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: 1
“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, 2 and the declamatory technique was condemned by a linkage to Adolf Hitler: 3
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.
- 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 ↩
- 1942 April 3, Kingston Daily Freeman, (Freestanding short item), Quote Page 4, Column 2, Kingston, New York. (Old Fulton) ↩
- 1942 April 7, Racine Journal Times, (Freestanding short item), Quote Page 6, Column 2, Racine, Wisconsin. (NewspaperArchive) ↩