Re: Vidal on 9-11; Barak Offer
Congress should investigate how much the Bush "oil junta" knew in
advance about Sept. 11. This and other bombshells from American
literature's leading provocateur.
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By Gary Kamiya, Salon.com
April 24, 2002
Vidal spoke to Salon from his home in Los Angeles.
Let's start with your new book, "Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace:
How We Got to Be So Hated." One of the main themes in your work is
the perniciousness of what you call the American empire. And you
argue that Osama bin Laden was motivated in large part not because he
was evil incarnate, as George W. Bush claimed, but out of a very
specific and historically based hatred for that empire. So my first
question is, what is it about America in particular, whether you call
it a superpower or an empire, that inspires hatred, not just with bin
Laden, but among others? Do you think that we're more hated than
other empires in the past have been?
Well, I don't know that we are unique in the fact that we do inspire
a good deal of hatred around the world because of the way we throw
ourselves about. But the whole story in Afghanistan is not about
Osama and his religious views, although they have some bearing, but
is about a great coup on the part of the United States to grab all of
the oil and natural gas of central Asia. And that is what we set out
to do. Mr. Bush Sr. secured the Persian Gulf oil, which is Kuwait,
Iraq, Iran, the Emirates, and so on. But far larger than the Persian
Gulf is the Caspian Sea oil, and Uzbekistan, and all the other -stans
that used to be part of the Soviet Union. We have been deliberately
encircling that section of the world -- which is why we were in
We asked "Where's Osama?" because we always have to personalize
everything. Everything is always one evil man, and if we get him,
we've ended the drug trade. Remember Noriega? If we got him, that was
the end of the drug trade. Well, we got him, and it didn't end.
So with Osama, we say, we will get revenge for the horrible thing he
did -- if he did it. Now there is considerable doubt -- he certainly
was in on it, and he helped finance what happened on 9/11, but it
could well have been somebody else. What we have been looking for is
a trigger. We had already planned to go into Afghanistan in October
of '01. We have been desperately trying to put in a pipeline that
runs through Afghanistan, Pakistan, down to Karachi and the Indian
Ocean. The Taliban were just too scatterbrained and too crazy to deal
with any longer, although we dealt with them for a long time.
And so we went in there to try and stabilize the place in order for
Unocal to build a pipeline. So all of this is about oil. For once we
really are doing something practical and not trying to wipe out evil,
a task too large even for a Bush.
But, even assuming that the Bush administration was hungering for oil
in the region, wouldn't you agree that the U.S. military intervention
in Afghanistan was appropriate and necessary after the major attack
we suffered on Sept. 11? Are you saying that oil was more of a
concern than terrorism?
Well, the giveaway was, when Tommy Franks, the commanding general of
our forces there, arrived in Afghanistan, people kept asking, "Where
is Osama bin Laden?" And he said, well, it would be nice if we found
Osama bin Laden, but that's not really why we're here. And suddenly,
it was put on a back burner, and we've sort of forgotten about it,
because other things have taken its place. In other words, that was
never the simple motivation. However, for P.R. purposes, we have
always -- this is where I got off on Noriega -- we must always
personify, preferably as "evil," one single person.
We did that with Timothy McVeigh. McVeigh was part of a much larger
plot which the FBI refused to investigate, just as Congress has
refused to find out. Ordinarily we'd have hearings. You'd think that
after being hit as we were in New York, there would be hearings
immediately, as there were after Pearl Harbor, an investigation into
why we spend $30 billion a year on intelligence and we didn't know
about what was obviously a plot that took about four years, they now
estimate, to get those planes on target to destroy our buildings and
people. We would have an investigation. There is none.
And Bush went to Daschle and said, no, no, we can't have one now. I
don't know what reasons he gave, but they haven't had one. Well, any
sane country is going to investigate, particularly with such a vast
and proud military as we've got, why it took 90 minutes before the
planes were in the air, our fighters. An ordinary hijacking, they
would be up there in about five minutes, in any part of the U.S. But
it took 90 minutes before they were in the air. Something is going
Are you contending that it's possible that there was American
foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks?
Of course there was. I love it that we like to pose as stupid and
incompetent rather than as perhaps canny and up to no good. Maybe
it's easier to sell incompetence out there to the people. But I don't
think taxpayers who pay as much money as we do are terribly pleased
that the FBI and the CIA knew nothing at all of this, and didn't get
cracking on it, and that Congress then doesn't investigate why they
didn't. Any sane normal country, like the U.S. of 50 years ago, would
investigate. We would find out immediately what went wrong.
