Lying has become such a staple of foreign and domestic policy that politicians and the press have come to accept it without serious reservation. So contends The Nation columnist Eric Alterman in When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences. The consequences, he says, have been catastrophic, both in terms of lives lost and cynicism engendered. He begins his recitation of official duplicity with Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Yalta Conference of early 1945. Still needing Russia's help, Roosevelt made concessions to Soviet premier Joseph Stalin that he would soon deny while unjustly depicting the Russians as treaty-breakers. This, Alterman argues, set the stage for the Cold War and sowed the seeds of the anticommunist hysteria. Harry Truman, Roosevelt's successor, continued to make Yalta a synonym for Russian betrayal, thus hardening the division and making cooperation between the two superpowers politically unthinkable.

As Alterman presents it, President John F. Kennedy lied about the accommodations he made with Russia to get their missiles out of Cuba and in so doing made confrontation seem the only viable and honorable tool for dealing with adversaries. Lyndon Johnson lied to Congress and the electorate about the Gulf of Tonkin "provocations" that gave him an excuse to widen the war in Vietnam, a decision that would ultimately cost more than 58,000 American lives. Ronald Reagan lied about America's illegal support of the murderous right-wing forces in El Salvador and Nicaragua, and George W. Bush lied about the necessity of invading Iraq. In supporting these accusations, Alterman relies heavily on original source material such as notes taken at strategy meetings and transcripts from the White House taping system. Finally, he maintains that the press has grown so uncritical of official lies that it acknowledges them if at all only after they have done their damage.

Edward Morris reviews from Nashville.

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