The Anti-Economist — November 19, 2012, 12:07 pm

Oliver Stone’s Alternate States

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.

Share
Single Page

More from Jeff Madrick:

Context July 16, 2015, 12:59 pm

A Deeply Integrated Europe

The euro and its discontents

Context July 10, 2015, 10:15 am

How Germany Reconquered Europe

The euro and its discontents

From the February 2014 issue

How Germany Reconquered Europe

The euro and its discontents

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2017

“I am Here Only for Working”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Dear Rose

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Year of The Frog

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Dead Ball Situation

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Document of Barbarism

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Destroyer of Worlds

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Destroyer of Worlds·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In February 1947, Harper’s Magazine published Henry L. Stimson’s “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb.” As secretary of war, Stimson had served as the chief military adviser to President Truman, and recommended the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The terms of his unrepentant apologia, an excerpt of which appears on page 35, are now familiar to us: the risk of a dud made a demonstration too risky; the human cost of a land invasion would be too high; nothing short of the bomb’s awesome lethality would compel Japan to surrender. The bomb was the only option. Seventy years later, we find his reasoning unconvincing. Entirely aside from the destruction of the blasts themselves, the decision thrust the world irrevocably into a high-stakes arms race — in which, as Stimson took care to warn, the technology would proliferate, evolve, and quite possibly lead to the end of modern civilization. The first half of that forecast has long since come to pass, and the second feels as plausible as ever. Increasingly, the atmosphere seems to reflect the anxious days of the Cold War, albeit with more juvenile insults and more colorful threats. Terms once consigned to the history books — “madman theory,” “brinkmanship” — have returned to the news cycle with frightening regularity. In the pages that follow, seven writers and experts survey the current nuclear landscape. Our hope is to call attention to the bomb’s ever-present menace and point our way toward a world in which it finally ceases to exist.

Illustration by Darrel Rees. Source photographs: Kim Jong-un © ITAR-TASS Photo Agency/Alamy Stock Photo; Donald Trump © Yuri Gripas/Reuters/Newscom
Article
Crossing Guards·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Ambassador Bridge arcs over the Detroit River, connecting Detroit to Windsor, Ontario, the southernmost city in Canada. Driving in from the Canadian side, where I grew up, is like viewing a panorama of the Motor City’s rise and fall, visible on either side of the bridge’s turquoise steel stanchions. On the right are the tubular glass towers of the Renaissance Center, headquarters of General Motors, and Michigan Central Station, the rail terminal that closed in 1988. On the left is a rusted industrial corridor — fuel tanks, docks, abandoned warehouses. I have taken this route all my life, but one morning this spring, I crossed for the first time in a truck.

Illustration by Richard Mia
Article
“I am Here Only for Working”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

But the exercise of labor is the worker’s own life-activity, the manifestation of his own life. . . . He works in order to live. He does not even reckon labor as part of his life, it is rather a sacrifice of his life.

— Karl Marx

Photograph from the United Arab Emirates by the author. This page: Ruwais Mall
Article
The Year of The Frog·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

To look at him, Sweet Macho was a beautiful horse, lean and strong with muscles that twitched beneath his shining black coat. A former racehorse, he carried himself with ceremony, prancing the field behind our house as though it were the winner’s circle. When he approached us that day at the edge of the yard, his eyes shone with what might’ve looked like intelligence but was actually a form of insanity. Not that there was any telling our mother’s boyfriend this — he fancied himself a cowboy.

“Horse 1,” by Nine Francois. Courtesy the artist and AgavePrint, Austin, Texas
Article
Dead Ball Situation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

What We Think About When We Think About Soccer, by Simon Critchley. Penguin Books. 224 pages. $20.

Begin, as Wallace Stevens didn’t quite say, with the idea of it. I so like the idea of Simon Critchley, whose books offer philosophical takes on a variety of subjects: Stevens, David Bowie, suicide, humor, and now football — or soccer, as the US edition has it. (As a matter of principle I shall refer to this sport throughout as football.) “All of us are mysteriously affected by our names,” decides one of Milan Kundera’s characters in Immortality, and I like Critchley because his name would seem to have put him at a vocational disadvantage compared with Martin Heidegger, Søren Kierkegaard, or even, in the Anglophone world, A. J. Ayer or Richard Rorty. (How different philosophy might look today if someone called Nobby Stiles had been appointed as the Wykeham Professor of Logic.)

Tostão, No. 9, and Pelé, No. 10, celebrate Carlos Alberto’s final goal for Brazil in the World Cup final against Italy on June 21, 1970, Mexico City © Heidtmann/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Chances that a gynecologist in Italy refuses to perform abortions for religious reasons:

7 in 10

A newly discovered microsnail can easily pass through the eye of a needle.

Moore’s wife published a letter of support signed by more than 50 pastors, and four of those pastors said they either had never seen the letter or had seen it before Moore was accused of sexual assault and asked to have their names removed.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today