Putting the Con in Conspiracy: Gore Vidal and Conspiracy Theories

‘Are you suggesting that there was a conspiracy?’ A twinkle starts in a pair of bright contact lenses. No matter what the answer, there is a wriggling of the body, followed by a tiny snort and a significant glance into the camera to show that the guest has just been delivered to the studio by flying saucer. This is one way for the public never to understand what actual conspirators […] are up to.


Gore Vidal (2001).


That was Gore Vidal writing in September 2001 about how the media ‘handle anyone who tries to explain why something happened.’ Throughout his long career as a writer and intellectual, he had always thrown doubt upon the official narrative of American history, but in the 1990s he also began to interrogate the authorised account of current events, such as the Waco Siege and the Oklahoma City Bombing. This came to a head with the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent ‘War on Terror’, when Vidal became, alongside Noam Chomsky, Oliver Stone and Michael Moore, a leading popular voice of the radical left, as well as a self-confessed ‘conspiracy analyst’.


Perceiving official intrigue behind many policies and episodes, Vidal believed that, in its alleged transformation from republic to ‘empire’, the American government had engaged in an elaborate conspiracy to the end of constructing a so-called ‘national-security state’. The origins of this he dated to the aftermath of the Second World War, when, rather than demilitarising, the United States government conspired to stay on a war footing by fomenting discord with the Soviet Union. Over the course of the subsequent Cold War, this allowed it to engage in numerous foreign military adventures, while keeping its own citizens under increasing surveillance through an elaborate intelligence apparatus. Though Vidal’s interpretation can be justly disputed, this reading of post-war American history – fact or fiction – has represented a potent narrative to extremes of right and left, at whose heart is a sense that his fellow citizens have been the victim of a sophisticated con.


A believer in American decline from the 1960s, Vidal outlined three separate falsehoods of the ‘confidence trick’ upon which the American ‘national-security state’ had been founded: firstly, that ‘Roosevelt knew nothing about the impending Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor’; secondly, that ‘Truman dropped the atomic bombs on Japan in order to save a million American lives’; and, thirdly, that ‘[t]he Soviet state was bent on world domination and the destruction of the US’. He also dated its formal beginning to 1947, when the ‘Truman Doctrine’ was formally outlined and the National Security Act signed into law. Writing fifty years later, Vidal estimated the cost of America’s consequent wars at $7 trillion, as well as thousands of lives, suggesting that the government and corporate interests that drove the ‘military-industrial’ complex behind this con still continued in a decades-long plot to deceive and betray the American people.

But Vidal was not always a conspiracy theorist/analyst. In his 1952 novel The Judgment of Paris, for instance, he had satirised the very notion of political conspiracies, portraying its protagonist Philip Warren involved at one point in a farcical attempt to restore the House of Savoy to the Italian throne. Indeed, his opinion seems to have remained the same throughout the 1960s, even after the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, which occasioned many Americans to speculate on the motives behind their murders. In 1969, Vidal remarked that he found it ‘ironic that a nation that has never suffered a coup d’etat should be so obsessed with the idea of conspiracy’, and maintained that he favoured the official ‘lone-lunatic’ theory of all these assassinations.

By 1979, however, he had revised his position, claiming that, since the attempted assassination of the Democratic presidential candidate George Wallace in 1972, he had begun to see ‘a pattern to these murders’. He had also suffered a more personal loss associated with potential conspiracy: the 1975 murder of the Italian film director, and Vidal’s friend, Pier Paolo Pasolini, who was allegedly killed by a young male prostitute, but around which rumours have flown ever since of being a Mafia ‘hit’. In his 1976 novel 1876, however, Vidal was still sceptical of those who divined plots behind every political murder, with its protagonist Charles Schuyler encountering ‘a madman’ who believes that Abraham Lincoln’s vice-president Andrew Johnson was behind his assassination – an ironic nod to those who still believed that another Vice-President Johnson was behind JFK’s.


By the early 1980s, Vidal was already being labelled in certain quarters as a conspiracy theorist. Asked during an appearance on the David Susskind Show in 1980 whether he believed in ‘the conspiracy theory of history’, he replied:


‘[Those at the top] don’t have to conspire, because they all think alike. The president of General Motors and the president of Chase Manhattan Bank really are not going to disagree much on anything, nor would the editor of the New York Times disagree with them. They all tend to think quite alike, otherwise they would not be in those jobs.’

But at least some of this increasing tendency was due to his perceived lack of recognition in his homeland, which he alleged to be an informal plot between academics, literary critics and the New York Times. While some of this was Vidalian paranoia, he certainly faced genuine barriers to a higher professional profile in the United States. Books that he believed represented pioneering literary experiments, such as his 1983 novel Duluth, disappeared without trace, while even his more conservative historical fiction, such as 1973’s Burr, found their way onto bestseller lists, but never university curricula. Awarded a Pulitzer for his acclaimed 1984 novel Lincoln, Vidal was denied the prize by the committee, who overruled its three-person jury, thus reinforcing forever his persecution syndrome.

