Oliver Stone's Secret History: An Interview with Peter KuznickHistorians/History
Since The Birth of a Nation, Hollywood has been trying to make history its own. While some movies are loathed by historians (Troy) and others loved (Platoon) it is hard to find a movie or television show that sheds light on an entertaining subject and yet remains historically accurate. Peter Kuznick and Oliver Stone are collaborating on a ten part Showtime series in an attempt to do just that. The series focuses on the new, undiscovered aspects of many topics in American history, such as the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Vietnam War.
Peter Kuznick has been a history professor at American University since 1986. Kuznick’s Oliver Stone’s America is one of American University’s most popular history courses and has a plethora of notable speakers come into class every year, including (semi-regularly) Oliver Stone. Kuznick agreed to do an interview with me to discuss his past, his relationship with Oliver Stone, his upcoming series and to address some recent attacks upon the collaboration.
Thank you again for taking the time to answer a few questions about yourself and your upcoming mini-series for HNN.
Why did you originally get into this profession? Specifically, what is it that draws you to history?
My interest in history grew out of my politics. When I entered Rutgers in 1966, I was fully intent on becoming a doctor and decided to major in biology. If not for the Vietnam War, I probably would have followed that path.
But I had been active in the civil rights and antiwar movements in high school. I had actually been involved in civil rights prior to high school, having joined the NAACP at age 12 and CORE at 13. One of the things that attracted me to Rutgers was an article I read in Time or Newsweek that described Rutgers as “the Berkeley of the East.” Rutgers seemed to offer the best of both worlds—proximity to my family and friends in New York and the politics of Berkeley. Plus a first string All-America basketball player in Bobby Lloyd on a team co-captained by Jimmy Valvano.
I joined SDS the first day of freshman orientation and participated in a walkout of Vice President Hubert Humphrey at the convocation commemorating Rutgers’ 200th anniversary that same week. By December, I had started a new antiwar group on campus—The Rutgers-Douglass Committee of Conscience—whose purpose was to appeal to the growing ranks of antiwar students who were not ready to join SDS.
My pre-med days were clearly numbered. My interests were turning to history. I felt a tremendous responsibility to be as informed as possible about U.S. history in general and U.S. foreign policy in particular. Between my chemistry, biology, and physics labs, I squeezed in as many classes by Warren Susman and Lloyd Gardner as my schedule would allow. Susman and Gardner were precisely the kind of engaged scholars my generation admired.
Halfway through my sophomore year, I switched from biology to history and I never looked back. The late sixties were an exciting time to be on campus and study history pretty much anywhere in the United States, but the Rutgers department was full of especially exciting scholars—Richard McCormick, Ann Lane, Harold Poor, Peter Stearns, Danny Walkowitz (a bit later), and others. Gene Genovese and John Cammett had left right before I arrived. After college, I spent a couple years hitchhiking around the U.S. and Europe, living in different places, and doing various kinds of political organizing before I felt ready to go to graduate school. I was offered several fellowships, but, at the last minute, decided to return to Rutgers, even though the fellowship deadline had passed. The department instead arranged for me to teach two of my own courses—history of American radicalism and a basic U.S. history—as a first year Master’s student. It was a very different time.
So what drew me to history was both the lure of passionate, engaged, dedicated teachers and scholars and a desire to understand how the United States had gone so wrong that it was invading and turning its massive firepower on a poor peasant country halfway across the globe. It had become very clear to me that understanding the past was absolutely essential if we were ever to create the kind of future many of us envisioned for our country. And the late sixties and early seventies were a very hopeful time. We thought we could change the world and we set out to do so.
What is it about your research interest that involved you in this project?
I would say that everything about my research interested me in this project. Although I was trained by Warren Susman as a cultural historian, most of my scholarship has been on the history of reform and radicalism and nuclear history. I’ve also been very interested in the history of science. My earliest written work was a study of the politicization of American scientists in the 1930s. In Beyond the Laboratory: Scientists as Political Activists in 1930s America (Chicago, 1987), I tried to explain how American scientists went from being one of the most conservative groups in the U.S. at the start of the thirties to being one of the most radical by that decade’s end. I’m very interested in understanding the process of political transformation. And scientists are a particularly intriguing and woefully understudied group in the U.S. I’m currently working on a study of scientists and the Vietnam War that focuses largely on the scientists’ antiwar movement. Few realize that the AAAS, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, was the first professional organization to come out against the war as early as 1965, and that scientists were in the forefront of the antiwar movement. I didn’t appreciate the significance at the time, but, as a freshman antiwar activist at Rutgers, I attended a weekly lunch with the leaders of the faculty antiwar group on campus, and almost all the participants were scientists.
