Author Gore Vidal died nine years ago today. In May 2007, Joe Lauria sat down with Mr. Vidal to discuss empire. Here, published for the first time, is that interview with a great American writer.
By Joe Lauria
Special to Consortium News
Interview May 2007,
First published today.
The invasion and occupation of Iraq has brought about another invasion—of bookstores by titles linking America with a word that has long been taboo—empire.
Within the past three years there’s been Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire by Niall Ferguson; The Folly of Empire by John Judis; The Sorrows of Empire by Chalmers Johnson; Imperial Hubris by Michael Scheuer (originally anonymously); Overthrow by Stephen Kinzer; Cullen Murphy’s Are We Rome? and The Secret History of the American Empire by John Perkins.
But there’s been someone who’s been writing about it all along. Empire has been a central theme of Gore Vidal’s lifetime of essays and historical fiction. In 1987 he wrote the novel “Empire” and he’s come out with two collections of essays called “The Decline and Fall of the American Empire,” and “The Last Empire: Essays 1992-2000.”
A few months ago, the 82-year old Vidal came to New York to pick up the first PEN/Borders Literary Service Award, “the still-breathing award,” as he called it. I sat down with him at a Border’s bookshop to talk about the problem of U.S. Empire.
The Radiant Empire
Even though the military occupation of Iraq and installation of a client government has stirred some discussion about it, Americans routinely reject even the idea of empire. They will refer to America as a superpower, but can’t seem to utter the “E”-word.
A radio announcer asked John Edwards, who seeks to preside over it, whether he thought America had an empire. “I sure hope not,” he replied.
As I was sitting down for the interview, I thought I heard a Border’s employee mumbling something about “whiskey.” It was 2:30 in the afternoon. Seated in a wheel chair, a cane across his lap, Vidal was facing me from behind a table. Before I could speak a white wine glass filled to the brim with ice and Scotch was placed before him.
He took a sip. I asked a question. I asked Vidal if, unlike today, there was a time when average Americans, or at least the intelligentsia, realized they indeed had an empire in the same vein as other Empires?
“Yes they did,” he said. “You must remember that they all read the classics. Most farmers knew some Latin and a few knew some Greek. You know we were a very well educated people.”
“There was a sort of New Order in the world,” Vidal told me. “That was the phrase that was put on the dollar bill. There was something new under the sun, there was going to be new empire: a Radiant Empire.”
“It did not turn out terribly well,” he said. “Most things human don’t.”
“When do you believe the American Empire began?” I followed up. “Washington in a letter to Lafayette refers to America’s impending westward empire. I think Madison said, ‘We are laying the foundation of a great empire’ and —”
“That was sort of common political rhetoric then,” Vidal interrupted. “Jefferson refers once or twice to ‘our empire’ before he even bought Louisiana. That is the beginning of this. In fact, we really were an empire with all of that territory. The mind-set that brings on, ‘Let’s get more and more empire’ was of course 1846, the Mexican War, in which we doubled the size of the country yet again.”
In Just 35 Years
For those keeping score, that war fought under the banner of Manifest Destiny—as though the continent were a God-given right—yielded the United States 52 percent of Mexico, namely Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, California and parts of Wyoming.
It will be the subject of Vidal’s next book. He told me that at his age he “feared” he still had work to do and it will be about James K. Polk, president during the Mexican War. The book will fill a gap in Vidal’s fictional series on U.S. history.
In 1848, the year the Mexican War ended, a Congressional Act organized the Oregon Territory, comprising today’s Washington State, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and the rest of Wyoming. White settlement unleashed wars with the Tillamook, Cayuse and other sovereign peoples from 1853 to 1859—the year Oregon gained statehood. The continental U.S. was won within a decade.
Thirty-five years of Indian killing, railway building and consolidating gave way to expansion beyond the Continent with the 1893 overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani in Hawaii.
This was shortly followed in 1898 by the three-month war against Spain, which left the U.S. with the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Guam. Some leaders of the generation of William McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt were openly proud of America’s overseas empire, when Empire was still considered something to be openly proud of. Yet they hide their naked pursuit of political and economic interests under the cover of Christianity and progress perhaps to mislead the target nations and assuage their conscience.
Black Stripes & Crossbones
A U.S. massacre of Filipino civilians and the use of water torture moved Mark Twain, vice-president of the Anti-Imperialist League, to suggest the U.S. flag be redesigned with “the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by skull and crossbones.” The ensuing Filipino resistance claimed 4,324 American lives and between 250,000 and 1 million Filipinos—eerily familiar numbers.
Five years after the Spanish War, the U.S. carved Panama out of Colombia to build a canal and there ensued the long history of U.S. covert and overt military interventions in Latin America and the Caribbean, an area marked off for empire by President Monroe in 1823.
With this history, why then is the notion of an American Empire so thoroughly rejected by Americans today?
Do they assume they cannot have an empire because they democratically elect a Congress and an “imperial president” who for the most part only indirectly controls other sovereign nations? Britain and France popularly elected parliaments and both ruled sometimes through local clients, like King Faisal in British Iraq. Neither was ashamed to call themselves Empires. It was the thing to do in those days.
