a journal of modern society & culture

Review Essay: Oliver Stone’s America

Book Reviewed: Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, The Untold History of the United States (Gallery, 2012).

 

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” William Faulkner was correct. For too long history’s outcasts and victims’ were stripped of their pasts and denied a voice for the future. The task of the historian is to look backwards so we in the present receive the tools to forge a progressive future. Much of American history is purely celebratory. While frequently “liberal,” it is rarely consistently revisionist so as to lead to a systemic critique of ballyhooed American exceptionalism. American historians are rare who seek a new past via exposing the enveloping malevolence of the American experience. Howard Zinn in his People’s History of the United States created a new past in which a comprehensive history from the invasion of Columbus through the 9/11 attacks finally becomes accessible. This work, while perhaps not as “scholarly” as his monographs such as LaGuardia in Congress, Postwar America: 1945-1971 and New Deal Thought, it remains in many respects his most important publication. It hit critical mass by becoming a hot item flying off the shelves of corporate bookstores and through online purchases. People’s History is one of the most significant works of history to appear in the last 100 years. (Full disclosure requires I indicate Professor Zinn was my advisor and political science instructor in college.)

Oliver Stone and coauthor Peter Kuznick, an American historian, in their mammoth 750-page The Untold History of the United States, the print version of the ten-episode Showtime 2012 series, reflect the potent influence of the Zinn-revisionist critique. While it falls somewhat short of the iconic importance and scholarly quality of People’s History, it most certainly merits being mentioned as emblematic of that genre and for continuing a powerful revisionism that contests the hagiography of an American past actually infected with slavery, genocide, nationalism, racism, colonialism, imperialism and a limited welfare state that barely restrained capitalism. This book, like the series, is a bold, relentless and important historiographical achievement.

The work is essentially a foreign-policy history of the United States from McKinley to Obama. While there is some attention to economic disparity, the narrative emphasizes war, peace and the nuclear shadow hovering over humankind. Unlike Zinn, it focuses through the lens of the standard presidential synthesis: chapters are frequently named after presidents. Executive actions are emphasized. Government officials and inside-the-beltway journalists and the ever-present sources of the New York Times and Washington Post dominate the work. Social history with its emphasis on race, class and gender is somewhat neglected: political history rules. Zinn always included the history of a particular soldier, peace activist, feminist, coal miner, sharecropper and labor organizer in his accounts.

Untold History tells the history of policy from the perspective (though not the viewpoints) of those wielding power. Untold History thereby overlooks the buried history of the underside of America. Their sources are secondary, but often overlooked, ones. Stone and Kuznick consult relatively few primary sources to undergird their claim of discovering a new American past, but a general audience indeed might well find this history new and challenging. Certainly, Stone has the capacity to reach a wider audience than a revisionist historian publishing in a small circulation journal or in an academic press that few read other than specialists in the discipline. Their secondary sources, however, are impressively broad, current, and so exhaustive that even college professors teaching American foreign relations and American history would find it extremely valuable for course adoption.

Most historians, not to mention PBS, consider Harry S. Truman one of America’s greatest presidents. Stone and Kuznick refuse to follow the party line and brilliantly assess Truman as poorly prepared for becoming an accidental president who ruthlessly and unnecessarily used the atomic bomb at the end of World War II against a defeated and defenseless Japan. The Japanese desperately were seeking mediation through the Soviet Union in mid-1945 for a conditional surrender, based on allowing retention of its sacred emperor (which was allowed after the atom bombings and, indeed, after the Soviets kept their promise to Roosevelt and Churchill to enter the war against Japan). The authors appropriately recognize Stalinist Russia’s leading role in the defeat of Germany. However, Truman’s aggressive and arrogant ‘diplomacy’ with the Soviets soon unraveled the wartime alliance and gratuitously aggravated tensions, leading to an avoidable Cold War and the reprehensible nuclear arms race.

One of the book’s great achievements is its rescuing Vice President Henry A. Wallace from historical exile. With captivating prose and carefully selected documents, Wallace assumes a justified centrality, rarely seen in historiography, as the most articulate spokesperson for international peace and the great dissenter from Cold War confrontation. Had Franklin Roosevelt, who died on April 12, 1945, defied the warmongers and retained Wallace as his vice-presidential running mate in 1944, the air-burst fission weapons might not have exploded over the skies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, the Cold War might not have occurred and a significantly more cooperative world order might have emerged after the war of so many incinerated cities. Truman instead soon ditched Wallace, his secretary of commerce, for publicly challenging the hawkish, unilateralist, and anti-Soviet policies of Secretary of State James Byrnes as well as the cynical asymmetrical (and so unworkable) Baruch Plan arms-control proposal. The Soviet Union was supposed to eliminate any potential nuclear materials and allow inspections while the U.S. would retain its atomic monopoly until after such denuclearization occurred. Just trust us. This particular tragedy of American diplomacy led to the Soviet refusal to participate in the arms-control charade, and was followed with a successful atomic-bomb test in 1949.

