On June 3 The Nation showed in a foldout chart how most of the U.S. media are now owned by a handful of corporations. Several attractive octopi decorated the usually chaste pages of this journal. The most impressive of these cephalopod mollusks was that headed by Disney-ABC, taking precedence over the lesser Time Warner, General Electric-NBC and Westinghouse Corporation calamari, from which dangle innumerable tentacles representing television (network and cable), weapons factories (G.E. aircraft engines and nuclear turbines) and, of course, G.N.A. and other insurance firms unfriendly to health care reform.
As I studied this beast, I felt a bit like Rip Van Winkle. When last I nodded off, there was something called the Sherman Antitrust Act. Whatever happened to it? How can any octopus control so much opinion without some objection from…from whom? That’s the problem. Most members of Congress represent not states or people but corporations—and octopi. Had I simply dreamed John Sherman? Or had he been devoured by Dragon Synergy? Little did I suspect, as I sighed over this latest demonstration of how tightly censored we are by the few, that, presently, I would be caught in the tentacles of the great mollusks Disney-ABC and General Electric-NBC, as well as the Hearst Corporation, whose jointly owned cable enterprise Arts & Entertainment had spawned, in 1995, something called The History Channel.
“It all began in the cold,” as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. so famously began his romantic historical novel A Thousand Days. Only my cold was London, where, for Channel Four, I wrote and narrated three half-hour programs on the American presidency, emphasizing the imperial aspects latent in the office from the beginning, and ending, currently, with our uneasy boast that we are the last great global power on the…well, globe.
The programs were well received in Britain. The History Channel bought the U.S. rights. In ninety-minute form it was to be shown just before this summer’s political conventions. But then, from the tiny tentacle tip of The History Channel, synergy began to surge up the ownership arm, through NBC to its longtime master General Electric; then ever upward, to, presumably, the supreme mollusk, Mickey Mouse himself, Lord of Anaheim. Lord Mouse, this program attacks General Electric by name. Attacks American imperialism, which doesn’t exist. Bad-mouths all that we hold sacred. Oh, to have been a fly on the castle wall when word arrived! The easy solution, as Anaheim’s hero-President, R.M. Nixon, might have said, would have been to kill the program. But craftier minds were at work. We’ll get some “experts” like we do for those crappy historical movies and let them take care of this Commie.
So it came to pass that, unknown to me, a G.E. panel was assembled; it comprised two fly-weight journalists from television’s Jurassic Age (Roger Mudd, Sander Vanocur) and two professors, sure to be hostile (one was my old friend Arthur Schlesinger Jr., about whose client, J.F.K., I am unkind, the other someone called Richard Slotkin). I was not invited to defend myself, nor was anyone else. As a spokesperson for The History Channel put it, “Vidal is so opinionated that we had to have real experts on.” The Nation’s recent warning about the danger’of allowing the corporate few to make and control mass opinion was about to be dramatized at my expense.
Fade in: Roger Mudd. He is grim. He wears, as it were, not so much the black cap of the hanging judge as the symbol of his awful power, Mickey Mouse ears. He describes my career with distaste. Weirdly, he says I had “social ambitions at the Kennedy White House and [non sequitur] ran for Congress” but lost. Actually, I ran for Congress before Kennedy got to the White House. Also, in upstate New York, I got some 20,000 more votes than J.F.K. did as head of the ticket. During my campaign, Bobby Kennedy came to see me at Saugerties Landing. It was, appropriately, Halloween. “Why,” he snarled, “don’t you ever mention the ticket?” “Because I want to win,” I said, imitating his awful accent. That started that feud.
Mudd reports that I am “acerbic, acid-tongued,” don’t live in the United States (except when I do), and the viewer is warned beforehand that this is only my “bilious look” at American history and our Presidents, whom Mudd says that I describe variously as incompetent, avaricious warmongers. This is—warmongering to one side—slanderously untrue. Then, Mickey Mouse ears atremble with righteous indignation, he reassures us that, at program’s end, real historians will set the record straight. And so, muddied but unbowed, I fade in.
I begin in a sort of mock-up of the White House TV room. I say a few mildly bilious words about current politics.
