When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and its Consequences, by Eric Alterman

reviewed by
John Schuessler

The issue of official deception has assumed new prominence with the war in Iraq. While offering a number of rationales for military action, the Bush Administration’s primary one before the war was that the nexus of tyranny, weapons of mass destruction, and terrorism posed unacceptable risks for the United States after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.  The ouster of Saddam Hussein was thus warranted.  However, since the invasion, scarcely any evidence has surfaced of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction or of ties with terrorism.  Accordingly, as the insurgency escalated, debate ensued over whether the Bush administration resorted to deception to marshal public support for war.  In a recent article in the major scholarly journal International Security, Chaim Kaufmann argues that the Bush administration inflated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein to mobilize support. The indictment of “Scooter” Libby for obstruction and perjury reinforced perceptions that official deception is rife: nearly half of Americans agree that the overall level of honesty and ethics in the federal government has fallen since President Bush took office.   

Given this distrustful political climate, Eric Alterman’s When Presidents Lie is an especially timely contribution. The book is a detailed examination of four presidential lies about key matters of war and peace: Franklin Roosevelt and the Yalta accords, John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis, Lyndon Johnson and the second Gulf of Tonkin incident, and Ronald Reagan and Central America in the 1980’s.  The book is a potent reminder that official deception predates the Bush Administration and that even presidents who are widely admired are highly capable of dishonesty.  Moreover, Alterman’s main argument – that official deception, while pervasive, is ultimately counter-productive – should resonate at a time when success, as defined by the administration, is proving elusive in Iraq and political fallout continues to accumulate at home.

Indeed, one of Alterman’s strengths is that he does not shy away from making bold claims. His message is clear:  “Presidential dishonesty about key matters of state – whether moral or immoral – is ultimately and invariably self-destructive”(22). According to Alterman, the main problem with lying is blowback. As he puts it: “The pragmatic problem with official lies is their amoeba-like penchant for self-replication.  The more a leader lies to his people, the more he must lie to his people.  Eventually the lies take on a life of their own and tend to overpower the liar”(20). Consistent with this argument, Alterman’s four case studies are filled with tragedy: however good their intentions, presidents invariably do more harm than good when they resort to deception. 

Perhaps the most persuasive illustrations of blowback in the book are the first two: Franklin Roosevelt and the Yalta accords and John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis. As Alterman puts it, “In each case, a Democratic president cut a deal with his Soviet counterpart that recognized and respected his adversary’s interests while simultaneously securing the United States’ most important goals.  But in neither case was the president willing to confide even in some of his closest political advisers – much less the American people – about the traditional diplomatic give-and-take necessary to close the deal, so threatening did each leader find the notion of a publicly admitted political compromise”(144). 

As it turns out, the results in each case were the opposite of what Roosevelt or Kennedy intended:  deteriorating relations with the Soviet Union and a poisoned political climate at home. Indeed, Alterman argues that FDR’s lies about Yalta provided the immediate impetus for the Cold War while setting the stage for McCarthyism. Kennedy’s lies about the Cuban Missile Crisis contributed to Johnson’s decision to escalate the Vietnam War. It is hardly surprising, then, that Alterman’s central claim is that lying is ultimately counterproductive.         

Consider this: if lying is so counterproductive, then why is it so pervasive? Are presidents really so shortsighted that they consistently engage in self-destructive behaviors? This should be puzzling for anyone that comes to the subject with rationalist assumptions. For example, the ‘realist tradition’ in international relations tells us that statesmen prudently maximize national security while the ‘liberal tradition’ tells us that statesmen prudently maximize their domestic political fortunes too. Alterman’s argument is hard to square with either perspective. Therefore, I feel obligated, as a political scientist, to question his thesis: that lying, while pervasive, is ultimately counterproductive.

First, based on Alterman’s evidence we surely can conclude that presidential lying is sometimes counterproductive. As mentioned, each of the case studies is filled with tragedy: ruined careers, a poisoned political climate, costly misperceptions, unnecessary conflict, etc. However, we cannot conclude as yet that lying is generally counterproductive. After all, the four cases examined chosen could be an unrepresentative sample. One suspects that Yalta, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the second Gulf of Tonkin incident, and Iran-Contra were selected because each is associated with failure in some way.  The discomfiting question that remains is:  what about cases where lying worked?  And are such cases more typical than those Alterman chose? 

