SHORT TAKES


February 20, 2013

Sean Wilentz Looks at Oliver Stone's 'America'

In November, I reviewed the new, supposedly "untold" story of 20th century U.S. history penned by Oliver Stone and American University professor Peter Kuznick. (Parents of American University students can spend their tuition dollars having their children enroll in Kuznick's course, "Oliver Stone's America.") In the review, I mentioned that Princeton professor Sean Wilentz had criticized Stone and Kuznick's work as well.

Wilentz's review, in New York Review of Books, is now out. He concludes that the"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."

Wilentz correctly observes just how little is either "new" or "untold" in the Stone/Kuznick tale--something that the duo now appears to concede. They now claim that their version of the past is not untold but somehow unlearned, at least among the media and in "those parts of America that cling to the notion of American exceptionalism." Stone and Kuznick don't seem at all sheepish about titling their opus in a misleading fashion.

At its most basic level, Wilentz notes, and quite apart from its overall ultra-revisionist message, the Stone/Kuznick book is simply bad history. He takes apart their portrayal of the 1944 Democratic National Convention, at which the book's hero, then-Vice President Henry Wallace, was dumped from FDR's ticket. Far from an ideological crusade against a peace-oriented visionary, Wilentz notes that Wallace had alienated virtually every key player in the Democratic Party, and that FDR had signed off to replacing him. Since this evidence doesn't fit the Stone/Kuznick preconceptions, they just ignore it.

One quibble with the Wilentz review. Challening the Stone/Kuznick claim that the "'revisionist narrative' that informs their book has in truth become 'the dominant narrative among university-based historians,'" Wilentz correctly points to the outstanding work of non-revisionist diplomatic historians such as John Lewis Gaddis and Melvyn Leffler. Yet as fewer and fewer history departments make hires in diplomatic (or even political) history, there's no particular reason to believe that the Stone/Kuznick fantasy isn't, in fact, "the dominant narrative among university-based historians." And if it's not, given current hiring patterns, it probably will be soon.

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