Oliver Stone’s movie JFK (1991) won two Academy Awards. Yet it was lousy history for advancing the conspiratorial myth that President John Kennedy was assassinated because of his alleged decision to end the Vietnam War. While Kuznick presumably wrote this book, while Stone directed and narrated the Showtime history series, he was likely responsible for qualifying JFK’s storyline here: “The debate over Kennedy’s true intentions in Vietnam has . . . been quite acrimonious. Kennedy’s own contradictory statements . . . have added to the confusion.” (315) Nevertheless, Untold History persists in pursuing this tale despite the historical evidence being unable to sustain it. They name seven senior officials including Robert Kennedy, Robert McNamara, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and Ted Sorenson, who provided “confirmation of Kennedy’s intention to withdraw” even without victory over the NLF and North Vietnamese military forces. (316) Stone-Kuznick allege that Kennedy would have ended American military involvement after the 1964 election and in less than eight weeks “have the troops out of Vietnam by 1965.” (326-327) Yet there is no speech, tape recording, memorandum, diary entry or any credible primary source – other than these officials testimony – that I am aware of to sustain such a view.

Historians may speculate away (so long as they label it as such) but historical facts must be given primacy when they undermine a thesis. Noam Chomsky’s Rethinking Camelot: JFK, the Vietnam War, and US Political Culture chronicles the Kennedy War in Vietnam and its steady escalation from 1961 to 1963 and challenges the Stone JFK argument. While Kennedy may have toyed with the idea of a 1,000 troop withdrawal, there is no evidence, in my view, of a decision to leave the war. It is impossible to prove a negative – Kennedy would not have ended the war – but it is possible to demand solid evidence from Kennedy partisans that wished to distance their hero from the quagmire and mass murder of the Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon presidencies. During the thousand days of the Kennedy administration, the numbers of troops in Vietnam increased from 685 to 16,300. They awarded the first Purple Hearts and seventy-eight “advisors” died. Special Forces were introduced and Kennedy launched direct combat operations with helicopter gunships perpetrating carnage in South Vietnam. Untold History does affirm Kennedy’s “involvement” in the assassination of South Vietnam’s dictator President Ngo Dinh Diem on November 1, 1963, a mere twenty-one days before JFK’s own assassination. They avoid the conclusion that the Kennedy administration was taking nation building to a new level of interference in the internal affairs of South Vietnam. Fifty years after the assassination of JFK the nasty facts remain that he set in motion an Americanization of the Vietnam War that Johnson and Nixon would criminally extend to genocidal proportions in the widowed lands of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

Untold History does avoid what I call the progressive blind spot, by which I refer to treatments of the Arab-Israel conflict deviating from progressive revisionism and adhering to unquestioning support of Israel. The writing on the Palestinians is balanced. The creation of the State of Israel in 1948 led to Arab “bitterness” and war over unresolved issues. They describe the “Palestinian victims of Israel policy.” (216) Illegal Jewish emigration to Palestine after the war is noted and the Irgun is aptly depicted as a “terrorist organization” for its attacks on the King David Hotel and other assets during the British Mandate. (217) Ignoring the taboo on public discussion of Israel’s nuclear status, they list nations in the Middle East and Southwest Asia that possess weapons of mass destruction, including Israel’s possession of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. (519) The Obama administration does not escape the wrath of the authors for its drone attacks, kill lists and targeted assassinations either. They criticize Dennis Ross, a Middle East advisor, for his role in derailing Special Envoy George Mitchell’s proposals for a diplomatic surge to effectuate a peace agreement and end the illegal and brutal Israel settlement policy in the West Bank. An Israel Lobby that sometimes favors Israel over the national security interests of the United States is described as having “inordinate influence in the United States.” (217)

The Senate recently confirmed former Nebraska Republican Senator Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense. President Obama’s submission of the nomination received strident opposition from Republicans such as xenophobic militants John McCain and Lindsey Graham. They deeply resented his evolving independent position on Israel’s colonization of the Palestinians, the elective, unjust war in Iraq, and the aggressive posture against Iran’s nuclear program. Untold History includes Senator Hagel in its honor role of those politicians who opposed the Iraq invasion in 2003, even if it’s a slight stretch. Hagel ultimately voted for authorization to use force in October, 2002, but it was not without considerable turmoil and revulsion regarding the looming conflict:

It is interesting to me that many of those who want to rush this country into war and think it would be so quick and easy don’t know anything about war. They come at if from an intellectual perspective versus having sat in jungles or foxholes and watched their friends get their heads blown off. (523)

The so-called war on terror’s tactics of torture and other criminal use of violence is thoroughly documented here. Their blistering indictment of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney for “leaving the countries in shambles, its economy collapsing and its international reputation at an all time low,” (499) is substantiated throughout their account of the Bush wars, the launching of the Great Recession, growing militarization and increasing domestic oppression by the national security state.

