Lying is as American as Cherry Pie

Photograph Source: Cat Branchman – CC BY 2.0

A few weeks ago, someone going as “R. Tillman” spent a chunk of change to place a small add in The New York Times saying that “LYING IS UN-AMERICAN.”

I had to laugh. Mr. or Ms. Tillman was likely thinking of Donald Trump’s big lie that the 2020 election was stolen and perhaps of some other among many thousands of fibs told by the record-setting dissembler Trump.

I don’t like lies or (I am guessing) Trump any more than R. Tillman but who is he or she trying to kid?

Lying is as American as cherry pie.

Which reminds me, the story that young George Washington broke down and told his father he cut down a cherry tree “because I cannot tell a lie” is a lie. It was made up by the early Washington biographer Mason Lock Weems for the fifth edition of his popular volume The Life of Washington (1806).

Here’s another lie: “George Washington was a great man.” Not true. He was a vicious killer of Native Americans known to the Iroquois as Conoctocaurious, meaning “Town Taker,” “Burner of Towns,” and “Town Destroyer.” In 1779, during the American War for Independence, Washington ordered and organized the Sullivan Campaign, which carried out the genocidal destruction of 40 Iroquois villages in New York.

Along the way, the glorious Father of Our Country owned more than 300 Black slaves. He expected the Black chattel humans on his 1790s Mount Vernon estate to work from before sunrise to after sunset six days a week. At the end of the U.S. “revolutionary” war, he demanded that the British return all escaped slaves in their possession to their “rightful owners.”

Washington’s “American Revolution” was based on a great lie embedded in the opening of the second paragraph of the July 4, 1776 Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,…”

The nation’s revered Founders did not believe these supposedly self-evident things when it came to Black, Indigenous, and female people, all of whom fell outside their racial nationalist and male-supremacist definition of legitimate citizenship. As militant propertarians, they didn’t view poor whites as worthy of equal rights either. And the Founders were more than happy to impose social and political regimes that oppressed the nonwhite, female, and poor without the slightest concern for their subjects’ consent.

Seventy-eight years after the Declaration of Independence, which signaled a break off from Britain that led to the significant expansion of North American slavery and “Indian removal” (ethnic cleansing), the escaped slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass asked “What, to the American Slave, is Your 4th of July?”:

“I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.”

The Fourth of July, in other words, was a Big Lie.

More lies followed. Contrary to its aristo-republican claim to have introduced “popular government,” the U.S. Constitution was a profoundly un- and even anti-democratic document crafted to preserve and codify the oligarch rule of the wealthy Few. It was expertly and explicitly designed to keep at bay the Founders’ ultimate nightmare: popular sovereignty.

Andrew Jackson’s claim to have ordered Indian Removal (what would today be called genocidal ethnic cleansing) from concern for Indigenous First Nations people’s happiness and health was gravely disingenuous. The longtime Indian killer and slaver Jackson was clearing obstacles for the expansion of cotton slavery across the southern and western frontier and for the settlement of surplus white populations piling up in the eastern seaboard.

The description of the white Americans who spread across the United States in the late 18th and 19th Century as “settlers” was a really big lie. From the perspective of the continent’s original inhabitants, animal and human, and from the perspective of livable ecology, the Euro-American hordes were invading un-settlers and indeed great destroyers.

There was nothing settling about being worked and whipped to death as a slave on one of the forced labor camps that Jackson’s fellow slave-owners set up on land robbed from the Cherokee and Choctaw in Georgia and from other Native peoples across the burgeoning southern cotton belt. “Settlers,” right.

Further north, the so-called Black Hawk War of 1832 was a viciously one-sided and genocidal affair. After some of their warriors dared to challenge the occupation and appropriation of their sacred lands by white “settlers,” the Sauk and Fox Indians lost 600 people, including hundreds of woman and children. in the August 1, 1832 “Battle of Bad Axe,” on the eastern shore of the Mississippi River, near the present-day community of Victory in southwest Wisconsin. “While the Sauk refugees were preparing rafts and canoes,” historian Kerry Trask writes, “the armed [U.S.] steamboat Warrior arrived, whereupon Black Hawk tried to negotiate with its troops under a flag of truce. The Americans opened fire, killing twenty-three warriors.”

