Here’s a little story you won’t see in Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States. About a month after the war ended, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the overall commander of American and British troops in Europe, met his Soviet counterpart, Marshal Georgi Zhukov, in Berlin. The men, who shared a mutual professional admiration if not an ideology, peppered each other with questions about their respective wars.
Zhukov wondered how Eisenhower managed to get 150,000 men ashore in a just a few hours under fierce enemy fire on D-Day. Eisenhower explained about the marvelous lightweight landing craft invented by a Louisiana shipbuilder. Then he asked the Soviet general how he crossed the massive German minefields on the war’s Eastern Front without suffering serious losses to his tank force.
Oh, it was easy, replied Zhukov. We just sent the infantry in front of them.
Remember that anecdote when Stone cites the huge disparity in Russian and American military casualties as evidence that the Soviets fought harder and bore the real brunt of World War II. Representing a government that had starved, shot or worked to death millions of its own citizens while eliminating dissent in the 1930s, Soviet generals were quite casual in using their troops as cannon fodder, overwhelming the German army with the sheer number of human bodies that could be hurled against it.
This is the common fault line running through Stone’s 10-part revisionist history that debuts Sunday night: the presentation of his own perspective as objective reality and the ruthless suppression of any fact that contradicts or undermines his view — that the world over the past 75 years is a much worse place for the American role in it.
Unlike JFK, in which Stone portrayed Earl Warren, one of the great champions of civil liberties in the history of the Supreme Court, as a homicidal traitor who helped assassinate President Kennedy, Untold History contains no real factual whoppers, at least in the first three hours that I saw. But it is relentless and ultimately meretricious in skewing history to its conceit that the United States is a murderous war machine destroying everything in its path to empire.
Manipulation of the truth is nearly constant in Untold History. Sometimes it takes the form of omissions: Stone makes much of the fact that U.S. corporations sold trucks, tires and other manufactured goods to Spanish fascists in the 1930s, but makes no mention that the Soviet Union was one of Hitler’s major trading partners from the 1920s right up to the moment Germany invaded Russia in 1941.
Other times it comes as apologetics, as when Stone explains the tens of thousands of rapes of German women by Soviet soldiers during the final weeks of the war as the outraged Russian reaction to Nazi concentration camps. (Does that mean the failure of American and British soldiers to rape their way across Germany is a symptom of anti-Semitism?)
And sometimes it comes in distortions so wild as to nearly defy comment. What can you say when Stone compares the Soviet enslavement of Eastern Europe to U.S. relations with Mexico and Canada? (Remind me again, was it Toronto or Montreal to which President Eisenhower sent tanks to put down a revolt, as the Soviets did in Hungary in 1956?) Or when he argues that Stalin’s troops “paid a stiff price to free Poland”? Actually, the Soviets invaded Poland 1939 right alongside Hitler, with whom they had a friendship pact at the time, and some of the territory they “freed” is under Russian control to this very day.
All that said, Untold History is not without its interesting moments. Stone’s researchers have uncovered a mass of archival film never before seen, at least in this country, including some truly weird recreations of scenes in American nuclear labs done for old newsreels, with senior scientists and military men woodenly reading lines and emitting gales of fake laughter.
And for all its legion distortions, the show sometimes disinters history that, if not unknown, is mostly forgotten to average Americans. One of the most interesting is that of the contentious Democratic Party convention of 1944, where Franklin Roosevelt had decided to dump his third-term vice president, the left-wing Henry Wallace, for undistinguished Missouri party hack Harry Truman.
Wallace fought back on the convention floor and nearly succeeded in wresting back the nomination, but was undone at last moment by chicanery of party bosses. Had he won, Wallace would have become president when Roosevelt died the next year. And, Stone enthuses, U.S. history would have been much different.
In this case, it’s hard to disagree with Stone. A Wallace presidency would truly have launched American history into an alternate universe. Two of Wallace’s key advisors, Harry Dexter White and Laurence Duggan, we now know from decrypted Soviet espionage cables, were KGB spies. We might have had Russian spies sitting in the middle of cabinet meetings.
Oddly, there’s no mention of that in Untold History, which as usual leaves the really interesting history untold.