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The Gatekeepers of American History

The Stoning of Oliver Stone

by LOUIS PROYECT

On November 22nd the New York Times Sunday Magazine showcased a hatchet job by Andrew Goldman on Oliver Stone’s 10-part Showtime series “The Untold History of the United States” that is based on Stone and Peter Kuznick’s 750-page companion volume of the same name.  Goldman tried to hoodwink readers into thinking that both the right and the left disavowed the show and the book. While Ronald Radosh, the author of a recent study arguing that Francisco Franco did more good than harm to Spain, had all the credentials one expected from a rightist, Goldman’s choice of Sean Wilentz as speaking for the left was an exercise in deceit. Goldman cites Wilentz:

Is there a legitimate argument to be made about the origins of our nuclear diplomacy or the decision to build the H-bomb? Of course there is. But it’s so overloaded with ideological distortion that this question doesn’t get raised in an intelligent way. And once a question gets raised in an unintelligent way, then you are off in cloud-cuckoo land.

One imagines that the average NYT magazine reader assumes that Wilentz speaks for the left but a look back at his testimony on “revisionist” histories of the United States reveals that his chief role is that of ideological gatekeeper, warning his readers against “ideological distortion” seeping out of “cloud-cuckoo land”—in other words anything that is outside the bounds of mainstream liberalism.

On February 1, 2010 the Los Angeles Times asked a group of historians to sum up the career of Howard Zinn, who had died on January 27th. Wilentz dismissed Zinn’s work in the same terms as he did Stone and Kuznick’s:

What he did was take all of the guys in white hats and put them in black hats, and vice versa.

His view was that objectivity was neutrality, which I think is a formula for bad history. Objectivity is not neutrality; it is the deployment of evidence and building an argument based on historical logic. That’s how we engage in rational discourse. To
see history as a battleground of warring perspectives is to abandon the seat of reason.

He saw history primarily as a means to motivate people to political action that he found admirable. That’s what he said he did. It’s fine as a form of agitation — agitprop — but it’s not particularly good history.

Despite Sean Wilentz and all his professional credentials, I view Howard Zinn, Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick as making both good history and motivating people to political action. I say that as someone privileged to have watched the first five episodes on Showtime as well as having read the first four chapters of the companion volume. In the interests of full disclosure, I am not a neutral observer. As a long-time
radical with a deep hostility to capitalist injustice, I have as much interest in getting people to watch the show and/or reading the book as people like Andrew Goldman and Sean Wilentz have in warding them off.

For those who have found Oliver Stone’s movies going back to the 1986 “Platoon” a riveting experience, I can only recommend that they try to find a friend who has a subscription to Showtime. The episode on World War Two that can be seen on Youtube is a good introduction to the series. It makes the case that it was largely up to the Red Army to wipe Nazism off the face of the earth, a claim that is supported by the raw numbers. As Stone narrates in the episode, “The Soviets were regularly battling more than 200 German divisions. . . . The Americans and the British fighting in the Mediterranean rarely confronted more than 10.”

While it is impossible for me to gauge the role that Oliver Stone played in the companion volume, I’d like to think that his background as a filmmaker was key to providing a narrative drive as electric as a Stone movie. With his knack for storytelling, Stone must have helped to figure out what would make a history book a compelling read. Among the high points is the “untold” story of the American presidents of the 20th century, among whom Woodrow Wilson is singularly malevolent.

In the chapter titled “World War I: Wilson vs Lenin”, we learn that Wilson was racist to the core.

Wilson even screened D. W. Griffith’s pioneering though notoriously racist film Birth of a Nation at the White House in 1915 for cabinet members and their families. In the film, a heroic Ku Klux Klan gallops in just in time to save white southerners, especially helpless women, from the clutches of brutish, lascivious freedmen and their corrupt white allies—a perverse view of history that was then being promulgated in less extreme terms by William Dunning and his students at Columbia University. Upon viewing the film, Wilson commented, “It is like writing history with Lightning and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”

Stone and Kuznick employ a kind of “road not taken” look at Henry Wallace who was the polar opposite in many ways of Harry Truman. While it is impossible to have predicted how a Wallace presidency would have fared in a period when the American ruling class was hell-bent for leather on a confrontation with the USSR, there is little doubt that Truman had been groomed for the start to lead the charge.

