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
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
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?
Zinn On History