On Presidential Liars

by Howard Zinn

excerpted from the book

Howard Zinn on History

Seven Stories Press, 2000, paper


The year of 1998 was dominated in the news media by the sexual shenanigans of President Bill Clinton and a formerly obscure White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. This preoccupation illustrated perfectly the proclivity of the American media to fasten on the trivial at the expense of life-and death matters.


In all the excitement about Bill Clinton's sex life, and its repercussions on his presidency, have we as a nation lost-or did we never have-a sense of proportion?

Clinton has lied to us, deceived us, and then covered up his deceptions, about his sexual shenanigans-which, however odious, caused no one to lose a life. Many other presidents have lied to us, and deceived us, especially since World War II, about activities that we had every right to know about, in which thousands, even millions of people, lost their lives. Let's recall some of that history.

Let's start with Harry Truman, who lied to us and the world when he said the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was dropped on "a military target." Several hundred thousand civilians-men, women, children died. Truman also lied to the nation about our war in Korea, presenting this as necessary to stop the spread of Communism in the world (it did not, and indeed could not), to show that "aggression does not pay" (the world did not listen; aggressions continued), saying we were fighting for democracy (hardly, since South Korea was a military dictatorship). Over 50,000 Americans died. And perhaps two million Koreans.

Eisenhower lied about our spy flights over the Soviet Union, even after one flier on such a mission was shot down. He deceived the nation and the world about the United States involvement in the coup that overthrew a democratic government in Guatemala and put in place a military junta that then took thousands of lives. He deceived the nation about the U.S. role in subverting a government in Iran which offended the oil corporations. The Shah of Iran was put back on the throne, meaning death and torture for his opponents. (In many of these events, the actual deceptions were carried on by his underlings, but the fact is that Eisenhower knew of them, and approved of them.)

Kennedy lied to the nation about the U.S. involvement in the 1961 failed invasion of Cuba, telling a press conference: "I can assure you that the United States has no intention of using force to overthrow the Castro regime."

Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon all lied to the nation about what was happening in Vietnam. Kennedy, while denying repeatedly that American fliers were involved in bombing of Vietnam, sent two helicopter companies there as early as 1962, and napalm began to be used. Johnson and Nixon both lied when they claimed only military targets were bombed (reporters knew the greatest number of deaths was among civilians). And Nixon deceived the nation about the secret bombing of Cambodia.

Reagan lied to the nation about his secret and illegal support of the contras in Nicaragua. He lied about the importance of Grenada in order to justify the American invasion of that little island. George Bush lied about the reasons for invading Panama, saying it was to stop the drug trade, but in fact the drug trade has flourished. And he deceived the nation about his real interest in the Persian Gulf, pretending to deep anguish about the fate of Kuwait, but actually more concerned about enhancing American power in Saudi Arabia and controlling the oil deposits of the region.

Against this history of lies that brought death to so many people, Clinton's deceptions are ludicrous. Politicians and journalists who are indignant that he lied about sex with "that woman," were silent when he deceived the nation about the need to bomb a "nerve gas plant" in the Sudan. His administration could produce no evidence that the plant was anything but what the Sudanese government said it was-a plant that produced medicines for the Sudanese people.

The president has lost his "moral authority," it is said, because of his lies about his sexual behavior. Did he-and indeed both Republicans and Democrats in Congress-not lose their moral authority when they took away basic benefits from single mothers, and food stamps from immigrants, when they failed to provide universal medical care, while spending hundreds of billions on an unnecessary military machine?

We are seeing a shocking loss of perspective on the part of political leaders, the press, and the public. If politicians and journalists have lost their sense of moral proportion, must we, as citizens lose ours? Should we not pull back from our obsession with lies about sex, and concentrate on finding out the truth about policies that mean life or death for people in this country and all over the world?

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