I wanted to like Oliver Stone’s new documentary, The Untold History of the United States, really I did. After all, here is the maker of films positing a conspiracy to assassinate John F. Kennedy and exposing the criminal history of the Vietnam war promising to unveil the suppressed truth about America’s role in the world. With the Usual Suspects attacking Stone before the first part of this Showtime series was ever released, I was eagerly looking forward to a scathing critique of the American empire’s long bloody rampage through the history of modern times.
I should have known better.
Stone, is turns out, has been engaged in some false advertising. For what he has produced, at least so far, might be better entitled “A Twice-Told Tale” — because the narrative he presents was told first by official Soviet “historians” and their fellow-travelers in this country, albeit without the hi-tech enhancements and prominent platform available to Stone. And if you think this is just cheap red-baiting, then go on over to Digby’s site and watch chapter one.
Our story starts out with the development of the atomic bomb, and what Stone regards as the unlikely engagement of Robert Oppenheimer, a brilliant scientist and fellow-traveling leftist, with the high mucka-mucks of the Pentagon. The US government, it seems, paid little attention to the military potential of nuclear research until Albert Einstein wrote a letter to FDR lobbying for a US government crash program to weaponize the atom.
Curiously, the decision to actually drop the bomb is not mentioned — perhaps he’s leaving that for the second part — and the narrative soon veers off into the history of the 1930s and the run-up to World War II. It is here that Stone’s embarrassing pro-Soviet viewpoint comes across like a very bad smell.
What Stone fails to point out is that Oppenheimer, who belonged — as Stone notes — to “every Communist front group on the West Coast,” had ideological reasons for letting the atomic genie out of its bottle. American Communists opposed US entry into World War II right up until Hitler invaded the Soviet Union — and then turned on a dime, becoming the most militantly vociferous advocates of entering the war. They led the effort to squelch labor strikes in wartime, and called for jailing the hated “isolationists,” anti-war activists who were smeared by the Communists and the fellow-traveling media as Nazi “fifth columnists.”
Stone cites Oppenheimer’s evocation of the devilish Hindu goddess Kali, deity of destruction and war, as the great scientist contemplates the awesome power he’s unleashed on the world: it never occurs to him that Oppenheimer doubtless considered Kali to be, in this instance, on the side of the angels, i.e. the Kremlin, which was at that moment fighting for its life against the German onslaught.
According to Stone, the problem with US entry into World War II is that it didn’t happen soon enough. We should have gone to war with Germany and Italy in defense of the Spanish “Republic,” when the Communists toppled the Spanish monarchy and established a nascent Soviet satellite on the Iberian peninsula. The Spanish commies, we are told, had incurred the wrath of Corporate America by their “progressive policies” and “tight regulation of business” — a vapid euphemism for the forced collectivization of all business, the wholesale murder of Catholic priests and nuns, and a reign of Red Terror that rivaled that being carried out in Stone’s beloved Soviet Union.
The myth of Munich and Western “appeasement” of Hitler is uncritically reiterated: Stone bewails the fact that the Western powers, particularly France, did nothing when Hitler’s army marched into the Rhineland. It never occurs to him to ask: why was the Rhineland, overwhelmingly German, subjected to a de facto occupation in the first place? The Treaty of Versailles, which laid the groundwork for German revanchism, does not get even a single mention. Stone, the supposed iconoclast, isn’t about to take on the myth of German war guilt. In its revision of the conventional historical wisdom, the left-wing of the War Party draws the line when it comes to the two world wars.
The two heroes of this chapter in Stone’s epic are, in hagiographic order, Josef Stalin and FDR: the latter earns high praise not only for the New Deal but also because he waged a clandestine war well before Pearl Harbor, and the former is hailed as the indomitable leader of a heroic people’s war against fascism, who may have had some flaws — such as a bloodthirsty ruthlessness — although, to be sure, they were flaws that ultimately enabled him to lead his nation to victory.
As Stone would have it, the Soviet Union defeated the Nazis and won World War II for the Allies almost single-handedly: he blandly describes the “relocation” of tens of millions of Soviet citizens as a necessary measure to preserve Russian industry, and his paean to the Kremlin’s forced industrialization program, which enslaved the entire population of the USSR still under the Red Army’s boot, sounds like something out of the Daily Worker, circa 1935. He does mention the Lend-Lease program, which, he notes with some rancor, was passed by a “reluctant” Congress: it was this — America’s industrial might, untouched by the war — and not the Stakhanovite fantasies of Soviet propagandists, that enabled the Russians to hold out against the German onslaught.
