“The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion (to which few members of other civilizations were converted) but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do.” – Samuel P. Huntington
With this ten part documentary series (now with two additional episodes on the new DVD release) The Untold History of the United States, Oliver Stone has cemented his spot as America’s most affable raconteur of radical and revolutionary subject matter. Stone is in a unique position to make a documentary such as this. I can think of almost no one else who could get a program of this type funded and aired on a major cable television channel. Moreover, even if someone else could, it wouldn’t be nearly as good as this. I am still partly in shock that even he had the combination of clout and cunning to be able to pull off a venture of this type and get it aired on a channel such as Showtime. I have to admit early on that I am an easy mark for this kind of stuff. I remember fondly the days when you could turn on the history channel at any time of the day and see actual history centered programming instead of just random rednecks doing whatever dangerous jobs they’ve discovered for them to undertake this week.
This documentary series feels stylistically very similar to many of those old programs, infused with a dash of Ken Burns, a hearty sprinkling of Howard Zinn (author of the great “People’s History of the United States”), and of course a lot of what you’d expect from a historical film made by Oliver Stone. In this series Stone and his editors have crafted a terse and biting rebuke of the last century of American imperialism. The method of his madness fuses many old reels of news footage, some you’ve probably seen, and others you probably haven’t. It is very similar in nature in this regard to “The World at War” for those old enough to have seen that great World War II documentary. Intercut with archival footage Stone also makes great use of another world he’s endlessly familiar with, that being the world of cinema. It’s a jarring but effective tactic, switching between real life war footage with scenes from classic Hollywood movies made during the period and about the very subject matter being talked about. For those not perceptive enough to know the difference between real life and Hollywood though Stone is thoughtful enough to put up a note whenever movie footage is being shown.
Of course, this kind of program will draw a plethora of debate and criticism from all the usual sources. Those who have their version of United States history tucked neatly away in their special ideological box do not look lightly upon Stone’s re-interpreting of the commonly accepted version of history that depicts the United States as God’s singular gift to humanity, and the constant “good guys” in the narrative of world history in the past hundred years or so. That is to be expected, and in fact, is kind of the point. There are instances in this series where I felt Stone was a bit heavy handed in his judgments on US policy makers and a little soft on the Soviet counterparts. However, all of that can be partly forgiven as this documentary series makes no abject claim of neutrality. Its purpose is laid bare from the start for anyone who wants to see it.
The Untold History of the US is not really, as some critics have pointed out already, the “untold” history so much as it is under-told history of it. Stone has said in many interviews he made these films for his children, so that they would have an alternative narrative to the one presented to them in the public school history books. This series as such acts as a counter balance for generation upon generation of jingoistic diatribes about exceptionalism, expansionism, and —that most frowned upon word in the American lexicon— imperialism. So if he’s a little heavy handed in his criticism of American foreign and domestic policy in the past century, it is only because the overwhelming amount of books, documentaries, and literature out there have already done a good enough job of telling the “official” version of American history, and retelling the many instances in which America and her leaders and citizens have acted laudably in various circumstances. With that burden out of the way, the path is cleared for Stone to focus on exposing what he feels has gone wrong with this once great nation of ours in the last hundred years of war and intervention. In the introduction of the book that companions this series Stone and his partner Peter Kuznick outline it the following way.
“We take seriously President John Quincy Adams’s July 4, 1821, condemnation of British colonialism and declaration that the United States “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy” lest she “involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force.” The United States, Adams warned, might “become the dictatress of the world [but] she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.” (Stone/Kuznick page 6)
Each episode of this series last roughly an hour long and covers about a decade of US history. Stone begins the documentary series at the onset of World War II and takes it all the way to the present. It would be an attempt in futility to recap every single point and criticism in here, but I mention the scope just to make a note that the research here appears to have been quite exhaustive. Oliver narrates this material himself and he really has a knack for it. Since this is such a labor of love for him it adds a much greater level of impact to hear him covering the events that get reviewed here.
In the first few episodes, as said, Stone covers the onset and culmination of the Second World War. Most Americans today believe that war was decided solely by American involvement, but Stone reminds us that during the course of the war it was in fact those pesky evil Soviets that bore the loss of over twenty million of their people, compared to America’s half a million total, and also they were responsible for fighting and destroying far more German divisions than the US and the UK combined. Stone spends considerable time building up to the use of the Atom Bomb in Hiroshima, a move that he decries as one of the worst and most needless atrocities of the 20th century. His counter narrative says that the Japanese were already close to surrendering, and that their final impetus to surrender was not the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the Russian invasion of Manchuria that occurred during the same period as the dropping of those bombs. The logic being that we had already destroyed countless Japanese cities, including Tokyo by massive firebombing, so what difference would it make the people of Japan whether it was dozens of planes with hundreds of bombs, or one plane and one bomb that did the deed? Stone contends the dropping of these bombs had less to do with defeating Japan than it did to sending a message to Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union the United States was the new sheriff in town. So in this sense we ended one war and started another simultaneously.
