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The Untold Story: How America Became a Dangerous Empire

Director Oliver Stone and historian Peter Kuznick offer a major reexamination of modern American history in “The Untold History of the United States,” which has many strengths.

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To figure that out, one only has to compare how many pages McCullough spent on Truman’s dramatic come-from-behind victory in the presidential race of 1948 (a lot) versus how many he spent on the decision to drop the atomic bomb (a lot fewer). But McCullough’s book was met with great acclamation. It became a huge bestseller and was made into a TV movie, establishing McCullough as the successor to Stephen Ambrose as the agreed upon historian for the MSM.

A Misleading Claim

The problem with the acclaim is that, as it turned out, McCullough cheated on a key point in defending Truman’s decision to use the A-Bomb. As Stone and Kuznick show, in both their book and film, Truman always (unconvincingly) maintained that the reason he dropped the bombs was to avoid an American invasion of the island. Truman thought that hundreds of thousands of American lives — at times he said a million — would have been lost in an amphibious assault.

In his book, McCullough tried to back up Truman’s claim, by citing a memorandum by Thomas Handy of Gen. George Marshall’s staff saying that an invasion of Japan could cost anywhere from 500,000 to a million lives. McCullough added that this memo showed “that figures of such magnitude were then in use at the highest levels.” (McCullough, Truman, p. 401)

This memo would certainly fortify Truman’s ex post facto defense. The problem is that when writer Philip Nobile went looking for the document, he couldn’t find it. McCullough had left it out of his footnotes, an omission that grew more suspicious when we learn from Stanford historian Barton Bernstein that no such memo by Handy exists.

Bernstein, an acknowledged authority on Truman, told Nobile that the memo in question was actually written by former President Herbert Hoover, who was no military expert and failed to sign it. Clipped to the Hoover memo was a critique of Hoover by Handy. The critique repudiated Hoover’s estimates as being too high.

In other words, McCullough presented in his book the opposite of what Handy’s meaning was. Making it even worse for McCullough is the fact that Bernstein had exposed all this Handy/Hoover mishmash twice before, once in a periodical and once in a book. And that was five years before McCullough’s book was published.  (Click here for Nobile’s article

Yet this shoddy scholarship — if that is what it was — gets ignored in this battle over, as journalist Robert Parry has termed it,  the stolen historical narrative of America.

Reconsidering the Eastern Front

Another major theme of the Stone/Kuznick book is that, contrary to what textbooks and Hollywood films likeSaving Private Ryan imply, World War II in Europe was not actually won by the Americans. Or the British. It was really won by the Russians.

The story of Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s massive invasion of the Soviet Union, has been relatively ignored in high school texts, although college texts have been improving on this as of late. There is little doubt today by any serious military historian that the German defeats on the Eastern Front were the primary reason for the fall of the Third Reich.

In the last 20 years, with the fall of the Soviet Union, there has been much good work done out of the Russian archives which allow historians to etch into the saga of World War II the huge military campaigns on the Russian front from 1941-43. This has allowed for the proper crediting of the importance of Marshal Georgy Zhukov, the commander who was most responsible for thwarting Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union.

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