Everybody knew that Roosevelt had considerable foreknowledge of Pearl
Harbor. And they also knew, Washington knew, that a strike was
coming, and [Gen. Walter C.] Short and [Admiral Husband E.] Kimmel,
the two commanders in Hawaii, were not warned, but a lot of other
people were. Same thing happened this time.
So, as with your argument about FDR's alleged foreknowledge of the
Pearl Harbor attack, your argument would be that the Bush
administration knew in advance of the Sept. 11 attack and planned to
use it as a pretext to go into Afghanistan?
You have said it. I didn't say it. I think it's a possibility. I
would rather the Congress found out for me; that's what we pay them
But it sounds like you believe that to be the case.
I don't know that I believe it. It seems to be more likely than we
were just in a state of paralysis and knew nothing.
Although when one looks at the dubious recent history of the FBI and
the CIA, and their lamentable track record in all kinds of things,
perhaps it isn't that surprising that incompetence alone could be the
answer for their failure to detect this plot.
I like your optimism.
But in the case of a terrorist attack of this magnitude, to presume
that our ruling guardians would be prepared to write off hundreds if
not thousands of Americans for the purpose of a casus belli that they
could probably find another pretext for anyway, it doesn't seem to
meet the Occam's razor conditions. It seems like overkill for a casus
Well, I am a devotee of Occam's razor, and use it daily. What is
obviously so is probably obviously so. But it is not obvious that the
CIA and the FBI didn't know. There's a guy called David Schippers, a
law professor who is in charge of a growth industry at the capital,
which is impeachment. He handled the Clinton impeachment.
A very conservative Democrat who served House Judiciary chairman Rep.
Henry Hyde during the impeachment hearings.
Yes, a very conservative Democrat. I do not know the man, but I've
been reading about him, because I've been studying a great deal about
what happened on Sept. 11. According to Schippers, three men from the
FBI came to him and told him they had the names, and the time and the
place that 9/11 was going to happen. They could not get it through
Now you would put that down to the incompetence of the superiors; so
would I generally. But there are too many things, in other words,
there are other Occam razors hanging on the wall here. They went to
Schippers and said, we couldn't get through. And they wanted to file
a suit against their superiors at the FBI. You really ought to get
Schippers on this thing, if he will talk. But anyway he now
represents, so I read in the press, several other FBI guys who also
had stuff that they couldn't get through, warning that this was going
to happen. Now that seems to me to point in another direction from
our old friend incompetence. Why they would be dragging their feet,
and why they would play so dangerous a game, because it's going to be
found out if somebody deliberately allowed this to happen, it really
would be the end of a government, so it is a very dicey situation.
I am not going to make any accusations of any kind, because I don't
know. But I have suspicions, and I know where investigations should
go. In the McVeigh case, I wrote a letter to [FBI chief Robert]
Mueller at the FBI listing -- it's in the new book -- I list all of
the leads they didn't follow up on, which I happened to find out
about, which were all parts of discovery in various trials across the
Middle West, and so are part of the public record. They didn't follow
up on one of them. I'm still waiting for an answer from Mr. Mueller.
There's too much of this going on, and there is a kind of general
policy that the people must know nothing about anything. All of the
classification of documents, as you know as well as I do, is not done
so that wicked enemies of the United States will find out our
secrets; it's so that Americans will not find out what their
government is up to. And what are they up to? Well, the thing that
makes the most sense, we are now governed by a junta of oil-Pentagon
men. They're mostly from the oil business, both Bushes, Cheney,
Rumsfeld and so on. They are in charge, and this is the last great
coup which will benefit them personally, and it will also benefit,
I'm sure they're sufficiently patriotic to believe, the United
States, to have this vast supply of oil, out of central Asia, through
various pipelines. We can't use Iran, because we've demonized them
too much. That would be simpler. Turkey has been dicey. But the
Pakistan-Afghanistan route was okay, and then the Taliban got too
crazy for us and too unstable.
This seems to me to be what it's about. It's usually about something
like this, and here it is. They could probably sell that one to the
American people. Do you want cheap oil? Every other country has
expensive gas for their cars, but we have the cheapest. Well, it will
be even cheaper once we get our hands not only on this oil, but what
we've done is, we've encircled this whole area of Muslim republics,
the old Soviet Union. We've got bases. We've got bases in Uzbekistan.
And Putin has gone along with it, because he sees us as a balance to
a native Muslim movement, which could be unpleasant for them.