It is not so hard to find such cases. Alterman discusses an important one in his introduction: FDR’s less than honest leadership preceding US entry into World War II (16-17). As is well documented, Roosevelt steadily escalated US involvement after the fall of France while promising publicly that he would keep the US out of the fighting.  Why does Alterman not examine this episode? Whereas FDR’s dishonesty facilitated US entry into World War II, the “Good War,” the Gulf of Tonkin incident precipitated US escalation of the Vietnam War, which ended in disaster. Also telling in this regard is Alterman’s inattention to the dishonesty involved in rallying support for the first Gulf War and the war in Kosovo. Again, each was a cheap and easy victory for the United States.  Where was the blowback in these cases?

Official deception attracts public attention precisely when it contributes to a failing endeavor, as in Iraq. The problem with paying attention only to disasters is that it biases our conclusions: we tend to overestimate the extent to which lying leads to failure. In Alterman’s case, he provides evidence that lying can be counterproductive; however, he concludes that lying is always counterproductive. These are very different propositions, as any good Machiavellian will notice. Second, even if we admit that deception generates unintended consequences, it does not necessarily follow that the presidents were wrong in their decisions  Indeed, rationally speaking (instrumentally, that is), one can only argue that lying is counterproductive if there were feasible alternatives available in each case, and pursuing those alternatives would have led to better outcomes. 

In the Yalta case, it is difficult to imagine what those alternatives would have been. What leverage did the United States have over the Soviet Union, which had just defeated Nazi Germany and occupied much of Eastern Europe? Was the fate of Poland worth risking war with the Soviet Union? Or, is Alterman suggesting that Roosevelt should have been candid about the concessions he hade made at Yalta? Wouldn’t a political uproar have resulted? And wouldn’t that political uproar have soured relations with the Soviet Union anyway? 

Alterman’s argument is that, while some version of the Cold War was inevitable, it would have been a less competitive and more honorable one if Roosevelt had been honest about Yalta (46, 89). However, for those of us who believe that the Cold War was largely the result of security competition or ideological contest, it is difficult to credit his case. Indeed, rather than triggering the Cold War, perhaps FDR’s lies about Yalta delayed it, affording the United States the time to mobilize for a coming confrontation with the Soviet Union. Any other alternative might have only speeded that confrontation, with unpredictable and potentially terrible results. When seen in this unabashedly pragmatic light, the primary lesson of Yalta is not that lying is counterproductive. It is that presidents operate in a severely constrained environment, both domestically and internationally, and that lying is sometimes the least bad of several bad alternatives. 

This brings me to my final point. Alterman’s main argument is that lying is “ultimately and invariably self-destructive”(22). However, I think his argument is better stated as follows: Foreign policymaking in a democracy is difficult. This is an old realist insight, and it is one that Alterman himself hints at. For example, in his concluding chapter, Alterman asks, “Why do American presidents feel compelled to deceive Congress, the media, and their country about their most significant decisions?” His answer is that there is a “fundamental contradiction at the heart of the practice of American democracy. American presidents have no choice but to practice the diplomacy of great power politics, but American citizens have rarely if ever been asked to understand the world in these terms”(306-307). As Alterman notes, the problem with foreign policymaking in a democracy, from the policymakers’ point of view, is that voters ask presidents to do the impossible: that is, to protect the national interest in a manner consistent with American values while at the same time minimizing the risks and costs of war. Rather than admit the fact that they cannot maximize all these values simultaneously (and so suffer political retribution), presidents opt for deception. 

Alterman recognizes this real world dilemma. The real problem may be that lying is just a symptom. The ‘disease,’ so far as decision-makers and their advisors are concerned, is democracy itself and the contradictory demands it places on decision-makers in the foreign policy realm. Indeed, it seems rather facile to argue that lying, under any circumstances, is such a terrible thing when presidents may have few better alternatives. Of course, I understand why Alterman does not want to place too much blame on democracy itself. However, any adequate account of why presidents lie must deal with this persistent reality. 


* Chaim Kaufmann, “Threat Inflation and the Failure of the Marketplace of Ideas: The Selling of the Iraq War,” International Security, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Summer 2004), pp. 5-48. 

* Richard Morin and Claudia Deane, “White House Ethics, Honesty Questioned,” Washington Post, October 30, 2005.

* Eric Alterman, When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and its Consequences (New York, NY: Viking, 2004).  References to page numbers appear in text.

John Schuessler is a graduate student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago.