Oliver Stone's Recycled Leftist History

Culture Watch


Ronald Radosh is an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute and a columnist for PJ Media. He is coauthor of "The Rosenberg File." Cross-posted from the Weekly Standard.

Credit: Wiki Commons/HNN staff.

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.

All these books have something in common: They are hagiographic treatments of Wallace as the man who could have brought the United States into permanent peace with the USSR, avoided the Cold War, and created a social democracy at home. For Stone, Wallace was the “nerve center of the New Deal.” At the Department of Agriculture, he used his power to develop new methods of plant fertilization. He opposed racist theories and stood up to party bosses. He was also a great athlete, a reader, and a “spiritual” man. In reality, Wallace was a disciple of the Russian émigré theosophist Nicholas Roerich, whom he addressed as “Dear Guru” in letters published after Roerich’s death, revealing him to be a cheap hustler and a phony who conned a gullible Wallace. 

Viewers do not learn that, at the Agriculture Department, Wallace supported what historians call “the purge of the liberals.” Nor was he a radical as Roosevelt’s vice president. Stone omits facts that interfere with his depiction of Wallace as the embodiment of the left wing of the New Deal.

If Wallace was no radical on domestic issues, he did prove to be Stalin’s dupe in foreign affairs. The liberalism he came to espouse was that of the Popular Front, the call for an alliance between Democrats and American Communists and Socialists as the vehicle through which to advance the agenda of FDR’s expanding welfare state. As early as 1943, Wallace warned of “fascist interests motivated largely by anti-Russian bias” who were trying to “get control of our government.” These views are what endear Wallace to Stone.

So enamored of the Soviet Union was the vice president that in May 1944 he traveled to twenty-two cities in Soviet Siberia. There, the NKVD played Wallace for a fool. He described the slave labor colony of Magadan, which the Soviet secret police had transformed into a Potemkin village staffed by actors and NKVD personnel, as a “combination TVA and Hudson’s Bay Company.” 

According to his own testimony, if he had become president, Wallace would have made Harry Dexter White his secretary of the Treasury and given a position in government to Laurence Duggan. Both men were Soviet agents. As a KGB cable found in the Venona archives shows, the Soviets hoped that Duggan would aid them “by using his friendship” with Wallace for “extracting ... interesting information.”

Instead, of course, Roosevelt replaced Wallace with Harry Truman on the Democratic ticket in 1944, and named Wallace secretary of commerce. FDR died on April 12, 1945, and in September 1946, President Truman fired Wallace. The provocation was a speech Wallace gave at a Madison Square Garden rally in which, contrary to administration policy, he called for recognizing Soviet spheres of influence -- in effect, occupation zones -- as just and necessary. Stone endorses Wallace’s support for turning the nations of Eastern Europe into Soviet pawns, arguing that what Wallace favored was no different from the Russians’ recognition of American influence in the Western hemisphere. Failing to distinguish between democracies and totalitarian regimes, Stone consistently portrays the Soviet Union as the victim of American imperialism, while regarding the monster Stalin as a peaceful leader who sought only to gain valid security guarantees on his borders.

Wallace not only opposed Truman’s decision to block Stalin’s expansionist ambitions, he also spoke of Stalin as a man of peace and Truman as a dangerous militarist. This is the view Stone endorses. But as Notre Dame historian Wilson D. Miscamble demonstrated in From Roosevelt to Truman: Potsdam, Hiroshima and the Cold War, Truman opted for a changed policy only after Stalin showed that his grip on Eastern Europe was nonnegotiable. Historian Fraser Harbutt of Emory University concurred, writing: “Truman genuinely tried to follow Roosevelt’s seemingly conciliatory line toward a Soviet Union whose policies, in the end, left him little alternative but a turn to resistance and thus to the Cold War.”

Two early Cold War episodes illustrate the mendacious method of Stone’s film. Stone asserts that Poland was meant to be in Stalin’s hands since Russia had been invaded twice by armies crossing the Polish border, and that after Yalta, Stalin never betrayed his agreement to allow free elections. This was the Kremlin line at the time to a tee. It is Truman who is portrayed as untrustworthy and feckless by resisting what was supposed to have been a done deal. 

The truth is that Truman made concessions to the Russians on the border issue between Poland and Germany, even winning the praise of another of Stone’s favorites, former ambassador Joseph Davies, known for his pro-Soviet views. Truman left his meeting with Stalin at Potsdam hopeful that FDR’s grand bargain with the Soviets was continuing. As time passed, however, Secretary of State James Byrnes -- a villain in the Stone series -- soon saw the grave dangers that the expansion of Soviet power in Europe and northeast Asia posed to the United States. Stalin was set to exert pressure on the western part of Germany, hoping to move the entire country into the Soviet orbit. Again, it was Stalin’s expansionist ambitions that led Truman to change American policy and abandon hope that the wartime alliance could continue in the postwar world.

Stone allows no critical opinions by scholars who have studied the Soviet archives to disturb his rehash of Communist propaganda themes. His sainted Henry Wallace opposed the creation of NATO, advocated abandoning Berlin in response to the Soviet blockade, denounced the Marshall Plan for European reconstruction as “the martial plan,” and justified the 1948 Communist coup in Czechoslovakia as a measure to thwart a plot by fascist forces. Precisely the Kremlin line.

The film’s narrative mockingly presents viewers with Truman’s diary entry in which he said that Wallace “wants to disband our armed forces, give Russia our atomic secrets, and trust a bunch of adventurers in the Kremlin Politburo. I do not understand a ‘dreamer’ like that.” But many viewers, hearing these words, will deem them far more accurate than Stone’s attempt to discredit them. 

