The Guardian 21 February, 2007

Republic vs. Empire. The rise and fall of the USA:
An interview with Gore Vidal, (part 1)

Rosa Mariam Elizalde

Gore Vidal, without a doubt, will go down as one of the great Americans of the 20th century.

From his first entry into public life with his novel, Williwaw, in 1946, he has been renowned as an author, playwright, actor and political commentator (he was related to, and confidant of JF Kennedy through his half-sister Jacqui).

Already a vociferous critic of the fraudulent election that brought George W Bush to power in 2000, he was one of the first public figures to denounce the Patriot Act and openly suggest that the Bush regime must have been complicit to some extent in the event of 9/11.

In quick succession he wrote numerous essays on the topic: The Last Empire; Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace or How We Came To Be So Hated; Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta; Imperial America: Reflections on the United States of Amnesia.

As such, Vidal is now more interested in being remembered foremost as an historian; his singular obsession — the loss of the Republic.

"The main bit of wisdom that I learned from Thomas Jefferson, and he from Montesquieu, is that we cannot maintain both a Republic and an Empire simultaneously."

In defiance of the US blockade of Cuba, and the substantial legal and financial ramifications for any US citizen travelling to the country, he went on a vacation and study tour in December 2006.

Rosa Mariam describes her interview with him: "Vidal does not simply speak to us. He interprets what he says. Modulating his voice, he brings to life George W. Bush, Eisenhower, Franklin D Roosevelt, an obscure Pentagon bureaucrat, and even himself, mocking all of them with the irony contained in a visage that belies his 81 years of age".

The Birth of an Empire

RM: In Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams and Jefferson, you talked about the first imperialist war in modern history, with the intervention of the United States in Cuba. Was the island the desired treasure?

GV: American imperialist history started long before. It was inevitable that the original English settlers, not to mention the Dutch and the French who occupied the eastern seaboard of the US, would look west where there was more wealth. It’s curious that the only American president that liked democracy, Thomas Jefferson, was the first to push the limits of the Constitution.

We have to recognize that our founding fathers hated democracy and they hated tyranny so they made sure we wouldn’t have a Hitler and we wouldn’t have chaos, which is how they thought the Athens of Pericles was.

Ironically the third president, Thomas Jefferson, who gave us our identity in the Declaration of Independence, had recourse to weapons. He not simply told us that all men are created equal, but that they have inalienable rights: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. No government had ever said that before.

So we began in a rather special place, it didn’t last long thanks to Jefferson, he bought up that which is now 20 States and made the famous Louisiana Purchase. Millions of people were added to the US because of the vast amount of land that he bought, rather illegally.

And so, we just aimed west and inevitably we were going to turn imperial against our neighbours. The first of our neighbours that we attacked was Mexico in 1846 en route to what we really wanted — California.

RM: Up to that time the Americans had been furious land conquerors, but only in their own continent.

GV: Our first deliberate imperial president, (Jefferson was a reluctant imperialist) was Theodore Roosevelt, and he was looking around for more property to add to the US, which is where Cuba comes in. Theodore Roosevelt was ambitious and very imperial.

When a certain battleship of the US was sunk, the yellow press of William Randolph Hearst blamed it on the Cubans, because behind the Cubans was the Spanish Empire — which was our real target.

Cuba was used to inspire an anti-Spain sentiment that would justify the involvement of the US in the war.

So, Roosevelt and several friends — one of them Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, very powerful in the Senate; and another one, Henry Adams, our great philosopher of history — decided that we really should expand. Adams said, "Whoever controls Shanxi province in China" — which is now Manchuria and parts of Korea — "controls the world", because it is the richest section in minerals, in mining, in energy and the Chinese empire was crashing.

All of Europe was trying to get a piece of China and we decided we’d get our piece.

RM: Cuba was a stepping stone to reach the Philippines.

GV: Yes. That’s when we made an alliance with the Philippine insurgents, revolutionaries, who wanted to separate from Spain in order to have their own republic. We promised them we would do it, we would have a "noble" movement in the United States called Cuba Libre ("Free Cuba"), which was the official motto of the Spanish American War, which in the end had nothing to do with freeing Cuba.

RM: So, they went marching off to war

GV: So he went to war; the first thing Roosevelt did (who was Vice-President at the time, President McKinley was out of Washington) was to send our fleet to Manila, to "help" the insurgents. He lied to them. He made them think that we were going to establish a Philippine government and then we didn’t.

The United States opened a new stage of imperial American expansion, and continued the greatest comedy in our history.

Hypocrisy is always terribly funny. McKinley said "I got down and prayed to God, after we seized Manila. What am I to do now with these people, these poor people? What will we do for them?" And he said, "God spoke".

It sounds very familiar today — God spoke to him and said, "We must help these people and we must Christianise them." The Secretary of State responded, "Mr. President, they’re already Roman Catholic", and McKinley said "that’s what I mean!".

So there we were on a religious mission in the Philippines on the edge of the richest section of China and that was the first great imperial adventure in the midst of which Cuba was no longer libre. The United States was already occupying it and Puerto Rico also. We were taking over much of the Caribbean and we retained it for a long, long time, under special mandates and so forth and so on.

The Banana Republic

RM: During your years in Guatemala you established a friendship that warned you of US intervention in that region. Did you see it coming?

