Exclusive: “The Untold History of the United States” shakes up the traditional recounting of the last century, forcing Americans to rethink key assumptions, but director Oliver Stone and historian Peter Kuznick have not written a people’s history, says Jim DiEugenio in part two of his review.
By Jim DiEugenio
It’s challenging to review a book like The Untold History of the United States by Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, with its broad sweep covering more than a century – from the late 19th to the early 21st centuries – especially given the authors’ ambition to reorder how Americans see their nation as it evolved into a global empire and force them to confront how that empire has trampled on the lives and dreams of other people.
Without doubt, there is much value in their effort, which you can also watch in a Showtime documentary series by the same name. It is always good when a serious work comes out that shakes the pillars of the historical establishment by challenging cherished conventional wisdoms. Director Stone and historian Kuznick surely do that.
But the inevitable selection process – emphasizing one historical turning point over another and indeed omitting some pivotal moments altogether – invites criticism. And that is true about the second half of this book and series as it was the first half, which I reviewed earlier.
The second half of the 750-page book covers U.S. history from the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson to Barack Obama. And much like the first half, this 50-year sweep of history is more a reshuffling of the official top-down history than a people’s history in the vein of Howard Zinn, who focused more on the popular struggles that invigorated American democracy from the bottom up, rather than on the machinations of the political and economic elites.
Stone and Kuznick see themselves in Zinn’s genre as they note near the end of the book when they write: “What had become apparent [during President Obama’s first term] was that the real hope for changing the United States – for helping it regain its democratic, egalitarian, and revolutionary soul – lay in U.S. citizens joining with the rebellious masses everywhere to deploy the lessons of history, their history, the people’s history, which is no longer untold, and demand creation of a world that represents the interests of the overwhelming majority, not that of the wealthiest, greediest, and most powerful.”
But the absence of a real people’s history in the Stone/Kuznick book – i.e. chronicling the struggle of downtrodden Americans and the political strategies of what might called the Left – is a central flaw in the book and TV series. The ups and downs of such a movement are barely mentioned. Remarkably, the book omits the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X – and treats the murder of Robert F. Kennedy in a cursory fashion.
The Stone/Kuznick emphasis on the maneuverings among the elites also gives short-shrift to the well-funded out-reach by the modern Right to propagandize and recruit millions of Americans into the causes of “free enterprise” boosterism and “national security” flag-waving.
For instance, there’s no reference to the seminal 1971 memo by corporate lawyer (and later U.S. Supreme Court Justice) Lewis Powell urging businesses and the well-to-do to invest in an ideological infrastructure to make their case to the American people and to their representatives. Amid a resurgent anti-war Left, the Powell memo was an organizational call to arms for the Right to occupy Washington with think tanks, lobbying groups and media echo chambers designed to move the debate to the center-right.
The remarkable success of Powell’s recommendations – carried forward by the likes of former Treasury Secretary Bill Simon and a variety of right-wing foundation executives and media moguls – was made even more pronounced by the simultaneous, post-Vietnam War retreat by the American Left in its own media outreach to the broader public.
Just as the Left was dismantling much of its then-impressive media – from Ramparts magazine to Dispatch News to hundreds of underground newspapers and radio stations – the Right was gearing up a multi-billion-dollar propaganda infrastructure to rally much of the public, especially middle- and working-class whites, behind a banner of fewer social programs for the poor, lower taxes on the rich, super-patriotism abroad and union-busting at home.
The Right’s money, energy and ruthlessness also pushed the mainstream news media in that direction, further isolating the Left and making reactionary ideas seem more and more acceptable.
Why this omission is so significant to the Stone/Kuznick book is that it was the absence of a powerful people’s movement on the Left – with only a few flurries of notable mass activism during the latter decades of the 20th Century – that made the nation’s shift to the Right in the 1980s and beyond so seemingly effortless.
The absence of a strong people’s movement on the Left also made it difficult, if not impossible, for somewhat liberal national leaders to move the country back toward its more progressive tendencies. But Stone/Kuznick tend to portray Democratic presidents – such as Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama – as sellouts to the corporate power structure rather than as frustrated social reformers operating in an intensely hostile political environment.
Their mostly unsuccessful attempts to address national concerns – from alternative energy to health care – are treated as bungled or insincere. The authors dump the blame on these presidents, rather than spreading the fault to the structural weaknesses of the Left, which by then had lost much of its capacity to connect with the American public and to promote politically feasible reforms.
In other words, the book and documentary series are almost the opposite of a people’s history. They do reference somewhat the impact of the powerful people’s movements of the early parts of the last century – the union movement of the 1930s, the civil rights movement of the 1950s, the anti-war movement of the 1960s – but then the authors ignore the other side of the equation: how the dissipation and division of the Left from the 1970s onward contributed to the Right’s resurgence.
Vietnam and Beyond
The second half of the Stone/Kuznick collaboration essentially starts with the presidency of Lyndon Johnson in a chapter entitled, “Empire Derailed.” The reference is to what happened with Johnson’s strategy of escalation in Vietnam, but I would dispute certain aspects of their presentation.
For instance, they write that LBJ bought into the fanciful intelligence accounts that showed America was winning the war. This is not entirely accurate. As John Newman shows in JFK and Vietnam, in March 1962, Vice President Johnson was getting the real story of how the American effort was failing to adequately halt the progress of the Viet Cong. Johnson’s military aide, Howard Burris was passing the reports to LBJ. (Newman, pgs. 225-27)
But the point is that, early on, Johnson knew about the failure of American advisers to turn the tide. President John F. Kennedy wanted McNamara to use (knowingly false) optimistic reports so he could announce that, since the situation on the ground was going well, the U.S. could withdraw. As Newman notes, Kennedy could then plan his withdrawal timetable around the 1964 election. The hawkish Johnson, understanding what Kennedy was doing, would paint a rosy picture in public. (Virtual JFK, by James light, pgs. 304-10)
But secretly Johnson was doing something Kennedy would not countenance: He was drawing up war plans so the American military could save the day. (Gordon Goldstein, Lessons in Disaster, p 108) After Kennedy was killed and Johnson had won the 1964 election, Johnson would waste little time in implementing these plans. The first American combat troops landed at Da Nang in March 1965, two months after Johnson’s inauguration.
The escalation continued until 1967, when American troop levels peaked at around 540,000 combat troops. This massive effort was capsized by the Tet offensive of January 1968. Tet showed that 1.) American intelligence in Vietnam was not working since there was almost no warning about Tet from the CIA, and 2.) Even with over half a million troops in country, the Viet Cong could attack almost all the major cities in South Vietnam, including the State Department compound in Saigon.
At that point, Johnson tried to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict, hoping to get a peace settlement before the 1968 election. He was on the verge of a breakthrough by October. The authors then note that Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon used China Lobby activist Anna Chennault as a back channel to the leaders of South Vietnam to get them to boycott Johnson’s peace talks by promising a better deal for them under a Nixon presidency, thus sabotaging the possibility of an “October Surprise” peace deal that would cinch the presidential election for Democratic candidate, Vice President Hubert Humphrey. (Stone and Kuznick, pgs. 358-59)
The Stone/Kuznick book notes that Johnson discovered Nixon’s sabotage before the election. But they are not specific about how LBJ found out about these secret contacts or what he did with the evidence. As journalist Robert Parry has noted, LBJ first found out about Nixon’s plan to “block” the peace talks from the private discussions of a Wall Street banker in Nixon’s camp who was placing bets on stocks and bonds based on his inside knowledge that Nixon was making sure Johnson’s peace talks failed. Johnson then confirmed the conspiracy through NSA and FBI wiretaps. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “LBJ’s ‘X-File’ on Nixon’s Treason.”]
But Stone and Kuznick then do something odd: They blame Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey for not exposing this chicanery. (Stone and Kuznick, p. 359) However, the evidence that Parry uncovered at the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas, revealed that Johnson personally weighed the possibility of disclosing Nixon’s sabotage before the election.
Johnson even confronted Nixon about it. Nixon quite predictably lied about his knowledge of any scheme. Johnson then discussed going public with Secretary of State Dean Rusk, national security adviser Walt Rostow and Defense Secretary Clark Clifford on Nov. 4, 1968, the day before the election. This circle decided to stay silent for what Clifford deemed “the good of the country.”
After Nixon narrowly won the election – and Johnson was still unable to revive his hoped-for peace settlement – Johnson still kept this dark secret to himself, though privately bitter about what he called Nixon’s “treason.” From this new information it’s clear that the decision not to go public was made by President Johnson, not Humphrey. [See Robert Parry’s America’s Stolen Narrative.]
Also regarding that election year, Stone and Kuznick call 1968 “one of the most extraordinary years of the century,” but then mention Robert Kennedy’s assassination in just one sentence and ignore the fact that his death took place just two months after Martin Luther King was killed under suspicious circumstances in Memphis. (See page 357)
Not only does the book not mention how close these two deaths were in time, or how they impacted the presidential election that year, it does not mention the murder of King (or Malcolm X) at all. This is surprising, since the impact on America of those three deaths was quite estimable.
The book then picks up with the presidency of Richard Nixon. The chapter starts with the secret bombing of Cambodia. As told by William Shawcross in his memorable tome Sideshow, this secret, illegal operation had truly horrendous implications. It caused the fall of Prime Minister Sihanouk to General Lon Nol. Sihanouk then supported the communist rebels called the Khmer Rouge, who deposed Lon Nol in 1975 and thus began one of the greatest extermination programs in history. Yet, Stone and Kuznick do not make this connection.
The authors do spend time discussing the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile. Both Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger were very much concerned with Allende’s coming to power in Chile and pressured the CIA to come up with some method of stopping his election.
The CIA — led in this effort by field officer David Phillips – dumped millions of dollars into an anti-Allende propaganda campaign in the Chilean election of 1970. What made this rather unusual was that Chile had a history of being a democratic country. Allende also won the election fairly.
But there were economic interests who tried to influence Kissinger to still take action. Two of them were David Rockefeller, whose family held a strong interest in Anaconda Copper, and John McCone, a board member of ITT. Both men lobbied the White House, and President Nixon made clear to CIA Director Richard Helms that sabotaging Allende was a priority operation. (Stone and Kuznick, p. 373)
After Allende exposed this U.S. interference in a speech to the UN in December 1972, the Nixon administration redoubled its efforts to oust Allende. Strikes and anti-Allende demonstrations began in earnest. As they grew, Phillips ordered his military agents to launch a revolt. Led by General Augusto Pinochet, on Sept. 11, 1973, they started bombing the presidential palace and troops stormed the building, resulting in Allende’s death.
No one really knows how many followers of Allende were killed in the aftermath of the coup. But Pinochet’s reign of murder reached all the way into Washington, D.C., where his agents – collaborating with CIA-connected Cuban exiles – killed former Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier and an American female co-worker with a car bomb in 1976. (Stone and Kuznick, p. 378)
This terrorist strike was part of Operation Condor, a collaboration among right-wing governments in South America’s Southern Cone to track down dissidents anywhere in the world and assassinate them. Together these regimes launched a huge program of repression throughout South America and eventually into Central America. Estimates as to how many of their targets were killed range into the tens of thousands. (Stone and Kuznick, p. 378)
Stone and Kuznick note the impact of the publication of the Pentagon Papers by the New York Times in June 1971, as marking the start of what evolved into the Watergate scandal. (Stone and Kuznick, p. 386) Yet, new research shows that Nixon’s creation of the Plumbers connected back to his 1968 sabotage of the Vietnam peace talks and his fear that a missing file on his scheme might surface and cause a firestorm similar to or worse than the Pentagon Papers, which dealt mostly with Democratic lies from 1945 to 1967.
