I should quote, for a moment, one of the finest essayists of our time:
“On September 16, 1985, when the Commerce Department announced that the United States had become a debtor nation, the American Empire died. The Empire was seventy-one years old and had been in ill health since 1968. Like most modern empires, ours rested not such much on military prowess as on economic primacy.”
Thus wrote Sir Gore Vidal, the closest thing to Mordred you are likely to find these days in the world of letters. He is even related to King Arthur…uh…President Kennedy, by way of marriage.
He and his friends on the left, Norman Mailer and Noam Chomsky, have been bewailing the American empire for half a century. They have also warned us, repeatedly, that virtually every American president was ready to catapult the world into a nuclear black hole as the slightest provocation.
In the case of Reagan and our current president, the critique introduces a religious dimension that is particularly appealing to leftist doomsayers, who are absolutely certain that the little man behind the imperial curtain is Jerry Falwell or perhaps Pat Robertson, but certainly a crazed fundamentalist who would find the Apocalypse an entertainment of the highest order.
Vidal is a case in point. In the same essay in which he foretold the end of American Empire, he wrote: “Our masters would have us believe that all our problems are the fault of the Evil Empire of the East, with its satanic and atheistic religion, ever ready to destroy us in the night. This nonsense began at a time when we had atomic weapons and the Russians did not…..what was the reason for the big scare? “
Vidal’s opinion then was pretty much the same as it is now: big business. “Well, the Second War made prosperous the United States, which had been undergoing a depression for a dozen years, and made very rich those magnates and their managers who govern the republic, with many a wink, in the people’s name.” (At Home, p. 106)
In short, the military industrial complex was an institutional device aimed at keeping the rich and powerful rich and powerful, even at the expense of decency, common sense and the American taxpayer.
Vidal then jumps to Reagan, pounding a familiar theme. “By accident, the producers of that one-time hit-show the United States of America picked for the part of president a star with primitive religious longings. We cannot blame them. How could they have known? They thought that he was giving all that money to defense simply to reward them for giving him the lead, which he was doing, in part; but he was also responding to Ezekiel, and the glory of the coming end.” (At Home, p. 103)
All of this was written in the 1980s. We can breathe a sign of relief, can’t we, that President Reagan not only did not ordain and demand the war to end all wars, he actually negotiated arms reductions with Gorbachav, and brought the “evil empire” down with nary a shot being fired. Vidal, of course, never got around to admitting how alarmist his fears were.
Instead, he published more collections of essays, one of which continues the tale that America not only craved the Cold War, it created it. In his essay "The Last Empire" he argues that the Cold War was basically an American-made conflict, the better to further the goals of our military industrial complex and our capitalist interests.
“Serenely, we broke every agreement that we had made with our former ally, now horrendous communist enemy. ….although the Soviets still wanted to live by our original agreements at Yalta and even Potsdam, we had decided, unilaterally, to restore the German economy in order to enfold a rearmed Germany into Western Europe, thus isolating the Soviet, a nation which had not recovered from the Second World War and had no nuclear weapons.”
You will search without success for some mention of the Soviet invasions of Poland and Finland. You will find no mention of the stated aim of world communism to destroy the West and the capitalist system, which intention even the dissolution of the cominterm during World War II did not long deter. You might think our concerns were possibly rooted in Stalin’s ruthless treatment of his own country, or his expressed desire to dominate Eastern Europe. Might it be that the Soviet Union’s support of radical movements responsible for millions of deaths was a real concern? This is all illusory, according to the gentlemen of the left.
John Lewis Gaddis, a reputable historian, makes the relevant objection in his study, The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, which is hardly an anti-Soviet polemic. Gaddis would agree with Vidal to a point that the United States might have misread Stalin’s intentions. But he added: “Soviet expansion into Eastern Europe in 1944 and 1945...caused Western observers to fear that they had been misled. Just at the moment of victory over the Axis, the old specter of world revolution reappeared.” (Gaddis, p. 355).
Alas, all of this, of course, is prelude to the Gore Vidal of today, who in the autumn of his life has enjoyed a reverence he would have loathed in years past. But though perceptions of him have mellowed in some quarters, he has not put aside his critique of American foreign policy. His target today is not Reagan or even Nixon, who he actually applauded for bending to the idea of co-existence with the communists, but George W. Bush, the leader who has toppled the Taliban and Saddam.
Once again, Vidal argues that this is all done in the service of the military industrial complex which, after the end of the Cold War, needed to justify its privilege and power. We found a convenient enemy, apparently, in Saddam, whose invasion of Kuwait we secretly encouraged and whose violation of United Nations resolutions we exploited. That we suffered the worst attack in our history during 9/11 is almost an after thought for Vidal, who cannot be distracted from the real evils of our world, the American military and its industrial partners.
But Vidal is not as witty or as entertaining these days. In an interview published in Counterpunch, which originally aired on Dateline, SBS TV Australia, he explains why he has become a full-time political polemicist. “I’ve spent most of my life marinated in the history of my country and I’m so alarmed by what is happening with our global empire, and our wars against the rest of the world….”
