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February 22, 2013

Sean Wilentz: Wrong on 'Untold History,' Wrong on History in General

Sean Wilentz is a fancy professor of history at fancy Princeton, and a personal friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton, two extremely fancy Democrats. And as he recently explained in the New York Review of Books, he hates Untold History, the new book and Showtime documentary series by Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick.

A quick glance might give you the impression Wilentz's grudge is all about a seemingly obscure, dusty corner of history (Henry Wallace and the 1948 election) that doesn't affect anyone's life today one way or the other. But it's not. Wilentz is pissed off because he understands Untold History is a damning indictment of an entire worldview – that of his political patrons and all comfortable establishment historians like him. And that worldview is genuinely a matter of life and death for all Americans in 2013. If you'd prefer that the plane you're taking next week not get hit by an surface-to-air missile liberated by Islamists from Libya's stockpile, and that you not personally get torn into several large chunks at 7,000 feet, you really should pay attention to this.

Untold History, and hence Wilentz, spend lots of time examining the aftermath of World War II in the late 1940s; it was a critical period of U.S. politics, one that's determined our path ever since. As Wilentz accurately writes, "the beginning of the cold war divided American liberals and leftists of various stripes," as the liberals mostly got what they wanted and the leftists did not.

Cold war liberals of the time, exactly like Wilentz today, would have preferred not to share power with the paranoid, racist neanderthals of the U.S. right. (The neanderthals of 1948 didn't read "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" in the New Yorker and were terrible at sophisticated discussions about existentialism at Georgetown dinner parties.) However, the liberals were even less eager to share power with genuine leftists – especially because the liberals agreed with the right that the cold war was forced upon the U.S. by the Soviets and was mostly or wholly defensive in nature.

Meanwhile, the leftists of various stripes believed the cold war might largely be avoided – but that powerful sectors of U.S. society found it to be the perfect cover for aggressive policies they would have wanted to carry out even if the Soviet Union had never existed. Leftists also believed there was a natural constituency for endless war in the White House. As Clark Clifford, then Truman's White House counsel, wrote to him as the cold war was dawning: "There is considerable political advantage to the Administration in its battle with the Kremlin...In times of crisis, the American citizen tends to back up his President." Moreover, as Wilentz says, leftists saw liberal anticommunism "as virtually indistinguishable from – indeed, as complicit with – the anticommunism of the right."

Wilentz is incredulous that Stone and Kuznick are resurrecting this perspective, something liberals like himself believed had been dead and buried for decades. That's what he's angry about: that they're on the New York Times bestseller list and premium cable saying things that all properly educated people know are wrong.

But are they? Now, with twenty years of post-cold war history behind us, we should be able to judge.

We can never know what might have come to pass had the U.S. adopted a different posture toward the Soviet Union, either after World War II or during the decades that followed. From the viewpoint of liberals like Wilentz, the answer clearly is: nothing good. The Soviets were determined to export their totalitarianism to the world, and any naive failure on our part to resist would end in disaster. Yes, the U.S. might have gone overboard here and there, but the overall story of the cold war was that the Soviet Union acted and we reacted.

But this is what we can know: if Wilentz's understanding of history is correct, U.S. cold war policies should have ended with the cold war itself. If the leftists were right, U.S. policies would have continued almost completely unchanged – except for the pretexts provided to Americans.

Looked at through that lens, Stone and Kuznick's perspective explains a lot more about the world than that of Wilentz. The Warsaw Pact is gone, but NATO remains, and in fact has expanded eastward. The embargo against Cuba was not lifted at the end of the cold war but intensified. The U.S. habit of supporting overseas coups, both successful (Honduras) and not (Venezuela, Gaza), endures. The Air Force is busily researching how to drop tungsten rods onto anyone anywhere from space.