To recover the missing file, which Nixon mistakenly thought was at the Brookings Institution, Nixon authorized the creation of a team of burglars in June 1971 led by ex-CIA operative E. Howard Hunt. However, their black-bag operations ran aground when part of the team was captured inside the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate building on June 17, 1972, beginning the foundering of Nixon’s president which ended with his force resignation on Aug. 9, 1974.
Stone and Kuznick give Nixon deserved credit for recognizing China and trying to get arms agreements with the Soviets. The latter was called the Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty, or SALT. As the authors note, Nixon’s attempts to halt the growth of nuclear arms was met with a decisive backlash by his critics on the Right, including Albert Wohlstetter, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and Paul Nitze who formed a group called the Committee on the Present Danger.
They insisted that any arms negotiation was a poor idea because the Russians were ahead of the United States in the arms race (which was untrue). Although the authors do not mention this, one could observe that this resistance to Nixon’s détente – his lessening of tensions – with the Soviet Union marked the real beginning of the neoconservative movement, as the Right drew in disgruntled Democratic war hawks and poured millions of dollars into its rapidly expanding infrastructure of Washington-based pressure groups.
By not noting this, the authors miss an opportunity to put into context the sharp rightward shift of U.S. foreign policy over the next four decades. After Nixon’s Watergate-driven resignation, President Gerald Ford came under increasing pressure from a more militant Right to ditch the détente of Nixon and Kissinger. Two of the hardliners inside Ford’s administration were White House chief of staff Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
With the acquiescence of CIA Director George H.W. Bush, Rumsfeld also helped set up Team B, an appendage to the Committee on the Present Danger which was allowed to dispute the nuanced claims of CIA analysts about the nuclear threat posed by the Soviets. (See Jerry Sanders, Peddlers of Crisis, p. 203) Team B insisted on the most alarmist analysis imaginable and questioned the patriotism of CIA analysts who were seeing signs of Soviet decline.
Thus, began the politicization of intelligence that escalated during the Reagan era when 33 members of the Committee on the Present Danger were hired into the government. So many CIA analysts were purged for not hyping the Soviet menace that the agency later missed the collapse of the Soviet bloc entirely.
The Carter Years
The Stone/Kuznick discussion of Jimmy Carter begins with the influence on him by his national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who helped form the Trilateral Commission at the request of banker David Rockefeller. It was supposed to link the leaders of the three most economically advanced areas of the world: Japan, Western Europe and the U.S. Brzezinski served as its director from 1973-76 and invited Carter to join, an invitation that had fateful results.
In 1977, after defeating Ford, President Carter hired Brzezinski as NSC adviser. From that position, Brzezinski asserted strong influence over Carter, who had limited experience in foreign policy. (Stone and Kuznick, p. 405) Brzezinski’s hard-line stance against the Soviet Union also created tension with Secretary of State Cyrus Vance who wanted to continue in the tradition of Nixon and Kissinger, using détente to get more arms agreements.
Brzezinski wanted Carter to be more hardnosed about détente in pursuit of arms limitation. He felt that by pursuing a human rights agenda, especially in Eastern Europe, Carter could put the Russians on the spot and loosen their grip there, which turned out to be a fairly sound strategy.
But where Brzezinski and his friendship with Rockefeller failed Carter was in the Middle East. David Rockefeller’s Chase Manhattan Bank handled billions of dollars in the Shah of Iran’s money and thus had a strong incentive to bolster ties between Carter and the repressive Shah.
In 1977 when the Shah visited Washington, he stayed at the White House and was effusively praised by the American President, raising questions about Carter’s real commitment to human rights. (Stone and Kuznick, p. 409) Carter then visited Tehran where demonstrations against the Shah were just beginning. He toasted the Shah by saying, “There is no leader with whom I have a deeper sense of personal gratitude and personal friendship.” (ibid)
Through 1978, the Tehran strikes and demonstrations persisted and grew larger. By the end of the year, they had paralyzed the city. The Shah left Iran on Jan. 16, 1979. The exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, whose resistance to the Shah had inspired many of the demonstrators, returned two weeks later. On April 1, Iran voted by national referendum to become an Islamic Republic based upon Sharia law.
