Last Days of America
VTR Date: September 8, 1981
Guest: Erdman, Paul
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Paul Erdman
Title: Last Days of America
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. My guest today writes fiction, and is awfully good at it. His subject, rather consistently, is international economics. And yet, unlikely as it may seem to you, he makes even the dismal science, raised to a global scale, entertaining and fun. He’s what we used to call “a good read.” Perhaps because he’s contemporary as tonight’s news bulletins, and thoroughly, unabashedly willing to build his fiction around rather unflattering portraits of some of the major figures on the world scene. Some quite boldly named directly, others alluded to in rather an undisguised fashion. Any similarity, it seems to me, between characters in his novels and well-known people in real life seem purposeful, not coincidental. I don’t think anyone comes off particularly well in Paul Erdman’s novels of international economic intrigue. Not bankers, surely. And he did run a bank in Switzerland before he was thrown into jail there. Nor political leaders, nor businessmen, nor the police, nor foreigners, nor even our fellow American’s. Indeed, novelist Paul Erdman is my guest today, not so much to discuss the art of fiction as seen in his “Last Days of America,” “The Billion Dollar Sure Thing,” “The Silver Bears” or “The Crash of ’79;” but rather to examine the astounding cynicism – one might almost call it contempt – with which he seems to look at the world of international finance and state craft. Mr. Erdman, that’s putting a burden on your shoulders, to say the least, to say all those things. But, you know, thinking about the best way to start a program with a guy who’s written four books I couldn’t put down, one after another, I concluded that it’s best to indicate that your fiction is strange as all getout, the sorts of things that you comment on, the sorts of characters you have doing what they do. And I wonder whether your assumption is that the facts of international economic life are even stranger than your fiction?
ERDMAN: Probably. The last book I wrote, the central figure was the Shah of Iran. And I had the Shah of Iran, it was written, I guess, mostly in 1975. I had portrayed him as a megalomaniac, befriended by the likes of Mr. Kissinger and of Mr. Rockefeller, and hypothesized that these guys were going to get all of us, the whole world, especially the United States, into great difficulty. Now that might be, at the time, have been regarded as absurd cynicism. But unfortunately, it wasn’t.
HEFFNER: Then what do we do with the most recent book, “The Last Days of America?” Prophecy?
ERDMAN: No, no, no, no, no. All I’m trying to tell a story. But I’m trying to tell a story with what I, at least I personally, consider a logical framework. And what I’ve tried to do in this book again is to project the world, three, four, five, six years from now. And in the case I’ve concentrated on Western Europe. And again, cynically. I suspect that already now a major process has been started. Western Europe, particularly Germany, is moving rabidly away from the United States. They regard us, especially our leaders, with contempt, and even fear. And my suspicion is that the end of this process is going to see a breakup of NATO. Perhaps an armed neutral Germany, and a whole new, and much more dangerous world.
HEFFNER: One in which you have American businessmen playing a, well, I’d like to call it a sinister roll?
ERDMAN: Well, I don’t know if American businessmen play a sinister role. I’m suggesting that perhaps the people who make the machines of war, the F-15s and F-16s and the cruise missiles and AMXs and B-1s that they play a sinister role, because they’re making things that might kill us.
HEFFNER: There is a level of amorality there, and I gather you intend that, that you’re not…
HEFFNER: You said before you were telling a story.
HEFFNER: Well, one certainly gets the feeling, after you read the four books, that you’re not just a storyteller, you’re a teacher. You’re trying to say something about our lives today.
ERDMAN: Well, that’s true. I hope, however, as a teacher, not a preacher. I hate to get preached out, and I certainly don’t intend to preach to anybody else. You know, I think it’s not up to me to make a moral judgment on some of these corporations that are selling whatever they’re selling to nations around the world: arms. Because if we don’t sell them, the French will sell them or the British will sell them, or the Swiss, you know.
HEFFNER: Now, you’re sort of putting in a side pocket over here, but a very important side pocket, the munitions makers. And then you’re putting into another side pocket, but with a connection between them, the international bankers. And you make me feel, as I read your novels, very, very tiny and insignificant. And I think you make me feel that all of the rest of us are tiny and insignificant compared to the power that these groups have.
