Many American historians, like their counterparts in journalism, fail the democratic process that they are supposed to serve. Both groups tend to put a positive spin on even the nastiest actions of the U.S. government, a process that Oliver Stone challenges in his “Untold History of the United States,” which he discusses with Dennis J Bernstein.
By Dennis J Bernstein
Official American history has shaped a national myth that depicts a good and righteous country which invariably takes actions at home and abroad that are based on fairness and humanitarian principles, albeit with some mistakes made here and there but with no ill intent.
To fit with that myth, the darkest chapters of U.S. history get the lightest touch: the genocide and ethnic cleansing of indigenous peoples, the institution of slavery as a key early economic factor in building the nation, widespread abuses in factories including child labor, and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to name just a few.
But this whitewashing of U.S. history has always gotten under the skin of Oscar-winning filmmaker Oliver Stone, leading him to spend much of the last five years working on a unique documentary series, “The Untold History of the United States,” along with a companion book, both co-written with American University historian Peter Kuznick.
The multi-part documentary, which aired on Showtime and is now being released as a four-disc, 12-hour set on Blu-Ray, seeks to counteract some of the biggest lies perpetuated by modern historians about the past century. Stone, whose classic films include “Platoon,” “Wall Street” and “JFK,” discussed his historical series in an interview with Dennis J Bernstein.
DB: What planted the seeds for this project? Has this marinated for a while? What are the origins?
OS: In my film work I have gone to historical subject matter quite often. I was interested in the big events. Although I was born conservative, raised that way, and went to school that way, I became more progressive as I experimented and talked to people. In 2008, I reached the place, after making more than a dozen films, where I was exhausted by the idea of George Bush having eight years in office. I felt that rather than make another dramatic film, if there was one thing I could to for my kids, it would be to look back at my life, going back to the 1940s, to look at what went wrong.
Peter is an old friend who has been studying these issues for more than 30 years. He is a nuclear expert on arms, and we combined our forces – dramatist and historian. We went at it, from 1900 to now, and it was a big deal – much bigger than we had in mind. It was a five-year deal as opposed to a two and a half-year deal. We were over budget and over time. The book came out of this series. Once we were into the series, we realized we were in deep, and we wanted to substantiate some of what we said in the book, so Peter and his graduate students turned it on.
DB: A lot of footnotes in there.
OS: It is dramatic. The series was fact-checked three times and the book twice.
DB: I know a lot of this material, but this was revelatory. The way it was presented on screen was extraordinary. Let’s talk about some of the content, then the process of the way you work. I think it differs from some of the documentarians working today. What surprised me the most was the story about Henry Wallace and the changing of the ticket under FDR. Was that revelatory for you?
OS: Yes. Peter knew a lot about it, as it was a special subject for him. It grew out of Peter’s interest in the atomic bomb. His main study has been why we did not have to drop the bomb on Japan. He has a very sound argument, and you must see the series to understand it. Part of that chain of birth is the idea that Wallace, who was Vice President from 1941 to 1945, was a true, true American progressive, not a liberal. He had a new deal vision of America in cooperation with the Soviet Union as well as all countries.
He detested the British Empire – that is true. He didn’t have any friends with Churchill. Over the course of the war years it was apparent he was progressive and the Democratic bosses, who were very conservative, could not abide him and wanted to get rid of him – and they did. In the 1944 convention – it was very fixed in those days – they backed a non-entity called Harry Truman who managed to squeak in. Wallace’s representative was five feet from the podium when the convention was closed the first night – when Wallace would have swept in. It was a very sad moment.
Roosevelt, if he had lived, wouldn’t possibly have dropped the bomb on Japan, because there was no need to. We had been fed the myth over the years, driven into our education system, repeated over and over again, so that there are misinformed people. … There is such a big story about the atomic bomb and the use of our force over this last 70 years, since WW II, and what we became. That is the essence of the series.
DB: I want to talk to you more about that. I know that you were in Japan with Peter Kuznick for the 60th commemoration of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and I’m wondering if this discussion came up. Is there the knowledge of the way the atomic bomb became the opening salvo of the Cold War, as opposed to the end of WW II?
