5.11.2017 Doc of the Day

1. Eugene Debs, 1894.
2. Pentagon Papers, 1971.
3. Stanley Elkin, 1976.
4. Camilo Jose Cela, 1989.
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Numero Uno“On Friday, May 19th [1894], the employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company, at Pullman [Illinois], struck against a reduction of wages, tyranny, and degradation, and the strike has steadily progressed until it has attained continental proportions.It is not the purpose of this article to recite incidents of the strike,

but rather to point out the reasons why of the strike that has led to present conditions, with such reflections as the subject suggests. Let it be said at the start that the Pullman employees never, at any time, objected to the rapid increase of Mr. George M. Pullman’s great wealth, though his multi-millions represented very accurately the amount he had, by financial legerdemain, abstracted from them.   What they wanted, and the utmost they demanded, was fair wages and honorable treatment.The employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company, like the

great mass of their fellow toilers, preferred to submit to extortion and injustice as long as the wrongs could be borne rather than interfere with the plans of the company or create any disturbance. The testimony that such is the distinguishing trait of the great body of American workingmen is overwhelming.There is not a strike on record which, upon investigation, does

not disclose the fact that labor had been cruelly wronged, and the wonder has been that American workingmen could be induced to bear the outrages inflicted upon them so long and so patiently.  In writing of the situation it were supreme folly to so much as intimate that workingmen have been unmindful of the losses and sacrifices incident to the adoption of extreme measures to maintain their rights.  They have comprehended more fully than others the bitterness of the ordeal they would be required to pass in vindicating their manhood and their just demands, and the strikes which have occurred, whether success or defeat attended them, have, in every instance, added indefinitely to the glory of the sturdy manhood of American workingmen.No one questions the declaration that a strike is quasi war, now

necessarily sanguinary, though now and then, blood and carnage have told the terrible penalties labor has paid in its efforts to obtain the privilege of living as becomes American citizens.For the strike now on, as we write of the situation, George M.

Pullman is responsible.  It is becoming awfully tragic, and history will declare, when peace is restored, that it had its origin in the venality, despotism, and oppression of George M. Pullman.  He is the author of the present situation.  He began years ago to lay the foundation of his autocracy at the town of Pullman.  This fact is vividly shown in an editorial article in the Chicago Herald.That paper says:

‘In advance of the inevitable trial, Mr. Pullman will do well to

consider certain facts. He has set up in the town of Pullman amodern satrapy — a survival of medieval feudalism repugnant to the thought and spirit of the 19th Century. He has endeavored to combine a great industrial establishment with a hodgepodge jumble of Bellamy socialism and Russian autocracy. He has attempted to revive in America an institution that has not been seen since the 15th or 16th Century.How well the experiment has succeeded he himself can testify. Satisfactory at first, like all things novel, the ‘model town’ has degenerated. The ‘thousands of happy, contented, well-paid workers’ have been transformed by degrees into sullen, discontented strikers — justified, unhappily, in their sullenness and discontent. The wheels are idle, the chimneys of the mills stand smokeless.

Does Mr. Pullman feel justified in continuing the strike?

Granting that he may defeat his striking employees this time, does he care to invite another and another — and yet another —inevitable so long as wrong conditions exist?  These are the conditions he should consider carefully, and any true friend — if he has one — will advise him as to their answer.He should subdivide his town and sell lots to anyone who will

buy. He should abolish the system of overseers and inspectors and quasi-spies. He should enfranchise his men and make them freemen instead of feudal retainers. He should come down from his ducal throne and take his place among Americans as an American. He should become a democrat instead of an autocrat; a benefactor rather than a slave driver. He should be a man.’In the foregoing the reader has a graphic pen picture of George

M. Pullman. In his ‘Russian autocracy,’ his sub-autocrats, and ‘quasi-spies,’ we have the origin of the strike and the cause of the present situation, aided by the railroad managers combined to perpetuate the strike regardless of the cost of money and blood.The policy of George M. Pullman to rob his employees is characteristic of the man. His insatiable thirst for money is not confined to his piracies upon his employees, but extends to the public, and his methods of robbery are so much like those of an outlaw as to make them a subject of congressional investigation. As a consequence, Senator John Sherman, of Ohio, introduced a resolution to investigate George M. Pullman’s piracies, and the resolution was adopted by the United States Senate, the purpose of the resolution being to put an end to Pullman’s plunderings of the public.

In an interview, published in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Senator Sherman took special pains to point out the infamies practiced by George M. Pullman, and among other things said: ‘I regard the Pullman Company and Sugar Trust as the most outrageous monopolies of the day. They make enormous profits and give their patrons little or nothing in return in proportion.’

Senator Sherman gives George M. Pullman a certificate of character so infamous that the government proposes to clip his claws and restrain his rapacity. He is, probably, the first plutocrat made rich by plundering employees and the traveling public to be subjected to investigation and punishment for his crimes, and yet this rogue receives the aid of railroad managers, who form an alliance with him that they may perpetuate his piracies and reap a percent of the plunder.

This fact brings into view the question of sympathy on the part of

labor organizations for the oppressed and robbed Pullman employees.This sympathetic feeling has had much to do in creating present conditions. This purpose of workingmen to aid their fellow toilers when in trouble, a trait of human nature worthy of the highest eulogy, is almost universally denounced by the press of the country, while the action of railroad managers is commended. Such exhibitions of high consideration of Pullman and his pals and brutal denunciation of workingmen who have by words and deeds shown sympathy for the Pullman employees, is a feature of the situation which has tended to aggravate conditions.The men who sympathize with their fellow-men in distress are those who are animated by the spirit of Christ, and those who denounce them and malign them for such exhibitions of brotherly feeling, without which the world would be transformed as if by Jehovah’s decree into a hell, are the Pharisees, the canting hypocrites, who ‘devour widow’s houses,’ and for a ‘pretense, make long prayers,’ and who, therefore, as Christ said, are entitled to ‘special damnation.’ These ‘whited sepulchers,’ these plutocrats and their sycophantic parasites — fleas in the hair of the Pullman dog — do not complain of sympathy when one corporation or a dozen corporations combine with the Pullman corporation and express their profound sympathy for Pullman, though they see the 4,000 victims of his rapacity reduced to suffering.

We do not write of the situation to approve or to extenuate violence. We deplore such incidents of strikes. The Locomotive Firemen’s Magazine has never, since it passed under our control, applauded a wrong. It has been our purpose to enthrone and uphold the right. But there has never been a strike of any notable proportion that deeds of violence, more or less deplorable, have not occurred. Why? Is it because men are depraved? Is it because men are brutified? By no means. Admitting that a strike is war presupposes resisting forces — power confronted by power. Strikes are always based upon a principle, exceptions confirm the rule. Labor demands fair wages, it strikes against oppression, poverty, squalor, degradation, and all the numberless woes that oppression, injustice, and tyranny inflicts.

The enemies of labor, those who oppose the workingmen, are those who rob them

and the conscienceless gang of boot-lickers, who hope to profit in some way by their fealty to power. In good old colony times, when the king imposed the tea tax, brave men, disguised, boarded a ship loaded with tea and threw the entire cargo overboard. The king and his Tories protested, and out of such acts of heroic defiance came the revolutionary war, and from out of the war came the American republic. Where labor has triumphed in a strike society has always been benefited, and where the strike was lost society has always been the lose. Why? Because society is profoundly interested in the preservation of manhood, independence, and prosperity of the masses, while plutocrats, governed only by their greed, look only to their own interests, which they hold are promoted by the degradation of labor, because with that degradation wages go down and their piracies become the more profitable.Under such circumstances it is not only not strange but natural

that in the contention for supremacy by the forces of right and the forces of the wrong, deeds of violence should sometimes occur. It is human nature — it is history, and history will repeat itself until the day of darkness comes for our land, when plutocrats are supreme, or think themselves supreme. Before an amazed country, the preliminary acts of a mighty tragedy are being acted, and it were well to let the curtain fall.The condition of the country is becoming hourly more momentous. The camps are all astir, where drums beat the long roll and the bugles call to arms. The President of the United States, the commander-in-chief of the army and the navy, is concentrating his

battalions in various places. When a semi-savage queen had been dethroned in the interest of good government and of civilization, the President became so profoundly stirred that he sent a private commissioner to feel the pulse of the old queen and report to him how matters stood; but when 4,000 Pullman employees were being ground to dust between corporation millstones, the commander-in-chief goes a fishing, and at the call of courts concentrates soldiers of his standing

army, a la tsar, at various points with the orders to fertilize American soil with the blood of American workingmen. As we write the work of bloodletting has begun and the street gutters of Chicago are running red with blood.The situation is one of terrible significance.  The country is

alarmed.  More than one-half of the continent is involved and the army of the idle is increasing.  George M. Pullman’s greed, depravity, and despotism aided by the alliance of railroad managers have brought about conditions of peril from the contemplation of which bold men turn away.As we conclude the article, it must be said that the situation is full

of premonitions that the worst has not been reached.  There are no encouraging symptoms.  The outlook is in all directions disheartening.Around the horizon and overhead naught but storm clouds meets the

vision.  The vivid flash of the lightnings of anger accompanied by thesullen, deep-toned mutterings of human voices mingled with the explosions of powder, bode only evil.  But, regardless of the outcome, it will be written that George M. Pullman and his confederate despoilers of labor were responsible.”     Eugene Debs, “The Situation”{Reporting on the Pullman Strike}; 1894

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Significant misunderstanding has developed concerning U.S. policy towards Indochina in the decade of World War II and its aftermath.  A number of historians have held that anti-colonialism governed U.S. policy and actions up until 1950, when containment of communism supervened.  For example, Bernard Fall (e.g. in his 1967 postmortem book, Last Reflections on a War) categorized American policy toward Indochina in six periods: ‘(1) Anti-Vichy, 1940-1945; (2) Pro-Viet Minh, 1945-1946; (3) Non-involvement, 1946-June 1950; (4) Pro-French, 1950-July 1954; (5) Non-military involvement, 1954-November 1961; (6) Direct and full involvement, 1961- .’  Commenting that the first four periods are those ‘least known even to the specialist,’ Fall developed the thesis that President Roosevelt was determined ‘to eliminate the French from Indochina at all costs,’ and had pressured the Allies to establish an international trusteeship to administer Indochina until the nations there were ready to assume full independence.  This obdurate anti-colonialism, in Fall’s view, led to cold refusal of American aid for French resistance fighters, and to a policy of promoting Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh as the alternative to restoring the French bonds.  But, the argument goes, Roosevelt died, and principle faded; by late 1946, anti-colonialism mutated into neutrality.  According to Fall: ‘Whether this was due to a deliberate policy in Washington or, conversely, to an absence of policy, is not quite clear. . . . The United States, preoccupied in Europe, ceased to be a diplomatic factor in Indochina until the outbreak of the Korean War.’  In 1950, anti-communism asserted itself, and in a remarkable volte-face, the United States threw its economic and military resources behind France in its war against the Viet Minh.  Other commentators, conversely-prominent among them, the historians of the Viet Minh-have described U.S. policy as consistently condoning and assisting the reimposition of French colonial power in Indochina, with a concomitant disregard for the nationalist aspirations of the Vietnamese.Neither interpretation squares with the record; the United States was less concerned over Indochina, and less purposeful than either assumes.  Ambivalence characterized U.S. policy during World War 11, and was the root of much subsequent misunderstanding. On the one hand, the U.S. repeatedly reassured the French that its colonial possessions would be returned to it after the war. On the other band, the U.S. broadly committed itself in the Atlantic Charter to support national self-determination, and President Roosevelt personally and vehemently advocated independence for Indochina. F.D.R. regarded Indochina as a flagrant example of onerous colonialism which should be turned over to a trusteeship rather than returned to France. The President discussed this proposal with the Allies at the Cairo, Teheran, and Yalta Conferences and received the endorsement of Chiang Kai-shek and Stalin; Prime Minister Churchill demurred. At one point, Fall reports, the President offered General de Gaulle Filipino advisers to help France establish a “more progressive policy in Indochina”–which offer the General received in “Pensive Silence.”

Ultimately, U.S. Policy was governed neither by the principle s of the Atlantic Charter, nor by the President’s anti-colonialism but by the dictates of military strategy and by British intransigence on the colonial issue. The United States, concentrating its forces against Japan, accepted British military primacy in Southeast Asia, and divided Indochina at 16th parallel between the British and the Chinese for the purposes of occupation. . U.S. commanders serving with the British and Chinese, while instructed to avoid ostensible alignment with the French, were permitted to conduct operations in Indochina which did not detract from the campaign against Japan. Consistent with F.D.R.’s guidance, U.S. did provide modest aid to French–and Viet Minh–resistance forces in Vietnam after March, 1945, but refused to provide shipping to move Free French troops there. Pressed by both the British and the French for clarification U.S. intentions regarding the political status of Indochina, F.D.R- maintained that “it is a matter for postwar.”

The President’s trusteeship concept foundered as early as March 1943, when the U.S. discovered that the British, concerned over possible prejudice to Commonwealth policy, proved to be unwilling to join in any declaration on trusteeships, and indeed any statement endorsing national independence which went beyond the Atlantic Charter’s vague “respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live.” So sensitive were the British on this point that the Dumbarton Oaks Conference of 1944, at which the blueprint for the postwar international system was negotiated, skirted the colonial issue, and avoided trusteeships altogether. At each key decisional point at which the President could have influenced the course of events toward trusteeship–in relations with the U.K., in casting the United Nations Charter, in instructions to allied commanders–he declined to do so; hence, despite his lip service to trusteeship and anti-colonialism, F.D.R. in fact assigned to Indochina a status correlative to Burma, Malaya, Singapore and Indonesia: free territory to be reconquered and returned to its former owners. Non-intervention by the U.S. on behalf of the Vietnamese was tantamount to acceptance of the French return. On April 3, 1945, with President Roosevelt’s approval, Secretary of State Stettinius issued a statement that, as a result of the Yalta talks, the U.S. would look to trusteeship as a postwar arrangement only for “territories taken from the enemy,” and for “territories as might voluntarily be placed under trusteeship.” By context, and by the Secretary of State’s subsequent interpretation, Indochina fell into the latter category. Trusteeship status for Indochina became, then, a matter for French determination.

Shortly following President Truman’s entry into office, the U.S. assured France that it had never questioned, “even by implication, French sovereignty over Indo-China.” The U.S. policy was to press France for progressive measures in Indochina, but to expect France to decide when its peoples would be ready for independence; “such decisions would preclude the establishment of a trusteeship in Indochina except with the consent of the French Government.” These guidelines, established by June, 1945–before the end of the war—remained fundamental to U.S. policy.

