Two years ago, Oliver Stone announced that he was preparing to make a documentary about recent American history. It premieres on the CBS-owned cable network Showtime on November 12. Titled
Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States, it is written by Stone and historian Peter Kuznick and narrated and directed by Stone. The series reflects the view Stone expressed in 2010 that the Soviet Union’s leader in the 1930s and ’40s, Joseph Stalin, has “been vilified pretty thoroughly by history,” so what is needed is a program allowing viewers to walk in both his and Hitler’s shoes “to understand their point of view.”
An examination of the first four episodes and the accompanying 750-page book—The Untold History of the United States (Gallery Books), obviously written by Kuznick, although Stone’s name appears first—reveals them to offer not an untold story, but the all-too-familiar Communist and Soviet line on America’s past as it developed in the early years of the Cold War.
Interviewed in 2010, Kuznick said candidly that his goal was not to offer nuance, but rather to show that after World War II the United States moved “to the dark side,” so that by the time the country was engaged in the Vietnam war, “We were not on the wrong side. We were the wrong side.”
At the beginning of the first episode, Stone appears on-screen, explaining that Americans learned in school that “we were the good guys.” But he wants his children and America’s young generally to learn the real truth, the neglected and forgotten story of our country’s true heroes, and that has led him to tell the American story “in a way that it has never been told before.”
But half a century ago, when I was in high school, the late Carl Marzani told this very story in We Can Be Friends. A secret member of the American Communist party who had worked during the war in the OSS, Marzani later was proved by evidence from Soviet archives and Venona decryptions to have been a KGB (then the NKVD) operative. His book was published privately by his own Soviet-subsidized firm. It was the first example of what came to be called “Cold War revisionism.” Quoting the memoirs of figures from the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, as well as newspaper stories and magazine articles, Marzani aimed to show that the Cold War had been started by the Truman administration with the intent of destroying a peaceful alliance with the Soviet Union and gaining American hegemony throughout the world.
As it happens, Marzani could have provided Stone’s interpretation of how the Cold War began. Over and over, Stone uses the same quotations, the same arrangements of material, and the same arguments as Marzani. This is not to accuse Stone of plagiarism, only to point out that the case he now offers as new was argued in exactly the same terms by an American Communist and Soviet agent in 1952.
Viewers are told that World War II ended with the world sharing the hopes and dreams of progressives everywhere, led by Stalin, whose desire for continued Allied unity and peace was rebuffed by Winston Churchill and rejected by President Roosevelt’s accidental successor, Harry Truman. The viewer is never told
of Soviet goals or practices, like the brutal occupation of Eastern Europe by the Red Army and the overthrow of its governments and installation of Soviet puppet regimes, except when the narrative justifies this as necessary for Soviet security. Indeed, even the earlier Nazi-Soviet Pact is justified with the Soviet propaganda line that Stalin was forced into it in order to buy time to rearm, since the Western powers refused to face up to the threat of fascism.
The main hero of the first four episodes is FDR’s secretary of agriculture, then vice president, Henry A. Wallace, whom the book describes as a New Deal “visionary” on domestic policy and a farsighted, anti-imperialist representative of the “common man” on foreign policy.
Hosannas to Wallace are nothing new. In the past decade, scores of books have celebrated his life and record, all in the same mold. They include leftist journalist Richard J. Walton’s Henry Wallace, Harry Truman and the Cold War, Communist historian Norman D. Markowitz’s The Rise and Fall of the People’s Century: Henry A. Wallace and American Liberalism, 1941-1948, a biography by Edward and Frederick Schapsmeier, Prophet in Politics: Henry A. Wallace and the War Years, Allen Yarnell’s Democrats and Progressives: The 1948 Presidential Election as a Test of Postwar Liberalism, and John C. Culver and John Hyde’s American Dreamer: A Life of Henry A. Wallace.