The Use of the Lie
in United States Foreign Policy
[This statement by Jonathan Kwitny appeared in the
transcript of a discussion held in 1985 at the Center for the Study of
Democratic Institutions, and is reprinted from The Center Magazine,
March-April, 1985. Jonathan Kwitny's book Endless Enemies had been
published the previous year. Other participants in this discussion
were: Herbert York (Professor Physics an Director of the Institute on
Global Conflict and Cooperation, Univesity of California, San Diego);
Mary Bitterman (Director, Program on Culture and Communication,
East-West Center, Honolulu); Robert Lieber (Professor and Director of
Graduate Studies, Dept. of Government, Georgetown University); Jeane
Kirkpatrick (Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations); and Melvin
Lasky (Editor, Encounter Magazine)]
As one of the four billion citizens of earth and the father of a
couple more, I cannot resist speaking up on the issue of arms control.
This always seems to get down to a discussion of how many of their
MIRVs can fit on an SS-20 launcher as opposed to our launchers, or
such slogans as "no first use." Everyone knows that if
either the Soviet Union or the United States faced the loss of its
sovereignty, it would probably be willing to use these weapons, no
matter what it said in advance. The point is that neither country is
reasonably faced with that.
I wish that someone would explain to me why, if either power were
sincerely interested in reducing the nuclear arms threat, it wouldn't
unilaterally and voluntarily announce that it was going to destroy ten
per cent of its nuclear bombs and challenge the other side to meet
that reduction, and challenge the rest of the world to pressure the
other side to meet it. Each side could easily dismantle ten per cent
of its weapons and not change its security one iota. If even half of
the remaining weapons were to go off, it would probably mean the end
of life on earth. Why can't we begin that cycle of reduction?
For the past thirty-five years/the United States has suffered through
a needless series of wars in places most Americans had never heard of
until our military force was committed there. And, by and large, the
people we fought against have been no threat to us. Letting these
people alone would often have brought our country great commercial
benefit. To fight these wars against this endless series of distant
and manufactured enemies, we have lost more than one hundred thousand
American lives, and killed millions of those of other nations; we have
sacrificed billions of dollars - a waste that today and for the
foreseeable future continues to cause economic suffering in this
country. We have ripped our country apart in a decade of disruption by
disputes over the wars we fight abroad, while destroying our
government's ability to wage war on poverty and other problems of our
own people. Our foreign policy for those thirty-five years has been
stupid and self-defeating.
I did not come to these conclusions easily or early. Twenty years
ago, I believed in what we were doing in Vietnam under President John
F. Kennedy, and in the early days under President Lyndon Johnson. I
used to argue this point with my much wiser father, who warned me that
Kennedy and Johnson were lying. My teachers had taught me that the
President of the United States doesn't lie, and that our government is
good and democratic. And I believed them.
In the intervening twenty years I have traveled through more than
eighty countries on the continents where we fought these wars. I have
lived and worked in many of those countries, and I have stayed in
hundreds of homes of ordinary people there, and tried to share their
food and their lives and their truths. I have done this as a Peace
Corps volunteer, as an unemployed backpacker, and as a reporter for
the largest newspaper in the country.
I have also waded through hundreds of thousands of pages of
government and corporate documents - classified and unclassified -
including a lot of State Department cables. I have interviewed
thousands of government officials. And I can tell you that Presidents
do lie. They have lied consistently about the reasons we were fighting
these wars. They have either known nothing or said nothing about local
struggles over tribe, religion, and region, in which we have
intervened constantly, causing great harm to ourselves and others.
They have made up phony stories about Soviet and Chinese intervention,
which, if you go to the scene and look for it, isn't there.
Secretaries of State lie. UN Ambassadors lie.