He who can raise the most money to buy time on television is apt to be elected President by that half of the electorate that bothers to vote. Since the same corporations pay for our two-party, one-party system, there is little or no actual politics in these elections. But we do get a lot of sex. Also, he who subtly hates the blacks the most will always win a plurality of the lilywhite-hearted. The word “liberal” has been totally demonized, while “conservative,” the condition of most income-challenged Americans, is being tarnished by godly pressure groups-whose symbols are the fetus and the flag. As a result, today’s candidates are now rushing toward a meaningless place called “the center,” and he who can get to the center of the center, the dead center, as it were, will have a four-year lease on this studio.
I then trace the history of our expansionist Presidents from Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase to Bush of Mesopotamia’s Gulf War, produced by Ted Turner’s CNN, a sort of in-house TV war. I end the program in front of the Vietnam Memorial. We have come a long way, I say, from Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence to “the skies over Baghdad have been illuminated.” Then Mudd, more than ever horrified by what he’d seen and heard, introduces a TV journalist called Vanocur, who introduces Professors Schlesinger and Slotkin. It’s very clear, says Vanocur, that Vidal doesn’t like America. Arthur’s response is mild. Well, let’s say he is disappointed in what’s happened.
At the beginning of Mudd’s first harangue, I must say I did wonder what on earth had caused such distress. It was clear that neither cue-card reader had any particular interest—much less competence—in American history; but then, I had forgotten the following aria:
Our Presidents, now prisoners of security, have been for a generation two-dimensional figures on a screen. In a sense, captives of the empire they created. Essentially, they are men hired to give the commercials for a state which more and more resembles a conglomerate like General Electric. In fact, one of our most popular recent Presidents spent nearly twenty years actually doing commercials for General Electric, one of our greatest makers of weapons. Then Mr. Reagan came to work here [in the White House], and there was the same “Russians are coming” dialogue on the same Teleprompter, and the same makeup men.
The G.E. panel, carefully, made no reference to their fellow pitchman Reagan, but they found unbearable my suggestion that we have been surpassed, economically, by Asia. I noted that:
As Japan takes its turn as world leader, temporarily standing in for China, America becomes the Yellow Man’s Burden, and so we come full circle. Europe began as the relatively empty, uncivilized Wild West of Asia. Then the Americans became the Wild West of Europe. Now the sun, setting in our West, is rising once more in the East.
This really hurt Mudd, and he couldn’t resist noting that Japan’s standard of living is lower than ours, a factoid that, presumably, magically cancels our vast debt to them. He reminds us that we have also been hearing a lot of bad economic news about other countries; but then we always do, lest Americans ever feel that they are being short-changed by a government that gives its citizens nothing for their tax money and companies like General Electric billions for often useless weapons and costly overruns. Approvingly, Mudd tells us that “industrious immigrants” are rushing to our shores. Well, those we have helped to impoverish south of the Rio Grande do come looking for work, particularly from countries whose societies we have wrecked in the name, often, of corporate America (United Fruit in Guatemala, I.T.T. in Chile), or they come from Southern Asia, where our interferences dislocated millions of people, some of whom unwisely boated to our shores, lured by our generous minimum wage, universal health care and superb state educational system.
Mudd’s mouse squeak becomes very grave indeed as he tells us how the defense budget has been slashed to a mere fraction of what it used to be and must be again if we are ever to keep the peace of the world through war. Yet today we outspend the military budgets of Western Europe and Japan combined. Although there have been large cuts in personnel as military bases are turned over to the real estate lobby, outlays of the sort that benefit Mudd’s employers still run to nearly $300 billion a year.
The two historians were less openly protective of General Electric and military procurement. Schlesinger doesn’t find much in the way of historical distortion. But then what motive would I have had to neglect what Jefferson liked to call “true facts”? I am neither political publicist nor hagiographer, and I know the country’s history as well as most people who have dedicated a generation to its study.
Schlesinger does say that I misquote Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. That must sound pretty serious to the average viewer. It also sounds pretty serious to me that Arthur doesn’t realize I was quoting, accurately, the original preamble, not the one edited and published by Congress. Jefferson—and I—preferred his first version, of which only a fragment still exists but, luckily, later in life he re-created the original: “All men are created equal and independent.” Congress cut the “and independent.” Then: “From that equal creation, they derive rights inherent and inalienable.” Congress (looking ahead to the Rev. Pat Robertson and all the other serpents in our Eden?) changed this to “They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” The introduction of a Creator has done our independence no good.
