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.”