In 1954, UN Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge lied to the world and to the
American public to cover up the overthrow by the United States of a
democratically chosen government in Guatemala that was seeking to
break up the United Brand monopoly over the Central American fruit
market. This breakup would have benefited the free market and every
American citizen; the correspondence of the Justice Department's
Antitrust Division at the time, which I have, is abundant evidence of
this. UN Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge not only lied in concocting a
phony Communist threat and about the U.S. role in. overthrowing the
Guatemalan government; he at least concealed the fact that his family
were major shareholders of United Brands and that his cousin was a
recent president of that company. UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, the
great liberal intellectual, brazenly lied to the world, covering up
the fact that there was a U.S. mercenary army, largely composed of
Cubans from the Bay of Pigs, suppressing a rebellion against the
government of the Congo - now Zaire. This was one of the worst
governments in the world, installed by the United States, and still
maintained by us, despite the fact that that government is responsible
for the death of more than ten million of its own citizens from
starvation and disease. Stevenson lied to concoct a phony Soviet
threat, he lied to cover up the fact that in the history of
post-colonial Africa, the first coup, and the first political
assassination, and the first junking of a legally constituted
democracy all were instigated by the United States. It was the
precedent for the whole sorry history of post-colonial Africa, and we
set it. But Stevenson also lied by not disclosing that the operation
he was defending in the Congo was a created mineral monopoly for one
of Stevenson's biggest private law clients.
We have been lied to about Iran, about Lebanon, about the Gulf of
Tonkin, about Chad, about Shaba, about Angola, about one crisis after
another. We are told by these liars that we are fighting for free
enterprise. Not only did we cut our own economic throats by preserving
monopoly control and killing free enterprise over Iran's oil,
Guatemala's fruit, Zaire's diamonds, and so on, but we have killed
free enterprise among our potential allies and friends in all of these
countries by creating socialist military dictatorships. If you travel
the world, you will see that more socialist dictatorships have been
created by the United States than have ever been created by the Soviet
In order to obtain Philippine support for the war in Vietnam, we
allowed Marcos to wreck democracy and to nationalize industry. The
lumberyards, the hotel chains, the newspapers, the television
stations, all were taken over by the Marcos government. Most
important, the coconut and sugar farming that most Filipino citizens
rely on was taken over and socialized. Farmers now must sell only to
the government at fixed prices, and they must buy from a government
sales organization at fixed prices. Filipino farmers and small
businessmen are now searching for the same political and market
freedom that Thomas Jefferson and Samuel Adams sought. And when they
decide that the only means available to them to get this freedom is
the same means that Thomas Jefferson and Samuel Adams used, the United
States, which should be standing up for everything they want and are
fighting for, will, unless there is a radical change in American
policy, go to war against them.
MELVIN LASKY: In the aftermath of Jonathan Kwitny's cannonade
against the evil powers that be, the devils in high places, one ought
to spend a minute or two, probably not in any sense of the word in
dialogue, but more in sorrow than in polemical dispute.
His is the kind of speech I have heard all my life. I heard it in
1935 - how the imperialists all over the world were ruining,
corrupting, distorting American foreign policy, putting us in the
hands of so-called friends who were dictators, exploiters, and
ruthless men of mendacity and evil. That had some relationship to the
world at that time. I made a few such speeches myself. It took me
ninety countries to learn how complex the relationships are among
powers, societies, tribes, and religions. I had to read a few more
books, to wait for a certain amount of composure to come to the
self-indulgent young radical soul.
Mr. Kwitney represents the other side of the face that sees godless,
materialist Communism everywhere,. This side looks at someone and
says, "Well, he doesn't' look like a Communist; he isn't really a
Communist" - but that is precisely what he is. This side says the
Henry Kissingers and the Adlai Stevensons are liars.
The lie is
everywhere, choking him as well as all the values he holds dear.
This is a thesis of such simplicity as to border on
intellectual vacuity. One would not think, from hearing him, that from
1945 to the present day, the area of the world - Western Europe -
which had been involved in the most murderous wars that we have ever
known, has been living in peace. How does this fit into his thesis?
United States, run by fallible Presidents and advised by some
intelligent and some unintelligent Secretaries of State, put through a
Marshall plan in Europe to establish a minimum of economic prosperity.
We have tried to arrange certain military alliances and we speak of
those alliances as being the free world - although Mr. Kwitny would
say, what a lie.
The Ethics of Deceit in Public Affairs
KWITNY: In a democracy it is up to the people to judge what
influences the decisions of its leaders. That is why we have laws
requiring the disclosure of the financial holdings of leaders.