With British cooperation, French military forces were reestablished in South Vietnam in September, 1945. The U.S. expressed dismay at the outbreak of guerrilla warfare which followed, and pointed out that while it had no intention of opposing the reestablishment of French control, “it is not the policy of this government to assist the French to reestablish their control over Indochina by force, and the willingness of the U.S. to see French control reestablished assumes that [the] French claim to have the support of the population in Indochina is borne out by future events.” Through the fall and winter of 1945-1946, the U.S. received a series of requests from Ho Chi Minh for intervention in Vietnam; these were, on the record, unanswered. However, the U.S. steadfastly refused to assist the French military effort, e.g., forbidding American flag vessels to carry troops or war materiel to Vietnam. On March 6, 1946, the French and Ho signed an Accord in which Ho acceded to French reentry into North Vietnam in return for recognition of the DRV as a “Free State,” part of the French Union. As of April 1946, allied occupation of Indochina was officially terminated, and the U.S. acknowledged to France that all of Indochina had reverted to French control. Thereafter, the problems of U.S. policy toward Vietnam were dealt with in the context of the U.S. relationship with France.


In late 1946, the Franco-Viet Minh War began in earnest. A chart (pp. 37 ff) summarizes the principal events in the relations between France and Vietnam, 1946-1949, describing the milestones along the route by which France, on the one hand, failed to reach any lasting accommodation with Ho Chi Minh, and, on the other hand, erected the “Bao Dai solution” in its stead. The U.S. during these years continued to regard the conflict as fundamentally a matter for French resolution. The U.S. in its representations to France deplored the prospect of protracted war, and urged meaningful concessions to Vietnamese nationalism. However, the U.S., deterred by the history of Ho’s communist affiliation, always stopped short of endorsing Ho Chi Minh or the Viet Minh. Accordingly, U.S. policy gravitated with that of France toward the Bao Dai solution. At no point was the U.S. prepared to adopt an openly interventionist course. To have done so would have clashed with the expressed British view that Indochina was an exclusively French concern, and played into the hands of France’s extremist political parties of both the Right and the Left. The U.S. was particularly apprehensive lest by intervening it strengthen the political position of French Communists. Beginning in 1946 and 1947, France and Britain were moving toward an anti-Soviet alliance in Europe and the U.S. was reluctant to press a potentially divisive policy. The U.S. [words illegible] Vietnamese nationalism relatively insignificant compared with European economic recovery and collective security from communist domination.

It is not as though the U.S. was not prepared to act in circumstances such as these. For example, in the 1945-1946 dispute over Dutch possessions in Indonesia, the U.S. actively intervened against its Dutch ally. In this case, however, the intervention was in concert with the U.K. (which steadfastly refused similar action in Indochina) and against the Netherlands, a much less significant ally in Europe than France. In wider company and at projected lower cost, the U.S. could and did show a determination to act against colonialism.

The resultant U.S. policy has most often been termed “neutrality.” It was, however, also consistent with the policy of deferring to French volition announced by President Roosevelt’s Secretary of State on 3 April 1945. It was a policy characterized by the same indecision that had marked U.S. wartime policy. Moreover, at the time, Indochina appeared to many to be one region in the troubled postwar world in which the U.S. might enjoy the luxury of abstention.

In February, 1947, early in the war, the U.S. Ambassador in Paris was instructed to reassure Premier Ramadier of the “very friendliest feelings” of the U.S. toward France and its interest in supporting France in recovering its economic, political and military strength:

In spite any misunderstanding which might have arisen in minds French in regard to our position concerning Indochina they must appreciate that we have fully recognized France’s sovereign position in that area and we do not wish to have it appear that we are in any way endeavoring undermine that position, and French should know it is our desire to be helpful and we stand ready assist any appropriate way we can to find solution for Indochinese problem. At same time we cannot shut our eyes to fact that there are two sides this problem and that our reports indicate both a lack French understanding of other side (more in Saigon than in Paris) and continued existence dangerously Outmoded colonial outlook and methods in area. Furthermore, there is no escape from fact that trend of times is to effect that colonial empires in XIX Century sense are rapidly becoming thing of past. Action Brit in India and Burma and Dutch in Indonesia are outstanding examples this trend, and French themselves took cognizance of it both in new Constitution and in their agreements with Vietnam. On other hand we do not lose sight fact that Ho Chi Minh has direct Communist connections and it should be obvious that we are not interested in seeing colonial empire administrations supplanted by philosophy and political organizations emanating from and controlled by Kremlin. . . .

Frankly we have no solution of problem to suggest. It is basically matter for two parties to work out themselves and from your reports and those from Indochina we are led to feel that both parties have endeavored to keep door open to some sort of settlement. We appreciate fact that Vietnam started present fighting in Indochina on December 19 and that this action has made it more difficult for French to adopt a position of generosity and conciliation. Nevertheless we hope that French will find it possible to be more than generous in trying to find a solution.

The U.S. anxiously followed the vacillations of France’s policy toward Bao Dai, exhorting the French to translate the successive “agreements” they contracted with him into an effective nationalist alternative to Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh. Increasingly, the U.S. sensed that French unwillingness to concede political power to Vietnamese heightened the possibility of the Franco-Viet Minh conflict being transformed into a struggle with Soviet imperialism. U.S. diplomats were instructed to “apply such persuasion and/or pressure as is best calculated [to] produce desired result [of France’s] unequivocally and promptly approving the principle of Viet independence.” France was notified that the U.S. was willing to extend financial aid to a Vietnamese government not a French puppet, “but could not give consideration of altering its present policy in this regard unless real progress [is] made in reaching non-Communist solution in Indochina based on cooperation of true nationalists of that country.”

As of 1948, however, the U.S. remained uncertain that Ho and the Viet Minh were in league with the Kremlin. A State Department appraisal of Ho Chi Minh in July 1948, indicated that:

1. Depts info indicates that Ho Chi Minh is Communist. His long and well-known record in Comintern during twenties and thirties, continuous support by French Communist newspaper Humanite since 1945, praise given him by Radio Moscow (which for past six months has been devoting increasing attention to Indochina) and fact he has been called “leading communist” by recent Russian publications as well as Daily Worker makes any other conclusion appear to be wishful thinking.

2. Dept has no evidence of direct link between Ho and Moscow but assumes it exists, nor is it able evaluate amount pressure or guidance Moscow exerting. We have impression Ho must be given or is retaining large degree latitude. Dept considers that USSR accomplishing its immediate aims in Indochina by (a) pinning down large numbers of French troops, (b) causing steady drain upon French economy thereby tending retard recovery and dissipate ECA assistance to France, and (c) denying to world generally surpluses which Indochina normally has available thus perpetuating conditions of disorder and shortages which favorable to growth cornmunism. Furthermore, Ho seems quite capable of retaining and even strengthening his grip on Indochina with no outside assistance other than continuing procession of French puppet govts.

In the fall of 1948, the Office of Intelligence Research in the Department of State conducted a survey of communist influence in Southeast Asia. Evidence of Kremlin-directed conspiracy was found in virtually all countries except Vietnam:

Since December 19, 1946, there have been continuous conflicts between French forces and the nationalist government of Vietnam. This government is a coalition in which avowed communists hold influential positions. Although the French admit the influence of this government, they have consistently refused to deal with its leader, Ho Chi Minh, on the grounds that he is a communist.

To date the Vietnam press and radio have not adopted an anti-American position. It is rather the French colonial press that has been strongly anti-American and has freely accused the U.S. of imperialism in Indochina to the point of approximating the official Moscow position. Although the Vietnam radio has been closely watched for a new position toward the U.S., no change has appeared so far. Nor does there seem to have been any split within the coalition government of Vietnam. . . .

Evaluation. If there is a Moscow directed conspiracy in Southeast Asia, Indochina is an anomaly so far. Possible explanations are:

1. No rigid directives have been issued by Moscow

2. The Vietnam government considers that it has no rightist elements that must be purged.

3. The Vietnam Communists are not subservient to the foreign policies pursued by Moscow.

4. A special dispensation for the Vietnam government has been arranged in Moscow.

Of these possibilities, the first and fourth seem most likely.


The collapse of the Chinese Nationalist government in 1949 sharpened American apprehensions over communist expansion in the Far East, and hastened U.S. measures to counter the threat posed by Mao’s China. The U.S. sought to create and employ policy instruments similar to those it was bringing into play against the Soviets in Europe: collective security organizations, economic aid, and military assistance. For example, Congress, in the opening paragraphs of the law it passed in 1949 to establish the first comprehensive military assistance program, expressed itself “as favoring the creation by the free countries and the free peoples of the Far East of a joint organization, consistent with the Charter of the United Nations, to establish a program of self-help and mutual cooperation designed to develop their economic and social well-being, to safeguard basic rights and liberties, and to protect their security and independence..” But, the negotiating of such an organization among the disparate powers and political entities of the Far East was inherently more complex a matter than the North Atlantic Treaty nations had successfully faced. The U.S. decided that the impetus for collective security in Asia should come from the Asians, but by late 1949, it also recognized that action was necessary in Indochina. Thus, in the closing months of 1949, the course of U.S. policy was set to block further communist expansion in Asia: by collective security if the Asians were forthcoming; by collaboration with major European allies and commonwealth nations, if possible; but bilaterally if necessary. On that policy course lay the Korean War of 1950-1953, the forming of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization of 1954, and the progressively deepening U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

January and February, 1950, were pivotal months. The French took the first concrete steps toward transferring public administration to Bao Dai’s State of Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh denied the legitimacy of the latter, proclaiming the DRV as the “only legal government of the Vietnam people,” and was formally recognized by Peking and Moscow. On 29 January 1950, the French Nation, Assembly approved legislation granting autonomy to the State of Vietnam. 0n February 1, 1950, Secretary of State Acheson made the following public statement:

The recognition by the Kremlin of Ho Chi Minh’s communist movement in Indochina comes as a surprise. The Soviet acknowledgment of this movement should remove any illusions as to the “nationalist” nature of Ho Chi Minh’s aims and reveals Ho in his true colors as the mortal enemy of native independence in Indochina.

Although timed in an effort to cloud the transfer of sovereignty France to the legal Governments of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, we have every reason to believe that those legal governments will proceed in their development toward stable governments representing the true nationalist sentiments of more than 20 million peoples of Indochina.

French action in transferring sovereignty to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia has been in process for some time. Following French ratification, which is expected within a few days, the way will be open for recognition of these local governments by the countries of the world whose policies support the development of genuine national independence in former colonial areas. . . .

Formal French ratification of Vietnamese independence was announced 4 February 1950; on the same date, President Truman approved U.S. recognition for Bao Dai. French requests for aid in Indochina followed within a few weeks. On May 8, 1950, the Secretary of State announced that:

The United States Government convinced that neither national independence nor democratic evolution exist in any area dominated by Soviet imperialism, considers the situation to be such as to warrant its according economic aid and military equipment to the Associated State of Indochina and to France in order to assist them in restoring stability and permitting these states to pursue their peaceful and democratic development.

The U.S. thereafter was deeply involved in the developing war. But it cannot be said that the extension of aid was a volte-face of U.S. policy precipitated solely by the events of 1950. It appears rather as the denouement of a cohesive progression of U.S. policy decisions stemming from the 1945 determination that France should decide the political future of Vietnamese nationalism. Neither the modest O.S.S. aid to the Viet Minh in 1945, nor the U.S. refusal to abet French recourse to arms the same year, signaled U.S. backing of Ho Chi Minh. To the contrary, the U.S. was very wary of Ho, apprehensive lest Paris’ imperialism be succeeded by control from Moscow. Uncertainty characterized the U.S. attitude toward Ho through 1948, but the U.S. incessantly pressured France to accommodate “genuine” Vietnamese nationalism and independence. In early 1950, both the apparent fruition of the Bao Dai solution, and the patent alignment of the DRV with the USSR and Communist China, impelled the U.S. to more direct intervention in Vietnam.

(End of Summary)


In the interval between the fall of France in 1940, and the Pearl Harbor attack in December, 1941, the United States watched with increasing apprehension the flux of Japanese military power into Indochina. At first the United States urged Vichy to refuse Japanese requests for authorization to use bases there, but was unable to offer more than vague assurances of assistance, such as a State Department statement to the French Ambassador on 6 August 1940 that:

We have been doing and are doing everything possible within the framework of our established policies to keep the situation in the Far East stabilized; that we have been progressively taking various steps, the effect of which has been to exert economic pressure on Japan; that our Fleet is now based on Hawaii, and that the course which we have been following, as indicated above, gives a clear indication of our intentions and activities for the future.

The French Ambassador replied that:

In his opinion the phrase “within the framework of our established policies.” when associated with the apparent reluctance of the American Government to consider the use of military force in the Far East at this particular time, to mean that the United States would not use military or naval force in support of any position which might be taken to resist the Japanese attempted aggression on Indochina. The Ambassador [feared] that the French Government would, under the indicated pressure of the Japanese Government, be forced to accede . . .

The fears of the French Ambassador were realized. In 1941, however, Japan went beyond the use of bases to demands for a presence in Indochina tantamount to occupation. President Roosevelt himself expressed the heightening U.S. alarm to the Japanese Ambassador, in a conversation recorded by Acting Secretary of State Welles as follows:

The President then went on to say that this new move by Japan in Indochina created an exceedingly serious problem for the United States . . . the cost of any military occupation is tremendous and the occupation itself is not conducive to the production by civilians in occupied countries of food supplies and new materials of the character required by Japan. Had Japan undertaken to obtain the supplies she required from Indochina in a peaceful way, she not only would have obtained larger quantities of such supplies, but would have obtained them with complete security and without the draining expense of a military occupation. Furthermore, from the military standpoint, the President said, surely the Japanese Government could not have in reality the slightest belief that China, Great Britain, the Netherlands or the United States had any territorial designs on Indochina nor were in the slightest degree providing any real threats of aggression against Japan. This Government, consequently, could only assume that the occupation of Indochina was being undertaken by Japan for the purpose of further offense and this created a situation which necessarily must give the United States the most serious disquiet . . .

. . . The President stated that if the Japanese Government would refrain from occupying Indochina with its military and naval forces, or, had such steps actually been commenced, if the Japanese Government would withdraw such forces, the President could assure the Japanese Government that he would do everything within his power to obtain from the Governments of China, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and of course the United States itself a binding and solemn declaration, provided Japan would undertake the same commitment, to regard Indochina as a neutralized country in the same way in which Switzerland had up to now been regarded by the powers as a neutralized country. He stated that this would imply that none of the powers concerned would undertake any military act of aggression against Indochina and would remain in control of the territory and would not be confronted with attempts to dislodge them on the part of de Gaullist or Free French agents or forces.

The same date, Secretary of State Cordell Hull instructed Sumner Welles to see the Japanese Ambassador, and

Make clear the fact that the occupation of Indochina by Japan possibly means one further important step to seizing control of the South Sea area, including trade routes of supreme importance to the United States controlling such products as rubber, tin and other commodities. This was of vital concern to the United States. The Secretary said that if we did not bring out this point our people will not understand the significance of this movement into Indochina. The Secretary mentioned another point to be stressed: there is no theory on which Indochina could be flooded with armed forces, aircraft, et cetera, for the defense of Japan. The only alternative is that this venture into Indochina has a close relation to the South Sea area and its value for offense against that area.

