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When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences Hardcover – September 23, 2004

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Product Details

  • Series: Penguin Lives Series
  • Hardcover: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult; 1st edition (September 23, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670032093
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670032099
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 6.1 x 1.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,375,855 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Mendacity has increasingly become a journalistic touchstone for analyzing America's international relations. Alterman, best known as a columnist for the Nation and author of What Liberal Media?, presents his case for what he calls four key lies U.S. presidents told world citizens during the 20th century. Franklin Roosevelt lied, he says, about the nature of the Yalta accords, creating the matrix for a half-century of anti-Soviet paranoia. John F. Kennedy lied about the compromise that settled the Cuban missile crisis, and kept the Cold War alive by humiliating the U.S.S.R. Lyndon Johnson lied about the second Tonkin Gulf incident, and moved the U.S. down a slippery slope that destroyed his hopes of creating a Great Society. Ronald Reagan lied about his policies in Central America, creating a secret and illegal foreign policy that resulted in "the murder of tens of thousands of innocents." Alterman interprets this pattern as a consequence of mistaken American beliefs: belief in providence watching over the U.S., belief in American moral superiority abroad and belief, unfulfilled, in unyielding commitment to democracy at home—all of these things are easy to stump on, but impossible, Alterman argues, to demonstrate. These "delusions" in turn create an unrealistic picture of the world, one immune to education regarding reality. All of this, predictably enough, leads to George W. Bush, whose administration is dismissed as a "post-truth presidency." The American-centered perspective of Alterman's case studies overlooks the many times when the U.S. was outmaneuvered (or deceived) by other players to a point where truth became obscured by means other than executive mendacity. Alterman also allows little room for mistakes or plain incompetence on the part of the administrations in question. But his conceit is otherwise carefully and compellingly executed, and sets the stage for debate.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From The New Yorker

In 1964, as Congress prepared to vote on the Gulf of Tonkin resolution authorizing the use of force in Vietnam, Senator William Fulbright said that he simply did not "normally assume" that "a President lies to you." That was a mistake, according to Alterman's compendious history of Presidential lying. Alterman, a columnist for The Nation, refers to the Bush Administration as a "post-truth Presidency," but in general he is hardest on Democrats. He writes of Roosevelt's "deliberate mendacity" at Yalta and Kennedy's "nasty double game" during the Cuban missile crisis—tactics that, respectively, he claims, started and deepened the Cold War. Alterman argues that such behavior, whatever its justification, invariably exacts a price—L.B.J.'s lies about the Tonkin incident consumed his Presidency—and that the greatest dangers come when an Administration starts to believe its own lies.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker

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Customer Reviews

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This book, exhaustively researched concentrates on four specific incidents.
John Matlock
Of course the U.S. officials in the Reagan/Bush administrations knew about the butchery and yet continued to fund and train the butchers.
I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in American political history, regardless of their political leanings.
J. Davis

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

44 of 46 people found the following review helpful By MKS on September 29, 2004
Format: Hardcover
This book is a joy to read with clear, usually incisive and often very entertaining prose, and yet Alterman has kept an even hand by not focusing on Presidents of only one party.

I especially liked the brief section about Guatemala that is found within the larger section on Iran-Contra. Alterman recounts the facts often overlooked by so many: That in 1954 the CIA overthrew the democratically-elected Arbenz government, installed a dictator, and for decades thereafter supported dictators who killed 200,000 Guatemalan civilians. He even briefly mentions that the CIA overthrow resulted in major-league blowback in the form of radicalizing Dr. Ernesto Guevara, who was in Guatemala in 1954 and witnessed the overthrow, and as a result came to believe that only armed revolution could help the poor.

The irony of course is that those who are currently most vociferous about installing democracy in Iraq were those who had no problem with the U.S. support in the 1980s of Guatemalan dictators who directed the genocide of the Mayan Indians. It is the same cast of characters-- with Cheney leading the pack.

Alterman also impressed me in the Guatemalan subsection of his book with his reluctance to overstate. Alterman states that "one" of the reasons the CIA overthrew the Arbenz government was to please the United Fruit Company, which opposed Arbenz's economic policies. Well, that really was the main reason. United Fruit Company complained to two of its former lawyers who were high up in the U.S. government--the Dulles boys, John Foster who was Secretary of State, and Allen who was the head of the CIA. The result was quite helpful to the United Fruit Company.
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33 of 34 people found the following review helpful By John Matlock on September 23, 2004
Format: Hardcover
I'm reminded about the old joke - How do you tell when a salesman is lying, his lips move and he makes noise. ==With politicians it has become almost accepted behavior up to the time that they got caught. We are all familiar with Clinton's lies, made under oath, about Monica, which got him impeached. Nixon, of course resigned over the lies regarding Watergate. This book, exhaustively researched concentrates on four specific incidents.

The first incident concerns Yalta, the Churchill-Stalin-Roosevelt conference at the end of WW II. At this meeting Roosevelt made concessions to Stalin that he subsequently expected to change. But he died ten weeks later and left the presidency to Truman who had not been at the conference and had not been informed of the deal that Roosevelt had cut. The result was the cold war, causing an immense amount of treasure and even lives over the next fifty years.

Second he describes the secret deal cut by Kennedy in regards to the Cuban Missile Crisis. This enhanced the Cold War and helped pave the way for the Viet Nam war.

Third is Lyndon Johnson's version of the Gulf of Tonkin incidents. These provided the basis for the congressional resulutions that allowed the United States to send an army to Viet Nam.

Finally is the Iran-Contra strategy of Ronald Reagan. At one meeting Reagan was told that his announcements might constitute an impeachable offense. He replied, they can impeach me if they want, visiting day is Wednesday.

I write this in the midst of the new presidential campaign. Kerry has just spoken out about Assault Rifles with the ability to kill dozens of people at a time, while the only thing in the legal definition that makes an assault rifle more deadly is the ability to attach a bayonet on the end. And Bush, well the fact that one of his press aids said, The President is not a fact-checker, just about says it all.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By J. Davis on January 16, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Eric Alterman continues his excellent writing (please read What Liberal Media)in this terrific book. He covers the deceptions of five different presidents, 3 Democrats and 2 Republicans. Part of the appeal of this book comes from its nonpartisanship; he is as tough on Johnson as he is on Reagan. Throughout the book Alterman is consistent in his belief that American leaders owe the American people the truth at all times. He has no patience for neo-Machiavellians who would pardon politicians for lying in the name of a greater cause, e.g. national security. Or, of course, for the peoples' "own good."

From Yalta to Gulf War II, Alterman shows the deleterious impact of presidential lying. His history of the Vietnam War is the best part of the book, as it was the lies of LBJ that led to thousands of deaths. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in American political history, regardless of their political leanings. Thanks, Eric!
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful By G. Reid on January 18, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This is an eye-opening book about Presidential Deception. The author covers the deceptions of five different presidents in a nonpartisan manner. Eric Alterman throughout the book maintains the position that American Presidents owe the American people the truth and should not engage in the deception that he has discovered in too many cases.

The author covers the lies of LBJ surrounding the Vietnam war that led to many thousands of deaths. Ronald Reagan's involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal involved lies. The author discusses a secret deal that Kennedy made involving the Cuban Missile Crisis. There are Clinton's lies regarding Monica and Nixon's lies about Watergate. Roosevelt made a secret deal with Stalin at Yalta.

Americans evalulate presidents often on their words and their charisma sometimes without paying much attention to the validity of those words.
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