When Presidents Lie: a history of official deception and its consequences, by Eric Alterman


The field of history possesses two main currents, one celebratory and the other critical. The first celebrates the Master Narrative, a rather arch term that combines concepts of power and storytelling. “History is written by the winners” is a phrase that immediately comes to mind. These historians come in all political stripes, ranging from Daniel Boorstin and David McCullough. America is celebrated, right or wrong, and the status quo seen as something to be joined. The second group, the critical historians, provides a voice that counters the Master Narrative. They critique and dissect the events, groups, and personalities that made the Master Narrative possible. Howard Zinn, William Blum, and Eric Alterman count among the ranks of American critical historians.

Eric Alterman’s When Presidents Lie: a history of official deception and its consequences is a magisterial addition to history of American foreign policy. The tome is also an example of critical at its very best. Alterman, a journalist, author, and scholar, boasting a Ph.D. in history from Stanford, zeroes in on a specific type of deception in a specific field. Alterman writes, “The issue that does concern this book is presidential lying about matters of state that is alleged to be undertaken for the public good.” In the field of foreign policy, Alterman chooses four cases: the Yalta Conference, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Gulf of Tonkin incidents, and the Iran-Contra Scandal. A conclusion about George W. Bush’s “post-truth” presidency bridges the gap between historical events and the current headlines.

Alterman lays down the groundwork by explaining the peculiar swings in modern American foreign policy.

“The country’s history until then involved a counterproductive swing between viewing foreign policy as akin to commercially profitable missionary work and the equally implausible desire simply to withdraw from world affairs whenever the natives failed the appreciate America’s plans to improve them.”

America is separated by two oceans, making foreign involvement a remote phenomenon. The current education system drills into impressionable minds the dangerous concepts of American idealism as universally applicable to all world problems and the ubiquitous “City on the Hill” mentality. That is why this book is so important. It is a historical corrective to years of collective misinformation.

Despite Alterman’s leftist affiliations, he rips apart the hagiographies associated with FDR, JFK, and LBJ. (In the introduction, he states how much he admires each of these men.) Each historical critique is backed up with copious footnotes. The end of the Cold War provided an opportunity for historians to peruse through recently opened archived and examine recently declassified materials. (Keeping materials classified under the nebulous concept of “national security” has kept many of the prevailing aspects of our national mythology alive.)

Because the book focuses on the Cold War, Alterman also creates a bracing critique of modern masculinity. The Official Version of events has President Kennedy standing toe to toe with Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis, forcing the Soviet leader to back down. In actuality, Kennedy and Khrushchev negotiated an arrangement to remove the missiles from Cuba while the United States removed its outdated missiles from Turkey. It makes sense to those who understand the balance of power concept. To the American public, Kennedy would look “soft on Communism.” The phrase is a rhetorical trick that says nothing. It has been used countless times; the current mutation has those public servants now seen as “soft on terrorism.” The pundits and talking heads usually repeating these words are, ironically enough, willing courtiers to those “soft on corporate crime” and “soft on British Petroleum.” The American public loves a good catchphrase, since it’s a lot easier than thinking.

One of the more startling revelations is how nakedly duplicitous Robert F. Kennedy was. According to Alterman, President Johnson saw RFK as a personal and professional threat. RFK’s machinations during the Cuban Missile Crisis, including a gung ho belligerence, became quickly forgotten during the 1968 Presidential campaign when he rebranded himself as the “peace candidate.”

This book is essential to anyone curious about new information regarding Cold War foreign policy. A valuable book, albeit one that makes the reader facepalm his or herself again and again. Unfortunately, the blame lays on the politicians and their shortsighted aims, usually involving re-election, and the American voter, an incurious creature easily susceptible to propaganda, misinformation, and political caricature. Both remain responsible for the carnage and atrocity that followed in the wake of wartime victories. If more people wrote books like these and more people read them, then Barnum’s adage about “a sucker being born every minute” wouldn’t ring so true.

5 Stars
Publisher: Viking
Date of Publication: 2004
Price: $27.95 ($40.00 Canada)
ISBN Number: 0-670-03209-3

Addendum: Back when I reviewed books for the Joe Bob Briggs website I submitted it but it never went online.  (I think … this was more than a decade ago, my memory might be fuzzy on the exact details.)

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