American Myth: 20 Myths from American History We're Here to Debunk
20 Myths from American History We’re Here to Debunk

20 Myths from American History We’re Here to Debunk

Larry Holzwarth - May 28, 2019

20 Myths from American History We’re Here to Debunk
Orson Welles meets with reporters in the aftermath of the War of the Worlds broadcast. Wikimedia

19. Orson Welles and the War of the Worlds broadcast induced widespread panic in 1938

According to a popular story, when Orson Welles broadcast an episode of The Mercury Theatre of the Air based on H.G. Wells popular science fiction story The War of the Worlds, the live presentation caused a nationwide panic, as listeners were unable to ascertain that the broadcast was entertainment and not a live news broadcast. No doubt some listeners were fooled, and since commercial breaks were infrequent (that the story was fiction was aired during the first break, about thirty minutes into the broadcast) the tale presented as evolving news of a Martian invasion was frightening. The broadcast creating a widespread panic is a myth, however. For one thing, there just weren’t that many people tuned in. Four different times during the broadcast listeners were reminded that the show was a play.

The newspapers of the time exaggerated the level of the panic, far beyond the phone calls into CBS stations of listeners demanding more information. Radio was an emerging competitor for newspaper advertising markets, and the papers stressed first the irresponsibility of the airwaves inducing panic among the people for commercial gain. According to polls taken at the time, only about 2% of the radio audience listened to the CBS broadcast, and in many markets, CBS affiliates substituted local programming that Halloween night. The War of the Worlds broadcast did happen, and it did frighten some listeners, but the extent of the panic it created was wildly exaggerated, to the point it became another American myth, one which Orson Welles exploited for years.

20 Myths from American History We’re Here to Debunk
A 1947 planning map for the proposed Interstate Highway System, prepared five years before Eisenhower was elected President in 1952. Federal Works Agency

20. Dwight David Eisenhower and the Interstate Highway System

One of the myths of the American Interstate Highway System is that Dwight Eisenhower, impressed with Hitler’s autobahn, wanted a similar system for the United States. Except that it wasn’t Hitler’s autobahn at all, it was largely in existence in 1931, two years before the Fuhrer became Chancellor of Germany and the Nazi party assumed control of the German government. Hitler did expand the project upon assuming power, under the leadership of Fritz Todt. The autobahns were not built to facilitate the movement of troops, as most of Germany’s war machines moved long distances by train or air. They were built as a public works project. Eisenhower, who had traveled across the United States by car and truck in the 1920s, was well aware of the need for a better road system there.

In the 1930s the US government began extensive studies of what eventually became the Interstate Highway System, as well as improvements to the existing US Highway System. As President, Eisenhower, no doubt recalling the months-long cross-country trip of the 1920s became a champion of the project, influenced by both General Motors and Standard Oil, both of which saw the benefits to their business models. Construction began in 1956. The original system was declared complete in 1992, after 35 years of work and more than $500 billion dollars spent. As the interstates grew America’s passenger and interurban rail systems faded. Large sections of the interstate system are functionally obsolete today, carrying traffic well beyond their design loads, especially on bridges across the country.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Washington: A Life”. Ron Chernow. 2010

“Ice Cream”. Article, The Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia. Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Online

“American Myths: Benjamin Franklin’s Turkey and the Presidential Seal”. Jimmy Stamp, January 25, 2013

“Molly Pitcher, A.K. A. Mary Ludwig Hays”. Entry, American Battlefield Trust. Online

“The General, the Corporal, and the Anecdote”. J. L. Bell, Journal of the American Revolution. Online

“Declaration of Independence”. Entry, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Online

“Religion and the Founding Fathers”. John P. Kaminski, National Historical Publications and Records Commission, National Archives. March 2002

“Louisiana Purchase”. Article, The Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Online

“The Causes of the War of 1812”. Paul J. Springer, Foreign Policy Research Institute. March 31, 2017

“The Beginnings of American Railroads and Mapping”. Article, Library of Congress. Online

“Confronting slavery and revealing the ‘Lost Cause'”. James Oliver Horton, National Park Service. Online

“Civil War Casualties in Lee’s Battles and Campaigns”. Article, History on the Net. Online

“Why the Civil War Actually Ended 16 Months After Lee Surrendered”. Sarah Pruitt, Online

“Go West Young Man – An Elusive Slogan”. Thomas Fuller, Indiana Magazine of History. September, 2004

“The Evolution of Western Wear”. G. Daniel DeWeese, True West Magazine. June 28, 2009

“Myth of Baseball’s Creation Endures, With a Prominent Fan”. Tim Arango, The New York Times. November 12, 2010

“Edison: The Man who Made the Future”. Ronald William Clark. 1977

“The Jumpers of ‘29”. Bennett Lowenthal, The Washington Post. October 25, 1987

“75 Years Ago, ‘War of the Worlds” Started a Panic. Or Did It?” Mark Memmott, National Public Radio. October 30, 2013

“Highway History”. Articles, Federal Highway System, US Department of Transportation. Online