There is one original aspect to what would otherwise be Stone’s mindless regurgitation of Stalin’s propaganda. Stone plays pop psychologist along the way, explaining that Truman talked tough to Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov because as a young boy, Truman had been ridiculed by his own father as a sissy, and now he had the chance to turn the tables.

Another event whose treatment reveals the shabby methods of Stone and his partner is Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bombs. Stone claims that Japan had already lost the war, that the Japanese military leaders were ready to accept a peace agreement, that major military figures including Dwight Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur opposed the bombs’ use, that Truman reached the decision after ignoring the pleas of Nobel scientists, and that he did so to intimidate Russia and end the war against Japan before Russia could join it, as Stalin had agreed to do.

This is the thesis that Soviet agents and apologists like Carl Marzani, P. M.S. Blackett, and Dana F. Fleming laid out in the first years of the Cold War and which was revived (and lent legitimacy) forty years ago by left-wing historian Gar Alperovitz. In the interim, however, major books and academic articles based on archival research in Japan and the United States -- by Wilson D. Miscamble, Richard B. Frank, Robert James Maddox, Sadao Asada, and many others -- have discredited the argument. But for Oliver Stone, there is only one truth, the “truth” that discredits the United States. 

According to Stone, the dropping of the atomic bombs was criminal because the war was over, Japan defeated, and its leaders wanted peace. According to Stone, Truman lied when he said that American lives would have been lost in the invasion that would have been necessary if the bombs had not been dropped. His purpose in dropping the bombs was to show Stalin “that the United States would stop at nothing to impose its will.”

But as Richard B. Frank, author of the magisterial Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire, wrote in these pages in 2005: 

All three of the critics’ central premises are wrong: The Japanese did not see their situation as catastrophically hopeless. They were not seeking to surrender, but pursuing a negotiated end to the war that preserved the old order in Japan, not just a figurehead emperor. Finally, ... American leaders ... understood ... that “until the Japanese leaders realize that an invasion cannot be repelled, there is little likelihood that they will accept any peace terms satisfactory to the Allies.”

In those last lines, Frank quotes from a July 1945 U.S. analysis of military and diplomatic intercepts. He adds, “This cannot be improved upon as a succinct and accurate summary of the military and diplomatic realities of the summer of 1945.” As for Stone, having dispensed with the facts, he is pleased to depict Truman as a moral monster and “war criminal.” 

In the last segment of the fourth episode of his film, Stone waxes ecstatic over what might have been had Henry Wallace’s third-party bid for the presidency in 1948 succeeded. The Cold War might have been halted; the United States and the Soviet Union might have cooperated to usher in a world at peace; and America might have fulfilled FDR’s dream of a second Bill of Rights guaranteeing to all freedom from want, moving America to join postwar Britain in building a social-democratic future. 

But as Stone tells it, anti-Communist paranoia directed at Wallace and his Progressive army doomed that wonderful prospect. “The Red-baiting, the dismissive treatment of Wallace by the major newspapers, Truman’s move to the left on domestic issues, and a last-minute rush to Truman by Democratic voters” who feared a Republican victory “resulted in an electoral disaster for the Wallace campaign. American voters backed the candidate who had driven the nation down the path of empire, nuclear arms race, and global confrontation.” 

In concluding with these words, Stone reveals how little he understands this period of our recent past. Wallace’s Progressive party was created and run by the American Communist party, and all of its leaders were secret members, including Wallace’s friend, chief adviser, and campaign manager C. B. “Beanie” Baldwin. Even the leftist journalist I. F. Stone understood this. He wrote, “The Communists have been the dominant influence in the Progressive party. ... If it had not been for the Communists, there would have been no Progressive party.” Indeed, the PP’s chief counsel was another secret Communist, John Abt. When Wallace asked Baldwin about Abt, not suspecting that Baldwin himself was a Communist, Baldwin simply lied and told Wallace that Abt “was not a Communist.”

John Gates was the editor of the Worker in 1948 and a member of the Communist party’s Central Committee. He left the party in 1956. In 1972, he wrote that “the Communists did not merely endorse the decision of Wallace to form a third party. They were also most instrumental in influencing Wallace to make such a decision.” He added that Baldwin worked day and night to convince Wallace to run, doing so on the instructions of party leaders Eugene Dennis, Al Blumberg, and William Z. Foster. Wallace caved to the pressure. 

There was only one reason the Communists created the Progressive party: Stalin had instructed Western parties to ready themselves for war with the United States, and he demanded that old coalitions be split -- including alliances with the left-wing CIO unions -- unless those in them favored and supported Stalin’s adventurist foreign policy and opposed the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan. Stone tells his viewers that Wallace had the support of true New Dealers like Eleanor Roosevelt. Stone never mentions that, as Wallace revealed himself to be a dupe of the Communists, Mrs. Roosevelt publicly rebuked him, correctly pointing out, “The American Communists will be the nucleus of Mr. Wallace’s third party.” Other anti-Communist liberal Democrats issued a public statement charging that Wallace had “lined up unashamedly with the forces of Soviet totalitarianism.” 

No one put the truth about Wallace better than Dwight Macdonald, who wrote in his delightfully wicked 1948 exegesis Henry Wallace: The Man and the Myth that Wallaceland was “a region of perpetual fogs, caused by the warm winds of the liberal Gulf Stream coming in contact with the Soviet glacier.” In the 21st century, Oliver Stone still lives in that perpetual fog.

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