So there's a whole new world in the making here, and no one is even
bothering to analyze it, we're just going on and on about whether
Osama bin Laden uses eyeliner.
So you see this as all part of a strategic --
A geopolitical plot of a major scale, and the empire is now spreading
its wings over a new area of the earth.
But again, is it plausible that a U.S. government would write off
that many of its citizens on Sept. 11?
I have never said they did. I said I'd like it investigated.
Assuming this were the case, another objection that presents itself
is the United States' failure to engage in what Bush once derisively
called "nation-building" in Afghanistan after the end of the major
military hostilities. Many knowledgeable observers, like Ahmed
Rashid, have said that that just as Bush's critics feared, he has not
followed up by preventing internecine strife, keeping warlords in
check, and supporting sufficient international peacekeeping forces.
But if this was part of a geopolitical strategic plot to gain control
of the oil and to stabilize a nation which had been destabilized by
the Taliban, it wouldn't seem to make sense for the U.S. to be
standing by and allowing the country to teeter on the edge of
anarchy. Wouldn't one expect that if we were actually engaged in this
as a kind of geopolitical move that we would be moving very quickly
to shore up the stability of that country?
Well, we have no idea whether we're moving quickly or not, nor have
we any idea what the successor government in Afghanistan is going to
be. One interesting dog that barked: For a long time Unocal, Union
Oil of California, had plans in the works with previous Afghan
governments to build a pipeline. Finally they gave up about three or
four years ago and just stopped everything. Then, right after 9/11,
the go-ahead came to start building the pipeline. That sounds to me
like there's going to be some kind of nation-building going on, at
least pipe, oil-pipe building. That is a sign that something is being
stabilized in our favor.
All of this is incremental. I can't imagine Bush -- I use Bush as a
generic term -- would have any idea about how to build a nation. And
they're not even terribly good at tearing them down from 35,000 feet.
You hit random buildings rather than specific targets. I always like
that precision bombing that we do at 35,000 feet. Nobody has ever
Well, they're certainly getting better at it with these guided
weapons, although they're obviously not 100 percent accurate.
Well, particularly if you aim it directly at the school while they're
all in there, I guess it does some damage.
In the new book, when you're talking about our attack on Afghanistan,
you write that the media omitted to point out that the Afghans were
not our enemy. And I think you compared our campaign against al-Qaida
to trying to destroy the Mafia by bombing Palermo.
Well, the way to have handled it is perfectly obvious. First of all,
use the U.N. Kofi Annan is generally trusted around the world and
quite efficient. You don't declare war -- first of all, there is no
war. You can only do that on a country. You practice war, I suppose,
as we did finally against Afghanistan. But this is a mob that struck
us, like the Mafia. It may be a religiously inspired mob, but no less
a mob, and no less murderous, whoever it was. You use the police. The
CIA used to be terribly good at this sort of thing. We could
overthrow whole countries and governments, from Guatemala to Africa.
We were very, very good at that. You try and find out, where the
origins of this were and you send them in there. You do some police
work -- you don't start bombing Afghanistan.
None of the terrorists was an Afghan. They were mostly Saudi Arabian.
And the embarrassment is that Saudi Arabia is the center of the plot,
and Osama is in with the royal family, his whole family is, and he's
still in with his own family. So the idea that he's some sort of
renegade hiding in the hills, playing Lawrence of Arabia in there, up
there in Tora Bora is nonsense. The plot is elsewhere. But we don't
dare go into that, because the oil people who now govern us are too
closely allied with the royal family of Saudi Arabia. We haven't
really gone anywhere near where the trouble is.
Speaking of the Saudis, let me ask about the Middle East. Many
observers thought that the Bush administration, because of its oil
background, would be far less pro-Sharon than they have turned out to
be. And certainly their actions vis-a-vis the Saudis, so far, while
they have tried to walk a delicate line in trying to prop up the
Saudi regime as much as possible, have been remarkably unforthcoming
on Israel to the Arab point of view. What do you attribute that to?
And what do you think the United States should be doing now to try to
end this terrible situation in the Middle East?
