Famed film director (and history buff) Oliver Stone’s long-awaited The Untold History of the United States series debuted on Showtime on November 12. The series focuses on the period just before and after World War II, and then carries the themes forward through various US wars (cold and hot) and other issues.
Tonight’s episode, the third in the series, offers a fresh view—for most Americans, anyway—of our use of the atomic bomb against Japan.
The series has also spawned a companion book with the same title, by Stone and historian Peter Kuznick, and it’s mammoth, at over 700 pages in hardback. It starts a little earlier than the series, with World War I, and ends with the Obama era, and features blurbs from, among others, Mikhail Gorbachev, Douglas Brinkley and Dan Ellsberg, who says it would make Howard Zinn proud.
The Hiroshima chapter makes a strong case against the use of the bomb. Stone and Kuznick focus on Russia’s entry into the war, as we had insisted, two days after we dropped the bomb. That shocking and cataclysmic event would have (likely) forced a speedy Japanese surrender without the use of the atomic weapon, which killed over 200,000—the vast majority civilians, mainly women and children—in the two cities.
Kuznick, who teaches at American University, heads the Nuclear Studies Institute there, has written widely on the atomic bombings, and every year takes one of his classes to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where I spent a month back in 1984. (One of my books on the subject here and see my piece here on two soldiers who shot historic footage in Hiroshima and Nagasaki—and then saw it suppressed for decades.)
Stone and Kuznick title the forty-eight-page Hiroshima chapter in their book "The Bomb: Tragedy of a Small Man." That man, of course, is President Truman. The book, and the TV series, make the claim that if progressive hero Henry Wallace had not been booted off the Roosevelt ticket in 1944 in favor of hack politician Truman, history would have been much different (concerning both the use of the bomb and the coming of the cold war). But how did Stone reach his conclusions on Truman’s misuse of the bomb? I opened my interview with him a few days ago with that query.
Greg Mitchell: Most Americans never change their views about the atomic bombings. Did you support the use of the bomb for most of your life?
Oliver Stone: I think my views changed fairly recently after Peter delivered to me a lot of research. Frankly, my views have changed on many issues since I was raised as a Republican during the Eisenhower era. But you have to realize that I was coming from a very different planet than Peter. For instance, I was in Vietnam and he was protesting Vietnam, and it took me years to change my perspective on that war.
Feature films allowed me to research many issues separately—JFK, Nixon, Salvador, Cuba and other issues. But there were also various issues that I was interested in that could not be a feature film. So Peter had this story of the bomb. And frankly, the bomb as a feature movie is a bore. I have to say that because I’ve seen so many of the films—love stories, all sorts of angles, including the French film Hiroshima, Mon Amour, which was impressionistic. I haven’t seen any momentum in Hollywood to make a feature film about Hiroshima.
It’s more like, “Oh, that again.” There’s a stigma to it. That’s the way people feel. Kids don’t even want to read about it, they look at it with bored eyes because they know the ending. And it’s always sold to us as, “Oh, you know, we had to do it.”
And frankly, it was the least interesting part our series for me until Peter told me the Henry Wallace aspect and 1944, a real eye-opener. Wallace leads back and forward to the bomb.
And you ended up making it an entire episode.
At one point we had twelve chapters in the series. We would open with World War I, which I love, there’s so much to tell about it, and the 1930s, but found out it was hard enough to just go from World War II and the cold war forward. But we start the whole series with the bomb, the first image in the first chapter, I think, is Oppenheimer, and then we come back with the full episode later.
Of course, the bomb was the origin myth for my generation, in a sense the founder’s myth. We were already looking at World War II in the series in a different way, in relation to the US and the Soviets, but even so, the bomb is a founder’s myth because it gave us the right and the moral good to do whatever we wanted in the world. And we’d already shown we are tough—we’d already used it. Because we have the bomb we can do anything, except maybe drop it in cold blood without manufacturing enough evidence.
It’s like when we go into all these countries around the world because we “had to.” Go to Iraq and trash it completely—many of us know we did wrong there but then many forgive ourselves because, you know, we had the right!
Our leaders and the media always say, “Never again,” the weapon is too cruel, but then fully support the use of the bomb already—essentially making two exceptions to never using it. A rather mixed message.
It’s becomes part of our unconscious. We are trying to do a service in this documentary by pointing to the notion that it was not even necessary strategically, besides being morally reprehensible.
You didn’t know much about all of this ten years ago?
Yeah, ten years more or less, because I had not read that much about it and I was on to other things. I had some strong suspicions about the military, and about Truman for other reasons—because when George Bush and Condoleezza Rice admire him so much my scale goes the other direction! When Time magazine calls him one of the best presidents, that’s when my bullshit meter goes way up.
The whole point is not to put Truman down—he was a small man in a big time. it was not fully Truman’s decision, there were forces upon him to drop the bomb. As you know, the more you learn about it, the more horrific it becomes to your conscience.
It’s like the first myth of all, the Garden of Eden—biting the apple. In the Bible at least they get thrown out of the Garden of Eden. But in our case, we ate the apple, but we say, we had to do it. [Laughs]
One thing that really struck you in all the research?
The Russia thing. Learning the details of the Russian invasion made me think of alternatives and what-ifs. We didn’t have our invasion planned until November, if we even had to have one, and by August 9 the Russians have already invaded and they’re mopping up the Japanese. What would it have taken for them to finish the job or make them surrender? A week, a few weeks? There’s no issue here.
The other thing that struck me was that the Japanese didn’t even recognize what happened at Hiroshima really. They’d been so decimated by the terror bombing of Curtis LeMay.
Why are you so convinced Wallace would not have gone ahead with the bombing?
Because of what he’d written and said before. The forces around him would have pushed him in that direction but—it’s possible he would have gone along but the man’s character was among the strongest, I feel it was rock solid.
But look at Obama, his views might have been more dovish but once he became commander-in-chief that changed.
Wallace had been around since the ’30s in Roosevelt’s cabinet, then vice president, and been exposed to all of the thinking and the world, and if anyone was to succeed Roosevelt and resist the use of the bomb it was him.
Why are Americans so resistant to having an open mind on the subject of dropping the bomb twice in 1945?
I think it’s our national character. Most Americans believe in God, there’s good and evil in the world, and we’re for good, and you cannot admit we did wrong on Hiroshima, you cannot. You’d have to change your whole view of our morality and how we’ve used our power to threaten others and get our way. It’s very hard for the ordinary mind to accept guilt. Denial is much easier. It’s the way of the world, whether it’s after a war or other issues. It’s in our soul and everyone has to wrestle with it individually and there’s a lot in our subconscious.
And, as I’ve explored for years in my own writing, the government suppressed facts and images related to the atomic bombings for decades, a full “cover-up.” If we had nothing to be ashamed of, why the suppression?
That’s the nature of life, denial.
Does this defending the use of the bomb make it easier for us and others to use the weapon again?
Without a doubt. And not just the bomb, any kind of space frontier weapon now in the works. It’s very dangerous where we are now, and how ignorant we are about our history.
Greg Mitchell is the author of Atomic Cover-up: Two U.S. Soldiers, Hiroshima & Nagasaki and the Greatest Movie Never Made and, with Robert Jay Lifton, Hiroshima in America. He is the former editor of Nuclear Times and Editor & Publisher and has written about the atomic bombing for dozens of leading magazines and newspapers. See his video on suppression of film footage from Hiroshima here.
For more on Oliver Stone’s Untold History, check out Jon Wiener’s review.