In a press statement of 2 August 1941, Acting Secretary of State Welles deplored Japan’s “expansionist aims” and impugned Vichy:

Under these circumstances, this Government is impelled to question whether the French Government at Vichy in fact proposes to maintain its declared policy to preserve for the French people the territories both at home and abroad which have long been under French sovereignty.

This Government, mindful of its traditional friendship for France, has deeply sympathized with the desire of the French people to maintain their territories and to preserve them intact. In its relations with the French Government at Vichy and with-the local French authorities in French territories, the United States will be governed by the manifest effectiveness with which those authorities endeavor to protect these territories from domination and control by those powers which are seeking to extend their rule by force and conquest, or by the threat thereof.

On the eve of Pearl Harbor, as part of the U.S. attempt to obtain Japanese consent to a non-aggression pact, the U.S. again proposed neutralization of Indochina in return for Japanese withdrawal. The events of 7 December 1941 put the question of the future of Indochina in the wholly different context of U.S. strategy for fighting World War 11.


U.S. policy toward Indochina during World War 11 was ambivalent. On the one hand, the U.S. appeared to support Free French claims to all of France’s overseas dominions. The U.S. early in the war repeatedly expressed or implied to the French an intention to restore to France its overseas empire after the war. These U.S. commitments included the August 2, 1941, official statement on the Franco-Japanese agreement; a December, 1941, Presidential letter to P6tain; a March 2, 1942, statement on New Caledonia; a note to the French Ambassador of April 13, 1942; Presidential statements and messages at the time of the North Africa invasion; the Clark-Darlan Agreement of November 22, 1942; and a letter of the same month from the President’s Personal Representative to General Henri Giraud, which included the following reassurance:

. . . The restoration of France to full independence, in all the greatness and vastness which it possessed before the war in Europe as well as overseas, is one of the war aims of the United Nations. It is thoroughly understood that French sovereignty will be re-established as soon as possible throughout all the territory, metropolitan or colonial, over which flew the French flag in 1939.

On the other hand, in the Atlantic Charter and other pronouncements the U.S. proclaimed support for national self-determination and independence. Moreover, the President of the United States, especially distressed at the Vichy “sell-out” to Japan in Indochina, often cited French rule there as a flagrant example of onerous and exploitative colonialism, and talked of his determination to turn Indochina over to an international trusteeship after the war. In early 1944, Lord Halifax, the British Ambassador in Washin-ton, called on Secretary of State Hull to inquire whether the President’s “rather definite” statements “that Indochina should be taken away from the French and put under an international trusteeship”-made to “Turks, Egyptians and perhaps others” during his trip to Cairo and Teheran-represented “final conclusions in view of the fact that they would soon get back to the French (The French marked well the President’s views-in fact as France withdrew from Vietnam in 1956, its Foreign Minister recalled Roosevelt’s assuring the Sultan of Morocco that his sympathies lay with colonial peoples struggling for independence. Lord Halifax later recorded that:

The President was one of the people who used conversation as others of us use a first draft on paper . . . a method of trying out an idea. If it does not go well, you can modify it or drop it as you will. Nobody thinks anything of it if you do this with a paper draft; but if you do it with conversation, people say that you have changed your mind, that “you never knew where you have him,” and so on.

But in response to a memorandum from Secretary of State Hull putting the question of Indochina to F.D.R., and reminding the President of the numerous U.S. commitments to restoration of the French empire, Roosevelt replied (on January 24, 1944), that:

I saw Halifax last week and told him quite frankly that it was perfectly true that I had, for over a year, expressed the opinion that Indo-China should not go back to France but that it should be administered by an international trusteeship. France has had the country-thirty million inhabitants for nearly one hundred years, and the people are worse off than they were at the beginning.

As a matter of interest, I am wholeheartedly supported in this view by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and by Marshal Stalin. I see no reason to play in with the British Foreign Office in this matter. The only reason they seem to oppose it is that they fear the effect it would have on their own possessions and those of the Dutch. They have never liked the idea of trusteeship because it is, in some instances, aimed at future independence. This is true in the case of Indo-China.

Each case must, of course, stand on its own feet, but the case of IndoChina is perfectly clear. France has milked it for one hundred years. The people of Indo-China are entitled to something better than that.

1. Military Strategy Pre-eminent

Throughout the year 1944, the President held to his views, and consistent with them, proscribed U.S. aid to resistance groups-including French groups-in Indochina. But the war in the Asian theaters moved rapidly, and the center of gravity of the American effort began to shift northward toward Japan. The question of U.S. strategy in Southeast Asia then came to the fore. At the Second Quebec Conference (September, 1944), the U.S. refused British offers of naval assistance against Japan because Admiral King believed “the best occupation for any available British forces would be to re-take Singapore, and to assist the Dutch in recovering the East Indies,” and because he suspected that the offer 11 was perhaps not unconnected with a desire for United States help in clearing the Japanese out of the Malay States and Netherlands East Indies.” Admiral King’s suspicions were not well-founded, at least insofar as Churchill’s strategic thought was concerned. The Prime Minister was evidently as unwilling to invite an active American role in the liberation of Southeast Asia as the U.S. was to undertake same; as early as February, 1944, Churchill wrote that:

A decision to act as a subsidiary force under the Americans in the Pacific raises difficult political questions about the future of our Malayan possessions. If the Japanese should withdraw from them or make peace as the result of the main American thrust, the United States Government would after the victory feel greatly strengthened in its view that all possessions in the East Indian Archipelago should be placed under some international body upon which the United States would exercise a decisive concern.

The future of Commonwealth territories in Southeast Asia stimulated intense British interest in American intentions for French colonies there. In November and December of 1944, the British expressed to the United States, both in London and in Washington, their concern “that the United States apparently has not yet determined upon its policy toward Indochina.” The head of the Far Eastern Department in the British Foreign Office told the U.S. Ambassador that:

It would be difficult to deny French participation in the liberation of Indochina in light of the increasing strength of the French Government in world affairs, and that, unless a policy to be followed toward Indochina is mutually agreed between our two governments, circumstances may arise at any moment which will place our two governments in a very awkward situation.

President Roosevelt, however, refused to define his position further, notifying Secretary of State Stettinius on January 1, 1945:

I still do not want to get mixed up in any Indo-China decision. It is a matter for postwar.– . . . I do not want to get mixed up in any military effort toward the liberation of Indo-China from the Japanese.–You can tell Halifax that I made this very clear to Mr. Churchill. From both the military and civil point of view, action at this time is premature.

However, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff were concurrently planning the removal of American armed forces from Southeast Asia. In response to approaches from French and Dutch officials requesting aid in expelling Japan from their former colonial territories, the U.S. informed them that:

All our available forces were committed to fighting the Japanese elsewhere in the Pacific, and Indochina and the East Indies were therefore not included within the sphere of interest of the American Chiefs of Staff.

American willingness to forego further operations in Southeast Asia led to a directive to Admiral Lord Mountbatten, Supreme Commander in that theater, to liberate Malaya without U.S. assistance. After the Yalta Conference (February, 1945), U.S. commanders in the Pacific were informed that the U.S. planned to turn over to the British responsibility for operations in the Netherlands East Indies and New Guinea. The President, however, agreed to permit such U.S. military operations in Indochina as avoided “alignments with the French,” and detraction from the U.S. military campaign against Japan. The latter stricture precluded, in the U.S. view, the U.S. cooperation with the French at Mountbatten’s headquarters, or the furnishing of ships to carry Free French forces to Indochina to undertake its liberation. This U.S. position came under particularly severe French criticism after 11 March 1945, when the Japanese overturned the Vichy regime in Vietnam, and prompted the Emperor Bao Dai to declare Vietnam unified and independent of France under Japanese protection. On 16 March 1945, a protest from General de Gaulle led to the following exchange between the Secretary of State and the President:

March 16, 1945

Subject: Indo-China.
Communications have been received from the Provisional Government of the French Republic asking for:
(1)Assistance for the resistance groups now fighting the Japanese in Indo-China.
(2) Conclusion of a civil affairs agreement covering possible future operations in Indo-China.These memoranda have been referred to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in order to obtain their views concerning the military aspects of the problems, and I shall communicate with you further on the subject upon receipt of the Joint Chiefs’ reply.

Attached herewith is the text of a recent telegram from Ambassador Caffery describing his conversation with General de Gaulle on the subject of Indo-China.  From this telegram and de Gaulle’s speech of March 14, it appears that this Government may be made to appear responsible for the weakness of the resistance to Japan in Indo-China.  The British may likewise be expected to encourage this view.  It seems to me that without prejudicing in any way our position regarding the future of Indo-China we can combat this trend by making public [material illegible] a suggested statement, subject to your approval, by the State Department.’ …


The action of the Japanese Government in tearing away the veil with which it for so long attempted to cloak its domination of Indo-China is a direct consequence of the ever-mounting pressure which our arms are applying to the Japanese Empire.  It is a link in the chain of events which began so disastrously in the summer of 1941 with the Franco-Japanese agreement for the ‘common defense’ of Indo-China.  It is clear that this latest step in the Japanese program will in the long run prove to be of no avail.

The Provisional Government of the French Republic has requested armed assistance for those who are resisting the Japanese forces in Indo-China. In accordance with its constant desire to aid all those who are willing to take up arms against our common enemies, this Government will do all it can to be of assistance in the present situation, consistent with plans to which it is already committed and with the operations now taking place in the Pacific. It goes without saying that all this country’s available resources are being devoted to the defeat of our enemies and they will continue to be employed in the manner best calculated to hasten their downfall.


March 17, 1945


The Secretary of State

By direction of the President, there is returned herewith Secretary of State Memorandum of 16 March, subject Indo-China, which includes a proposed statement on the Japanese action in Indo-China.

The President is of the opinion that it is inadvisable at the present time to issue the proposed statement

/s/ William D. Leahy

The French were also actively pressuring the President and his key advisors through military channels. Admiral Leahy reported that, following Yalta:

The French representatives in Washington resumed their frequent calls to my office after our return from the Crimea. They labeled most of their requests “urgent.” They wanted to participate in the combined intelligence group then studying German industrial and scientific secrets; to exchange information between the American command in China and the French forces in Indo-China; and to get agreement in principle to utilizing the French naval and military forces in the war against Japan (the latter would assist in returning Indo-China to French control and give France a right to participate in lend-lease assistance after the defeat of Germany.)

Most of the time I could only tell them that I had no useful information as to when and where we might make use of French assistance in the Pacific.

However, we did attempt to give a helping hand to the French resistance groups in Indo-China. Vice Admiral Fenard called me on March 18 to say that planes from our 14th Air Force in China were loaded with relief supplies for the undergrounders but could not start without authority from Washington. I immediately contacted General Handy and told him of the President’s agreement that American aid to the Indo-China resistance groups might be given provided it involved no interference with our operations against Japan.

2. Failure of the Trusteeship Proposal

In the meantime, the President’s concept of postwar trusteeship status for dependent territories as an intermediate step toward autonomy had undergone study by several interdepartmental and international groups, but had fared poorly. In deference to British sensibilities, the United States had originally sought only a declaration from the colonial powers setting forth their intention to liberate their dependencies and to provide tutelage in self-government for subject peoples. Such a declaration would have been consistent with the Atlantic Charter of 1941 in which the U.S. and the U.K. jointly agreed that, among the “common principles . . . on which they base their hopes for a better future for the world,” it was their policy that:

. . . they respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and they wish to see sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them. . . .

In November, 1942, Secretary Hull submitted to the President a proposed draft US-UK declaration entitled “The Atlantic Charter and National Independence,” which the President approved. Before this draft could be broached to the British, however, they submitted a counter-proposal, a statement emphasizing the responsibility of “parent” powers for developing native self-government, and avoiding endorsement of trusteeships. Subsequent Anglo-American discussions in March 1943 addressed both drafts, but foundered on Foreign Secretary Eden’s opposition. Secretary Hull reported in his memoirs that Eden could not believe that the word “independence” would be interpreted to the satisfaction of all governments:

. . . the Foreign Secretary said that, to be perfectly frank, he had to say that he did not like our draft very much. He said it was the word “independence” that troubled him, he had to think of the British Empire system, which was built on the basis of Dominion and colonial status.

He pointed out that under the British Empire system there were varying degrees of self-government, running from the Dominions through the colonial establishments which had in some cases, like Malta, completely self-government, to backward areas that were never likely to have their own government. He added that Australia and New Zealand also had colonial possessions that they would be unwilling to remove from their supervisory jurisdiction.

U.S. inability to work out a common policy with the U.K. also precluded meaningful discussion, let alone agreement, on the colonial issue at the Dumbarton Oaks Conversations in 1944. Through March, 1945, the issue was further occluded by debates within the U.S. Government over the postwar status of Pacific islands captured from the Japanese: in general, the War and Navy Departments advocated their retention under U.S. control as military bases, while State and other departments advocated an international trusteeship.

3. Decision on Indochina Left to France

Secretary of State Stettinius, with the approval of President Roosevelt, issued a statement on April 3, 1945, declaring that, as a result of international discussions at Yalta on the concept of trusteeship, the United States felt that the postwar trusteeship structure:

. . . . should be designed to permit the placing under it of the territories mandated after the last war, and such territories taken from the enemy in thi war as might be agreed upon at a later date, and also such other territories as might be voluntarily placed under trusteeship.

Indochina thus seemed relegated to French volition.

Nonetheless, as of President Roosevelt’s death on. April 12, 1945, U.S. policy toward the colonial possessions Of its allies, and toward Indochina in particular, was in disarray:

–The British remained apprehensive that there might be a continued U.S. search for a trusteeship formula which might impinge on the Commonwealth.

— The French were restive over continued U.S. refusal to provide strategic transport for their forces, resentful over the paucity of U.S. support for French forces in Indochina, and deeply suspicious that the United States—possibly in concert with the Chinese—intended to block their regaining control of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.


Within a month of President Truman’s entry into office, the French raised the subject of Indochina at the United Nations Conference at San Francisco, Secretary of State Stettinius reported the following conversation to Washington:

…Indo-China came up in a recent Conversation I had with Bidault and Bonnet. The latter remarked that the French Government interprets [Under Secretary of State] Welles, statement of 1942 concerning the restoration of French sovereignty over the French Empire as including Indo-China, the press continues to imply that a special status will be reserved for this colonial area. It was made quite clear to Bidault that the record is entirely innocent of any official statement of this government questioning, even by implication, French sovereignty over Indo-China. Certain elements of American public opinion, however, condemned French governmental policies and practices in Indo-China. Bidault seemed relieved and has no doubt cabled Paris that he received renewed assurances of our recognition of French sovereignty over that area.