OS: No. It’s not there, but it was a very moving experience. There were many survivors, Hibakusha, they are called in Japan. We went to Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Okinawa, because bases are still there, and they are building new ones. I went up to Jeju Island in South Korea where the South Korean government and the Pentagon, of course, are building a gigantic naval base. A lot is going on in the Asian Pacific. That is what our journey was about.
When we talked to the Japanese, they were like us. They never got the basic education about how the U.S. military controlled Japan after the war. Everything about the atomic bomb was censored; even the word itself couldn’t be used until 1953 or 1954 when Japan started to open up after the rocky dragon incident. The incident in the South Pacific was a hydrogen bomb test gone wrong. It affected the tuna fish, people died – it was a disaster.
The Japanese turned against the bomb because they were the victims of it. Ironically, at this very time Eisenhower was selling the atoms for peace proposal throughout the world, atoms for the peaceful. His first target was Hiroshima and he wanted to build a nuclear power plant there. He didn’t, but they did get Fukushima up, and of course that was a disaster for an earthquake-ravaged country. There was a great movie called Japan’s Longest Day, which is about the last few days before surrender.
The American people didn’t know how prostrated the Japanese economy was – the ports, facilities, and transportation gone from the terror bombing. More than 100 cities destroyed. Tokyo burned to the ground. People were starving. Also unknown to the American people is that the Japanese were trying to surrender. We had broken their codes, so Truman, and those in his circle, knew that Japan wanted to surrender. What is also kept from the American people is the Soviet invasion of Manchuria going toward Japan and its impact of terror on the Japanese. They knew they were sunk, and their only hope was to make a deal with the U.S.
Once that was known we were still three months away from an invasion. We didn’t have the troops ready to go, so much would have happened during those three months. But Truman wanted to drop the bomb. We spent a fortune building it. He hyped it – we built it, so we must find out if it really works. They picked Hiroshima because it had never been bombed, so it was a pristine target – they could see how much damage this bomb could do. …
Truman didn’t want to acknowledge the concessions Roosevelt made with Stalin at Yalta, so we went ahead and basically violated the agreement with the Russians. From that point, the Cold War was on. The Russians knew our game. Two weeks after Roosevelt died, it turned icy, with Truman, in an ugly scene, insulting the Soviet Foreign Minister in Washington. Truman was a small man, like George Bush, with a narrow mind. It’s a shame that he’s been mythologized in American history as a big hero, [the subject of a biography that was] a Pulitzer Prize winner. People should read this book [The Untold History of the United States], because it opens an alternative way of looking at our history.
DB: It is an experience to see it all. It reminded me of the great work of Howard Zinn. Is he a precursor, setting the tone? Were you influenced by his work as well?
OS: Wonderful. I met him a few times. I’m sorry he didn’t live to see the series. We didn’t always agree with each other, but Peter and I loved his anti-establishment thinking. There are other Cold War historians who shouldn’t be ignored. Peter studied with these historians. We did not just find out about this for the first time, it’s been out there, at a high level in the college education system. But it’s not available in the mass media so we continue the lies at that level.
DB: Let’s fast forward and deal with 9/11, because there’s a lot said about that. I always thought it wasn’t about the self-demolition, but that many of the people involved in this action were trained in the U.S. and did actions for the U.S.
OS: It is very disturbing. Once Brzezinski opened the door in Afghanistan in 1978, he was clear it was a trap, saying in a memo to Carter, that it would be the Soviet Viet Nam. We knew about the Caucasian Muslim resistance that existed throughout Southern Russia. Even Bill Casey of the CIA under Reagan was actively encouraging rebellion of the Islamic fundamentalists in Southern Russia – he wanted that. So we backed them from the beginning in Afghanistan, and gave them a lot of money.
The silly movie, “Charlie Wilson’s War,” gave the idea that we were heroes for financing these people who are dead serious fundamentalist Taliban types, not interested in the reforms the Soviets brought to the educational system, rights of women, basic scientific education. We lost track of them and then they came back and they are after us because we put 500,000 troops in Saudi Arabia under George Bush’s father, which was disgusting, disgusting, a violation of everything we learned in Vietnam. Bringing those troops in there sealed our involvement in the Middle East as well as our Israeli policies, and that’s what got Al Qaeda against us. We brought it on.