Well, it seems that the last chance anybody is going to have will be
the Saudi Arabian plan for Israel. And domestic politics makes it
impossible even for the Bushites, who owe very little to the Israel
lobby. They could afford much more than Democrats could to ignore
them. But they have been blocked by Congress. So they're not going to
do much of anything, and the thing will just play its bloody self
We have so many great lines going, and I chuckle ruefully every time
one of them comes back around again. My favorite one is the wonderful
deal that Barak offered Arafat, who turned it down because he just
loves terrorism, and just loves blowing up suicide bombers. That is
now an article of faith all around the world, but particularly in the
In reality, Arafat was offered the most godawful deal. If you've seen
the map I have -- Europeans get to see things that Americans never
see -- the proposal that Barak made was, breaking up the Palestinians
in the West Bank into three clumps, each surrounded totally by
Israeli settlements and troops. So you had three cages, and that was
the great deal that Arafat turned down. He wouldn't have remained in
office, if that's what you call it, another day had he accepted that.
Since then the disinformation folks have been so busy working, we now
think that they had really offered him the Garden of Eden, with hot
and cold running water, and he turned it down because he prefers
terrorism. He loves it, he loves suicide bombers. Now to get that lie
out, God, it takes such energy and such passion and such ingenuity.
But not one word of truth in it.
Another interesting thing is that although Arafat did not accept that
particular offer, he never actually withdrew from the entire
Quite the contrary. He was at the beginning of it.
And at the end he was still committed to continuing negotiations. And
when Sharon was elected, Sharon made it clear that --
He tore it all up.
-- that it was no longer operative.
Oslo was dead.
To return to the question of Bush and the political constraints
imposed by Congress' virtually monolithic and uncritical support of
Israel, there's a long history in the U.S. of the executive branch
butting heads with Capitol Hill and sometimes being able to get their
way over the generally pro-Israeli Congress. And Bush would seem to
have enough political capital to do that, invoking the strategic
needs in the region. A lot of Congress' impassioned rhetoric about
Israel is a lot of hot air, they're answering to lobbyists and to
important constituencies, but when the chips are down, they will
accept an American policy that is more evenhanded than their rhetoric
would seem to imply. Don't you think that Bush would have enough
political capital to push for a genuine Mideast peace settlement if
he wanted to?
Well, who knows what he wants. But no, he doesn't really. And I think
the proof of it was a few years ago when Arafat was supposed to come
and speak at the United Nations, and the Senate passed a sense of the
Senate resolution that he not be allowed in the United States. Well,
the United Nations is not supposed to be in the United States, though
it physically is. It's a separate entity. And they forbade it. And it
was by a two-thirds vote. Well, you don't have to be a great
parliamentarian to know that two-thirds is all that's needed to
override a presidential veto. So Arafat didn't come. That's what Bush
is up against. And his handlers, as much as they might want to kick
Sharon's ass, they can't do it to the Congress. And I don't see how
they would get around it if two-thirds of the Senate -- and it's a
reasonably good Senate, from my point of view -- are adamant on this
because they've either been paid or intimidated or whatever, on this
So no, I don't see that he has any leeway at all there.
Well, what about the argument that even the most fervent pro-Sharon,
pro-Likud Zionists are now beginning to despair of his policies? I
shouldn't say the most ardent, because that would take us to
Netanyahu and those who support "transfer" for Palestinians --
That would take us to metaphysics.
Right. But let's say you're a mainstream blank-check backer of
Israel -- at this point you're beginning to realize, as much of the
Israeli press does, that Sharon, like many generals, is a brilliant
tactician but a terrible strategist; that he has no endgame at all;
that he has no vision beyond repeated military assaults, which as
everyone knowledgeable about the region predicts will only breed more
terrorist attacks, and that there is no ultimate military solution
that's palatable to the world. Because it's probably not possible to
absolutely wall off the two people from each other. So even the
hawkish element in Israel must be realizing that their policies have
reached a dead end. Don't you think that opens up some new
possibilities? Or do you remain a pessimist?
Well, yes, I am. See, the longer this thing goes on -- it's a very
small place, Israel. And the hatred between the two sides is now
beyond anything that has been seen in the world for quite some time.
Before, our enemies were thousands of miles away, if you're an
American, and you don't really get to see them. But these people are
on top of each other. Something must be done soon -- either following
the Saudi plan, or perhaps just cutting off all aid to the Middle
East from the United States -- that would shake things up. It might
speed up a solution, or an armistice anyway, while people try and put
it back together again.
But the longer it goes on, the more members of families that have
lost people will be seething and waiting to get revenge. That's how
human beings respond to this sort of thing. And it can't go on
another day. And unfortunately, we have no government in the U.S. We
have no foreign policy. We have oil policy. We have a lot of
realpolitik stuff going on, which has to do with our national wealth
and private wealth as well.
