[The Anti-Economist ]Oliver Stone’s Alternate States | Harper's Magazine

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On Stone’s compulsive—and necessary—historical revisions

During recent publicity appearances for his ten-part Showtime series, The Untold History of the United States, Oliver Stone kept expressing disagreement with the media’s characterization of General David Petraeus as an exemplar of American military leadership. “I don’t see the hero,” Stone said on CBS Morning News. The real scandal, he explained, wasn’t Petraeus’s infidelity but his military strategy: his surge policy was “misguided,” especially in Afghanistan, where it was clearly backfiring.

Stone’s interrogators frequently seemed peeved, but in my view he was right. Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, among many others, has argued that the surge didn’t help us get out of Iraq. But such counterarguments rarely make it to network TV or to the front pages of the nation’s major papers. “The U.S. was defeated in Iraq,” Cole recently told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now. “And the only reason that they didn’t have to leave on helicopters suddenly at the end was because the Shiites ethnically cleansed the Sunnis.” Petraeus’s adoption of the surge in Afghanistan, Cole said, indicated that he hasn’t learned from Iraq. “It’s not right,” he added, “not to have any public discussion of the mistakes that were made.”

The need to present unaired stories has motivated Oliver Stone for decades, starting with Salvador (1986), which criticized U.S. policy in Central America, and carrying through to later films like Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, the two Wall Street movies, and feature-length documentaries about Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez. Now, with The Untold History of the United States, Stone wants to do the same thing with twentieth-century American history, which he thinks has been highly romanticized. He and his co-writer, Peter Kuznick, a history professor at American University, spent years working on a dense, deeply researched, and unusually compelling ten-part documentary, which started on Showtime last Monday at 8 pm and will run for another nine weeks.

At the outset of the first episode, Stone tells us that he was upset about the education he got as a student in high school and at Yale, and wants to provide an alternative that is closer to the truth. Among the facts he presents that I hadn’t heard before was that Congress came close during the 1930s to passing laws prohibiting war profiteering by defense companies. More likely to rub the establishment the wrong way are his criticisms of Truman for dropping nuclear bombs on Japan, and of Truman’s escalating assertions that his decision saved hundreds of thousands of American lives. The film shows Edward R. Murrow challenging Truman, and cites many military figures who said that the bomb wasn’t essential for victory. Truman really dropped the bomb to frighten Russia, Stone and Kuznick say, further arguing that it was the shift of Russian forces to the east, not the bomb, that ultimately convinced the Japanese to surrender.

This conclusion is of a piece with the filmmakers’ broad perspective on World War II, which stresses that Russia fought far more Germans than did the United States and the United Kingdom, and lost many times more lives. The ensuing Cold War, they assert, had much to do with American provocation and paranoia, and was fueled by Truman’s use of the A-bomb, which spread real fear in the U.S.S.R. The Soviets soon built an A-bomb to counter America’s, then built an H-bomb within a year after America had done so, and the race was on. Stone and Kuznick further argue that the Cold War ended more because of Gorbachev’s farsightedness than Reagan’s military expansion. 

The series also highlights policy-makers who stood against the tide. Stone and Kuznick are particular fans of Henry Wallace, the left-wing agriculture secretary turned vice president under Roosevelt. Had Wallace become president rather than Truman, they argue, the Cold War and its attendance arms race might have happened far differently. Some will think their perspective naïve, given the influence of the defense industry and the deep-seatedness of American paranoia. The film may overstate the case, but there’s no question things would have turned out otherwise with Wallace as president.

Stone and Kuznick’s theses aren’t always balanced, but they have not fudged any facts that I can see. Critics of the film will no doubt identify some errors, but mostly they will harp on the sacred cows the pair fail, in their minds, to show proper respect. The Untold History of the United States received a predictably derisive review in the New York Times, for example, but the reviewer, Alessandra Stanley, challenged only one of Stone’s facts, arguing that the cited figure of 27 million Russian civilian and military deaths during World War II failed to factor in between 1 million and 5 million deaths attributable to Stalin.*

At bottom, the filmmakers’ view of history assumes that individuals matter, and that small turns can have profound consequences. They want Americans to understand that their country made mistakes, and—like the Germans, Japanese, and Russians—killed wantonly, even if in pursuit of good causes. Some of the major points they discuss have been argued before, but were subsequently mostly forgotten. We in America still seem stunned when other people don’t like us, and respond by casting them as morally lacking. Stone and Kuznick suggest instead that we try to understand other peoples, their needs, their fears, and their hungers. Because we do not, we repeat our mistakes—in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in our adoption of drone warfare.

Stone and Kuznick should continue the worthy battle for an alternative historical discussion in the United States. The desire to believe that America is exceptional and inherently good has harmed and endangered this country. Let those who disagree with them—and there will likely be many—speak up sincerely and armed with facts, and in so doing help to expunge romance and myth from our conception of our nation.

* Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that the New York Times review estimated the number of Russian civilian and military deaths during World War II to be between 1 and 5 million.

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