As Stone and Kuznick note, getting blindsided by these developments was a U.S. intelligence failure of the first order with the CIA missing both the Shah’s rapid collapse and the rise of a religious leader who would install Islamic law.
While the Iranian drama played out across U.S. televisions, what most Americans didn’t understand was where the orgiastic hate for America came from. Why did so many Iranians denounce the United States as the Great Satan? It was a case of blowback from the CIA’s 1953 coup against Iranian nationalist leader Mohammad Mossadegh.
The Rockefeller Connection
The Rockefeller- Brzezinski relationship also came into play regarding the Shah’s travels in exile. Faced with losing the lucrative Iranian accounts – and under pressure from the Shah’s twin sister to assist her brother in finding a suitable home – Rockefeller launched an extraordinary campaign of influence-peddling to pressure Carter to admit the Shah to the United States, a move Carter resisted out of fear it would prompt the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
David Rockefeller’s full-court lobbying campaign brought in former NSC adviser Henry Kissinger and powerful attorney John McCloy of Milbank, Tweed, Hadley and McCloy. Codenamed Project Alpha, the lobbying was personally paid for by David Rockefeller. (Kai Bird, The Chairman, p. 644) Rockefeller even paid a writer $40, 000 to pen a book defending the Shah against his critics.
After an Oval Office meeting with David Rockefeller, Carter wrote in his diary: “The main purpose of this visit, apparently, is to try and induce me to let the Shah come into our country. Rockefeller, Kissinger, and Brzezinski seem to be adopting this as a joint project.” (ibid, p. 645)
When private entreaties to Carter did not work, Project Alpha expanded its reach. McCloy began to write letters to Secretary of State Vance and his Deputy Warren Christopher. (ibid, p. 646) The strategy began to work. One by one, Project Alpha converted Carter’s entourage and eventually Carter was surrounded.
In mid-October 1979, the Shah was in Cuernavaca, Mexico when David Rockefeller’s assistant called Cy Vance and told him that the Shah had cancer and needed treatment in America. (ibid, p. 651) Besieged from without and within, Carter finally relented and let the Shah into the United States, but not before he added one acutely prophetic pronouncement to everyone in the room who was urging him to do this: “What are you guys going to advise me to do if they overrun our embassy and take our people hostage?” (ibid, p. 652)
This was a pivotal moment in modern American history because it set the stage for the rise of Ronald Reagan as president.
The Shah checked into a hospital in New York on Oct. 22, 1979. Less than two weeks later, Iranian militants stormed the American embassy and took hostage almost 70 employees. The U.S. news media treated the crisis as nearly an equivalent to war with the hostage issue dominating news cycle after news cycle. Each night, Ted Koppel broadcast his own summary of what had happened that day in the hostage crisis.
As the crisis dragged on, Carter’s approval ratings plummeted to the mid-forties. The only way out seemed to be a miraculous rescue of the hostages. An attempt was made by a special commando group in April 1980, but failed when a helicopter collided with a refueling plane in the Iranian desert, leaving eight Americans dead. Secretary of State Vance, who opposed the scheme, resigned.
After Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in September 1980, Carter said he would grant Iran the hundreds of millions in arms that had been purchased by the previous regime if they would return the American hostages. The team behind Republican candidate Ronald Reagan began to smell an ‘October Surprise” (Stone and Kuznick, p. 420)
Stone/Kuznick, relying on the work of former NSC official Gary Sick and journalist Robert Parry, do a brief but pointed précis about the subject. They write that “it appears that Reagan campaign officials met with Iranian leaders and promised to allow Israel to ship arms to Iran if Iran would hold the hostages until Reagan won the election.” (ibid)
The authors cite a secret Russian report that was solicited by Rep. Lee Hamilton (and later disclosed by Parry) as evidence that several Reagan higher-ups had a series of secret meetings in Europe in which they promised the Iranians more military aid than Carter if the hostage release would be delayed until Reagan won the election. Reagan did win and, on Jan. 20, 1981, immediately after he was sworn in as President, Iran released the U.S. Embassy personnel.