In early June 1945, the Department of State instructed the United States Ambassador to China on the deliberations in progress within the U.S. Government and its discussions with allies on U.S. policy toward Indochina. He was informed that at San Francisco:

…the American delegation has insisted upon the necessity of providing for a progressive measure of self-government for all dependent peoples looking toward their eventual independence or incorporation in some form of federation according to circumstances and the ability of the peoples to assume these responsibilities. Such decisions would preclude the establishment of a trusteeship in Indochina except with the consent of the French Government. The latter seems unlikely. Nevertheless, it is the President’s intention at some appropriate time to ask that the French Government give some positive indication of its intention in regard to the establishment of civil liberties and increasing measures of self-government in Indochina before formulating further declarations of policy in this respect.

The United Nations Charter (June 26, 1945) contained a “Declaration Regarding Non-Self-Governing Territories”:

Article 73

Members of the United Nations which have or assume responsibilities for the administration of territories whose peoples have not yet attained a full measure of self-government recognize the principle that the interests of the inhabitants of these territories are paramount, and accept as a sacred trust the obligation to promote to the utmost, within the system of international peace and security established by the present Charter, the well-being of the inhabitants of these territories, and, to this end:

a. to ensure, with due respect for the culture of the peoples concerned, their political, economic, social, and educational advancement, their just treatment, and their protection against abuses;

b. to develop self-government, to take due account of the political aspirations of the peoples, and to assist them in the progressive development of their free political institutions, according to the particular circumstances of each territory and its peoples and their varying stages of advancement; . . .

Again, however, military considerations governed U.S. policy in Indochina. President Truman replied to General de Gaulle’s repeated offers for aid in Indochina with statements to the effect that it was his policy to leave such matters to his military commanders. At the Potsdam Conference (July, 1945), the Combined Chiefs of Staff decided that Indochina south of latitude 16′ North was to be included in the Southeast Asia Command under Admiral Mountbatten. Based on this decision, instructions were issued that Japanese forces located north of that line would surrender to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, and those to the south to Admiral Lord Mountbatten; pursuant to these instructions, Chinese forces entered Tonkin in September, 1945, while a small British task force landed at Saigon. Political difficulties materialized almost immediately, for while the Chinese were prepared to accept the Vietnamese government they found in power in Hanoi, the British refused to do likewise in Saigon, and deferred to the French there from the outset.

There is no evidence that serious concern developed in Washington at the swiftly unfolding events in Indochina. In mid-August, Vietnamese resistance forces of the Viet Minh, under Ho Chi Minh, had seized power in Hanoi and shortly thereafter demanded and received the abdication of the Japanese puppet, Emperor Bao Dai. On V-J Day, September 2nd, Ho Chi Minh had proclaimed in Hanoi the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). The DRV ruled as the only civil government in all of Vietnam for a period of about 20 days. On 23 September 1945, with the knowledge of the British Commander in Saigon, French forces overthrew the local DRV government, and declared French authority restored in Cochinchina. Guerrilla war beoan around Saigon. Although American OSS representatives were present in both Hanoi and Saigon and ostensibly supported the Viet Minh, the United States took no official position regarding either the DRV, or the French and British actions in South Vietnam. In October, 1945, the United States stated its policy in the following terms:

US has no thought of opposing the reestablishment of French control in Indochina and no official statement bv US GOVT has questioned even by implication French sovereignty over Indochina. However, it is not the policy of this GOVT to assist the French to reestablish their control over Indochina by force and the willingness of the US to see French control reestablished assumes that French claim to have the support of the population of Indochina is borne out by future events.

French statements to the U.S. looked for an early end to the hostilities, and spoke reassuringly of reforms and liberality. In November, Jean Chauvel, Secretary-General to the French Minister for Foreign Affairs, told the U.S. Ambassador that:

When the trouble with the Annamites broke out de Gaulle had been urged by the French Mission in India to make some sort of policy statement announcing France’s intention to adopt a far-reaching progressive policy designed to give the native population much greater authority, responsibility and representation in govt. De Gaulle considered the idea but rejected it because in the state of disorder prevailing in Indochina he believed that no such policy could be implemented pending restoration of French authority and would therefore just be considered by everyone as “merely more fine words.” Furthermore de Gaulle and the Foreign Minister believe that the present situation is still so confused and they have so little information really reliable on the overall Indochina picture that such plans and thoughts as they held heretofore may have to be very thoroughly revised in the light of recent developments.

Despite the fact that the French do not feel that they can as yet make any general statements outlining specific future plans for Indochina, Chanvel says that they hope “very soon” to put into operation in certain areas programs including local elections which will be designed to grant much greater authority and greater voice in affairs to the natives. This he said would be a much better indication of the sincerity of French intentions than any policy statement. . . . The French hope soon to negotiate an agreement with [the King of Cambodia] which will result in the granting of much greater responsibility and authority to the Cambodians. He mentioned specifically that there would be many more natives integrated into the local administrative services and it was also hoped that local elections could soon be held. The French he said intend to follow the same procedure in Laos when the situation permits and eventually also in Annam and Tonkin. When order is restored throughout Indochina and agreements have been reached with the individual states Chauvel said the French intend to embody the results of these separate agreements into a general program for all of Indochina.

From the autumn of 1945 through the autumn of 1946, the United States received a series of communications from Ho Chi Minh depicting calamitous conditions in Vietnam, invoking the principles proclaimed in the Atlantic Charter and in the Charter of the United Nations, and pleading for U.S. recognition of the independence of the DRV, or–as a last resort–trusteeship for Vietnam under the United Nations. But while the U.S. took no action on Ho’s requests, it was also unwilling to aid the French. On January 15, 1946, the Secretary of War was advised by the Department of State that it was contrary to U.S. policy to “employ American flag vessels or aircraft to transport troops of any nationality to or from the Netherlands East Indies or French Indochina, nor to permit use of such craft to carry arms, ammunition or military equipment to these areas.” However, the British arranged for the transport of additional French troops to Indochina, bilaterally agreed with the French for the latter to assume British occupation responsibilities, and signed a pact on 9 October, 1945, giving “full recognition to French rights” in Indochina. French troops began arriving in Saigon that month, and subsequently the British turned over to them some 800 U.S. Lend-Lease jeeps and trucks. President Truman approved the latter transaction on the grounds that removing the equipment would be impracticable.

The fighting between the French and the Vietnamese which began in South Vietnam with the 23 September, 1945, French coup d‘etat, spread from Saigon throughout Cochinchina, and to southern Annam. By the end of January, 1946, it was wholly a French affair, for by that time the British withdrawal was complete; on 4 March, 1946, Admiral Lord Mountbatten deactivated Indochina as territory under the Allied Southeast Asia Command, thereby transferring all control to French authorities. From French headquarters, via Radio Saigon, came announcements that a military “mopping-up” campaign was in progress, but pacification was virtually complete; but these reports of success were typically interspersed with such items as the following:

20 March 1946:

Rebel bands are still (wreaking destruction) in the areas south of Saigon. These bands are quite large, some numbering as many as 1,000 men. Concentrations of these bands are to be found . . . in the villages. Some have turned north in an attempt to disrupt (communications) in the Camau Peninsula, northeast of Batri and in the general area south of (Nha Trang). In the area south of Cholon and in the north of the Plaine des Jenes region, several bands have taken refuge. . . .

21 March 1946:

The following communique was issued by the High Commissioner for Indochina this morning: “Rebel activities have increased in the Bien Hoa area, on both banks of the river Dong Nai. A French convoy has been attacked on the road between Bien Hoa and Tan Uyen where a land mine had been laid by the rebels.

“In the (Baclo) area, northwest of Saigon, a number of pirates have been captured in the course of a clean-up raid. Among the captured men are five Japanese deserters. The dead bodies of three Japanese, including an officer, have been found at the point where the operation was carried out.

“A French detachment was ambushed at (San Jay), south Annam. The detachment, nevertheless, succeeded in carrying out its mission. Several aggressions by rebel parties are reported along the coastal road.”

Violence abated in South Vietnam somewhat as Franco-DRV negotiations proceeded in spring, 1946, but in the meantime, French forces moved into further confrontation with Vietnamese “rebels” in Tonkin. In February, 1946, a French task force prepared to force landings at Haiphong, but was forestalled by diplomatic maneuver. A Franco-Chinese agreement of 28 February 1946 provided that the Chinese would turn over their responsibilities in northern Indochina to the French on 31 March 1946.

On March 6, 1946, a French-DRV accord was reached in the following terms:

1. The French Government recognizes the Vietnamese Republic as a Free State having its own Government, its own Parliament, its own Army and its own Finances, forming part of the Indochinese Federation and ofthe French Union. In that which concerns the reuniting of the three “Annamite Regions” [Cochinchina, Annam, Tonkin] the French Government pledges itself to ratify the decisions taken by the populations consulted by referendum.

2. The Vietnamese Government declares itself ready to welcome amicably the French Army when, conforming to international agreements, it relieves the Chinese Troops. A Supplementary Accord, attached to the present Preliminary Agreement, will establish the means by which the relief operations will be carried out.

3. The stipulations formulated above will immediately enter into force. Immediately after the exchange of signatures, each of the High Contracting Parties will take all measures necessary to stop hostilities in the field, to maintain the troops in their respective positions, and to create the favorable atmosphere necessary to the immediate opening of friendly and sincere negotiations. These negotiations will deal particularly with:

a. diplomatic relations of Viet-nam with Foreign States
b. the future law of Indochina
c. French interests, economic and cultural, in Viet-nam.

Hanoi, Saigon or Paris may be chosen as the seat of the conference.

DONE AT HANOI, the 6th of March 1946
Signed: Sainteny
Signed: Ho Chi Minh and Vu Hong Khanh

French forces quickly exercise their prerogative, occupying Hanoi on 18 March 1946, and negotiations opened in Dafat in April.

Hence, as of April 10, 1946, allied occupation in Indochina was officially over, and French forces were positioned in all of Vietnam’s major cities; the problems of U.S. policv toward Vietnam then shifted from the context of wartime strategy to the arena of the U.S. relationship with France.”      Pentagon Papers, Gravel Edition; Volume I, Chapter One, 1971



Numero Tres“The following interview was taped in September 1974, in St. Louis, without aid of sherry, or sunlight streaming through high windows.  Although we did walk through leaf-piled streets to Elkin’s office on the Washington University campus, I didn’t discard my prepared questions along the way.  When the tape broke midway through the interview, Elkin was not upset.  Despite these defiances of interview conventions, the three-hour interview demonstrates the wide range of Elkin’s perception, candor, and wit.Elkin is a medium-sized man, forty-five years old.  The day of our talk he wore corduroys and a white turtleneck sweater and could easily have been mistaken for a distinguished poet.  Physically intense, Elkin shifted about in his chair, sometimes hunching over the microphone like a body puncher, sometimes sitting back with his hands behind his head like a satisfied president.  His voice constantly juggled humor and seriousness, but his answers were always direct, without qualification.

Elkin’s novels are: Boswell: A Modern Comedy (1964), A Bad Man (1967), The Dick Gibson Show (1971), and The Franchiser, which Elkin was working on at the time of the interview and will be published this June by Farrar, Straus and Giroux; he is also the author of Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers, a collection of short stories (1966) and Searches and Seizures, novellas (1973).


Your father was a salesman.  I can’t help but wonder if he was a master rhetorician—as many of your characters are—and if the passionate speech that characterizes so much of your fiction has its genesis in your early environment.


If not a master rhetorician, at least a master salesman.  He sold costume jewelry, and I went with him once on one of his trips through the Midwest.  He had a vast territory.  He had Michigan, Minnesota, the Dakotas, Wisconsin, parts of Indiana, Illinois, Missouri—an immense territory.  I was with him in small Indiana towns where he would take the jewelry out of the telescopes, which are salesmen’s cases, and actually put the earrings on his ears, the bracelets around his wrists, and the necklaces about his throat.  This wasn’t drag, but the prose passionate and stage business of his spiel.  The man believed in costume jewelry, in rhinestones and beads, and sang junk jewelry’s meteorological condition—its Fall line and Spring.


Is there something of your father in Feldman’s father?


Yes, and a great deal in Feldman. Probably more in Feldman than his father.


Your mother’s name was Feldman. Do you bestow, as Nabokov does, details of your own life on your characters?


No. There is little autobiography in my work. When I was growing up, we had a bungalow in New Jersey which we visited in the summers. Everybody in that small community was named Feldman and was either an aunt or cousin of mine. I just found it comfortable to use the name Feldman. For a long time before I ever published anything, all my characters were named Stephen Feldman. I hadn’t read Joyce, I didn’t know about Dedalus. But it didn’t make any difference what story it was or what age the characters were. I named them all Stephen Feldman. And then, only later, years later, when I was writing A Bad Man, did the name come to mean anything to me—Feldman the felled man.


You’ve said that you spent just under 183 years going from freshman to Ph.D. at Illinois.




Were you writing stories while getting your M.A. and Ph.D.? You were in the army too, weren’t you?


Yes, for a couple of years—1955 to 1957. The remarkable thing, remarkable for me anyway, was that I discovered that I could write only after I passed my prelims. I had been writing and chopping away at stuff, at this story or that. I took all the writing courses, but I had no style—or, rather, I did have a style but it wasn’t mine. I had William Faulkner’s style. I studied a year in bed—never got out of bed for an entire year, had all the books around the bed. I’d get up to teach my classes, of course, but I taught from eight to ten in the morning on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Then I’d return to the apartment and get back into bed and not get up until it was time to teach my classes again. But at any rate, I decided to give myself some time to write, and I wrote a story called “On a Field, Rampant.” It was the first story that I’d ever written that had what was to become my style.


How much influence does your academic training have on your writing? Do you work into your fiction the intricate patterns of imagery that much academic criticism is concerned with?


Well, it depends upon the fiction. When I was about a hundred pages into Boswell, I suddenly discovered that I had Boswell in a lot of elevators, and because I had been trained in the New Criticism I decided, hey, this is pretty neat! Elevators. Makes a nice pattern. And so I was conscious of the elevator motif and kept moving him in and out of elevators. In a way it works because a great deal of novelistic fiction is about ascent. Since Boswell was a guy on the make and had this sort of excelsior personality, it was quite fitting for him to be in elevators, on up escalators, and to climb stairs. There’s one scene in Boswell where he’s in a Jewish community in Brooklyn, as I recall, to meet a miracle rabbi, and he can’t get past the front door. He is not permitted to climb those stairs and is stalled. Sure, I’m conscious of symbols and patterns in my work. But this is something I’ve sometimes come onto only after the fact and then made the most of.


You said in your dissertation on Faulkner that he sympathized with the “egocentric will pitted against something stronger than itself.”


