Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States
The Untold History of the United States
By David Swanson
November 12, 2012 “Information Clearing House” - Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick have produced a phenomenally great book of U.S. history, and an accompanying television series premiering on Showtime on Monday. Having just read half the book and having watched an advance copy of the first episode, my conclusion is that the book is dramatically better than the TV show, but that both are at the top of what’s available in their respective genres.
The Untold History of the United States is not people’s history in the sense of telling the stories of popular movements. This is very much top-down history dominated by key figures in power. But it is honest history that tears through myths and presents a reality not expected by most Americans — and backs it up with well-documented facts.
This is a history that focuses on foreign policy, and — at least in the book — begins with World War I. No book can include everything one might have liked to see included, but this one is a terrific sampling of things I’ve wished were told more often and things I never knew before.
Some will call it a depressing tale lacking “all the good things the United States has done too.” I call it a refreshingly honest tale aimed at improving our conduct going forward. I also come away with a deep sense of gratitude that — for the moment anyway — our society is still around at all.
After considering the steps that certain presidents and scientists have taken to destroy life as we know it, one has to be amazed we’re still here. Truman and Eisenhower figure prominently, and I believe that I have found in these authors a couple of men who might just agree with me that Harry Truman is the worst president we’ve ever seen. They certainly make that case quite powerfully.
The book is excellent on World War I and on the New Deal, as well as on forbidden topics like the Wall Street Putsch of 1934 or the Nye Committee hearings on war profiteering. The section on the dropping of the nuclear bombs on Japan is the best I’ve seen.
The history of the Cold War and who started it is invaluable. The authors take on McCarthyism, the Eisenhower presidency, the Mossadeq overthrow, the Guzman overthrow, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and numerous other topics with great skill and insight — and careful research.
The Kennedy assassination, which Stone has famously dramatized on film before, gets a mere two paragraphs. The discussion of the formation of Israel leaves much to be desired, but at least it’s there. The Korean War account is incomplete to say the least, as is the discussion of moves to impeach Truman — for which there were motives the authors don’t touch on. But this is quibbling. I would love for everyone to read this book, and I’ll read the second half on Monday.
The book’s take on World War II is far superior to that of the television show’s first episode. The episodes don’t line up with the chapters, and so — for whatever reason — the TV viewers begin in World War II, not World War I.
The book has more useful material than the film and is lacking some material the film ought to have left out too. The authors are very much in favor of U.S. entry into the war and wish it had come earlier. They claim that Pearl Harbor was a surprise and reject claims that it was “abetted” by the U.S. government. But who claims that?
Many have well documented that it was expected and in a certain sense desired by the Roosevelt White House. But Stone and Kuznick’s account makes crystal clear Roosevelt’s desire for some such war-beginning incident, and their general account of the war is miles above any taught in any U.S. school I’ve ever seen. (Kuznick teaches at American University, so students might consider enrolling there.)
The TV episode on WWII lacks background and context that the book provides in various chapters. The bulk of it is standard history of supposed forces at work and intentions acted on. The “untold” bits include Truman’s racist murderousness, and a particular focus on the starring role the Soviet Union played in “winning” the war.
If Episode I serves to ease viewers into the fact-based reality being presented in “The Untold History,” I’m all for it. I suspect, however, that some of the other episodes that I haven’t yet had time to watch will be far more engaging and exciting, as well as controversial — or because controversial.
The episode on the dropping of the nuclear bombs might be the one to start your viewing with. Or, if you really want to take my strongest advice: read the book!
here is the washington post article
‘Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States’: Facts through a new lens
By Ann Hornaday, Published: November 12
It’s somehow appropriate that Oliver Stone has chosen a hotel just a few blocks from the Agriculture Department to talk about his new project. “Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States,” a documentary series that debuts Monday on Showtime, focuses on Henry A. Wallace — former agriculture and commerce secretary, as well as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vice president — as its protagonist over the first three installments, which suggest that the Midwestern statesman would have put America on a radically different trajectory had his path to the presidency not been blocked by Democratic Party leaders in 1944.
Stone’s interest in Wallace was sparked during a 1996 visit to American University, where history professor and “Untold History” co-writer Peter Kuznick was teaching a course called “Oliver Stone’s America.” At dinner that night, Kuznick “was talking about the atomic bomb and how it got started and the scientists and Henry Wallace,” Stone recalled Friday, “but I wasn’t in the mood to take on the establishment again, because ‘Nixon’ had not done as well commercially as I had hoped. That was a big effort, it had wiped me out. But [the Wallace episode] was a dark and difficult story, really good. It stayed with me.” Ten years later, Stone visited Kuznick’s class again. “I said, ‘Look, I can’t get that story out of my mind. Let’s do a documentary, an hour or an hour and a half.’ And unfortunately, my eyes were bigger than my stomach.”
“Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States” runs over 10 one-hour episodes, beginning in World War II and continuing through the Obama administration. With newsreel footage, copious research and Stone’s own understated narration, “Untold History” revisits familiar events, but through an unapologetically leftist lens. While “Untold History” is grounded in indisputable fact, some of its contentions will certainly give conservatives and even moderate liberals pause, including its championing of Wallace, who has been castigated in recent years for what critics see as an appeasing attitude toward Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and surrounding himself with communists.
Stone grows visibly frustrated when considering these naysayers. “Do you want to deal with it academically?” he asks Kuznick. “I would deal with it emotionally. You go first.”
Kuznick jumps in. “There are times you can say he’s a little naive about Stalin — like most Americans, he didn’t realize the depth of Stalin’s brutality, and I think that’s a fair criticism,” he says. “But . . . in terms of his view of the world, and in terms of trying to change the world for the better, I think he was absolutely a visionary. What makes him different is that he could see what was happening in the world through Russian eyes, through Chinese eyes, where most Americans can only see the world through U.S. eyes.”
If “Untold History” makes a plea, it’s for American viewers to reassess that point of view and to question some of our most cherished assumptions, from how World War II was won (hint: the Soviets deserve far more credit than the A-bomb) to the notion of American exceptionalism itself. Stone, who was born in 1946 and fought in Vietnam, noted that “Untold History” spans his own lifetime, during which his personal changes largely mirrored those taking place in the country around him.
“You have to realize, I was sleepwalking until about 1968,” he said. “And then from ’68 to ’79, it was a period of waking up, but not completely. Then in the ’80s, again [I was] more exposed to the world [with] more travel. And by the time I met Peter, I was really finally learning on a deeper level than I’d ever learned before. It feels good, in that I feel that my consciousness is expanding, but sometimes to my detriment. . . . You’d like to believe in the magnanimity of our leaders and the myth of American goodness.”
In many ways, “Untold History” encapsulates the long-standing argument between security interests and humanist ideals that defines postwar American policy, with Stone and Kuznick coming down firmly on the side of a more global, less solipsistic national posture. When asked what he would do about Iran and nuclear weapons, for example, or the plight of a Pakistani teenager shot by Islamic fundamentalists for supporting girls’ education, Stone spells it out. “L-A-W,” he says. “International law. Because there has to be a consensus of nations. Roosevelt’s ideal was that the U.N. can work, and it still does. . . . I believe in national sovereignty, I’m an old-fashioned guy. But I would take the judgment of 185 nations. They have a better sense of the world than we do by ourselves. So let’s make [the U.N.] work as a council of nations. It’s hard to do, but it can be done.”
It goes without saying that “Untold History” won’t end up on John Bolton’s 10-best list of the year. But in hewing faithfully to the facts — albeit within a dramatically different framework than most Americans are accustomed to — Stone can’t be accused of the kind of speculation and expressive interpretation that upset so many viewers of “JFK,” his 1991 film about the assassination of John F. Kennedy that he made as a “counter-myth” to the Warren Commission.
Kuznick notes that “Oliver is often dismissed or denigrated as a conspiracy-monger. . . . What this project can do is show people what a serious thinker he actually is.”
If Stone doesn’t see the world in terms of conspiracies, there’s no doubt that he does see it in terms of unseen forces — political, corporate, psychological — that shape our society in ways we can’t know, at least until he pulls back the veil, whether in presidential dramas such as “Nixon” and “W.” or documentaries such as “Comandante,” about Fidel Castro, or “South of the Border,” about South and Central America. He’s happy that Barack Obama was reelected, he says, but he’s profoundly concerned about the 44th president’s embrace of electronic warfare and an approach to foreign relations that, in Stone’s view, is far too militaristic.
The filmmaker noted that in the 750-page companion book to the “Untold History” series he co-wrote with Kuznick, the chapter about Obama is subtitled “Managing a Wounded Empire.” “I think he’s a good manager of that,” he says, “but I don’t expect anything.” Then again, he added upon reflection, “Robert Kennedy was prosecuting [with Joseph] McCarthy, and look where he ended up.”
“Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States” airs Monday at 8 p.m. on Showtime.
© The Washington Post Company