April Fool's Day has always struck me as a mean enterprise, probably because I've never liked feeling dumb or being tricked. I suspect this is a common academic complaint. That said, in honor of April Fool's Day, here is a list of three episodes of deception in U.S. history. (Goodness knows there are more. Feel free to share, as long as they're true stories.)
1) Construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, 1860s: The federal government made the decision, following years of wrangling, to situate the eastern terminus of the railroad in St. Joseph, Missouri. Ever heard of St. Joseph, Missouri? How about Omaha? Well, Mr. Thomas Clark Durant, who was in charge of financing the Union Pacific Railroad's efforts to start on the Plains and build westward, owned extensive property in Omaha. Guess which Nebraska town benefited from a loop-the-loop detour in railroad construction bringing the Union Pacific right through the future home of tasty frozen steaks?
2) "Remember the Maine," 1898: This one is still a bit controversial, but in February 1898 the U.S.S. Maine, stationed in Havana Harbor, exploded, killing 272 American sailors. At the time the nation was embroiled in a campaign to "support" anti-colonial freedom fighters in Cuba. The explosion was most likely the result of a coal fire or other unintentional conflagration, but William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal-American and many other "yellow journalism" papers of the era cast the tragedy as a despicable act of Spanish sabotage. End result? U.S. involvement in the Spanish American War. Anti-colonial support quickly turned to another act of deception at war's end with the passage of the Platt Amendment, proclaiming the United States' right to intervene in Cuban affairs whenever it was deemed necessary. In practice, this tended to be whenever American sugar interests were threatened.
3) "The War of the Worlds," 1938: A radio broadcast was at the root of this unintentional deception. Movie and radio legend Orson Welles aired a--completely fictional--broadcast of an alien invasion based upon H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds (1898). However, he did such a fine job that when New Jersey citizens tuned in mid-program, many were convinced that Welles' presentation was an actual news broadcast and the Garden State was under attack. Mayhem ensued. The power of the media at work!