That Mysterious Presence

“[Stimson] wanted to make all Asia our responsibility. That means if the Japanese would not let go of Manchuria, we would go to war with them. When I realized what he was up to, I called a Cabinet meeting and read Henry the riot act. I agreed that although Japanese behavior on the mainland of Asia was deplorable, we were in no way threatened, economically or morally. I have the impression that he thinks of himself as a stern moralist, appointed by heaven to force people to be good, even if he must shoot them first. I said that I would never sacrifice any American life anywhere unless we ourselves were directly threatened […]”

Deliberately, [Herbert] Hoover took a handkerchief; mopped his forehead; and continued. “I am told that men of great imagination can often foresee what wars are like and so will have nothing to do with them. [Stimson], of course, has no imagination at all, and as I am an engineer, I’m not supposed to have one either. But I do have something Roosevelt and Stimson will never have. Experience. Franklin goes on and on about how he hates war because he has seen war. As usual, he lies. He toured a battlefield or two after Germany had surrended. And that was that. He saw no war. Does he hate what he has never experienced? Who knows? But I had to feed the victims of that war and I don’t want anything like that to ever happen again. But Stimson does. Roosevelt does. I find them unfathomable. You know, Roosevelt tells this tall tale about when he was in the Navy Department, and the Marines were occupying Haiti – Professor Wilson’s contribution to their welfare. Anyway, Franklin claims to have written the Haitian constitution. As if he’s ever read ours! People forget that when I was elected president, we were occupying most of Central America and the Caribbean. I pulled the Marines out of Haiti, out of Nicaragua, and then when our war-lovers insisted that we invade Cuba and Panama and Honduras, I said no. They invoked the Monroe Doctrine. I invited them to read it. We should never possess more military strength than is needed to make sure that no one will ever dare invade us. But then after the … uh, debacle of 1932” – Peter saw a look of real pain in that round innocent-eyed bejowled face – “Stimson, still in my cabinet, sneaks up to Hyde Park to sell himself to the President-elect. Obviously, the price was right. Those two are made for each other. […]

“Mr. President, you must write all this for the Tribune.” Blaise was excited, to Peter’s surprise. Peter had not expected his unimaginative father to get the point to Hoover’s originality so perfectly disguised for so long from his countrymen by his forbidding and consummately dull persona. […]

Hoover stood up. “Naturally, a fallen statesman is always willing to mount whatever pedestal he can find. I’ll make some analysis of our elderly secretary of war’s peculiar view of the world, and his alliance with that mysterious presence in the White House.” Flanked by Blaise and Peter, Hoover moved with firm tread up the steps, where rambling roses grew to left and right.

“I am anti-war as you may have guessed but not because, as some deep thinkers believe, I am a Quaker, born and bred. I’m perfectly willing to fight if we have to. But I see something worse than war on the horizon. I am certain that the next war will absolutely transform us. I see more power to the great corporations. More power to the government. Less power to the people. That’s what I fear. Because once this starts, it’s irreversible. You see, I want to live in a community that governs itself. Well, you can’t extend the mastery of the government over the daily life of a people without making government the master of those people’s souls and thoughts, the way the fascists and the Bolsheviks have done. In his serpentine way, Franklin is going in the very same direction that they have gone in, and I think he knows exactly what he’s doing while Stimson is simply stupid, a common condition […]

“When the Depression was at its worst, everyone wanted to know what we should do. General Electric even offered to take over the government and run it for me like – well, General Electric, I suppose. Oh, I was given a great deal of advice. Finally, I was inspired to say, what this country really needs is a great poem. Something to lift people out of fear and selfishness.”

“Do you still think so?”

“Of course.”

“You should have written it, sir.”

“I am no poet. And there is still no poem by anyone – yet.”

Gore Vidal, The Golden Age, pp. 166-169


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