Combined, the two tainted elections of 1968 and 1980 launched the United States on a rightward path that would continue into the next century.
Reagan’s Death Squads
The Stone/Kuznick chapter on President Ronald Reagan is entitled, “The Reagan Years: Death Squads for Democracy,” and is one of the best short treatments I have seen of those years.
Aligning himself with the alarmist Committee on the Present Danger, Reagan proclaimed, “We’re in greater danger today than we were after Pearl Harbor. Our military is absolutely incapable of defending this country.” (Stone/Kuznick, p. 436) Thus began one of the largest peacetime defense build-ups in American history.
Under the influence of the supply-side school of economics, this was accompanied by a lowering of the top income tax rate from 70 percent to 28 percent. This combination of profligate military spending and large tax cuts caused annual national deficits that were unprecedented at the time and created pressure to slash programs benefiting the poor.
With hardliner William Casey put in charge of the CIA, intelligence analysts came under even more pressure to hype the Soviet threat. Anyone who detected cracks in the Soviet bloc could expect to be marginalized while young careerists, like Robert Gates, climbed the ladder into top CIA jobs by enforcing the new Soviets-are-on-the-march orthodoxy that justified ever-more military spending.
Reagan’s foreign policy team also focused on what they insisted was growing Soviet influence in Central America. Reagan sent $5 billion in aid to El Salvador, where right-wing leader Roberto D’Aubuisson was running death squads in the employ of wealthy landowners and the U.S.-trained military was conducting its own massacres of peasants.
One of the worst atrocities took place at the village of El Mozote, where a Salvadoran army battalion systematically slaughtered hundreds of civilians, including young children. (Stone and Kuznick, p. 432) When New York Times reporter Ray Bonner exposed this atrocity, the Wall Street Journal and other right-wing periodicals began to attack his credibility. The Times buckled and pulled Bonner off his Central America assignment.
Even though these slaughters continued, Reagan kept on supplying El Salvador and other right-wing governments in the region with large grants in aid. The whole time, Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams kept discounting reporting like Bonner’s as being “not credible.” (ibid, p. 433)
Concurrently, Reagan had the CIA collaborate with Argentina’s right-wing intelligence service in training and financing a group of rebels in Nicaragua to wage war on that country’s leftist government which had overthrown longtime dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979. This CIA/Argentine-manufactured group was called the Contras.
However, the problem facing Reagan was that Congress passed the Boland Amendment, which outlawed military aid to the Contras. In his contempt for this congressional constraint on his powers, Reagan authorized an extra-constitutional Contra-support operation that was hidden from Congress and the American people. By 1985, Reagan also was secretly selling arms to Iran to get its help in freeing American hostages who had been seized in Lebanon.
As Stone and Kuznick describe the resulting scandal, CIA Director Casey and NSC official Oliver North sold the missiles to Iran at exorbitant prices and used some of the profits to fund the Contras. But Stone and Kuznick only take a glancing look at another important funding source for the Contras, their collaboration “with Latin American drug dealers often serving as intermediaries and receiving easier access to US markets in return.” (p. 431) As we know from the reporting of Brian Barger, Robert Parry and the late Gary Webb, this was another important angle to the scandal.
Reagan’s off-books operations were finally exposed in fall 1986 and his administration was rocked for some months by the Iran-Contra scandal. However, an aggressive cover-up that largely shifted blame to North, Casey and other subordinates spared Reagan and his Vice President George H.W. Bush from serious political damage. With the Right’s propaganda apparatus fully engaged in counterattacking and discrediting investigators, timid Democrats and the mainstream news media largely accepted the Iran-Contra cover stories, no matter how implausible.