Aside from that, there is no policy. The junta, the oil junta in
charge of us, regards all the world as its enemy. And its largest
enemy are the American people, and they know it. A majority of the
American people voted against Bush. We not only have a minority -- in
my mind an illegitimate -- president, but one who does not represent
the people at large and does not like the people at large.
You, I know, have had your ears flapping over the years as have I at
Republican rhetoric when they think they're not being overheard.
Their loathing of the people. I remember Barry Goldwater saying to
Mr. [F. Clinton] White, in my presence and Norman Mailer's, this was
in '64 at the [GOP convention in San Francisco's] Cow Palace, "Well,"
he says to White, "you know, you can't say that. Because the whiny
American people will get upset." I love that image. I took that away
with me: "the whiny American people."
Well, the American people may not have much feeling for the actual
power brokers around him, but in the case of George W. Bush, while he
may be a figurehead, he does seem to be widely regarded as a hapless
Everyman who really does have the common touch.
You are plainly a misanthropist.
Well, it's remarkable how many journalists who have covered him,
including ones that don't like him politically, report that he
actually does seem to have a kind of frat-boy geniality and ability
to connect with ordinary Americans, that his problem isn't the
elitism or the Machiavellian detachment of the oil cabal. His problem
would be that he's not actually the guy in charge.
No, he's not. Cheney is running the place, from an undisclosed cave
somewhere. To the extent the United States is being run at all.
Corporate America is in charge, and these people are sort of
To return again to the Middle East, your position then is that
they've opted for a traditional "Fortress Israel" position in which
we prop up the Saudis, who we deem will probably have to deal with us
in any case. We shove Riyadh's fundamentalist problems under the rug
as best we can, and we allow Israel to be our regional Sparta, taking
care of our business in the area. And we're prepared to take the P.R.
hit and the demonstrations and the anger of the Arab street, because
the Bush guys don't believe that ultimately it will ever come to
anything. Do you think that about sums up their strategic thinking on
Well, we've inherited a situation, and they, the government, the
administration has inherited it. In a sense, cynical Europeans have
always taken it for granted -- in '48 and '49 when we were setting up
Israel, with the most wonderful humanitarian gestures on earth, [the
West] was also securing its oil by having a friend and a military
force in the long run in that region, just to make sure that no
revolution in Saudi Arabia, say, would deny us oil. That's what
I always thought that that was perhaps too cynical. But I suspect
that it's beginning to seem more correct to me as time goes by.
Israel is our Sparta, set in the way of the "Muslim horde" -- I put
that in quotation marks, because we have so demonized the Islamic
world that we can't think straight about them. Nor do we seem to
realize how non-monolithic they are. Had they been monolithic, there
would be no Israel, and there would be no oil for the United States
either. They would switch off the plug, pull the plug.
But they are not monolithic, and they can't get together, and that
has been the salvation of Israel, and the salvation of our oil
It does seem, though, looking at it strategically, that it's a double-
edged sword for the United States to embrace Israel as our enforcer
against Arab destabilization and rage, because that very embrace is
the leading cause of rage at the United States.
I think once again you have seized Occam's razor, and shaved. But
don't shave too close.
Let's return to McVeigh and Waco. The debacle at Waco was his driving
motivation and force, as you point out. And you express considerable
and justified outrage at the Waco atrocity. By so doing, though,
you've ended up taking the same anti-government side as a lot of
I get a lot of mail from people about McVeigh and Waco, and a lot of
them are not right-wing cranks. They're not all crazy. McVeigh told
me that what led him to do what he did was when he went to Waco and
saw tanks used against American civilians. This was something you
didn't hear about -- his actual reason. This doesn't mean we approve
of what he did, but we have to understand why he did it.
Why do you think the left, in general, seems to see Waco more as an
anomaly than the right?
Because they're the people who were in favor of Social Security! You
know, at the time that Social Security was proposed, a lot of people
on the right said, "You won't have a name, only a number." [Laughs]
Now I've come around to the other side. The Social Security number is
being used by every government agency to keep track of us because we
don't have a national identity number. I thought, "How ironic it is --
those awful right-wingers were right!" Now, I would not want Social
Security to go away -- but I'm not a broker and I don't want to
invest that money in the stock market.
Let me ask you a more general question pertaining to your views about
the legitimate uses of American power. Your general ideological
affiliation is clearly a Jeffersonian one. You're wary of entangling
alliances and you believe that projections of American power tend to
be driven by less than lofty motivations, and tend to often end
badly. And I'm wondering if there are cases when American
intervention is justified, in your mind. Let's take the example of
Rwanda. Would an American military intervention into that horrific
situation have been justified?