So much for the end of the empire announced two decades earlier. Vidal goes on to completely misrepresent reality to a foreign audience. He hammers the president: “We’ve never had a kind of reckless one who may believe – and there’s a whole theory now that he’s inspired by the love of Our Lord – that he is an apocalyptic Christian who’ll be going to Heaven while the rest of us go to blazes. I hope that isn’t the case. I hope that’s exaggeration.”
We will give him some credit for the qualifier at the end, but does this not sound remarkably like the same argument targeted at Reagan almost 20 years before? Vidal tells us that the American people, what a relief, did not deserve what happened on 9/11. He adds: “Nor do we deserve the sort of governments we have had over the last 40 years. Our governments have brought this upon us by their actions all over the world.”
In other words, the people didn’t deserve it, but our government did. What did the government do, by the way, that prompted 19 Muslim men to crash airlines into the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon, killing 3,000 innocent people? We saved Kuwait from a tyrant and left our troops in the Gulf as a security measure on behalf of our allies there. We helped Afghanistan resist a Soviet invasion. We sought to help Muslims in Somalia and Kosovo. But in the worldview of America’s enemies, any projection of American power is, by definition, criminal.
Vidal embraces almost without qualification this perspective. That is why the Soviet Union, in his view, was an innocent victim of the American military build-up under Truman. Likewise, Gorbachav was the hero of the 1980s, not Ronald Reagan or the first President Bush, who deserve credit for their careful management of the Soviet Union and the eventual liberation of a good part of the world. And, in his most recent polemic, Dreaming War, Vidal actually suggests that the Bush administration might have allowed the attacks on 9/11 to occur, the easier to impose their control over Middle East oil.
In another of his recent pamphlets, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, Vidals lists all the military strikes we have made against other countries since the late 1940s. According to Vidal, that number is about 250. That comes out to about five per year, during a period when we were engaged in virtual war with a despotic regime. Our actions in Panama (now enjoying democracy), Grenada (also a democracy), against Libya (which had sponsored terrorism around the globe) and against Saddam's regime in Iraq are all, apparently, indications of our horrific intentions.
Vidal goes on to complain that if people just knew the truth about America, they would appreciate just how deranged our government is. “The censorship here is so tight in all of the newspapers and particularly in network television. So nobody’s getting the facts.”
If you find this hard to believe, let me confirm your incredulity. Gore Vidal has been reviewed in the New York Review of Books just in the past month. His interviews have appeared in the Los Angeles Weekly, and Solon, his columns in the Nation and C-Span has on a number of occasions devoted serious air time to his books and his political views. Norman Mailer, another critic of U.S. foreign policy, has gotten even more air time than Vidal, including a cover interview for the American Conservative and numerous pieces in newspapers and magazines around the country. Chomsky is a little more fringe, but his books are published and available in virtually every bookstore and library in the nation. If this be censorship, they are certainly making the most of it.
Vidal is a fine essayist. His literary pieces are often insightful and readable. He is one of those old-fashioned men of letters who actually thinks criticism should be written for readers, not for academics engaged in promulgating obscure theories about the nature of meaning and texts. He even raises some legitimate questions from time to time about the uses of American power and its consequences for our republic.
But his criticism quickly sinks into a cesspool of conspiracies, out of context charges and reckless claims that would rightly earn a lesser intellect the label of crackpot. On page 879 of his huge collection of essays, United States, he suggests that in 1972 George Wallace posed a threat to Nixon’s re-election. Consequently, he implies that the man convicted of trying to assassinate Wallace, Arthur Bremer, might well have been a puppet of Republican operatives who wanted to ensure Nixon’s victory.
“Want to assassinate a rival? Then how about the Dallas scenario? One slips into reverie. Why not set up Bremer as a crazy who wants to shoot Nixon (that will avert suspicion)? But have him fail to kill Nixon, just as Oswald was said to have failed to kill his first target, General Walker. In midstream have Bremer – like Oswald – shift to a different quarry. To the real quarry.” (p. 883).
We interrupt this reverie for a moment of reality. For the uninitiated, General Edwin Walker was purportedly a right-winger Oswald tried to shoot months before Kennedy’s visit to Dallas, this according to Oswald’s widow, who learned of that attempted murder directly from her husband. Note the language Vidal uses in describing Oswald’s actions, as if there is doubt about this story, as if the attempt on Walker was all a put up job, even though the source of the story was the assassin’s widow, who had nothing to gain by volunteering this information.
This strange fantasy about Bremer also includes a theory that perhaps E. Howard Hunt was the mastermind behind a diary left in Bremer’s car, which Vidal subjects to textual analysis. This is the weird world of Gore Vidal, a man who can entertain any conspiracy except the one that really existed – the Soviet Union’s stated aim to undermine the West and dominate much of the world. But why should we be surprised? In addition to being a fine essayist, Vidal is also one of America’s most celebrated writers of fiction.