And on Iraq, the most important foreign policy issue of the past twenty years, we appear to have reenacted the cold war in miniature. Like the Soviet Union, Iraq had been a U.S. ally against a third country. Like Stalin, Saddam Hussein was a cruel dictator who was extremely dangerous to his subjects. But also like the Soviet Union, Iraq was ruined by war and far weaker than the U.S., yet inflated by propaganda into a huge danger to us that bore almost no resemblance to reality. Like Soviet leaders, Hussein understood the realities of power and made repeated attempts to avoid conflict with the U.S. – attempts of which almost no Americans are aware. (According to the CIA, Hussein begged the Clinton administration for the opportunity to be our "best friend in the region bar none" but felt "he was not given a chance because the US refused to listen to anything Iraq had to say.") And as with the cold war, we will never know what would have happened if our country had chosen another path. All we know is U.S. officials had no interest in exploring it.

Finally, with both the Soviets and Iraq there was – as Henry Wallace said in 1948 – a "bipartisan reactionary war policy." Vice President Biden voted for the Iraq war, as did our old Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and our new one John Kerry. The day after Colin Powell's notorious Security Council presentation, Susan Rice, now the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, claimed Powell had "proved that Iraq has these weapons and is hiding them." And while Barack Obama did give a mildly anti-war speech in October, 2002 (stating "I don't oppose all wars" three times), he was then representing a solidly liberal state senate district where opposing the war posed no political danger. Given his behavior as president, it's hard to be certain he would have voted no if he'd then been an ambitious U.S. senator.

Most depressing of all, establishment historians like Wilentz play the same role today as they did during the cold war: not just refusing to ask critical questions about U.S. history and its effect on the present day, but shouting down those who attempt to do so. That's what Wilentz is doing with his review of Untold History. And it's what he did in October, 2001 when he explained why the U.S. had just been attacked: "To the terrorists, America's crime – its real crime – is to be America."

It's no surprise Wilentz was desperate for Americans to adopt this childish view: the Arab anger that al Qaeda was attempting to ride to power via 9/11 was the result of the Iraq policies of his friend Bill Clinton. Without Clinton's brutal sanctions on Iraq and U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, bin Laden might – as a senior Bush official said in 2004 – "still be redecorating mosques and boring friends with stories of his mujahideen days in the Khyber Pass."

So in Wilentz's own words we can see the value of what Stone and Kuznick have accomplished. Readers and viewers of Untold History could use what they learned about the past to predict that the liberal War on Terror would be virtually indistinguishable from – indeed, complicit with – the War on Terror of the right. And they'd be correct.

Posted at February 22, 2013 11:43 AM

Jon, sorry to change the subject slightly, but what do you think of Stone and Kuznick's contention that JFK wanted to promote peace after the Cuban Missile Crisis?

I'm not an expert on the subject but I think that's a little naive despite the fact that they give a pretty good argument for their viewpoint.

Posted by: pb at February 22, 2013 01:34 PM

more on jokes: what's the difference between the liberal War on Terror and the War on Terror of the right?... the nobel Peace prize

Posted by: frankenduf at February 22, 2013 01:38 PM

As Teddy said, "We did it to The Indians and nobody seemed to complain."

"America's crime- its real crime- is to be America."(hmmm)

Posted by: Mike Meyer at February 22, 2013 02:31 PM

As Mike sez, "WE are STILL doing it to The Indians, but I ain't complaining and nobody else seems to be complaining, other than Them Injuns, of course, they are always complaining."

Posted by: Mike Meyer at February 22, 2013 02:38 PM

what do you think of Stone and Kuznick's contention that JFK wanted to promote peace after the Cuban Missile Crisis?

Dunno, I haven't seen that episode, and don't know much about the period of history anyway. But I'm skeptical like you.

Posted by: Jon Schwarz at February 22, 2013 03:21 PM


Posted by: hapa at February 22, 2013 03:35 PM

I have not read Mr Stone and Prof Kuznick's book or watched the TV programme ( except the first episode ) and so do not know what their views are. However, in James Douglass' excellent book,"JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters", the author does mention Pres Kennedy's efforts to improve relations with Cuba and USSR, "secretly" through back channels.


