Top critical review
5 people found this helpful
Most of this is an unnecessarily lengthy statement of the obvious
on 1 August 2012
This is a book about American politics. It covers the period 1939-1950 and features a mix of fictional characters and real historical figures. The latter include presidents Roosevelt and Truman, Roosevelt's key wartime advisor Harry Hopkins, and Truman's undersecretary, later secretary, of state Dean Acheson. The fictional characters are not interesting in themselves and there is little serious effort to develop them. Their only purpose is to illuminate the real-life characters and, especially, to provide a vehicle for Vidal to offer an extended commentary on the decade of the 1940s, which he labels the `Golden Age' to reflect his perception that it was during this decade that America became unambiguously the world's leading nation, and a major imperial power.
The title is meant ironically: Vidal sees the imperial role as a matter of regret and indeed, a betrayal of the original ideals of the American republic. This is the main message not only of this book but also of Vidal's entire 7-volume sequence Narratives Of Empire, spanning the period 1776-1950, of which this book is chronologically the final volume. The central theme both of this book and of the larger sequence of books is put into the mouth of a fictional character, Senator Day, in chapter 12:
"The real political struggle in the United States, since the Civil War, has been between the peaceful inhabitants of the nation with their generally representative Congresses and a small professional elite totally cut off from the nation, pursuing wealth through wars that they invent and justify and resonate for others to die in."
Vidal seeks to justify this broad claim in two ways, roughly corresponding to the two halves of the book. In the first half, dealing with America's involvement in world war two, Roosevelt and Hopkins are presented as having goaded Japan into the Pearl Harbour attack (which it is suggested they may have known about in advance) in order to achieve Roosevelt's objective of getting America into the war despite most citizens' support for non-involvement. In the second half, dealing with the immediate post-war world, Acheson persistently alleges exaggerated or non-existent Soviet threats in order to justify increased American military spending and intervention in other countries' affairs, whilst Truman uses the same exaggerated threats to develop witch-hunts against supposed communist sympathisers.
This book cannot be taken seriously as a conventional literary novel: as already mentioned, the fictional characters aren't developed in an interesting way, and it has no significant themes beyond its central political message. Hence I think it should be seen as a polemic rather than as a conventional novel, and any judgement about the book has to be based on one's view of its political message. Hardly surprisingly, the message is divisive within America. From my British perspective I have three comments.
(1) It seems to me to be self-evident that America has become an aggressive imperialist country: during and since Vidal's `Golden Age' it has engaged in scores of overt or covert invasions or subversions of other countries, and it has routinely propped up appalling dictators all over the world provided that they are willing to let their countries be used for American corporate and military purposes. At the same time, it never ceases to assert that it is defending `freedom'; in some ways this awful hypocrisy is almost worse than the actual behaviour. So far so good, so far as Vidal's message is concerned. (Incidentally, if this sounds anti-American it's not meant to be: it's imperialism I don't like, not America per se. My own country's imperialist past, with its obnoxious claim that it would `bring civilisation to savages', is equally awful.)
(2) Is it really credible, though, that all this appalling behaviour is the work of a "professional elite totally cut off from the nation" as Vidal alleges? I find this difficult to believe. If most voters are yearning for a return to a non-imperialistic America, surely one or other of the Democratic or Republican parties would have adopted such a stance in order to gain their votes? If for some reason they couldn't or wouldn't do so, surely some new political party would have seen an opportunity? And on the one occasion in the past fifty years in which one of the established parties nominated a serious anti-war presidential candidate (George McGovern in 1972) he suffered a landslide defeat whereas if Vidal's thesis were really true he ought to have won overwhelmingly. Sadly for Vidal's central thesis, I think we have to accept that a large chunk, probably a majority, of ordinary Americans at the least acquiesce in, even if they don't actively enthuse over, their country's aggressive imperialistic behaviour.
(3) Regardless of the merits or otherwise of Vidal's central thesis, I am unconvinced by his treatment of Roosevelt and of his manoeuvrings to bring America into the war. In particular I don't see this as fitting neatly into Vidal's overall thesis about imperialism and global domination. For one thing, I think he makes too much of Roosevelt's alleged encouragement of Japan's Pearl Harbour attack, including prior knowledge of the attack. So far as I am aware, most professional historians (including plenty who aren't apologists for imperialism) are at best highly sceptical that the evidence supports prior knowledge. More fundamentally, even if he did manoeuvre to get America to enter the war against Hitler, was this a bad thing? Unlike in many of its subsequent military interventions, at least on this occasion America was unambiguously fighting against evil and in support of broadly democratic values. Would Vidal prefer that America had stayed out of the war, even at the cost of a fascist hegemony across much of Europe, Asia, and parts of Africa? I find it hard to see America's intervention as a cynical part of a grander imperialistic design.
Overall I'm unimpressed by this book. It doesn't stand up as a literary novel. As for its political message, this combines something that is trivially true (do we really need 470 pages to convince us that America is an aggressive imperialist power?), with something that is non-trivial but almost certainly untrue (can any country systematically follow policies over many decades of which a large majority of its citizens disapprove?) Although I enjoy political novels, and admire Vidal's ambition in trying to write a multi-volume political history of his country, I don't think that this book will stand the test of time.