November 12, 2012

Oliver Stone's Untold, Unboring History of the United States

American history! Whose heart doesn't race when you remember being initiated into its excitement and mystery in high school? There's the Logan Act of 1799! And the presidency of Benjamin Harrison! And the Open Door Policy. And, uh, and the Fordney–McCumber Tariff of 1922...and "A Return to Normalcy"... and the Federal Aid Highway Aczzzzzzzzzzzzzptsphttzzzz.

Almost everyone in high school hates history, and they should. Just 7% of U.S. students say history is their favorite subject, and considering how schools grind American history into mush, it's amazing the number's that high. It's like 7% said their favorite food is unflavored semolina.

Schools accomplish this with one simple technique: leaving out every single thing about U.S. history that's interesting. In high school history classes there's never been any conflict in America – and no one filled with greed, or hate, or lust for power. In other words, no recognizable human beings. Everyone always wanted the best for everybody in the best of all possible worlds. It's been 236 years of interchangeable robots singing "America the Beautiful."

It's obvious why schools have to do this – real history is dangerous. If the people in charge 50 years ago were horribly flawed, students might consider the possibility that the ones in charge now are too. But all people, especially the kind that spend their lives seeking power, are horribly flawed, and its their flaws that make them human and interesting. So schools know they're being constantly monitored by the people currently at the top of the pyramid in case they slip up and accidentally let something interesting into the curriculum. (This is really no exaggeration – while Dick Cheney was doing horrible things in the present, his wife Lynne was constantly on guard against students finding out about horrible things U.S. leaders did in the past.*)

Young Americans have understandably responded to this with massive passive resistance, refusing to learn anything at all about the past. And that's fine with the people running things. Their first choice would be to have kids opening each school day with a hymn to the Rockefellers and ExxonMobil, but failing that they'd rather students know nothing. If kids knew how and why George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003, they might ask questions in 2031 when George P. Bush invades Iceland.

That's why you're not going to see a glowing review of Oliver Stone's new book and 10-part Showtime series, The Untold History of the United States, in the New York Times anytime soon. It's just too interesting. Stone, together with the historian Peter Kuznick, has taken almost everything compelling about the last seventy years of American foreign policy and put it all in one place.

I'd recommend both to anyone, but it's probably easier for non-obsessives to begin with the TV show, which starts tonight and continues with a new episode each Monday. For a sense of what you'll get, here are the most important points of the first two shows – all of which would surprise most Americans, and some of which would be surprising for almost anyone:

• The United States played a minor role in winning World War II. The country that beat Hitler is the Soviet Union, and they paid a far greater price than anyone else. 20-30 million Russians died, and more were killed during both the Battle of Kiev and the Siege of Stalingrad than the U.S. lost in the entire war. You don't have to love Joseph Stalin and gulags to understand why this would make the Soviets extremely anxious after VE day to control a buffer zone between themselves and Germany.

Sophisticated adults – like the Los Angeles Times – scoff at the idea that this is "untold" history, but I guarantee you almost no one in the U.S. knows anything about it.

• This is covered in more depth in the book version of Untold History, but the first TV episodes do touch on how, before the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, the Soviets desperately tried to make an alliance with the U.S., Great Britain or France against Nazi Germany. This never happened largely because the corporate right in all three countries openly sympathized with fascism from the beginning; for instance, General Motors, Firestone and Texaco sent help to Franco during the Spanish Civil War.

• Roosevelt used the U.K.'s desperation as leverage to knock many of the pillars out from under the British empire. The show quotes Roosevelt telling his son, "British bankers and German bankers have had world trade pretty well sewn up in their pockets for a long time...America won't help England in this war simply so that she will be able to continue to ride roughshod over colonial peoples." Of course, since Roosevelt died before the war ended, we'll never know how much of this was due to principle on his part and how much to a desire to see the U.S. take the British Empire's place.

• Most importantly, Untold History focuses on how closely Henry Wallace came to becoming president, and how differently history might have turned out if he had. If you don't know much about Wallace (I didn't), just imagine Dennis Kucinich running the United States. But instead Wallace was pushed out at the 1944 Democratic convention after serving as vice president for four years, and we got Harry Truman, Hiroshima and the Cold War.

The show especially shines here, digging up a truly amazing 1940 letter from Roosevelt, in which he threatened not to run again if conservative Democrats blocked his wish to have Wallace join him on the ticket. Read it all – it sounds like it was written by an angry left-wing blogger, except it's actually by the greatest president in the history of the United States.

And as you'll see, there's much, much more to come. Tune in and get the book, both for yourself and for any high school history teachers you know who are independently wealthy and won't mind getting fired.


*In fairness to Dick and Lynne, this works the same in every country. According to Anne Elizabeth Moore, a journalist who's spent a lot of time in Cambodia, most younger Cambodians have no idea there ever was such a thing as the Khmer Rouge.

—Jon Schwarz

Posted at 07:56 PM | Comments (17)