“As we neared them,” one US officer who “served” in the U.S. assault recalled, “they raised a white flag and endeavored to decoy us, but we were a little too old for them.” Hundreds of Sauk and Fox men, women and children were shot, clubbed, and bayoneted to death at the confluence of the Bad Axe and Mississippi Rivers on August 2nd. US soldiers scalped the dead. They cut long strips of flesh from dead and wounded Indians for use as razor strops. The slaughter was supported by cannon and rifle fire from the Warrior, which picked off tribal members swimming for their lives. The United States suffered 5 dead in the “Battle of Bad Axe.”

In a popular account of the “battle” published two years later, U.S. Major John Allen Wakefield offered some interesting reflections. “It was a horrid sight,” Wakefield wrote, “to witness little children, wounded and suffering the most excruciating pain, although they were of the savage enemy, and the common enemy of the country…It was enough to make the heart of the most hardened being on earth to ache” But, Wakefield wrote, “I must confess, that it filled my heart with gratitude and joy, to think that I had been instrumental, with many others, in delivering my country of those merciless savages, and restoring those [invading white] people again to their peaceful homes and firesides.”

By Wakefield’s account, the US troops at Bad Axe “shrank not from their duty. They all joined in the work of death for death it was. We were by this time fast getting rid of those demons in human shape… the Ruler of the Universe, He who takes vengeance on the guilty, did not design those guilty wretches to escape His vengeance…” It was an unsettling read.

The top “demon in human shape” – “chief” Black Hawk – escaped death and lived six years beyond the “war” (slaughter) that bore his name.  He was sent to a US reservation in Iowa after US President Andrew Jackson (himself a famous and prolific Indian-killer) had Black Hawk paraded across Eastern cities as a celebrity freak and war booty – an exotic savage held up to gawking white crowds as proof of the United States military’s alleged prowess in defeating barbarian brutes.

The “Black Hawk War” was a lopsided campaign of ethnic cleansing that pushed all northern Illinois’ surviving original inhabitants west of the Mississippi.

The commonplace white American “settler” notion of pre-conquest North America as an uninhabited “wilderness” was of course a bald-faced lie. One can look no further than to learn the following:

“In 1492 the native population of North America north of the Rio Grande was seven million to ten million. These people grouped themselves into approximately six hundred tribes and spoke diverse dialects. European colonists initially encountered Native Americans in three distinct regions. Eastern Woodland tribes included the Five Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, Abenakis, Shawnees, Delawares, Micmacs, Mahicans, and Pequots. Some of these tribes were sedentary hunter-gathers while others grew maize (corn), beans, and squash. In the Southeast white settlers came into contact with Powhatans, Catawbas, Cherokees, Creeks, Natchez, Choctaws, and Chickasaws; these people were primarily agriculturalists. Pueblos, Zunis, Navajos, and Hopis represented some of the adobe-dwelling bands in the arid Southwest. Regardless of their differences, these groups shared some common characteristics. For Native Americans the family, clan, and village represented the most important social groups. In addition, religions revolved around the belief that all of nature was alive, pulsating with spiritual power.”

The “great American” and jingoist liar Teddy Roosevelt had an interesting take on these pre-existing civilizations, homes to an Indigenous population inside the United States that would fall below one million by the time “the Bull Moose” ascended to the White House. He called pre-conquest North America a “waste space.” No 20th century fascist had anything on Roosevelt’s two-volume Winning of the West when it came to the heralding of white supremacist violence. “During the past three centuries,” Roosevelt opined, “the spread of English-speaking people over the world’s waste spaces” (meaning spaces not occupied by “progressive” capitalist-developmental/eco-cidal Caucasians) was a great and welcome “feat of power,” for which the “English-speaking race” could justly feel proud. “The settler and pioneer,” the future war president wrote, “have at bottom had justice on their side; this great continent could not have been kept as nothing but a game preserve for squalid savages…The most ultimately righteous of all wars is a war with savages, though it is apt to be also the most terrible and inhuman.”

Which reminds me: the notion that the war-mongering racist and imperialist Teddy Roosevelt was a great man is a lie.

The commonplace white-American depiction of the Native Americans as “savages” and the white so-called “settlers” as agents of “civilization” is itself a great lie. The truth was, if anything, the opposite. The new imperialist nation’s original indigenous inhabitants lived without the savage class inequalities and the related ferocious propertarian, Cartesian, capitalist, and imperial destruction of nature and the exterminist and eliminationist warfare that pockmarked European and Euro-American society. The people already here were the civilized ones, not the barbarian un-“settlers,” who thanked their imagined vengeful God for supposedly helping them murder and enslave Red, brown, and Black people and fence off the lands and pollute the soil and water of the supposed “wasteland” and “wilderness” that was pre-conquest North American.