My interest in questions of science and social responsibility led directly into my interest in nuclear history. I understood why scientists, having been in the forefront of the antifascist movement in the 1930s, would rally to join the Manhattan Project and build an atomic bomb as a deterrent against a German bomb, but I couldn’t understand why more didn’t follow the heroic example of Joseph Rotblat or Leo Szilard and either leave the project or try to prevent the bomb's use after they discovered in late 1944 that Germany wasn’t building a bomb. or upon Germany’s surrender the following May.
Nuclear issues took on more prominence in my research during the 1980s and 1990s. I became increasingly convinced that, unless we abolished nuclear weapons and eliminated the possibility of ending life on the planet, all my other reform efforts were potentially meaningless. In 1995, I founded the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University. It was inspired by a recent AU grad, Akiko Naono, whose grandfather was killed in Hiroshima and whose mother and grandmother survived. We decided to do something special to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the atomic bombings. I taught two on-campus classes as part of the summer institute and Akiko and I brought students on a study-abroad class to Kyoto and Hiroshima.
The project took an unexpected twist. Akiko was in Hiroshima meeting with city officials to plan our visit shortly after the American Legion and Air Force Association, backed by Congressional conservatives, succeeded in scuttling the Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum. It was a sad moment for the country and a terrible setback for those of us who believed that our country would benefit from an honest accounting of what the Newseum’s panel of experts would vote the most important news event of the twentieth century. In consultations with officials from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we decided to bring some of the artifacts that were supposed to go to the Smithsonian to American University for what turned out to be Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s only exhibit outside Japan during the fiftieth anniversary. My Institute was launched, therefore, in the midst of significant controversy over our exhibit, but also to great fanfare and acclaim. It was a proud moment for the university. The Nuclear Studies Institute has thrived ever since and remained unique in its conception. I still take students on a study-abroad class every summer to Kyoto, Hiroshima, and now Nagasaki. We travel with an equal number of Japanese students and professors from Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, Asia Pacific University in Kyushu and a smaller contingent from Vancouver. The students routinely describe it as a life-changing experience. Much of that intensity derives from the fact that we spend so much time with atomic bomb survivors, one of whom—Koko Tanimoto Kondo—travels with us the entire time. Koko, who was eight months old at the time of the bombing, is an AU grad and daughter of Rev. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, who John Hersey profiled in his 1946 book Hiroshima. The class, by the way, is open to students from other universities and there’s also a non-credit option for the broader public.
In 2003, I again got involved in a controversy with the Smithsonian over the Enola Gay. Air and Space Museum director Gen. John Dailey announced that the museum planned to display the plane at the opening of its new annex “in all its glory as a magnificent technological achievement.” I welcomed the display of the Enola Gay but thought a celebratory presentation of the plane that inaugurated the modern era of weapons of mass destruction was not only in bad taste, but was also deeply offensive. Such a display also lent support to the Bush administration’s effort to make nuclear weapons more useable, a dangerous feature of its 2002 Nuclear Posture Review. I spearheaded a national campaign to instead convince the museum to present a balanced educational exhibit and to engage us in a national discussion of overall U.S. nuclear policy. We gathered signatures to that effect from hundreds of the country’s leading scholars and artists, including Nobel Prize winners, Pulitzer Prize winners, Academy Award winners, and National Book Award winners. We succeeded in forcing the issue into public consciousness, but, in the conservative political climate of 2003 with U.S. troops fighting two wars, our efforts proved futile.
With so much of my scholarship, teaching, and activism focusing on the history of American militarism, the Cold War, and the history of the nuclear arms race, this project with Oliver—The Secret History of the United States—seemed like it was right up my alley from the start.
What motivated you to begin this project?
This project began over two years ago when Oliver was in DC scouting locations for his film Pinkville about the My Lai massacre. He invited me to join him for dinner, along with his cinematographer Bob Richardson and his producer Jon Kilik, who has produced numerous excellent films, including most of Spike Lee’s movies. In the midst of a lively discussion of history and politics, Oliver said we should do a documentary film together. I didn’t think much of it at the time, already working on two book projects during my sabbatical leave, but when he returned to LA he phoned to say he was serious. By the time we got together in New York, the project had grown from one ninety minute documentary to a ten hour documentary film series on the history of the American empire and national security state. I wrote a treatment, based on which Oliver was able to secure financing. Then it got picked up by Showtime and a major international distributor.
