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The Washington Post

American Exceptionalism, According to Oliver Stone

Oliver Stone’s 10-hour documentary series, “The Untold History of The United States,” which first appeared on Showtime in 2012, is about to be rereleased this month on DVD with three new episodes and a post-series conversation between Stone and his frequent collaborator, author and activist Tariq Ali.

The series, which is remarkably free of talking heads and offers a treasure trove of historical footage, kicks off with an alternative narrative of the Cold War. Like many historians, Stone believes that, had Franklin Roosevelt lived, he might have avoided the Cold War. If the Democrats had not dumped Vice President Henry Wallace in favor of Harry Truman in 1944, Stone contends, Wallace would have carried on FDR’s policies and “there might have been no atomic bombings, no nuclear arms race and no Cold War.”

“Untold History” is full of such tantalizing what-ifs. What if Kennedy had lived? Would there have been a Vietnam War? What if George W. Bush had taken the advice of U.S. intelligence operatives more seriously before the 9/11 attacks? Could the disasters in Afghanistan and Iraq have been avoided?

Most historians tend to avoid this “counterfactual” or “what if” history, but these alternative scenarios provide thought exercises that help us consider what might have happened if history had taken a radically different course. They make us more aware of the missed opportunities, the roads not taken. They challenge the prevailing orthodoxy and narrow consensus of our contemporary political debate. And they teach us about the past so that we can learn from it.

Stone has said that in high school and college he was taught a “Disneyfied” version of American history. He resolved to use his talents as a filmmaker to challenge that version. This he has done through popular fictionalized history and political films such as “Salvador,” “Platoon,” “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Wall Street” and its sequel, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.”

As he and his collaborator Peter Kuznick wrote, “Historically-challenged students turn into historically-challenged adults who make for unqualified citizens. Our republican system requires a literate, educated, and knowledgeable public.” Unfortunately, today’s students “know very little history. Second, much of what they do learn is extremely partial or flat out wrong.”


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Stone is a historian who works in the medium of film, which has a particular appeal to young people with its power to bring the past alive through pictures. It challenges them to think about history and how it affects their lives today. And while Stone’s history is unquestionably served with a strong point of view, it is honest about that view — in contrast to many ostensibly “objective” history textbooks that carry a concealed ideology that uncritically endorses America’s imperial role in the world and American exceptionalism.

Whatever one’s views about Stone, there can be no argument that his previous and controversial challenges to the received wisdom have opened debate — and have had an impact. His 1991 blockbuster, “JFK,” about the Kennedy assassination, for example, prodded the government to open hitherto classified files on the assassination. The result was the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act, passed in 1992, which led to the declassification of millions of pages of documents and shed light on government attempts to keep what was known about Kennedy’s murder from the public.

As Andrew Goldman pointed out in the New York Times Magazine, as a result of Stone’s provocative film, “we did find out that L.B.J. thought preposterous the Warren Commission’s ‘magic bullet’ explanation for how one bullet could have passed through the bodies of Kennedy and John Connally only to emerge pristine. And all the talk of forged autopsy records, which to many seemed like cloud-cuckoo land, didn’t seem so crazy after documents revealed that the pathologist who performed the J.F.K. autopsy had burned his original notes and replaced them with an edited version.”

This country is now engaged in a desperately needed debate about American exceptionalism and whether the United States should continue to play a quasi-imperial role as the world’s policeman. The “Untold History” series offers a historical perspective directly relevant to this debate. It traces the rise of the U.S. national security state and shows how it metastasized into a global security state. As Stone and Kuznick wrote : “In January 2003, headlines such as ‘American Empire: Get used to it’ seemed commonplace. In the wake of 9/11, the United States had already invaded Afghanistan, was weeks away from invading Iraq and in the middle of a ‘global war on terror.’ Since then, many Americans have indeed gotten used to American Empire.”

Today the country is at another crossroads, debating whether President Obama should continue on the path set by Bush’s imperial strategy. As Stone shows so graphically in “Untold History,” that strategy is actually the continuance of a road first taken after World War II. This compelling series counsels us to choose the alternative road of diplomacy — with Syria, with Iran. It exhorts us to seize openings and define a new national security policy — one rooted in democracy rather than empire.

Whatever one thinks of Stone’s interpretations, his films have contributed questions and provocations to the national debate.In its new incarnation on DVD, “Untold History” should stimulate the current one.

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel is an American editor and publisher. She is the editor, publisher, and part-owner of the magazine The Nation. She has been the magazine's editor since 1995.


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