Sometimes venality comes into play, sometimes it doesn't. That's up to
the people to decide. It is hard for me to get a clear picture of what
Mr. Lasky is arguing for. When Henry Cabot Lodge told the United
Nations that the United States was not in any way responsible for the
overthrow of the government of Guatemala, it wasn't true and he knew
it. When Adlai Stevenson told the United Nations and the world that
the United States was going into the Congo with the French and
Belgians as part of a humanitarian rescue operation, and that it had
nothing to do with a mercenary army that we had manned and supplied to
wipe out opposition to Mobutu without any provocation whatsoever from
the Soviets, what he said simply was not true. When Lyndon Johnson
said U.S. forces had been attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin, he knew it
wasn't true. If Mr. Lasky would like to challenge the facts, I think
he would not find my book boring. If he is unaware of the facts, I
would be glad to supply more evidence.
LASKY: Mr. Kwitny, your father, who was so instrumental in
your intellectual development, should have told you as a schoolboy
that in the history of mankind, the lie, the half-truth, the
diplomatic deception and omission is the rule of the world.
KWITNY: Then how are we to believe anything our leaders say?
LASKY: Because not everything is a lie.
KWITNY: I don't think you build a democracy on that premise.
LASKY: The Soviets have accused us of helping to engineer the
murder of Indira Gandhi. You can say that because Henry Cabot Lodge
and others lied in the past, we are probably lying how. You are coming
to a muck-raking position, a suspiciousness of all human efforts and
governmental efforts, which is not warranted. Man sometimes tells the
truth; man occasionally mixes the truth with some deception and
self-interest. This is the history of Western civilization. I cannot
understand this schoolboy glee of discovering that occasionally
Talleyrand, or Napoleon, or Churchill, or - dare I say it in these
holy halls? - the Pope, over the last two thousand years, has told
something not strictly true. Why all of a sudden do you find - and
obviously enjoy - a pattern of mendacity everywhere in the world?
KWITNY: This is shocking. I can hardly feel glee at finding
that my country isn't what it should be. I am sick at the notion that
the United States should be compared to a series of dictatorships. I
think we have something better, something that works. It is why our
citizens have greater freedom and greater prosperity than people have
anywhere else in the world, in the history of mankind. We should be
proud of this. This is what people of other countries would love to
have, and it is what we could give them if we lived by our ideals in
our overseas dealings as we do here.
You want our leaders to be totally irresponsible to the public for
their actions, and you say that we are to be judged by a similar moral
standard as other countries.
JEFFREY WALLIN (Program Director, Center for the Study of
Democratic Institutions): It occurs to me that it is not simply a
question of lies. It is true of every statesman that I have ever
studied that less than the truth is told on all fronts at all times.
Is not the important question, Mr. Kwitny, not simply a matter of lies
- which I don't wish to dismiss as unimportant- but is there not
something underneath this that is more important? Your thesis is not
simply that these men lied, but that they lied because what they were
doing was indefensible.
KWITNY: It was contrary to American interests.
WALLIN: Doesn't that become the real issue? It is not simply a
matter of what is open and what is not. The Constitution of the United
States was written behind closed doors. Sometimes things are not
admitted, and sometimes misleading things are said. The question is,
what is the nature of the policy and what were the intentions of the
actors? You have said in specific cases that the intentions were to
fatten the wallets of those in power, whose duty it was to protect the
interests of the United States. Is that not what is at stake here,
rather than simply the question of whether someone has told the truth
in specific instances?
KWITNY: Even the executives of Exxon and Mobil, who prompted
the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran in 1953, believed not only that
they were fattening their wallets - which they were - but that they
were doing a service to their country. The historical record shows
they were not. I think Henry Cabot Lodge believed that what was good
for General Motors- or in this case United Brands - was good for the
country. The premise of a democracy is that the electorate makes up
its own mind by knowing the truth.
