I can write all the columns I want, pointing out this or that outrage committed by the US government in the realm of foreign affairs, railing about the hubris of the empire-builders, proving and re-proving the folly of intervention, but, even taken all together, they will have far less than the effect of a single novel by best-selling author Gore Vidal. His series of historical novels, starting with Burr (1973), and ending in the present one, The Golden Age (2000), is a monument to the memory of our old Republic, a chronicle of how we lost it, and a dire warning of what lies in store for the imperators of a New Rome.
Through the eyes of characters, both imagined and all-too-real, we get a bird's eye view of history in the making. Caroline de Traxler, publisher of the Washington Tribune, ex-movie star and woman-of-the-world; Blaise Sanford, her co-publisher; Peter Sanford, his odd, thoughtful somewhat skeptical son: Senator Burden Day, the Midwestern Senator; Billy Thorne, the commie-turned-CIA agent, who embodies the neo-conservative mentality of grasping opportunism and fanatic ideologue these fictional creations interact with such historical personages as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, wife Eleanor, Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, William Randolph Hearst, Wendell Willkie, and virtually every important political figure of the time: the result is a panoramic view of American history unfolding, as it were, from the inside. . . . .
The book starts out at a Washington cocktail party, about a year before the outbreak of World War II, at which it soon becomes clear that the city is swarming with agents of various foreign powers, all vying for advantage in the propaganda wars leading up to Pearl Harbor. Through the device of a character who is making a film documentary of the "Great Debate" between the War Party and the so-called isolationists, Vidal manages to capture both the passion and the politics of the time and more. For what he really does is go beyond the novelists' ken, and uncover the hidden history of that time, detailing in the events of the story the central role of British intelligence in dragging us into what was essentially a European conflict. In a column I wrote some time ago, I reviewed the revelations detailed in Thomas E. Mahl's Desperate Deception, a pathbreaking scholarly study of British covert operations in the United States from 1939-44. Mahl confirmed what was common knowledge in Washington at the time, and that is that a key Republican Senator, Arthur Vandenberg, previously an isolationist, had been "converted" to interventionism by the persuasive powers of a glamorously beautiful British agent by the name of Mitzi, a woman who was not his wife. In Vidal's book we meet Mitzi, and Vandenberg, and are shown how it might have and probably did happen that a sweaty and red-faced old Senator from Michigan sold out for a sleek leggy blonde.
What an unadulterated joy it is for this old isolationist to overhear the cocktail party conversation of Senator Robert A. Taft:
"I plan to call for a Senate investigation of the various British and French agents here in Washington and, of course, New York and Hollywood. I have reason to believe that the editorial policy of the New York Herald Tribune is entirely dictated by the British secret services, with one aim only to get us into the war on Britain's side."
If only Taft had succeeded in his call for a Senate investigation of the foreign lobbyists who were so actively involved in getting us into war. Then we wouldn't have had to wait for over half a century for the truth to get out and then only in specialized scholarly studies by dedicated researchers such as Dr. Mahl. For years, a small but increasingly vocal school of historians has been revising the received wisdom of the official mythologists, the "Roosevelt, Soldier of Freedom" school in which the nobility of the interventionist cause is never in question. While the catalytic role of British intelligence in getting us into the war has leaked out, slowly, over the years, the truth about Pearl Harbor the deus ex machina that concludes the usual interventionist morality play was known as early as 1943, when John T. Flynn first raised the suspicion that the whole thing was a setup. There was a Congressional investigation effectively quashed by FDR and the isolationist literature of the postwar years is full of intimations that the President knew about the attack in advance and deliberately left the Harbor defenseless, after provoking the Japanese. Vidal dramatizes this view of history, and not only shows the look on FDR's face as he made the decision but also the context in which such a monstrous decision could occur. And, most interestingly of all, he makes a detective story out of it, so that the reader is drawn into the novel out of a sheer desire to know what lies at the end of the trail of evidence.
Vidal's reliance on the diligent and shocking researches of Professor Mahl is practically confirmed by the time we get to page 40, where we meet none other than Ernest Cuneo, FDR's liaison with the British government and the little Lenin of the War Party. Cuneo was an attorney whose clients included Walter Winchell and Drew Pearson and also Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the OSS (prewar equivalent of the CIA), the FBI, and Lord Lothian, the British ambassador. Mahl cites a memo written by Cuneo that pretty much sums up Vidal's jaunty depiction of this warmongering Svengali:
"As far as the British tricking the US into war, FDR was at war with Hitler long before Chamberlain was forced to declare it. I was eyewitness and indeed wrote Winchell's stuff on it (volunteer). Of course the British were trying to push the US into war. If that be so, we were indeed a pushover. It reminds me of that Chaucerian line, 'He fell upon her and would have raped her but for her ready acquiescence!'"