While Stone shows footage of Americans saying they didn’t want to get dragged into another European war, this viewpoint is implicitly attributed to nothing more substantial than a stubborn “isolationism” — and, rather more explicitly, vicious hostility to the Soviet Union. Stone cites, with clear disapproval, none other than Harry Truman wishing aloud that the Nazis and Soviets would kill each other off. I didn’t know Truman ever said that, but such sentiment was even more clearly expressed by such conservative opponents of FDR as Col. Robert R. McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune, and other conservative anti-interventionists. They are left out of this phony Untold History, along with the story of the biggest and most militant antiwar movement in American history, the America First Committee, which opposed FDR’s drive to war right up until Pearl Harbor. This history remains largely untold and unknown (although I’ve made a modest effort to tell it) — and, if the historical reality is ever uncovered and popularized, it likely won’t be due to the efforts of Stone and similar pro-Soviet “revisionists.”
Stone chose to begin his narrative with the run-up to World War II, and this allows him to side-step the real genesis of that horrific conflict: World War I, the Versailles Treaty, and the ruinous Allied and American role in ensuring the rise of a revanchist Germany. For the Great Anti-Fascist Struggle of Stone’s sectarian imagination was really the second act of Woodrow Wilson’s war to “make the world safe for democracy.” An examination of that seminal tragedy would have required a good look at Wilson, one of the plaster saints of American “progressivism,” and that would have meant a great deal more evasion of unpleasant historical facts than even Stone is capable of.
Yet he doesn’t do a bad job of evasion in the present work: in Oliver Stone’s vision of America during World War II, tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans and others were never rounded up and thrown into concentration camps. Of this historic crime, there is nary a word. However, he does mention, surprisingly, that the Americans knew a Japanese attack was coming, although, according to him, they expected it in the Philippines rather than Hawaii. I guess the work of Robert Stinnett, and others, who have shown the Americans had deciphered the Japanese secret code and successfully intercepted their war plans, isn’t available at the Hollywood public library.
Stone’s Untold History is emblematic of the problem with much of the ostensibly anti-interventionist left in America and around the world: the second world war is their big blind spot. Because they are burdened with upholding the mythology of the “good war,” they break ranks and run whenever the War Party holds up another reincarnation of Hitler and demands his righteous destruction. The neocons, for whom it is always 1939, know how to appeal to the left: just conjure the ghost of Munich, and with it the screaming lunacy of the failed painter from Vienna, and you will have the liberals, as well as the reflexively militarist conservatives, in the palm of your hand.
This is why limousine liberals of Stone’s sort have deserted the antiwar movement in droves: just as Roosevelt’s war was the “good war,” so Obama’s wars are considered equally righteous. Obama was elected, with their enthusiastic support, on a promise to fight the Afghan war — the “good war” — and be done with Bush’s half-measures. The Libyan intervention was treated by the liberal media as yet another “good war,” the 21st century equivalent of the Spanish Civil War recalled by Stone with such partisan passion. And the same crowd is even now agitating for direct US military support to the Syrian “revolutionaries,” whose terrorist allies and leaders are apparently today’s version of the heroic Spanish Republicans. Gadhafi and Assad are the new Hitlers, albeit of the tinpot variety, whose overthrow is to be followed by yet another “good” war against the Iranian Hitler.
The desertion of the “progressives” from the ranks of the peace movement has been widely noted, and is invariably attributed to partisan loyalty: Bush’s wars were bad, according to this analysis, while Obama’s are good, because the former is a Republican while the latter is the darling of the left-wing of the Democratic party. There is less truth in this than you might imagine: the theory describes a real phenomenon, but doesn’t quite tell the whole story.
The vision of our “progressives” is inherently internationalist, and interventionist, simply because it ascribes superhuman powers to the instrument of government, and specifically the American government — which they just happen to control at the moment. The progressive values of Democracy, racial Diversity, and the secular Divinity of the State are proclaimed as universal: that means their strictures must be imposed on everyone in the world — at gunpoint, if necessary.
All in all, the first chapter of Stone’s Untold History is an embarrassment, one he will have a hard time living down no matter what he has to say in the chapters to follow. His right-wing critics will no doubt accuse him of giving a Stalinist account of history, but I would disagree: his sympathies are clearly Trotskyist. Indeed, Trotsky gets a prominent cameo in this production, including an account of his assassination at Stalin’s order: the dead giveaway is when Stone solemnly notes that Stalin’s purge of the Red Army’s top commanders imperiled the survival of the Soviet Union during World War II. A real Stalinist would have completely glossed over the gulag: as it is, Stone gives it a single mention in passing.
