Jeremy Kuzmarov: Review of Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick's "The Untold History of the United States" (Gallery Books, 2012)


Jeremy Kuzmarov is J.P. Walker assistant professor of history at the University of Tulsa and author of “The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs.”

Oliver Stone has gained international fame for films such as Platoon, Wall Street, Nixon, JFK and W. exposing the underside of American politics and life. The Academy Award-winning director has now produced a history of the “American century” with historian Peter Kuznick, that challenges triumphalist narratives rendering “Americans incapable of understanding the way much of the rest of the world looks at the United States,” and “unable to act effectively to change the world for the better.”

Engagingly written and with a sharp eye for detail, The Untold History of the United States begins by discussing the coercive practices employed by the United States to secure colonial domination in Cuba and the Philippines at the turn of the twentieth century. Expansion was driven by business interests such as the United Fruit Company, which gobbled up 1.9 million acres of land in Cuba for the cultivation of sugar. During the 1910s and '20s, the United States intervened repeatedly in Latin America to uphold its strategic interests, supporting many corrupt and autocratic rulers such as Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua. U.S. General Smedley Butler lamented that he was losing so many men in Nicaragua all because “Brown Brothers have some money down here.” He later characterized himself as a “racketeer for gangster capitalism... who helped in the raping of a half-dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street.”

The 1934 Nye Commission hearings, led by Senator Gerald P. Nye (D-ND), exposed the influence of arms manufacturers and banking interests in driving the country into World War I and in profiting from the carnage. Unfortunately, the antiwar sentiment stoked by the committee came at the wrong time, as it shaped FDR’s misguided neutrality policy during the Spanish Civil War and appeasement of Hitler. The lessons of the Nye committee were more applicable after World War II, when the growth of the military-industrial complex and obsessive anticommunism led to catastrophic wars in Korea and Vietnam.

While World War II is conventionally considered the “good war,” the authors emphasize the immorality of a bombing strategy that targeted civilian populations and the central role played by the Soviet Union in defeating Hitler’s armies. They might have expanded their critique by examining how the U.S. drive for empire in the Asia-Pacific and quest for strategic minerals was threatened by the expansion of Japan’s colonial empire on the eve of Pearl Harbor, leading to the Pacific War. Rather than being of military necessity, the dropping of the atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki is correctly shown to have been undertaken largely to scare the Russians and to ensure the preservation of an American sphere of influence in the Asia-Pacific after the war. The railroading of Vice President Henry A.Wallace by party bosses in favor of Harry S. Truman at the 1944 Democratic Party convention was another turning point in the origins of the Cold War. A visionary who helped farmers to withstand the perils of the depression as agricultural secretary, Wallace had advocated peaceful coexistence with the Russians and for a new century of the common man where “no nation will have the right to exploit other nations.” He is one of the heroes of The Untold History who fought for world peace and to extend the benefits of the New Deal. He paid a steep political price for challenging financial and political elites and was smeared by red-baiters while mounting a third-party campaign that galvanized progressives in 1948. This campaign marked the beginning of the dark days of McCarthyism and the conservative political shift in America that has endured through the present.

After Dwight Eisenhower’s election in 1952, U.S. foreign policy was led by the Dulles brothers, who had deep ties to the corporate sector and promoted a messianic anti-communism that resulted in the growth of the military industrial complex and launching of CIA coups against democratically elected leaders in Guatemala and Iran. The Kennedy administration promoted a more progressive course, according to the authors, after Kennedy helped to avert catastrophe during the Cuban missile crisis. Kennedy became skeptical towards the military establishment following the Bay of Pigs debacle and might have de-escalated from Vietnam. In this claim, the authors are on shaky ground, as Kennedy was an ardent cold warrior who expanded the U.S. commitment to Vietnam and sponsored counterinsurgency operations worldwide, including through the USAID’s Office of Public Safety which Kennedy founded. In Indonesia, the authors claim that Kennedy’s policy represented a break from Eisenhower’s efforts to overthrow socialist Achmed Sukarno who wanted greater control over mineral resources. However, Kennedy expanded the budget for clandestine police training to $10 million per year and built up the police mobile brigade as a counterweight to the army, which was considered to be “infiltrated by pinks and reds.” When Robert Kennedy visited Indonesia, he first made contact with General Suharto who orchestrated the 1965 coup and mass genocide supported by the CIA.