But Vidal has a different take: he shows that the slick operator Cuneo, while certainly enjoying his work, had to work pretty hard to earn his keep, and also required some heavyweight allies, such as Thomas W. Lamont of the Morgan Bank. We meet Wendell Willkie, the barefoot boy from Wall Street, who, with the Morgan interests and British intelligence behind him, stole the Republican nomination from Taft and the antiwar Republicans and Vidal dramatizes this conspiracy, as it moves from the drawing rooms and editorial offices of Washington to the Philadelphia convention, where Cuneo's legions sabotaged Hoover's anti-interventionist speech by doing something to the microphone (p.105). Successfully evoking the drama and color of a national political convention not the rehearsed Nuremberg-style displays of party "unity" we've grown so used to and bored with, but the old-time dramas where any outcome was possible Vidal homes right in on the almost demonic character of Cuneo, who remarks to Peter Sanford when Hoover takes the stage:
"'Poor old thing, he's the only one here who doesn't know that he hasn't a chance.'
"'He's still popular.' Peter indicated the cheering crowd of delegates below them.
"'Right now. But watch what happens at the end of his speech.' The mischievous face of Cuneo had a jack-o'-lantern look to it so unlike the uncarved full pale pumpkin of Herbert Hoover who was now on the stage, waving jerkily to the newsreel cameras."
Peter is sitting up front, and can hear Hoover's speech, but it is clear that the sound system has failed and that he is one of the few who can.
"Tragic," said Cuneo. "Hoover's last chance to be nominated. And no one can hear him."
This, of course, is the whole point: no one can hear him, and no one must hear him that has been the whole aim of Cuneo (and his successors right up to the present day), that the "isolationist" (in reality, nationalist) view held by the majority of Americans right up until Pearl Harbor must never be allowed to get a hearing. Vidal shows how the two-party system is really one party, the War Party, the party of Empire and he does it with verve and his usual sense of style. Ironic, idealistic, world-weary and, in the end, optimistic, Gore Vidal has, in The Golden Age, cemented the capstone of his historical saga with what is truly a crowning achievement. A novel that works as history, that breaks fresh (if not entirely new) ground historically: here, at last, is the Atlas Shrugged of historical revisionism, a fictional but all-too-true retort to the court historians who peddle the Disney-ized mythology of the "greatest generation" to a nation that has lost its memory, and, therefore, its conscience.
There is so much to this novel that it would be impossible give a full accounting of its many characters, both real and imagined, in a single review including cameo appearances by such notables as Bette Davis, H. L. Mencken, and the author himself, who shows up in odd places, like a stage-manager peeking through the curtain at the audience, sizing up the house; the author pops in at the end and interacts with his own creations, a device that shouldn't work, but, somehow, does. The fictional reality created by the author is not only convincing this, after all, is what a minimally competent novelistic is expected to do but achieves a kind of hyper-reality, as if history were being painted in the luminous style of Salvador Dali. For the often lonely and beleaguered band of anti-imperialist "isolationists," however, this is more than a mere novel: it is a manifesto, as well as a work of art, and I can only note the highlights. . . .
Hoover's little talk about the limits of intervention, and the proper foreign policy for a constitutional republic (p. 167) is a gem. Vidal also does a great job of giving us insight into what FDR and his Brain Trust envisioned as the meaning of World War II and its likely result. A conversation with Brain Truster (and, it turns out, KGB agent) Harry Hopkins, a major character, is entirely imaginary and quite real in the sense that it might very well have happened: in any case, it gives us a frightening glimpse of the mentality of the very powerful. As Hopkins reveals the plan to provoke the Japanese into bombing, perhaps, Manila, his confidante remarks: "This is all very daring." Hopkins replies
"'Fate decides what must be done. I'm convinced of that. Anyway, there's no going to war unless all your people are united behind you. Well, they are nowhere near united even though we keep losing ship after ship to the Nazis and no one blinds an eye. So we must take one great blow and thenů ' He stopped.
"'Then we go for it. All of it. And get it.'
"'What is it?'
"'The world. What else is there for us to have?'"
This is the globalist vision carried into the Truman years, and Vidal's docudrama captures the spirit of that era. Now, I know Vidal is supposed to be a "liberal," at least insofar as its polar opposite is supposed to be Jesse Helms or Jerry Falwell. But my fellow reactionaries will be delighted with Vidal's vicious digs at the Roosevelt cult, such as this conversation between Caroline and a film director whose documentary gives us entry to the world of that era:
"Caroline laughed. 'You make Stalin seem almost inhuman.'
"'Inhuman is a step towards the human, I guess. I wonder if he was as cruel as Roosevelt.'
"Caroline was startled. 'Roosevelt, cruel?'
"In a different way. Obviously, our Siberia is a lot nicer than theirs. But Siberia is still Siberia for those you send there.'"
Churchill is described as "a great bully," an understatement of sorts, and Roosevelt "held endless grudges. Deliberately ruined careers."
