Deceit on the Road to War: Presidents, Politics, and American Democracy

  • Published

Deceit on the Road to War: Presidents, Politics, and American Democracy by John M. Schuessler. Cornell University Press, 2015, 176 pp.

Dr. John Schuessler is an associate professor in the Department of Strategy at the Air War College. He received his PhD in 2007 from the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago, specializing in international relations. Before coming to the Air War College, he was a lecturer and postdoctoral Fellow with the Committee on International Relations and at the University of Chicago, as well as a research Fellow with the International Security Program at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University.

In his book Deceit on the Road to War: Presidents, Politics, and American Democracy, Schuessler examines how democratic leaders can “exploit information and propaganda advantages to frame issues in misleading ways, cherry-pick supporting evidence, suppress damaging revelations, and otherwise skew the public debate in advantageous directions” (117). By resorting to deception, leaders take what he calls a “calculated risk”—the outcome of which may impose public backlash to their credibility based upon their actions and the outcome of war. With caution, he informs the reader that deception is hard to reveal and that leaders rarely own up to deception.

The book is divided into three in-depth case studies, the first two focusing on deception through blame shifting involving Franklin Roosevelt (World War II, a “high opposition, high-deception” case) and Lyndon Johnson (the Vietnam War, a “medium opposition, medium-deception” case). The third case study turns its attention to the manipulation of deception referred to as overselling with George W. Bush (the Iraq War, a “low opposition, low-deception” case).

The central argument, “deception is a natural outgrowth of the democratic process when war is on the horizon,” (6) is supported through a well-thought-out analysis of deception by democratic leaders with careful construction of the case study format. At first glance, three case studies may be seen as insufficient to support the overall argument; however, the author includes supplementary international relations literature (e.g., the United States and politicizing intelligence) as additional evidence. Although not an easy read, a few noteworthy passages can be found while reading each case study. Most surprising is a 1940 election campaign statement by Roosevelt signifying deception by omission: “Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign war”—deliberately leaving out “except in case of attack” (40). In addition, readers will appreciate his assessment of the Gulf of Tonkin naval incident that plays a major role in Johnson’s “creeping form” of deception through stealth methods in order to escalate the war in Vietnam. In his conclusion Schuessler leaves the reader with a reflective question: “When does deception blur into self-deception?” (125). To “successfully deceive others,” he states, “these leaders needed to deceive themselves, at least in some measure” (125). If there is any truth in this, then perhaps future democratic leaders contemplating deception to gain public support for war should take to heart what French philosopher Jean-Jacque Rousseau wrote in the eighteenth century: “Nature never deceives us; it is always we who deceive ourselves.”

Lastly, as a suggestion to the reader, it is recommended that each case study be read several times to grasp the overall picture of what is happening as it pertains to democratic leaders means of deception and again to ascertain and comprehend the specific issues that determines the outcome of their decisions towards war. Deceit on the Road to War is recommended for anyone interested in the Executive Branch, foreign policy, and national and international security.

Christopher L. Wright

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."