The roots of the American Empire and its rise to global hegemony run deeper than a dilettante like Stone is capable of imagining. The story he relates, far from being “untold,” is the creation myth of the Greatest Generation, the central storyline of the interventionist narrative. Oliver Stone’s big hero, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was the biggest warmonger in American history: in cahoots with Churchill and Stalin’s agents inside his administration, he plotted behind the scenes to drag us into war, all the while pledging in public his utter devotion to the cause of peace. He lied us into war, as Clare Boothe Luce famously put it, but that is one official lie the Oliver Stones of this world are loath to debunk.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
I note, above, the desertion of the Hollywood liberals and the “progressive” Obama cultists from the ranks of the antiwar movement. It’s precisely the sort of sunshine anti-warrior who’s shelling out good money to tune in to Showtime and buy the Untold History book and DVD — and believes every word — who is no longer contributing to Antiwar.com.
And that, in short, is why we’re struggling with this winter fundraiser, in what has to be the longest winter in Antiwar.com’s history.
No, no, I’m not blaming this on Stone personally: his fake “revisionism” is just a symptom, not the cause, of a more general intellectual malaise on what passes for the “left” today. Oh, for the days of Eugene Victor Debs, who ran for President from jail — where he was put by the “progressive” Woodrow Wilson for opposing US entry into World War I.
Well, you can’t turn back the clock! At least, that’s what the “progressives” tell us. They’re on the right side of history, and that’s what “progress” represents — i.e. whatever is happening at the moment. But what’s happening at this particular moment is anything but the old-fashioned liberal or “left” vision of what America ought to be or was meant to be. It was never meant to be an empire, no matter how ostensibly benign, and it was never meant — at least by the Founders, who Stone invokes in the preface to his Untold History — to be saddled with a central government as omnipresent at home as it is abroad.
We can and must turn back the clock, if only to revive the old-fashioned and entirely admirable history of left-liberal anti-imperialism. What’s happened to “progressives” isn’t progress: it’s a horrific retrogression to an earlier stage of American progressivism, which the Vietnam era should’ve expunged.
We’re working, here at Antiwar.com, and through our parent organization, the Randolph Bourne Institute, to renew the spirit of an older liberalism — you might call it paleo-liberalism, if you’re into ideological taxonomy. This is the liberalism of Randolph Bourne, for one, who bravely stood up to the “progressive” enthusiasm for Wilson’s war to make the world safe for the British empire and its bankers. It’s the liberalism of Eugene McCarthy, who stood up to the “liberal” wing of the Democratic party (remember Hubert Humphrey?) and rallied American youth in a crusade to end the Vietnam war.
This is the exact opposite of the Obama cultists and identity politicians who hail American military power as a force for “good” — now that the power is in their hands. In fighting this revolting trend in American politics, we are up against a mighty media machine consciously pushing the Obama cult and getting us ready for another glorious war that will put their hero on the same level as a Roosevelt, or a Wilson.
And who is there to oppose it?
We’ve long fought a very lonely fight against the depredations and relentless expansion of the American empire, and we don’t have any illusions about the difficulty of our task. We know who our enemies are, and what we have to do to defeat them in the war for public opinion. But, I must ask, who are our friends?
That’s the question being posed pointblank by our winter fundraising campaign. And the answer is: we’ll see.
Amid the mass desertion of our fair weather friends among the “progressives” we are seeing the first signs of an old-fashioned liberal rejection of interventionism per se. The Ron Paul campaign pointed the way to a new fusionism, a left-right alliance against war and in defense of the Bill of Rights. The popularity of such pundits as Glenn Greenwald is a good sign, as is the stubborn insistence of our longtime supporters on the left that Antiwar.com is indeed a worthy cause.
In short, there’s hope — but not unless we fight to preserve the institutions that make our movement possible. And that means supporting those institutions financially, as they take on the very well-funded think tanks, “emergency committees,” and government agencies that constitute the War Party’s command center. Those folks have billions at their disposal, much of it your tax dollars — we, on the other hand, have only you. You and your conscience, that is.
Listen to that little voice in the back of your head that’s telling you to shell out a few bucks for the cause of peace: it’s the voice of your moral sense, the one that is telling you there’s hope, yet, for a better world. Please, don’t delay — make your tax-deductible donation today.