Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

21 November, 2012

Oliver Stone Takes On American History

Oliver Stone's Untold History of the United States debuted last week. From what I'd read about it, it wasn't going to be a conspiracy-laden look at The Great Satan or any such thing but rather a look at the history of the United States post-WWII that isn't widely known and that doesn't feed into the myths we tell ourselves about American exceptionalism. I have watched the first episode and can say that it was not a menagerie of conspiracies. It was apparently Stone's intention that the series start in the late 19th century and cover World War I but there just wasn't enough money to do more than ten episodes. That and he didn't want to overwhelm viewers with context, thusly the series starts with World War II.

Stone*** opens the show by stating his intentions and his disappointment that the history lessons his kids received in school consisted of the same schlock that he was taught. Hence this program which he hopes can contribute to a better understanding of history and provide direction and hope for change.

In a bit shy of an hour, Stone gives us an overview of World War II. The narration is his and there are no talking heads. Although quotes and the text of some speeches that were never recorded are heard here, there are also no recognizable celebrities doing the deed. Stone is avoiding the Ken Burns pathos trap here. (And I have to wonder if some of the maps that look like they were lifted from an old newsreel were, in fact, newly created.) After Stone's prologue we get a very brief look at the Manhattan Project, mainly Trinity. An interesting choice as it merely foreshadows later episodes in the series.

When the show finally does get moving with WWII, it starts in a way that is foreign to a lot of people. Stone says that it started in 1931 when Japan invaded Manchuria as opposed to Germany's invasion of Poland in 1939. It's really a semantic issue with Stone declaring an act that is generally considered to be prologue to be part of the war proper. But it does set up America's entrance into the war. It's also worth noting for conservative-minded Stone haters out there that the program didn't do much to cover the imperial ambitions of the United States. Thusly we are told about Japan's encroachment in the Pacific but the Spanish-American War is not covered so no explanation is ever given for why places thousands of miles away from North America such as the Philippines, Guam, Midway Atoll, Wake Island, and Hawaii were "ours".

Still, there's more of a sense of the war as being the product of geopolitical maneuvering than you often times get.

The second aspect of the program that caught my eye was the emphasis put on Roosevelt's anti-imperialism. He and Churchill are generally looked at as being good buddies but, at their meeting in August 1941 in Newfoundland which produced The Atlantic Charter, Roosevelt was rather antagonistic. He told his son before the meeting, "We've got to make clear to the British from the very outset that we don't intend to be simply a good-time Charlie who can be used to help the British Empire out of a tight spot, and then be forgotten forever." Churchill, presiding over the British Empire, couldn't have been too enthusiastic about the egalitarian tone of the Charter. But he needed the U.S. to enter the war.

The final element of the episode that I want to note is that Stone eschews delving into the Battle of Midway, D-Day, the Battle of Britain, et al and focuses on the eastern front. Russia's role in the war is front and center. There was certainly much enmity towards the USSR on the part of Western leaders and Stone asserts that they were happy to let the Soviets bear the brunt of the German war machine for a time. For his part, Stalin was quite paranoid. Russia and the UK had been enemies for some time and Stalin didn't forget that the U.S. support the whites during its civil war. After describing the horrors endured by the Soviets – the Siege of Leningrad and the Battle of Stalingrad, for example – Stone declares that it was really the Soviets that deserve credit for defeating the Nazis.

All in all, I thought this first episode was interesting. My father was a very big WWII buff so most of this was old hat for me but I get the impression that much of this history doesn't make it into schools. That the Allies were allied against the Axis powers but that there was infighting and distrust amongst them is not a common refrain. We seem more interested in simple opposites like Hitler bad and Allies good and overlook just how complicated things really were. Plus, no doubt in large part to Stephen Ambrose, we almost fetishize D-Day and ignore most of the rest of the conflict.

I was surprised at how little attention was paid to American imperial ambitions here. FDR is portrayed in the sequence at Newfoundland as being anti-imperialist with him noting that the Philippines were due to become independent in 1946 in addition to bargaining with Churchill. And, as I noted above, nothing is said about how all those islands in the Pacific came to be under American control.

I have read some criticism of the show by people who have watched the first few episodes and I don't doubt that some of it is warranted. But it amazes me that critics think they're scoring points against Stone by noting that nothing here is truly "untold". I agree that the title is hyperbole and, sure, historians and people well-read in the subject aren't going to be wowed by any revelations here, but the show really isn't aimed at them; it's for high school students and adults who know only the basics of the story. Having only seen the first episode I can only say that it serves to complement, not supplant, more "traditional" or more common histories.

Lastly, it should be noted that this program has stuffed 14 years of conflict into just less than an hour. A fair amount of ground is covered but it goes by quickly. Having it on your DVR will serve all viewers well but those for whom this is unknown territory will especially benefit from being able to rewind. We're back to familiar early-90s territory here with lots of quick cuts. Whomever was tasked with seeking out all those old newsreels and stock footage deserves a medal. Ditto for editor Alex Marquez.

***While the program bears his name, Stone wrote the program with historian Peter Kuznick and one Matt Graham who is, as near as I can tell, a TV/film writer.
|| Palmer, 3:40 PM


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