I have not had a chance to watch this video yet but here the author is discussing his book.

Posted by: rupa shah at February 22, 2013 05:51 PM

A few posts ago I mentioned seeing something about the Cuban missile crisis. I was mainly thinking of this:

Posted by: godoggo at February 22, 2013 09:22 PM

Here's the quote:

In the first phase, as reported by JFK’s favored columnists (and formalized in the books by palace guards, speechwriter Ted Sorensen’s Kennedy and White House gadfly Arthur Schlesinger’s A Thousand Days), JFK won the confrontation through sheer threat of force. As one of the advisers was quoted as saying, “We went eyeball to eyeball with the Russians—and they blinked.” (This quote, like much else in these accounts, was pure fiction.)

In the second phase, starting in 1982, on the 20th anniversary of the crisis, some of JFK’s top advisers—McNamara, Sorensen, national security adviser McGeorge Bundy, and others—confessed, in a article for Time magazine, that Kennedy had made a secret deal: Khrushchev would take the Soviet missiles out of Cuba, and Kennedy, six months later, would take America’s very similar Jupiter missiles out of Turkey. It had always been known that Khrushchev offered such a deal, but the earlier accounts—including Sorensen’s book, and many other books based on it—had reported that Kennedy rejected it. In fact, the advisers now said, Kennedy accepted it, but told both the Russians and the handful of his own advisers whom he let in on the secret never to tell anyone. (The advisers decided to break their silence because they knew the Kennedy Library was about to release the tapes.)

The third phase began in 1987, with the release of the first tape transcripts, which revealed that the advisers had omitted one key fact in their now-it-can-be-told article for Time: They had all vociferously opposed the trade. JFK stood alone on making a deal with the Soviets—and, in the end, was redeemed.

For inexplicable reasons, most popular histories of the crisis (and a few academic ones as well) have not incorporated this last revelation. They have neglected, misread, or ignored the evidence that has been out there for the last 25 years.

I don't know if this is relevant to what to what you're all talking about.

Posted by: godoggo at February 22, 2013 10:04 PM

screwed up the html

Posted by: godoggo at February 22, 2013 10:06 PM

Rupa Shah: Enjoyed the video;
Unspeakable evil=just plain ole "business as usual" WAR=MONEY.
Same story as always---went to the dance with GREEDY, came home with STUPID.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at February 22, 2013 10:55 PM

The MAIN motive for 9/11 was anger at US support of Israel: The Real 9/11 Conspiracy: Traitorous 9/11 Commissioners Served Israel Agenda
I resent BS statements like this: "Without Clinton's brutal sanctions on Iraq and U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, bin Laden might – as a senior Bush official said in 2004 – "still be redecorating mosques and boring friends with stories of his mujahideen days in the Khyber Pass." and "The official pointed out fatwas from Osama that cited the effects of sanctions on Iraqi children and the presence of U. S. troops as a sacrilege that justified his jihad."
Why must there be a continual game to downplay or ignore the MAIN MOTIVE?

Posted by: Tom Murphy at February 23, 2013 04:23 AM

Tom Murphy: As Krusty The Clown sez, "Don't blame me, I didn't do it." It just looks a lot better if Citizens (&the world) BELIEVE that WE were attacked because WE defend GOD'S LAND instead of killing THEIR kids and building massive toxic waste dumps on THEIR Holy Land. TRUTH IN ADVERTISING---always been a problem---better to lie (if YOU're really serious about having that war).
WAR IS MONEY. (but ONLY if ya win---losers lose)
STEALING THE INDIANS LAND---that's a win, WE got rich.
CIVIL WAR---North wins and got rich, South---STILL poor.
SPANISH-AMERICAN WAR---OUR win, got rich in land and gold again, Spain suffered.
WWI--- WE made out like bandits for such a short service.
WWII--- Hitler's dead and WE are the super power and VERY wealthy from the exercise.
VIETNAM---long, costly, expensive& a loss.
AFGHANISTAN/IRAQ---Definitely a bank breaker/ no win.
Want to do well in war???? Ya gotta have LEADERS that can win something more than YOUR apathetic vote.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at February 23, 2013 12:21 PM

Good post, Jon. Even if the subject matter is perhaps a little obvious. As in, obviously true.

