NO sooner have I asked the movie director Oliver Stone and the history professor Peter Kuznick about criticism of their book and TV series, The Untold History of the United States, than Stone is shaking his head, tutting grandly and instructing Kuznick to ‘‘ show him, show him’’. Kuznick proffers, with a flourish, a full page of plaudits, including one that makes them beam most: ‘‘ There is much here to reflect upon’’ (Mikhail Gorbachev).
Both book and TV series — the latter called Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States — analyse ‘‘ what America has done wrong, in the hope it can change’’, says Stone, director of Platoon and JFK, in his husky voice, a vivid red scarf wrapped around his neck.
Two years ago Stone, a magnet for controversy, apologised after claiming a ‘‘ Jewish-dominated media’’ focused on the Holocaust. Now he’s condemning the rapacious ‘‘ empire building’’ of the US, which has warmongered for power and profit, and — in the cause of American exceptionalism — negated its potential as a force for good. ‘‘ What is untold for me — and I was born after the atomic bomb was dropped, the Cold War was my youth — was the truth that the Russians were the main victors of World War II and paid the highest price.’’
Stone means the 27 million dead that the pair attribute to the war, although one critic claimed that between one and five million could be attributed to Stalin’s brutality. Stone and Kuznick claim Truman was an aggressor and the Japanese were about to surrender before the US dropped the Bomb. ‘‘ The US did that as a strong, barbaric statement to the Russians,’’ says Stone. ‘‘ You can’t f . . k with the United States. We control the world and kill people.’’ His eyes glitter, the swaggering Stone replaces sober tutor: ‘‘ That’s just the f . . king first three episodes!’’
In the year of the tenth anniversary of the start of the Iraq war, Stone is strong in his condemnation: ‘‘ Its been a tremendous setback for our country, a national trauma. Obama has continued the lie that this is American military service abroad without any selfish motive, that it has everything to do with 9/11.’’
What was Iraq about, for Stone? ‘‘ God knows,’’ he says with a laugh. ‘‘ It was a plan definitely with its eyes on the prize, beginning with [former vice-president Dick] Cheney’s on Iraq’s oil and gas reserves.’’ Iraq represented ‘‘ a very dangerous continuation of the neocon plan to penetrate the Middle East’’.
In their most contentious chapter, Stone and Kuznick say that had the left-wing Henry Wallace, vice-president under Roosevelt, become president rather than Truman, ‘‘ the Cold War, Vietnam, arms race, Iraq and Afghanistan’’ might not have unfolded; the book sweeps through Reagan’s consolidation of the US military-industrial complex and Obama’s failure to keep his promise to ‘‘ change’’ America. ‘‘ Obama’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing,’’ Stone says.
He and Kuznick may have received praise from Gorbachev and many others, but their revisionism has also been criticised. The biggest firestorm has been played out on the pages of The New York Review of Books. The historian Sean Wilentz accused them, in a lacerating review, of distorting history and the actions of Truman, Wallace and others, and ‘‘ cherry-picking’’ sources. In response, Stone and Kuznick said Wilentz’s review was ‘‘ errorriddled’’. Wilentz then blasted their ‘‘ disgraceful’’ version of history.
Has the pair made errors?
‘‘ There are some mistakes but nothing major,’’ Stone claims. ‘‘ We could have spent more time attacking Stalin,’’ Kuznick concedes. ‘‘ There are no limits to the bad things you could say about Stalin,’’ Stone growls. ‘‘ He destroyed the true leftist communist movement in the 20s and 30s, forever. But I went to Russia in the 80s. They loved Stalin, he was their wartime leader.’’
Stone praises Stalin’s ‘‘ coolness’’ in his dealings with the West. ‘‘ There are libraries full of books that talk about his brutality,’’ Kuznick says. ‘‘ We didn’t feel that was a story we needed to tell.’’ Stone: ‘‘ Ask the average American who won World War II and they’ll say, ‘ We did’. But the Soviet struggle and sacrifice was far greater.’’ Kuznick identifies the ‘‘ mythic understanding of our past’’ at the root of American exceptionalism: ‘‘ The cavalry riding in . . . that we’re God’s gift to humanity. It’s fanciful and destructive.’’
Was America ever the good guy? ‘‘ In World War II,’’ Stone says. Kuznick: ‘‘ The Marshall Plan was a positive way of us relating to the world, rebuilding it. If America had reached out to the world we could have helped carve out a different world. We’ve had that opportunity time and time again.’’ For Stone, the greatest US presidents that never were include Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy (had they not been shot) and George McGovern.
‘‘ Something was wrong’’ in the history Stone imbibed as a child. ‘‘ Up until the late 1970s I never questioned the Bomb.’’ While his father, a Republican, hated Truman’s labour policies, ‘‘ I was born and raised in an age of conformity, we walked around in jackets and ties. I was more scared than rebel, growing up in a climate of fear of bomb tests and Russians taking over our country.’’
Stone’s analyses, and sometimes audacious revisions of history, are intrinsic to his movies, most controversially in JFK, which posited a conspiracy theory of Kennedy’s assassination.
Platoon was based on his experiences as an infantry soldier in Vietnam, the experience of which was ‘‘ an eye-opener, but not radically so. I didn’t come back and become an antiwar protester like Ron Kovic [the subject of Stone’s Oscar-winning Born on the Fourth of July]. I went between left and right. When I went to El Salvador in 1985 [to research his movie Salvador] I saw how the death squads and paramilitaries were linked to the US. I felt the same anger I felt about the confluence of shady contractors, military and terror we brought to Vietnam. You could tell you were tearing wounds into a country. It was horrible, frightening. But you couldn’t see the whole until you pulled back.
‘‘ In Platoon, when you see them shooting at the feet of the Vietnamese in frustration, that’s true. You saw rape and killing. We used semi-
Oliver Stone outside the Capitol building in Washington, DC, the seat of US legislative power