WALLIN: One has to raise the question of strategy, which
hasn't been mentioned often here - perhaps appropriately so, given the
significance of arms control in and of itself. But it has to be raised
at some point. Many of the reasons that people do things that appear
to be unjustified, perhaps even despicable, have to do with their
conception of the needs of strategy and survival. If one thinks of
America as the giant island continent that it is, and considers how to
defend it - should negotiations fail, should there be another Pearl
Harbor or another Sarajevo - one remembers an idea that goes back at
least to the Middle Ages, even beyond that, back to Thucydides. This
is the notion that one of the ways to defend yourself is to have
strategically placed allies. Then, if someone wishes to attack you, he
either has to attack the allies first - which gives you some time to
respond - or he sneaks in and attacks you and then the allies can
attack him. In short, you help other countries of the world that may
at some future time help you. Certainly the rationale for our policy
in the Philippines is the need to maintain an ally and a military base
in that part of the world. Mr. Kwitny, would you agree that we do need
friends in the world, and that if we have friends we have to support
them? If you agree, would the disagreement be that one can never
support allies who are less clear-thinking, less well-intentioned,
than the best of nations?
KWITNY: Of course we need friends. The question is how to go
about getting them. You get friends by being friendly, not by
intervening in factional domestic disputes of other countries. You
maintain friendships by standing up for values that other people will
respect - including the self-determination of other countries - not by
choosing sides. Most countries have a yin and yang in their political
disputes; one side comes to power, then another side comes to power;
the northern tribes rule for a while, the southern tribes rule for a
while. Our aim should be to do business with whoever is in power in
these countries, to buy what we need in the world marketplace, to sell
what we produce. The best way to do that is to become a strong
We are very powerful economically, and we could be more so if we
channeled our resources - as the Japanese have done - away from the
worldwide military force necessary to maintain our foreign policy.
Also, we must make sure that whoever comes to power in a foreign
country has not been shot at with an American gun. Even Angola, which
we consider the prototype of the kind of thing that other countries
must be protected from, happily pumps its oil into American tankers,
and will continue to do so as long as it receives the world price for
The way to make friends is to be a friend, to be open, and to support
principles which much of the world respects.
LASKY: That is a very nice sermon, and if it has a chance of
being applied, I'm all for it. But it overlooks the problems involved
in real life. If, for example, the British Minister of Information in
World War II had indicated that ninety-two per cent of the entire
London fighter command had been shot down in air raids, there would
have been panic in the streets. But if you do not admit this, it is a
KWITNY: Let's not confuse the issue. Obviously you don't
disclose troop movements in wartime. We are talking about peacetime.
The proof of the damage done by the sacrifice of principles is in the
kind of a world it has led us to. The sensitive negotiations that have
been going on with the Soviets for thirty-five or forty years have
produced the worst relationship with them we have ever had.
LASKY: Do you have a measuring rod for that?
KWITNY: It is hard to measure. It is certainly worse than it
LASKY: Worse than the missile crisis in Cuba? Worse than the
Berlin airlift in 1948 and 49?
KWITNY: The question is, have we produced-a safe world in
which we can trade freely and in which we have friends? Or have we
produced a world in which our embassies are blown up because we have
troops in countries where the people don't want us, in which we have
to put up concrete road barriers around the White House, in which
every three months we discover an enemy against whom we have to take
military action - or think we do?
One of the problems is in not recognizing the difference between a
country and the government that rules that country. We are spoiled
here. We have a democracy, and our government tends to represent a
consensus of what the people think. In most countries of the world,
that is not true. And by confusing- a leadership faction with the
popular will of those countries, we have met one disaster after
WALLIN: At the Center, recently we had an exchange with the
Dalai Lama. One of the questions asked him was, what do we do about
the pressing problems of the world? Another was, how do we get people
at the highest levels of government to talk seriously to one another
about reducing world tensions and limiting the proliferation of
weapons? Perhaps his response could be considered naive, but it made
some of u& think in a way we hadn't before. He said, when the
heads of nations get together, I would have them do so under two
conditions: one, that they don't have an agenda; and two, that they
bring their families with them. He said that we might be surprised at
what could take place in such a setting. I don't know how much that
could actually accomplish, but I am tempted to think it might help to
achieve a lessening in tensions.
On the other hand, I think one has to be realistic and aware that the
world, however much we may wish it to be motivated by love and
friendship and good will, has never been wholly motivated by such
things and is not likely to be in the near future. It is that
unpleasant reality that lends sharpness to the discussions we have had