Kennedy’s domestic policy was hardly progressive, as Bruce Miroff detailed in his book Pragmatic Illusions, which is absent in the footnotes. Miroff shows how Kennedy was a prototypical “corporate liberal” who extolled the virtues of free enterprise and adopted a cool response to Senator George McGovern’s proposal to reopen the question of inequality with the American public. Kennedy’s economic policy focused on pushing for a trade expansion act over calls for a medicare bill and set tax privileges for corporate investors in place. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara boosted ties with defense contractors, whose revenues increased from $6 billion in 1960 to $15 billion in 1965. As historian Edwin E. Moise points out in “JFK and the Myth of Withdrawal” Kennedy allocated the huge sum of $55.4 billion to the military in FY 1964 before his assassination. Thus, to present Kennedy as a progressive in the mold of Henry Wallace is in my view a historical misrepresentation, even if far-right wing elements and the CIA colluded in his assassination (as Stone hypothesizes in JFK). George McGovern, who campaigned for the presidency in 1972 under the slogan “come home America,” was a more worthy heir of the Wallace tradition. With regards to Lyndon B. Johnson, the authors might have drawn more on Robert Caro’s biography and its exposure of Johnson’s ties with the military contractor Brown & Root who bankrolled his rise to power and profited from base-building contracts in Vietnam and also built the notorious “Tiger Cages” in Con Son where ‘Vietcong’ prisoners were tortured.

To its credit, The Untold History adeptly chronicles the devastating humanitarian costs of the Vietnam War and its expansion into Laos and Cambodia and has an excellent section on the abuses of power of the Nixon administration as well as its détente policy. The book goes on to effectively chart the growth of the neoconservative movement in the Vietnam War’s aftermath, provides a thoughtful analysis of Jimmy Carter and his links to the elitist Trilateral Commission and demonstrates the lack of intellectual acumen of both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, who were unfit for office. The authors also chronicle how neocon intellectuals helped to subvert nuclear arms control agreements with the Soviet Union and deceived the public in their push for war with Iraq in 1991 and again in 2003. The Reagan administration’s support for death squads in Central America provided a preview of the murderous violence promoted by chicken-hawks (most had gotten draft deferments in the Vietnam era) during the War on Terror. After his election victory in 2008, Barrack Obama took over management of a “wounded empire” and failed to hold Bush administration officials accountable for their crimes, while escalating the Af-Pak war and robotic drone strikes that have killed many innocents. Supporting the Occupy Wall Street movement, Kuznick and Stone emphasize that Obama’s regressive policies in both foreign and domestic policy were a product of his reliance on large corporations for campaign financing and also leadership failings. It is only through pressure from below that real change might be achieved.

Stone’s star-power will undoubtedly ensure a wide audience for The Untold History of the United States and help to popularize its critical interpretation. Apart from a few questionable judgments (the chapter on Kennedy stands out for me), the book is factually grounded, deeply-researched and sound in its analysis. Conservative attacks on the book have largely rehashed the spurious reasoning of McCarthyites, claiming for example that Henry Wallace was a dupe of communists when this was not the case. Celebratory depictions of post-World War II American history are increasingly untenable given the evidence that has emerged from declassified documents surrounding the wide-scale interference by the United States in Third World countries, the voracious drive for access to mineral resources and oil, and U.S. support for murderous dictators and death squad regimes. New research on the U.S. in Vietnam, furthermore, has revealed a systematic record of atrocities that is even worse than many antiwar critics in the 1960s believed, while the Iraq War and Arab Spring has confirmed the folly of trying to advance democracy through force. The growth of widescale social inequalities and environmental degradation has also exposed the bankruptcy of unfettered free market capitalism, with millions of people around the world recognizing the need for fundamental change. The time is on the whole ripe for Americans to begin to confront the dark side of their past, and to draw the appropriate lessons from history as a new age of transformation and reform dawns upon us. The Untold History serves as a valuable resource in the fulfillment of these ends.

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