The Duty of Lying
February 28, 2002
Wartime always brings expansions of state power,
together with erosions of moral and constitutional standards. No sooner
had the 9/11 attacks occurred than the Federal Government started
assuming new powers and abridging old freedoms in the name of national
security. And voices in the press were quick not only to defend these
measures, but to call for even more of them.
Last fall an essay in the Wall
Street Journal pointed out that Presidents Abraham Lincoln,
Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt had, during wartime, grossly
violated the Constitution they were sworn to uphold. Was the author
warning that a new war might also endanger constitutional law? No! On
the contrary, he was arguing that the war on terrorism
might also justify violations of the Constitution like those of these three
great presidents. Past violations serve as precedents for
Of course this begs the question by
assuming that a president who disregards his oath of office can deserve to
be called great. From a constitutional point of view, by the
measures of limited government, personal freedom, and the rule of law,
Lincoln, Wilson, and Roosevelt were our three worst presidents.
Oddly enough, the arguments for lower
moral and constitutional standards in wartime are coming not from the
liberal and socialist media, but from the allegedly
conservative press, which you might expect to defend the
Constitution, the rule of law, and basic morality. The Weekly
Standard has all but endorsed the use of torture against enemies
not just to extract information, but to inflict punishment.
National Review has run several articles calling for toppling
foreign governments and for assassinating foreign rulers.
Now the Journal has
weighed in again with a piece by Joseph E. Persico arguing the merits of
government lying during wartime. He offers as a model the lies Roosevelt
used against Germany during World War II. Persico plays down the fact
that Roosevelt didnt just plant lies to fool the Germans during the
war; he lied to Americans to draw them into the war in the first place! His
first lie was his oath of office, which he never intended to honor. And he
never stopped lying.
Not that Persico seems to mind; he thinks lying in whatever he
deems a good cause is a positive virtue. Another of his heroic liars is
Winston Churchill, who forged documents to convince Roosevelt that the
Germans had designs in the Western Hemisphere. He even supplied
proof that the Germans already had 5,000 troops in
Brazil poised to threaten the Panama Canal.
It was all a tissue of lies
fabricated by the British, Persico writes. But Roosevelt
was not about to scrutinize to death intelligence that would help him lead
American public opinion along the course he wanted, war against
Germany. Roosevelt cited this intelligence in his
speeches and fireside chats. These lies were welcome to his ears, and he
gladly relayed them to Americans who trusted their president to tell them
the truth. After all, their lives and their sons lives were at stake.
In retrospect, and after six decades,
you might think people would draw the lesson that
democracy and self-government are
meaningless if government officials can deceive the electorate in such
vital matters. After all, arent We the People
supposed to be making the big decisions, on the basis of accurate
Maybe honorable people do draw this
lesson. But the lesson drawn by the Wall Street Journal is
just the opposite: that lying to the public can be a legitimate and
desirable government policy even a governmental duty.
And if lying to the public in a
good cause, of course can be a right and duty of government, may
it not also be a right and duty of journalists? Isnt it the patriotic
duty of journalists to support and if possible assist their government in
Last week we learned that a
Journal reporter had been horribly murdered by terrorists in
Pakistan. This was a shocking violation of the immunity journalists are
traditionally entitled to as noncombatants whose role is to report facts
honestly and impartially. Is it possible that the killers of Daniel Pearl
saw him not as a noncombatant, but as an active agent of the U.S.
Government? Nothing can excuse or justify such savagery, but
compromising the neutrality of journalists could furnish it with a deadly