I came across this quote in the review of a biography of Gore Vidal that was published in the latest issue of The Economist:

Vidal’s sympathy for Timothy McVeigh, responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, may be hard to accept, but far fewer eyebrows will today be raised by his opposition to the Vietnam war (hence the clashes with Buckley), his scorn for Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush, his hostility to American policy in the Middle East, or even his view that America is an empire always in search of an enemy (following the demise of the Soviet Union, “one billion Muslims and the Arabs in particular” would, he said, “make a fine new evil empire to oppose”).

I am not concerned here with whether or not one should share such views but with the internal consistency of one of its elements. Did Vidal offer any arguments as to why an empire would always be in search of an enemy? Why would it have to do that (again, according to Vidal)?

  • Seems as though Vidal might be a bit biased. It's quite possible to see a US that would quite happily leave the world alone if people would just quit attacking it. E.g, Japan & Pearl Harbor, USSR/China and global communism, Muslim jihadists attacking the "Great Satan", &c.
    – jamesqf
    Jan 15, 2018 at 20:52

1 Answer 1


Depends on the empire. Some things are generic. Some are specific (for example, neither Roman need to get more slaves and gold; nor some Mexica Empire's need for more human sacrifices out of war prisoners, are at all applicable to British Empire, or Vidal-imagined "American Empire").

Some of the more generic benefits are:

  • Domestic benefits - political

    Having an armed conflict against an external enemy serves three immediate domestic political benefits:

    1. People tend to unite, and be more supportive of government in such a case.

      This is especially true in more authoritarian states (one reason why I'm heavily skeptical of Vidal's ideas visavi USA - American polity was more dis-united and fractured by US's foreign adventures than united, ever since Vietnam. Or for that matter, Cuba and Philippines and Teddy R's jingoism and its critics).

    2. Any economic (or otherwise) internal issues and difficulties can be blamed on a conflict.

    3. Any domestic undesirables/opposition can be effectively undermined by political association with (real or made up) - or totally neutralized by legal association with (again, real or made up) - the enemy.

  • Domestic benefits - economic

    War is good for economy. Sad but true, ESPECIALLY for an empire that doesn't suffer the negative externalities of war as much in the form of destruction on its soil.

    • Military spending improves the economy (See aftermath of both WWI and WWII for USA),

    • Significantly boosts R&D which has knock-on effects later on. (significant example)

    • Other effects are more-productive populace (people who went through either military training or worked for defense are generally an "upgrade").

    • Increase in territory and population is generally good for economy. Rome (as is often the case when discussing empires) is a good poster boy here - their economy and history truly was an example of the whole being greater than the parts. Ditto for British Empire.

  • Foreign benefits - access to markets

    Winning over an opponent tends to open their markets to you, improving trade. Opium Wars are one of the typical examples given.

  • Foreign benefits - access to resources

    The ur-example is of course Spain and its extraction of precious metals out of colonies.

  • Geopolitical benefits - increase in defenses

    • Increase territory, to provide defensive depth. This is the case with both Han China and Russia (ref: any Stratfor publication on the topic).

    • Increase in population. At its height, most of Rome's legions weren't from Italy - they were from conquered territory. For that matter, same applied to British Empire's ground-pounding forces in WWI, where BEF was a minor-sized force and most of the manpower came from Ireland, Canada, Australia, India etc....

  • Accidents of geopolitics

    Well, "accidents" are less in terms of it accidentally happening, and more in terms of conflicts arising even absent the empire's desire for them, merely from conflicting geopolitical forces and desires.

    A good example is USA's WWII participation. USA really didn't want or need a fight with Japan. However, Nippon's designs on Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere put its interests in direct conflict with USA. Similar with America-Spanish war over Cuba.

    • I have recently heard a rather well-supported theory that this is largely how Roman empire grew. They had an attacking barbarian enemy at the border. In the effort to secure the empire, they would attack and conquer that enemy. Then... surprisingly, that barbarian enemy's neighbour would be at the border and start attacking the Rome in turn. Lather, rinse, repeat till you hit British Isles.

More special case benefits:

  • A noted, Mexica Empire had a specific religion which required human sacrifices to War God (Danielle Bolelli's recent History on Fire podcast had several excellent episodes on Cortez and the Spanish conquest of Mexica empire, for those not in the mood for more scholarly history books on the topic; and it covered pre-Cortez Mexica pretty well).

  • In ancient times, war allowed you to take slaves. This was very clear in Rome's example.

  • I think the last bullet about slaves fits in the "Foreign benefits - access to resources" section. Probably the Mexica Empire's quest for victims to be sacrified too.
    – Evargalo
    Jan 15, 2018 at 15:54

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