Oliver Stone’s untold history of the United States (and the Soviet Union)
Part 3 of our series on Stone’s “Untold History of the United States”, currently running in 10 one-hour episodes on Showtime. So far in our review of Episode 1—World War II, we have not encountered a lot of U.S. history; it has mostly been a retelling of world events with a loving focus on Stalin and the Soviet Union as lone crusaders against Hitler. More, unfortunately, on that below.
But at about 19.00 Stone introduces Henry Wallace, FDR’s Secretary of Agriculture, as our first unsung hero of U.S. history. Wallace directed the soil conservation program that helped reverse the Dust Bowl, and was an outspoken opponent of racism against black Americans and Jewish people worldwide. When FDR chose Wallace as his running mate in 1940, the Democratic party protested, leading the president to write a letter to the delegates at the Democratic National Convention saying he would not accept their nomination if they did not accept Wallace’s. Stone edits the letter, of course, to make a sound bite; there’s nothing wrong with that. But oddly, he changes the end of the letter fairly substantially. The actual text is:
“The party must go wholly one way or wholly the other. It cannot face in both directions at the same time. By declining the honor of the nomination for the presidency, I can restore that opportunity to the convention. I so do.”
Stone gives it as:
“The party cannot face in both directions at the same time. Therefore I decline the honor of the nomination for the presidency.”
The meaning is changed, from “I will refuse to run unless you let me unify the party on morally right terms” to “I’m not running.” This level of editing makes one wonder about the accuracy of all the other quotes given in the episode, and whether the goal of making a more dramatic soundbite led Stone and the editors to substantially change the content of other quotes.
Another basic law of documentary film-making is broken here, as Stone uses footage of Roosevelt delivering a radio address as a voiceover artist reads the letter text, seemingly saying to viewers that this is footage of Roosevelt actually reading from the letter. The lips don’t match the words well until the very end, where whatever Roosevelt was actually saying matches “the presidency” very closely. You don’t pretend to have footage of something you don’t have footage of.
FDR’s tough stance paid off, and Wallace was accepted as the vice-presidential nominee. So far in the episode, FDR is coming off pretty well, as someone who would have liked to aid the Spanish Republic, and forced his party into braving conservative pressure. The only real negative so far is the U.S.’s perversely small quota allowed for Jewish immigration from 1933-1945, for which FDR must take some blame.
At 27.40, Stone at last acknowledges Stalin’s paranoia by saying it would not allow him to believe that Germany would attack its new Soviet ally in 1941. But we veer back into Stalin-boosting at 29.28, when Stone says that after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union was launched, “Stalin begged Britain for military material and to land immediately in Europe and engage Hitler on a second front. And for the west, it was now crucial to keep the Soviet Union in the war to absorb the main thrust of the Nazi war machine.” To say that the Allies wanted the Soviet Union in the war simply to let someone else be destroyed in their place is inaccurate, to put it mildly, and Stone himself contradicts this cynical view immediately before this clip, at 29.15, when he says the west feared that the Soviets would fall to the Nazis, and conclude a separate peace. The prospect of the Nazis controlling the Soviet Union and its massive resources of farmland and oil was so dire that Churchill, an entrenched anti-communist, “pledged support for the Soviet Union.” So the real reason it was crucial to keep the Soviet Union in the war was not so it could be destroyed by the Nazis while the west looked on laughing, but to keep it in the war so that its crucial resources would not be used to fuel the Nazi war effort. If the Soviet Union fell, the odds of defeating the Nazis shrank considerably.
But Stone continues to present the west as anxious to support a Nazi victory over the Soviet Union, explaining the reluctance of U.S. military leaders to send war materiel to the USSR, and the reluctance of the British to divert that war materiel from their own war effort to the eastern front, this way: “There were still many in the west who frankly were glad to see the Soviet Union finally on her knees.” It’s true that many American leaders would have been glad to see the Soviet Union fall. It’s not true to say that that is the reason why they did not want to provide war supplies to Stalin. American leaders hesitated to get involved in a war the U.S. was not part of—in the summer of 1941 the U.S. was officially neutral, and getting involved in the war might invite an attack on the U.S. British leaders hesitated to redirect war supplies from Britain to the Soviet Union because Britain was still fighting for its life at that point. They did not know, as we do now, that Germany would not attempt another invasion of Great Britain. Britain was the only western European nation still fighting the Nazis, and it’s reasonable that its leaders would not want their only outside supply line from the U.S. sent to the eastern front. Stone has just said Churchill pledged to support the Soviet Union because he needed them in the war. So how can he then say Britain was “frankly” glad to see the Soviet Union fall?
The real issue in 1941 was one that would persist for three more years: the Allies wanted to open up a western front but were unable to get the foothold in Europe to do so, and needed considerable firepower in the west to create that opportunity. There was no conspiracy to let the Nazis destroy the Soviet Union. If the USSR fell, then the Nazis could return their full focus to the west, and then the odds of carrying out the D-Day invasion would have shrunk dramatically.
Stone then moves on to FDR’s secret meeting with Churchill in Newfoundland in August 1941, and notes that FDR was reluctant to help Churchill protect and extend its empire; the Atlantic Charter that came out of the meeting that set the Allied goals for a post-war world specifically ruled out “territorial aggrandizement” as a goal. Stone then has audio of FDR explaining the “Four Freedoms” (freedom of speech and worship, freedom from want and fear), and ends it by saying “These were big words, but the Atlantic Charter was a truly visionary document.” (34.03) The Four Freedoms, however, were not in the Atlantic Charter; they were introduced in a speech by FDR 7 months earlier, in January 1941. Yes, the principles of the Freedoms are upheld by the Atlantic Charter, but the articulation of the Freedoms is not in the Charter, and it’s sloppy history to say they were. And just another red flag about the accuracy of the series as a whole…
…as we see when we move on to the origins of the Manhattan Project. Stone describes how it was turned over to the U.S. military and the oversight of Major General Leslie Groves. He says that Vice President Wallace “had a low opinion of Groves, believing him ‘a slightly pathological, anti-semitic Roosevelt-hater, and outright fascist.'” (42.54) Then Stone moves on to the team Groves created. Wallace may well have believed Groves was all those things, but the responsible historian cannot simply present Wallace’s opinion as the objective truth about Groves, as Stone does here. What if a history of the U.S. 50 years from now introduces President Obama by quoting a neo-conservative politician claiming that Obama was a Kenyan citizen posing illegally as a U.S. citizen, and then just moved on, letting that stand as the only description of the president, tacitly saying it is true? What if a history of the U.S. 50 years from now introduced President George W. Bush by quoting an activist claiming that Bush was in on the September 11th attacks and then moved on, letting it stand as true? If you present incendiary charges in what is supposed to be a documentary, you have to prove them. Stone does not.
On to another go-around at 44.22 about Stalin “pleading” for a second front, and here at least gives a few accurate reasons why this didn’t happen, from Eisenhower’s estimation that it would take much longer than the U.S. had thought to create the opportunity for a landing in western Europe to Churchill’s concerns about holding North Africa, in part hoping that the second front could be opened up in southern Europe from British North Africa.
We are almost done; next time will be the last time, but it will be an enormous dose of truth v. myth, so be ready.