Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States—Episode 1

On we go in part 2 of our review of director Oliver Stone’s TV series “Untold History of the United States”, now airing on Showtime. We’re analyzing it for its historical accuracy and reliability. Why do this? Because Stone asks us to, in the intro to episode 1, “World War II”, in which he says rather than make another narrative movie, he thought the important topic of “real” U.S. history deserved something more—a documentary series informed by real historians. So we are taking him at his word and watching the show as historians, and as we made clear in our first post, finding it lacking. No one is more dedicated to Truth v. Myth  than the HP, so it’s not that we don’t like myth-busting, one of the promised activities of Stone’s series. It’s just that myth must be busted by truth, and not the other way around, and in Episode 1, at least, there’s a lot of myth posing as truth.

So we left off last time about 12 minutes into “World War II” and now we pick up at 12.35, where Stone, narrating, says that western non-intervention in the Spanish Civil War convinced Stalin by 1939 that “the western powers had no real interest in a collective action to slow the Nazi advance. For years, the Soviet dictator had implored the west to unite against Hitler and Mussolini, even joining the League of Nations in 1934. But Soviet pleas were repeatedly ignored. And then in 1937, full-scale war erupted in China as the powerful Japanese army captured city after city.”

Like a good dissertation advisor, let’s mark this up: First we are in 1939, with Stalin trying in vain to get the west to fight the Nazis. Coming where this claim does, after a wrap-up of the U.S.’s refusal to intervene in the Spanish Civil War and FDR’s statement that the refusal would come back to haunt the nation, one has to assume that Stone means Stalin was the only major leader who fought the Nazis in Spain and the only leader who was willing to keep fighting them afterward. Stone gets this, apparently, from the fact that the Soviet Union provided war materiel to the Republicans in Spain. But cursory study of the Soviet role in the SCW shows that Stalin intervened only in an attempt to convert the civil war into a communist revolution that would create a Soviet satellite nation in Spain. Stalin’s man in Spain, Alexander Orlov, had the socialist prime minister deposed and installed a communist who could be a puppet leader, and carried out arrests and execution of Republican leaders who did not sympathize with communism. In exchange for military support, Stalin demanded that the Republic pay in gold; about $500 million in gold left Spain for the Soviet Union during the war.

To say that Stalin was “fighting the Nazis” in Spain is disingenuous: he was in a fight to control Spain and had no interest in the stated goals of the Spanish Republicans. He supplied arms to the communist revolutionaries in Spain and directed most of his efforts to using those weapons to rid the revolution of its non-communist participants. Stemming the Nazi menace was fairly far from his mind. Stalin did hate European fascism, because it was not Communist, but his heart did not bleed for Hitler’s victims in Europe. Stalin was only ever concerned with his own security. Spain served his purposes only for as long as he thought he might control it, and begin to build his own empire in Europe.

Next, we have the statement that Stalin had been “imploring” the west “for years” to fight Hitler, and even had the USSR join the League of Nations to get his urgent message heard. First, Stalin never implored the west to fight Hitler, as we have seen. Second, the Soviet Union joined the League of Nations after Germany and Japan withdrew their memberships; Stalin hoped to develop some tactical alliances with western nations alarmed by Hitler’s actions so that if Hitler supported a Japanese attack on the Soviet Union in the east, or Germany attacked in the west, the Soviet Union would be able to call on its new allies to come to its aid. Stalin also wanted to give temporary support to anti-fascist movements in Europe, again to protect his own territory from invasion. No one can argue with the necessity of protecting one’s country from invasion. But to say that the Soviet Union joined the League of Nations primarily as a gesture of goodwill to try to get fighting the Nazis on the agenda is plainly wrong.

Finally, we jump backward in time from 1939 to 1937 to the Japanese invasion of China, which, presented in this way, is seen as an inevitable consequence of the west’s refusal to help Stalin fight Hitler. In reality, Hitler was not interested in really allying with Japan, a racially inferior nation in his view, and there was no cooperation between Germany and Japan before the invasion. So these are unrelated.

