Woster: Having trouble keeping truth and fiction separate?

Many people in this country, conspiracy theorists or not, are open to believing their government lies to them.

Terry Woster
Terry Woster

Recent news bulletins about spy balloons and other worrisome objects in the sky got me to thinking back to when I discovered my country had a spy program.

If you follow news even casually, you know a Chinese spy balloon drifted across our continent from Alaska to South Carolina before a U.S. fighter plane shot it down. It fell into relatively shallow water off the coast of South Carolina. The Navy has been retrieving the remains.

While I was still digesting that news, I read that our fighter planes shot down other drifting objects, one off the northern Alaska coast, one over the Yukon and one off the shore of Michigan in Lake Huron. Last I heard, our government either does not know exactly what those objects were or it isn’t saying. I can understand why they might not have found those objects yet. And I guess I can understand why it might be imprudent to go public with information, although that generates rhetoric about lack of transparency.

I watched a news clip of the White House press secretary saying emphatically that the unidentified objects are not part of an invasion from space. That is good news, unless you are deep into conspiracy theories, in which case, isn’t that exactly what the government would tell us, especially if we have already been taken over by extraterrestrial beings?

Many people in this country, conspiracy theorists or not, are open to believing their government lies to them. They have seen enough examples. More than that, in recent years, they’ve seen and heard so much misinformation and deliberate disinformation that they have trouble keeping truth and fiction separate.


I grew up at a time when it seemed easy to believe the government. Born while FDR was president, I spent my early years hearing about Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower. I never imagined those presidents would lie. As I matured, of course, I came to understand that facts are just part of what gets passed around in government. I liked the world more before I knew that.

FDR died before I knew anything about government or politics or international affairs. I defended Truman when he fired General McArthur. I had no idea why he did it, but he was president, you know?

Eisenhower ordered the Normandy invasion just a few months after I was born. I guess I was in third grade when he beat Adlai Stevenson for the presidency. I did not know Republican from Democrat at that age, but Ike was a war hero.

Besides, he was president when the Soil Bank Program started. When people said “Soil Bank’’ out in my part of the prairie, it meant good pheasant hunting. What’s not to admire about a president who gives you that? I might have admired Ike all the way to the end of his second term if it had not been for high-altitude spying, a pilot named Francis Gary Powers and a tiny, stealthy airplane called the U-2.

The U-2 was a spy plane. It flew high in the sky, so high that fighter planes from the Soviet Union, over whose land it sometimes flew, couldn’t reach it. As it turned out, Soviet missiles could. In early May of 1960, with Powers at the U-2 controls, the plane was struck by a surface-to-air missile and downed in Soviet territory. Powers ejected and was captured.

The news shocked me when it broke. It shocked a lot of folks. But the official U.S. response was that it was a research aircraft, not a surveillance plane. We weren’t spying. As happens with many lies, that one fell apart. The Soviets exhibited Powers and told their story.

I didn’t believe them at first. If our country said we didn’t do it, we didn’t. Then Eisenhower said we did it. I heard that news when the radio announcer interrupted rock and roll music with a news bulletin as I washed the family car.

Today, this sounds terribly naïve, but I was crushed by Eisenhower — my president, my hero — admitting we hadn’t told the truth straight out.


I haven’t completely trusted government statements since. That is probably wise, but it’s kind of sad, too.

Opinion by Terry Woster
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