Oliver Stone’s untold history of the United States (and the Soviet Union)

Posted on April 10, 2013. Filed under: American history, Historians, Politics, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

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.

Next time: “historians agree”

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

Posted on April 8, 2013. Filed under: American history, Historians, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

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 

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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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