While mainstream historian Douglas Brinkley generously lent a blurb to the book, calling it a “compelling leftist primer”, he was not happy with the portrayal of Truman. Goldman’s article states:

Brinkley, who has written several notable histories, said he thought the series had gone too far in demonizing Truman. “Truman is one of the most popular presidents in American history, and he’s popular for doing a bunch of things,” he said. Brinkley mentioned how Truman presided over the end of World War II, racially integrated American troops, helped create the state of Israel and airlifted supplies into Soviet-blockaded West Berlin.

Of course, it is a little bit hard to square integrating the army with creating the state of Israel in face of the recent blitzkrieg against the Palestinians in Gaza but the portrait drawn of Truman in “Untold History” is utterly devastating. Given recent efforts at hagiography, especially David McCullough’s 1993 biography, it is about time that someone told the truth about the president who launched the Cold War and the McCarthyite witch-hunt. We learn from “Untold History” that Truman’s racism was every bit as virulent as fellow Democrat Woodrow Wilson’s:

But Truman’s bigotry toward Asians long antedated reports of Japanese savagery. As a young man courting his future wife, he wrote, “I think one man is as good as another so long as he’s honest and decent and not a nigger or a Chinaman. Uncle Will says that the Lord made a white man of dust, a nigger from mud, then threw up what was left and it came down a Chinaman. He does hate Chinese. So do I. It is race prejudice I guess.” Truman regularly referred to Jews as kikes, Mexicans as greasers, and to other groups with equally derogatory names. His biographer Merle Miller reported, “Privately Mr. Truman always said ‘nigger’; always did when I talked to him.”

The other thing to note about Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick’s approach to history is its keen observation of American society in all its absurdity. If Truman was all too willing to use atomic bombs against the Japanese, it seems part and parcel of a honeymoon with nuclear energy satirized in the memorable documentary “Atomic Café”, including one hapless character named Eben Byers:

While awaiting the advent of atomic power to create a new Garden of Eden, the public became enamored of the healing powers of radium and other radioactive ingredients. Promoters claimed that their products could heal all sorts of maladies, ranging from baldness to rheumatism to dyspepsia to high blood pressure. One list contained eighty patent medicines with radioactive ingredients that could be inhaled or injected or taken in tablets, bath salts, liniments, suppositories, or chocolate candy. William Bailey claimed that the products produced at the Bailey Radium Laboratories in East Orange, New Jersey, would cure everything from flatulence to sexual debility. Among his products was the Radioendocrinator, which could be worn around the neck to rejuvenate the thyroid, around the trunk to stimulate the adrenals and ovaries, or under the scrotum in a special jockstrap. He did a thriving business, especially with his liquid Radithor, whose saddest and most noteworthy victim was wealthy Pittsburgh manufacturer and playboy Eben Byers. Byers’s physician recommended he try Radithor for his injured arm, and Byers began drinking several bottles a day in December 1927. Not only did it work for his arm, Byers claimed, it gave him new vitality and sexual energy. Believing it was an aphrodisiac, Byers pressed the substance on his lady friends. By 1931, he himself had consumed between 1,000 and 1,500 bottles and started feeling sick. He lost weight, experienced bad headaches, and watched his teeth fall out. Experts decided that his body was slowly decomposing. His upper jaw and most of his lower jaw were removed, and holes appeared in his skull. From there the end came quickly as he succumbed to radioactive poisoning.

As I read this passage, I could not help but think of the late Alexander Cockburn whose steadfast opposition to nuclear energy and weapons as well as his gimlet eye on the madness of American society would have made him a fan of Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick’s marvelous history. And as a long-time critic of the mainstream media, he surely would have weighed in on the ideological lynch mob organized by the likes of Andrew Goldman, Sean Wilentz, and Ronald Radosh. As someone who once asked a Nation Magazine intern if his hate was pure, Cockburn would have most certainly found the mots justes in a Weekend edition of Counterpunch for the gang of conservatives and liberals trying to crucify Stone and Kuznick. While his body might have left the earth, his spirit certainly lives on after him in CounterPunch.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.wordpress.com and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list