So the first motivation was that Oliver made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. The real motivation, though, was the prospect of reaching an audience of tens of millions rather than an audience of tens of thousands. And the third motivation was the appeal of working so closely with Oliver. What most people don’t realize is that Oliver is not only extremely intelligent, he is a voracious reader. He regularly sends me books by historians that are hot off the press before I’ve had a chance to get my hands on them. Behind the public persona is a very serious thinker—a man who Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Garry Wills called “Dostoyevsky behind a camera.” After a recent dinner with Oliver and several of my DC-area colleagues, the historians all contacted me to say they were amazed by Oliver’s depth and insight. I have always found that to be the case.
So I figured that with my historical background and interests and Oliver’s skill as a dramatist—his ability to tell a story and bring history to life—this would be a very exciting project. I knew that participating in such a project would make me a target for the Ron Radoshes and David Horowitzes of the world, but that was a small price to pay for reaching such a vast audience of people eager to gain a deeper and more critical understanding of U.S. history.
When did you first begin working with Oliver Stone?
I first met Oliver in 1996. I had shown a couple of his Vietnam films—Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July—in classes I’d taught and saw what a powerful effect they had on my students. That inspired me to propose a new undergraduate history class that I titled "Oliver Stone’s America". The class largely deals with historical interpretation. The students compare the interpretations of history in Oliver’s films with those they get from the books they read, from guest speakers who were involved in the various events we cover, and from my lectures. If you look at the body of Oliver’s work, it covers crucial topics from Kennedy through Bush. In class, we deal with the subjects chronologically, not in the order that Oliver made the films. The topics include the Kennedy presidency and assassination, Vietnam, Nixon, U.S. policy in Central America, Wall Street and 1980s conservatism, the rise of talk radio, violence and the media, sports and society, 9/11, and the Bush presidency. It was easier to cover everything when I began teaching the class in 1996 than it is now with all the additional films Oliver has made. I’m not sure how I’ll structure the class once our documentaries come out. I’ve been able to bring in a very interesting and diverse group of guest speakers to share their experiences with the students, including Bob Woodward, Robert McNamara, Daniel Ellsberg, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Paul Warnke, Admiral Eugene Carroll, John Dean, Max Holland, Seymour Hersh, Luong Ung, Julian Bond, Bobby Muller, Ron Kovic, Ambassador Robert White, Sen. Max Cleland, Wayne Smith, Pham duy Thanh, Zach Sklar, Ray McGovern, Katherine Gun, Ambassador Craig Murray, and many others. Plus Oliver tries to come in every year to talk with the students. Those years when he is on location and can’t make it in, we arrange a teleconference with the class. The class, as you might imagine, is quite popular. It’s generally the largest my department offers. I like that it attracts a lot of students who might not otherwise study this period of history. The students get to hear from Max Holland—the most articulate defender of the Warren Commission and leading critic of Oliver’s JFK—and from Zach Sklar—who co-wrote JFK with Oliver. They get to hear defenders of U.S. policy in Vietnam and war critics; soldiers who fought for the U.S. in Vietnam and one who fought for the North. They’ve gotten to hear Dan Ellsberg explain why he disagrees with Oliver’s concept of “the beast” in Nixon and Bob Woodward explain why he likes the movie. Despite the course title, it’s a demanding course, requiring students to watch a dozen films outside of class and do a considerable amount of reading for a 200 level undergraduate class.
When a mutual friend informed Oliver that I would be teaching the class that first time in 1996, he contacted me and offered to come in to speak to the students. It was a highly charged and entertaining evening. We allowed the TV and newspaper reporters to stay only for the first half hour. Afterwards, over dinner, we began what has turned into a close friendship. At that first dinner, I told Oliver of an idea I had for a movie on the early Cold War. He loved the idea and I ended up writing the treatment and the screenplay. He hasn’t made it yet, but some of the history will be incorporated into our documentary film series.
In most of his movies, Oliver Stone likes to use narratives to tell stories about history or a time period. Do you consider yourself more of a popular or scholarly historian and how will that be reflected in the series?
