Review: Untold History of the United States

Posted: April 18, 2016 in Cinema, Corporatism, Debate, Economics, History, Idealism, Media, Narrative
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Caveat: this review is based on viewing only half uhposterof the DVD version of Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States, which also exists as a book and audio book. It’s also available on the Showtime cable channel, as downloadable media, and in excerpts on YouTube (and probably elsewhere). Stone put his name above the title, but I will refer to the documentary as simply Untold History.

Disclaimer: Stone has a long personal history of retelling political history through a cinematic lens, which by necessity introduces distortions to condense and reshape events and characters for storytelling. Untold History purports to be documentary and (alert: intentional fallacy at work) shares with Howard Zinn’s somewhat earlier A People’s History of the United States an aim to correct the record from official accounts, accepted narratives, and propagandist mythologies misinterpretations. I’ve always been suspicious of Stone’s dramatic license in his movies, just as with Steven Spielberg. However, I wanted to see Untold History from first learning about it and am just now getting to it (via a borrowed library copy). Without indulging in conspiratorial fantasies about Stone’s arguments, I find myself pretty well convinced (or an easy mark).

Whereas Zinn begins People’s History with the discovery of North America in 1492, Stone commences Untold History with World War Two. Thus, there is little or no discussion of Americans’ pacifism and isolationism prior to entry into WWII. There is also little direct cultural and social history to which I typically grant the greater part of my attention. Rather, Untold History is presented from military and political perspectives. Economic history is mixed in with all these, and the recognition that a wartime economy rescued the U.S. from the grip of the Great Depression (leading to nearly permanent war) is acknowledged but not dwelt upon heavily.

Based on the first half that I have viewed (WWII through the Eisenhower administrations and the early decades of the Cold War), it was clear that the U.S. experienced rapid and thoroughgoing transformation from a lesser power and economy into the preeminent political, military, and industrial power on the globe. Thus, activities of the U.S. government from roughly 1940 forward became absorbed in geopolitics to a greater degree than ever before — just at a time when the U.S. acquired immense power of production and destruction. Untold History never quite says it, but it appears many became more than a little drunk with power and lacked the composure and long historical view of leaders whose countries had more extended experience as principal actors on the world’s stage.

Those are two of several overarching impressions made by Untold History. In the interest of brevity, here are a few more specific takeaways:

  • Various heads of state during and just after WWII (Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, Hitler, Truman, and Eisenhower) each understood events of the period from within a particular worldview and made significant mistakes that had lasting effects. Several stand out: Stalin’s initial nonaggression pact with Germany (which Hitler later and fatefully transgressed) and surprising fidelity to necessary military alliances (unlike Western leaders’ perfidy), Roosevelt’s delay opening a western front in the European theater of war, Churchill’s preoccupation with postwar preservation of the United Kingdom’s colonial empire, and escalations and provocations undertaken by both Truman and Eisenhower.
  • Sacrifices during WWII fell disproportionately on the Soviets (to say the least: estimates are 27 million Soviet dead vs. fewer than 500,000 each for the U.S. and Britain), who may have rightfully believed they were fighting for their very existence as Germany invaded eastward with plans not merely to annex the land but to extinguish local populations.
  • Two U.S. statesmen, Henry Wallace (Secretary of Agriculture and then vice president under Roosevelt and Secretary of Commerce under Truman) and George Marshall (WWII general, architect of the Marshall Plan, and Secretary of State then Secretary of Defense under Truman), both espoused pacifist and progressive politics that eventually landed them in disfavor and swept them out of office (fired by Truman). Untold History concentrates considerable attention on Wallace, who is largely lost to history as living memory fades, and poses a few what-if questions had Wallace not been bullied off the Roosevelt ticket at the 1944 Democratic National Convention when party bosses substituted Harry Truman. Footage of Wallace making speeches and providing testimony indicates that his policies of racial, gender, and economic equality were 2–3 decades before his time.
  • Once created and while the monopoly lasted, the U.S. nuclear arsenal (first the atomic bomb, later including the hydrogen bomb) increased rapidly, with above-ground tests numbering in the hundreds (now over a thousand). The creation, unnecessary use (against Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki), deployment abroad, and threatened use of The Bomb has always been more than a little maniacal. Regrets by numerous atomic scientists that they ever brought nuclear arms into being seem to go largely unheeded by military commanders and heads of state who continue to relish weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), not unlike modern-day fanatics, despots, and radicals.