Certainly not. Minding one's own business is a virtue, and
particularly if your business has traditionally been business, at
which we were once very good. It is best that we keep our own house
in proper order, and put our money into what Henry Clay called
internal improvements. We haven't internally improved the United
States plant in 50 years, and the place is falling apart.
Did you know that they don't teach geography any more in the public
schools? They asked a cross-section of Americans, they showed them a
globe of the world with all the continents and islands and oceans,
and asked them to identify the United States. Nothing was labeled.
And something like 80 percent couldn't find it. And a great many of
them had a sense of humor, they picked Panama, because it's a nice
little thing with two big globes, one above it, one below it.
Now if you haven't taught the people geography and history, and
you're in the global empire business, you are preparing for
catastrophe. People don't know where things are. They don't want to
go off -- we have never wanted to go off and fight in foreign wars.
The foreign wars have always been arranged for us -- now I reveal my
populist roots -- but have always been the work of Eastern banks, by
and large, or a governing class, which likes the idea of adventure. I
specifically refer to Henry Cabot Lodge, to Brooks Adams, Theodore
Roosevelt, Captain Mahon -- these are the four horsemen who gave us
our first international empire, which was the Spanish-American War,
which got us into the Philippines, which got us into Asia.
It was just a small group. The American people had to be dragged into
World War I, and they had to be really tricked into World War II.
Now, I think it was a good idea to defeat Hitler. I would have said
eventually we would have gone in on England's side. But what
Roosevelt faced was the fact that 80 percent of the people then, at
the time of Pearl Harbor, refused to go to war. It was as flat as
that. And the America First movement was huge, and everybody was in
it from right wing to left wing, and so on.
So we are a pacific people, and we have plenty of territory. And yet
our bankers and internationalists were very interested in foreign
adventures. J.P. Morgan was largely responsible for World War I, when
the Brits ran out of money in 1914, and Morgan single-handedly upheld
the pound, until finally he said, well, this is absurd, and he
persuaded Wilson, he said, you've got to do something. And I'm afraid
we must be at war, because only a nation can uphold another nation's
currency. Hence that came to pass. That is the background to our
So should we be in Rwanda, for God's sake? Yes, as a humanitarian, if
we can be useful to help keep the peace, yes. But I thought the
United Nations was for that.
Yes, but unfortunately the U.N. has proved ineffectual. They
generally don't have the will or the muscle.
Well, it might help if we paid our dues.
You know, that piece of rhetoric -- about the U.S. being the only
superpower capable of improving the world -- is beginning to sound
like an absurdist joke. We have one of the most ill-run countries on
earth, from having no educational system for the general public to no
national healthcare. We are so far behind the other First World
countries, and Americans don't even know it.
I have been reading the American press for 60 or 70 years. I have
never read a story favorable to another society. Yes, we are told,
Sweden has wonderful healthcare, education, daycare centers for
working mothers -- but they're all alcoholics and commit suicide. Do
you want to commit suicide because you have healthcare? No, you
don't. It's against God's law.
I get the feeling that you would find it difficult to ever accept any
American intervention, no matter how clear-cut its morality was. I
understand your point that we too often fail to take care of our own
business at home, but isn't reaching out to help others a sign of
some kind of national maturity, and kind of moving away from a
Well, you describe a world that does not exist. I recommend to you a
book by Smedley Butler, a major general in the Marine Corps, a
commanding general of the Marine Corps at the first part of the 20th
century. Smedley Butler did a memoir. And he said, basically, I was
an enforcer for the Chase Manhattan Bank, for Standard Oil. He said
Al Capone only operated in four city districts. I operated in four
Then he goes into detail. He was in Shanghai, securing the bank's
interests. He was down in Venezuela securing oil interests for
Standard Oil. He was a tool of our great capitalist system, which we
are told daily is the envy of the earth. The general at the end of
his career blew up at the way he felt that he and the Marines had
been misused in order to secure profits for these corporations. I've
got some footage, I did a documentary on him. And I've got some
wonderful footage of American Marines on the Great Wall of China.
Americans couldn't believe that we'd ever been there, and there we
were, before Nixon. It might have been nice to superimpose Nixon over
the Marines, but that would have been cheating.