Stone and Kuznick do a nice job in describing another chief goal of the Reagan administration, the eradication of the so-called “Vietnam Syndrome,” the nation’s reluctance to get dragged into another overseas conflict. Reagan got that process started with an easy invasion of the Caribbean island of Grenada.
The effort was later picked up by President George H.W. Bush with his invasion of Panama in 1989 and the First Persian Gulf War in 1990-91 after which Bush declared, “we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all.”
The Soviets Give Up
The book discusses the administrations of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton under the title, “The Cold War Ends: Squandered Opportunities.” A key point of this section – and the latter half of the book – is that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev deserves the lion’s share of the credit for bringing the Cold War to a peaceful conclusion. Stone and Kuznick call him, with much justice, the most visionary and transformative leader of the 20th Century.
In that sense, Stone/Kuznick reprise a major theme of the book’s first half, which faults U.S. history for exaggerating the American role in winning World War II while denying proper credit to the Soviets for breaking the back of the German war machine. Regarding the end of the Cold War, the authors argue that American conventional wisdom is mistaken in overstating Reagan’s role and undervaluing what Gorbachev did.
Stone/Kuznick assert that this distortion of history then led to a series of other miscalculations that have proved costly for the United States and the world, particularly by thrusting the triumphant neoconservatives into foreign policy dominance and letting them push a preemptive war strategy that sought to maintain the United States as the world’s only superpower forever.
In December 1988, Gorbachev announced that the Cold War was over. He let go of two sectors of the Eastern Bloc: Poland and the Baltics, i.e. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. (Stone and Kuznick, p. 468) Then East Germany collapsed and the Berlin Wall was torn down. In return for Soviet non-intervention, Gorbachev wanted an end to both the Warsaw Pact and NATO. America did not comply, and NATO began expanding eastward.
Still, Gorbachev continued to negotiate with the United States until he was deposed by a hard-line coup in 1991. The pro-communist coup was, in turn, defeated by the pro-capitalistic forces under Boris Yeltsin. As American free-market ideologues descended on Russia as advisers, the Russian economy collapsed and corrupt oligarchs plundered the country’s wealth through privatization.
The stage was set for the United States to operate within a uni-polar world and without the constraints of a competing superpower.
With the Soviet Union gone, President George H.W. Bush and America’s triumphalist Right also celebrated the collapse of the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan, a pyrrhic victory that replaced a secular communist regime with a corrupt Islamic one, eventually opening the way for the Taliban and the use of Afghanistan by Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorists.
But the neocons also remained obsessed with removing Iraq’s Saddam Hussein once and for all – and supposedly transforming Iraq into a pro-American, pro-Israeli bastion in the heart of the Arab world. President Bill Clinton received a letter from the neocon Project for the New American Century, which urged him to overthrow Saddam by force, a step that Clinton refused to take although ratcheting up sanctions and other actions short of an all-out invasion. (Stone and Kuznick, p. 492)
The Bush Disaster
The book spends only two pages on the Florida election debacle of 2000, which I think deserved more since it was this stolen election that installed George W. Bush instead of Al Gore in the White House. The Stone/Kuznich treatment of this fateful development suffers in comparison to the space they gave to Henry Wallace’s ouster as Vice President by the Democratic convention in 1944. But the sparse recounting fits with the Stone/Kuznick general disdain for modern-day Democratic leaders as not significantly different from the right-wing and neocon Republicans.
The discussion of George W. Bush’s presidency begins with his initial failure to investigate the causes of the 9/11 attacks. Then, once he was prodded to do something, he tried to appoint Henry Kissinger to run the inquiry. Not even today’s mainstream news media would buy that one.
The 9/11 Commission was finally put together under Republican Thomas Kean and the ever-accommodating Democrat Lee Hamilton. But a bigger problem was that the director, Philip Zelikow, was a close friend and colleague of Bush’s National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who ranked as one of the most negligent officials in the whole tragedy.