As regards the point that one would have expected
US policy to change course after the fall after the Soviet Union, if the mainstream version of things was true, Chalmers Johnson also covers it in this interview with Harry Kreisler. According to him, the fact that the US didn't change its behavior at all was quite an eye-opener. I haven't read any of his books, so I don't know to what extent he covers these issues there. It's a good interview.

Posted by: Faheem at February 23, 2013 01:38 PM

You forgot to sign your name, Jon. WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO HIDE?

Attempt at humor aside, I'm glad you took on Sean Wilentz. I remember him attacking Christopher Hitchens after Hitch had gone crazy and while that seems like a perfectly sensible thing to do, it was the way Sean did it that stunk. Here it is--


He's right, of course--Hitchens' first reaction to the 9/11 attack was to point out that US foreign policy had stirred up hatred. Hitch quickly changed gears and his career as a public intellectual really took off, but Sean Wilentz, of course, is shocked, shocked I tell you, that anyone would possibly think that 9/11 had anything at all to do with anything bad the US might have done.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at February 23, 2013 01:40 PM

P.S.: The relevant bit in question in the video I cited is right around 15.10. So, Chalmers Johnson:

"People have often asked me - you were a Cold Warrior. How did you change your mind? What was the... One of the things I think is very important here is when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the thing that struck me most vividly, is how our government went to work instantly to find a replacement enemy. The military-industrial complex has to be kept in being. It could be China, it could be drug lords, it could be terrorism. Even instability. Anything to keep the thing going."

Posted by: Faheem at February 23, 2013 02:09 PM


Posted by: Amanda Rex at February 23, 2013 02:11 PM

WAR IS MONEY & money means war
a vicious mathematical cycle
The bodies add up along with the rubble,
The bombs, the bullets, and the rifles
"Them missiles ain't cheap, someone's gotta pay"
So say all the generals
"If ya want that land, underneath that sand.
Along with the oil and minerals."
And so WE PAY and then kneel and pray
For the PEACE this noble war will bring
On some 11th hour on some 11th day
Those church bells will ring
The people will dance
And the children will sing
All the way to the bank.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at February 23, 2013 07:36 PM

You are far more likely to be killed by one of your fellow Americans than a crotch bomber, My Fellow Americans, as LBJ used to say. See here:

Posted by: Rob Payne at February 24, 2013 03:02 AM

Rob Payne: AGREED!!! I like to call it "neighborly fire" as opposed to "friendly fire". With "friendly fire" "usually, not always" in some sort of conflict one gets in front of one's cohorts and is unintentionally shot. With "neighborly fire" the participants are just neighbors, they ain't friends.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at February 24, 2013 01:05 PM

Guns don't kill people---Americans kill people & it doesn't seem to matter who WE kill or where. Liberal, Conservative, Reactionary, Progressive, drunk, sober, loaded on dope or just plain pissed over the loud music next door, or the religion or color of people across the sea, Americans kill people.

Barry McGuire said it well, oh so long ago.

Think of all the hate there is in Red China
Then take a look around to Selma Alabama
You may leave the earth for four days in space
But when you return its the same old place
The pounding of the drums the pride and disgrace
You can bury your dead but don't leave a trace
Hate your next door neighbor
But don't forget to say grace

Posted by: Mike Meyer at February 24, 2013 01:35 PM

You are right, Mike Meyer. You can pick your friends but not your neighbors, unfortunately.

