Sean Wilentz: Cherry-Picking Our History

tags: Oliver Stone, Peter Kuznick, Untold History, NY Review of Books, Showtime, Sean Wilentz



Sean Wilentz is George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton and author of The Rise of American Democracy. (February 2013)

Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick’s new book and accompanying ten-part televised documentary have a misleading title. Most if not all of the interpretations that they present in The Untold History of the United States—from the war in the Philippines to the one in Afghanistan—have appeared in revisionist histories of American foreign policy written over the last fifty years. Challenged by early reviewers, Stone and Kuznick have essentially conceded the point about their sources and claimed that what they call the “revisionist narrative” that informs their book has in truth become “the dominant narrative among university-based historians.”

The real problem, they say, is that this revisionism has yet to penetrate the public schools, the mainstream media, and “those parts of America that cling to the notion of American exceptionalism.” Their version of history may not be untold, but “it has been almost entirely ‘unlearned.’” And so what originally sounded like a startling account of a hidden history is in fact largely a recapitulation and popularization of a particular stream of academic work, in a book that would more properly be called The Unlearned History of the United States—if the scholarship and the authors’ reworking of it were thorough, factually accurate, and historically convincing.

Stone and Kuznick devote themselves almost entirely to America’s role in world affairs since 1900 and particularly since 1939. Their basic aim is to describe the nation’s malevolent seizure of global supremacy during and after World War II, and its imperial exploits through the first term of Barack Obama’s presidency. It is largely a tale of great men—good and bad. By the 1920s, the democratic republic of Jefferson, Lincoln, Whitman, and the youthful William Jennings Bryan “had ceased to exist,” and been replaced by an America whose “unique mixture of idealism, militarism, avarice, and realpolitik propelled [it] toward becoming a world power.”...

Although the book by Stone and Kuznick is heavily footnoted, the sourcing, as the example of Wallace’s 1952 article suggests, recalls nothing so much as Dick Cheney’s cherry-picking of intelligence, particularly about the origins and early years of the cold war. The authors also devote many thousands of words to criticism of such destructive American policies as Ronald Reagan’s in Central America and George W. Bush’s in Iraq, but much of this will be familiar to readers of these pages, as will their objections to Barack Obama’s use of predator drones. This book is less a work of history than a skewed political document, restating and updating a view of the world that the independent radical Dwight Macdonald once likened to a fog, “caused by the warm winds of the liberal Gulf Stream coming in contact with the Soviet glacier”—but now more than twenty years after the dissolution of the Soviet empire.



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