The De-Mythologized History of the United States

Review of the Showtime television series “Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States”

(Note, this review was written after five of the ten episodes in the series had aired. Tonight’s episode, at 8 pm eastern time on Showtime is the 9th in the series.)

–Kevin Martin

What if, in the summer of 1945, former progressive prairie populist Vice President Henry Wallace had been president instead of Harry Truman?  Wallace likely would have continued as Vice President, and thus succeeded President Franklin Delano Roosevelt upon his death, if not for some serious chicanery by party bosses, taking advantage of the gravely ill Roosevelt’s absence, at the Democratic Convention in Chicago which installed Truman as the Vice Presidential candidate over the incumbent Wallace.

Would Wallace, a noted “dove” and advocate of global governance and peaceful policies, have ordered the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had he been president?  Maybe so, as there was so much investment and momentum behind the Manhattan Project.  But perhaps President Roosevelt, who held Wallace in higher regard than he did Truman, would have told Wallace about the Bomb sooner, as opposed to the way Truman was kept in the dark about the existence of the Manhattan Project (he knew nothing of it until he became president after Roosevelt’s death). Regardless, Wallace, as president, might have rallied support from the scientists and generals who did not support dropping the Bomb on Japan. Wallace might have been more patient about the clear but halting signals that Japan was about to surrender, and would likely have rejected the idea of “demonstrating” the Bomb’s unprecedented lethality in order to impress our Soviet ally of our military superiority, which many historians agree was the “real reason” behind the bombings.

Is this idle parlor game historical “what-ifing?” Oliver Stone doesn’t think so. The three-time Oscar winner wants you to think about these paths not taken, while also revealing some little known or underemphasized paths that were taken as he deconstructs U.S. post-War mythology in his ten part television series on Showtime, “Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States.” The series, narrated by Stone, airs one hour episodes on Monday nights at 8:00 pm eastern, with several rebroadcasts on Showtime channels during the week. The first five episodes have taken us from World War II through the early Cold War period of the fifties and early sixties, with five more shows to go. The next episode will focus on John F. Kennedy’s presidency.

The Showtime series is accompanied by a 750 page book co-authored by Stone and American University Professor of History Peter Kuznick, who also shares a writing credit on the TV series with Stone and Matt Graham. (Disclosure – Peter Kuznick, who also founded and directs the University’s Nuclear Studies Institute, is a colleague and friend of this reviewer.)

While it is certainly interesting and stimulating, Oliver Stone is not primarily interested in thought experiments about history. He’s a great story teller, and he aims to peel back the fascinating layers of history from a perspective that deconstructs or refutes many American myths. Such a project will no doubt challenge some viewers (and I’m sure it’s meant to!).

Take for instance the Soviet peoples’ role in defeating Nazi Germany, in which the over 20 million people died. Why is this undisputed fact so neglected in the West in favor of mostly uncritical worship of Churchill, Roosevelt, Eisenhower and MacArthur? Neither Soviet dictator Jozef Stalin’s atrocities nor the Cold War that ensued can diminish the centrality of the Soviet peoples’ sacrifice and heroism in absorbing, outlasting and ultimately defeating Adolf Hitler’s relentless, massive assault. This is especially true as the Western allies did so little throughout most of the war to help the Soviet Union.

Or the decision to drop the Bomb (that and the ensuing, mad nuclear arms race receive a lot of attention in the series). Why is this issue still so divisive and why does it provoke such defensiveness when the historical record is clear? The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings were unnecessary; an exhausted and thoroughly fire-bombed Japan, fearing imminent Soviet entry into the Pacific war, would have surrendered under terms nearly identical to those obtained after the bombs were dropped. If the U.S. had been more patient and more interested in diplomacy rather than intimidating Stalin with this horrific new weapon, the atomic threshold needn’t have been crossed and over 200,000 Japanese lives would have been spared.