Posted by: Rob Payne at February 25, 2013 02:49 AM

"The advisers decided to break their silence because they knew the Kennedy Library was about to release the tapes..."

As its standard policy to put out propaganda around any major release of information, could you kindly quote from the tapes, and not from hearsay evidence? I do recall certain ex-CIA tending to come out and (at least pretend) to act more and more accepting of the theory of aliens for UFO's for example. In the 1990's it was reported the CIA chief had been spying for the Soviets for years. And at the same time there was a book published about all the terrible things Communists in general have done. So I guess my point is that seasoned political power behaves a bit more cleverly than just telling the truth by force of release documents. I usually expect the opposite to be true, that the documents themselves are part of the distraction, and when they are damning, that there is a scramble for cover.

I'd do the work myself but I have the flu right now and I have to be careful about my testosterone.

Posted by: Lewis at February 25, 2013 01:54 PM

I don't have an excuse like flu; however it seems like it would require more work than I'm willing to put into it (I'm not sure if the testosterone thing was meant to be funny, but that's OK, I get that reaction a lot).

There are supporting quotes in the article. I googled a couple and found them quoted in an Eric Alterman book and a few other places (yes, yes, I know a lot of people take that name as a straight line, but, you know, that's what I got).

There are NSA sound clips here if anybody wants to dig through them.

The NSA Cuban missile crisis page is here.

Maybe our local Kennedy obsessive could help out...
The NSA Cuban missile crisis page is here.

Posted by: godoggo at February 25, 2013 06:30 PM

These are pdf images of typed documents (so not searchable):

I suppose it's possible I might find the energy to look through them for the quotes sometime...

Posted by: godoggo at February 25, 2013 06:41 PM

Or, alternatively, I could assume that the quotes are real if I can't find anybody calling them out. That seems easier.

Posted by: godoggo at February 25, 2013 06:53 PM

Okay since the argument is Kennedy was shot for being too chummy with the Soviets, we can look at page 2 of Kennedy's own thoughts. Kennedy himself used the phrase "a dangerous attempt to change the worldwide status quo" but this was in reference to "distinctly offensive weapons capable of use against the United States or other Western Hemisphere Countries." At no point does he mention any threat to the the Soviet Union, and he really doesn't need to. Within a year, only months before being shot, he wished to "look forward to a great future for America, a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral restraint, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose." (I find if you follow a politicians train of thought long enough it tends to circle back to itself sooner or later.)

In the letter to Russia however, Kennedy reserved that advice for Cuba. Here's the 2nd to last paragraph of Kennedy's last letter. "I believe that Cuba can never have normal relations with the other nations of this hemisphere unless it ceases to appear to be a foreign military base and adopts a peaceful course of non-interference in the affairs of its sister nations." This came not only after a decade of US bombing in East Asia, but also (according to the letter itself) after demand demand on the Soviet Union -- that the US continue to be able to have greater say than Cuba in its government. If he were really friendly, I imagine he would have offered a similar concession somewhere else.

Finally, where was Kennedy's neighborliness in what's to come? Following this letter there are 6 more documents:

"General Maxwell Taylor, “Chairman’s Talking Paper for Meeting with the President,” November 16, 1962.

Cuba, Order, TOP SECRET, Authorizing Anti-Aircraft Fire, November 17, 1962.

Cuba, Order, TOP SECRET, Rescinding Authorization to Initiate Anti-Aircraft Fire November 18, 1962.

USSR, Instructions from CC CPSU Presidium to Mikoyan, TOP SECRET, November 22, 1962.

Hungary, Embassy, Havana, Telegram, TOP SECRET, “The Essence of Soviet-Cuban Divergences of Opinion,” December 1, 1962.

Great Britain, Dispatch, CONFIDENTIAL, British Ambassador in Cuba to Foreign Office, “The Cuban Crisis – Chapters I and II,” November 10, 1962 (with minutes from FO’s American Department as cover)."

