"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
If Gore Vidal had not existed, some deity with an instinct for the elegant, the perverse and the unclassifiable would have had to invent him. In the jumbled playroom of American lit, he is the malevolent jack-in-the-box. Attributes: prolific novelist, elegant memoirist, moneymaking screenwriter, roundhouse-throwing essayist, relentless critic of the American empire, and left-wing provocateur with a taste for slightly crankish conspiracy theories. Also: onetime sexual shark, failed politician, and boisterous denouncer of religion, Mom and apple pie.
Vidal is a patrician with a cause, who recounts his remarkable life in his lovely, unexpectedly touching memoir, “Palimpsest.” He is related to Jacqueline Kennedy and Albert Gore Jr. and has known everybody from Tennessee Williams to Eleanor Roosevelt to Hillary Clinton to Jack Kerouac — whom he flipped onto his stomach in the Chelsea Hotel on Aug. 23, 1953, an episode that Kerouac writes shamefacedly about in “The Subterraneans.” But Vidal is singularly unimpressed by the Great Ones of the World: He appears to have filed his silver spoon into a stiletto when still in swaddling clothes. A quasi-expat, he has spent much of his life in Rome and Ravello, on perhaps the world’s most beautiful coastline, returning inexplicably every year to Los Angeles — perhaps to gather some American fragments to pack into one of those literary cluster bombs he hurls at Uncle Sam (whom he regards as increasingly evil) every few years.
He has just tossed the latest of these tomes, “Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: How We Came to Be So Hated,” into the marketplace. More of a firecracker than a grenade, this little volume is a bit of a retread, cobbled together to catch the Osama moment: Most of the essays in it were previously published in Vanity Fair and “The Last Empire,” Vidal’s most recent collection of essays. Several of them deal with Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, whom Vidal began corresponding with after McVeigh read one of the pieces collected here. Vidal, whose idiosyncratic left-wing populism can go so far that it forms a complete circle, like the Chesire Cat’s smile, and becomes virtually indistinguishable from far-right hatred of “big government,” shared McVeigh’s outrage over the Waco episode and his belief that it was a logical consequence of federal tyranny.
The first essay, “Sept. 11, 2001 (A Tuesday),” was originally turned down for publication by the Nation, where Vidal has published for many years, apparently because its tone was deemed too flippant. It was published in Italian, became a bestseller and was translated into a dozen languages. “With both bin Laden and McVeigh, I thought it useful to describe the various provocations on our side that drove them to such terrible acts,” Vidal writes in his introduction.
Unfortunately, what Vidal serves up in “Sept. 11″ is pretty thin, familiar gruel — given spice only by the hint that he might be saying we got what was coming to us, a virtually unpublishable sentiment even now. So why did Osama do it? After rehearsing a few well-known facts about the Saudi renegade’s life and motivation, Vidal concludes that he is our Saladin — the Muslim warrior king who turned back the Christian crusaders. Vidal does not go into it, but the thing that most exercised bin Laden — the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia — is also an example of the kind of “imperial” reach that Vidal rails against. The “provocation” is America’s “national security state,” in which we maintain ourselves in a state of perpetual war for perpetual peace (the expression is the historian Charles Beard’s). For Vidal, blows will always be struck against an empire.
He goes on to denounce Bush’s draconian response to the attack as well as Clinton’s landmark anti-terrorism legislation, which he regards as a cure that is worse than the disease. “[T]he physical damage Osama and friends can do us — terrible as it has been thus far — is as nothing as to what he is doing to our liberties. Once alienated, an ‘unalienable right’ is apt to be forever lost, in which case we are no longer the last best hope of earth but merely a seedy imperial state whose citizens are kept in line by SWAT teams and whose way of death, not life, is universally imitated.” He calls for a police-U.N. reaction to the attacks, not war. And he concludes with a long list of American military actions since World War II, from Grenada to Panama to Haiti to Kosovo to Somalia. “In these several hundred wars against Communism, terrorism, drugs, or sometimes nothing much, between Pearl Harbor and Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, we tended to strike the first blow,” Vidal concludes his essay. “But then we’re the good guys, right? Right.”
Reading Vidal on politics, as this essay reminds us, is a whale-like enterprise: You take in great mouthfuls of seawater, but there are tasty plankton there too, if you’re good at straining. Vidal is given to hyperbole, gross generalizations, dubious hobby-horses (FDR knew in advance about Pearl Harbor) and, at times, paranoia that recalls the fruitier rhetoric of the ’60s. But his critique of American imperialism is legitimate, laudable and all too rare. His small-r republican rantings against the government and his Mencken-like skewerings of various booboisies may grate at times, but the American literary landscape would be more boring without them.
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 Vietnam.
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 on.
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 for.
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 belli.
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 their superiors.
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 done that.
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 out.
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 United States.
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 negotiation process.
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 issue.
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 decorations.
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 the Mideast?
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 Europeans feel.
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 supply.
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 rabid right-wingers.
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 adventure.
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 national selfishness?
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 continents.
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 I.
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 nothing else.
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 on.]
Well, the theocratic comes next, which may not be much more to your liking.
Yes, brace yourself, that’s what I see coming.
Which in this country would mean the ascension of Pat Robertson or John Ashcroft?
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 a Salon contributing writer.More Gary Kamiya.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)