ERDMAN: I think we are. And again, I’m not a believer in global conspiracies.
HEFFNER: But that’s the way it reads.
ERDMAN: Well, I don’t mean it to read that way. But I think the facts of life, the realities of life, are such that when a Helmut Schmidt, the chancellor of West Germany, and a President Reagan, and say, a Mr. Rockefeller, and say, a Ms. Kissinger, and say, a Mrs. Thatcher, get together for lunch somewhere, that whatever they discussed – not just what they decide – but whatever they discuss, at some point, is going to have any influence upon you and me. Good or bad. And quite often bad.
HEFFNER: Yeah, but it seems to me – please forgive me for perhaps seeing more in you novels than you mean there to be, but I suspect I don’t – it does seem to me that there’s more than just coincidence. They happen to have lunch today or tomorrow. There is an element in these books, knowing that you were a banker, knowing that you had your unfortunate experience in Switzerland, whatever it was, I have the sense that you’re yelling and screaming and tearing your hair to call attention to things that you know go on in this area. And when you say you’re not pointing to a conspiracy…
HEFFNER: …international conspiracy, it sounds that way. It reads that way.
ERDMAN: Well, perhaps to some… But I don’t like to call it conspiracy. An example: In the first novel, “The Billion Dollar Sure Thing,” it dealt with a decision by the central bankers of the world to devalue the dollar; and the reverse side of that, increase the official price of gold. Well, how is this decided? It’s decided on Sunday mornings in meetings of the Key central bankers in Basal, Switzerland. And quite often; after these meetings, I would be asked to have cocktails and dinner with the groups in the Schizenhaus, one of the better restaurants in that part of Switzerland. Well, then, at dinner, one hears, naturally, what was discussed that morning. And if you are a member – and now, see, I was a member – but if you are a member of that expanded club, and you feel that decision was made in the morning, and therefore you go short in the dollar and long on the gold the next day, you know, you are benefiting, in a singular fashion, by the fact that you have access to the people who are controlling our monetary destiny.
HEFFNER: Mr. Erdman, are you saying that you’re really just talking about insiders? Insiders’ information?
ERDMAN: I think it would go beyond… Not really. Not in a Wall Street sense of the world. I don’t want to use fancy words, but I would say it almost in the geopolitical sense of the world.
HEFFNER: And somebody just happens to be there when something has happened in the morning, and in the evening they benefit from it? Just happening to be around when word of it is blurted?
ERDMAN: I suspect there’s more to it than that. For instance, it’s been very suspicious lately in Wall Street that every time, that the big thing that Wall Street watches these days is the money supply, M-1B. If M-1B goes up $2-1/2 bullion, the stock market goes down the next day, or it should go down the next day. These figures come out Friday afternoon after the market has closed. Or, if the Consumer Price Index pops up at an annual rate of 16 percent per annum, this same thing happens, Why sometimes does the market behave on Thursday in anticipation of this news? This seems lately to be doing it consistently.
HEFFNER: Because there’s inside information?
ERDMAN: Yeah. But more than that. I mean, in other words, it’s…
HEFFNER: Tell me about the more. Because you say you want to separate yourself from the notion of a conspiracy theory.
ERDMAN: Yeah. Oh, yeah.
HEFFNER: Devil theory.
ERDMAN: Yeah. Oh, yeah.
HEFFNER: And yet every time you pick up one of Paul Erdman’s books, there are the devils, and they’re conspiring.
ERDMAN: Well, take another one. “Silver Bears” was about a guy, some guys, trying to corner the silver market. This was before Bunker Hunt tried to do that.
HEFFNER: Uh hum.
ERDMAN: Well, again, in the little area of the commodity speculation, if I was a friend of a friend of Bunker Hunt’s – I had a cousin in Dallas, you know, who went to the Baptist church, the same one he went to – and somehow I got wind of the fact that Bunker was laying a billion bucks on the line to corner the silver marker. It’s a small club and a small group of insiders. But if I join that gun on the tailcoat of Bunker Hunt when he drove the price of silver from five bucks up to forty bucks an ounce, wonderful. If I didn’t know that, I could have been suckered into some enormous losses, which happened to a lot of people.