I’m not sure I accept the distinction or the suggestion that using narratives makes one a popular historian. I consider myself a scholarly historian who sometimes writes for a broad, popular audience. Warren Susman, whom many considered to be the greatest teacher of his generation, used to say that teaching is an act of persuasion. He was right. Writing history is also an act of persuasion. I’d rather be persuasive about topics that make a difference in the world, like war and peace, than about those that are only of concern to a small group of scholars.
Take, for example, my work on the bomb decision, about which I spend a lot of time writing, speaking, giving interviews, and even debating. No issue arouses greater passion among both scholars and the public. But the debate sometimes gets bogged down over casualty estimates and other questions that divert attention from the most salient issues. I, therefore, try to move the debate beyond both the heroic and tragic narratives by suggesting a third narrative, which I call the apocalyptic. I want audiences to ponder the implications of Harry Truman’s realization that, by using atomic bombs against Japan, he was opening the door to the potential annihilation of all species—what he described as “the fire destruction prophesied in the Euphrates Valley era, after Noah and his fabulous arc”—and chose to use the bombs anyway. And he did so despite knowing that important Japanese leaders were looking for a face-saving way to end the war and that the Soviet invasion, which Japanese leaders dreaded, was about to begin and would likely prove decisive. He referred to the intercepted July 18 cable as “the telegram from the Jap emperor asking for peace.” And, at Potsdam, when Stalin confirmed he’d be coming into the Pacific War on schedule, Truman wrote, “Fini Japs when that comes about.” I mention these statements not because I think they, by themselves, prove that the Japanese were seeking to surrender or because I think this is the place to get into a lengthy and complicated debate, but only to indicate that Truman was aware that other options were available and chose not to pursue them. I try to draw out the implications of that fact in scholarly venues like The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus and the Journal of Genocide Research and in a book out later this year that I’m co-authoring with a leading Japanese scholar that compares American and Japanese perspectives on the atomic bombings. The point is that I, and others, engage the decision-making process leading to the atomic bombings as a topic for intense scholarly scrutiny and debate, but, given the bombings’ ongoing real-life consequences, I always try to find ways to bring that debate to as broad an audience as possible.
In writing this series, however, I have found that having the inclination to popularize doesn’t automatically translate into being able to do so effectively. Writing scripts has been a learning process. When I send the chapters to Oliver, he usually loves them because he reads them for content. But when the production people try to translate my drafts into actual documentaries, they tear their hair out, or so they claim. I realized when I went out to LA and sat with them in the editing room, that, for a sixty minute episode, I was giving them approximately ninety minutes of straight narration, spoken as if Oliver was a fast-talking New Yorker on speed. I knew full well that I was giving them too much and that we would have to cut, but I didn’t realize by how much. Once we add the music and visuals, it really amounts to approximately thirty minutes of slowly spoken narration. Oliver has hired a talented young screenwriter who was trained as a historian, Matt Graham, to assist with the writing. And Oliver also writes. It’s a different process than I’ve ever been involved in before. I hate being forced to leave out so much crucial material, including some of the evidence that would prove convincing to fellow historians, but I’m consoled by the fact that we’ll be putting out a companion book in which we can tell the story more fully. Ten hours might sound like a lot, but it really only allows us to skim the surface when dealing with over one hundred years of history.
What was the biggest surprise that you ran into while researching and putting together this project?
Jack Kennedy once remarked that, when he took office, the thing that surprised him most was that things were actually as bad as he’d been saying they were. That also applies to my studying the past one hundred plus years of U.S. history. I had never looked at such a long swath of U.S. history through this prism and the results were sobering. Looking at all the aspects that have gone into creating and maintaining the American empire over such a long period of time presents a picture that, while not seamless, is compelling, troubling, and at times shocking. In 2001, Dick Cheney said the U.S. would have to be prepared to go to “the dark side.” He was perfectly suited to lead that voyage. What we are presenting is the entire little-known history of the United States’ descent into the dark side. As Dan Ellsberg said about Vietnam, “We were not on the wrong side. We were the wrong side.” Under the cover of spreading freedom and prosperity, that has been true of much of recent American history. And if the American people don’t grapple with the implications, it will continue. That is what we are trying to put a stop to. We hope that, by shining a light on the less savory aspects of U.S. history, we will inspire the American people to make sure the U.S. never goes down those roads again.
Who is the intended audience for the program?
