Rebuttal

11.21.12

Oliver Stone Defends His ‘The Untold History of the United States’

Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, professor of history at American University, defend their new Untold History of the United States against Michael Moynihan’s critical review in The Daily Beast. They explain why a book like theirs is so necessary and say its history checks out—and that it’s Moynihan who has his history wrong.

When we began our documentary film and book project The Untold History of the United States more than four years ago, we knew we would encounter our share of mean-spirited and dishonest reviews. What has been remarkable and encouraging is that aside from a few far-right diatribes, that hasn’t been the case. As Michael Moynihan disappointedly notes in his Daily Beast story on Untold History, the majority of reviews and articles have been positive. But because we know how the right-wing echo chamber picks up on dishonest and meretricious attacks and blasts them out to its Fox News–friendly listeners and viewers, we would like to respond to this latest attempt to block a much-needed conversation about the direction our country needs to go in to counter a century-plus, and we believe disastrous, course of empire, war, and domination. That is our objective in this project, which one would never know from reading Moynihan’s review.

Moynihan is so eager to try to find ways to discredit us that he misreads things that even Groucho Marx’s proverbial 4-year-old child would understand.

Moynihan offers a three-pronged assault on us. First, he says that what we are offering isn’t “untold” history. Second, he questions our accuracy and accuses us of errors and distortions. And third, he charges us with being America-bashing Soviet apologists. Nowhere in his lengthy “review” does he even find time to state our thesis or  provide readers with a sense of what this book is really about.

Moynihan is correct to say that cutting-edge scholars have been telling aspects of this history for decades. In fact, contrary to his claim that our frustration is due to the fact that “the revisionist narrative has failed to become the dominant narrative,” the revisionist narrative has become the dominant narrative among university-based historians. As he acknowledges, we draw upon that body of scholarship and cite such historians copiously in our 91 pages of footnotes. Revisionist scholarship has not become the dominant narrative in public schools and the mainstream media and in those parts of America that cling to the notion of American exceptionalism—the fantasy that the United States, as God’s gift to humanity, is, unique among nations, motivated by generosity, benevolence, and altruism as it strikes out in the world. But Moynihan is wrong to say that we have not done additional primary source and archival research. In fact, we had a team of top-notch American University graduate students who assisted in the research, some of which was indeed archivally based. A quick look at the footnotes will reveal just how much of this comes from primary sources. But whether the history has been “untold” or not, the problem is that it has been almost entirely “unlearned.”

Second, Moynihan betrays his ignorance by attempting to debunk our accuracy and choice of sources. He questions our description of the U.S. perception that the Soviet economy was booming in the early 1930s, claiming that we base this assessment on “Stalinist New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty.” If one looks at pages 56 and 57 of our book, it is readily apparent that we base this judgment not only upon The New York Times but upon the Christian Science Monitor, The NationBarron’s, and Business Week. In fact, Duranty is neither cited nor mentioned. Moynihan disputes our contention that Secretary of Defense James Forrestal, in committing suicide, was “tormented by his own anti-communist paranoia.” Forrestal was indeed ranting about communists and “Zionist agents” who were out to get him when he was admitted to Bethesda Naval Hospital. And, as we make abundantly clear, it was popular radio commentator Drew Pearson who alleged that Forrestal was found in the street in pajamas shouting “The Russians are coming!” To any objective reader, it would be readily apparent that we describe Forrestal as suffering from “severe mental illness,” not just anti-communist paranoia.

Moynihan is so eager to try to find ways to discredit us that he misreads things that even Groucho Marx’s proverbial 4-year-old child would understand. He says we quote Henry Wallace’s “somewhat overgenerous” statement that “Stalin was a fine man who wanted to do the right thing,” when we state clearly that these were Harry Truman’s words, as anybody even minimally familiar with this literature would know. Shame on the Daily Beast for not conducting even the minimal level of fact checking. Attributing this quote to Truman, as we do, makes the point that Truman was not a blindly unwavering anti-Soviet zealot but a man who grappled with a difficult situation and made, in our judgment, a series of disastrous but not inevitable choices. Moynihan’s misattribution is an example of the blind animus he feels toward progressives like Wallace, and toward those of us today who challenge Cold War orthodoxy.