The relentless, indeed savage Indian-killing of 18th and 19th Century planted the racist, evangelical, and bloodthirsty seeds for later massive eliminationist U.S. wars waged against Filipinos, Central Americans, Japanese, Southeast Asians, Iraqis, and other nonwhite people caught on the wrong sides of the guns of the self-declared homeland and headquarters of freedom and democracy.

Likewise, the savage slavery practiced on the land stolen from the “Indian savages” planted seeds and set the stage for the ongoing oppression of Black America today, replete with shocking levels of racial apartheid and disparity and ubiquitous and savage racist police brutality, incarceration, and criminal branding.

Antebellum southern U.S. slavery propagandists claimed that the slave South had developed a paternalist and non-capitalist society concerned for the welfare of its supposedly cherished Black workforce. This was a lie and, yes, “a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.” Edward Baptiste’s prize-winning study The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and Rise of American Capitalism shows that 19th Century U.S. cotton slavery was a highly profitable capitalist project based on the ruthless exploitation and indeed torture of Black workers in forced labor camps (“plantations”) producing surplus value that fueled the United States’ emergence as a player in the world of capitalist nations before the Civil War.

Nineteenth century northern U.S. leaders’ claim to have constructed a glorious “free labor” land of opportunity where hard work was rewarded with upward and outward mobility so as to prevent the formation of fixed social classes and a wage-earning proletariat was a lie. Already, even before the Civil War, northern cities and early industrial towns were home to a swelling impoverished and exploited population of permanently proletarianized, slum-dwelling whites. After the Civil War, as the United States became a leading industrial power, the northern and western states hosted the bloodiest labor history in the world, involving the regular and recurrent bloody repression of working class activists (i.e., the murdered Molly McGuires, the Haymarket Martyrs, Joe Hill, etc.) by company militias, local and state police, and federal troops (including Sioux Indian killers who were called into Chicago to murder strikers during the Great Upheaval of 1877).

The southern white Redeemers’ overthrow of post-Civil War Reconstruction governments and construction of a racial terrorist Jim Crow regime in the South was based on three great lies: the myth of white supremacy and Black inferiority, the false claim that the South had seceded from the Union out of concern for states’ rights (the real cause was fear that Abraham Lincoln’s opposition to slavery in the Western territories spelled doom for their vicious chattel system), and the claim that the Reconstruction governments briefly enabled and protected by the Union Army had been woefully incompetent and oppressive due to a combination of Black inferiority and northern corruption.

Then there are all the lies involved in making the case for America’s endless imperial wars. The Mexican War of American western conquest began in 1846 when President James K. Polk cited an attack on American troops south of the Nueces River in Texas — troops he had placed precisely to provoke Mexico. The notion that the conflict was started by Mexico was a lie meant to provide a pretext for U.S. seizure of the North American Southwest and California. It worked, creating a vast westward U.S. expansion that American imperialists sold in the name of a great lie called “Manifest Destiny” – the preposterous notion that the United States was destined by God to spread its supposedly benevolent dominion, “democracy,” and capitalism across the entire North American continent. “Manifest Destiny” was another one of those “self-evident truths” enforced by the barrel of a racist gun.

War lies? The Spanish-American War began in 1898 when President William McKinley claimed that the warship USS Maine had been blown up by Spanish operatives. This was a convenient fabrication: the explosion resulted from an accidental fire in the munitions compartment inside the ship. The resulting war led to a significant expansion of U.S. power and bloodshed into the Pacific and Caribbean, sold under the great lies that Washington sought to liberate the people of the Philippines and Cuba. The U.S. would liberate many tens of thousands of Filipinos from earthly existence, its troops referring to the
Asian peasant they exterminated en masse as “niggers,” “gooks,” and other racist names.

The notion that the Franklin Roosevelt White House was surprised by the supposedly “unprovoked” Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was a great lie. Also false was the notion that the Japanese had no reasons other than sheer malevolent imperialism for attacking U.S. forces there.

