There Are Lies, and There Are Lies

by Howard Zinn

The Progressive magazine, November 1998


In all the excitement about Bill Clinton's sex scandal, have we as a nation lost a sense of proportion? Clinton has lied to us, deceived us, and then covered up his deceptions about something which, however odious, we did not need to know about and caused no one to lose a life. But there's a long list of Presidents who have lied to us and deceived us, especially since World War II, about activities that we had every right to know, activities in which thousands, even millions, of people lost their lives.

Let's start with Harry Truman. He deceived the nation and the world when he described Hiroshima-which he had just devastated by atomic bomb-as "an important Japanese Army base." More than 100,000 civilians-men, women, and children-died in this city of 350,000.

Truman also lied to the nation about our war in Korea, saying we were fighting for democracy (hardly, since South Korea was a military dictatorship). More than 50,000 Americans died there. And perhaps two million Koreans.

Dwight D. 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 U.S. involvement in the coup that overthrew a democratic government in Guatemala. That coup brought on a succession of military juntas that took tens of thousands of lives. Eisenhower deceived the nation about the U.S. role in subverting a government in Iran because it was offending multinational oil corporations. The United States put the Shah of Iran back on the throne, and his secret police tortured and executed thousands of his opponents.

John F. Kennedy lied to the nation about 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 said the United States was not involved in the overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem. And Kennedy repeatedly claimed that American fliers were not involved in the bombing of Vietnam, even though he sent two helicopter companies there as early as 1962, with the U.S. military dropping napalm shortly thereafter.

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 covert and illegal support of the contras in Nicaragua. He lied about the importance of Grenada in order to justify the 1983 invasion of that little island.

George Bush lied about the reasons for invading Panama in 1989, saying it was to stop the drug trade. In fact, the United States has allowed the drug trade to flourish. Bush also deceived the nation about his real interest in the Persian Gulf. He pretended to be anguished about the fate of Kuwait while he was actually more concerned about enhancing American power in Saudi Arabia and controlling the region's oil deposits.

And what of Clinton's deceptions? Against this history of lies that brought death to so many people, Clinton's deceptions about sex are ludicrous. But these are all that the politicians and pundits care about.

Clinton has had his own share of lies and deceits about lethal public policy. But he is not in trouble for those.

People 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.

Where was the criticism of Clinton when he signed the crime bill to build more prisons and execute more people on the falsehood that these acts will deter crime?

Where was the criticism of Clinton when he approved the attack on the Waco compound, which led to the deaths of eighty-one people, arguing erroneously that it was the only alternative?

Where was the criticism of Clinton when his Administration refused to join the international ban on land mines or authorize a strong world court on the specious grounds that the United States would be in jeopardy?

Where was the criticism of Clinton when he defended Boris Yeltsin's brutal attack on Chechnya by obscenely comparing it to Abraham Lincoln's war to unify the states?

Where was the criticism of Clinton when he continued the embargo on Iraq, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children, with the bogus rationale that the embargo punishes Saddam Hussein?

Now these hypocrites, so silent when people die as a result of lies and deceptions, summon indignation about Clinton's sexual activities. The President has lost his "moral authority," they say.

Did he not lose moral authority when he took away basic benefits from single mothers and food stamps from immigrants?

Did he not lose moral authority when he insisted on maintaining a $250 billion a year military machine when money is desperately needed for health, education child care?

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?


Howard Zinn, author of "A People's History of the United States," wrote "Private Ryan Saves War" in the October issue.

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