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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.


The title of Oliver Stone’s “The Untold History of the United States” is a bit of a misnomer, both as a book and a Showtime series. It’s more precisely a reinterpretation of official U.S. history over the past century or so. You might call it “The Little Understood Back Story of America’s Imperial Era.”

The 750-page  book, which seems to be more the work of Stone’s collaborator, American University history professor Peter Kuznick, picks up the tale around the time of the Spanish-American War at the end of the 19thCentury, with the U.S. conquest and occupation of the Philippines.

The Showtime series – some of which is now on YouTube – is narrated by Stone and begins, more or less, with the gathering clouds of World War II and the events that led to the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

What’s relatively “untold” about this history is the impact of some little remembered decisions, such as the Democratic Party’s replacing Vice President Henry Wallace with Missouri Sen. Harry Truman in 1944, and some ideologically suppressed memories, like how the Soviet Union broke the back of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich in World War II.

While much of this context is interesting, even revelatory for a contemporary audience, if you were expecting Stone to push the envelope on new historical disclosures on important events – such as John F. Kennedy’s presidency and his assassination – you might find the material a tad thin and disappointing.

The chief point of the book and the series – at least the first halves that I’m dealing with here – is that U.S. history could have gone in a very different and a much more positive direction if the United States had not locked itself on a course toward worldwide empire.

For instance, Stone and Kuznick imply that if Franklin Roosevelt had lived longer – or if his favored subordinate, Henry Wallace, had succeeded him as President – the worst aspects of the Cold War might have been averted.

If the United States under Harry Truman hadn’t picked up the mantle of Western imperialism from the diminished European powers, millions of lives might have been saved; the United States might have more effectively addressed its own economic and social problems; and many people in the Third World might not have been so profoundly alienated from the U.S.

Stone and Kuznick suggest that an alternative future was available to the United States, but that political, economic and ideological pressures sent the nation down a path that transformed the Republic into an Empire.

The Back Story

The back story of the Stone-Kuznick collaboration dates back to 1996, when Kuznick started an American University history class entitled “Oliver Stone’s America.” That first year, Stone made an appearance as a guest lecturer.

Kuznick and Stone then decided to cooperate on a TV documentary about the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. This idea somehow grew into this ten-hour mini-series and its companion book. [New York Times, Nov. 22, 2012]

In an appearance with Stone on Tavis Smiley’s program, Kuznick said this history is told from the point of view of the victims, implying that it was written from the bottom up. Not so.

The book is not a sociological history written from a socio-economic perspective covering things like the plight of minorities. It does touch on those issues, but that is not its prime focus by any means.

The book’s real focus is on America’s foreign relations of the 20th Century and on the key figures who shaped – or failed to shape – those policies. One of the volume’s major tasks is to re-evaluate two people: Harry Truman and Henry Wallace.

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