We recall at this point that the website for the series claims that we will discover unsung heroes of U.S. history and “explore the demonization of the Soviets”. This agenda is never actually stated in the episode. That is a red flag for the historian, who knows that you must always make your biases and agenda clear in anything you write or produce. When we practice Truth v. Myth here at the HP, it is clearly tagged as such and identified as such within the post. The second problem is that, while revisionist history is valuable, you have to do good history. You can’t take facts (the Soviet Union sending aid to the Republicans, the Soviet Union joining the League of Nations) and simply make up fictional narratives about why they happened. You have to stick to the real facts throughout, and suffer the times when they don’t support your thesis just as you celebrate the times that they do.

That’s a lot of ink to spill on 10 seconds of video. But those 10 seconds are so misleading, they have to be fully unpacked.

We move on, but only to another Stalin example: at 14.45, Stone says that after Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia “Stalin recognized the truth: his country was facing its most deadly enemy alone. He needed to buy time, and fearing a German-Polish alliance to attack the USSR, he shocked the west when he signed a non-aggression pact with Germany.”

The Soviet Union had made an alliance with Czechoslovakia in 1935 as a by-product of its new alliance with France (which was a Czech ally itself). These alliances were the fruits of and the reason for the Soviets’ joining the League of Nations. When Hitler took the Sudetenland nothing happened. When he took the rest of Czechoslovakia, France signed the Munich Agreement, accepting the new status quo and abandoning the Czechs. Churchill looked to Stalin to stand by his alliance; Churchill saw early on both the threat Hitler posed and the necessity of involving the Soviet Union in a war against Hitler. Churchill pushed incessantly for a British alliance with the Soviet Union, but British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was not interested in an alliance that he believed Hitler would find aggressive. When Stalin terminated its alliance with Czechoslovakia, Churchill was shaken, but continued to believe that the virulently anti-fascist Stalin would come around. When Stalin signed the Non-Aggression Pact with Germany in August 1939, just five months after the invasion of Czechoslovakia, Churchill was stunned.

After Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia, the USSR immediately dropped its alliance with that nation and then did absolutely nothing to stop Hitler. And when Stalin was approached by Joachim von Ribbentrop for an alliance with Germany, he accepted with alacrity, not because he feared a Polish-German alliance but for two reasons: first, he saw the Munich Agreement as evidence that France and Britain would not stop a German invasion of the Soviet Union, and second because Ribbentrop agreed to Stalin’s demand for half of Poland in return for an alliance. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was perfect for Stalin because it protected him, he thought, from a western invasion. Germany would not invade, and occupying eastern Poland and part of the Balkans would give the Soviets a buffer zone against any British-French invasion. The Soviet Union also agreed not to get involved in any European war—that is, when Germany launched World War II, the Soviets would not interfere or intervene to protect France, Britain, or any other nation from German invasion.

The idea that Stalin feared a German-Polish alliance strains credulity to the breaking point. Poland had its own non-aggression pacts with Germany and the Soviet Union, but these seemed so flimsy to the Poles that they gratefully accepted British and French guarantees of military protection at the end of March 1939 in case of an attack by Hitler or Stalin. Only the paranoid mind of Stalin could have conjured up the threat of a joint German-Polish invasion of the Soviet Union; for Stone to accept it is baffling.

Stone says that Stalin had proposed to join the Franco-British alliance to protect Poland, but “neither [France nor Britain] would accept Soviet troops on Polish soil as a way of blocking the Germans.” This is astounding. France and Britain knew, as most European nations knew, that Stalin had been angling for years to find a way to annex Poland. That’s why they did not accept Stalin’s offer to occupy Poland “to block the Germans”—they knew it had nothing to do with Germany and everything to do with annexing Poland. Once Soviet troops entered that nation, they would never leave.

We have only covered about 5 minutes of film here. That’s the danger of it. A full hour episode presents stretches of conventional history that lull you into confidence and then slips in 5 minutes here and there of complete malarkey that you might be fooled into accepting.

We hope to make better time in part 3, where we move on to the actual war and more Stalin-burnishing.

Next time: finally a bit of the U.S. in this secret U.S. history