We are the patriots
is it possible for the US to engage in wars without the consensus of a large
part of the American people? Gore Vidal places the question within a
historical perspective that reveals the remarkable foresight of Benjamin
I belong to a minority that is now one of the smallest in the country and, with every day, grows smaller. I am a veteran of World War II. And I can recall thinking, when I got out of the Army in 1946, Well, that's that. We won. And those who come after us will never need do this again. Then came the two mad wars of imperial vanity—Korea and Vietnam. They were bitter for us, not to mention for the so-called enemy. Next we were enrolled in a perpetual war against what seemed to be the enemy-of-the-month club. This war kept major revenues going to military procurement and secret police, while withholding money from us, the taxpayers, with our petty concerns for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
matter how corrupt our system became over the last century—and I lived through
three-quarters of it—we still held on to the Constitution and, above all, to
the Bill of Rights. No matter how bad things got, I never once believed that I
would see a great part of the nation—of we the people, unconsulted and
unrepresented in a matter of war and peace-demonstrating in such numbers against
an arbitrary and secret government, preparing and conducting wars for us, or at
least for an army recruited from the unemployed to fight in. Sensibly, they now
leave much of the fighting to the uneducated, to the excluded.
Vietnam Bush fled to the Texas Air National Guard. Cheney, when asked why he
avoided service in Vietnam, replied, "I had other priorities." Well,
so did 12 million of us sixty years ago. Priorities that 290,000 were never able
So who's to
blame? Us? Them? Well, we can safely blame certain oil and gas hustlers who have
effectively hijacked the government from presidency to Congress to, most
ominously, the judiciary. How did they do it? Curiously, the means have always
been there. It took the higher greed and other interests to make this coup d'état
Benjamin Franklin, of all people, who saw our future most clearly back in 1787,
when, as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia, he read
for the first time the proposed Constitution. He was old; he was dying; he was
not well enough to speak but he had prepared a text that a friend read. It is so
dark a statement that most school history books omit his key words.
urged the convention to accept the Constitution despite what he took to be its
great faults, because it might, he said, provide good government in the short
term. "There is no form of government but what may be a blessing to the
people if well administered, and I believe farther that this is likely to be
well administered for a course of years, and can only end in Despotism, as other
forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need
despotic Government, being incapable of any other." Think of Enron, Merrill
Lynch, etc., of chads and butterfly ballots, of Scalia's son arguing before his
unrecused father at the Supreme Court while unrecused Thomas sits silently by,
his wife already at work for the approaching Bush Administration. Think,
finally, of the electoral college, a piece of dubious, antidemocratic machinery
that Franklin doubtless saw as a source of deepest corruption and subsequent
mischief for the Republic, as happened not only in 1876 but in 2000.
prophecy came true in December 2000, when the Supreme Court bulldozed its way
through the Constitution in order to select as its President the loser in the
election of that year. Despotism is now securely in the saddle. The old Republic
is a shadow of itself, and we now stand in the glare of a nuclear world empire
with a government that sees as its true enemy "we the people," deprived
of our electoral franchise. War is the usual aim of despots, and serial warfare
is what we are going to get unless—with help from well-wishers in new old
Europe and from ourselves, awake at last—we can persuade this peculiar
Administration that they are acting entirely on their vicious own, and against
all our history.
night on CNN I brought the admirable Aaron Brown to a full stop, not, this time,
with Franklin but with John Quincy Adams, who said in 1821, on the subject of
our fighting to liberate Greece from Turkey, the United States "goes not
abroad, in search of monsters to destroy." If the United States took up all
foreign affairs, "she might become the dictatress of the world. She would
no longer be the ruler of her own spirit," her own soul.
Should we be
allowed in 2004 to hold a presidential election here in the homeland, I suspect
we shall realize that the only regime change that need concern our regained
spirit—or soul—is in Washington.
Adams is long since dead. And we have now been in the empire business since
1898: We had promised to give the Filipinos their independence from Spain. Then
we changed our mind, killing some 200,000 of them in the process of
A few years
ago there was a significant exchange between then-General Colin Powell and
then-statesperson Madeleine Albright. Like so many civilians, she was eager to
use our troops against our enemies: What's the point of having all this military
and not using it? He said, They are not toy soldiers. But in the interest of
fighting Communism for so long, we did spend trillions of dollars, until we are
now in danger of sinking beneath the weight of so much weaponry.
suppose it was inevitable that, sooner or later, a new generation would get the
bright idea, Why not stop fooling around with diplomacy and treaties and
coalitions and just use our military power to give orders to the rest of the
world? A year or two ago, a pair of neoconservatives put forward this exact
notion. I responded—in print—that if we did so, we would have perpetual war
for perpetual peace. Which is not good for business. Then the Cheney-Bush junta
seized power. Although primarily interested in oil reserves, they liked the idea
of playing soldiers too.