This aside, one might have thought Vidal’s conspiracy theorising might have terminated with the close of the Reagan administration and the end of the Cold War, but, in fact, in the 1990s, it intensified. Even the plot of his satirical 1992 novel Live from Golgotha centres on a Zionist conspiracy in which Jesus is replaced by Judas at the Crucifixion. Abroad, the Gulf War provided fuel to his long-time critique of American ‘imperialism’, while, at home, the Waco Siege and its bloody outcome stoked his anger at the United States government, whom he accused of ‘tearing up’ the Bill of Rights. Always a dissenting patriot, Vidal became increasingly convinced of a deep-state conspiracy lying behind these events – having more of a platform than ever with the evolution of cable news, and more of a forum with the development of the Internet. By the end of the decade, he was writing that ‘[c]onspiracy theories now blossom in the wilderness […], and those in thrall to them are mocked invariably by the…actual conspirators’.


But it was the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995, perhaps, that converted him for good to a belief in the destructive nature of the ‘national-security state’, and its near-endless capacity for conspiracies. Since the Waco Siege was alleged to be one of the leading motivations behind Timothy McVeigh’s decision to commit the other atrocity, Vidal claimed that the American government bore responsibility for both massacres, accusing it of having foreknowledge of, and withholding evidence regarding, McVeigh’s attack. Indeed, he entered into a correspondence with McVeigh, out of which emerged one of Vidal’s most controversial essays, ‘The Meaning of Timothy McVeigh’ – published the same month as 9/11 – in which he portrayed McVeigh as a ‘hero’, a ‘patriot’, and a potential government agent. Yet, in this same period, Vidal’s protégé Christopher Hitchens noted that ‘[i]n his polemics against empire and interventionism and the overmighty state, Vidal has been careful to avoid the paranoid school: the old gang who used to cry that “FDR knew” about the attack on Pearl Harbor’.


Well, not quite. One can detect the origins of Vidal’s conspiracy theorising in the influence of his grandfather Thomas Pryor Gore, Oklahoma senator for twenty years and a leading opponent of American involvement in the First and Second World Wars. A lifelong isolationist, he also believed that, first, Woodrow Wilson and, then, Franklin Roosevelt were responsible for engineering the United States entry into the respective conflicts in order to serve the needs of its burgeoning expansionism. Passing on to his grandson not only his atheism, but his cynicism about human nature, Senator Gore also transmitted to him a belief that the American government knew in advance about the Pearl Harbor attack, and used it as a casus belli to enter the war. Vidal referred to this many times in his works – for instance, in his 1967 novel Washington D.C. –, though his fullest discussion came in his final novel in 2000, The Golden Age. As such, this may be said to be his ur-conspiracy theory: the one that launched the rest.


But if that is where his theorising began, 9/11 and its aftermath must be said to be where it reached its fullest conclusion. In his essays, ‘Black Tuesday’ and ‘Goat Song’, which appeared shortly after the attacks, Vidal perceives the attacks as a fathomable response to American foreign policy over the previous fifty years, especially in the Middle East. But, importantly, Vidal never explicitly suggested a conspiracy surrounding the 9/11 attacks, writing:


‘Now I get the same question over and over: Isn’t this exactly like Sunday morning, December 7 1941? No, it’s not, I say. As far as we now know, we had no warning of last Tuesday’s attack. Of course, our government has many, many secrets which our enemies always seem to know about in advance but our people are not told of until years later, if at all.’


He did claim, however, that both the Oklahoma City Bombing and 9/11 had been used by the government to assume fresh powers for itself in the form of the 1996 Anti-Terror Act and the 2001 Patriot Act, in the same way that the 1933 Reichstag Fire had allowed Hitler to pass his Enabling Act. So, significantly, while he often hinted at a long-term, deep-state intrigue, Vidal often conveniently side-stepped specific allegations.

The ‘War on Terror’ that resulted gave Vidal his last great cause, and led him to write a series of essays and pamphlets, such as Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, Dreaming War and Imperial America, which decried the Bush Administration for allegedly using 9/11 to reinforce and expand the American ‘national-security state’. These works represent a blend of history and hysteria, half-reason and half-treason, which generate arguably more heat than light; but one gets the sense of Vidal’s increasing monomania about the existence of conspiracy in public life. Writing with no small amount of irony in 2002, Vidal claimed that ‘the American media were filled with pre-emptory denunciations of unpatriotic ‘conspiracy theorists’, who not only are always with us but are usually easy for the media to discredit since it is an article of faith that there are no conspiracies in American life’. This paranoid vision reached its climax in his final memoir from 2006, Point-to-Point Navigation, in which he directly accused the Mafia of killing JFK, and concluded more widely:


‘Ours is a society riddled with plots of every kind […] yet anyone who draws attention to all of this corruption is quickly denounced as a conspiracy theorist who means to undo the great fiction that anything truly wicked […] must be the work of a sole solitary ‘nut’ who is simply Evil […].’