Even the Roman Senate lasted until the end of the Empire and Roman clients ruled some far-off possessions: Herod, for instance, was the Jordanian-born surrogate king of Judea. Before Rome conquered the known world it had to subdue tribes on the Italian peninsula. Were the American wars on this continent against Native Americans, Mexico and two failed invasions of Canada any different?
Vidal said they were not.
Does the media then purposely keep the empire secret, I asked him?
“Not to mention schools,” he said. “I am, or used to be, an authority on high school history books in America. And there’s not one that dares to tell the truth about anything.”
Democracy is America’s ruling myth, Vidal told me. “It’s the one form of government that we’ve never tried.”
Vidal points to the 1947 National Security Act as the creation of an entirely new kind of United States. America’s overseas power had grown radically with the Second World War, after which the U.S. stood as the only undamaged industrial power, left fabulously wealthy by making guns.
Why let peace ruin a good thing? Most post-war investment poured into the arms industry, leaving America with crumbling schools, dysfunctional health care and inadequate public transport but with a shiny military machine constantly at work.
Wasn’t it necessary to exaggerate the Soviet threat as a matter of policy because it grew and sustained a market for the defense industry? “It was good for business,” said Vidal, who believes Truman and Eisenhower knew the Soviet threat was nonsense.
Eisenhower tried to warn us, I asked, but shouldn’t he have done so in the middle of his first term?
“You can’t bite the hand that elected you,” Vidal said. “He did it when he knew he never was going to run again.”
A mere three weeks after the National Security Act, India and Pakistan became independent, starting the decolonization movement that within the next three decades would liberate almost all of colonial Africa, Asia and island nations. Empires receded, particularly Britain’s and France’s. The decolonization movement and Soviet rhetoric rendered “Empire” and “imperialism” dirty words.
Calling It Something Else
Continuation of empire would have to be conducted covertly in name and deed. Running an Empire meant calling it something such as spreading democracy, even if it meant covertly overthrowing democratic regimes in Iran, Guatemala and Chile and installing monarchs and dictators. It was 1776 in reverse. The evil Soviets were an empire. America was not. The U.S. still falsely clung to the memory of 1776. Not only was the truth about the Soviet threat kept hidden. Empire itself became an official secret.
Hence most 2008 presidential candidates, let alone the population, deny America’s empire.
John Perkins, who was working on a book about American Empire before the invasion of Iraq that eventually became the bestseller Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, offers his explanation for how the Empire went underground in his new book, The Secret History of the American Empire.
Unnecessarily onerous loans on developing nations put money in the pockets of corrupt client rulers and American contractors, while giving political leverage to Washington to put in bases or grab natural resources.
“The Chinese, like the Romans, Spanish and British before them had openly conquered,” Perkins writes. “Nothing subtle about it.” Today, by using “tools like the IMF and the World Bank, backed up by the CIA and jackals (assassins)” America is “practicing a new form of conquest, imperialism-through-subterfuge.”
When clients have refused to cooperate with the U.S. they have been assassinated, overthrown or, if all else failed, their countries were invaded, Perkins says.
I asked Vidal if he believed the war on Terror, like the Cold War, was a hoax to drum up defense contracts and to cover up a war for resources.
“Yes, I do,” he said. “It’s been wonderful for Homeland Security, Halliburton, all of those employees of various construction companies. They outnumber our troops. And they behave like troops.”
Scholars disagree on what makes an empire. There is no one definition. They have taken on different forms, but all share some essential traits without which they cannot be empires.
One is that they must be a state that extends economic, cultural and military dominion over foreign lands. The U.S. has military bases in 140 nations. Empires can be contiguous or overseas, or, like America’s, both.
There’s another constant feature of all empires: they collapse. They are typically overextended and cannot be sustained.
Perkins told me in an email he is optimistic about a post-empire future. He believes civic groups can overcome and democracy will prevail.
I knew by the look in Vidal’s eyes that he would be very unlikely to agree. I asked if he saw any way out for the United States at this point.
“Yes, bankruptcy, which is where we are headed,” he said. “I tell you within a year or two we will not be able to service the national debt. We cannot pay the interest on all those bonds we’ve sold to the Chinese. And they are going into euros and will buy oil with euros—real money. We are out of it.”
“I’ve just come in from Shanghai, which was like New York in the 1940s,” Vidal said. “That’s where the life is, where the pulse is going.”
Can the Republic still be saved, I asked him?
“Read Aristotle,” Vidal said. “It cannot. What has been done to ours is terminal.”
When the bases close and the empire recedes what will continental America look like?
“Paraguay,” Vidal said with a straight face.
“We will have a caudillo,” he said. “We will have a great leader that everybody loves—until they kill him.”
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This is a transcript of remarks Vidal made at the event at the bookstore, and his interaction with the audience, that day when he received the PEN award.
VIDAL: I remember Columbus Circle. Seventy years ago. People were just wandering around. Which direction is north? Which is south? Walking in the park.
