The Use of the Lie
in United States Foreign Policy

Jonathan Kwitny

[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 Union.

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 … absolute 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? …A 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. …

An Exchange:
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 economic power.

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 oil.

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 lie.

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 was.

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 another.

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 here.