Moynihan’s list of our “inaccuracies,” a testament to his laziness or inattention to the truth, includes his assertion that George H.W. Bush never called Oliver North a “hero.” He might try reading Richard Cohen’s Washington Post column of March 28, 1989, before casting such aspersions. 

Moynihan takes great umbrage at our analysis of Ronald Reagan’s responsibility for reigniting the Cold War, alighting on our statement that CIA experts “knew that the Soviets, for all of their faults, actually discouraged terrorism.” He might check with CIA Soviet analysts like Melvin Goodman or Ray McGovern or bother reading Tim Weiner’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Legacy of Ashes before embarrassing himself.

But Moynihan’s real issue is that we are not sufficiently critical of the Soviet Union, charging that our “few scattered words about Soviet barbarism” and “Stalinist mass killing” are insufficient to explain why the United States acted as it did during the course of the Cold War. Actually our book and documentary are extremely critical of Stalin for betraying the dream of the Russian Revolution and establishing what was in many ways a murderous dystopian nightmare. We on the left have carried this albatross around our necks for the better part of a century and know full well what Stalinist cruelty did not only to its victims at home and in Eastern Europe but how it stifled the dream of a better, more humane, more equitable future for all.

Our purpose in this project, however, was not to reinforce a comforting narrative of Soviet perfidy and oppression that any schoolboy or schoolgirl can recite ad nauseam but to show where the United States has fallen short of its own ideals along the road to becoming the global hegemon in a world in which the richest 300 or 500 or 1,000 people have more wealth than the poorest 3 billion.

In our 10-part Showtime documentary film series and companion book we systematically reveal the ways the United States built up the greatest empire in history and, in the process, militarized the globe. We show that this has largely been a bipartisan enterprise, indifferent to U.S. party affiliations. We even, sadly, show the ways the Obama administration has furthered the kind of militarized responses in Afghanistan, his Pacific “pivot,” and “targeted” drone assassination campaign that we find wrongheaded and abhorrent.

But we also show how close the United States has come repeatedly in its history to pursuing a different course that would further humanity rather than threatening it. We tell the story of Henry Wallace’s corrupt ouster from the vice-presidential ticket in 1944, showing not only how close he came to renomination, but how fundamentally different, and we believe better, the world would have been if he had become president instead of Truman. We show the difference between Eisenhower the progressive general and Eisenhower the conservative president. We detail the remarkable transformation John F. Kennedy underwent in the last year of his life and lay out why we are convinced he would have pulled U.S. troops out of Vietnam and ended the Cold War had he not been cut down. We trace this double helix of hope and destruction all the way through today, presenting the kind of historical understanding and repudiation of the idea of American exceptionalism that the American people need to embrace if we are to reorient this country on a path away from war and empire and back to becoming a responsible part of the international community. That is why the Michael Moynihans, who are stuck in a stagnant view of the past and cannot conceive of a better and different world, are so threatened by those of us who can.

UPDATE: Michael Moynihan Responds

I’m sorry that Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick believe my review stands in the way of their project to end imperialism and war, but I felt it necessary to point out that their deeply ideological, inaccurate history of America’s role in the Cold War also stands in the way of historical truth.

It’s interesting to note the number of charges—including the strategic removal of a line from a Harry Truman citation, a bowdlerized Bob Woodward quote, etc.—that the authors simply choose not to engage. Instead, they object to a number of smaller details and seem satisfied with my précis of their views on Josef Stalin and Soviet foreign policy. But the details to which they do object, they are still wrong about.

The authors claim that a “quick look at the footnotes will reveal just how much of [their research] comes from primary sources,” without providing specifics. If there is new material here gleaned from the archives—or any material from the Soviet archives, much of which flatly contradicts their thesis—it’s not apparent from either the text or the endnotes. If the authors wonder what primary research looks like, I urge them to purchase new books by Anne Applebaum and Robert Gellately, both of whom mine newly available Russian documents and, incidentally, explode the idea that America—and not Stalin—started the Cold War.