Maybe that’s what I admire, or what I came to admire, in Faulkner without knowing that it is what I was ultimately to be about myself. But I think it is what I am ultimately about. And I think it is true in Faulkner. I think it is truer of me, though, than it is of Faulkner. Faulkner’s heroes are often nicer guys than mine.


You also commented on Faulkner’s legendizing of character through hyperbole and his repetitive technique. These seem to show up in your fiction.


My editor at Random House, Joe Fox, used to tell me, “Stanley, less is more.” He wanted to strike—oh, he had a marvelous eye for the “good” stuff—and that’s what he wanted to strike. I had to fight him tooth and nail in the better restaurants to maintain excess because I don’t believe that less is more. I believe that more is more. I believe that less is less, fat fat, thin thin and enough is enough. There’s a famous exchange between Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe in which Fitzgerald criticizes Wolfe for one of his novels. Fitzgerald tells him that Flaubert believed in the mot précis and that there are two kinds of writers—the putter-inners and the taker-outers. Wolfe, who probably was not as good a writer as Fitzgerald but evidently wrote a better letter, said, “Flaubert me no Flauberts. Shakespeare was a putter-inner, Melville was a putter-inner.”* I can’t remember who else was a putter-inner, but I’d rather be a putter-inner than a taker-outer.


Are there philosophical, religious, or psychological traditions which are especially important to you?


Like most people of my generation, I fell in love with the philosophy of existentialism. There is no particular religious tradition in my work. There is only one psychological assertion that I would insist upon. That is: the SELF takes precedence.


Are there particular existential writers?


Camus. I think he was a wonderful writer. I ate his books up alive in the better restaurants.


Is there a system of ideas within which your fiction could be considered?


No. I’m not a “thinker.” For example, I’m working on a novel now called The Franchiser about the man who makes America look like America. He owns a McDonald’s franchise. He owns a Fred Astaire Dance Studio franchise. He owns a KOA campsite franchise. He owns perhaps thirty franchises. He trades them like a kid with Monopoly cards. What had appealed to me—what had instigated the novel and in a way has instigated almost everything I’ve ever written—was the occupation. I don’t know what the thing is all about until I start to write it. Then, as I’m writing, I really do invent ideas, make ideas up. Only now am I beginning to realize what this Franchiser business is all about. But there’s no thought aforethought.


Reviewers and critics often consider you with the black humorists or the absurdists and with the Jewish-American writers, many of whom are also humorists. Would you care to comment on affinities you might have with writers like Barth, Donleavy, Vonnegut, Heller, Roth, Bellow?


If I have any affinities at all, they are with men like Bellow—and, to a lesser extent, Barth. Certainly not to Roth, who is more a sociologist of the personal than anything else. And not really to Donleavy, whose work I admire very much—but who finally disappoints me because he not only writes the same book over and over again, but the same sentence over and over again or the same sentence fragment over and over again. He uses the same characters; he uses the same rhetorical patterns. I find that his best book is not The Ginger Man but A Singular Man, the book where he finally got it right. Everything else is redundant. Spin-offs from spin-offs as if he learned to write at Mary Tyler Moore’s knee.

Barth is wonderful, but the Barth I really admire is back there in the Golden Age of Barth. That is to say, the Barth of The Floating Opera, of The End of the Road, and The Sot-Weed Factor. The Barth who takes himself seriously as a metafictionist is a Barth who bores finally. There’s some great stuff in Lost in the Fun House, and I suppose there are nice little pastiches in Giles Goat-Boy, but later Barth really is Barth for Barth’s sake.

Bellow I think is a magnificent writer—probably, with Gass, the best writer in America. I just somehow feel on Bellow’s wavelength. I don’t think that he has a reader in America who digs him more than I do. There has not been a single Bellow novel or story that I have not liked, including probably his weakest books—Dangling Man, The Victim, and Henderson the Rain King. Henderson the Rain King is not really in his mode—it’s more in my mode than his—but I like Henderson for its ending, which it seems to me is a paradigm for the endings in a great deal of modern fiction. Henderson is carrying the kid in his arms in Newfoundland or wherever, and he begins to run and dance—dancing, running, leaping, jumping, moving. I find that whole concept very, very exciting. It’s the leap of faith; the only way finally to make any sense out of the world is simply by saying “yes” to it, and jump up and down in it.


Writers say yes or no?


Yes, the binary system. What a writer’s message is is totally unimportant. Either he is agreeing with life by affirming, or he is saying life is just a bowl of wormwood.


So you haven’t changed anybody’s life with your fiction?


Certainly not. Nobody does.


What about Faulkner?


He never changed anybody’s life either. Auden went to his grave complaining that his poems never saved a single Jew from the ovens, and he was absolutely right.


In your collection Stories from the Sixties, you include stories by Coover and Gass, who are often called experimental in their concern with form and language. Do you have affinities with experimental writers?


I think Gass is the best word-man in America. Coover is a very good friend of mine, and I think “The Babysitter” is a wonderful story, a very successful tour de force, and while a tour de force is its own excuse for being, a little goes a long way. Vintage Coover to me is not the Coover of Pricksongs and Descants so much as the Coover of The Origin of the Brunists, or The Universal Baseball Association, which are superb novels. Bob is such a good writer and has so many gifts to offer the traditional novel that it seems to me that he works against his own best interests when he goes off to play in his laboratory.


You mentioned tour de force. There seems to be a lot of localized tour de force in your work.


But it’s not tour de force in terms of fictive strategy; it’s tour de force of language and that’s, as far as I’m concerned, always legitimate. But look for the language in post-Coover Coover, and it’s more difficult to find. There’s marvelous language in Pricksongs and Descants but it’s subsidiary to the experiment with structure. I tell you this for your own good, Bob. The reason I like Gass so much is that Gass is not fucking around with structure. He is fucking around with language. That to me is legitimate and acceptable, and the furthest out you can go is the best place to be. That’s what’s so magnificent about Shakespeare. Shakespeare wrote very conventional plays, but the language wasn’t conventional.


Do you have a philosophy of language?


It’s a matter of feeling one’s way. It is not instinctive. It’s a question of using a pencil, erasing, creating a palimpsest of metaphor right there on the page. One gets a notion of the conceit and one is inspired to work with it as a draftsman might work with some angle that he is interested in getting down correctly. That’s where all the fun of writing is for me.

I don’t read much nonfiction because the nonfiction I do read always seems to be so badly written. What I enjoy about fiction—the great gift of fiction—is that it gives language an opportunity to happen. What I am really interested in after personality are not philosophic ideas or abstractions or patterns, but this superb opportunity for language to take place.


Do you have an impassioned statement about the function or purpose of the novelist?


I just made it. He has no social obligations, it seems to me, unless his wife has accepted a dinner date for Thursday.


Do you have some sense of an audience when you write?


I do have an ideal audience in mind. That ideal audience is a man like Bill Gass, or someone like Howard Nemerov, or any other writer who respects language. But other than that, no notion at all of an audience. I don’t think any writer does. I don’t think that poor Jacqueline Susann had any notion of an audience. I think she was doing the best she could. There is no such thing as prostitution in writing. One writes what one can write. One writes up, though one man’s up is another man’s basement.


In a New York Times review, Josh Greenfield says that you seem to write with the conviction that the world is winless. Do you agree with this?


Yes, well, we all die, yes? We suffer, correct? The score keeps changing, is it not so? And Mommy holds us on the teeter-totter before we can sit upright on chairs. I don’t really care so much about the fact that the world is winless. It is simply a condition that seems true to me. It is just a condition the way a red light is a condition at a traffic crossing. Yet, quite marvelous books have been written about winner worlds. Other people write them.

Indeed, the novel is generally a kind of Christian device where people who are good get their just rewards and where people who are bad are punished. I don’t believe that this is the case in life, but it might be a case the novelist wants to make, and great novels have been written making such cases. I don’t care so long as the novel is written well.


You’ve said, “I don’t write from memory. I imagine everything.” Could you elaborate on the purposes of this approach?


I used to think and I used to tell my writing students that the reason one can’t write autobiographically is that one is too close to the material. But that’s wrong. I was terribly humiliated when I was in the army, and I tried to get that down into fiction. I constantly failed, and I kept thinking that I was failing because I was too close to it, but that’s not why I failed. The real reason I failed is that you cannot write autobiographically; you cannot write from memory. If you write from memory, the chances are that you will say, “Well, because this happened this way, I will use it this way. Because it happened in just such a sequence I will use it in just such a sequence.” Now, life is shapeless, but art, as everybody knows, is shaped. If one is writing from memory, one is writing ultimately a kind of shapeless, amorphous slice of lifeism. Besides, I don’t remember anything all that exciting ever happening to me.


You’ve said that you believe in inspiration. Does inspiration work throughout the story to give it structure and form, or does it work mostly in the original conception?


Mostly, in the original conception. I think I said that stories come altogether all at once or they do not come at all, but that’s rather an overstatement. I’ll give you an example. I was reading Mike Royko’s book, Boss, about Mayor Daley. Someplace in that book, he talks about a saloon where cops, detectives, and bailbondsmen hang out. I saw the word “bailbondsmen” in the sentence, and suddenly it stood out—I don’t know why. I had nothing to do with bailbondsmen, I had no memory of bailbondsmen, I had never met a bailbondsman. I’d never put up bail for anyone, but I started to think about the implications of the word bailbondsman. Since I begin most stories or novels with an occupation, it struck me that there was a rich lode here, so I knew I was going to write a novella about a bailbondsman. What the novella was going to be about, what the plot was going to be, I had no idea; that was simply a process of inventing as I went along. But the original inspiration—seeing that word on the page and having it trigger the momentum in me—occurred in a swell fell swoop.

Of course, inspiration is an ongoing, continuing process in the composition of a book. One doesn’t, for example, plot a joke. Like a lot of what happens in novels, inspiration is a sort of spontaneous combustion—the oily rags of the head and heart.


What is your response to reviewers who, although immensely entertained by your novels, end up saying that the whole is less than the parts? Are you concerned with structure and form the way someone like Nabokov or Barth is?

Although I am immensely entertained by their reviews, I end up saying that the whole is less than the parts. As a matter of fact, I am concerned with structure and form and my novels are structured and formed. There isn’t a novel I have written which does not have a very well-defined structure. The Dick Gibson Show, for example, is not a series of isolated episodes; it is a progress. A Bad Man is not a series of brouhaha speeches; it is a structure. Boswell, less so, although there is a structure there too. Boswell was the first long thing I wrote, and I really didn’t know quite what I was up to. But I think all my work subsequent to Boswell has been rather tightly structured. Now, if people don’t recognize the structure, that isn’t my fault. Well, maybe it is my fault, but I hope it’s their fault.


It seems to me that the plots of your novels develop through the protagonist’s repetition of action. Do your novels develop largely out of what you have called the “physics of personality”?


Yes, and the physics of obsession. Fiction is about obsession, but there is a distinction between obsession and madness. There is no successful mad fiction. Although I have written a story which ends in madness and suicide, it seems to me that novels about craziness are always unsuccessful. They become case studies. The Bell Jar, for example, is a terrible novel. The only thing that gives The Bell Jar any interest at all is the fact that it is autobiographical. We have this greasy interest in Sylvia Plath. If that woman had never killed herself, her books would sell less than mine.


Your characteristic style is, I think, distinguished by its oral quality. Could you comment on the sources of this style? Your father . . .


I was a very attentive listener to my father’s stories and to my father’s shoptalk . . . this may be the real source of my style. All shoptalk, the specialized jargon of a closed universe, fascinates me. Whenever I hear it, wherever I hear it, I’m thunderstruck.


Do you put yourself in situations where you are likely to hear shoptalk?


No. Not really, but when I am fortunate enough to run across it, I recognize it and listen to it and try to duplicate it in my writing. Now, some of those rhetorical flourishes, of course, are beyond the shoptalk of most people, but it’s as though I were giving others free rein to talk as they would if they had my vocabulary. Passion is the secret of shoptalk.

A friend of mine here in St. Louis, Al Lebowitz, who is a lawyer and a novelist, had to argue a case before the Missouri Supreme Court, and he asked me if I would drive him to Columbia, the state capital. I did and we went that evening to a restaurant in which there were all of these pols. We were sitting close enough to them so that we both stopped talking ourselves and just listened to these guys talking and it was marvelous. It wasn’t just the language of anecdote but the language of impassioned partisan anecdote. Unbelievably beautiful—almost a kind of poetry. What other writers get from geography—regionalism—I get from shoptalk.


It seems that your narrators or heroes are professional rhetoricians. There’s con man Boswell, salesman Feldman, disc jockey Gibson, lecturer Preminger, and bondsman Main. Are they displacements of the artist?


I wish I could talk like these characters—I can’t. Sometimes in class, if I’m particularly good that day, I can go about twenty-seven seconds, not quite a sixth of a round. But it’s the way I would like to be able to talk, and I guess the reason I write fiction—I hadn’t ever thought of this before but this is a true answer—is to give myself an opportunity to talk that way.


You said in some comments on Faulkner that comedy is a “quick inconsequential passion.”


Inconsequential is the operative word there. Consequence to me is when the bone doesn’t heal, when the germ does not do what the penicillin wants it to. Consequence is pain. There can be no consequences in comedy. Tom and Jerry chase each other; Tom falls off the Empire State building and shatters like a dish. In the next loop he has reconstituted himself. Now, I don’t laugh at Tom and Jerry, but in a simplistic way, that’s the model for all comedy. Nothing bad may happen. There is safety in comedy.


Would you discuss the function of the comic in your fiction?


There is a nightclub and television comedian named George Carlin. His routine is the Hippy Dippy Weather Man, and most of his jokes are jokes about the television industry. He makes fun of commercials; he makes fun of format. I have yet to laugh at George Carlin because his humor is institutional humor. It is backstage humor. Green Room. It seems to me—and this is a very difficult thing to phrase properly—that noses are funnier than the particular crotchets of network vice presidents. I told you an anecdote yesterday about my friend Herbie Bogart. We were in Max, Indiana, a small town, stopped at a red light and this hick came down the street with a piece of straw in his mouth, and Bogart said to me, “Look at that Bozo,” then opened the window and said, “Hiya Bozo.” That, to me, is absolutely hilarious. I can’t really explain why it’s hilarious, but one thing it has going for it is that it’s not institutional, not backstage. It’s comedy of the streets. Not just of that red light and crossroads in Max, Indiana, but the vernacular comedy of street, avenue and U.S. 41. It’s a rare joke that is funny. Only situations are funny.


What is black humor? Are you a black humorist?


