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.”
Untold History is something like a densely packed freight train: rolling along at high speed, heavy with facts and analysis, and stopping for nothing, especially dissenting voices. The show contains no original interviews. “I’m just not fond of it,” says Stone. “And we’re not playing that game, like we’re trying to be objective. I don’t mean we’re making it up. The companion book is heavily footnoted and triple-fact-checked. But cutting to a talking head breaks a rhythm we have to keep to. ...There are limits to our time and space.”
History, however, is not merely a collection of verifiable facts like bomb tonnage and casualty lists. It’s also the interpretation of those facts — and on that score, Untold History promises plenty of fireworks among historians who reject Stone’s conclusions. Their number will not be small, and their complaints will start on the series’ very first night, with Stone’s declaration that credit for the defeat of Hitler should go to the Soviet Union.
“The Soviets did a hell of a lot,” says Donald L. Miller, a historian at Pennsylvania’s Lafayette College who has written three books on World War II and acted as a consultant and writer on several TV documentaries (including The Pacific, one of the series produced by Hanks that Stone so detests). “The great majority of the German Wehrmacht troops who died in the war were killed on the Eastern Front by the Russian army. It would have been very hard to win World War II without the Russians ... .
“But it would have been impossible for Russia to have won the war without the United States and Great Britain. We supplied them with equipment and supplies. The Allied bombing of Germany forced Hitler to draw back his air force to cover his oil facilities, which meant a Russian army with air cover was fighting a German army without air cover, which is no contest.”
Stone wrote the show (and its 750-page companion volume) with American University historian Peter Kuznick. It grew out of their mutual admiration for Henry Wallace, a left-wing populist who served as vice president during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s third term in the White House but was dumped for Harry Truman before the fourth. Had the Soviet-sympathizing Wallace stayed on the ticket in 1944, he and not Truman would have become president when Roosevelt died.
That would have scattered a long row of historic dominoes, starting with the use of atomic weapons against Japan (Wallace disapproved) to the Cold War with the Soviet Union (a country with which Wallace sympathized to an extraordinary degree).
“Back in 1997, I said, why don’t you write a script, on the subject you love so much, the bomb and Henry Wallace?’ ” Stone recalls. “Peter’s a great historian, but it turns out he’s not a screenwriter. He wrote a 200-page screenplay that’s somewhere in my closet. A few years later, I was making [the 2008 film] W., about George Bush. I don’t know how you felt, but I was just getting fed up, it was one thing after another. And I asked Peter, ‘Hey, why didn’t we do this Wallace project?’ And that’s what this show grew out of.”
Stone talked to HBO, for whom he had made a documentary about Fidel Castro, but the network balked at the idea of 10 episodes. “And this was a different kind of idea anyway,” Stone says. “A dissident idea, I call it. Showtime was more open to it. They’re No. 2, they try harder, like the old Avis ad used to say.”
Two years late
Not that there weren’t some bumpy spots down the Showtime road. Even after abandoning episodes on World War I and the Depression, Stone was two years late delivering the series. And Showtime and corporate parent CBS maintained a stony silence when Stone came under harsh attack for a 2010 press conference in London where he boasted that Untold History would “show empathy” for Hitler and Stalin and present them “in context.” Added Stone: “Hitler did far more damage to the Russians than the Jewish people.”
The resulting firestorm abated only after Stone apologized, saying he had just been “trying to make a broader historical point about the range of atrocities the Germans committed against many people,” and had blundered into “a clumsy association about the Holocaust.”
The scars from that controversy seem not to have entirely healed and are even faintly visible in the show itself, in which Stalin’s brutality is mentioned several times even as his conduct of the war is praised. And a reporter’s suggestion that the documentary characterizes Stalin and the Soviet Union as the war’s “good guy” and Western leaders as something less drew a forceful response.
“There’s nothing about ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in the film,” Stone says. “We don’t use those words. We talk about power politics. We talk about how beleaguered the Russians were. How empathetic toward the Soviet Union Roosevelt was, and how there was antipathy [toward the Soviets] from Churchill ... .
“Good and bad, those are huge words, and these are huge countries. America contains so much; Russia, too. There was much bad with Stalin, and much good, too. The Russians sacrificed enormously to win the war. That cannot be ignored. Please be careful about this, be careful about using words like good and bad. We went to years and lengths to make each chapter complex, with layers and nuances. What we’re trying to show are systems that exist, the process that exists. It’s not about egos so much as it is about the system, the concept of empire in the national security state — the gigantic beast, if you will.
“We screened some of the episodes at the New York Film Festival. And the best reaction of anybody there was from this young woman who said, ‘It made me rethink World War II.’ That’s what we hope for. It should make you think on another level.”