The savagely racist and criminal atomic bombings of Japanese civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945 were justified with epic lies, all part of the lie of “the Good War.” As John Pilger wrote 12 years ago:

“In the immediate aftermath of the bomb, the allied occupation authorities banned all mention of radiation poisoning and insisted that people had been killed or injured only by the bomb’s blast. It was the first big lie. ‘No radioactivity in Hiroshima ruin’ said the front page of the New York Times, a classic of disinformation and journalistic abdication, which the Australian reporter Wilfred Burchett put right with his scoop of the century. ‘I write this as a warning to the world,’ reported Burchett in the Daily Express, having reached Hiroshima after a perilous journey, the first correspondent to dare. He described hospital wards filled with people with no visible injuries but who were dying from what he called ‘an atomic plague.’ For telling this truth, his press accreditation was withdrawn, he was pilloried and smeared – and vindicated…The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a criminal act on an epic scale. It was premeditated mass murder that unleashed a weapon of intrinsic criminality. For this reason, its apologists have sought refuge in the mythology of the ultimate ‘good war.’ whose ‘ethical bath,’ as Richard Drayton called it, has allowed the west not only to expiate its bloody imperial past but to promote 60 years of rapacious war, always beneath the shadow of The Bomb…The most enduring lie is that the atomic bomb was dropped to end the war in the Pacific and save lives. ‘Even without the atomic bombing attacks,’ concluded the United States Strategic Bombing Survey of 1946, ‘air supremacy over Japan could have exerted sufficient pressure to bring about unconditional surrender and obviate the need for invasion. Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey’s opinion that … Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.’” (emphasis added).

The “Vietnam War” – more honestly understood as the U.S. war on Southeast Asia – moved into high gear when President Lyndon B. Johnson exploited an alleged attack on a U.S. ship in “international waters” to justify a massive escalation of America’s assault on the region, which killed 3 to 5 million people — “parents, grandparent, children” (John Marciano) – between 1962 and 1975. The famous Gulf of Tonkin war resolution in Congress was based on one of the most fateful lies in American and world history.

As a presidential candidate in 1968, future war criminal and epic serial liar Richard Nixon lied about wanting peace in Vietnam. His agent, Henry Kissinger, actively undermined a peace accord with Hanoi before the 1968 election.

Nixon later lied about respecting the neutrality of Cambodia. He lied through secrecy and omission about the criminal and fateful U.S. bombing of Cambodia—a far bigger crime than the burglarizing of the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate complex, about which he of course famously lied.

Regarding Vietnam, Daniel Ellsberg recalled 20 years ago that his 1971 release of the Pentagon Papers exposed U.S. military and intelligence documents “proving that the government had long lied to the country. Indeed, the papers revealed a policy of concealment and quite deliberate deception from the Truman administration onward. … A generation of presidents,” Ellsberg noted, “chose to conceal from Congress and the public what the real policy was. …”

The Cold War, in whose name the “Vietnam War” was fought was a great lie, predicated on the myth of an international, Moscow-based conspiracy to spread socialism (supposedly a bad thing – a great lie) and the related myth that the United States was advancing “democracy” (this while backing and even imposing Third World Fascist governments around the world), supposedly at one with the supposedly benevolent (and in fact authoritarian and destructive) system called “capitalism.”

The Cold War hatched all kinds of lies. President Dwight Eisenhower flatly lied to the American people and the world when he denied the existence of American U-2 spy plane flights over Russia. President John F. Kennedy lied about the supposed missile gap between the United States and the Soviet Union. And Kennedy lied when he claimed that the United States sought democracy in Latin America, Southeast Asia and around the world.

The serial fabricator and arch-Cold Warrior Ronald Reagan made a special address to the nation in which he lied by saying, “We did not—repeat—we did not trade weapons or anything else [to Iran] for hostages, nor will we.” He did trade weapons in a criminal effort not merely to secure the release of hostages but to fund the mass-murders murderous Contras, right-wing terrorists fighting to bring own the leftist revolutionary government in Nicaragua.

The foreign policy lying continued after the end of the great Lie Fest that was the Cold War. President George H.W. Bush falsely claimed on at least five occasions in the run-up to the 1990-91 Persian Gulf War that Iraqi forces, after invading Kuwait, had pulled babies from incubators and left them to die. Operation Desert Storm was based on the lie that Washington was concerned for the fate of the Kuwaitis and the people of Iraq. The real war aims were to preserve U.S. control over Middle Eastern oil reserves and to demonstrate newly undeterred American military power – that “what we say goes” (in former CIA director Bush’s words) – in the wake of the decline of the Soviet Union. Bush41 savagely slaughtered surrendered and retreating conscripts with racist impunity during the infamous Highway of Death and left oppressed Iraqi Kurds and Shiites to be massacred by Saddam once it was determined that these US objectives had been achieved. American war planes risked mid-air collisions in their frenzy to exterminate already defeated Iraqi troops.