HEFFNER: Okay, But I – forgive me for beating what is obviously not a dead horse, its very, very much alive for any of us who fallow what does happen in international finance or in Wall Street here – you, at the moment, seem to be saying, “Hey, this is a matter of being on the spot, sitting in the same pew or in the next one in church, and maybe coming to be aware of the fact that something’s going to happen in the silver market or something is going to happen with the money supply that will affect the prices of stocks the next day, whatever.
ERDMAN: Right. Not by coincidence, though. It’s because if you are president of a bank, therefore you belong to the right club. Where the other people are there who are the movers and shakers in the community. Right? So it’s the rich get richer.
HEFFNER: Okay. The rich, as long as I’ve lived (and it’s been a long time), have gotten richer; and the poor, unfortunately, seem always to get poorer. But that isn’t what you say in these books. There is always a conspiracy afoot. There is always a plan. Now, is that the art of the novelist? Is that the technique of the novelist? Do you have to do that to give you readers a kick? Or are you saying something more that comes from your banking experience?
ERDMAN: I understand what you’re saying. I think, as a novelist, you have to sometimes overdo things slightly. Where I personally, Paul Erdman, believes that these things stop short of a conspiracy. In other words, they come out of the fact that the same people belong to the same clubs and so forth and so on. In the novel, you take it one step further. And you, perhaps, go very naughtily beyond the line. Right? And form a conspiracy (with a small “c”) to give the whole thing coherency.
HEFFNER: Well, maybe because I had read – well, I guess I hadn’t read “The Silver Bears” before – but I had read the other two novels, “The Billion Dollar Sure Thing,” and “The Crash of ’79.” And then, of course, I read “The Last Days of America,” your newest book, in preparation for this program. Maybe it’s because I read and reread all four of them…
HEFFNER: … in the course of a couple days. But this fictional license, this literary license that you take, in “Naughty Boy,” and “Pushing it a Little Further,” …
HEFFNER: …does leave the millions of people who have read your novels (and their numbers are legion), has to leave them with a sense. You’ve taught them something. You’ve taught them something about the world around them. And I gather you’re saying you didn’t really quite mean to teach them something about conspiracy; just about happenstance. You’re stepping back.
ERDMAN: Well, I would say it’s something in the middle. Not happenstance, and not conspiracy, you know, that the Trilateral Commission is planning whatever they’re planning deliberately. That’s baloney. But the Trilateral Commission is made up of the most powerful men in the western world, from the United States, Western Europe, and Japan. And when they get together, they don’t talk about pinochle. They talk about moving, shaping the future events in the world. I don’t regard that as conspiracy, nor happenstance. Am I being clear?
HEFFNER: You’re being clear, but… I think you’d also be clear about the fact that you leave your audience, you leave your readers, with a feeling that goes a little further in the direction of conspiracy. Because you always can spot the guys who are doing the things they do to make the dollar the dollar. That’s ridiculous. To make the hundreds of millions and billions that you deal with.
ERDMAN: Well, but to come back again to the first example I brought up: We set up the Shah of Iran to fulfill a certain function for the United States. I think the people who set him up and kept him in power for a long time simply did not tell the American people the truth about this man, his character, the fragility of the regime over there. With the net result that our nation and its foreign policy was paralyzed for a full year when they took our hostages, and Jimmy Carter was mesmerized by the situation as he would feel mesmerized by a snake. Which led to a serious deterioration in the overall position of the United States in the world. Now, that all come out of a – I wouldn’t call it a conspiracy again – but certainly a concerted move on behalf of a small group of men in this country to maintain this despicable man, the shah, as our puppet in that part of the world.
HEFFNER: All right. Let’s use this phrase, “concerted effort.”
HEFFNER: All right? How far do you estimate concerted efforts take this nation and other nations of the world? At what point do you get off the ship and get off the ship and say, “Idea of a small group of men forming our destinies, creating our destinies, forget that. That is conspiratorial. That’s devil theory.” Do you get off that vehicle very early in the game, or do you stay on it quite awhile, as again your books seem to indicate you do?
