Looking back on history from our current perspective doesn’t always result in accurate judgments. In many cases, people who look at the past make assumptions that don’t actually correspond with reality. This can result in prevalent myths that are easy to accept without question.
The following are some of the more noteworthy. These myths about the past don’t merely prevent people from genuinely understanding certain historical moments. They also indicate how sometimes the very way in which we think about people who came before us is rooted in faulty logic.
3 Myths About the Past, Debunked
Myth 1: Duck-and-Cover Drills Were Ineffective
Anyone with even a mild interest in the Cold War has probably seen videos of duck-and-cover drills, in which school students and office workers hear an air raid siren and promptly duck beneath their desks to protect themselves.
Sounds fairly ridiculous, right? How is ducking beneath a desk going to protect someone from the force of a nuclear blast?
Well, it was never exactly supposed to. Those who promoted duck-and-cover drills knew that a desk wasn’t going to offer much protection to those close to the epicenter of a nuclear explosion. However, it’s important to remember that even those not killed by a nuclear blast could still sustain burns or lose their sight if they were close enough to one.
That’s why duck-and-cover drills became widespread. A desk might not save your life if you were particularly close to ground zero, but it could save your eyesight and guard against burns if you were far enough to survive the explosion, but close enough to potentially experience some of its effects.
Myth 2: ‘The War of the Worlds’ Broadcast Terrified People
A popular myth in recent history claims that Orson Welles’s famous radio show based on The War of the Worlds convinced many people that aliens actually were invading our planet because it was written and performed as if it were an actual news broadcast.
It’s true that Welles’s take on the famous sci-fi novel did resemble a genuine broadcast. It’s also true that some people tuned in late and were confused, calling the network airing the broadcast for clarification. However, the idea that it resulted in mass panic is simply an example of today’s people assuming people from only a few decades ago were somehow significantly less capable of critical thinking than people today.
Myth 3: ‘Let Them Eat Cake’
Many make the mistake of believing that Marie Antionette embodied the callousness of the upper-class in her society by claiming that those who were starving due to lack of bread could simply eat cake instead. However, historians have found no evidence to suggest this actually occurred (although there is reason to believe others may have made such comments), and Marie Antoinette herself was actually known for her support of charitable causes.
Again, the fact that these myths about the past persist can tell us more about ourselves than about history. We make assumptions about those from the past. Those assumptions often reveal our own prejudices towards people from earlier times.