If you thought Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States—a ten-part documentary series premiering November 12 on Showtime—would offer a series of conspiracy theories concerning the American past, you would be wrong. Despite Stone’s 1991 film JFK, there’s no JFK assassination conspiracy here—just a statement that the public found “unconvincing” the Warren Commission’s conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. There’s no 9/11 conspiracy, and no allegations that Franklin Roosevelt schemed in secret to get the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor as a backdoor way to force the United States into World War II. The series’ massive, 750-page companion volume, co-written with historian Peter Kuznick, also shuns conspiracy theories.
The “untold history” here, which starts with World War II and ends with Obama, will not be unknown to readers of The Nation. Many of them already know that the Soviet Union defeated Hitler’s armies, not the United States; that Japan would have surrendered in August 1945 without the use of atomic bombs; that the United States has a long history of backing right-wing dictators around the world rather than supporting democratic movements. But many TV viewers are not Nation subscribers—at least that’s what I’ve been told—and even longtime readers of America’s oldest weekly will find plenty of provocative ideas here. Stone is quick to acknowledge that he is hardly the first to present this kind of alternative, critical view—his illustrious predecessors include, of course, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, and also the bestselling Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen. But neither of those historians ever had a ten-part series on cable television. Only Oliver Stone has the power to pull that off.
If there are no conspiracy theories here, Stone also eschews another line of argument that many might expect from him: that the ruling class is all-powerful, that Wall Street—the subject of one of his most memorable films—controls everything, along with bankers and the corporate elite, leaving ordinary people helpless. The thesis of the Showtime series, as well as its companion volume, is different: that history is not an iron cage, the keys to which are held by the ruling class. At many pivotal moments, Stone argues, history could have taken a radically different course. The missed opportunities, the roads not taken—these are Stone’s central themes, which he argues with energy, passion and a mountain of evidence (the companion volume has eighty-nine pages of footnotes).
Case number one: if Henry Wallace had won the vice presidential nomination in 1944, he would have become president when Roosevelt died in 1945, and we probably would not have bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and could have avoided the cold war as well. It’s a startling and intriguing argument. Usually we teach about Wallace as the hopeless, left-wing third-party candidate of 1948, when he split from the Democrats and ran on the Progressive Party ticket. McCarthyism had already taken hold of American politics, and Wallace was redbaited into a crushing defeat.
Four years earlier, however, the situation was very different: Wallace was Roosevelt’s incumbent vice president, and the Soviets were our allies. A Gallup poll in July 1944 asked likely Democratic voters whom they wanted on the ticket as veep. Sixty-five percent said Wallace, while Truman came in eighth, with just 2 percent. Roosevelt announced that, were he a delegate, he would vote for Wallace. Claude Pepper, a Democratic senator from Florida, tried to nominate Wallace at the convention, but the conservative party bosses, who opposed him, adjourned the proceedings. “Had Pepper made it five more feet [to the microphone] and nominated Wallace,” Stone argues, “Wallace would have become president in 1945 and…there might have been no atomic bombings, no nuclear arms race, and no Cold War.”
Case number two: even with Truman as president in 1945, it was not a foregone conclusion that the United States would drop the bomb. Generals Eisenhower and MacArthur both opposed it, along with most of the other top generals and admirals—and they were joined by many of the scientists who had developed the bomb. If only President Truman had listened to them…
Case number three: if JFK had not been shot in 1963, Stone is convinced he would have pulled US forces out of Vietnam and negotiated an end to the cold war.
Case number four: if George W. Bush had listened to his intelligence agencies in 2001, the 9/11 attacks would not have taken place.
None of these hypotheticals, Stone claims, were impossible long shots or hopeless causes; every one of them could have happened. There’s plenty here to argue about—I debated with colleagues about the Wallace scenario for days—but that’s one of the things that make Stone’s work so engaging and rewarding.
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Historical documentaries are familiar fare on TV. Of course, we have Ken Burns on PBS and the endless hours of World War II on the History Channel. But these are celebratory stories of American heroism and virtue—precisely what Stone rejects. He has achieved something quite different, something closer to what Jeremy Isaacs accomplished in his two monumental documentaries: The World at War, a twenty-six-hour series on World War II produced by Britain’s Thames Television and broadcast in the United States on PBS in 1975, and Cold War, a twenty-four-part series conceived by Ted Turner and shown on CNN in 1998. These are magnificent works that tell their stories from different viewpoints and avoid American exceptionalism.
Stone’s style of documentary filmmaking, however, departs radically from the conventions. Ken Burns, Jeremy Isaacs and the History Channel all follow the same timeworn format: a series of talking heads—experts and “witnesses”—appear onscreen to tell viewers what to think, and when they are finished, illustrative footage is presented. Stone has eliminated all the talking heads, on the grounds that they disrupt the flow of images. Indeed, a parade of different people, with their different ways of speaking, can be distracting. In Stone’s series, he is the sole narrator, calm but forceful, and aside from a brief appearance at the start of the first episode, we never see him onscreen—we see only the newsreel footage, the headlines, the maps, the historical documents. The resulting programs have an undeniable visual power, even though the black-and-white newsreel footage may not engage younger generations raised on high-definition color.
When I asked Stone at a recent book event in West Hollywood why he decided to take up TV documentaries, he said one man was responsible: Peter Kuznick, a professor of history and the director of the award-winning Nuclear Studies Institute at American University. Kuznick is the author of Beyond the Laboratory: Scientists as Political Activists in 1930s America, and the co-editor of Rethinking Cold War Culture. He also provides a valuable service every summer: he takes an American history class on a field trip to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (He calls it “education abroad.”)
For years, Kuznick taught a course at American University titled “Oliver Stone’s America.” Stone finally accepted an invitation to come to the class, and at a dinner afterward, he says, Kuznick told him the story of how close Wallace came to getting renominated as vice president in 1944. Stone says that’s what convinced him to do a history documentary for TV, and to ask Kuznick to be his co-author and partner on what would become a four-year project. There’s never been anything like it on television; the prevailing notions of American “altruism, benevolence, and self-sacrifice” have never been challenged quite so effectively for such a wide audience.
In our November 19 issue, Eric Alterman punctured enduring myths about the Cuban missile crisis.