Tripped up by the truth

Jon Meacham, managing editor of Newsweek, is the author of "Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship."

On the evening of Nov. 30, 1943 -- a late autumn Tuesday in Tehran -- Winston Churchill, flanked by Franklin Roosevelt and Josef Stalin, was celebrating his 69th birthday. It was the final night of the first wartime conference of the Big Three, and it had been a tumultuous few days as the Allied leaders fought over the timing of a cross-Channel invasion and the shape of a postwar United Nations. But at the table, as the champagne and wine flowed, there was much candor and good cheer in the dining room at the British legation. Amid many toasts, the talk turned to deception schemes designed to mislead the Germans about plans for Operation Overlord. “In wartime,” Churchill said, “truth is so precious that she should always be surrounded by a bodyguard of lies.”

Though Churchill’s aphorism from this long-ago night has often been cited to justify all sorts of deceptions, it is important to remember the context: He was talking about deploying falsehoods to protect a military operation, with lives at immediate stake. He was not proposing that a democracy routinely resort to lying to perpetuate itself. Yet the evocative “bodyguard of lies” is one of those phrases that now gives politicians convenient Churchillian cover when they choose to mislead the people.

Churchill, then, is something of a victim of his own eloquence, but in the long run an expression’s currency is more important than its coinage, since it is in its usage that it reaches from the past to shape the present. Is lying inextricably bound up with statecraft? Are democracy and deception ultimately compatible? When do the ends justify the means -- and who decides? These are ancient questions. (It was an exasperated Pontius Pilate, after all, who muttered, “What is truth?” amid the trial of Jesus.) Into this perennial debate -- one made more urgent by the intelligence disasters on the road to the war with Iraq -- comes a provocative, intriguing and insightful new book by Eric Alterman, “When Presidents Lie.” Alterman, a combatant in the partisan wars of the moment (a columnist for the Nation and co-author of “The Book on Bush: How George W. [Mis]leads America”), takes a broad, complex and satisfying view in his latest work, examining four cases of deception by U.S. presidents in the 20th century. He chooses well: FDR, Truman and Yalta; JFK and the Cuban missile crisis; LBJ and the Gulf of Tonkin; Reagan and Iran-Contra. In Alterman’s parlance, a lie is “presidential dishonesty about key matters of state,” and such lies, he says, are “ultimately and invariably self-destructive.” Acknowledging that we live in the real world, he notes that leaders should use confidentiality, not mendacity, to protect the state. “Keeping a secret,” Alterman writes, “is not the same as telling a lie.” His eye is on deceptions about policy. His prescription for the presidency: Lying “should be avoided at all costs. Period.”


Before the Bush-obsessed left leaps to its collective feet to applaud, though, it should know that Alterman’s case is more subtle than the conspiracist-minded Michael Moore wing of the American political class would probably like. Granting that a certain amount of deception is necessary in the presidency, Alterman goes far beyond moral finger-wagging -- in fact he purposely avoids moral judgments altogether -- to assess large lies about large things, from the Crimea in 1945 to Iraq in 2003. He argues that Roosevelt and Truman, not Stalin, initially failed to live up to the promises made at Yalta, particularly on the question of a postwar Polish government. The resulting disintegration of Big Three relations, Alterman writes, helped press Stalin to take a tougher line and, in the end, led to a prevailing Western impression that “no American president could or should trust any Communist leader to keep his word on any matter of mutual interest. When problems arose, they would be settled exclusively by the threat of force.” Alterman’s is an interesting revisionist view and, like many revisionist views, is open to argument on the details. (To think Stalin would have long remained a friendly kinsman in FDR’s envisioned family of nations strains credulity, but Alterman makes a nuanced case that is worth weighing.)

His reading of the Cuban missile crisis connects Yalta with the Gulf of Tonkin and Vietnam. Hating to be seen as “soft,” the Kennedys covered up the crucial step in the resolution of the standoff with the Soviets: the deal to remove American missile bases in Turkey in exchange for removing Moscow’s nukes from Cuba. The public message: Compromise is for the weak. Alterman’s conclusion: “The false rendering of the crisis taught President Johnson, his advisors, and the American people an updated version of the lesson that Harry Truman says he learned at Potsdam: ‘Force is the only thing the Russians understand.’ ” In 1964, Johnson used the murky incident in the Gulf of Tonkin to escalate the U.S. military effort in Southeast Asia -- even though it was unclear that American forces had been attacked. “I am not going to lose Vietnam,” Johnson said, “I am not going to be the President who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went.” So the truth did not matter, the larger mission did, and Johnson sold the country a war on a false pretext. In a devastating chapter on Iran-Contra, Alterman details the Reagan administration’s march of folly in Central America -- a case study in the imperial presidency run amok. Citing the false claims that justified the war with Iraq, Alterman dubs the current Bush administration a “post-truth” White House. I might quibble with that phrasing: Bush is a theological president, one who believes in a truth that may or may not be supported by facts.

One of the more chilling points Alterman makes is that presidents tend to lie not only to us but also to themselves, convincing themselves of things that may not comport with the facts. We all do this in our own minds, recasting uncomfortable or inconvenient feelings or events in a more flattering light -- doctoring, in a way, the scripts of the movies that play in our heads. But when presidents rewrite unfolding history, there are real, lasting and frequently adverse consequences. Ideally there would be no deceit in a democracy, for a public armed with disinformation cannot make intelligent political decisions. But we do not live in an ideal world. The best we can hope for, it seems, is that the people we choose to lead us will understand that, in the end, history rewards presidents who concentrate on saving lives rather than saving face.

Alterman argues concisely and well, if sometimes a bit too clinically. At the heart of each of the lies he delineates with such skill and clarity is the human tragedy of a man or men struggling to lead the nation through what George Eliot called the “dim lights and tangled circumstance” of life. Captive to their experiences, bound to the devices and desires of their own hearts, consumed by their own needs, they made mistakes and the rest of us paid for them. Still, these were good and even great men, and in each case one can see why they did what they did. We now know Yalta as the last act of the war, but Roosevelt did not, obviously, since his essential sense of invulnerability did not allow him to contemplate his own death. FDR may have left the Crimea with a bad deal for Poland, but he believed he could make things come right in the end, and he usually did. The Kennedys were understandably sensitive to being portrayed as soft on a totalitarian foe: Their father, after all, had wrecked his own political and diplomatic career by appeasing the Third Reich just 20 years earlier. Johnson recoiled at the idea of losing a war that he thought JFK would have won. And Reagan dwelled so much in his own imagination that America had to take the good with the bad. The good was Reagan’s romantic belief that he could defeat communism like a heroic movie star; the bad was that he let his vision of reality, rather than reality itself, color the course of his government.

Is Alterman’s prescription for the presidency -- never lie, period -- practical? Even with the distinction he draws between lying and keeping secrets, I don’t think so. But I admire Alterman for doing about the only thing one can to further the cause of truth in a world riven with deceit: explain the failings of the past to the powers of the present in the hope that example will do more good than exhortation. Stories are almost always more effective than sermons, and the stories Alterman tells in “When Presidents Lie” are important reading for the men and women making the life-and-death decisions of our own time. *