It would seem to me far more likely if there was any US involvement in his death, it was because he made statements that could be used against US occupation of Cuba, which continues to this day. That's far more reasonable to me, seeing as the US was only about 10 years into a new-found affair with Reinhard Gehlen's crew, but had been kind of quietly supporting the Soviet Union with a lend-lease and (I believe) tolerated trade secret leaks for years.

Posted by: Lewis at February 25, 2013 07:25 PM

shrug... N.E.?

Posted by: godoggo at February 25, 2013 07:47 PM

Personally, even after ALL these years and hearing theory after theory, document after document, I STILL believe that Billy Sol Estes, along with Max Williams, Ruby, and Oswald killed Kennedy with as much help as was possible from LBJ.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at February 25, 2013 08:20 PM

NE was Jon's shatin. I'm Satan's shatin.

Posted by: Lewis at February 25, 2013 08:37 PM

It's best not to get too far into the weeds on bin Laden'S specific motives for 9/11. Motive in always impossible to ascertain as perpetrators are likely to lie. Of in not lie then to embellish or simplify or obscure. Hell they might not even know themselves except that at the time it seemed like a good idea.

The more relevant issue is that the US essentially invented trans national jihadism on the back of the ultra fundamentalist Saudi brand of Salafi Islam in order to fight the USSR in Afghanistan. Every relevant player in al-Qaeda was on our payroll at one time or other.

While this images title is misleading the basic outlines of the problem are clear.

Discussing bin Laden's motives is going off into the weeds.

Posted by: rapier at February 25, 2013 08:56 PM

rapier: EXACTLY!!! WE ALWAYS manage to TRAIN&PAY OUR enemies, always. IN ALL conflicts, world wide, somehow or another WE PAY both sides and have, most likely, taught both sides how OUR little game is played.
OTOH, I do believe that Bin Laden's story is relevant to today's situation and deserves deep discussion. Who knows, WE may find out WHO ACTUALLY PAID to knock those towers down. Following my theory in the paragraph above, I'm thinking those tracks, that unmistakable stench I sniff in the air, that bloody trail, leads back to Washington D.C.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at February 26, 2013 04:26 PM

hilarious commentary from the Ivy know-nothings here, starting with blackdick making fun of Tigerland because it's not Crimsonland, and continuing throughout with reinforcements of Official Narratives including The Donkeys Used To Be Heroic When JFK Was Skipper, and running to the swordsman on Feb 25 talking about bin Laden being culpable for something other than being born into a family that was tight business chums with many wealthy Americans from both halves of the Janus-like duopolistic monocracy.

It's the most un-funny "humor" I encounter regularly, and that includes the anxious henpecked untermenschen humor of Jackie Mason, YHWH rest his sold-out Catskills soul.

So funny, these Mogen-David & Manischewitz Comedy Hour stars.

Who knew?

Posted by: Satchel Paige at February 26, 2013 07:11 PM

Satchel Paige: That Jackie Mason puts out a wonderful Passover Seder on the Net, Youtube I think. The first New Moon of spring is coming soon so I'm looking forward to watching it again as there's no temple anywhere near here to go to for Seder. I'll probably get a couple of jugs of Mogen-David Blackberry to lay into till sunrise.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at February 26, 2013 07:57 PM

Satchel Paige: Think YOUR post is pretty fucking funny. Took me a while to figure out what YOU are saying with all those metaphors, but when I did I laffed my ass off.
If I may---try the Poconos next season.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at February 26, 2013 08:12 PM

Just watched the Kennedy episode. He still doesn't think Oswald did it.

Posted by: buermann at February 27, 2013 10:41 PM

And could he lionize JFK any more? Like, Stone isn't engaging in Schlessinger-like levels of dishonesty to do so, but the prose becomes gut wrenchingly purple anytime there's a paragraph about him.

Posted by: buermann at February 27, 2013 10:48 PM