Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick talk to Ajay Hothi

Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick are co-authors of the book and 12-part documentary series The Untold History of the United States, which presents an alternative reading of the American 20th century. Peter Kuznick is professor of history and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University, Washington D.C. Oliver Stone is an Academy Award-winning writer and film director. His films and documentaries include Natural Born Killers, Wall Street and Comandante.

AJAY HOTHI Can you tell us how the project began? How did you meet?
OLIVER STONE In 1996 I was invited to a class Peter was teaching at American University
PETER KUZNICK It was a history class structured around Oliver’s films, which touched on many of the critical events of post-1960 US history: Vietnam, the counter-culture, domestic politics, the economy; questions about Central America, about the media, and violence. It was really very rich. OS: We struck up a friendship. It was at that time we discussed the meaning of the atomic bomb. By way of explaining it, Peter went back to the story of Henry Wallace.

AH Henry Wallace is a recurring figure in The Untold History. It’s a core element of the series to have some unfamiliar names as the “heroes” of your historical narrative.

PK It’s important to show that history could have been different. One of the things that concerns us is the narrowing horizon of younger people today who see the current reality as almost inevitable. Certain people made decisions at certain times that took us down roads that have often turned out to be disastrous; but there were other people at those same moments who were fighting for a very different way of looking at the world. I defy you to pick up any high school history book and find the name Henry Wallace in there. His vice presidency from 1941-45 is completely ignored and he was extraordinary. When Henry Luce [founder of Time and Life magazines] proclaimed that the 20th century would be “The American Century” in 1941, Wallace countered by saying it must be the century for the common man. He called for a worldwide people’s revolution and he came within, literally, five steps – as we show in The Untold History – of being re-nominated as vice president in 1944, which means he would have become president after Roosevelt’s death in 1945, and not Harry Truman. Oliver and I are convinced that if that were the case there would have been no atomic bombing, and we’re fairly certain that there would have been no Cold War; or if there had been, it would have taken a very different form.

OS The idea of Wallace and the bomb stayed with me: the atomic bomb is the beginning of the post-WWII hegemony. I decided to undertake an account of US history from 1900 to 2013 in 12 hours. The theme would be the rise of the American national security state, which then transforms into a global security state.

AH In thinking about culture and imperialism, Edward Said has written about how nations are narratives, and strong narratives have the power to block other narratives from emerging or even forming. It’s important to document these facts while they are still in living memory, isn’t it?

PK It’s so important. Look at Vietnam. It’s often thought of as a solitary mistake. We put it in the context of Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Indonesia, Chile, Laos, Cambodia. We show what the US was trying to do all over the world and that’s trying to topple governments. The latest survey showed that 51 per cent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 think the invasion of Vietnam was justified. Fifty-one per cent! I ask college students how many Vietnamese died in the war and I get an answer anywhere between 100,000 and half a million. When I tell them Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense often thought of as the mastermind behind that war, accepts that 3.8 million Vietnamese died in that war, they’re stunned. What if the Vietnam Memorial, which holds the names of 58,252 (I think) Americans who died in that war, also included the names of four million Vietnamese and millions of Cambodians and Laotians who died in that campaign? When I ask them how many Jews died in the Holocaust, every hand in the room goes up.

AH America’s ills, particularly in foreign policy, are commonly blamed on a lack of historical perspective.

PK You have to realise that Americans tend to be pretty parochial. They don’t learn languages, they don’t travel internationally and this also has an effect on their understanding of America’s role in the world. As John Winthrop said in his 1630 sermon before settling in Massachusetts: “We are the light of the world. A city on a hill, the eyes of the entire world will be upon us.” It’s the earliest example of American exceptionalism.

AH One of the most chilling aspects of The Untold History is how neoconservative the Obama administration appears when looked at alongside its 20th-century predecessors.

PK Obama has been a terrible disappointment to most people on the left. We should have seen it coming, perhaps. There were signs during the first campaign in 2008. Obama ran as an anti-war candidate. We didn’t pay very much attention when he said he was only opposed to dumb wars and Afghanistan was a “smart war”. Then there was the fact that he rejected public financing and turned, cap in hand, to Wall Street and the pharmaceutical corporations, who gave three times as much to Obama as they did to McCain. It’s not surprising then that the public option was left out of Obama’s healthcare plan. The fact that he is mixed race is certainly a very positive sign, but when you saw that he surrounded himself with people like Larry Summers, Pete Orszag, Timothy Geithner and Rahm Emanuel – Wall Street people – you realised that his understandings and sensibilities were not different at all from George W. Bush.

AH The notion that history repeats itself is another key theme of The Untold History. But can it be argued that today’s geopolitical situation is unique?

PK In November 2011 Hillary Clinton wrote an article for Foreign Policy magazine titled “America’s Pacific Century”, in which she articulates the Asian pivot that has been central to the US’s foreign policy. The idea is that the big threat in the world is China and we have to shift our focus from Europe, even the Middle East. It’s the same kind of militaristic response that lacks a historical perspective. We want to get out of the cycle of constant militarism and war. We don’t even know the number of bases the US has in the world anymore; there’s no official record of them. But we do know that in 2011 we spent $100 billion on the military in Afghanistan and one fiftieth of that on development, and the average life expectancy is still 47 years. US policy is now hidden under a veil of secrecy. The Obama administration came to power promising transparency and so far has been perhaps the least transparent government ever, including Nixon with Watergate. In 1917 the US passed the Espionage Act. Between then and 2008 it was used three times to stop the leaking of information. Obama has already prosecuted seven people under the act. It’s this obsession with secrecy that has dealt such a severe blow to civil liberties in the US. Take Bradley Manning. Obama decided he was not going to prosecute George W. Bush for war crimes, torture, starting wars based on false information. The message being sent was that if you expose war crimes then you go to jail for the rest of your life. If you commit war crimes then you’ll walk free.

AH It would be erroneous to call the series revisionist, but does it reflect a shift in your own views over time? OS Essentially, all my political and social views have changed. I grew up a conservative Republican at the dawn of the atomic era. My father was a Wall Street broker and Eisenhower supporter. I believed most of everything I read in school. I thought the Russian and Chinese Communist conspiracy to take over the world was the greatest threat America faced and that we had to do something about it. I went to Vietnam between ’65 and ’66 and then from ’67-’69. I walked away from the war confused and alienated. It’s not that I knew what I thought, just that I had more questions. Over the years, my political beliefs changed in a profound way, and I began to make more progressive films: Platoon, Wall Street, JFK and Nixon, for example. By 2008, I thought it was more important for me to produce one enormous documentary, rather than attempt another feature film that could be too easily discounted as fiction. I didn’t expect to escape criticism for Untold History and I’ve certainly received my fair share of it in the US. But this documentary is built out of hard rock. It’s not going to be easily undone. And I do hope over time that it may make a difference. True history is often a tortoise; contemporary events are the hare. In the end, I believe the race will be won by the tortoise. §

The book The Untold History of the United States, by Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, is available now. A 12-part documentary series, directed by Oliver Stone, is available on DVD.

  • Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick Talk to Ajay Hothi