Has Gore Vidal gone mad? It might be unkind to ask this question of a 77-year-old writer who has made a distinguished contribution to causes that many NS readers will no doubt support: atheism, exposing the evils of much US foreign policy, gay rights and so on. Yet it is hard to believe that many people will read this collection of Vidal's essays from the past decade or so without the thought crossing their minds.
Vidal's central thesis remains, as ever, that he is "the last defender of the American republic", the authentic heir of the Founding Fathers. Brought up in an isolationist family at the heart of the Washington, DC political elite, he retains the belief that - in the words of the interviewer Mark Cooper, reproduced in this new volume - "the United States should retreat back to its more Jeffersonian roots, that it should stop meddling in the affairs of other nations and the private affairs of its own citizens". The US should pack up its army and go home, Vidal says, "with no exceptions. We are not the world's policeman. And we cannot even police the United States except to steal money from the people and generally wreak havoc."
In a book supposedly about the events of 11 September 2001 and their aftermath, it might at first seem odd that Vidal's lengthy exchange with Clive James about Pearl Harbor is reprinted here from the pages of the Times Literary Supplement, but that "day of infamy" is central to Vidal's thinking. He believes the "police state" that prevails in the US originated with Franklin D Roosevelt and Harry Truman. Vidal has been the leading exponent of the theory that Roosevelt deliberately provoked the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, in December 1941, to draw an essentially isolationist US public into the Second World War. From this essentially false casus belli stems the still current rationale for US empire - that the US must be vigilant against foreign foes - and the resulting high taxes and stringent state powers necessary for its maintenance.
Vidal scorns any belief that US power can be used benevolently; he dismisses this Wilsonian strand in US foreign policy as "idealistic". He even suggests that America's involvement in the Second World War was only "perhaps" beneficial for the world. The only rationale he would accept for US military action would be "if there was an army in Mexico about to invade us".
The only way for Vidal to retain his lofty isolationism with any consistency is to believe that there are no real threats to US security, either externally or domestically, except for those provoked by the empire (in the case of 9/11) or by the police state at home (in the case of Vidal's one-time correspondent and friend Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma bomber). This position is absurd, and forces him to indulge in horrible intellectual contortions.
McVeigh, though he was a fascist opposed to every value Vidal supposedly upholds, is lauded here as a legitimate opponent of the "totalitarian" US state that unjustly committed murder at Waco. As for the events of 11 September? This is where he becomes seriously wacky. It must be pointed out that his arguments about the attack are confused. He writes in one essay that "one year after 9/11, we still don't know by whom we were struck . . . or for what purpose".
Vidal offers two possible solutions to the mystery: either Osama Bin Laden was reacting perfectly reasonably to blatant provocation from the American imperium or the US government itself was responsible. The "Bush-Cheney junta" eyed the oil and gas pipelines in south-central Asia and required an attack on Afghanistan to justify the imperial war they planned to seize these resour- ces. So they engineered their own Pearl Harbor on the island of Manhattan.
The second theory, though never stated explicitly, is hinted at when, for example, he quotes from a 1997 report by the for-mer national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski: "As America becomes an increasingly multicultural society, it may find it more difficult to fashion a con- sensus on foreign policy issues, except in the circumstance of a truly massive and widely perceived direct external threat." To this, Vidal adds: "Thus was the gun produced that belched black smoke over Manhattan and the Pentagon."
The implication here is that the US government is culpable; it needed a threat, and so fired a gun at the twin towers. His evidence? A six-year-old report written by a man who was last a member of the US government more than 20 years ago. By using such ridiculously hyperbolic arguments - at which even Oliver Stone might blanch - without adducing any credible evidence, Vidal discredits his own political position. Americans need to think seriously about the empire they are acquiring and the erosion of civil liberties they have suffered at home in the past year, but this is not the book to help them do it. Vidal takes every legitimate criticism and pushes it a hundred steps too far.
Johann Hari is a columnist on the Independent