ERDMAN: Well, I can only use examples. This book suggests that there is a body of men, and a body of opinion, developing in West Germany which is anti-American, nationalistic, and which is saying that what probably will happen is that, sometime in the future, if we don’t fundamentally change our foreign policy, is that the Russians and Americans are going to fight to the last jury. And we’ve got to get out in the middle here. Now, quickly. Now, again, that’s not a conspiracy; but it is, I believe, a fact. And the leader at the moment of this group of thinkers is Villebrandt. Villebrandt’s a wonderful man. Was a wonderful prime minister of Germany. But something’s changed Villebrandt. Villebrandt is now becoming almost violently anti-American. Well, he has a group around him and a circle, unfortunately, seems to be growing and growing. Spiegel, the most influential publication in Germany, the Time and Newsweek of Germany combined, has completely caught onto this message and is becoming almost virulently anti-American. And we’ve seen some of the small by-products. Two colonels and one of our generals almost got blown up at Ramstein Airbase. In Reisbaden, people were going through the streets and slashing the tires of any car that had an American license plate. Now, you might say Erdman’s trying to stir up trouble with Germany for whatever motivation. Well, I’m not. I’m really observing what is happening over there. I don’t like it.
HEFFNER: I’m not going to say Erdman’s trying to stir up trouble. I’m going to say Erdman, obviously, as you’ve suggested, recognizes a situation as he sees it and therefore his novel is used as a teaching device. Not a preaching device, but as a teaching device. So that each one of these books is used in that way. And that, I gather, is what you see as, if not the function of the novelist, at least your function.
ERDMAN: It used to be the original function of the novelist in the first half of the 19th Century in Europe, I’m told. I don’t know anything about literature. But I was told that by a professor one time. So, maybe by accident or by some coincidences, what I’ve tried to do here goes back to the original idea of a novel. To entertain and to inform.
HEFFNER: You entertain. It’s the information that concerns me.
HEFFNER: If it’s real, if it’s true, if it’s accurate. It’s mind-boggling. And when I introduced the program I talked about the cynicism, the critical, crucial critical point of view that you have. It is overwhelming. You might have referred at some point – maybe you did, in the books; I don’t think so – to Eisenhower’s warning about the military industrial complex. You take as smack into it…
ERDMAN: Of course.
HEFFNER: …here. And you seem to be very much concerned about it.
ERDMAN: Well then I share the conspiratorial view of the world with Eisenhower, you see. (Laughter) I don’t think he did. But he was afraid of that, because of the overwhelming financial and political power that the people who build the machines for the war machine have, that somehow even a president can lose control.
HEFFNER: How much of this is a function of you unhappy treatment at the hand of Swiss bankers, where they sit right smack in the middle of any banking activity in the world?
ERDMAN: Well, I don’t think so much, because I used to be one of them. So, I mean, if I was… Certainly, I get smart aleck where Switzerland is concerned because of that. But I don’t think I view bankers, whether Swiss or of any other nationality, you know, with a jaundiced eye merely because of what happened to me. I don’t think so. I just happened to be a graduate of the school of bankers by – not a willing graduate – and probably one of the few that was forced into, you know, writing novels about this subject rather unwillingly. I would never have dared to write a novel.
HEFFNER: What do you mean?
ERDMAN: Well, I’ve read novels, you know, almost one a day, it seems, since I was a teenager. And when you do that you build up an enormous respect, I think, for people who are able, have the gift to tell a story on paper. And I would never have had the audacity to try that, except in 1970 I ended up in a cell in Switzerland because of a speculation, rumor speculation. An unauthorized speculation in commodities at my bank. And I had written a couple of other books in the field of economics. And I though, well, to pass the time I’ll try another one. But there are no research facilities in Swiss jails like in most jails. So I thought, well, why not just to pass the time fool around and try to do something which, you know, probably is impossible: write a novel about your world. Which I tried, and it didn’t work very well, I must say. The first chapter – I counted it – I rewrote it 31 times, and it’s still probably no good. But at least it was a start. And went on from there and enjoyed myself once it got going.
HEFFNER: Traitor to his class.
ERDMAN: (Laughter) Yeah, that’s probably right, yeah.
