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.