I can’t even tell you what black humor is. black humor is a term invented by Time magazine. But I’ll tell you what kind of humorist I am—and I don’t think I am really a humorist. It seems to me that there is only one modern joke: the joke of powerlessness. And Charlie Chaplin me no Charlie Chaplins. The grand joke of modern fiction is the Lucky Jim joke of making faces behind the professor’s back. Now, the grand jokes of A Bad Man or The Dick Gibson Show—whatever I’ve written—are the jokes where the character in trouble, confronted with a force much stronger than he is, mumbles under his breath something that is absolutely devastating to the authority which threatens him. But the fact that he has to mumble it under his breath, you see, is what makes it funny. Had he shouted it at the aggressor, at the warden, or what have you, it wouldn’t be funny. I am thinking of a specific line. When Feldman is closeted with the girl, Mona, in the warden’s-party section of A Bad Man, he thinks Mona may be the warden’s wife. Oh, God, he thinks, suppose they catch me with the warden’s wife. Yet the woman is very attractive to him. She says to Feldman, “One of the things that always bothered me about you stick-up guys and murderers and thugs is the fact that when you’re driven up to the police station in a police car, you always hold your hats over your faces. Why do you do that?” And Feldman says, “Yeah, well, we like the way they smell.” Feldman is not really answering her question: that is the answer of powerlessness.


Are there any conventions which especially appeal to you and that find their way into your fiction?


No. But I believe in the big things, the traumas that no writer invents that change all preexisting alternatives for the character. Divorce: a guy goes home and sees his wife packing a suitcase. He says, “Going on a trip, are you?” She says, “Yeah, and I’ve already burned your suitcases so you ain’t coming with me. We are now not going to be married anymore.” This means that the guy has to change his priorities. Or he comes down to the English office and Professor Madsen calls him in and says, “You were going to teach at one o’clock today? Well, don’t bother; you’re fired.” So no matter what this guy’s life has been before the world leaned on him, he now has to make adjustments. Now, at the beginning of A Bad Man Feldman is arrested for things that happened way before the novel began, so he has to make certain kinds of adjustments. He is going to a place where Feldman cannot be Feldman any more. The same thing is true—more or less—in every book written, not just by me but by anybody.

If these big things that change priorities come too quickly and too often, the book will of necessity be a melodrama, a soap opera. On the other hand, there are things which the writer invents. I am thinking of the bone shop, for example, in Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend, where one of the characters goes down into this subterranean old dark shop and there are drawers all around the walls of the shop. He finds the knucklebone of the third finger of the right hand and kneecaps and the left anklebone. Every bone there is catalogued and stored. I am sure that no such shop existed in life, that Dickens invented it. If I were to use it, it would be a case of pure plagiarism. That’s something that is spontaneously generated by the writer. If a book has nothing but those spontaneous generations, the result will not be melodrama but chaos. That’s why I criticized Coover before because Pricksongs and Descants is nothing but invention piled upon invention with no—I don’t like the word—trauma to give the thing stability.


I have some questions now about themes or ideas I find in much of your fiction. You have Dick Gibson say, “The point of life was the possibility it always held out for the exceptional.” The heroes in your novels have a tremendous need to be exceptional, to transcend others, to quarrel with the facts of physical existence. Is this a convention—which we’ve just been talking about—or something very basic to your whole view of life?


It is something very basic to my view of life, but in the case of that character it becomes the initial trauma which sets him going. It becomes his priority. Dick Gibson goes on to say that he had believed that the great life was the life of cliché. When I started to write the book, I did not know that was what the book was going to be about, but indeed that is precisely what the book gets to be about as I learned what Dick Gibson’s life meant. Consider the last few pages of the book:

What had his own life been, his interminable apprenticeship which he saw now he could never end? And everyone blameless as himself, everyone doing his best but maddened at last, all, all zealous, all with explanations ready at hand and serving an ideal of truth or beauty or health or grace. Everyone—everyone. It did no good to change policy or fiddle with format. The world pressed in. It opened your windows. All one could hope for was to find his scapegoat . . .

Now, everything that follows this is a cliché:

to wait for him, lurking in alleys, pressed flat against walls, crouched behind doors while the key jiggles in the lock, taking all the melodramatic postures of revenge. To be there in closets when the enemy comes for his hat, or to surprise him with guns in swivel chairs, your legs dapperly crossed when you turn to face him, to pin him down on hillsides or pounce on him from trees as he rides by, to meet him on the roofs of trains roaring on trestles, or leap at him while he stops at red lights, to struggle with him on the smooth faces of cliffs . . .

and so on. The theme of the novel is that the exceptional life—the only great life—is the trite life. It is something that I believe. It is not something that I am willing to risk bodily injury to myself in order to bring to pass, but to have affairs, to go to Europe, to live the dramatic clichés, all the stuff of which movies are made, would be the great life.


But what if one were aware that they were clichés? Isn’t that what causes so much despair in contemporary fiction—that characters can’t live a life of clichés?


Dick Gibson is aware that they are clichés. What sets him off—what first inspires this notion in him—is his court-martial when he appears before the general and says that he’s taken a burr out of the general’s paw—something that happens in a fairy tale. When Dick realizes what has happened to him, he begins to weep, thinking, oh boy, I’ve got it made—I’m going to have enemies, I’m going to be lonely, I’m going to suffer. That is the theme of that book.


Do the characters in your novels, then, have rather conventional notions of what exceptional is?


Yes, I think so.


James Boswell says that there are “only two kinds of intelligence, the obsessive and the perspectual” and goes on to praise the obsessive while living an obsessed life. Could you comment on this interest in obsession?


It’s my notion—and I suppose it’s a lot of writers’ notion—that the thing which energizes fiction is the will. In the conventional fiction of the nineteenth century, it is the will to get out of one class and make it up into another class. We’re no longer so interested in that since everybody more or less has the things that he needs. The conventional drive toward money has been replaced. At least it’s been replaced in fiction, and what we read about now—and what I write about—are people whose wills have been colored by some perfectly irrational desire. In the case of Boswell, it is the will to live forever. In the case of Dick Gibson, it is the will to live the great life which is the trite life. In the case of “The Bailbondsman,” it is to know the answers to questions that no one can know. In the case of Ashenden in “The Making of Ashenden,” it is the desire to find an absolutely pure human being—someone as pure as himself. In the case of Feldman, it is to sell the unsalable thing and to make the buyer pay as much for it as possible. Now these are options that define the characters and that the characters choose as options to define their lives. Their obsessions drive them. Feldman has all the money in the world. He doesn’t need to make more. My characters—with the exception of Boswell, who marries money—are well-off. This liberates them to do the kinds of things which people don’t really do in real life but which they do do in fiction—to follow their own irrational—but sane—obsessions which, achieved, would satisfy them. Alas, these guys never catch up with their obsessions.


Their obsessions also give you an interesting perspective on the world, don’t they?


Yes. I let them stand back and take potshots at the world and make commentaries on this or that, but I am not so much interested in those potshots. It’s just that I admire their intelligence. I find it impossible to write about dumb people. While they may be misguided in terms of their obsessions, they are not unintelligent and, by permitting them intelligence as I permit them wealth, I have it both ways.


It seems to me that the metaphor of economics is important in your fiction—Boswell’s “turnover, turnover, turnover,” Feldman’s “unsalable thing,” the give-and-take on Dick Gibson’s programs, the buying of time in “The Bailbondsman.” Does this sound reasonable to you?


Yes. A man named Dave Demarest has said that the major fact in my fiction is the transaction. I would agree with him. Feldman someplace says a sale lost is lost forever, irrecoverable. A profit not made is a profit never to be made—and is irrecoverable. My people do buy and sell, if that’s the question you were asking. And I myself in my own personal life am not so much a seller as I am a buyer. I love to buy things. I love being in stores. I love things themselves. I love having money to spend and buying things which are not perhaps the most utilitarian things in the world and may even be vulgar. Department stores, not museums, are the first place I go to in a new city, and I love the position of purchase. My characters tend to be salesmen although, as I talk to you like this, it occurs to me that perhaps I should write a novel about a purchaser instead of a seller.


Would you comment on the germination of Boswell?


A man named Phil London used to teach here at Washington University. Phil was at my house one evening and was telling me how Boswell got to meet Voltaire. He had sent Voltaire letter upon letter, and Voltaire ignored them. Boswell was having none of this, so he travels to Ferney, and he knocks on the door and tells the servant, “My name is James Boswell and as I happen to be in the neighborhood and have been writing your master, I am here to meet him.” The servant goes upstairs and tells Voltaire that this nut is at the door, and Voltaire, who had been besieged by all these letters, none of which he had answered, comes down and gives an audience to Boswell. Boswell says, “Hi, Voltaire!” Now, London did not tell the anecdote as I told it to you, but that’s in effect what happened. It struck me as being so funny that I thought a modern Boswell, on the make for all the great men of his time, might be the source of an amusing novel.


Why did you decide to make mortality the driving fact of his life?


That’s the driving fact of my own life. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think, “Jesus Christ, how many more months do I have left?” or years, I hope. I am totally preoccupied with death. I mean my own death. Barth, for example, has said that he comes from very good stock and expects to live a long time. Bill Gass thinks that one of the reasons he takes so much time writing his novels—it took him ten years to write Omensetter’s Luck—is that he has an infinite amount of time left to him. I don’t believe that I have an infinite amount of time left to me. Probably I would be a healthier man if I did believe it.


Is this a matter of concern to you as a writer, as it was to Faulkner: that idea of making a scratch on a stone?


I know what you’re talking about. No, I don’t think I am making scratches on stones by writing. Whatever happens to me in my career I hope happens before I die. And screw the libraries.


Would you comment on your attitude toward Boswell and especially toward his way of dealing with his own death—hero worship?


He doesn’t give a damn for the great. He cares only that the great give a damn for him. He has a good deal of trouble trying to determine just who it is he actually knows. I once met Faulkner at the University of Virginia and shook his hand, but I don’t know Faulkner. Boswell determines the only way you can know a person is if the person has said your name, and that’s the solution that he finally zeros in on. If someone has said his name, Boswell knows him. Now that means that Boswell is not interested in other men’s greatness. He is interested in his own. The idea is to get as many great men to say James Boswell, James Boswell, James Boswell, as possible.


Very near the end of the novel Boswell starts thinking about enclosing all other people; he wants to internalize them . . .


That’s in the penultimate chapter of the novel. The death of everybody else in the world is what validates Boswell’s life. He grows immense, becomes the ultimate bodybuilder, by destroying other bodies. Boswell is no sycophant; Boswell is a total egocentric.

I like him because he has the energy of ego. I think his is a jerky way of living one’s life, but I think a novelist has to like his characters. If you establish a distance between yourself and your character, then that distance is magnified once it gets around to the reader and the reader is, in effect, looking at a character across the Grand Canyon and can’t possibly care for him. So, all characters, all protagonists, are ultimately sympathetic. If they aren’t the novel fails, becomes silly. This is precisely the failure of Alison Lurie’s The War Between the Tates. Miss Lurie clearly despises her characters.

Boswell is a perpetual outsider, and the only thing that gives any vitality to his life is trying to get inside those doors and up those goddamn stairs. At the end of the novel, he could have knocked down that barrier, could have produced credentials that would demonstrate that he’s Boswell, could have gotten into The Club. But once he’s done that, then, by God, he has to die because he’s got nothing left to do. Since the thing that keeps him alive is running scared, he has to start all over again. So “Down with The Club.”


Would you comment on the Johnson-Boswell parallels?


I actually did read all the Boswell journals that were available at the time. I found that there was a kind of serendipity because I was reading the journals after I had already conceived of and begun to write the novel. I found that he had an illegitimate child, as does my Boswell, and that he was married to somebody named Margaret. I had already named my Boswell’s wife Margaret when I discovered that the original Boswell’s wife’s name was Margaret. I also made him come from St. Louis because Boswell came from Edinburgh and it seems to me that St. Louis is to America what Edinburgh is to Great Britain.


Would you tell us how A Bad Man began?


Again, with a friend. Al Lebowitz was telling me about a lawyer here in St. Louis who had been caught out in some shady deal and had been sentenced to a year in jail. It struck me—what must it be like for a man of the upper-middle class to have to spend a year with pickpockets? The mixture of classes is a very attractive theme. There is a basic fascination in the situation—what it must be for a man who never split a Republican ticket in his life, as Feldman says, to be thrust into a jail with lowlifes. But that itself would not make a novel, so I upped the ante philosophically and asked what would it be like for a man to be sentenced for his character? To do time for his character? You see, Feldman is perfectly innocent of the charge that actually gets him into jail. It was a machine error—an error in the IBM accounting system. They don’t put him in jail for doing those favors. They put him in jail for something that, in fact, he is innocent of. And the real thing he is in jail for is his character, as the warden knows. Yet Feldman is not the bad man in that novel. The bad man is the warden. Feldman ain’t exactly a sweetiepie, he is capable of all kinds of cruelty in the name of energy. But as far as I am concerned, the real son of a bitch in the book is Warden Fisher.


What about the setting? It’s no real prison.


No, it’s no real prison. As one character says, “It’s a whole country of penitentiary we got up here.” After I was about 150 pages or so into the novel, I tried to get into a prison to see what a prison was like. That’s very hard to do, unless you commit a crime. I wanted to see how far off I was, so I went through the Walpole State Penitentiary in Massachusetts, and it was one of the most boring afternoons I have ever spent in my life. I am surprised that men can come out and still be sane creatures because they have absolutely nothing to do. I was in one room, for example, where the prisoners were all assigned to bristle brushes. That would be perfectly terrific if it weren’t for the fact that they had a brush-bristling machine in the room that could bristle a hundred brushes a minute. They had these ninety prisoners and just this one machine, so eighty-eight of the prisoners are sitting around the walls of the room and just two prisoners get to work the machine for an hour, and then the others get to work the machine. They aren’t allowed to talk to each other. Though I was very bored with that prison experience, I went back thrilled with the notion that my prison was so much better than their prison. If I were a penologist, I would make the prisons more like mine because at least the prisoners wouldn’t get bored.

I was aware of the Kafkaesque tone of some of this stuff, and I wanted to short-circuit that by suggesting that Feldman was aware of it, too. That’s called cheating. I tell myself this for my own good.


Did you do research for The Dick Gibson Show, or have you been a longtime radio . . .


I’m a radio listener. I have more radios in my house than you could imagine. And I was just saying to Joan yesterday, “By God, Joan, there’s a new radio out. We’ve got to get it. It gets nothing but television stations.” You weren’t upstairs when you were at the house yesterday, but I have every conceivable kind of radio, and I listen. I really listen to the radio.


In The Dick Gibson Show did you set out to qualify the romantic heroes in Boswell and A Bad Man?


No, but in fact that’s what happens. Dick can’t stand anybody’s obsession but his own, which is largely the plight of myself and yourself, probably, and everybody. He’s opened a Pandora’s box when he opens his microphones to the people out there. When they find the platform that the Gibson format provides, they just get nuttier and nuttier and wilder and wilder, and this genuinely arouses whatever minimal social consciousness Dick Gibson has. The paradox of the novel is that the enemy that Gibson had been looking for all his life is that audience. The audience is the enemy. Dick builds up in his mind this Behr-Bleibtreau character. That Behr-Bleibtreau is his enemy. That’s baloney paranoia. The enemy is the amorphous public that he is trying to appeal to, that he’s trying to make love to with his voice. Dick Gibson is a bodiless being. He is his voice. That’s why the major scene in the novel is the struggle for Gibson’s voice.