Early on, I observe that “an adviser to President Truman announced ‘What is good for General Motors is good for America.’ The adviser was president of General Motors, of course.” Arthur correctly notes that Charles Wilson was not a member of Truman’s, Cabinet but of Eisenhower’s. Nevertheless, he was a significant adviser to Truman. Unfortunately, his famous advice to Truman got edited out of my final program. Here it is. In 1944 Wilson gave his rationale for a permanent militarizing of the economy: “Instead of looking to disarmament and unpreparedness as a safeguard against war—a thoroughly discredited doctrine—let us try the opposite: full preparedness according to a continuing plan.” This was to be at the heart of the National Security Act of 1947, and the new nation in whose shabby confines we still rattle about.
Arthur does catch me in one error. Tyler, not Polk, annexed Texas, a few weeks before Polk took office. Schlesinger also says that I am wrong about Jackson being “big business.” But in 1836, Jackson broke up the Second Bank of the United States, a useful if imperfect financial instrument, one-fifth owned by the United States, which he replaced with numerous small banks often run by crooked cronies. The financial panic of 1837 was the result. I call that big business on the largest scale. I’ve never thought our Harlequin historian quite understood the financial mischief set in train by his romantic protagonist whose “age” he wrote of in an entertaining book.
It is a little late in the day to turn Lincoln into an abolitionist, but the G.E. panel saw an easy way of making points by piously declaring how much great-hearted Lincoln hated slavery. But I had already noted, “He disliked slavery but thought the federal government had no right to free other people’s property. In this case, 3 million African-Americans at the South.” It should be noted—yet again—that American history departments are now bustling with propagandists revising Lincoln so that he will appear to be something quite other than the man who said that if he could preserve the Union by freeing all the slaves, he would do so, or freeing some and not others, he would do so, or freeing none at all he would free none for the Union’s sake. But for General Electric, blushing bride of Mickey Mouse, the image of Lincoln cannot remain half Disney and half true.
At one point, Slotkin accuses me of dealing in hindsight. But that, dear professor, is what history is, and you and I and even Arthur are historians, aren’t we? It is true that I refused election to the Society of American Historians; but I am no less a historian than those who are paid to keep the two essential facts of our condition from the people at large: the American class system (there is no such thing, we are flatly told) and the nature of the U.S. empire (no such thing, either). Apparently, it is perfectly natural for a freedom-loving democracy, addicted to elections, to have bases and spies and now F.B.I. terrorist fighters and drug hounds in every country on earth. When Vancur tries to get Theodore Roosevelt off the imperialist hook, Schlesinger does mutter that the great warmonger did believe in “a vigorous foreign policy.” Then Arthur makes a slip: T.R. was really only interested in our “domination of the Western Hemisphere.” Well, certainly half a globe is better than none. But then, as T.R. said, “No accomplishment of peace is half that of the glories of war.”
Schlesinger notes that, if Jefferson and John Quincy Adams were to return today, they would be surprised that we had not annexed Canada, Cuba and other Western properties. For the G.E. panel such continence is proof that there is no such thing as a U.S. empire. Well, it is true that after two failed invasions, Canada escaped us; even so, we have a naval base on Canadian soil (at Argentina), and Canada plays its dutiful if irritable part in our imperium, economically as well as militarily. Cuba was, in effect, our brothel during the Batista years; now, for trying to be independent of us, it is embargoed while we maintain on the island, as always, the military base of Guantánamo.
Toward the end of their “discussion,” one of the Mouseketeers mocks the notion that big business is in any way responsible for a U.S. empire that does not exist. The G.E. panel, to a man, then proceeds to ignore this key section of my script:
T.R.’s successor, Woodrow Wilson, invaded Mexico and Haiti in order to bring those poor people freedom and democracy and good government. But stripped of all the presidential rhetoric, the flag followed the banks.
The President was simply chief enforcer for the great financial interests.
Many years later, the commanding general of the U.S. Marine Corps, General Smedley Butler, blew, as it were, the whistle, not just on Wilson, but on the whole imperial racket.
I had showed some fine newsreel footage of Butler, of Marines in Haiti, Taiwan, the streets of Shanghai. I did an imitation of his voice as I spoke his actual words:
“I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for big business, for Wall Street and for the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico safe for American oil interests in 1914. Made in Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in.”
In later years, Butler also set up shop in Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and China, where in 1927 the Marines protected Standard Oil’s interests.
Vidal as Butler: “The best Al Capone had was three districts. I operated on three continents.”
Needless to say, General Butler is a permanent nonfigure in our imperial story.