Use of archival photography, radio broadcasts, and newsreel footage (some silent, some with sound) adds considerable weight and authority to the presentation, especially when excerpting speeches and addresses directly from the original speakers. Fast pace (despite total running time of 12+ hours) and constant visual cutting behind Stone’s voice-over narration prevent development of deeper context but is consistent with modern documentary style and inevitable given the scope of American history. Stone may be forgiven for using excerpts from cinema and TV (tellingly, Dr. Strangelove and The Twilight Zone, among others) to illustrate aspects of Untold History considering that they are expressions, both pro and con, of issues and paranoia of the day.

In addition, the heightened rhetoric and propagandistic moves of today’s politics have nothing on the period 1940–60 (nor perhaps with other eras marked by high tensions and failed yellow journalism). The reckless paranoia of political and military leaders during WWII may well have been matched by truly virulent strains of fascism hellbent on world domination and racial purification, but the paranoia endured after the day have been won, poisoned the minds of many, and turned our most significant wartime ally almost immediately into the next great foe. The path taken by the U.S. at that historical junction lacked tolerance, humanity, and wisdom and was instead marked by pure ideology mirroring Germany’s misguided will to power. We paint ourselves as heroes in this story, and there was indeed plenty of true heroism, but in the process, we ourselves became monsters to fight monsters and never reversed course. It’s impossible to know how our legacy might have differed had we not allowed ourselves to be so easily lured by the splendor of American ascendance, but thanks to Untold History, we can at least appreciate that when the moment arrived to choose what sort of people we would soon become, we chose unwisely (if unwittingly) and now have another 50 years of tawdry history to take stock of our error.

Let me here depart from Untold History with my brief commentary. It’s often said that all wars are ultimately resource wars. However, they may not always be undertaken out of deprivation and desperation. On the surface, the motivation of the U.S. in its prosecution of the Cold War was to stem the rise of communism, the principal ideology competing with liberal-democratic capitalism. But it may well be that the U.S. was in the post-war period embarking on a newly formulated economic colonialism (via creation of client states controllable by American corporate interests) that differed from the geographical colonialism practiced by the British, Spanish, French, and Dutch, among others. American-style colonialism is more easily recognizable today as globalization, which proceeds economically when it can but militarily when it must, but its aim has always been to consolidate control over resources abroad for their enjoyment at home. In a sense, this is now a long resource war and an ideological war, with information and managed perception (including self-deception) being the preferred tools/weapons when we’re not otherwise busy profiting from arms sales while bankrupting ourselves with bloated defense budgets and military adventures.

By collecting together and telling the untold history, Oliver Stone has provided a less handsome and congratulatory interpretation of recent American history. It is unclear to me that Untold History has yet made an impact, just as Michael Moore’s documentaries, for all their guffawing entertainment value, have failed to ignite the spark needed to reevaluate and reformulate American-style politics. These are shots fired in an ongoing information war, a war of ideologies, but I have grave doubts they can ever hit their targets precisely because those targets (the American public at large that has in the past acted as a brake on government and corporate excesses) have been made fundamentally immune to persuasion unless they’re being bought off — either literally or with promises, mostly empty, of the return of a newly ascendant America. They’re soft targets, and informed reason mostly bounces off of them. Still, they are not without a king-sized sense of righteousness and entitlement. It has for decades now made us a most dangerous and reviled people.

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