Tuesday, January 30, 2007
The U.S. Empire: What It Is and Why, Interview with Gore Vidal By Rosa Miriam Elizalde
Cubanow.- La Jornada has published part of an extensive interview that Gore Vidal granted to Rosa Miriam Elizalde of Juventud Rebelde, when the prolific and critical U.S. author visited Cuba. In this complement, Vidal is once more revealed as one of the most thoughtful experts not only of the history and politics of his country, but also of the consequences for which the USA is responsible on a global level.
In “Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams and Jefferson” you focus on the first imperialist war of modern history: U.S. intervention in Cuba. Was the island Washington’s coveted booty?
U.S. imperial history began long before. It was inevitable that the original English pilgrims, as well as the Dutch and the French who occupied the east coast of the U.S., would set their eyes upon the West where there was more wealth. It is curious that Thomas Jefferson, the only U.S. president to espouse democracy, was the first to jump the limits of the Constitution. One must recognize that our most important figures of independence detested democracy as much as tyranny. We never had a Hitler, but neither did we have the "chaos" of Pericles’ Athens.
Ironically, this third president, Thomas Jefferson - who gave us our identity along with the Declaration of Independence - also made a call to arms. He told us not only that all the men are created equal and independent, but that they also have the inalienable right to life, liberty and the search of happiness. Never had a government expressed itself this way. However, also thanks to Jefferson, this marvel did not go very far. He bought the twenty states and made the famous deal to acquire Louisiana from the French. Thanks to the vast quantities of territory that he thus illegally obtained, millions of people were added to the United States. This disposition launched us toward the West, after seizing what belonged to our neighbors. Inevitably, we went on to become an imperial nation. The first neighbor we attacked was Mexico in 1846, on the road to what we truly desired: California. The most aggressive of our expansionist presidents at this time was James Polk.
Up until then there had been rapid conquest of land, but only on the North American continent.
Our first deliberately imperial president – compared with him Jefferson was a very moderate man – was Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt. He aspired to more and more territory to add to the United States. This is when Cuba entered into our history. At that time - by a mysterious coincidence - a ship of the U.S. fleet, The Maine, blew up and sank in Cuba. The yellow press of William Randolph Hearst blamed the disaster on the Cubans and the Spanish Empire - which was our real target. Cuba was used to inspire anti-Spanish sentiment to justify war. Hearst claimed that it was he who had influenced it, but in reality it was Teddy Roosevelt who pulled the strings in those events: first, as vice president to William McKinley, and, when this last was murdered, as the president. He and various of his friends - among them Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, who was very powerful, and our "great philosopher" in U.S. history, Henry Adams - seek to expand our “back yard”. Adams was inspired and said that he who controls the Chinese province of Shanxi (now Manchuria and a part of Korea) will control the world. They knew that this was the richest zone in minerals and energy, and that the Chinese empire was collapsing. All of Europe was trying to carry off a slice of China, and we decided to take our piece as well.
Cuba was, then, simply a jumping board for the Philippines?
Yes. It was when we made an alliance with the Philippine rebels, the revolutionaries who wanted to be separated from Spain to have their own republic. We promised we would help them, convincing them that they would form part of that "noble" movement in the United States that we called the Free Cuba Movement, that was the official motto of the Spanish-American war. Of course, that had as much to do with the desire for a free Cuba as with that unpleasant drink of rum and Coca-Cola that is known by the same name.
“And Mambru went to war……” (a children’s song in Spanish that refers to the Duke of Malborough who fought against the Spanish)
Thus we went to war. The first thing that Roosevelt did – McKinley was away from Washington – was to send our fleet to Manila "to help" the rebels. He deceived them. He caused them to believe that we were going to establish a Philippine government - something he was careful not to do. Spain was removed as an imperial government and the United States, under McKinley and Teddy, inaugurated a new phase of U.S. imperial expansion, continuing the great comedy of our history. The hypocrisy is always very amusing. McKinley writes: "I knelt and prayed to God. When we save the Philippines, what will we do with this people, with this poor people? What will we do for them?" And subsequently, he adds: "God spoke." Sounds very similar to what we hear today.
So God spoke to McKinley and even required him: "To help this people and to Christianize them." But upon recounting this revelation, his secretary of state timidly informed him: "Mr President, they are already Roman Catholics." And McKinley retorted: "That is what I mean." So we were on a religious mission to the Philippines, a rib in the richest part of Chinese geography, and that was the first great imperial adventure in the midst of which Cuba no longer found herself free: the United States had occupied the island as well as Puerto Rico. We usurped a great part of the Caribbean, and we held it as long as possible under special mandates and the like.