So if General Butler, who was an old-fashioned American, thought that
about our adventures, and in retrospect, when it came time to write
his memoir, was ashamed of having taken part in them, I would think
that he is a knowledgeable witness, better than you and better than
In "The Last Empire" you denounce the rise of what you call "the
national security state," and Truman's arrogation of an enormous
amount of power to fight the Communist menace. But while there were
clearly excesses in the fight against Communism, particularly on the
Cold War domestic front, the evils of the Soviet empire, detailed for
instance in the horrible revelations of the "Black Book of
Communism," clearly demonstrate that our own empire was far more
benign in comparison, don't you agree?
But it was also far less aggressive than we were. Stalin only made
trouble on his borders, with border states. Because after all, the
Russians do have a memory of being constantly invaded. We have never
been invaded. Well, once we were, by the Brits. But in general, he
was paranoid about that, and he was paranoid about the bad faith of
the United States. Roosevelt agreed to a number of things at Yalta
which really were against Stalin's interests. But he went along with
it because he trusted him. Truman comes along, goes to Potsdam,
discovers through a telegram from New Mexico that the atom bomb
works, and he doesn't need Stalin for the final war against Japan. So
he starts to break every agreement that he had made with Stalin, who
then gets not only paranoid, but gets hysterical.
Then when we unite the French, the British and the American regions
of Germany, leaving Stalin with Prussia, which was the lousiest part,
we form another country with a new currency, which is far better than
anything the Russians have got. We pretend that Stalin divided
Germany. He didn't; we did.
We have absolutely rewritten all of history. It's like the famous
Barak plan that Arafat turned down. This is constant rewriting. To
make ourselves look quite different from what we really were. The
Cold War was on Truman's head, because he thought he didn't need
Stalin, he didn't like Stalin. He saw no use for us to even bother in
that part of the world, but if we did, we would have the best part of
Germany, which he then started to rearm, which put Stalin into great
hysterics. And that's when he sealed off Berlin, and we had to do the
airlift and so on, and the Cold War really got going.
That's on our head, but you're not going to hear that in the schools,
and nobody will write that in the press, or if they do, it'll be in a
scholarly paper, unread.
But don't you believe that Stalin would have carried out his ruthless
expansionism in Eastern Europe without much provocation?
No. He'd taken just about everything he needed. Poland has always
been something that the Russians have grabbed from time to time. And
Czechoslovakia, they didn't seem to really want it when they started
in, but they just kept on.
Where was he going to go? Some time ago, I had a conversation with a
big fat man called General Vernon Walters, remember him? Just died. A
great geopolitician. And he was moaning away, we were at the American
Embassy in Rome, moaning away about how they're winning, they're
winning everywhere. All over the world are communists, the world is
going communist, and we do nothing. He said, just look at the map,
you'll see what's happened. The Russians are everywhere. Communism is
spreading. And we are shrinking.
I said, well, we haven't done too badly since the second war. Well,
he said, look at Romania, for instance. Romania -- he started a
speech. I said, oh, come off it. Stalin got Romania, and my God,
every night I wake up shivering at the thought of those poor
Romanians in his clutches. But we got Germany.
Well, he said, that's different. And what about his attempt in
Greece? I said, he didn't attempt anything. He let the Greek
Communists die. He was not going to interfere in that one.
Well, in Asia, he started. I said, yeah, yeah, he got North Korea, by
God. That was shrewd of him, wasn't it. We got Japan, General. And
that was the end of him. I could hear him mutter.
Is it really legitimate to compare the hegemonic control of the
Soviet Union over the Warsaw Pact countries with the control that the
United States had over its NATO allies?
Well, we have a lighter hand. All NATO was was a means of keeping
control over Western Europe. We were not there to save the French
from the marching Russians. The Russians weren't marching anywhere.
We were there to make sure that Western Europe didn't have Communist
governments, that we could control them.
The CIA was formed in order to control public opinion. Its first
great coup, and I was in Italy in 1948 at the time of the April
elections when it looked like the Communists might well win it, the
CIA spent a fortune. They bought newspapers, they bought magazines,
they bought politicians, they bought political parties, anything to
keep [Palmiro] Togliatti [the founder of the Communist Party of
Italy] out of the government. And they kept him out, which I think in
the long run was a mistake, as the Italian Communists were somewhat
to the right of Senator Taft, a Republican figure of those days.
But just to press the point one more time, there were no tanks in the
streets of Paris sent there by the United States. You say we had a
lighter hand, implying that it's a matter of degree. But I would say
it's a distinction in kind. I'm not arguing with your observations
about the American perfidy in many ways in trying to affect the
course of post-World War II Europe and suppressing political
movements there that were not to our ideological liking, but
nonetheless, it seems to me we should draw a shining line between
that type of behavior and, you know, jackboots and tanks. It seems to
me that's a distinction that we don't want to blur.