Vidal's revisionist project is given yet another dimension on page 262, when he engages in some much needed Harry Truman revisionism and the truth about "Give 'em Hell Harry" is finally revealed to the Doris Kearns Goodwins of this world. Little touches like this make this novel a treasure-trove; and the supply of gems seems almost endless.
The author's own credo is neatly summed up in a memorandum written by the fictional Senator Burden Day detailing a meeting of the President with his high council of state. Day is the last of the Midwestern populist Democrats, perhaps modeled after Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana, generously endowed with a Senatorial handsomeness, and clearly meant to represent a noble figure, the last of the old school. My own favorite isolationist, Senator William Borah, the Lion of Idaho, also makes a few key appearances, and of this tradition Senator Day is very much a part. In this memo, Vidal, speaking through Day, writes:
"Those rich boys daydream about vast armies and navies conquering all the seas and lands while we humble folk think of boys that we know sons even dying in a process that benefits no one but the international banks and their lawyer-lobbyists, like Mr. Acheson himself. The real political struggle in the United States, since the Civil War, has been between the peaceful inhabitants of the nation and their generally representative Congresses and a small professional elite totally split off from the nation, pursuing wealth through wars that they invent and justify and resonate for others to win."
This is fiction that rings achingly true, and not only that but it is the product of some very hard thinking. There is not much space left to give the author full credit for the startling originality of his conclusions. Here I can give only an inkling, as motivation to get you to go out and buy this book and buy copies for your friends. See page 307 for an insightful analysis of how our elite-run "democracy" fuels our interventionist foreign policy. A particularly interesting (and funny) exchange on page 365 takes place between Peter Sanford and Billy Thornton. Thornton is a commie-turned-rightwinger who has gone to work for the Wall Street Journal, another one of Vidal's all-too-real fictional creations. Peter marvels at how "you have actually come full circle from communism to capitalism." Vidal then gives the archetypal neoconservative the floor:
"'The scales have fallen from your eyes at last.' Billy blew smoke across the table. 'Taken to their logical conclusion, the two are nearly identical. Where the ideal communist socialist state would use the national wealth for the good of the citizen, strictly regulated, of course, by a centralized money power, we are now, in the interest of defending ourselves against an enemy both Satanic and godless very important point, 'godless,' in selling high taxes to simple Americans of deep religious faith we are creating a totally militarized socialist state by ignoring such frills as the welfare of the people themselves. After all, the true American likes to stand on his own two ruggedly independent feet, which our nuclear state will encourage him to do. He is also free to go to the church of his choice, unlike the communist Russian slaves. I must say the accidental brilliance of our leadership still astonishes me. Haberdasher Truman and Lawyer Acheson and Soldier Marshall are creating a militarized economy and state that leaves those two bumblers Stalin and Mao far behind in the dust, staring skyward at our B-29s, soon to start darkening their red skies. Peter, you have made me poetic."
The West was winning, the neocons sensed, and they jumped on the bandwagon when Popular Front-style "Communism is 20th Century Americanism" was no longer a tenable, or fashionable, line to take. But Vidal is no leftie-style peacenik (albeit he is no libertarian, either, except, perhaps, in a non-political sense). Check out pages 377-78, wherein he analyzes, through one of his characters Peter, my favorite, and also the alter-ego of the author as a young man, I believe the subversive anti-government roots of the McCarthyite impulse. Although "Peter knew the [liberal anti-McCarthy] litany" and "he too recited it in different voices, different places," dismissing the flamboyant Senator's charges as "babbling," nevertheless, "what I'm now hearing is something else," says Peter, "something really serious. The people's fear of the government because they are starting to see that it's no longer by them or for them." Very perceptive, and very true, an admission which no self-respecting liberal would dare make today.
Gore Vidal is a national treasure. As the chronicler of the real history of the United States, which at this point can only be presented in fictional form, he has written the story of a nation set on a course for Empire and launched, at the end of The Golden Age, into a sleek new world where the author and his chief protagonist meet, and merge, as they converse about the meaning of mortality. While the mandarins at the New York Times, and other bastions of establishment liberalism, have already pronounced their anathemas and dismissed this book in both political and literary terms, Vidal's achievement towers over them all. Gore Vidal is a member of what seems to be a nearly extinct fraternity: the American novelists of ideas. When he goes, who is left and what hope is there that someone will breach the walls of political correctness meant to keep his kind out forever? This novel, which brings Vidal's series of historical novels right up to the present day, has about it the air of a valedictory, and in the end the reader is left with a feeling of elegaic bittersweetness sadness that the book has ended, and that, perhaps, we shall not see the likes of Vidal again in our lifetime. Vidal's vision of a decadent empire, ruled by a ruthlessly manipulative and grossly powerful elite, is a powerful weapon aimed at all the right targets his book is a bull's-eye. Go out and buy it for your own pleasure as well as for the cause.
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