Slotkin began to paraphrase exactly what I had been saying—modern empires are not like the old-fashioned sort where you raise your flag over the capitol of a foreign country. From 1950 on, I demonstrated how the domination of other countries is exercised through the economy (the Marshall Plan after World War II) and through a military presence, preferably low-key (like NATO in Western Europe), and politically through secret police like the C.I.A., the F.B.I, the D.E.A., the D.I.A., etc. Currently, the empire is ordering its vassal states not to deal with rogue nations (the Helms-Burton bill).
Although the Soviet Union went out of business five years ago, we still have bases in Belgium, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Turkey. In Britain we have seven air force and three naval bases. In 1948, Secretary of Defense Forrestal installed two B-29 groups in the English countryside; it would be a good idea, he said, to accustom the English to a continuing U.S. military presence. To create and administer a modern empire you must first discover—or invent—a common enemy and then bring all the potential victims of the ogre under your domination, using your secret services to skew their politics as the C.I.A. did, say, to Harold Wilson’s Labor Party.
Today, elsewhere, we have military presences in Bermuda, Egypt, Iceland, Japan, Korea, Panama, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, etc., not to mention all over the United States and our territories as well as two bases in Australia, not to mention a mysterious C.I.A. unit at Alice Springs. If all this does not constitute an empire I don’t know what does. Yet we must not use the word, for reasons that the G.E. panel never addressed. At one point, Vanocur pretended that I had said the American people were eager for conquest when I said the opposite. Our people tend to isolationism and it always takes a lot of corporate manipulation, as well as imperial presidential mischief, to get them into foreign wars. Sadly, Schlesinger confirmed that this was so.
Slotkin thought that I had been saying that the late-nineteenth-century Presidents were creatures of big business when what I said was that big business was off on its rampage and that the Presidents, between Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, were dimly accommodating
Then the question of why I was so evil was gravely addressed. Mouse ears were now on the alert. Schlesinger noted that I had headed the America First chapter at Exeter in 1940 and that I still seemed to be an isolationist. Vanocur said isolationists were right-wingers. Schlesinger countered that many, like Norman Thomas (and me), were on the left. Mud, as it were, in hand, Vanocur said that isolationism is “tinged with anti-Semitism,” but that did not play. Schlesinger did note, with a degree of wonder, that there are those who do not seem to understand how our future is inextricably bound up in the politics of all the other continents. This might have been a good place to start an enlightening debate. Had I been included, I might have said that unless the nation is in actual peril (or in need of loot—I am not angelic) there is never any reason for us to engage in foreign wars. Since George Washington, the isolationist has always had the best arguments. But since corporate money is forever on the side of foreign adventure, money has kept us on the move, at least until recently.
I said that Stalin drastically disarmed after the war. Arthur rightly pointed out that so did we: Pressure from the isolationist masses forced the government to let go millions of G.I.s, including me. But two days after the announcement of Japan’s surrender, Truman said (August 17, 1945) that he would ask Congress to approve a program of universal military training—in peacetime! He made the request, and got his wish. We re-armed as they disarmed. Briefly.
Between May and September 1946, Truman began the rearmament of our sector of Germany while encouraging the French in their recolonization of Indochina, as well as meddling militarily in China and South Korea. The great problem of living in a country where information and education are so tightly controlled is that very little news about our actual situation ever gets through to the consumers. Instead we are assured that we are so hated by those envious of our wealth and goodness that they commit terrorist acts against us simply out of spite. The damage our presidential and corporate imperialists have done to others in every quarter of the world is a non-subject, as we saw in August, when a realistic overview accidentally appeared on an imperial network and a panel of four was rushed into place to glue mouse ears back on the eagle’s head.
Vanocur then affects to be mystified by why I say so many terrible things about the Disneyland that pays him his small salary. But I thought I had made myself clear. I am a patriot of the old Republic that slowly wavered during the expansionist years and quite vanished in 1950 when the National Security State took its place. Now I want us to convert from a wartime to a peacetime economy. But since the G.E.-style conglomerates that govern us will never convert, something will have to give, won’t it?
When the egregious Vanocur wondered why I had done this program, Arthur said, “To entertain himself—and to entertain the audience.” That was disappointing but worthy of the Dr. Faustus of Harvard Yard.
I did not report on my country’s disastrous imperial activities with much amusement. All I wanted to do was tell a story never told before on our television—and never to be told again as long as the likes of G.E. and Disney are allowed to be media owners and manipulators of opinion.
What to do? Break up the conglomerates. That’s a start. And then—well, why not go whole hog—what about a free press, representative government and…. Well, you get the picture.