Page 1, Column 1, Dublin, Republic of Ireland. (British Newspaper Archive)
  12. 1915 December 11, T.P.’s Weekly, Edited by Holbrook Jackson, The Literary Trawler, Quote Page 588, Column 1, London, England. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  13. 1916, Truth and the War by E. D. Morel, Chapter: Introduction by Philip Snowden M.P., Start Page ix, Quote Page ix, The National Labour Press Ltd, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  14. 1917 February 19, Daily Record, The Outlook: Prelude, Quote Page 2, Column 4, Lanarkshire, Scotland. (British Newspaper Archive)
  15. 1917 February 21, The Nebraska State Journal, The Espionage Bill, Quote Page 6, Column 2, Lincoln, Nebraska. (Newspapers_com)
  16. 1917 March 15, The Oregon Daily Journal, “Truth,” Dr. Foster’s Jackson Club Topic, Quote Page 17, Column 3, Portland, Oregon. (Newspapers_com)
  17. 1920 February, The Coming Day (Free Church Suffrage Times), Last Month’s Politics, Quote Page 2 (Page 94), Column 2, London, England. (Newspapers_com)
  18. 1940 (1928 Copyright), Falsehood in War-Time: Containing an Assortment of Lies Circulated Throughout the Nations During the Great War by Arthur Ponsonby (Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede), (Collection of seven quotations), Quote Page 11, George Allen & Unwin, London. (Verified with scans)
  19. 1929 January 16, The Baltimore Sun, Kellogg Anti-War Pact Is Ratified by Senate by Vote of 85 to 1, Start Page 1, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Baltimore, Maryland. (Newspapers_com)
  20. 1929 January 25, The Binghamton Press, The Daily Mirror of Washington by Clinton W. Gilbert, Quote Page 6, Column 4, Binghamton, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  21. 1948, The Macmillan Book Of Proverbs, Maxims, And Famous Phrases, Selected and Arranged by Burton Stevenson, Topic: War, Quote Page 2445, The Macmillan Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  22. 1950 December 1, Detroit Free Press, Good Morning by Malcolm W. Bingay, Quote Page 6, Column 3, Detroit, Michigan. (Newspapers_com)
  23. 1966 (Copyright 1965), A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Chapter 4: Kennedy On the Eve, Quote Page 104, Fawcett Premier Books, New York. (Google Books Full View)
  24. 1972 October 7, The Saturday Review, Nightmares in Print by Perry Deane Young, Start Page 54, Quote Page 54, Published by SR, Inc., New York. (Unz)