In his final years, he was interviewed by many alternative online media outlets, such as Truthdig and Alex Jones’ Infowars, where he was given free rein to outline his many unsubstantiated claims about the American government. By 2010, even Christopher Hitchens – with whom he had fallen out over the Iraq War – was calling him a ‘crackpot’, responsible since 9/11 for what he called ‘a small anthology of half-written and half-argued shock pieces.’


But one cannot put down Gore Vidal’s latter conspiracy theorising to senile dementia. Ultimately, we must look further: to Vidal’s understanding of the nature of truth versus lies and fact versus fiction. He disputed that there were ever ‘agreed-upon facts’ in the study of the past; only assertions and narratives, which allowed historical fiction to be for him a form as valuable and legitimate as historiography itself, writing:


‘To me, the attraction of the historical novel is that one can be as meticulous (or as careless!) as the historian and yet reserve the right not only to rearrange events, but, most important, to attribute motive – something the conscientious historian or biographer ought never to do.’


In his career-long project of demythologising American history and advancing counter-narratives, Vidal sought to produce accounts that articulated the dark, often deceptive motivations that he divined beneath his homeland’s past. As his biographer Jay Parini has remarked, in Vidal’s historical novels, fact and fiction are ‘permeable,’ with real historical characters rubbing shoulders with their fictional counterparts. But, more than that, Vidal maintained a similarly pervious attitude to the relation of what was truth and what made up, having the very real William Randolph Hearst remark in an imaginary interview with Theodore Roosevelt at the close of his 1987 novel Empire that ‘[t]rue history […] is the final fiction.’


Like any true radical, Vidal wanted to return to the ‘root’ of things, but, in doing so, over the latter part of his career, he increasingly discounted simple, obvious truths for more arcane possibilities buried beneath the outward surface of events, and sometimes beyond the realm of logic. Conspiracy theories appealed to Vidal because they represented an enticing blend of reality and fantasy capable of challenging the status quo of accepted fact, and encouraging people to consider a range of alternative possibilities – not to mention giving him a sense of superiority over those he saw as wilfully ignorant of ‘the truth’. Conspiracy theories have been called ‘the last refuge of the powerless’, and this also connects with Vidal’s lifelong resentment of his perceived rejection in the United States, and his self-imposed exile in Italy for much of his career. In addition, the antagonistic nature of conspiracy theories fitted his own contrarian character, which, playful and provocative, always sought new ways to articulate inconvenient truths, and attack corruption and hypocrisy wherever he found them.


Central to Gore Vidal’s evolving vision of the existence of conspiracy in American life was his belief that the United States government had constructed a ‘national-security state’ through a sophisticated and systematic long-term deception. But Vidal believed that this was merely part of a far lengthier plot in American history, running all the way the way back to the foundation of the state: the quest to turn the nation’s republic into an ‘empire’. Outlined in his fiction and non-fiction alike, this theory is perhaps most fully expressed in his Narratives of Empire series of novels, which relate an alternative history of the United States, from the Founding Fathers to the Internet Age. In this, Vidal projects a traditional trajectory of republican rise and imperial decline for the United States, whose fatal, corrupting flaw he identifies as its restless desire to expand at all costs. This revisionist interpretation, more than anything else, lies behind the smoke and mirrors of understanding Vidal’s vision of conspiracy.

Christopher Hitchens once called conspiracy theories ‘the exhaust fumes of democracy’ – a by-product of the large amount of information circulating in our globalised, connected world. All too often in the last twenty or thirty years of his life, these fumes threatened to suffocate Gore Vidal’s reason and stifle his reputation. He was enough of a politician and a historian to know that conspiracies did occur, and that to believe otherwise was naïve. But where Vidal went astray was in taking it at times to ad-absurdum conclusions that perceived American officialdom as constantly involved in an elaborate conspiracy to deceive its citizenry to serve the needs of national aggrandisement, military supremacy and corporate greed. A connoisseur of power and duplicity, Vidal understood what people were capable of doing in order to secure their position; his mistake lay in assuming that everyone was as Machiavellian as he. In the end, conspiracies appealed to the patrician, the populist and the pessimist in Gore Vidal because, like him, they challenged and confronted, and bound fantasy to reality. No matter what else may have been fiction in his theorising, this is a matter of fact.



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