In addressing their silly claim that because some journalists were rooked by Stalinist propaganda, it was reasonable in the 1930s to view the Soviet Union as a real alternative to Western capitalism, Stone and Kuznick’s write that I “claim that we base this assessment on “Stalinist New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty.” Well, no. I wrote that “many” of the reports of progress believed by American sympathizers came “from Stalinist New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty”—which is undeniably true. Stone and Kuznick say that they demonstrate their point with material from The Christian Science Monitor, The Nation, and Business Week (while ignoring the mass of reporting that flatly contradicted these minority assessments). A quick accounting: The Christian Science Monitor relied on the Kremlin’s own economic figures, The Nation piece cited was written by Louis Fischer who, like Duranty, was a Stalinist (views he later repudiated), and the Business Week piece documented American emigration to the Soviet Union, where, Stone and Kuznick say, “desperate jobless Americans” were flocking. And flock they did, but the authors also elide another rather important detail: most of those who relocated to the Soviet Union ended up imprisoned in the Gulag or murdered in Stalinist purges, as historian Tim Tzouliadis documents in his brilliant book The Forsaken. One might think this an important detail to include.

Rather than providing a quote from the former president, Stone and Kuznick say that I “might try reading Richard Cohen’s Washington Post column of March 28, 1989” as evidence that George H.W. Bush did indeed refer to Colonel Oliver North as “his hero.” You see, this is the problem with relying so heavily on secondary sources, because Cohen—who doesn’t quote the former president—is wrong on this point too. As I noted in my review, Stone and Kuznick say that Bush called North “his hero”; I italicized the first word for a reason. Responding to a question on whether the American people would ultimately view North’s actions as heroic, the then–vice president told British interviewer David Frost that he agreed. In the aftermath of the Iran-Contra affair, a number of polls suggested that Americans thought North to be a “hero” and a “patriot,” hence both the question and Bush’s response. As I wrote, this is a small—and apparently willful—misreading. But it is still wrong.

I observed that Stone and Kuznick include a long-debunked story about anti-communist Secretary of Defense James Forrestal. They respond: “[A]s we make abundantly clear, it was popular radio commentator Drew Pearson who alleged that Forrestal was found in the street in pajamas shouting ‘The Russians are coming!’” This is a truly bizarre defense. Here is how the episode is related in The Untold History: “Drew Pearson informed his radio audience that Forrestal was “out of his mind” after Forrestal was discovered in the street wearing his pajamas and shouting ‘The Russians are coming!’ He believed that the Russians had invaded the United States.” First, the last sentence is from Stone and Kuznick, who clearly want to convey that the episode actually happened. Second, would an honest historian repeat Pearson’s story without mentioning that it’s false?

I pointed out the absurdity of their claim, disproven by releases from the Soviet archives, that the Soviet Union “actually discouraged terrorism.” Stone and Kuznick respond that I “might check with CIA Soviet analysts like Melvin Goodman or Ray McGovern or bother reading Tim Weiner’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Legacy of Ashes before embarrassing himself.” This is invective masquerading as argument; a non-response to a very specific point about documented Soviet funding to various terror groups. Indeed, as I pointed out in my review, Stone and Kuznick’s source for this claim—the one cited in their own footnotes—disagrees with them. They modified and truncated a quote to come to avoid disagreeable facts, a charge which they also fail to answer. Indeed, I cited the work of Cambridge University historian Christopher Andrews, whose documentary evidence from the Soviet archives establish a direct relationship between various terror groups and Soviet intelligence.

One final point, on which the authors are partially—but only partially—correct. I thank them for pointing out a small editing error, in which I rendered a well-known quote from Harry Truman as coming from Henry Wallace. Truman, in fact, said it to Wallace. But this does nothing to undermine my point, because it wasn’t the quote I took issue with, but the authors’ description of it: “Vice President Henry Wallace [sic], we are told, ‘remarked, somewhat overgenerously, that Stalin was a fine man who wanted to do the right thing.’ One must admit, the authors possess a remarkable talent for understatement.” In other words, even if Stalin’s mother called him “a fine man” who just “wanted to do the right thing,” it would still be ridiculous to call such a judgment “somewhat overgenerous.” With more deaths under his belt than Adolf Hitler, such a description would better be deemed morally offensive.

Stone and Kuznick helpfully explain that the “objective [of] this project” is to provoke a “much-needed conversation about the direction our country needs to go in to counter a century-plus, and we believe disastrous, course of empire, war, and domination. That is our objective in this project, which one would never know from reading Moynihan’s review.” What I said in my review, though, is that this book is activism masquerading as history. And I thank the authors for strengthening my point.