DB: Robert Fisk, of the Independent, did an interview with Osama Bin Laden in which Bin Laden said – he said it in several interviews – you need to know that when we are done here, we are turning these guns toward the West.
OS: Fisk is good. He was always out in the front lines. I always liked Fisk.
DB: This is what Bin Laden said. It is so troubling what people do not learn in school when they study the history of that part of the world.
OS: I never got into all the details, but there were so many Saudi Arabians, which makes us now more and more awake to that idea that the Saudi Arabians have a very fundamentalist regime and we are very entrenched in backing those regimes throughout the Middle East, including [in] Syria now. Saudi Arabia’s interests are not necessarily our interests.
DB: You made this film quite a bit different from some of the traditional filmmakers. There is a lone narrator, not a lot of talking heads. Why did you do it the way you did?
OS: We wanted to make it fast – 120 years in 12 hours. We had to travel and wanted to stick to the big points, not get stuck with the smaller points, which are important, and were brought into the book. It is hard to simplify. Each chapter is dedicated, in 58 minutes and 30 seconds, to telling a narrative story. We ended up using my voice, which was used as a temp-track, but people were responding positively to it, so we stayed with it, otherwise I would have used Lawrence Olivier – just kidding. The archival footage was terrific, with a lot of original material from around the world. Rob Wilson pulled that in. Music was by Craig Armstrong and Adam Peters, both great composers of the original music, which gives the whole series a movie feel – a lift, which is lovely.
We used film clips, which is important to break the tedium sometimes of looking only at archival footage -although it may be fascinating, it can be a lot for the mind. We decided to cut away the movies, and add movies of the time, which adds spice, color and flavor to help understand the mood of the country, especially if the film is a propaganda film, etc. We had no talking heads, which is important, because it would have broken the rhythm. At times I realized I was making the series for the level of my children, who are smart and went to good schools. There is a lot of information, so these hours can be watched again. We made it a kind of evergreen, so it can last into the future. It is well worth watching a second time, because you can learn something that you may have missed, since it does go fast.
DB: The context and continuum are crucial as well. When you see it in a flow, it begins to come together as a whole in terms of the nature of U.S. policy.
OS: That’s right. Don’t get stuck in the details, because the details can drive you down. The everyday news in this country, the 24-hours news cycle, is ridiculous. You rarely get a big picture.
DB: That’s how they teach journalism. They don’t want you to link. I did a lot of journalism, and every time I wrote a story that tried to give some historical context, first it was the good images – “we don’t want any good imagery”, then it was the context – “this is just about what happened there, then and now.” It’s a killer.
OS: That’s the beauty of history – why I have always loved history. It allows you to think and put together events and make sense of them. Often we only react to the tyranny of now. The maps are extraordinary in the film, done by a very good graphic company, and they made a special effort to make the maps live. We sometimes used old maps, but we also put new maps in, which allow you to understand some of the geopolitical moves of, for example, the British Empire, and its reach in 1940. Churchill was fighting to protect much more than England itself.
DB: Maps have been a key part of deception and lying about history, haven’t they?
OS: Yes. Churchill plays a huge role in the Cold War too. Greece was the first [Cold War] battle, and that was Churchill’s war, which set us up for Truman’s Turkish-Greek aid advisors who use the word terrorist as early as 1947 and declare the National Security Agency.
DB: Speaking of the NSA, and Edward Snowden. Any surprises? Do you conduct your life differently now? Do you have more face-to-face meetings?
OS: During these five years I wasn’t able to develop anything long range – only this. It refreshed me in a deep way, like going back to school and getting a PhD. Now I feel like I have a solid foundation to understand all the recent history in the U.S. I hope I can bring it back to film. After you do something like this, it is hard to settle on one story.
DB: May be those releases, revelations, will change in some way how history is recorded.
OS: I hope so. It is so difficult to sell something like this to a public that has been brainwashed for so many years. It feels like we are an exception to the rule.