The cable channel Showtime is currently airing Oliver Stone’s “Untold History of the United States.” This is a ten part series, each of which is one hour, broadcast every Monday; the series is focused on the history of the United States during and after the Second World War. Oliver Stone narrates each episode, but he collaborated with historian Peter Kusnick to create the series and together they have written a 784 page book “The Untold History of the United States” published by Simon and Schuster. Kusnick also contributed substantially to the writing for each piece. Stone and Kusnick have been interviewed on Democracy Now about their collaborative effort and you can learn more about the series by visiting Oliver Stone’s website, where you can also find his response to criticisms of the documentary. The television series consists of collages of old movie reels and images and explores recently declassified documents; it progressively moves through each President of the United States, but begins with WW II. It is a colossal undertaking and was four years in the making. My own view of Stone’s series so far (not over yet), is that it more or less represents the history of the United States in the postwar period that we all had to dig out on our own, not the version that we learned through history lessons in public schools and the propaganda movies, documentaries and scare tactics that we went through by learning to hide underneath our school desks during atom bomb air raid practices. As children we learned that we were in a titanic struggle with the Soviet Union and that they wanted to dominate the world with an evil system called communism. The mask of America as the “Shining City on the Hill” comes off in this series and it is hard to imagine trying to put it back on, certainly not until we do some significant repair work. But of course in the aftermath of WW II, we created a city, Washington D.C., whose mission is to continuously promote a delusional version of postwar America that is quite different from reality (I often think of it as the Washington “Delusional Center” rather than the “District of Columbia”). The most obvious current delusional interpretation relates to our policies in the Middle East, as we align ourselves against the world, but on the side of Israel.
Stone begins the Untold History with the development of the atom bomb and shows footage, new to me, of Robert Oppenheimer preparing for the first bomb test. It is the success of the atom bomb and its use against Japan that Stone attributes to the beginning of the militaristic, security state that we have today, though it was 9/11 that gave us the securitized part. According to Lieutenant General Leslie Groves, who built the Pentagon before he headed the Manhattan project that developed the atom bomb, we used the bomb against Japan, not to force Japan into surrendering, but to show the Russians that we had a big advantage over them through our new military hardware. Groves believed that the atom bomb would give us a lead over the Soviet Union that would last for forty years, while scientists involved in the Manhattan project believed it would only take a few years before the Russians had their own device and they feared that America’s attitude about the bomb (scientists wanted to share the information openly) would lead to a nuclear arms race, which is exactly what happened; since 9/11 we live in fear of a nuclear terrorist bomb threat that we will have to live with, as long as nuclear weapons are around and my own guess is that if a nuclear device is ever detonated in an American city, God forbid, it will probably be one of our own. We have too many.
The morality of dropping the atom bomb on the Japanese is a theme in Stone’s history series. He suggests however that Japan agreed to our “unconditional surrender demand” (there was one condition that we agreed to which was that they could keep their emperor), not because of the two atom bombs we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but because Russia had entered the war against them and they feared that they would be annihilated by the Red Army, which by that time had acquired a reputation as a powerful, invincible military machine. After all, they had single-handedly defeated the vaunted German army. I have written previously on Oppenheimer and the bomb culture that we unavoidably created through our romantic commitment to the use of nuclear weapons as a deterrent. We are still in the bomb culture mentality we created for ourselves, believing that we are invincible through our impressive military weapons systems, even though experiences such as Vietnam mean we have a hard time proving our military invincibility.
