November 28, 2012

Oliver Stone's "History" as Propaganda


By KC Johnson

The 1997 film Good Will Hunting features Matt Damon's character in a conversation with Harvard
students, touting Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States as a way to better understand the American past. The scene was cringe-worthy for at least two reasons. First, there was something more than a little off-putting about a movie whose lead character demonstrated raw intellectual ability celebrating what amounted to a work of propaganda. Second, Damon's subsequent insinuation of college students' unfamiliarity with Zinn's arguments was ridiculous, given the ubiquity of Zinn's book on 1980s and 1990s history course reading lists.

I suppose it might be seen as a sign of progress that this generation's equivalent of the Zinn book, Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick's The Untold History of the United States, will likely not have much of an impact on campus: apart from Middle East Studies departments, unabashed propaganda is out of fashion in the contemporary academy. Moreover, Stone and Kuznick spend most of their book attacking U.S. foreign policy, asking questions that--despite their far-left, fact-challenged approach--don't conform to the race/class/gender paradigm that dominates the study of the United States in most U.S. history departments.

A Story Not Really 'Untold'

The exception to this pattern appears to be American University, which employs Kuznick as a professor of history. Kuznick's website boasts that he "teaches the path-breaking course Oliver Stone's America." The course, subtitled "Oliver Stone's Films," uses "Oliver Stone's feature films and a forthcoming documentary film series to explore how the controversial filmmaker has interpreted the history of the U.S. empire/national security state. The course compares Stone's interpretation with those of scholars and prominent guest speakers, including Stone, who participated in key events." It's unclear what Kuznick means by Stone having "participated in key events"; other than making the films and offering unfounded conspiracy theories, Stone didn't participate in any meaningful way in "key events" related to "the history of the U.S. empire/national security state."

As Michael Moynihan has observed, the book's fantastical portrayal begins with its title: "This isn't," Moynihan notes, "in any sense an 'untold story'; the authors mine only previously published accounts, having done no archival research." The title misleads in another respect: Stone and Kuznick's "history of the United States" is confined to the 20th century, and mostly to the Cold War and post-Cold War periods. The limited coverage offered to events before 1945 primarily introduces the United States as a villain inclined to treat Soviet Communism unfairly abroad or persecute radicals at home. And the book's post-1945 choices are as notable for what Stone and Kuznick exclude as for the exaggerated (at best) portrayals of what they provide.

The sources a historian uses depend on the question the historian seeks to answer; it's entirely possible to write a history of Cold War foreign policy relying on English-language sources--focusing on domestic debates about foreign policy, the activities of Congress, or a bureaucratic history of the national security state. But those aren't the types of questions Stone and Kuznick purport to answer; instead, they want to explore how U.S. policies affected Soviet decisions. (One chapter and portions of two others are devoted to portraying Soviet moves in the late 1940s as consistently defensive reactions to U.S. provocations.) Yet Stone and Kuznick take this approach without even looking at one Eastern Bloc document. Nor do they demonstrate any familiarity with those publications that have mined the archives of the Soviet Union or the former satellite states.

'Overloaded with Ideological  Distortion'

Unfortunately for the authors, publication of their book all but coincided with Anne Applebaum's Iron Curtain, an extraordinarily-researched volume that uses material from various Eastern European archives to show how the Soviet Union created a Stalinist Eastern Europe after World War II. (Spoiler alert: blindly reacting to an overly aggressive United States was not high on the list of explanatory factors.) A reader of the Stone/Kuznick publication would be utterly baffled by the narrative in Iron Curtain; it's as if Applebaum was writing about a different century with a different set of international players.

In an interview with the New York Times, Princeton historian Sean Wilentz termed the Stone/Kuznick book "ridiculous," comparing its approach to that of publications by Glenn Beck. "This is," he noted, "basically a very standard left-wing, C.P., fellow traveler, Wallace-ite vision of what happened in 1945-46"--a work "overloaded with ideological distortion" that leads the reader "off in cloud-cuckoo land."(In 2008, Wilentz's New Republic columns celebrated the candidacy of Hillary Clinton--he's obviously not some sort of wild-eyed conservative.) The ideological distortion Wilentz criticized was most on display in Stone and Kuznick's almost embarrassing treatment of Harry Truman, who the duo casts in the role of an arch-villain, apparently hoping to further lionize one of the book's few heroes, Henry Wallace.

Wallace, who served as Vice President during FDR's third term, was dumped from the ticket in 1944 amidst pressure from moderate and conservative Democrats. But for this move, he would have become President, and it's clear that Stone and Kuznick see the switch from Wallace (who bitterly opposed Cold War containment) to Truman as an international tragedy.

The Soviets 'Tighten Their Grip'

In 1948, Wallace launched a bid for President under the banner of the Progressive Party, beginning the campaign with strong backing from liberals. But his support collapsed, in part due to his fantastical apologies for Soviet behavior, such as the 1948 coup in Czechoslovakia. In a Cold-War obsessed book with 615 pages of text, the causes of the Czech coup receive a grand total of one, passionless sentence of analysis: "Early the following year, the Red Army helped overthrow the Czech government, putting an end to Czech democracy." That the Soviets subsequently "tightened their grip" over the formerly democratic state, Stone and Kuznick imply without ever specifically saying so, was a reaction to U.S. covert operations in the Soviet bloc (which they detail in several paragraphs). Czechoslovak foreign minister Jan Masaryk's March 1948 death, the duo assert without citation, "would come to haunt" Truman's defense secretary, James Forrestal.

Even Presidents whose record could easily advance the Stone/Kuznick thesis get the cuckooland treatment. Lyndon Johnson, for instance, left office with more than a half-million men in Vietnam and sent troops to ensure that a left-leaning coup in the Dominican Republic would fail; it's hard to come up with a positive portrayal of LBJ's overall foreign policy (though his handling of European and Middle Eastern matters was impressive). Yet Stone and Kuznick distort Johnson's record beyond recognition. The duo implies that Johnson might have escalated the conflict so the United States could exploit Vietnam economically. (Their source? A throwaway line in a 1954 Senate newsletter.) In late 1964, "the public overwhelmingly agreed" that American troops shouldn't be sent to Vietnam. Actually, throughout Johnson's presidency, there was no public consensus at all on Vietnam, and a significant chunk of the electorate consistently backed a more aggressive policy.

"Johnson dismissed intelligence reports that didn't conform to what he wanted to hear." Stone and Kuznick's source for this breathtaking assessment is a quote from LBJ at an unidentified "later" date condemning the analytical abilities of intelligence officers. In a 30-page chapter, meanwhile, Stone and Kuznick make no mention of LBJ's European policies--despite their earlier obsession with the U.S. role in Europe. Could it be that the duo struggled to find anything about Johnson's approach to Europe, analyzed in a remarkable book by Thomas Alan Schwartz, worthy of heinous condemnation?

The Times quotes Kuznick, in an appearance at the 92nd Street Y, ruminating on how "it's interesting to see the early reviews. They're all glowing, really. I mean, nobody's challenging anything we're saying, either our facts or our interpretations." Given how he and his co-author distort evidence in their book, Kuznick may well describe this essay as one of the many "glowing" reviews that Untold History has received.

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