Meanwhile, in the White House, the race was on to blame Saddam for the 9/11 attacks and elevate the inexperienced Bush into the status of a heroic wartime president leading a new kind of war, against not just a country or even an ideology, but a tactic: terrorism. Law professor John Yoo was brought in to devise some legal language for circumventing the Geneva agreements and making torture legal. (Stone and Kuznick, p. 501) The CIA then geared up its “black sites” for its “enhanced interrogations” including waterboarding.
After brushing aside offers from the Taliban to cooperate in turning over bin Laden, Bush ordered an invasion of Afghanistan that ousted the Taliban but failed to capture bin Laden, who escaped from his base in Tora Bora as Bush ordered the U.S. military to begin a premature pivot toward invading Iraq.
Relying on the imposing right-wing propaganda infrastructure – and the co-opted mainstream media – a public-relations campaign was then utilized to shift the focus of 9/11 anger onto Saddam Hussein, who was actually an enemy of al-Qaeda. The excuse for the U.S. invasion became weapons of mass destruction that Saddam didn’t have.
The authors make a good case that many people had to know this was phony. After all, Saddam’s son-in-law had told U.S. and UN officials that Saddam had destroyed all of his chemical and biological weapons after the first Gulf War. (ibid, p. 517) However, the cowed analysts at the CIA and the flag-waving national press corps rallied behind the war effort.
The three-week-long invasion captured Baghdad in April 2003, driving Saddam from power but failing to locate any WMD. The neocons, who had pushed so hard for the war, assumed that the joy of victory would overwhelm any questions about the false pretenses for war. But the occupation proved much harder and far bloodier than the neocons had assumed. The United States found itself facing a tough insurgency. The total cost of the war, as estimated by economist Joseph Stiglitz, would exceed $1 trillion. (Stone and Kuznick, p. 528)
The costs of the Iraq War, the huge budget deficits, and the real estate and stock market collapses of 2007-08 drove Bush’s approval ratings down to 22 percent by the time he left office in 2009. However, the bigger problem was the global recession that was unleashed by Bush’s multiple miscalculations.
The Obama Disappointment
Stone and Kuznick begin their chapter on Barack Obama by implying that the new Democratic president had a great opportunity to change things upon taking office, but didn’t take advantage of it. “The country Obama inherited was indeed in shambles, but Obama took a bad situation and, in certain ways, made it worse,” they write. (pp. 549-551)
They run down the litany of Obama’s supposed betrayals, from privately financing his election campaign to treating the Wall Street banks too leniently to forgoing prosecutions of the Bush administration’s war crimes to cracking down on national security leaks, including the incarceration of Pvt. Bradley Manning for releasing thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks.
“If Manning had committed war crimes instead of exposing them, he would be a free man today,” Stone/Kuznich write. (ibid, p. 562)
However, the authors give Obama little leeway for the desperate situation that he confronted, a world economy in freefall, two open-ended wars, and a Washington media and political establishment still invested in many of the neoconservative and free-market policies of the previous decade – not to mention an American Left that had little independent capability to influence the broader public.
Also, as the first African-American president, Obama was operating in an extremely hostile environment with not only little policy support within the Establishment and a weak progressive movement but facing the emergence of gun-toting Tea Party activists egged on by the likes of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.
After hundreds of pages of Stone/Kuznich putting into context the actions of historical players as disparate as Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy to Josef Stalin and Fidel Castro, the authors made little effort to do the same for Obama. His hard-fought battle to expand health-care for millions of Americans is treated more as a sell-out than the best-he-could-get compromise in the face of unified Republican opposition.
I have made some criticisms in my long review of this book, and I could have made more. But overall, I believe this is a worthy volume to read and to keep. Some sections are eye-opening. Indeed, the book would be revelatory for many Americans who have subsisted on the junk food of “we’re number one” propaganda for too many years. For that, I am glad this book exists.
Jim DiEugenio is a researcher and writer on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and other mysteries of that era. His new book is Destiny Betrayed (Second Edition) from Skyhorse Publishing.