There are enough layers to this story to appeal to everyone young and old, historians and the general public. Some of what we say will be familiar to historians who have studied the various periods, but much of it will come as a surprise even to them. I’ve shared parts of this with leading historians, who have expressed amazement at what we’ve found. But the main audience will be Showtime viewers and people who purchase the box set in the U.S. We’re also hoping to get this widely adopted in high school and college curricula.
And I anticipate a huge viewership in other parts of the world. Oliver has a tremendous international following. Even films like Alexander, which did not do well at the box office in the U.S., made back their investment overseas. To attract a wide viewership, Oliver and Showtime chose to provocatively call our series The Secret History of the United States, even though I might have preferred Inconvenient History or Hidden History. They are very attuned to marketing, but the truth is that many of our “secrets” have been hidden on the front page of the New York Times. If people think the secrets will be deep, dark conspiracies, they’ll be disappointed. We’ll be drawing on the best recent scholarship, revealing documents released through the efforts of the National Security Archive and other researchers, plus a lot of our own research.
We’ll also have a big viewership because we’re telling a very powerful, compelling, eye-opening story and doing so in a riveting fashion. The combination of a good historian, talented screenwriter, brilliant director, and a couple dedicated researchers, one an AU history Ph.D. and the other who is writing his dissertation under my direction, will make this series unlike anything that has been seen before.
What lessons would you like viewers to take away from the television series about the recent history of America?
There are so many lessons, I hardly know where to begin. I’ll name a few. The first is just how central nuclear weapons have been to not only the maintenance of American global hegemony but to the shaping of postwar America itself. It is not just U.S. militarism that has been a problem; it is the peculiar nature of America’s nuclear-armed militarism that has given unique coloration to America’s national security state with its concentration of executive power, presidential usurpation of war-making prerogatives, Manichean simplicities, and obsession with secrecy. It has also allowed the U.S. to repeatedly threaten other countries with annihilation in order to force compliance with U.S. demands. Second is the fact that history is not preordained; there were many points at which the United States could have and almost did take fundamentally different paths that might have had enormous consequences not just for this nation but for the world. What would have happened if Henry Wallace had become president in 1945 instead of Harry Truman? Would there have been no atomic bomb and, perhaps, no Cold War? What would have happened if Dwight Eisenhower had responded differently to Soviet overtures when Stalin died in 1953 or if Jack Kennedy had not been assassinated in 1963 or Robert Kennedy in 1968? What would have happened if the Democrats had mobilized with the same intensity and resolve that the Republicans did in 2000 and not allowed the Supreme Court to stage what would have been considered a coup if it had occurred in another country? The point will not only be to pose counterfactuals; it will be to show historical contingency and the possibility that things could have evolved very differently than they have. That leads directly into the third point. In the honored tradition of Howard Zinn, we will pay tribute to the often heroic struggles of common people—the ones whose names are not recorded in history books. We will show the way resistance to war, discrimination, inequality, and injustice has produced major victories and made this a better country than it would otherwise have been. Fourth, we will show some of the trends and patterns that may be obvious to historians but get lost in the presentism of policy debates in Washington. The most obvious ones have to do with American expansionism—first across the continent, and then across the globe—and America’s willingness to resort to force, and sometimes even assassination, terror, and torture to achieve that goal. We will show the insatiable greed that has undergirded this expansionism—all, once again, in the name of freedom and democracy. I recall a piece in the Christian Science Monitor a few years ago that stated that the richest three hundred people in the world have more wealth than the poorest three billion. Perhaps that figure is a little outdated, but, if that’s the ultimate legacy of the American Century, it would be a sad commentary indeed. We will also trace the evolution of the neoconservatives, showing that they didn’t emerge full blown and mysteriously seize power during the Bush administration. They, and their policies, were gestating for several decades before they wreaked havoc on the globe and turned the U.S. into an international pariah. We will also show how the neocons and their forebears systematically destroyed the American intelligence community. We will show the bipartisan nature of most of these policies. But, for us, the ultimate lesson is that people need to take back their government from the corporate, banking, and military interests that have dominated the nation throughout the period of American ascendency and get back to some of the core republican values that made the United States a shining example to much of humanity.
Is there anything else you would like people to know about the mini-series that is especially important to you?