Anyway, I’m supposed to give a reading. I’ve never given a reading to anyone. My theory is, it is bad enough to write, without being a reader. (Laughter). I leave reading to other folks. I’ll check with you about anything that is on your mind.
We’ll get to Bush later.
That’s for the grand finale. O.U.T. as I say to my dogs.
What’s the mood here today? Mood masters tell me your mood?
Q: Happy to see you.
Happy to be here, really. I’m getting a prize tonight, one of those things you get once you’re past 80 you get the “Still Breathing” prize. At least it’s not Capote. We are waiting for the third movie, are we not? I was impersonated in the second movie … by an American actor who looks like a Tapioca pudding.
Anyway, here we are on a beautiful spring day. You know New York used to have good weather. We used to have beautiful springs. They started a bit earlier than this. And the park would be abloom with natural flowers. It’s not my native city. My native city is District of Columbia, as you might suspect. Cherry blossoms.
What is on anybody’s mind?
Revolution, did I hear? Don’t turn out very well. I have to pretend that ours did. Don’t you know that from George Washington to George Bush makes a monkey out of Darwin.
They are creationists. The Divine Artificer in the sky who made all of this. I’d like him to have a look at my spine some day to see what He did and to everyone else’s spine. Enough of me.
Q: What is to be done?
What is to be done? Normally, in the history of the United States, you would hold an election and you would get them out. Now, you hold the election and Diebold withholds the vote and decides not to share it with us. So in 2000, we had President Gore, the one I’m going to vote for if he’s running in ’08. He’s a little grumpy about it. Why get elected president if you are not allowed to serve? When the Supreme Court says you are not to go to the White House. I think Albert would win this time. Normally, and we are a very abnormal country.
The Bill of Rights, remember the USA Patriot Act took away most of it. And where were the great voices in the land when we lost habeas corpus? That’s the only gift England left us when they left our shores. The Magna Carta for a thousand years. Due process of law. I remember my grandfather drilling me every day as a child, when I was … The Congressional federal general…I was the only ten year old who knew about bi-mentalism … He said that without due process of law, there is no democracy. There is no country. There is no republic. So we try to get that back.
I didn’t hear one voice in the country. In my youth there would have been Judge Vernon Hand? Who would be speaking, Walter Lippman would be writing in the old Herald Tribune. Now we have these nasty, truly nasty newspapers who just ply the gossip. We don’t have a discussion about anything. It is a distorted view of the country that allowed an oil and gas lobby to hi-jack the republic with the ghastly results that we have been experiencing.
No voices were raised in the Democratic Party, which seems barely to exist. I like Pelosi. I like Dennis Kucinich. I had a long talk with him about, ‘Don’t impeach the president first, The New York Times loves him. It is the sort of thing the Times would like. A bad government bent upon taking away civil rights? You can’t have this in The New York Times. I said to Kucinich: Impeach the Vice President. This is something weird. We’ve never had a rogue vice president. They tried to pretend that poor Aaron Burr was. He was first gentleman of the United States according to most Americans in the 18th Century. Grandson of the great preacher and of course his father and grandfather were presidents of the University of New Jersey, now of course called Princeton. He was no rogue. He was a patriot. We had a good beginning.
We have rogues in high office and no one wants to do anything about them. And there is a war between children … and a totally pointless and humiliated media committed to … corporate America. There we are. We have no recourse. We also have no neighbors. It started to bother me when I lived in Europe. We’ve got Mexico to the south, which isn’t a proper nation in our view because they won’t speak English … we give them every opportunity. They gave us California. Those of us in California are going pretty well with English if we work at it. To north we have Canada, who loathe us. We have invaded them two times. This is something that is never taught in the public schools in the U.S. While George Washington was busy losing the revolution to the Brits, what did he order? An invasion of Canada. Okay, he was looking ahead, but…
You’d think he might get back to New York and Boston. A slowing moving man. So the Canadians know it and they want to keep us at arm’s length. We have no neighbors. Now, if you screw up in Europe, say the French government does, across the border in England they know, across the border in Germany they know that. And they write about it and they tell their people about it. That’s how you find out things. Without The Economist I would know nothing about American politics. You wouldn’t learn anything out from the local papers, where everyone’s bought.
No neighbors. And now, no republic. We are facing stormy times. Stormy times.
Q: Have you heard about Sam Waterston’s third party idea?
All the New Dealers are pretending to be centrists. Now we get what was basically a good New Dealer, Hillary. I know her mother, who is basically a tough, unrepentant New Dealer. They were on the cutting edge of whatever was new. Now we are pretending because it is the media that wants them to do that, and the Christian fundamentalists rising from the mud of the southland. We always got along without them. My grandfather was elected six or seven times to the U.S. Senate from Oklahoma. And he was an atheist. Not that he ever let them know. He was blind you see and that covered a lot of sins with his constituents.
Now the word liberal has been turned into a kind of commie weirdo. Well it isn’t. It’s the only thing that made this country interesting. By and large we’ve just been on the march.
Joe Lauria is editor-in-chief of Consortium News and a former UN correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, and numerous other newspapers. He was an investigative reporter for the Sunday Times of London and began his professional career as a stringer for The New York Times. He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @unjoe
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