This series could easily be re-titled The Untold History of the Cold War as that is, except for the last episode really, the primary focus of the narrative. Stone blasts the Truman policy of containment which leads us to the disastrous wars in Korea and Vietnam, and set the stage for the later unconstitutional wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is chiefly this policy of foreign intervention, and especially the spreading of US influence abroad via the same methods we demonized the Soviets for, such as our countless CIA backed coups in countries such as Greece, Iran, Guatemala, El Salvador, among others that is criticized the most here.
Throughout this century of American aggression and the ongoing Cold War Stone notes many moments of opportunity where things could have changed for the better if just a few changes had been made. The first opportunity of note after World War II is the death of Joseph Stalin, who even Stone admits was a murderous tyrant. His death coincided with the new administration of Dwight Eisenhower, and the opportunity was there for a different kind of relationship to be built. However, the 50s are known, aside from Elvis, for more and more testing of increasingly devastating nuclear weapons by both countries, and the rampant plague of McCarthyism that ran roughshod in the US throughout the era. All of this culminates in the 60s, during which the next major opportunity for peace with the election of John F. Kennedy occurs, where Stone notes the world came within a breath of extinction during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
More and more such opportunities come and go, including the administration of Mikhail Gorbachev during which global disarmament was tantalizingly close, but for the insistence of the United States and the Reagan administration to continue to grow its war machine with such outlandish projects like “Star Wars” in the 80’s. The end of the Cold War posed another such opportunity with the demise of the U.S.S.R in the early 90’s, but that peace too was ultimately squandered as Stone argues, we learned all the wrong lessons from the end of that war, as evidenced by the fact that no sooner than the Soviet “threat” had gone away we had already found a new one in the middle east to replace it with Saddam Hussein and Iraq. Stone portends we again “learned all the wrong lessons” in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks. Stone’s partner in this endeavor, Peter Kuznick succinctly outlines this opinion in response to a question regarding the so called “War on Terror”…
“The “war on terror” is an absurdity from the start. It is a part of an Alice in Wonderland-like through-the-looking-glass experience in which you see the world turned upside down; you are in a world of absurdity. After 9/11, 2001, the United States entered a world in which enemies were magnified into these terrifying powerful forces. 9/11 was a colossal fuck-up by the Bush administration. Minneapolis FBI agent Coleen Rowley was trying to warn the Bush administration that there were people learning to fly airplanes who had no interest in learning how to land. There were repeated warnings that Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda were planning attacks on the United States. Intelligence officials knew that an attack was imminent and they tried desperately to alert Bush to this. George Tenet, the head of the CIA, was running around Washington with his hair on fire, trying to get somebody to listen — Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, George Bush, Dick Cheney — and they all told him to get lost. They had more pressing matters to deal with. So first of all, 9/11 was a complete failure by the Bush administration, partly of intelligence, but mostly of leadership, and then instead of viewing it as what it was — a well-planned and well-executed operation, a crime against the American people committed by a vile group that needed to be brought to justice–they made it into a global War on Terror and pursued a neocon agenda that did more to harm the United States than Al Qaeda could have done in a thousand years.” (Peter Kuznick)
Stone, a prominent liberal and progressive, may surprise some here in that he does not go easy on our current president at all. He even recently called him a “snake” that we need to turn on after the recent NSA revelations and the man hunt for Edward Snowden, neither of which made it into this series since they occurred just after the release. Obama is heavily criticized for taking all of the potential and good will he had at the outset of his presidency and quickly squandering it by pardoning and often times even rewarding the Corporate criminals who crashed the American economy in late 2008. That plus his continuation of the Bush administration’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan draws Stone’s ire against him, making his administration the most recent squandered opportunity to change the course of America for the better.
There are few scattered Unsung Heroes mentioned in this series that were fun to learn about. One that I was fascinated to learn about was the Russian submarine operator Stanislav Petrov, who during the most frantic period of the Cuban missile crisis just might have saved the world with his cool headedness and refusal to launch the missiles that he had been ordered to by his commander that would have no doubt began World War III and the potential destruction of the human race. That’s a guy who definitely deserves a statue erected for him somewhere if there’s not one already. Stone’s primary hero in the last century is the now mostly forgotten former Vice President Henry Wallace, a famous progressive of the mid 10th century who made several speeches decrying the American military industrial complex, and stating we should be fighting communism with our ideals and by the example of our peace and prosperity instead of with bombs and war. He is one of the few political figures here who receives almost no criticism whatsoever. Eventually his crusade proved to be a lost cause, but Stone still holds him up as a key figure who was pointing the country in the right direction at the time, comparing him with Jimmy Stewart’s character in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
To conclude I have to report that I heartily enjoyed this ten part documentary series. It was, as said, a labor of love for Oliver Stone and that comes shining through here. Each episode builds up to a forceful and masterful crescendo in which Stone outlines the main thesis for the episode. I do not posses the same skills of oratory, so I will make my final declarative statement here as simple and direct as possible. If you are a fan of Oliver Stone’s historical movies such as JFK, Platoon, and so on, this is a must watch. If you are a fan of history, this is a must watch. Even if you are diametrically opposed to Stone’s positions here, this is still a must watch due to the quality of the presentation and the earnestness and integrity of the message being delivered. As far as discussion starters go, this is a masterful one that will be sure to inspire debates, and more importantly, essential debates about subjects vital to all of our continued existence, for many years to come.
The Untold History of the United States gets a five out of five: EXCELLENT.