In my 2004 book, When Presidents Lie, I coined the term “post-truth presidency.” I borrowed it, in part, from the now late ex–Watergate felon Charles Colson, who in 2002 condemned America’s “post-truth society,” in which “even the man on the street sees little wrong with lying.” The great irony of this observation lay in the fact that Colson’s column was itself an artifact of post-truthism. It was actually written by a ghostwriter.
Presidents have long lied to the American public. The first one to get caught, however, Dwight Eisenhower, not only lied to the country when a US spy was shot down over the Soviet Union; he insisted that his secretary of state, Christian Herter, perjure himself before Congress to hide his humiliation. So lying is no big deal, at least not in the era of the American empire. Roosevelt did it. Eisenhower did it. Almost all of them have done it. But none did so more consequentially than John F. Kennedy did fifty years ago this October.
The ironies inherent in the Cuban missile crisis are so multiple and manifest, they are almost impossible to unpack. The deliberate disinformation put forth by both the participants in the crisis and their loyal foot soldiers in the media have corrupted our understanding not only of the crisis itself but also of foreign policy and political science. Thanks in significant measure to the 1969 release of Robert Kennedy’s crisis diaries, Thirteen Days, heavily doctored by Ted Sorensen—and even more so, to the canonical status of Graham Allison’s 1971 study of the crisis, The Essence of Decision—an entire generation (or three) learned these lies as scripture. (Wikipedia notes that Essence became the “founding study of the John F. Kennedy School of Government, and in doing so revolutionized the field of international relations.”) When I researched the study of the crisis for my doctoral dissertation during the late 1990s, it remained, perhaps, the single most studied, modeled and discussed event in all of social science literature, judged by the number of scholarly citations it received. Every one of those studies was based on a false rendering of events.
Over time, the truth dribbled out, though perhaps not all of it, even today. (Robert Kennedy’s family is able to exercise tight control over access to his papers at the Kennedy Library, though they are archived at taxpayer expense.) In the past fifty years, we have learned:
§ Robert Kennedy was always a hawk, while John Kennedy was among the most dovish of the doves.
§ There was no “eyeball to eyeball” confrontation; Soviet ships were 750 miles away when they turned around.
§ The “other guy” did not “blink” in the end. The United States secretly promised to remove its missiles from Turkey (and possibly, though it is unclear, Greece) in exchange for the Soviets’ willingness to appear to have caved without concessions.
§ John Kennedy did not request the removal of the Turkish missiles before the crisis began, though he may have thought he did.
§ The United States continued its efforts to overthrow and destabilize Castro’s regime long after it promised to end them. These were continued under presidents Johnson and Nixon.
JFK proved extremely brave and remarkably agile in avoiding the dangerous military attack that his panicky advisers, including virtually all the top military, supported. But Nikita Khrushchev, while far less politically adept, proved the braver man by far when it came time to step away from the brink. The Soviet leader went to the grave with the story of Kennedy’s secret concessions despite the humiliation they ensured that he would suffer, both within the politburo and throughout the world. (Kennedy privately bragged “I cut his balls off.” Fidel Castro, in the dark about the deal, wrote Khrushchev of his nation’s “unspeakable bitterness and sadness”). Meanwhile the myriad myths have guided pretty much every president ever since and certainly helped trap Lyndon Johnson into Vietnam.
Fifty years later, a number of scholars, journalists and former national security officials have sought to correct some of the widely held misperceptions about the crisis. PBS devoted an hour to retelling the drama in light of recently discovered evidence. Significantly, few if any thought it worthwhile to focus on the fact that the United States was working intensely to try to assassinate Castro when the crisis began. Moreover, almost never do Americans read or hear of the US efforts to oust the Cuban communist regime long after Robert Kennedy (in his brother’s name) had promised to end them. And I’ve seen little if anything in these post-mortems that highlights the so-called Cordier Ploy secretly put in place by JFK—whereby he appears to have been planning to agree to a covertly engineered public trade of the Turkish missiles if Khrushchev had refused his offer of the hidden exchange—revealing a president who was brave enough to risk his political capital for peace, just not brave enough to admit it.
Incredibly, MSNBC pundit and alleged Kennedy biographer Chris Matthews, writing in The New Republic recently, repeats any number of these discredited myths and celebrates Kennedy’s willingness to lie to create them. “He was ruthless enough to do what was necessary, even if it meant fooling the American people big-time, and risking a PR fiasco if the news ever leaked,” he writes. Matthews invents the motivation that “Kennedy had seen something in Khrushchev’s eyes when they met in Vienna in 1961,” and with spectacular wrongness—in light of recent evidence—insists that the Soviet premier “would not be budged by the prospect of mass death.”
There, Chuck Colson, is your post-truth society in action. But it’s not the “man in the street,” alas, who is the problem.
Also in this week’s issue, Jon Wiener looks back at the fall of the Berlin Wall —and more closely than those who would call Ronald Reagan the “victor” in the cold war.