HEFFNER: I remember now reading in one of the reviews of you most recent book – I think it was a review of it – you don’t dare fly in foggy times in Europe when your plane might be diverted to Switzerland. Is that a fact?
ERDMAN: That is a fact. The Swiss, and the Swiss government are not happy with me, not just because of what happened back then. But they don’t like some of the facts, you know, which I bring out about their government and some of their involvement in some very peculiar events.
HEFFNER: Were quite as many Americans as you indicated, prominent Americans, if not on the payroll of foreign influences, at least the recipients of the benevolence, the beneficence of foreign leaders? Those who wanted Americans to function in one way or another, or wanted to turn American public opinion in one way or another? There seems to be the implication here that…
ERDMAN: There are some. I mean, I used an example of how some of our gods were not so godly in nature. January, 1942, Corigador. And the president of the Philippines, Kizon, was holed up on that island. And the Japanese were advancing up to the top peninsula. Mr. Kizon, understandably, wanted to get out of there. Mr. MacArthur kept stalling. Mr. Kizon sent a wire to Chase Manhattan in New York on January 3rd of that year to transfer $500,000 from the Philippine bank account, governmental bank account at Chase, to Mr. MacArthur’s personal bank account at Chase. On the 19th of January, 42, Mr. MacArthur, General MacArthur, got a wire from Chase confirming that the transfer had been made. The next day, Mr. Kizon was put on an American submarine for Australia.
HEFFNER: You obviously believe that it’s the dollar that makes the world go around.
HEFFNER: Or the mark, or the shilling, or the pound?
ERDMAN: Why did MacArthur do that? I don’t know. He did it.
HEFFNER: But you do believe that it is the almighty dollar that makes the world go around, isn’t it? Don’t you?
ERDMAN: To a very substantial degree, I think so. Yeah, I think so.
HEFFNER: What camp does that put you in, if any, in political economic terms?
ERDMAN: None. (Laughter) I mean, economists, by definition, money makes their world go around, doesn’t it? It does not put me… I’m not about to become a member of the clergy, like my father, although I think it’s also, in modern theology, there’s a rather major recognition of the fact that money is important in this world.
HEFFNER: Well, I mean, we’ve worshipped, it’s not only in recent times that we’ve worshipped that dollar. But again, the cynical or accurate, realistic – call it what you will – message here, the theme that runs through it, is that that dollar, or that pound, or that mark, is going to determine how we move in the most important political, geopolitical, military activities of our times.
ERDMAN: I suspect that is unfortunately rather true. Yeah.
HEFFNER: Then where does that put you in terms of, let’s say, an acceptance or rejection of Marxian doctrine?
ERDMAN: Well, Marxian doctrine does not say that. What Marx, the fundamental doctrine of Marxism is that there is a historical imperative that drives us for whatever reason in the direction that we are going. Not greed. Not the profit motive; quite the opposite. So it’s nothing to do with Marxism.
HEFFNER: But in an industrial society, in a capitalist society, the drive for profit…
HEFFNER: …which you come back to time and time again in these books…
HEFFNER: …is either going to bolster or tear down the fabric of society.
ERDMAN: We are now, what is the fundamental, the fundament of Reagan economics is the trickle-down theory. Whether you like it or not. What does that mean? It means that corporations have to make enough profits so that they can grow, and therefore reinvest, create new growth, so that sufficient is left over to trickle down and help the poor people. That’s Reaganomics.
HEFFNER: Is that going to be the subject of you next novel?
ERDMAN: (Laughter) I don’t think so, no. I don’t think that would be very interesting.
HEFFNER: In the 30 seconds left, what is going to be the subject of you next novel?
ERDMAN: The gambling industry. I think the people who run the gambling industry, the most profitable industry in the world, the one with the greatest cash flow. And one that the story dominates the entertainment business in the United States. It’s a novel about a man who runs the biggest gambling empire in the world.
HEFFNER: My gosh, if you do to the gamblers what you’ve done to the bankers, they’ve got to watch out. Thanks very much for joining me today, Paul Erdman.
ERDMAN: A pleasure.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again here on The Open Mind. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”