Yes, there is. Based on some comments that Oliver made during our recent appearance at the Television Critics Association conference about putting Hitler in historical context and not treating him as an expression of personal pathology or disembodied evil, we were widely attacked for wanting to redeem Hitler’s image. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is no historical figure who Oliver or I revile more than Hitler. But we also despise the German bankers, capitalists, and militarists who aided Hitler in his rise to power, inspired, in part, by their belief that he would destroy the German communists, and we feel similarly toward American bankers, industrialists, and politicians who also sympathized with and aided the Nazis.
The German question is also very personal to both of us. Oliver’s father was a colonel on Eisenhower’s staff in Paris, where he met Oliver’s mother. Most of my family was killed in the Holocaust. The reality of what happened to the Jews, in particular, was a constant presence throughout my childhood. It shaped my ethical upbringing. From the stories of my parent’ and grandparents stories, I intuited an early lesson in personal responsibility. I understood that not only were the Nazi leaders reprehensible for what they had done, but the German people bore responsibility for letting it happen. It was only later, when I began studying German history, that I started to understand some of the complexities in the situation and the problems with such sweeping attributions of blame. But the lesson of personal responsibility and the dangers of silence stuck. I learned that one must never be a “good German” and remain silent in the face of evil. So in that sense my abhorrence of fascism has influenced my sense of personal and political responsibility ever since, which is why being attacked as a Hitler apologist was so preposterous.
But that raises the question of how countries can take responsibility. Robert McNamara told my students a few years ago that he now accepted that 3.8 million Vietnamese died in the war. 3.8 million. He said it was equivalent proportionally to 27 million Americans having died. I often take informal surveys of students in which I ask how many Vietnamese and how many Americans they think died in the war. Some know that 58,000 Americans died, but few come close to 3.8 million Vietnamese. On average, they come in well under 10 percent of that total. That is very troubling and points up, once again, the importance of what we are trying to do in this series. How would Americans feel if the average German student believed 600,000 Jews perished in the Holocaust instead of 6,000,000? They would be rightly appalled—shocked that Germans continue to whitewash their past. But what do we make of the fact that Americans have so little knowledge of their own country’s crimes?
And also look at how Americans memorialize wars and events. Perhaps the Smithsonian’s cowardly refusal to offer an honest, balanced accounting of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings in 1995 or in 2003 is symptomatic of a deeper problem. Look at the message delivered by the moving Vietnam War Memorial in the nation’s capital. The Memorial cries out that the tragedy of the Vietnam War was that over 58,000 Americans died. What if the Vietnam Memorial was like the War Memorial in Okinawa that lists the names of all the Okinawans, Japanese, and Americans who died? What if the Vietnam Memorial listed not only Americans, but the Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians who died? Not only would the memorial be sprawling; it would convey an entirely different message about the tragedy of war. It is that message that Oliver and I want to convey. Not that the United States is somehow intrinsically evil and that other nations are, by contrast, more moral. We don’t believe that for a minute. Just that the United States, because of its wealth, power, and unique historical circumstances, has been in a position to do both great good and great harm in the world. And we, and we believe most Americans, want to see the United States be a force for good.
Some will accuse us of being anti-American because we systematically reveal the dark side of the American past. But each of us, albeit in different ways, has demonstrated his commitment to helping America realize its true greatness. Oliver dropped out of Yale to volunteer for the infantry in Vietnam, where he was a highly decorated soldier, wounded twice in combat. I fought daily to end that war. I always find it interesting how often the protagonists in Oliver’s movies—Ron Kovic, Richard Boyle, Jim Garrison and others—profess their love for America. We, in our own way, through this series, will be doing that too. It was E.L. Doctorow who referred to Edgar Allan Poe as “the master subversive…who wore a hole into the parchment and let the darkness pour through….that scream from the smiling face of America.” We will do that and more. Our documentaries will also be a paean to future American greatness. We will celebrate our counter-canon of true American heroes—the ones who fought for a vision of the positive role America could play in the world. Our intention is not to drag the United States down. It is to offer an alternative vision of American greatness. We both believe in this strongly.
