A review of Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States

Posted on April 4, 2013. Filed under: American history, Historians, What History is For | Tags: , , |

Director Oliver Stone claims that “there is a classified America we were never meant to see”, comprised of “events that at the time went under reported but crucially shaped America’s unique and complex history.” Rather than write off this effort as part of Stone’s work in conspiracy-theory proliferation without investigating, we took a look at episode 1, “World War II”, watching it on the series’ website. The copy on the episode home page says, in part, “Through examination of key decisions during World War II, discover unsung heroes such as American Henry Wallace and explore the demonization of the Soviets.”

The odd thing about this premiere episode of a series on secret U.S. history is that about 70% of it was not about the U.S., but a pretty standard overview of the run-up to the war and how it was fought. With some odd exceptions.

The lead-in shows Stone telling us that as a boy he thought he knew America—he learned in his “extensive” studies of history at school that “we were the good guys.” But as he traveled the world and served in Vietnam and made movies, “some of them about history,” he has learned otherwise. Seeing his children learn the same dishonest history provoked him to create something that “looks beyond what I call the tyranny of now” to the “really important subconscious stuff” that is going on under the surface. He wanted “to tell the American story in a way that it has never been told before”, mostly by debunking accepted heroes and presenting those who were unsung heroes. We will learn about “the meaning of this country, and what so radically changed after World War II.”

Somehow it’s not surprising that he starts mid-20th century; so few people are interested in our earlier history, with the exception of the Civil War.

The episode then begins with footage from a government documentary (after the fact) about the Manhattan Project, and uses celebratory classical music over scenes of an atomic explosion—a bit of sarcasm that is not only cruelly overused but immediately makes one wonder if the episode as a whole will take the easy way out of showing something negative in cartoon form rather than forcing the viewer to take in its full context. As the film rolls, Stone, who narrates throughout, says that the bomb “turned the refuge of the Founding Fathers into a militarized state.”

Stone makes the first of his debunking claims [at 6.22]: “Generations of Americans have been taught that the United States reluctantly dropped atomic bombs at the end of World War II to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of young men poised to die in an invasion of Japan. But the story is really more complicated, more interesting, and much more disturbing.”

The problem with both the claim about a militarized state and the “real” story of the bomb here is that neither is addressed in this episode. Granted this is the first in a long series, but if you raise dramatically striking issues at the beginning of an episode, you have to at least touch on them at some point in that episode. But it seems one will have to watch episode 2 (at least) to get any more data on these claims. For now, we are dealing strictly with the rollout of WWII.

Americans remember WWII as a good war but, Stone says, the rest of the world, “not so blessed,” remembers it as the bloodiest war in human history. This is specious in a few ways. First, Americans remember it as a “good war”, in quotes, because it was fought for a good cause (stopping fascism), not because it was a good time. Second, Americans certainly honor the bloodshed of the war. Third, Stone never describes what makes the U.S. “so blessed”; one has to assume it’s the fact that no battles were fought on U.S. soil (aside from the Pearl Harbor attack) and that war production built our economy. But to imply that because we fought the war in other lands, Americans love WWII and tacitly wish it would happen again while all other nations somberly recognize it for what it was is beyond ridiculous.

In his chronology of what is usually seen as the run-up to the war (Stone says the war began in 1931; that unlike other wars, it began  “slowly and incrementally” with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria), Stone devotes time to the Spanish Civil War. He claims that the Second Spanish Republic had made enemies of big business in the U.S. because of its “progressive policies and tight regulation of business.” This led Firestone, Ford, GM, and “others” to provide Franco’s fascists with “trucks, tires, and machine tools”, and Texaco, headed by pro-fascist Torkild Rieber, promised Franco unlimited oil on credit.

There are two problems here: first, it’s true that Rieber was pro-fascist. But you can’t fall back on the catch-all “others” in this way.If you name four companies, you have to name them all—why should the four be called out publicly while the “others” get to remain anonymous? If it’s important to name some, why isn’t it important to name all? One gets the feeling that Stone wants to call out the biggest companies because they are the ones we know, and will be shocked at, while the others are less well-known and won’t be as effective. That is something historians do not do because it’s misleading and unprofessional; the other names would at least appear in a footnote.

Second, Stone clearly means to shame the U.S. government and people with this information, although FDR (as Stone mentions) was furious and the American people likely knew little about it.

It’s true that the Republican government of Spain was not popular with U.S. big business, in large part because it promoted socialism and nationalized the railways and banking, anathema to American free enterprise. But to equate nationalization with regulation is inaccurate, since they are two very different things; so is describing socialism as “progressive policies,” especially in the context of U.S. history in the early 20th century, when the Progressive movement was still an active if waning force in our country and was decidedly not socialist. This insidious favoring of the Spanish Republican government, presenting it as all good when the reality was complex, is disingenuous at best. This kind of twisting of the facts will recur in descriptions of Stalin and the Soviet Union later in the episode.

At this point, one has to start wondering which historians advised the series. Only one is named: Peter Kuznick, who specializes in atomic- and nuclear-era U.S. history. Clearly Dr. Kuznick’s expertise will be critical in later episodes that focus on the Cold War, but in this WWII overview episode, it can have been put to minimal use at best. Who else informed this episode? The closing credits list three “researchers” without Ph.D.s (at least they are not credited as such) or affiliation. When you are hired by a company called “Secret History LLC”, how much autonomy can you expect to have as you research? The sinking feeling that we will not quite be getting fully accurate history in this series setsin at this point and does not go away. As you’ll see in our own multi-episode “series” on this single episode and the ax it grinds, this episode likes to use real history to tell lies, mostly by taking quotes out of context, using leading language to color events, and drawing conclusions unsupported by facts.

To return to the Spanish Civil war segment, documentary footage is suddenly dropped, at 11.20, to use footage from a Hollywood movie to describe the heroic actions of Americans fighting in Spain against Franco. The movie—“For Whom the Bell Tolls”—was made in 1943, during WWII, and puts a strong spin on the motives of Americans fighting in the Spanish Civil War to make them jibe with the motives of Americans fighting in World War II. Gary Cooper plays the American hero who says he must fight in Spain to keep the war from coming to his own country: “It’s not only Spain fighting here, is it? …The Nazis are using your country as a proving ground for their new war machine, their tanks and dive bombers, and stuff like that, so they can get the jump on the democracies and knock off England and France and my country before we get armed and ready to fight.” These are clearly the sentiments of an American in 1943, not 1936; precious few Americans went to Spain in the 30s to fight the Nazis, with a prescient eye to what Germany was planning in the future—maybe none did. The episode, to its credit, uses a large lower-third to identify the switch to a Hollywood movie; it doesn’t try to pass Cooper off as a real volunteer. But to its discredit, the episode does present the 1943 spin as representative of 1936, a violation of basic history-writing. If Stone wants to be taken seriously by historians and the public, he can’t blur that line.

We’ll continue on in our own episode two where we get our first oddly revisionist presentation of Stalin.

Next time—Stalin stands alone against Hitler? 

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