When did your anti-imperialist conscience awake?
Frankly, I believed that our expansionist efforts had finished in 1898. The period 1846 through 1898 was barely a parenthesis when we destroyed the Spanish empire and took the Caribbean and the Philippines, which was what we truly wanted.
We ended World War Two as victors, conquering Germany and Japan. We occupied both countries – each one a world unto itself and not simply a nation. We were the owners of the first global empire to which we owed another imperial Roosevelt - Franklin Delano - who knew exactly what he was doing. He wanted to destroy European colonialism wherever possible, and in compensation for its "efforts" the United States received a mandate "to take care of" the "freed" countries, as he enjoyed putting it. That put us formally in the business of empire.
In Guatemala I had a great friendship with Mario Monteforte Toledo, writer, vice president of the nation and president of his nation’s Parliament during the government of Juan José Arévalo. I lived in Antigua Guatemala and he came to my house to see me occasionally.
One day he told me: "We don’t have much time left, you know"
"What are you speaking about?" I responded.
"Your government has determined to intervene in Guatemala."
And I did not give him credit: "Look, we have just ousted and taken over Germany and Japan. What are we going to do with Guatemala? It makes no sense and is not worth our while."
He responded: "It is worth while for the United Fruit Company that does not want to pay the slightest tax for our bananas that it sells across the entire world, while we gain nothing. The UFC is the one that controls the relations between our two countries."
This was my first lesson in hemispherical politics. It knew about Yankee imperialism, but I believed my friend was exaggerating. While this conversation took place with Mario, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. – son of the Henry Cabot Lodge who had been one of the more partisan enthusiasts of the conquest of Philippines – called President Eisenhower to whisper to him the magic words: Arévalo and his group in Guatemala are "communists" and are going to take over land occupied by United Fruit.
The rest is known: they forced Arévalo out and then U.S. ambassador John Peurifoy intervened in 1954 to oust the chosen government of Jacobo Arbenz who had been elected by popular vote, imposing General Carlos Castillo Armas in his stead. From there on, the United States ensured that its warriors remained in the government and that a bloodbath would ensue for the people of Guatemalan. Mark Twain was very right when, after the U.S. intervention in Philippines, he commented: "The stars and stripes of the American flag should be replaced by the symbol of the Jolly Roger, the skull and cross bones. We bring death wherever we go."
In your novel “The Golden Age”, you say that Franklin D Roosevelt could have avoided the attack on Pearl Harbor that took the U.S. out of its peaceful isolationism and prompted its entrance into the Second World War. To what degree is this true?
Nations, like individuals, tend to follow prescribed paths. If a plan that one had in mind worked once, it’ll probably work again. Each time that a president is murdered, the first conclusion is that a “crazy, lone assassin” driven by pure evil did it. Never is a reason or motive offered. And they’ll never offer such because then we would find out about the dark and heavy shades of politics - and you never speak to the U.S. people of politics.
Roosevelt, probably with the best will in the world, saw that Hitler was dangerous not only for Europe, but on a long-term basis also for the United States. We were, after all, a commercial power. We traded. With Hitler controlling Europe, life would be very difficult for us. In 1940, eighty percent of Americans, myself among them, opposed our involvement in the war in Europe. But Roosevelt took the offensive. He was our great Machiavelli. He knew, better than any previous president, how the world functioned. He was fully conscious that the sinking of our ships had pushed us to the war against Germany in 1917, but that that would not be sufficient in 1941. It needed a trauma of great importance to turn Americans toward war. He therefore deliberately caused the Japanese to attack us at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. It was a brilliant plan and it worked.
The Japanese had just signed an agreement with Germany and Italy: the Tripartite Alliance. If someone attacked one of the three, the other two would come to their defense. It was not an alliance that guaranteed support for plans of aggression, and Roosevelt was watching the Japanese, who had occupied Manchuria after many attempts in history to occupy China.
From 4,000 miles away, the U.S. president gave an ultimatum to the Japanese: they must leave China. "If they do not leave we will no longer sell them scrap metal and we will cut supplies of benzene", the fuel that Japan particularly needed for its airplanes and warships. Japan’s reaction was logical: to strike such a blow that the U.S. would focus on something other than China. They would attack and sink the United States fleet at Pearl Harbor. They believed it would take the United States over a year to build another flotilla. They would then be able to go south, to Java and to Sumatra, and take the Dutch petroleum fields, Singapore, Malaya and everything that appeared along the way. Japan had no idea of the speed with which we would be able rearm ourselves. But Roosevelt knew it. We were a great industrial power – something that we are no longer. The first signs of that power had been production line car manufacturing and the steel plants. We could do it all very fast. We produced thousands of B-17 bombers, the veritable flying fortresses that won World War Two for the United States.