Unfortunately errors, typos and careless editing tarnish this important and daring work. The Triple Entente between Great Britain, Russia and France was one of the secret alliances that destabilized prewar Europe in 1914. Despite the word “triple,” Stone and Kuznick incorrectly include Japan and Italy which later joined the “Allies” during the Great War (4). While the Supreme Court reversed through judicial review many New Deal programs such as the National Industrial Recovery Act (NRA) and first Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA), the authors claim it was “vetoing” legislative enactments. (62) Only the president can veto acts of Congress. Their description of US concentration camps during World War II is stellar. They are correct in claiming that Hirabayahsi v. US (1943) did not specifically affirm the right of detention of Japanese-American citizens during the war but seem unaware of Korematsu v. US (1944) that explicitly found there was constitutional protection of such racist injustice during wartime. (156)

My own article, “False Dissenters: Manhattan Project Scientists and the Use of the Atomic Bomb,” finally laid to rest the question of the number of scientists in 1945 at the Metallurgical Laboratory (MetLab) at the University of Chicago and Clinton laboratory (Oak Ridge, Tennessee) who signed petitions opposing use of the atomic bombs in July 1945.1 Eighty-eight scientists signed petitions to Truman and not 155 (161). Stone repeats an error in Showtime episode 3, “The Bomb.” The Leo Szilard-authored petitions described nuclear weapons as immoral but still supported conditional use of the new weapon against Japan. Seventy scientists wanted Truman to first guarantee Japan an ambiguous “peaceful pursuits in their homeland” and if a Japanese surrender were not forthcoming, then use the bomb. Eighteen scientists even demanded an atomic-bomb warning prior to attack. To exaggerate the number of signatories adds to the erroneous assumption that the Manhattan Project’s laboratories were overflowing with anti-nuclear scientists. Many had reservations. Few advocated a no-use policy of the dreadful fission bomb.

A front page New York Times article appeared on 11 July 1945 and not on 1 July that Bess Truman, the president’s spouse, participated in sending books to war-torn Russia. (note 22, 637) I doubt they were in Russian! Stone and Kuznick claim Alexander Butterfield’s revelation of Nixon’s secret tapes led to his impeachment. (389-390) Nixon resigned during Watergate prior to formal impeachment. President Carter’s obsequious Tehran-based New Year’s Eve party with the Shah of Iran, who Carter ironically described as “an island of stability,” was 31 December 1977, not 1978 (411). They quote Peter Bourne, a Carter campaign official, on the linkage between the Trilateral Commission and Carter’s 1976 presidential quest and source it on p. 551 of Zinn, People’s History. (402, note 33, 675) No such quotation appears in Zinn.

Per Capita Wealth in 2000 for the United States and Japan appears astonishingly as $143,727 and $180,837 respectively! (546) US per capita income was about $30,000 and Japan’s GDP per capita was $25,000 in 2000. One of the victims of American terrorism with over eighty waterboardings was Abu Zubaydah, an alleged Al Qaeda leader, who has been a prisoner for eleven years of which nearly seven have been spent at America’s Stalinesque Gulag Guantánamo. In a single paragraph his name appears six times including three as “Zubaida.” (509-510)  They unfortunately rely at times on historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s works. Stone and Kuznick claim Obama’s launching of his presidency was guided by his reliance on Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. Maybe so but Goodwin, a frequent guest on “Meet the Press,” MSNBC and CNN, is an accused plagiarist who apparently paid hush money to silence the victim of an egregious, unethical theft of another’s work. Goodwin’s popular The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys was largely filched from Lynne McTaggart’s, Kathleen Kennedy: Her Life and Times. The disgraced historian, who received her Ph.D. from Harvard, was removed as a commentator on PBS and expelled from Harvard’s board of overseers. She resigned from the board at Columbia University that awards the Pulitzer Prizes. Readers, including Stone and Kuznick, should be wary of the authenticity despite her crowning as putative sage of the American presidency.

Still, in this flawed but important work of history, Stone and Kuznick present an essential work on the history of American foreign policy. It merits a wide audience and hopefully will stimulate creative and purposeful dialogue among a variety of publics that are dissatisfied with the American Empire. The book contains a rousing investigative vitality that advances the search for the truth and the people’s right to challenge the merchants of death and empire.

Notes 

1. American Diplomacy, 2001 http://www.unc.edu/depts/diplomat/archives_roll/2001_03-06/kirstein_manhattan/kirstein_manhattan.html

 

Peter N. Kirstein is professor of history at St. Xavier University and Vice President of the American Association of University Professors (Illinois).

 

Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Facebook