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Jul 16, 2004 4:08 am

Did Bill Clinton Lie in His Memoirs?

Even if you love Bill Clinton you probably won't believe everything he has written in his new memoirs--and you shouldn't. Even if Clinton wanted to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth there are constraints on what an ex-president can say that derive from his position as our erstwhile commander in chief. Most problematically, ex-presidents can't reveal state secrets. To protect these secrets the ex-presidents may have to dissemble.

Dwight Eisenhower discovered the difficulty a president faces in writing his memoirs when he came to the chapter involving America's role in the overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh, the leftwing leader of Iran in the early 1950s. Mossadegh had challenged the existing order in Iran by nationalizing the oil industry, which for half a century had been run by the British. The British had abused their control of the industry, providing paltry sums to the Iranians while taking the lion share of the profits. The British wouldn't even let Iranians see the books. So Iranians never knew how much the British were taking.

When Mossadegh nationalized the company the British tried to oust him in a coup but failed. Harry Truman refused to help but when Ike was elected the Dulles brothers Allen and John Foster agreed to back a coup led by Kermit Roosevelt, the son of TR and a CIA officer. The ostensible reason was to save Iran from the communists; the Dulles brothers seem to have persuaded themselves that Mossadegh was so weak the communists might take control. The real reason, at least as far as the British were concerned, was to gain back control of the oil industry. Churchill told friends restoring the British oil monopoly in Iran was essential to his country's national security.

In his memoir Ike said he had little knowledge of what happened to Mossadegh, only acknowledging that he had received a written statement of events naming the involvement of Kermit Roosevelt. This was a patent lie. In his diary, released to historians years later, Ike confessed that he had been personally briefed by Roosevelt about the details of the coup. The account left him flabbergasted. He said it sounded more like the adventures in a dime novel than actual history.

Eisenhower might have told the truth in his memoir. But at the time the truth was still considered a top secret of the American government. Writing at the height of the Cold War, Ike was caught between his obligation as a former president to conceal state secrets and his responsibility as a writer to inform his readers of the truth. His presidential obligations won out.

In retrospect it may appear that Ike was merely trying to conceal his administration's involvement in an unfortunate and ugly event that ended ultimately in the establishment of a dictatorship by the shah. But at the time the coup seemed worthwhile. The United States secured a strong ally in the region. The communists lost any chance of taking over Iran. American and British oil companies split up the profits and secured a vital supply of oil.

Only since the 1979 Iranian revolution has it become clear what a disaster the coup was for both Iran and America. Only then could we begin to see where it led: to the dictatorship of the shah, the radicalization of the clergy under Ayatollah Khomeini, and the creation of a regime hostile to American interests. Half a century after the coup we are still living with its effects.

Bill Clinton may well have lied about an event or two in his administration, too. Eventually, we'll probably find out--if we're lucky. But it won't be Bill Clinton who tells us.

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