Well, I think it's a matter of degree. You have to remember how poor
Russia was, and how essentially primitive their system was. When it
came time to retreat from Central Europe, they didn't have enough
tanks or trucks to drag their artillery out. They used horses.
So they lost, I don't know, 20 million people in the war. They were
owed $20 billion in reparations, which they never got, because it was
to have come from Germany, and we of course had taken Germany back,
away from them. So they surround themselves with states that they
don't want any trouble from, and they don't want any foreign armies
crossing Poland, Czechoslovakia, whatever.
So I'm not arguing that they were a kindly, well-disposed empire.
They were not. They were very clumsy and very crude in the way they
did things, which was based largely on terror, what had happened to
them because of terror, because of Hitler.
We were not terrified. We were dealing with old allies. We had fought
for the French and the Brits before, and we were back in harness. We
pretend the Marshall Plan was out of the goodness of our heart. It
was to create markets for ourselves. Because the Depression had not
ended at the time of Pearl Harbor. It was only when we were fully
armed that we had full employment. We were terrified of going back
into the Depression. So we had to get markets. And Europe was the
richest place on earth, potentially, once it was rebuilt.
We rebuilt it. We can take some credit for that, for intelligence if
Let me ask a concluding question that's a little bit more general and
forward-looking. Certainly your recent work has had a Jeremiah-like
tone about what you see as the collapse of American culture --
I never go on about that.
Well, you have made caustic comments about literature being in
decline, being eclipsed by television --
No, readership is in decline. I've always said, we have more good
writers than we have good readers.
Well, leaving aside the question of the actual cultural production,
to use a Stalinist phrase, do you see any reason for hope in terms of
Americans reclaiming the republican spirit that you decry having
essentially been taken away from them over the last 50-odd years? Do
you see any signs of stirrings against the corporate security state
that you've crusaded against?
Well, if you've read my new book, you've read me on Vico.
[In "Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace," Vidal cites the 17th- and
18th-century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, who posited that
human societies go through various organic phases or life cycles:
chaos leads to theocracy, which becomes aristocracy, which turns into
democracy, which devolves into chaos, which becomes theocracy and so
Well, the theocratic comes next, which may not be much more to your
Yes, brace yourself, that's what I see coming.
Which in this country would mean the ascension of Pat Robertson or
Yes, I think the greatest danger would come from the Protestant
evangelicals. But there are plenty of other nuts around, as well as
brand new religions. I think that the whole world is going to have to
face up to the fact that we are in for a kind of religious
fundamentalism, whether it's (radical Islam) in the Middle East or
Christian fundamentalism in our hemisphere -- for instance, there is
a Protestant evangelical movement in Brazil, where my books are quite
popular. I have not contributed to the rise.
But I think that probably the next thing we're going to have to face
is that religion is not a good thing. Essentially Americans are
hypocrites in these matters, and we ought to be -- hypocrisy is
nothing but good manners, when dealing with the pretensions of
others. But I suspect we're going to have to face head on that the
great disaster that befell the West was monotheism -- Judaism,
Christianity, and Islam.
I think you call them the Sky God religions?
The Sky God, yeah, the children of the book, not a good book. And out
of that has come more bloodshed and more terror. And I thought when I
was young that we were coming to an end of it. The churches were
empty. There was not much going on. And then, who would have dreamed
it, out of the blue comes the most brazen calf of them all, the
golden calf, television. And overnight, the evangelicals found a
pulpit, and they have taken off. And because of a misreading of the
First Amendment, they're tax exempt. And the only way we can put them
back in a box is to tax all religions. Originally they didn't want to
tax the little white church at Elm Street, because religion was a
good thing. They didn't mean the portfolio of the Catholic Church or
the Protestants or the Jews, or whatever.
So they are exempt from taxation. This is why every old city in the
United States is falling down, because there is no money from real
estate, because it's all tax exempt, to repair the cities.
So we are in an awful mess, because of monotheism. That's shorthand
for the whole caboodle. So we must do something about that, and the
practical thing immediately is to tax them all. That will at least
raise revenues for the cities, and raise revenues for the treasury,
so that we can save Rwanda yet again, because we are good people.
Gary Kamiya is Salon's executive editor.
Copyright 2002 Salon.com
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