And let me make one last point. While Oliver and I consider Hitler to be as close to a force of evil as has existed, although one made possible by structural forces and wrongheaded policies dating back to Versailles and earlier, we believe that decent, well-meaning people are also capable of unleashing great evil. And that is especially the case when they possess the inordinate and sometimes unchecked power that American leaders have enjoyed in recent decades. Our series will deal with the implications of Truman’s using atomic bombs and inaugurating the nuclear age in the most dangerous way possible. We will show the recklessness of Eisenhower’s nuclear policies, which not only increased the U.S. nuclear arsenal from 1,750 nuclear weapons to 23,000, but tried to erase the line between conventional and nuclear weapons, put dozens of fingers on the nuclear button, promoted the “peaceful atom” in ways that facilitated proliferation, and bequeathed a nuclear war plan that, according to Pentagon estimates, could have left over six hundred million dead. That figure doesn’t include the victims of Soviet retaliatory attacks or the far greater tragedy that would have resulted if such a war had triggered nuclear winter. We will discuss responsibility of seemingly decent American leaders, like Henry Kissinger and Ronald Reagan, for supporting some of the most vicious, malign, and murderous forces in Latin America. We will show how the U.S. deliberately fostered and fanned the flames of Islamic extremism in Pakistan and Afghanistan as part of its Cold War strategy against the Soviet Union. And we will show how U.S. leaders have repeatedly lied the country into war. I could go on, but I’ll save the rest for our series.
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David William Nicholas - 3/11/2010
I have to confess I too was a bit surprised to read that the old Alperowitz theory is still making the rounds and being repeated as if it were factual. One of the amazing things about the atomic bombs being dropped on Japan is that they almost didn't convince the Japanese to surrender, *after* they were dropped. The emperor famously overrode his cabinet (only the second time he did this during the war; on the other occasion he insisted on a rescue operation to retrieve surviving Japanese soldiers on Guadalcanal) and insisted that he'd undergo the humiliation of surrendering to the Americans, and went on the radio to explain to the populace what was happening. Almost no one in the country had heard his voice before; many had difficulty understanding what he was saying because of his imperial accent, which was taught him to differentiate him from the general public. He didn't address the public live; instead they made a recording. After he recorded the broadcast, Japanese fanatics attacked the studio where the broadcast had been recorded, hoping to destroy the album it had been recorded on and forestall the surrender. Due to a series of circumstances they failed.
The point is this: even if the Japanese government in power *had* been weighing options that involved surrender, there were powerful interests in Japan who held out hope that surrender could be avoided. Acting like they weren't there because their absence is convenient in a current political argument is dishonest in the extreme. History shouldn't be made to fit political agendas, regardless of who that benefits.
Lewis Bernstein - 3/8/2010
David Austin Walsh - 3/8/2010
This comment has been posted at the request of Ron Radosh:
I will shortly deal with Peter Kuznick’s interview in more detail on my own blog, at www.pajamasmedia.com/ronradosh. But in the meantime, I wish to make a few brief comments.
First, I am delighted that I evidently hit home with my first blog on the forthcoming Showtime series that I wrote for PJM. Prof. Kuznick’s gratuitous and most revealing reference to myself and David Horowitz says we obviously succeeded in making it clear how foolish anyone is who thinks that Oliver Stone is even equipped to make a serious documentary on the Cold War and recent American history. Anyone who has seen “JFK” or “Nixon” knows that Stone is an ideologue and propagandist who makes the rather crude and biased history of Howard Zinn seem sophisticated.
The giveaway is that in two places, Kuznick himself validates my argument. First, he says that in Vietnam, as in all recent US foreign policy, the United States “is on the wrong side.” In fact, this statement is proof positive that Mr. Kuznick sides with our enemies, and puts the blame for all bad that happens in the world on the United States. This is not surprising. What else would we expect from Oliver Stone, who would never associate with anyone who has a more sophisticated view of history?
Second, when he mentions the A-Bomb, his comment on Truman not exploring any other alternatives reveals that even on this issue, which has been written about by many over the years in a manner that has intellectually destroyed the outdated Alperovitz theory on why we dropped the bomb, shows that Kuznick does not himself take into account interpretations others than those he learned as a New Left activist in the 1960’s.
Finally, I’m sure Rutgers was an exciting place to be in that era, but as one who knew Warren Susman well, and still knows and is in touch with Gene Genovese, (who unlike Kuznick, has changed with the world and rejected his old Leninist ways) Kuznick’s “history” and career is one I think that Susman, were he still with us, would be most ashamed of. Susman was a leftist, but as a sound historian, hated the kind of work Kuznick now stands for. Warren’s work had the kind of subtlety and sophistication to it one does not see in anything Kuznick says in this interview, or plans to say in his film.
I am delighted to see that he was stung by my attack. I vow to continue to do all I can to see to it that the film gets the dismissive press it will well deserve.
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