Edward Abbey used to say that he took great pride in getting more radical as he got older—no easy task for the anarchist son of a communist father, but an impeccably American maturation just the same. As the American Empire staggers into senseless senescence, what patriot, whether populist, reactionary, or just cantankerously American, isn’t being radicalized by a Cheney-Bush state that bids to make FDR’s reign look like an edenic age of flower-power pacifism and carefree liberty?
Our greatest living man of letters, 78-year-old Gore Vidal, has grown into our greatest living dissident. If his latest work, Dreaming War, does not pass muster with the literary critics of the Department of Homeland Security, so much the better. For patriotic Gore Vidal is fighting a last valiant battle to preserve—no, to reclaim—the American republic that once was.
Vidal as pamphleteering elder is in the mold of his forebear Edmund Wilson, who contributed the corrosive classic The Cold War and the Income Tax (1963), in which the absent-minded Sage of Talcottville explained his guileless failure to pay the publicans from 1946 to 1955. Wilson concluded in this strange and prophetic little book that the United States had become “self-intoxicated, homicidal and menacing”—this before LBJ had fulfilled his promise to bring the Great Society to Vietnam, at a cost of only a million-plus Vietnamese and 58,000 American boys dead and a few sleepless nights for Robert McNamara.
In his radical old age, Edmund Wilson protested with equal vigor the depredations of the unspeakable Robert Moses, who was stealing land from the Tuscarora Indians on which to build a power plant, and the state highway department’s destruction of the elm tree in front of his house in order to widen one of the highways that were so sacred to the Greatest Generation. A patriot of the America that had produced Bronson Alcott and Johnny Appleseed, Henry Thoreau and James Fenimore Cooper, Frederick Doug-lass and Eugene V. Debs, Wilson despaired that
our country has become today a huge blundering power unit controlled more and more by bureaucracies whose rule is making it more and more difficult to carry on the tradition of American individualism; and since I can accept neither this power unit’s aims nor the methods it employs to finance them, I have finally come to feel that this country, whether or not I continue to live in it, is no longer any place for me.
And so off Wilson went, hopping down the bunny trail, burrowing ever further into his ancestral home of Talcottville, New York. Mary McCarthy called him an “unreconstructed isolationist”—which brings us to Gore Vidal.
Vidal, then a mere stripling in his 30’s, was almost alone in praising Wilson’s alternately exasperated and despondent polemic. Now it is his turn to play the Ghost of America Past. The most brilliant essayist of his age, Vidal, like Wilson, has taken up the pamphleteer’s pen in his two most recent works, Dreaming War and Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace:How We Got To Be So Hated. “How Gore Vidal Got To Be So Hated” would make for an interesting essay in itself, but I get the feeling that we have been down that path before. (See the March 1989 issue of Chronicles and the resultant “Stop Payment” orders on foundation checks.)
So what are the policy prescriptions of this dangerous radical? Eliminate the income tax and devolve the taxing power to states and municipalities. Call off the ruinous drug war. Decentralize political power along the lines of the Swiss cantonal system. Bring home our troops. Slash the “atrocious taxes that subsidize this permanent war machine.” Decimate the budget of the War Department (coyly renamed the “Department of Defense” by the amusingly surnamed President True-Man). Fine ideas all, and within the Jeffersonian tradition. Gore Vidal ought to be a revered elder of the libertarian side of the American right. Alas, said side has simply vanished. As far as I can tell, there is no place for old-fashioned Americans in the party of Limbaugh and Rumsfeld. Hell, I voted straight Green last November, and even that did not seem nearly radical enough.
The essays in Dreaming War compose a witty and erudite isolationist critique of U.S. foreign policy since Pearl Harbor. You must remember that Vidal was a teen-age populist who was catechized in Bryanite truths by his Roosevelt-hating grandfather Thomas P. Gore, the blind senator from Oklahoma whose pet cause was submitting any congressional declaration of war to a popular vote. (“Congressional declaration of war”: an archaism today on the order of “the cat’s pajamas.”)
Young Vidal grew up “at the heart of an isolationist family”; he was a leader of the America First Committee at Exeter before enlisting in the Navy. Even in the bleakest hours of World War II, Gen. Robert E. Wood, chairman of that noble Middle American committee, kept an amusing tally of the isolationists in uniform and the warhawks on the homefront. Or as Vidal writes, “in our politics the sissies are always cheerleading the real guys to go on to give their lives.” That pip-ping squeak you hear behind the clank-ing of the tanks is George W. Bush, yell leader at Andover.