You were fortunate to be an observer during this pre-war period.
I was growing up in Washington DC at the time of Roosevelt’s government, who was four times voted president – a definite sign. I remember the long summer recesses of that golden age. The heat was so great that the entire government left the city. We have not had so much peace and prosperity since the U.S. government went on vacation. In the 1940s unemployment was at an end. Franklin D Roosevelt was ambitious and imperial, but took the country out of economic depression. Everyone was happy for the first time in years, and the President took advantage of this to invest eight billion dollars in rearmament. He put us directly on a course to build the largest war machine on the planet – something that was to become our curse.
But what ironies U.S. history has. The man who should have won the presidency in 1945 was Henry Wallace, who was against the Cold War and who had been Roosevelt’s vice president. However, Roosevelt replaced him as vice-president with Harry Truman, a man who came from nowhere, a right-wing Missouri southerner who would finally take power when Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945. So we ended up with a terrible president at the head of the government.
The terrorist attack that occurred in Oklahoma in 1995 is explained according to the laws of physics: there is no action without reaction. These are your words. It alluded to the hatred that the United States has sown in the world and in its own country. Was this a prophecy?
No. I would not connect this event with what occurred on September 11 - at least not directly. We know now that Timothy McVeigh was not alone, that there were more people involved. The Clinton administration – a very American government in the best sense of the word – issued draconian laws regarding terrorism simply to exorcise the ghost of Timothy McVeigh. When the attack occurred on September 11, all these laws were taken out of the draw and activated. This is the Patriot Law that has practically voided all our sacred liberties.
The level of acceptance of the U.S. president has descended to historic levels. Will Bush be the most hated leader in U.S. history?
When I said that I was not a prophet, that does not he mean that one does not occasionally guess what is going to happen. The neoconservatives – which replaced “fascists” as the word referring to them – wanted all the power so that the oil and gas authorities had a free hand to enrich their corporations even more and to manipulate the Constitution to such an extent that it made no sense. They wanted supreme power and they had it, with another circumstance to their favor: we elected an inoffensive president for them - a true fool, literally, a fool.
In your memoirs you say that J F Kennedy spoke of CIA plans to murder Fidel Castro and that his relationship with extremist Cuban groups became a nightmare for him and his brother Robert. Are these groups linked to the death of the two brothers?
Jack Kennedy lost his life over this. There is evidence that the New Orleans mafia killed JFK and that a man named Carlos Marcello was involved who also tried to kill Bobby Kennedy. Marcello was a casino boss in Havana - a friend of Meyer Lansky and Santos Trafficante - who handled the mafia in Tampa, Florida. In a FBI recording Trafficante says: "We have to get rid of Bobby." Marcello told private investigator Edward Becker in September of 1962, that a dog would continue to bite you cut off its tail (referring to Attorney General Robert Kennedy), while if you cut the dog’s head off (President John F Kennedy) he would no longer bother you. This was Jack’s death sentence. Robert Kennedy never investigated the death of his brother for fear of being seen to be involved in shady matters involving Batista Cubans and the mafia.
What influence do you believe Cuban-Americans in Miami have had in U.S. government decisions over the last forty years?
They came to have enormous influence in the country, but I believe that this is a lot less now. From the beginning, since the days of the Confederation, Florida has always been very corrupt. If to that you add a pile of angry Batista followers who had a lot of money or were making a lot of money, the situation could only get worse. They could be counted on to support anything that served to hate President Castro even more, and to hate what was being done in modern Cuba. Florida is a place that is perfectly situated to absorb any demagogue that seeks the support of people with a Batista mentality, or any that want to fight against communism. The people of the United States are not prepared to understand that they have for decades been receiving information distorted by their own government and the media that works with the government. Therefore, Florida is one of the first places where candidates go to seek votes. The influence of these extremist groups is smaller now, but the neoconservatives know that they can include them. Florida is a large and key state with an electoral college that at times decides the election. To this is added the complicated machinery of the 18th century that prevents us attaining a democracy.
Our important persons never liked democracy. I do not tire of repeating this, although nobody listens to me, because the priority is that we carry this kind of "democracy" to Iraq and to all those poor countries that yearn for it.
(La Jornada Semanal)
January 23, 2007