GV: Well, I thought that our expansion was finished in 1898. Between 1846 when we got Mexico, 1898 when we destroyed the Spanish Empire and we got the Caribbean and we got the Philippines, which was really what we wanted.

I just thought why would we [intervene in] Latin America? After all we had conquered Germany and we’d conquered Japan, we were occupying both countries and each one was a world and not just a nation.

We had the first global empire thanks to President Roosevelt, another imperial Roosevelt, Franklin Delano, and he knew exactly what he was doing. He wanted to destroy European colonialism wherever it was; the United States would then take over with some sort of mandate to "look after" the countries that we had "liberated", as he liked to put it. And that got us, formally, into the business of empire.

Mario Monteforte Toledo, a good friend of mine, was Vice President of Guatemala. He said, "We don’t have much longer you know", and I said "what are you talking about?", and he said, "your government has decided to seize Guatemala".

And I said, "oh, come on, we just got Germany, we just got Japan, what are we going to do with Guatemala? It’s not worth our while!"

Oh, he said, "It’s worth the while of the United Fruit Company and they control these things." And this is the first time I understood hemispheric politics.

Well [Toledo told me that] President Arévalo had said, "we’ve got to have some revenues, and the United Fruit Company has never paid taxes. We’re going to tax them minimally on the bananas and so on that they sell all over the world. We make nothing, they make everything."

Simultaneously, President (Dwight David) Eisenhower, [had been told] Arévalo and his group in Guatemala were "communists" and they were going to seize all the lands of United Fruit.

We know what happened afterwards. They forced Arévalo to leave Guatemala … and from that moment on we have put nothing but warlords in charge of Guatemala. It’s been a bloodbath for its citizens for most of these years.

Mark Twain said after our refusal to grant free government to the Filipinos, "the American flag should be replaced not with the stars and stripes, forget them, it should be the Jolly Roger, the skull and crossbones, because we bring murder wherever we go".


RM: in The Golden Age you said FDR could have avoided the Pearl Harbor attack that took the US out of its peaceful isolation and decided its entry into the war. To what extent is that true?

GV: Well nations, like individuals, tend to work from templates; there is a plan in their heads which worked once before and may work yet again.

We’ve always found that whenever a president is murdered it’s always a "lone crazed killer" who is evil. He does it for no reason. No reason is ever given because we might find out what the politics behind it were. The American people are never told the politics about anything. So we’ve always had this reluctance. Our rulers don’t want us to know why things are done.

So Roosevelt, with the best will in the world, saw that Hitler would be dangerous not only to Europe but in the long run to the United States; after all we are a mercantile power. We trade. With Hitler in charge of Europe, life was going to be very difficult for us.

Eighty percent of the American people in 1940 — and I was one of them — were against going to war in Europe against Hitler.

Roosevelt did the next best thing. He was our great Machiavelli, who knew more about how the world worked than any previous president; and Roosevelt, who saw that sinking our ships, which got us into war against Germany in 1917, was not going to get us into the war against the Germans in 1941. He needed something to cause an important trauma and made the Americans’ mind up regarding the war.

Therefore, he provoked the Japanese into attacking us at Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941.

It was a brilliant plot and it worked. The Japanese had just signed an alliance with Germany and Italy, the Tri-Partite alliance. If anyone attacked one of the three the other two would come to their aid. It was a defensive, not an aggressive, treaty.

The Japanese realised that Roosevelt had them in the bag. He had given them an ultimatum: get out of China. Well, they had been trying for years to conquer China and they’d already created a country called Manchuria, and now they get orders from four thousand miles away, "Get out!".

Roosevelt said, if you don’t, I will turn off all of your benzene, particularly aviation fuel, which they needed for war planes, and for war ships, and scrap metal, cause they had no supplies.

Everybody thinks, how crazy it was for this little country to attack such a big country as the United States. Well they weren’t crazy; what they intended to do was give us a big shock, which would make us think about other things for a time, by attacking, sinking the fleet at Pearl Harbor.

During that period they thought it would take the United States a year to build another fleet, which was about right. They would then go south to Java and Sumatra and seize the Dutch oil fields, taking Singapore, Malaysia, everything else along the way.

It was a good plan and it worked, but Japan had no idea of the speed with which we could re-arm. Roosevelt did. Remember — we were once a great industrial power. We’re not anymore. The first sign of our industrial power was assembly line automobiles, and steel plants. We could do everything fast.

We turned out thousands of B-17´s, the flying fortresses. This was indeed the plane that won, for the United States at least, WW2.

RM: You were a privileged observer of that pre-war period.

GV: I was raised in Washington D.C. during the Roosevelt administration. Roosevelt, during our economic depression, designated 8 billion dollars to re-arm the United States; 1940 marked the end of massive unemployment. For the first time in years, people were quite content, because we’d had the depression and we were on our way to have the greatest war machine on earth, something which has since become a curse.

Rosa Miriam Elizalde is a Cuban journalist living in Havana. She is the editor of Cubadebate, a Cuban online publication, and she has a weekly column in Cuba’s daily newspaper Juventud Rebelde. She is the author of several books, including Los Disidentes, Chavez Nuestro and El Encuentro.

Note: this article has been edited for reasons of space. For the full text go to

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