The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The danger of well-intentioned deceptions from public health officials

Even George Washington learned that lying backfires, no matter how pure one’s motives.


Unscrupulous media stars, politicians and online influencers have told countless falsehoods about the public health officials leading the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. But one of the covid-19 deniers’ criticisms is valid, and it has strengthened their hand. In the first weeks of the pandemic, medical experts assured the public that only people showing symptoms had to cover their faces — an error that cost thousands of Americans their lives and undermined trust in the public health community.

Scientists had no way of knowing, early on, that this insidious new virus spread asymptomatically. But the government also deliberately deceived us — albeit for the best of reasons. Surgical masks were in short supply, and officials worried that panic-buyers and even profiteers would hoard them, depriving first responders and medical professionals of vital protection.

The experts’ subterfuge — however understandable — produced terrible unintended consequences that still afflict us. Anti-mask and anti-vaccine politicians and pundits, whose business model is to sow false fears and cite them as proof that the “experts” are dishonest, incompetent or both. In retrospect it would have been better to reserve the masks for first responders and medical professionals with a get-tough approach along the lines of President Biden’s vaccine crackdown.

If the public health community had always acknowledged — despite the admittedly high initial cost of doing so — that masks save lives, it would have retained the nation’s confidence. And public trust builds up as slowly as fast as it burns down.

Officials might have avoided this mistake had they been better students of the American War of Independence. It turns out that in the 1770s, Gen. George Washington and his officers botched a deception very similar to the one that top federal infectious-disease expert Anthony S. Fauci and his colleagues attempted in 2020 — with disastrous consequences.

Starting in 1776, thousands of young men, predominantly in Pennsylvania, enlisted in the Continental Army for the ambiguous term of “three years, or during the war.” The soldiers believed that phrase meant “whichever comes first.” For many, that meant going home in 1779. But their officers interpreted the recruiters’ phrase as keeping them in the army until war’s end, which, as of 1779, was still nowhere in sight.

Desperate to keep his army together, Washington and his officers devised what they considered a clever way of tricking soldiers into continuing to serve. They offered a $100 bonus to all troops serving for “three years, or during the war” — without making it clear that anyone who accepted the cash thereby committed to sticking around until the bitter end.

The Pennsylvania Line spent the winter of 1780-1781 near Morristown, N.J., less than 30 miles west of today’s Central Park. The troops were furious at not being paid or even adequately clothed — and even angrier at the extension of their enlistments and the “fine deception” by which it was accomplished. On New Year’s Day in 1781, they carried out the largest mutiny in the history of the U.S. Army. They killed at least one captain who tried to stop them and marched toward Philadelphia, where the Continental Congress was in session.

The British, who controlled New York City at the time, invited the mutineers to defect. None did. They were as committed as ever to the American cause. They just did not like being cheated and deceived. They were also bitter about having enlisted early in the war for only token bounties, when other men had signed up later, after the labor shortage intensified, and received much more.

The usually inflexible Washington had no choice but to give in to the Pennsylvanians’ demand that they be paid off and discharged. Having made their point — and after obtaining the same generous bounty as the Johnny-come-latelies — most immediately reenlisted.

Washington’s deception nonetheless proved costly. In time the commander in chief would become nearly as popular with enlisted men as he was with officers, but he as well as Congress had forfeited the troops’ trust — as an incident at the end of the war showed.

Early in the summer of the 1783, Congress learned that peace commissioners for Britain and the United States had signed a preliminary treaty. Accordingly, legislators began dismantling the Continental Army. Yet they did not give the men discharges but “furloughs.” Many soldiers suspected a trick. Pennsylvania troops once again mutinied, surrounding the Pennsylvania statehouse where their state’s executive council — and Congress — met.

This time, however, Congress and Washington were not actually trying to deceive the soldiers. Like so many American mysteries, the furlough controversy was actually rooted in the Black freedom struggle.

Early in the war, the British had committed to freeing anyone enslaved by an American rebel who made it to their lines and joined their ranks. But then in the peace negotiations, one of the U.S. commissioners, South Carolina’s Henry Laurens, wrung from the British a conflicting promise to return these heroic Americans to their former enslavers. Anticipating that British commander in chief Guy Carleton might opt to honor his nation’s earlier commitment to African Americans, Southern congressmen persuaded their colleagues to “furlough” rather than discharge the soldiers so they could be reassembled if Carleton started giving the formerly enslaved people safe passage out of the country.

The enslavers were right to worry; something like 10,000 Black Americans evacuated with the British as free people. But Congress had no stomach for reviving the war and ended up accepting a consolation prize from Carleton. His officers interviewed the Black Loyalists before they left — mostly for Nova Scotia, one of 13 British American colonies that remained in the empire. They recorded each refugee’s age, abilities and former enslaver so enslavers could later press for compensation. (They received none.)

Today we can celebrate the Pennsylvania troops’ 1783 mutiny, since it foreclosed any possibility that Congress would heed the Southerners’ grotesque call to prolong the Revolutionary War until they re-enslaved those heroic Black Americans. But then as now, few disasters alarmed civilians as well as military leaders more than a mutiny in the ranks. Washington’s deception had not only contributed to the 1781 revolt but left a lasting impression, causing soldiers to distrust their leaders even in 1783, when they told the truth.

In none of his surviving writings did Washington express any regret about his botched effort to mislead his troops. But he showed that he had learned his lesson by never again attempting anything of the kind. Allowing thousands of his men to head home in the middle of the war would have been disastrous — but still not as bad as forfeiting their trust.

Washington’s lesson can guide public health officials as they grapple with covid — and other threats — in the future. Terrible crises often conjure up powerful temptations to deceive the public. But even well-intended misdirection comes back to haunt you.