George H.W. Bush crassly lied to Russian leaders when he and his emissaries promised that the West would not expand the North Atlantic Treaty Organization into Eastern Europe during 1990 negotiations over the reunification of Germany.

President Bill Clinton (who shamelessly lied about his White House sexual shenanigans with Monica Lewinsky) falsely claimed to be upholding international law and to be opposing genocide when he bombed Serbia for more than two months in early 1999.

The mass-murderous petro-imperialist U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq under George W. Bush was based on cold-blooded blockbuster lies that would have made Orwell blush and Goebbels envious: the false claims that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD), including a nuclear capacity, and that there were clear connections between Iraq and the al-Qaeda terrorists responsible for the 9/11 jetliner attacks. After the WMD fabrication was exposed, the serial liar Bush43 falsely claimed to have invaded Iraq to spread liberty and democracy – an abject lie.

The notion that the United States had done nothing to provoke 9/11 was of course a great lie based on the total Orwellian erasure of Washington’s bloody history of petro-imperial intervention in the Middle East.

Bill Clinton (subject of a useful 1999 book titled “No One Left to Lie To”) and Barack Obama were both silver-tongued corporate-neoliberal Wall Street and Pentagon Democrats who deceitfully asserted that they were progressive friends of working people and the poor. President Obama lied repeatedly, as when he falsely claimed that he would have his Department of Justice investigate and prosecute abusive lenders for cheating and defrauding ordinary homeowners.

In a grotesque lie early in his presidency, Barack Obama’s White House claimed that the carnage caused by its bombing of the Afghan village of Bola Boluk (where dozens of children were blown to pieces by U.S. ordnance) had really been inflicted by “Taliban grenades.”

Obama lied when he said he ordered the 2011 bombing of Libya out of benevolent concern for the Libyan people. He was pursuing petro-imperial regime change there, a disastrous policy that sparked humanitarian and racist disaster within Libya and across north Africa.

Obama turned reality upside down when he portrayed a 2014 U.S.-backed coup spearheaded by fascist forces in Ukraine as a peaceful and democratic revolution.

Obama lied in essence when he ran as the supposed progressive candidate of the 99 percent against the 1 Percenter Mitt Romney in 2012. A deeply conservative neoliberal corporatist who would go on to champion the arch-authoritarian global-corporatist Trans Pacific Partnership after a first term in which he protected and bailed the financial parasites who collapsed economy while offering no bailout for the working and lower classes and passing a health insurance reform that only the big insurance and drug companies could love, Obama had enlisted the Department of Homeland Security in the infiltration and dismantlement of the populist Occupy Wall Street movement – the inventor of the terms “the 1 Percent” and “the 99 percent.”

One of my favorite Obama lies came the day the record-setting liar Donald Trump defeated the serial liar Hillary Clinton in November of 2016. Obama went out to the White House Rose Garden to, in the trademark language of his public relations department, “address the nation on the election results and the next steps we can take to come together as a country and ensure a peaceful transition of power.” His oration that day was a tour de force of accommodation, appeasement, and denial. Despite Trump’s history of vicious attacks on him, Obama spoke in muted terms of conservatism, unity, and normalization:

“Now, everybody is sad when their side loses an election. But the day after, we have to remember that we’re actually all on one team. This is an intramural scrimmage…We are Americans first. We’re patriots first. We all want what’s best for this country….[Trump wants]…what the country needs—a sense of unity; a sense of inclusion; a respect for our institutions, our way of life, rule of law; and a respect for each other… That’s the nature of democracy…We all go forward, with a presumption of good faith in our fellow citizens—because that presumption of good faith is essential to a vibrant and functioning democracy. That’s how this country has moved forward for 240 years. It’s how we’ve pushed boundaries and promoted freedom around the world. That’s how we’ve expanded the rights of our founding to reach all of our citizens…I’m confident that this incredible journey that we’re on as Americans will go on. …We’re all on the same team.”

Obama didn’t believe a word of this. In October of 2016, Obama said this to Hillary’s lame vide presidential candidate Tim Kaine: “Tim, remember,” Obama said by phone, “this is no time to be a purist. You’ve got to keep a fascist out of the White House.”

It was an accurate observation, born out in subsequent years, but never voiced in public by Obama.

I could go on. A real catalogue of great U.S,-American lies could run for many volumes.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).