From Bob Woodward’s latest book, “The Last of the President’s Men,” we have further confirmation that lies are of three varieties: lies, damn lies, and statements by presidents of the United States about war.
On Jan. 2, 1972, President Richard M. Nixon pontificated to Dan Rather of CBS News that the results of his bombing campaign in Indochina “have been very, very effective.” The next day, Nixon wrote to then-National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger: “K. We have had 10 years of total control of the air in Laos and V.Nam. The result=Zilch. There is something wrong with the strategy or the Air Force.”
But Nixon continued the futile bombings—killing innocent men, women, and children for the sake of killing. No government official voiced any moral scruples. And the bombings put political points on Nixon’s scoreboard.
Nixon’s lie fell comfortably within Oval Office precedents.
President Lyndon Johnson lied about a second torpedo attack on the USS Mattox and USS Turner Joy in the Gulf of Tonkin to justify the Vietnam War.
President John F. Kennedy lied about his plan to invade Cuba, i.e., the Bay of Pigs debacle.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower lied about the domino theory in Vietnam.
President Harry Truman lied about a “police action” in Korea.
President Franklin Roosevelt lied about a Nazi attack on the U.S.S. Greer.
President Woodrow Wilson lied about munitions on the Lusitania.
President William McKinley dissembled over the explosion of the U.S.S. Maine.
President James K. Polk lied about a killing of an American soldier on American soil by Mexico.
Since Nixon, we have witnessed President George H.W. Bush’s lie that we ousted Iraq’s Saddam Hussein from Kuwait to honor democracy. (Operation Desert Storm restored the tyrannical al-Sabah dynasty to power in Kuwait, and fortified a Saudi Arabian regime that features religious bigotry, beheadings, the subjugation of women, and despotism).
President Bill Clinton lied about the Balkans to justify the Bosnian War, which concluded in a de jure partition between Croats, Muslims and Serbs that it was intended to prevent.
President George W. Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and “Mission Accomplished.”
President Obama lied about genocide in Libya to justify a war of aggression to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi, which has left unspeakable misery and terrorism in its wake. He lied about Paul Revere being the precursor of the National Security Agency’s limitless surveillance of American citizens.
These presidential lies are but the tip of the iceberg.
Presidents habitually lie about danger to defend limitless executive power to make us “safe” reminiscent of the tale of the frog and the scorpion.
A sense of danger gives birth to fear. And fear is the time-honored cross for the crucifixion of liberty. Executive power mushrooms — even to playing prosecutor, judge, jury, and executioner to kill any American citizen the president suspects based on secret, uncorroborated evidence may be an imminent threat to the national security.
Despite the Executive Branch’s notoriety for lying about war and national security generally, the U.S. Supreme Court has absurdly counseled vast deference to the president in constitutional cases implicating foreign affairs. The court regularly sermonizes that the president has unique access to intelligence and the expertise to analyze it. True enough. But the president has an irresistible temptation to lie about the intelligence or analysis he has to gain a political advantage.
Thus, Nixon lied about the effectiveness of the Indochina bombing for political gain. Johnson lied about the progress of the Vietnam War because, in his own words, “I am not going to lose Vietnam. I am not going to be the President who let Southeast Asia go the way China went,” which provoked the “Who lost China” debate harmful to Truman.
President Franklin Roosevelt lied about the danger of Japanese American espionage or sabotage after Pearl Harbor to justify their detentions in concentration camps to placate white racism that flourished on the West Coast.
History and the nature of power teach that whenever a president speaks about war, Congress and the American people should trust but verify. That skepticism will save the nation from incalculable grief and chronic expeditions abroad in search of monsters to destroy.