It will come as a surprise for most Americans to acknowledge that it was the Russians who won WW II. The Russian army inflicted more than 90 per cent of the total casualties inflicted on the German Army and the Russian people probably lost more than 27 million who died in their titanic struggle with Hitler’s invading army. It was clear from the beginning that Hitler wanted to wipe the Russians off the face of the earth. In response to the invasion, Stalin moved and recreated industrial cities by dismantling factories and moving them further inland. These efforts recreated an industrial nation that began to manufacture improved tanks and planes that were effective against the Germans. By the time we invaded Europe in 1944, the Russian Army had the Germans retreating back towards Germany and were destroying it in the process. The Sixth German Army led by Friedrich von Paulus, had already surrendered at Stalingrad (January 1943). If Hitler had not attacked Russia, dislodging him from Europe would have cost far more American lives than what we suffered. According to the Untold History, at one time Russia had to engage 200 German divisions, while the most the allies confronted at any one time was about 10. While Stalin was involved in a life and death struggle for the survival of his people, Churchill invaded Africa and induced the Americans to do the same, followed by our invasion of Sicily. Churchill continued to postpone plans to invade Europe, perhaps because he was afraid of confronting Hitler’s army given his experience at the beginning of the war, but he also wanted to avoid creating a superpower in the form of Russia at the end of the conflict. Churchill was determined to preserve the British empire and reassemble it after the war. It was Roosevelt that finally forced Churchill to plan and execute the invasion of Europe, and he did so because he felt an obligation to provide some relief for the Russian Army. Roosevelt saw and responded to the terrible suffering of the Russian people, while Churchill saw value in allowing the Russians and the Germans to degrade each other so the Russia would be less effective in projecting hegemonic power at the end of the war.
Truman never acknowledged the Russian effort in winning the war and less than two weeks after FDR died, he became President and started the Cold War by talking sternly to Russian minister Molotov over some of the challenges related to how Russia was handling Poland. Thus it was the Americans that started the Cold War, not the Russians and the real hero who ended the Cold War was not Ronald Reagan, but Mikhail Gorbachev. Had Ronald Reagan agreed to Gorbachev’s proposal to eliminate all nuclear weapons, perhaps they would not pose the threat that they do today, a prospect made more horrifying by the events of 9/11.
Stone spends some time early on describing the events of the 1944 Democratic Convention; he emphasizes that if Henry Wallace had been the Vice President to Roosevelt rather than Truman, we would not have had the Cold War and we would not have dropped the atom bomb on the Japanese. Wallace had been Roosevelt’s Vice President from 1940-1944, and next to Roosevelt, he was a very popular Vice President. If his name had been entered appropriately at the convention, he would have won the VP nomination handily. But hardliners in the party insisted on a more conservative Vice President in the 1944 election and as a result, Roosevelt got Truman, whom he never brought into the loop, as he held him with low regard. Roosevelt only lived a few months into his fourth term and Truman suddenly found himself immersed in a set of bewildering decisions, one of which would soon determine America’s future—whether to drop the atom bomb on Japan. Unfortunately, for Truman, this decision was already made for him by the conservatives whose advice and counsel he sought.
Henry Wallace was a progressive, ingenious farmer from Iowa who appreciated science and the arts, was into Buddhism and had a passionate appreciation for what the Russian people had been through during WW II. He expressed the opinion that rather than have a confrontational stand with the Russians, we should live with them peacefully and allow a healthy competition between the two systems to see which one was best. You can imagine how this went over with the capitalists and the Southern Democratic leaders. There are no Henry Wallaces in the Federal Government today. If any did exist, they were expunged by McCarthyism. Stone has a deep appreciation for Wallace and continuously comes back to his theme that if Wallace had become President in 1945, the Cold War and the militaristic society we have become could have been avoided. That much is self-evident given all of the positions that Wallace famously took.
The untold history is well worth watching. Even if you think you know some of the events, you will always learn something new and Stone tries to avoid conspiracy theories, though he leaves the issue of Kennedy’s assassination open to question (don’t we all). It is still astonishing to me, that given the debt we have to the Russians for their role in defeating Germany in WW II, we did not formally recognize their contribution until John Kennedy, as President, addressed their sacrifice and bravery in a commencement speech he gave at the American University in June, 1963, months before he was assassinated. Of course that speech, one of his best, was given to help promote a peaceful and productive round of nuclear test ban talks, which Nikita Khrushchev, the Russian Premier, had proposed earlier. Oliver Stone’s “The Untold History of the United States” reminds us of this debt, that we have never recognized with sufficient gratitude; we are not talking about communism vs capitalism here, but rather an incredible sacrifice that the Russian people made that directly benefited us in shortening both the war in Europe and the war against Japan. We cannot get our head around 27 million people or the ingenious manner in which they built a new more modern industrial state to confront the German Army, achieved within 2 years after the beginning of the German invasion.
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