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Gore Vidal on ‘The Emperor’ (2/7)

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PAUL JAY: One of the principles of U.S. foreign policy coming out of World War II was to establish a single-superpower world. Was one of the reasons for the dropping of the nuclear weapons to tell the world, a shot across the bow, if you will, that this is going to be a single-superpower world?

GORE VIDAL: I don’t think it was that well thought out. We had single-handedly won World War II. The Russians don’t agree with this because without their land armies we could never have liberated Europe from the Nazis. So the Russians paid a great cost in life and treasure, as they like to say. And they won the ground war, we won the air war, and we won the sea war. And that was about it. But we grabbed all the credit for everything, as we are wont to do. Europeans have always noticed we come in very, very late into their European wars. And if they followed the advice of people like me, we would never have come in to go to war abroad as we did in World War I, as we did again in World War II.

But by ’45 when the bombs were being dropped or considered, we lacked Franklin Roosevelt. He was the emperor. He knew exactly what he was doing. He made a number of agreements with Stalin at Yalta. All Stalin asked for was to be treated as a normal superpower, which is what they were. Roosevelt did not have any nonsense going on in his head about the sanctity of Christianity, the sanctity of capitalism versus communism. I don’t think he ever gave such topics a thought. All he knew is we had won the war, and he was going to decolonialize. Now, that is the great Roosevelt message. He told Churchill at Yalta, he said, you know, now we’re winning, you know, the war in Europe- Pacific war was still going on. But now that we’re winning it, you know that you’re going to have to give up India. Oh, yes, of course, we always knew that. And one day we’ll really give it up. And he said, no, no, no, you’re going to give it up right away. And France is going to give up Indochina. Sumatra and Java are going to be let go, freed by the Dutch. And he said, I don’t care what this does to European powers. I’m ending colonialism, because without a clean sweep, the United States is meaningless.

I mean, Roosevelt was a great statesman, and he knew a lot about geography, and these other jokers didn’t know it. And so it came to pass that Churchill had to give up India, grumbling all the way. At this famous lunch, a lot of witnesses there, Churchill apparently turned to him. He thought this man was his friend, but emperors have no friends. And he said, what do you want me to do? Get on my hind legs like your little dog, Fala, and beg? The emperor said, yes. You don’t take on emperors in their own empire. Roosevelt had done what he set out to do. Why did he set out to do what he did? He had lived through World War I, and he’d come to Washington as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson, one of the wooliest-headed presidents we ever had. I mean, he makes Harry Truman look like Einstein. He tried out the League of Nations, which he didn’t know how to set it up. He antagonized half the Senate, and then wondered why they voted against him.

Roosevelt had learned his lesson from Woodrow Wilson. So he sets up the United Nations. Wisely, he put Eleanor Roosevelt, who was in many ways a better statesman than he, in charge of just seeing that it got off to a good start, because he suspected he was dying and indeed did die. And she nursed it along. And it was a very good thing until American right wingers got a hold of it, ’cause they had to complain about foreigners. You know, foreigners are bad people. They don’t wash, and they never pay back their debts.

PAUL JAY: Roosevelt was planning his vision of the American empire?

GORE VIDAL: Of course he was. One of the first things he did was tell Churchill, goodbye, India. You’re out of the empire business. There are no empires. He didn’t say we’re going to be the only one, because he was too tactful and too manipulative. Somebody might have said, no, you’re not. But he set everything up in the post-war world.

PAUL JAY: He makes the deal with Ibn Saud on a boat off Great Bitter Lake.

GORE VIDAL: Yeah, on his way back from Yalta on a battleship. And Ibn Saud, the king of Saudi Arabia, came aboard and spent the entire day. And here’s Roosevelt, a dying man, saying, you know, I’m rather looking forward to coming here after the war. I can help you with many things. He was going to help him with the price of oil, I suppose. And Roosevelt was still very vigorous; it’s just his flesh gave out. And so he came to die at Warm Springs, Georgia. A sad day.

PAUL JAY: That deal with Ibn Saud seemed to set the pattern for the next fifty, sixty years of Middle East regional policy.

GORE VIDAL: Well, and the conflict with the Brits, because the Brits were in Iranian oil. Amoco, whatever company merged with British oil, Petroleum. And the Brits could think of nothing else. And Roosevelt thought, well, I’ll preempt that sooner or later with the American alliance with the Arabians. And they quite liked each other, the two old kings. And they sat there and divided up that sphere of influence. Then Roosevelt was dead, and Ibn Saud was never a great player, and so that was the end of that.

PAUL JAY: But it did set some of the pattern, of this use of Wahhabism and the Saudi royal family in Middle East politics.

GORE VIDAL: Well, I don’t think Roosevelt knew anything about the Wahhabi Muslims. He didn’t do a lot of research. But he had great instincts. He knew where the oil was, and he knew where the power was, so he accommodated the power of the royal family there, and he smiled benignly at the oil wells.