Who is Behr-Bleibtreau? There is a suggestiveness to his name that I can’t articulate.


Neither can I. I used to know a guy named—Bleibtreau. Hyphenating the name made it more sinister than just Bleibtreau itself. You know, you could almost put Count in front of it.


Is that why Dick thinks that Behr-Bleibtreau is the enemy—because there is this suggestion of cliché?


That’s right. Behr-Bleibtreau is a charlatan—that’s what he is. He has this theory of the will that is alluded to in the second section of the novel. And he is a hypnotist, exactly the kind of guy who Gibson sees as out to get him. Of course Behr-Bleibtreau isn’t out to get him. When Gibson thinks it is Behr-Bleibtreau calling him from Cincinnati, it isn’t. It’s just Gibson’s own paranoia that creates the conditions for Behr-Bleibtreauism.


Is radio in the novel an index to social change, perhaps the devaluation of language?


That was not my intention. I could make a case that once upon a time there were scripts, a platform and an audience out in front of Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone, that radio then was a kind of art form and now it is an artless form in which you get self-promoters and people with theories about curing cancer by swallowing mosquitoes or something. Language, since it is occurring spontaneously rather than thought out, is devalued. But actually, in real life, modern radio talk shows are much more interesting than The Jack Benny Program ever was because you are getting the shoptalk of personality.


Dick is a professional word man, and by the end he is reduced nearly to silence. Is this your “literature of exhaustion” that Barth talks about, a comment on the futility of language . . .


No. Certainly not.


He does say less and less as the novel moves along.


Right. And the other people say more and more. That is intentional. But Dick makes an effort to get his program back from the sufferers. He starts hanging up on people. Then he gets the biggest charlatan—Nixon—at the end. Wasn’t I clever to invent Nixon before Nixon did?


In bringing together so many stories and storytellers, did you have a thematic unity in mind?


I had in mind, as a matter of fact, The Canterbury Tales, particularly in that second section where the journey to dawn is the journey to Canterbury. Although there are no particular parallels, when I was sending out sections of the novel to magazines, I would call the sections “The Druggist’s Tale” and so on. There is that choral effect of the pilgrims to Canterbury.


Do you still write short stories, or do you feel your gifts are best suited to the expansiveness of the novel?


The last story I wrote—probably the best story I ever wrote, “A Poetics for Bullies”—was written for The Saturday Evening Post in 1964 (although the Post rejected it and Esquire picked it up). They wanted to do a children’s issue, and they asked me to write a story about kids. Joan had made a bow and arrow for my son Philip. A kid who lived behind us said to Philip, “I can do magic; I will give you two arrows where there are one.” The kid then broke the arrow, and that gave me the initial idea to do a story about bullies. Actually, it is a companion piece to “On a Field, Rampant,” the first story I wrote that I felt was any good. The character in the earlier story is unnamed but thinks he is a king, and he really is the John Williams of the bully story.


Are the stories in Criers and Kibitzers collected consciously as studies in heroism?


No. Collected consciously as studies of complaint and utzing, a Yiddish word for troublemaking, getting people to do things they don’t want to do. There are two kinds of people, according to the title: the troublemakers and the troubled.


“The Bailbondsman” is my favorite in Searches and Seizures. Alexander Main seems to me to be the representative Elkin man.


I would agree with that—because he gets the best of other people. And he is a great salesman. He talks people into taking bond, or he decides not to give them bond, purely on whim. He is truly a master not only of himself but of absolutely everyone else who comes in contact with him. He is a scholar, and he is a rat bastard. But I admire him for his rhetoric. I, myself, am closer to Main than any other character.


Could you comment on the immense power of your protagonists within their novels? Does it reflect the novelist’s power over his characters?


I don’t think it has anything to do with the novelist’s power over his characters, but it is clearly a pattern in my fiction. To have each protagonist his own novelist—if that’s what you mean—yes. Each protagonist moves the other characters around as though they were pawns, or tries to.


Do you read academic criticism on your fiction?


On mine, yes. But I don’t read it on anybody else. If you write an article about me, believe me, I’ll read it because I am profoundly interested in myself.


If you were going to write an essay on your own work . . .


I did. I did write an essay on my own work when I wrote the introduction to Stories from the Sixties. That contained most of what I think about writing.


If you were going to write this essay in a somewhat less indirect form than that introduction, what would you talk about?


I couldn’t do it . . . I suppose it would be a retaliatory essay. Some reviewers, particularly Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, are hung up on this notion that I do routines, that I do shtick. I do not do shtick. What I do are organized routines and connected shtick—shtick upon shtick upon shtick until we have a piece of carpentry. I am not a stand-up comedian, and what I would try to do in such an essay would be to demonstrate the form that exists in the novels. Reviewers write about the hilarious passages—who gives a shit about the hilarious passages? Hilarious passages are easy to write. There are passages that aren’t so hilarious that I like much more. And metaphor: Feldman is talking about a girl lifeguard in a white bathing suit, and he says that he sees “the dark vertical of her behind like the jumbo vein in shrimp.”


What kind of a mind does a writer have that “the jumbo vein in shrimp” is present and available for him to get down on the page?


I don’t have it here in my office now, but if we were over in my carrel, where I do my writing, you would see a J. C. Penney catalogue, an enormous 1974 J. C. Penney catalogue and its big supplement.  Now this guy in the new novel, The Franchiser, has a Radio Shack franchise.  He is describing what these radios, phonographs, and stereos look like.  A speaker is black as a domino, some damn thing like that.  Of course I invent that, but I invent that by studying the photographs of those speakers.  I try literally to look at what I am writing about.  In ‘The Bailbondsman,’ I didn’t make up a single thing in the descriptions of teeth.  All those teeth are right there to be seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum of Natural History.  I went with a pad and pencil and copied down the shapes of those teeth.  I’m not a very good artist, but I could get the rough structure and by God there was a tooth with three holes that looked exactly like a goblin’s face.  It would look like a goblin’s face to you.  There was another thing that looked like a piece of cork.  That’s the only thing it looked like.  So it’s not a question of making imaginary leaps or having a third eye.  It’s a question of using the two eyes I have—and looking hard and close at things.


Is that what you try to teach your writing students?


Yes. That kind of observation can be taught. I also try to teach them how to recognize a situation, what legitimately is a situation and what isn’t. Those are the only things that can be taught. I can’t teach a person style. I can’t teach him to write, in terms of language. But I can teach them that things look like other things.

* The quote actually reads, ‘Flaubert me no Flauberts. . . . Shakespeare and Cervantes and Doustoievsky [sic] were great putter-inners—greater putter-inners, in fact, than taker-outers and will be remembered for what they put in.'”     Stanley Elkin, “Art of Fiction” Interview; The Paris Review, 1976



Numero Cuatro“My old friend and mentor Pío Baroja – who did not receive the Nobel Prize because the bright light of success does not always fall on the righteous – had a clock on his wall.  Around the face of that clock there were words of enlightenment, a saying that made you tremble as the hands of the clock moved round.  It said ‘Each hour wounds; the last hour kills.’  In my case, many chimes have been rung in my heart and soul by the hands of that clock – which never goes back – and today, with one foot in the long life behind me and the other in hope for the future, I come before you to say a few words about the spoken word and to reflect in a spirit of goodwill and hopefully to good avail on liberty and literature.  I do not rightly know at what point one crosses the threshold into old age but to be on the safe side I take refuge in the words of Don Francisco de Quevedo who said: ‘We all wish to reach a ripe old age, but none of us are prepared to admit that we are already there.’
However one cannot ignore the obvious.  I also know that time marches inexorably onwards.  So I will say what I have to say here and now without resorting to either inspiration or improvisation, since I dislike both.Finding myself here today, addressing you from this dais which is so difficult to reach, I begin to wonder whether the glitter of words – my words in this case – has not dazzled you as to my real merit which I feel is a poor thing compared to the high honour you have conferred upon me.  It is not difficult to write in Spanish; the Spanish language is a gift from the gods which we Spaniards take for granted.  I take comfort therefore in the belief that you wished to pay tribute to a glorious language and not to the humble writer who uses it for everything it can express: the joy and the wisdom of Mankind, since literature is an art form of all and for all, although written without deference, heeding only the voiceless, anonymous murmur of a given place and time.

I write from solitude and I speak from solitude. Mateo Alemán in his Cuzmán de Alfarache and Francis Bacon in his essay Of Solitude, – both writing more or less at the same period – said that the man who seeks solitude has much of the divine and much of the beast in him. However I did not seek solitude. I found it. And from my solitude I think, work, and live – and I believe that I write and speak with almost infinite composure and resignation. In my solitude I constantly keep in mind the principle expounded by Picasso, another old friend and mentor, that no lasting work of art can be achieved without great solitude. As I go through life giving the impression that I am belligerent, I can speak of solitude without embarrassment and even with a certain degree of thankful, if painful, acceptance.

The greatest reward is to know that one can speak and emit articulate sounds and utter words that describe things, events and emotions.

When defining man, philosophers have traditionally used the standard medium of close genus and specific difference that is to say reference to our animal status and the origin of differences. From Aristotle’s zoon politikon to Descartes’ res cogitans such reference has been an essential means of distinguishing man from beast. But however much moral philosophers may challenge what I’m going to say, I maintain that it would not be difficult to find abundant evidence identifying language as the definitive source of human nature which, for better or worse, sets us apart from all other animals.

We are different from other animals, although since Darwin we know that we have evolved from them. The evolution of language is thus a fundamental fact which we cannot ignore.

The phylogenesis of the human species covers a process of evolution in which the organs that produce and identify sounds and the brain which makes sense of those sounds develop over a long period of time which includes the birth of Mankind. No subsequent phenomena, neither El Cantar de Mío Cid nor El Quijote, nor quantum theory, can compare in importance to the first time that the most basic things were given a name. However for obvious reasons I am not going to dwell here on the evolution of language in its primeval and fundamental sense. Rather I will deal with its secondary and accidental but relatively more important meaning for those of us who were born into a society whose tradition is more literary than secular.

Ethnologists such as the distinguished A. S. Diamond believe that the history of language, of all languages, follows a pattern in which at the very beginning sentences are simple and primitive but go on to become more complicated in terms of syntactic and semantic variations. By extrapolating from this historically verifiable trend, it can be deduced that this increasing complexity evolves from the initial stage where communication relies mainly on the verb, building up to the present situation where it is nouns, adjectives and adverbs that give flavour and depth to the sentence. If this theory is correct and if we apply a little imagination, we might conclude that the first word to be used was a verb in its most immediate and urgent tense, namely the imperative.

And indeed the imperative still retains considerable importance in communication. It is a difficult tense to use. It must be handled with care since it requires a highly detailed knowledge of the rules of the game which are not always straightforward. A badly-placed imperative can bring about the exact opposite of the desired objective. John Langshaw Austin’s famous triple distinction (locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary language) is an erudite demonstration of the thesis that perlocutionary language tends to provoke specific behaviour on the part of the interlocutor. It is useless to issue an order if the person to whom it is addressed dissembles and ends up doing whatever he likes.

Thus from zoon politikon to res cogitans sufficient distinctions have been drawn between the beast that grazes and the man that sings albeit not always in well-measured tones.

In Plato’s Dialogue which bears his name, Cratylus hides Heraclitus among the folds of his tunic. The philosopher Democritus through his interlocutor Hermogenes speaks of the concepts of fullness and emptiness. The same can be said of Protagoras the anti-geometrician who irreverently maintained that “Man is the measure of all things”: what they are and how they are, what they are not and how they are not.

Cratylus was concerned with language – what it is and what it is not – and developed those ideas at some length in his discourse with Hermogenes. Cratylus believes that what things are called is naturally related to what they are. Things are born or created or are discovered or invented. From their very beginning they contain essentially the exact term which identifies them and distinguishes them from everything else. He seems to be trying to tell us that this distinction is unique and comes from the same ovum as the thing itself. Except in the reasoned world of the etymologist, a dog has always been a dog in all the ancient languages and love has been love since first it was felt. The boundaries of paradox in the thoughts of Cratylus in contrast to Heraclitus’ hypotheses are hidden in the dovetailed indivisibility or unity of opposites, their harmony (day and night), the constant movement and reaffirmation of their substance. The same is true of words as things in their own right (there is no dog without the cat and no love without hate).

Conversely Hermogenes thought that words were mere conventions established by humans for the reasonable purpose of understanding one another. Man is confronted with things or they are presented to him. Faced with something new, man gives it a name. The significance of things is not the spring in the woods but the well dug by man. The parabolic frontier of the senses, and of expression, as expounded by Hermogenes and concealed by Democritus and at times by Protagoras, comes up time and again: is man who measures and designates all things generic or individual? Is the measurement of those things a mere epistemological concept? Are things only physical matter or are they also feelings and concepts? By reducing being to illusion, Hermogenes kills off truth in the cradle; the contradictory conclusion that the only possible propositions are those which man formulates by himself and to himself, renders real what is true and what is not true. You will recall that according to Victor Henry’s famous aporia man can give a name to things but he cannot take them over; he can change the language but he cannot change it any way he wishes. Referring in perhaps overcautious terms to the exactitude of names Plato seems to sympathise obliquely with Cratylus’ position: things are called what they have to be called (an organic and valid theory that is on the verge of being acknowledged in pure reason as a principle) and not what man decides they should be called according to which way the wind is blowing at any given time (this being a changing or even fluctuating corollary, dependent on the changing suppositions present at the same time as, or prior to, a given thing).

This attitude, originally romantic and consequently demagogical, was the starting point for the Latin poets, headed by Horace. It gave rise to all the ills which have afflicted us in this field since that time and which we have not been able to remedy. Ars Poetica, verses 70 to 72, sings of the prevalence of usage in the evolution of language (not always a welcome development):

Multa renascentur quae iam cecidere cadentque
quae nunc sunt in honore vocabula, si volet usus,
quem penes arbitrium est et ius et norma loquendi.

This time-bomb, however pleasing in its charity, had several complex consequences leading finally to the supposition that language is made by the people – and inevitably by the people alone – and that it is futile to try and subject language to the precise and reasonable rules of logic. This dangerous assertion by Horace that usage determines what is right and acceptable in language created a rubbish-dump clogged with overgrown efforts in which the shortcut became the highway along which man progressed bearing the banner of language blowing freely and trembling in the breeze, obstinately continuing to confuse victory with the subservience inherent in its very image.

