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Dec 4, 2005 3:18 am

a Late Entry for Historians in the News

I have not been on the ball as much as I should this Fall, and I discovered that I had let a notable date slip past me. But then, so, I believe, did HNN’s editors. Nowhere in the last month weeks the Historians in the News Column pointed out that October 3, 2005 was Gore Vidal’s 80th birthday (see for example, Marc Cooper’s interview wiht Vidal in the November 7, 2005 THE NATION, “Gore Vidal, Octacontrarian” (
At the risk of attracting scorn and brickbats, I would like to suggest that Vidal is one of our nation’s most significant historians, and that his historical writing deserves more intensive study by students of history.

In addition to Vidal's acerbic historical essays and book reviews, on subjects ranging from George Washington to the Amistad Mutiny to Richard Nixon, I would recommend study of his novels. Although I blush to confess how long it is since I read them, their impact remains strong on me. Vidal’s LINCOLN, for example, provides a well-researched and rounded picture of the character of Abraham Lincoln, his use of power, and his great political skill, and the ways in which he contributed to centralizing national power in Washington. His BURR is a wonderful portrait of Jacksonian America and the imperishability of American political trickery through journalistic scandal-mongering. In quite another way, JULIAN, a portrait of the late Roman Emperor Julian, is both witty and poignant in the ways it takes apart the Christian self-image of historical innocence amid Roman depravity, and shows how Christians pulled strings and not too gently maintained themselves in seats of power. I might mention in passing Vidal’s 1967 novel WASHINGTON, D.C. Although it is not such a rigorous historical study, it has a particular importance for me as the first mass-market work I ever saw to criticize the wartime removal and confinement of Japanese Americans.

I do not wish to leave people with the impression that I agree with all of Vidal’s historical judgments. The intense isolationism that he inherited from his Populist grandfather and hero, Oklahoma Senator T.P. Gore, and that continues to mark his view of the 20th century (Vidal has said that the first and only political organization of which he was ever a member was the America First Organization) tends to scant his view of reality. It is silly, in my view, to claim that Charles Lindbergh was a great national hero done in by the machinations of British propaganda. Still, even where I disagree, I find his ideas illuminate debate.

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Alan Allport - 12/7/2005

Unlike in the example of David Irving, the FDR Pearl Harbor theory has enough basis to make a prima facie case.

I think that you misunderstand Irving's argument then, but that would take us into territory that I don't have the time or inclination to get into. Suffice to say for the time being that the two cases are not so disimilar as you suggest.

Greg James Robinson - 12/7/2005

I do not have much interest in going to the mat to defend a historical theory which which I do not find convincing, and which is embraced by various proponents for different reasons, some of which I find creepy. (More on that in a separate posting). Still, unlike in the example of David Irving, the FDR Pearl Harbor theory has enough basis to make a prima facie case. Roosevelt knew, or had reason to know, that the United States and Japan were on the point of war, and that Japan started its modern wars with surprise atttacks. He also had discussed with Secretary of War Stimson during November how to draw Japan into firing "the first shot," and had asked his Cabinet during November whether they thought the nation would support an American Expiditionary force in the Pacific.

Alan Allport - 12/6/2005

We must accept that there is some evidence for it ...

Sorry, but no. Once you start to look at some of the 'evidence' that has been cited for FDR's culpability over Pearl Harbor, its tendentiousness is so blatant that one has to assume either bad faith or sheer eccentricity on the part of those who buy into it (and yes, I include Charles Beard in that). The logic-chopping and sheer mendacity of the conspiracy-mongers is breathtaking.

Greg James Robinson - 12/6/2005

I already mentioned that I think that Vidal is inspired by his isolationism (and also the dirty dealing he says was done to his father by Roosevelt) to some conclusions I can't accept, including the one about FDR and Pearl Harbor. I think he is ready to accept an argument congenial to his position. That said, it is really out of bounds to compare him with Irving, denying something in the face of absolute reality, and with no evidence to back him. Even if we do not buy, on the preponderance of evidence, the argument that Roosevelt had foreknowledge (and one can argue how much and of what kind), we must accept that there is some evidence for it, and that such a distinguished historian as Charles Beard believed it. I found it a profoundly unsettling experience to read, some time ago, a note in the papers of Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins at Columbia University. Perkins evidently wrote it shortly after the Cabinet meeting on the evening of December 7, but kept it private, and it only entered the collection belatedly. In the note, she described her sense that something is fishy about Roosevelt and Knox's reactions and that she is not being told everything--and wills herself not to believe that there is a "fix" in.

Alan Allport - 12/5/2005

Vidal takes seriously the proposition that FDR knew about, and consciously willed on, the Pearl Harbor attack. Suggesting that this is just an uncharacteristic lapse of judgment is a bit like saying that David Irving is a great historian except that ... (and for once, I don't think the comparison is inapposite).

Jonathan Dresner - 12/4/2005

It is silly, in my view, to claim that Charles Lindbergh was a great national hero done in by the machinations of British propaganda.

That goes well beyond "silly" in my book: it's downright creepy. I've never read Vidal, and my feelings about historical fiction are mixed, but I was right with you up to that point...

Ed Schmitt - 12/3/2005

While I haven't read any of Vidal's works that you mention in your post, I certainly agree with your final point - "Still, even where I disagree, I find his ideas illuminate debate." Your post was also a timely one for me, as after a long period of fruitless searching for a video of Vidal's famed debate with William F. Buckley during the 1968 Democratic convention, I was able to locate one and showed it to my students yesterday. While it was famous for how heated the exchange got (with Vidal calling Buckley a "crypto-Nazi" and Buckley telling Vidal he would "sock him in your goddamned mouth") there were also the incisive observations from the left and right that are so woefully lacking in the cable news era. So, while I'm not commenting here on Vidal as historian, I'm issuing a call in this time and place, in the spirit of Lorne Michaels's proposal for a Beatles reunion in the 1970s on Saturday Night Live (offering them several HUNDRED dollars!), for one more debate between these old warhorses. Anyone else want to join the campaign?

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