The early episodes of Showtime’s new documentary television series, Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States, revolve almost entirely around World War II. You will not mistake them for anything starring Tom Hanks or produced by Ken Burns. And that makes Stone proud.
A mention of Hanks, who portrayed ordinary GI Joes as quiet heroes in Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, draws nothing but a derisive snort from Stone. And Burns’ mammoth PBS documentary The War sets him off like a firecracker.
“ The War was not real history at all,” Stone says. “It was simplistic. It makes the United States into the center of the world. It builds into the mythology we created during the war, the mythology that perverted history. It perpetuates the myth that dropping the atomic bomb on Japan was good. Dropping the atomic bomb was not good. It was a perversion of good.”
Stone’s approach to history has never been exactly conventional — in films like JFK and Nixon, he presented the assassination of President Kennedy as the work of a massive conspiracy by fascist oilmen and the president’s own government. So it’s hardly surprising that his 10-part series, which debuts at 8 p.m. Monday on Showtime, veers off the beaten historical path.
In Stone’s view of history, the Soviet Union, not the United States and Great Britain, saved the world from Hitler. President Truman used the atomic bomb not to end World War II but as blackmail in support of American empire. A lot of the people we think are heroes are really villains, and vice-versa.
Revisionist history? Sure, says Stone; the way Americans understand history is sorely in need of revision.
“We take on these myths, like who starts the Cold War,” he says. “I take this personally, because I grew up in that era. The Cold War, in the history we learned in school, was always started by the Russians. That’s just not true. ...
“[President] Eisenhower — we take on the myth of him being the father figure of the 1950s, Father Knows Best. He’s really a man who intervened everywhere in the Third World and caused a lot of trouble. Under Eisenhower, our nuclear capacity blossomed up into a megastate that he himself called the military-industrial complex.
“We take on Reagan. We talk about the 1980s, the resurgence of the right wing, which has never really ceased. It ends with what’s going right now, goes right up through November 2012. We do not regard Obama as a heroic reformer. In the companion book we prepared for the series, the chapter on Obama is titled Obama: Managing A Wounded Empire.”
There are no blockbuster factual revelations in Untold History, and Stone concedes the show’s title is probably a slight exaggeration.
“I would not call it heavy original scholarship,” he says. “There might be some documents here and there known only to a few. But it’s not breaking news. What it does is much deeper than news. It establishes patterns. World War II was not just the Greatest Generation and a war against the Nazis. We ask who was this war really being fought against, and by whom, and why?
“I never had this in school. I don’t think most kids do. My daughter is in a very good private school and she just gets the same old myth: We dropped the bomb to save American lives. ... And she’s 16, in a very good private school in Los Angeles. If you want get really bad, go into public schools. You know, we’d love for this to be shown in schools. You have to get the kids away from myths once in a while.”