Vidal was raised on plausible tales of Rooseveltian perfidy, of disregarded warnings of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and he asks, quite naturally, if September 11 might not have been “a replay of the ‘day of infamy’ in the Pacific sixty years earlier?” As a populist whose bloodlines run through Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Mississippi, he wonders what on earth U.S. soldiers are doing 8,000 miles from their homes. He understands that an isolationist America is a peaceful America; had we minded our own business, Bin Laden and his deranged murderers would be as indifferent to our land as George W. Bush is to the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Dreaming War features Vidal in full populist voice; anyone who would criticize him as “anti-American” simply does not know what a real American sounds like. Let him speak for himself:
Our people tend to isolationism and it always takes a lot of corporate manipulation, as well as imperial presidential mischief, to get them into foreign wars.
[O]ur more and more unaccountable government is pursuing all sorts of games around the world that we the spear carriers (formerly the people) will never learn of.
Since George Washington, the isolationist has always had the best arguments. But since corporate money is forever on the side of foreign adventure, money has kept us on the move . . .
Vidal is a proprietary patriot. The country is his, his ancestors built it, and he has been an exemplary citizen-writer of the sort once found in antebellum America. His sense of belonging to America enables him to perform acts of lese majeste with glee and impunity. For instance, Vidal has a healthy disrespect for Harry Truman, the nearsighted Godzilla who taught the mothers and children of Nagasaki a thing or two about weapons of mass destruction. Truman, in committing us to an apparently eternal involvement in the broils of Europe—precisely the mistake against which Washington and Jefferson warned—“replac[ed] the republic for which we had fought with a secret National Security State” whose subjects we are. A draft, loyalty oaths, the uprooting of millions of American boys in the service of militarism, “the highest personal income taxes in American history”: Such were the rotten fruits of a Cold War that waged war on republican government, local culture, and good old American individualism with an effectiveness the grim commies must have admired from afar.
The Constitution is a dead letter; since Truman, we have lived under the poisonous assumption, writes Vidal, that
the United States is the master of the earth and anyone who defies us will be napalmed or blockaded or covertly overthrown. We are beyond law, which is not unusual for an empire; unfortunately, we are also beyond common sense.
Vidal’s politics are really quite simple. As he once told an interviewer, “I hate the American Empire, and I love the old republic.”
To what extent the Bush-whacking of Iraq was motivated by oil, Israel, or—my choice—simply the mad logic of empire, I have no idea. I only know that committing the young men and the treasure of the United States to the semipermanent policing of the other side of the world is not in the American interest and is especially not in the interest of the small places, the havens of particularity, the villages and neighborhoods that produce what is healthy about American culture. Gore Vidal is right: The petulant rich kid in the White House and his retinue of war-dreamers are the enemies of this country. They dream war; we dream America. Welcome to their nightmare.
“Today, we are not so much at the brink as fallen over it,” remarks Vidal. Not that he, too, isn’t an American Dreamer, given to fits of optimism. In his giddier moments, he dreams of “the coming impeachment trial of George W. Bush.” Sweet dreams—and maybe constitutional government—are made of these.
Vidal concludes an essay on Guatemala, scene of his underrated early novel Dark Green, Bright Red (1950), with this exchange:
I was at school with Nathaniel Davis, who was our ambassador in Chile at the time of Allende’s overthrow. A couple of years later Davis was ambassador to Switzerland and we had lunch at the Berne embassy. I expressed outrage at our country’s role in the matter of Chile. Davis “explained” his role. Then he asked, “Do you take the line that the United States should never intervene in the affairs of another country?” I said that unless an invasion was being mounted against us in Mexico, no, we should never intervene. Davis, a thoughtful man, thought; then he said, “Well, it would be nice in diplomacy, or in life, if one could ever start from a point of innocence.” To which I suppose the only answer is to say—Go!
How about it, patriots? If it’s long past morning (if not mourning) in America, the chimes of midnight have yet to ring. Go!
[Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta, by Gore Vidal (New York: Nation Books) 197 pp., $11.95]