The most recent episode of “Untold History,” covering Dwight D. Eisenhower’s two terms in the White House, was quite the whirlwind. Despite the image of the 1950s as ho hum, a lot was going on! The civil rights movement, the assault on the Bill of Rights by J. Edgar Hoover, Joseph McCarthy and friends, the U.S. support of or participation in overthrowing the governments of Iran, Guatemala and Congo (and later Indonesia), the rise of the Non-Aligned Movement and the targeting of many of its leaders by the CIA, and the absurd build-up of nuclear weapons in “peacetime” all rocked the 50s and early 60s. The episode reminded me of books I’ve read on many of these events, and stimulated me to go deeper into some I dimly recall or know very little about.

Stone certainly wants to tell an alternative, “peoples history” in the proud tradition of Howard Zinn and Studs Terkel, but he doesn’t completely abjure the “great man” theory of history. The series paints rich portraits of some of the era’s seminal and neglected figures, such as Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, Wallace, Truman, Eisenhower and George C. Marshall. Stone and Kuznick were particularly interested in fleshing out Ike, exploring much more complex contradictions than the aloof, reluctant politician caricature which is too often the norm in his biographical treatments.

While the ’50s are remembered by many (and here I believe this refers to the dominant, white, Anglo-Saxon cultural view) as a time of peace and prosperity, with the huge expansion of the American middle class, the seemingly immovable foundations of the cancerous U.S. national security state were laid, or certainly cemented. Stone notes the irony of Ike’s “military industrial complex” warning in his farewell address, as he had done more than anyone to enable the growth of the MIC and the spying on Americans. Eisenhower himself said he left a “legacy of ashes” to his successor.

Under Ike, the nuclear weapons enterprise expanded from 1000 to 22,000 nuclear warheads (most far more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb) as well as the “triad” of delivery systems (bombers, land-based missiles and submarine-based missiles) and a sprawling, secretive, environmentally devastating nuclear weapons production complex. He also made it common US policy to  threaten nuclear attacks (on at least four occasions in his presidency, over Korea, the Formosa Straits, the Suez Crisis and the escalation of tensions over the Chinese islands of Quemoy/Matsu).

All Ike’s successors have considered or threatened to use nuclear weapons (including our Nobel Peace Prize winning incumbent, who continues to insist “all options are on the table” regarding concerns over Iran’s nuclear program).  Further, Eisenhower delegated authority to launch nukes to field commanders, who in turn did so to lower level officers, resulting in dozens of “fingers on the trigger.” Ike authorized a the development of a plan to nuke China and the USSR, which would have killed an estimated 600 million people and initiated a nuclear winter that might have ended life on the planet.

Again in the “roads not taken” department, Stone persuasively argues Ike could have put the world on a different path, as his popularity and military bona fides were so strong that nobody could have questioned his patriotism or devotion to national security, and the Soviet leadership was undergoing reforms and was ready, even eager, for a more peaceful relationship with the U.S. and the West. While Eisenhower is credited with avoiding war with the Soviet Union, he put the world on a dangerous path to possible annihilation, and presided over the “most gargantuan expansion of military power in human history.”

The series and the book, coming as they do at an important time politically (in the short run, Obama’s second term, in the broader view, the beginning of the end of the American Empire), also stimulate thinking as to what might be the “Future Untold History of the United States.” Fortunately, independent media now dig up a lot of dirt on the national security state, but we really don’t know what we don’t know, do we, regarding military actions being carried out in secret (but with our tax dollars)?  And then there’s the reality that most Americans pay scant attention to military and foreign policy.  

Of course, what we do know about the continuing accumulation of imperial presidential power under the allegedly “liberal” Barack Obama (drone strikes, kill lists, spying on U.S. citizens and other threats to our civil liberties under the guise of “national security”) is bad enough.

My guess is Oliver Stone, Peter Kuznick and company will be glad if their book and series stimulate critical thinking, and action, about the present, putting to good use lessons learned (at least partly thanks to their work) from our past.

Kevin Martin has served as Executive Director of Peace Action and Peace Action Education Fund since September 4, 2001, and has worked with the organization in various capacities since 1985. Peace Action is the country’s largest peace and disarmament organization with 90,000 members nationwide. www.peace-action.org

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