September Congress received from the Administration a document called the
National Security Strategy of the United States. As the historian Joseph
Stromberg observed, "It must be read to be believed." The doctrine
preaches the desirability of the United States becoming—to use Adams'swords—dictatress
of the world. It also assumes that the President and his lieutenants are morally
entitled to govern the planet. It declares that our "best defense is a good
offense." The doctrine of preemption is next declared: "As a matter of
common sense and self-defense, America will act against such emerging threats
before they are fully formed." (Emphasis added.) Doubtless, General
Ashcroft is now in Utah arresting every Mormon male before he can kidnap eight
young girls for potential wives.
Section 8 of the Constitution says that only Congress can declare war. But
Congress surrendered that great power to the President in 1950 and has never
taken it back.
Senator Alan Simpson said so cheerily on TV the other evening, "The
Commander in Chief of the military will decide what the cause is. It won't be
the American people." So in great matters we are not guided by law but by
faith in the President, whose powerful Christian beliefs preach that "faith
is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."
to things not seen, the USA Patriot Act was rushed through Congress and signed
forty-five days after 9/11. We are expected to believe that its carefully
crafted 342 pages were written in that short time. Actually, it reads like a
continuation of Clinton's post-Oklahoma City antiterrorist act. The Patriot Act
makes it possible for government agents to break into anyone's home when they
are away, conduct a search and keep the citizen indefinitely from finding out
that a warrant was issued. They can oblige librarians to tell them what books
anyone has withdrawn. If the librarian refuses, he or she can be criminally
charged. They can also collect your credit reports and other sensitive
information without judicial approval or the citizen's consent.
this unconstitutional activity need not have the slightest connection with
terrorism. Early in February, the Justice Department leaked Patriot Act II,
known as the Domestic Security Enhancement Act, dated January 9, 2003. A
Congress that did not properly debate the first act will doubtless be
steamrolled by this lawless expansion.
provisions: If an American citizen has been accused of supporting an
organization labeled as terrorist by the government, he can be deprived of his
citizenship even if he had no idea the organization had a link to terrorists.
Provision in Act II is also made for more searches and wiretaps without warrant
as well as secret arrests (Section 201). In case a citizen tries to fight back
in order to retain the citizenship he or she was born with, those federal agents
who conduct illegal surveillance with the blessing of high Administration
officials are immune from legal action. A native-born American deprived of
citizenship would, presumably, be deported, just as, today, a foreign-born
person can be deported. Also, according to a recent ruling of a federal court,
this new power of the Attorney General is not susceptible to judicial review.
Since the American who has had his citizenship taken away cannot, of course, get
a passport, the thoughtful devisers of Domestic Security Enhancement authorize
the Attorney General to deport him "to any country or region regardless of
whether the country or region has a government." Difficult cases with no
possible place to go can be held indefinitely.
Patriot Act I only foreigners were denied due process of law as well as subject
to arbitrary deportation, Patriot Act II now includes American citizens in the
same category, thus eliminating in one great erasure the Bill of Rights.
historian, Charles Beard, wrote in 1939:
destiny of Europe and Asia has not been committed, under God, to the keeping of
the United States; and only conceit, dreams of grandeur, vain imaginings, lust
for power, or a desire to escape from our domestic perils and obligations could
possibly make us suppose that Providence has appointed us his chosen people for
the pacification of the earth.
Americans who refuse to plunge blindly into the maelstrom of European and
Asiatic politics are not defeatist or neurotic. They are giving evidence of
sanity, not cowardice, of adult thinking as distinguished from infantilism. They
intend to preserve and defend the Republic. America is not to be Rome or
Britain. It is to be America."
Note: This article was published by JUST Response on May 31 2003. It first appeared in The Nation, vol.276, to whom we offer our grateful acknowledgement. Gore Vidal is a leading US novelist, political commentator and social critic. His latest book is Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta (Thunder 's Mouth).