While Horace was partly right (and we should not deny that), he was also wrong in a number of ways and we should not try to hide that either. But we should also acknowledge the contribution of Cratylus and Hermogenes by refining their principles. Cratylus’ position falls within what is referred to as natural or ordinary or spoken language, which is the product of the constant use of a historical and psychological path, while Hermogenes’ proposition fits into what we understand as artificial or specialized language or jargon, deriving from a more or less formal arrangement or from some formal method based on logic but with no historical or psychological tradition behind it – at least at the time it is conceived. The first Wittgenstein, the author of the Tractatus, is a celebrated modern exponent of Hermogenes’ proposition. Thus in that sense it would not be illogical to talk of Cratylian or natural or human language and of Hermogenean or artificial or parahuman language. Like Horace my point of reference is obviously the former, the language of life and literature, without technical or defensive obstacles. Max Scheler – and indeed phenomenologists generally – is also referring to what I will now call Cratylian language when he talks about language as an indication or announcement or expression, as is Karl Bühler when he classifies the three functions of language as symptom, signal and symbol.

It goes without saying that Hermogenean language naturally accommodates its original artificiality. On the other hand Cratylian language does not adapt to extraneous territory where there are often hidden pitfalls alien to its essential transparency.

It is dangerous to admit that in the final analysis natural, Cratylian language is the offspring of a magical marriage between the people and chance. Because people do not create language they determine its development. We can say, albeit with considerable reservations, that people solve to a certain extent the puzzle of language by giving names to things; but they also adulterate and hybridize it. If people were not subject to those hidden pitfalls referred to earlier this issue would be much more urgent and linear. What is not put forward but which nevertheless lies hidden within the true heart of the matter is one and the same and already determined; and neither I nor anyone else can change that.

The Cratylian language, the structure or system described by Ferdinand de Saussure as “langue”, is the common language of a community (or rather more in than of a community), is formed and authenticated by writers and regulated and generally orientated by Academies. These three estates – the community, the writer and the Academies – do not always fulfil their respective duties. Very often they invade and interfere in other areas. It would appear that neither the Academies, nor the writers nor the community are happy with their own roles. While not competent to do so they prefer to define the role of others which, perhaps even rightly in principle, will always be unclear and ill-defined and, even worse, end up dissipating and obscuring the subject of their attention, namely the language and the verb which should be essentially transparent. The algebraic and mere instrument with no value other than its usefulness, in the final analysis as in Unamuno’s Love and Pedagogy.

The final determining factor, the State, which is neither the community nor the writers nor the Academies, conditions and constrains everything, intervenes in a~thousand different ways (administrative jargon, government pronouncements, television, etc.) compounding, more by bad example than by inhibition, disorder and disarray, chaos and confusion.

But no-one says anything about popular, literary, academic, state and other excesses. Language evolves not in its own way which in principle would be appropriate, but is rather pushed around by the opposing forces surrounding it.

The community to whom Horace’s lines are recited eventually believe that this is how a language should evolve and tries to incorporate phrases, styles and expressions that are neither intuitive nor the product of their subconscious – which at least might produce something valid or plausible – but rather deliberately and consciously invented, or, even worse, imported (at the wrong time and against sound common sense).

Writers, obviously with some exceptions, follow the often defective usage in their own environment and introduce and sanction expressions that are cumbersome and, worse still, divorced from the essential spirit of the language.

The Academies’ problems stem from the basis on which they operate: as institutions they tend to be conservative and afraid of being challenged.

The erosion of the Cratylian language by Hermogenean influences is becoming more pronounced and there is a danger that it will desiccate that living language and render the natural language artificial. As I have already said, this threat is caused by invented, gratuitously incorporated or inopportunely resurrected or revitalised language.

There seems to be some political reason behind the impetus that now leads, as it has in the past, gaily to abandon the principles of a language in the face of a blunt attack by those besieging it. In my view the risks outweigh the possible benefits – which are somewhat Utopian – that might accrue at some future unspecified date. While I am far from being a purist, I would like to call on writers in the first instance and then on Academies and on States to a lesser degree to put an end to the chaos. There is undoubtedly a continuity in language that supersedes any classifications we wish to establish but that does not constitute grounds for tearing down the natural frontiers of language. If we allow that we would be admitting to a defeat that has not yet taken place.

Let us rally our genius in defence of language, all languages, and let us never forget that confusing procedure with the rule of Law, just as observing the letter rather than the spirit of the Law, always leads to injustice which is both the source and consequence of disorder.

Thought is intrinsically linked to language. Moreover, freedom is also probably linked to certain linguistic and conceptual patterns. Together they provide the broad framework for all human endeavour; those that seek to explore and expand human frontiers, also those that seek to undermine the status of man. Thought and liberty are found in the minds of heroes and villains alike.

But this generalisation obscures the need for greater precision if we are to arrive at an understanding of the real meaning of what it is to think and to be free. Insofar as we are able to identify the phenomena that take place in the mind, thinking for man means thinking about being free. There has been much argument regarding the extent to which this freedom or liberty is something concrete or whether it is just another slick phenomenon produced by the human mind. But such argument is probably futile. A wise Spanish philosopher has pointed out that the illusion and the real image of freedom are one and the same thing. If man is not free, if he is bound by chains that psychology, biology, sociology and history seek to identify, as a human being he also carries within himself the idea, which may be an illusion but which is absolutely universal, that he is free. And if we wish to be free we will organise our world in much the same way as we would if we were free.

The architectural design on which we have tried to build successfully or otherwise the complex framework of our societies, contains the basic principle of human freedom and it is in the light of that principle that we value, exalt, denigrate, castigate and suffer: the aura of liberty is the spirit enshrined in our moral codes, political principles and legal systems.

We know that we think. We think because we are free. The link between thought and freedom is like a fish biting its own tail or rather a fish that wants to get hold of its own tail; because being free is both a direct consequence of and an essential condition for thought. Through thought man can detach himself as much as he wants from the laws of nature; he can accept and submit to those laws, for example like the chemist who has gone beyond the boundaries of phlogiston theory will base his success and prestige on such acceptance and submission. In thought however, the realms of the absurd lie side by side with the empire of logic because man does not think only in terms of the real and the possible. The mind can shatter its own machinations into a thousand pieces and rearrange them into a totally different image.

Thus one can have as many rational interpretations of the world based on empirical principles as the thinker wishes primarily on the basis of the promise of freedom. Free thinking in this narrow sense is that antithesis of the empirical world and finds expression in the fable. Thus the capacity to create fables would appear to be the third element in the human status – the others being thought and freedom – and this capacity can turn things round in such a way that things which before they became the subject of a fable were not even untruths become truths.

Through the process of thought man begins to discover hidden truth in the world, he can aim to create his own different world in whatever terms he wishes through the medium of the fable. Thus truth, thought, freedom and fable are interlinked in a complicated and on occasion suspect relationship. It is like a dark passageway with several side-turnings going off in the wrong direction; a labyrinth with no way out. But the element of risk has always been the best justification for embarking on an adventure.

The fable and scientific truth are not forms of thought. They are rather heterogeneous entities which cannot possibly be compared with one another since they are subject to completely different rules and techniques. Consequently, it is not appropriate to brandish the standard of literature in the struggle to free men’s minds. Literature should rather be regarded as a counterweight to the newfound slavish submission to science. I would go further and say that I believe that a prudent and careful distinction must be drawn between those forms of science and literature which join together to confine man within rigid limits which deny all ideas of freedom, and that we must be daring and offset those forms by other scientific and literary experiences aimed at engendering hope. By unreservedly trusting in the superiority of human freedom and dignity, rather than suspect truths which dissolve in a sea of presumption, would be an indication that we have progressed. However in itself it is not enough. If we have learned anything it is that science is incapable of justifying aspirations to freedom and that on the contrary it rests on crutches that tilt it in exactly the opposite direction. Science should be based solely on the most profound exigencies of human freedom and will. That is the only means of enabling science to break away from utilitarianism which cannot withstand the pitfalls of quantity and measurement. This leads us to the need to recognise that literature and science although heterogeneous cannot remain isolated in a prophylactic endeavour to define areas of influence and this for two reasons, namely the status of language (that basic instrument of thought) as well as the need to define the limits of and distinguish between that which is commendable and laudable and that which must be denounced by all committed individuals.

I believe that literature as an instrument for creating fables is founded on two basic pillars which provide it with strength to ensure that literary endeavour is worthwile. Firstly aesthetics, which impose a requirement on an essay, poem, drama or comedy to maintain certain minimum standards which distinguish it from the sub-literary world in which creativity cannot keep pace with the readers’ emotions. From socialist reality to the innumerable inconstancies of would-be experimentalists, wherever aesthetic talent is lacking the resulting sub-literature becomes a monotonous litany of words incapable of creating a genuine worthwhile fable.

The second pillar on which literary endeavour rests is ethics which complements aesthetics and which has a lot to do with all that has been said up to now regarding thought and freedom. Of course ethics and aesthetics are in no way synonymous nor do they have the same value. Literature can balance itself precariously on aesthetics alone – art for art’s sake – and it could be that aesthetics in the long run may be a more comprehensive concept than ethical commitment. We can still appreciate Homer’s verses and medieval epic canticles although we may have forgotten or at least no longer automatically link them with ethical behaviour in ancient Greek cities or in feudal Europe. However art for art’s sake is by definition an extremely difficult undertaking and one which always runs the risk of being used for purposes which distort its real meaning.

I do believe that ethical principle is the element which makes a work of literature worthy of playing the noble role of creating a fable. But I must explain clearly what I mean because the literary fable as a means of expressing the links between man’s capacity to think and the perhaps Utopian idea of being free cannot be based on just any kind of ethical commitment. My understanding is that a work of literature can only be subject to the ethical commitment of the person, the author, to his own idea of freedom. Of course no-one, not even the cleverest and most balanced literary author, can ever (or rather cannot always) overcome his humanity; anyone can have a blind spot and freedom is a suffficiently ambiguous concept and many blinding errors can be committed in its name. Nor can an aesthetic sense be acquired from a textbook. Thus, the literary fable must be based on both a sense of ethics and a commitment to aesthetics. That is the only way it can acquire a significance that will transcend ephemeral fashions or confused appreciation that can quickly change. The history of man is changing and tortuous. Consequently, it is diffficult to anticipate ethical or aesthetic sensibilities. There are writers who are so tuned in to the feeling of their time that they become magnificent exponents of the prevailing collective trend and whose work is a conditional reflex. Others take on the thankless and not suffciently applauded task of carrying freedom and human creativity further along the road, even if in the end that too may lead nowhere.

This is the only way in which literature can fulfil its role of closely identifying its commitment to the human status and, if we wish to be absolutely precise in this thesis, the only endeavour that can unreservedly be called true literature. However, human society cannot be linked to geniuses, saints and heroes alone.

In this task of seeking out freedom, the fable has the benefit of the well-known characteristic of the intrinsic malleability of the literary story. The fable does not need to subject itself to anything that might restrict its scope, novelty and element of surprise. Thus, unlike any other form of thought it can wave the Utopian banner high. Perhaps that is why the most avid authors of treatises of political philosophy have opted to use the literary story to convey Utopian propositions that would not have found ready acceptance outside the realms of fiction at the time they were written. There are no limits to the Utopianism that the fable can express since by its very nature the fable itself is based on Utopianism.

However, the advantages of literary expression are not confined to the ease with which it can convey Utopian propositions. The intrinsic plasticity of the story, the malleability of the situations, personalities and events it creates provide a superb foundry from which one can, without undue risk, set up an entire factory, or, to put it another way, a laboratory in which men conduct experiments on human behaviour in optimum conditions. But the fable does not restrict itself to expressing the Utopian. It can also analyse carefully what it means and what its consequences are in the myriad different alternative situations ranging from learned prediction to the absurd that creative thought can produce.

The role of literature as an experimental laboratory has been often highlighted in science fiction; speculation about the future that has subsequently been realised. Critics have heaped praise on novelists who have a talent for predicting in their fables the basic coordinates which subsequently have been substantiated. But the real usefulness of the fable as a test-tube lies not in its anecdotal capacity for accurately predicting something technical but as a means of conveying in a timely, direct or negative fashion all possible facets of a world that may be possible now or in the future. It is the search for human commitment, for tragic experiences, that can shed light on the ambiguity of blindly choosing options in the face of the demands placed upon us by our world, now or in the future, that turns the fresco of literature into an experimental laboratory. The value of literature as a means of carrying out experiments on behaviour has little to do with prediction since human behaviour only has a past, present and future in a very specific, narrow sense. There are, however, basic aspects of our nature which have an impressive permanency about them and which cause us to be deeply moved by an emotional story from a completely different age to the one we live in. It is this “universal man” that is the most prized figure in literary fable, an experimental workshop in which there are no frontiers and no ages. It is the Quixotes, the Othellos, the Don Juans that illustrate to us that the fable is a game of chess played over and over again, a thousand times with whatever pieces destiny throws up at any given time.

In absolute terms it might appear that this detracts from the so-called freedom I am advocating and indeed that would be the case if one did not take account of the role of that imperfect, voluble and confused personality, the author, the man.  The magic of Shylock would never have emerged without the genius of Bard, whose unreliable memory was of course far more inconsistent than that of the characters to whom he gave life and to whom in the end he denied death.  And what of those anonymous scholars and jugglers whom we remember only for the result produced by their talents.  There is undoubtedly something that must be remembered over whatever sociology or history tries to impose upon us and that is that thus far and insofar we can conceive of the future of mankind, works of literature are very much subject to the needs of the author; that is to say to a single source of those ethical and aesthetic insights I referred to earlier, an author who acts as a filter for the current which undoubtedly emanates from the whole surrounding society.  It is perhaps this link between Man and Society that best expresses the very paradox of being a human being proud of his individuality, and at the same time tied to the community that surrounds him and from which he cannot disengage himself without risking madness.  There is a moral here; the limitations of literature are precisely those of human nature and they show us that there is another status, identical in other ways, which is that of gods and demons.  Our mind can imagine demiurges and the ease with which human beings invent religions clearly demonstrates that this is so.  Our capacity to create fables provides a useful literary means of illustrating those demiurges, as indeed we have done constantly since Homer wrote his verses.  But even that cannot lead us to mistake our nature or put out once and for all the tenuous flame of freedom that burns in the innermost being of the slave who can be forced to obey but not to love, to suffer and die but not to change his most profound thoughts.

When the proud, blind rationalist renewed in enlightened minds the biblical temptation, the last maxim of which promised ‘You will be as gods’ he did not take account of the fact that Man had already gone much further down that road.  The misery and the pride that for centuries had marked Man’s efforts to be like the gods had already taught Man a better reason; that through effort and imagination they could become Men.  For my part, I must say proudly that in this latter task, much of which still remains to be accomplished, the literary fable has always been, and in all circumstances proved to be, a decisive tool; a weapon that can cleave the way forward in the endless march to freedom.”       Camilo Jose Cela, “Eulogy to the Fable;” Nobel Lecture, 1989