Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States—conclusion

Posted on April 16, 2013. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , |

Hello and welcome to the last post in our unexpectedly long series on Oliver Stone’s new TV series, The Untold History of the United States, currently airing on Showtime. We are analyzing and judging Episode 1 – World War II on its historical accuracy, as Stone asks us to do in the intro.

We left off with 15 minutes to go, and the Allies yet to open a second front in western Europe to relieve the pressure on the Soviet Union, which was fighting off the Nazi invasion launched in 1941. At 51.00 Stone, narrating, shows a propaganda movie clip of Russian people of all ages swearing to fight the Nazis to the death, and describes the superhuman effort of the Russian people to push back the Germans. While their sacrifice was astounding, the lionization of the people ends up subbing in for a frank assessment of Stalin, whose incompetent leadership repeatedly betrayed his people. At last at 55.40 Stone does mention that Stalin decreed that anyone caught retreating or surrendering was to be treated as a traitor, and his family imprisoned. Over 135,000 Russian soldiers were executed during the course of the war for this “treason”; Stone also mentions the over 400,000 prisoners still held in Soviet gulags during the war. He does not say who they were, eliding the fact that many thousands were Polish citizens removed from their homes during the Soviet occupation of Poland. Instead, Stone turns away from a close inspection of Soviet policy under Stalin to focus once more on the heroism of Soviet soldiers.

At 57.52 the episode wraps up by saying: “Though the myth lives on that the U.S. won World War II, serious historians agree that it was the Soviet Union and its entire society, including its brutal dictator Joseph Stalin,who, through sheer desperation and incredibly stoic heroism forged the great narrative of World War II: the defeat of the monster German war machine.”

Again, as we mentioned in our first post, one immediately wonders who the “serious historians” consulting on this project were, but an examination of the credits brings up only three “Researchers” who are not listed as having advanced degrees or belonging to any university or institution. Dr. Peter Kuznick has a bio on the website; he 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?

We ask because the closing statement is full of holes. No reputable historian of WWII says that the U.S. won it; it is always acknowledged as the joint effort of Britain, the USSR, the U.S., forces from the British Commonwealth, and resistance movements, like the Polish Home Army, in occupied Europe. The Soviets holding on and keeping the Nazis from the Baku oil fields was critical in the Allied victory, but the Soviets alone did not win the war, either. Even if they had been able to force the Nazis out of their country, that would not have stopped fighting on other fronts, like Italy and North Africa, which Stone dismisses as small potatoes because Allied forces there generally “only faced about 10 German battalions.”

More crucially, had the Soviets won the war on their own, they would not have had to negotiate with Roosevelt and Churchill, and would simply have taken over as much of Europe as they possibly could have, fulfilling the same purpose Hitler had had in invading eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself. Winning the war is not winning the peace, and in this case, the peace was as hard-fought for by the Allied leaders as the war had been, as Churchill and Roosevelt tried to keep Stalin from seizing 3/4 of Europe and starting a war with Britain and the U.S. for the rest of it.

We have documented the extremely rose-colored view of Stalin and the Soviet Union throughout this first episode in our earlier posts. Stone says that the major goal of the series is to find unsung American heroes and to “explore the demonization of the Soviets.” So we know up-front that the USSR is going to be presented in a better light than usual, and that makes the “serious historian” uneasy. Whenever you have a goal of undermining the popular view of a person, group, or issue, you have to make your goal clear throughout your work. You can’t just present a radically different view without comment, and you have to back up your new theory with plenty of research. You have to say, for example, “Most people say the Soviets would only have started another war to take Europe if Churchill and Roosevelt hadn’t been firm with him, but I can prove that’s not true.” Then you make your contrary case and prove it with primary documents. Stone does not do this. He leaves out information that contradicts his theory, and that means he is not a serious historian, and cannot ask us to accept his series as serious history.

We can’t say for sure what the point of glorifying the Soviets is in this series; perhaps it will become clear in later episodes, or maybe it will just be put out there over and over with no explanation. It’s likely that for each glorification of the Soviets there will be a denigration of the U.S., since Stone wants to flip the US-good/Soviet Union-bad paradigm. But we are unlikely ever to know, since we won’t be watching any more movie-making masquerading as historical documentary, and will stick with serious history, radical and persuasive as it is.

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2 Responses to “Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States—conclusion”

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I’ve really enjoyed this extended critique, both for its own sake and because it speaks to a real problem with the way history tends to be situated on TV in general. The best we might say about Stone’s project is that he appears to be (over)reacting against a certain kind of reflexive and uninformed “man in the street” version, especially of WWII. That is, he is railing against the drunken uncle at Christmas who says something like “Damn those cowardly French, if it wasn’t for us going over there and taking care of business, Europe would be still be the Third Reich.” As you rightly point out, no serious (over even semi-serious historians) adhere to such ridiculous views. Therefore, he creates non-existent “history straw men” to stand in for what are not the actual consensus historical positions. This renders his project very different from, say, “a People’s History of the United States” or 20th century European history by Eric Hobshawm, for example. A recent Smithsonian channel special, “The King’s Skeleton” was similarly off-track in allowing the Richard III Society to bring in a weeping, virulently pro-Richard spokesperson who created similar straw men, when in reality no serious Medieval historians have such a naive or unbalanced view of Richard III, nor do they uncritically accept any of the obvious Tudor propaganda about him (and haven’t for over a century at least), yet the Society made it seem, during the show that only they hold out against an ignorant historical profession that “believes” Richard was a twisted hunchbacked (he was hunchbacked, as the special shows to the chagrin of the spokesperson) tyrant thrice as evil as any other Medieval monarch.
Perhaps Stone’s history in “conspiracy” filmmaking (i.e., JFK) is also relevant here?
I have grown increasingly concerned, however, when watching science and history programming (especially outside my own areas of specialization), about what is being glossed over, simplified, or simply presenting incorrectly out of some misguided “teach the controversy” paradigm. It is especially egregious with things like the Shakespeare “authorship debate” which is, in fact, not a debate at all, but a small band of non-specialist crackpots arguing against mountains of serious scholarship. This seems to be Stone’s position as well and I am so glad that an American historian such as yourself is presenting such a detailed critique.

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Hello John; thanks for writing. It’s true that setting up a straw man to represent ideas or attitudes no one really has and then attacking that straw man creates a lot of heat but no light. The Richard III show is a good example of the trap anyone can fall into, of needing your hypotheses to be true so badly that you can’t accept it when they are disproved. Disappointing as it can be, the good historian has to accept the truth when it is discovered, and has to root for the truth to come out, even if it ruins their pet theory. This kind of objectivity is hard to come by, but it’s a basic requirement for anyone presenting history to the world.

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