I know from the first words that Oliver Stone says to me that this isn’t going to be a boring interview.
We are sitting in a lobby on the eleventh floor of an anonymously corporate Warner Brothers office building in Burbank, Calif., where Stone has spent the entire afternoon promoting his latest releases. Many of today’s questions have focused on the Ultimate Collector’s Edition DVD of JFK, his controversial, conspiracy-laden movie about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which is due out November 12, just in time for the 50th anniversary of that terrible day in Dallas.
But I want to talk to Stone about something else: the Oct. 15 Blu-ray release of The Untold History of the United States, a 10-part documentary series that was directed, co-written, and narrated by Stone, and that originally aired on Showtime in 2012. The product of four years of work, The Untold History is a fascinating and in some ways upsetting film: a deeply liberal revisionist take on the so-called American Century that attempts to shatter our cozy sense of exceptionalism and show us how the rest of the world sees us. For Stone, World War I was about Wall Street profiteering; World War II was about empire building; the USSR didn’t deserve to be demonized; and the Cold War was a huge overreaction. These are not views that most Americans would agree with, but there’s value in exploring other perspectives on the past.
My idea for the interview, however, is not to ask Stone about the series he made last year; he’s already answered thousands of questions about that. Instead, I want to ask him about the history that has unfolded since his documentary aired. If he were to create a Chapter 11 of The Untold History, how would he address 2012 and 2013? What argument would he make? What story would he tell?
Stone slumps down on the sofa next to me. At 67, his hair is still fairly black and pretty much intact. His features are friendly and exaggerated—the gap between his two front teeth, the exclamatory eyebrows. He looks like a sidewalk caricature of himself. Stone doesn’t hear very well anymore, and he tends to stare over your shoulder when he’s speaking to you. His voice is a reedy rumble.
I introduce myself. “I was told you knew this history and you cared,” Stone says. “It makes a difference if you have a sympathetic ear.”
Sympathetic is a stretch. I enjoyed The Untold History, but I wouldn’t say I agreed with it. I stay silent. Stone continues.
“I just did an interview with CBS Sunday morning about JFK,” he says. “I knew what was coming. A young woman did the interview and I could tell she wasn’t going to believe me. She just doesn’t have that kind of… She says, in a nice way, ‘Do you really think you can keep a secret? A conspiracy?’” Stone smiles. “It hasn’t been a secret. It’s been leaking for years.”
I’d like to talk to you about the Untold History, I say.
“Sure, sure,” Stone replies. “We got a lousy review on The Daily Beast from some asshole when it came out.”
And with that, we begin.
THE DAILY BEAST: What does America get wrong about its own history?
Oliver Stone: I think one of the main things would be the denial of its power, which has grown enormously, to a place that is monstrous in its potential for tyranny. In terms of our military, defense, and security spending—I don’t think the average American understands how big it is. When we make a little sound over here, it echoes through the world at a far higher reverberation. One hint from Mr. Obama and it goes into Asia and Japan and our allies and China. It’s the loudest voice in the world. You saw the series, I presume?
You saw the last chapter?
We don’t understand the degree to which we have the weapons now in space, and cyberwarfare, and drones, to destroy potential enemies. The planet itself could be in jeopardy. That’s one thing. The denial of empire. Because the concept of empire is foreign to many Americans.
I’ve noticed over the years that there’s a constant tendency with people to feel sorry for themselves. When you were always denying your power by saying you’re being picked on. And a bully will do that. A bully will say “Iran’s picking on me. China is a big giant and they’re going to come get me. North Korea is dangerous. Venezuela is a bunch of asshole and they’re trying to destroy us.” And certainly that was the huge story of my lifetime. You saw Vietnam pictured when I was a child as a monster—a monster that was in league with the Communist Chinese as of ‘49 to take over the world. Not the United States. The world.
But when you go out and look at the threat, it really wasn’t significant until later in time, when they armed themselves to the teeth in the 70s. That’s one of the great problems we have in our perception of the world. A bully who doesn’t know he’s a bully.
How would you define the perspective of The Untold History? What is the argument you’re making?
The bias for me, as a dramatist—to go back to the bully question—is how did we become like this? I grew up conservative, remember. So I had a William Buckley view of the United States in the ‘40s and ‘50s—that we were good guys, and that we were moral, and that we were doing the right thing. And now I think, how did we become this bully—this international terror that dominates the world scene today?
But when I went back and studied it, I realize we were never the good guy, from World War II on. From two weeks after Roosevelt’s death, Truman started down a path that was almost…It was a huge mistake to have Truman as vice president. He was a small man like George W. Bush at a time when we needed big men. And he was weak. He thought himself strong, but he was weak in his lack of empathy for the Soviet Union.
It’s interesting that you bring up empathy. For me, that was one of the main themes of The Untold History: trying to see America as others see it.
That’s my solution. At the end, I try to bring that home. Kennedy, for example, who understood the nature of war and death because he served. McGovern is overlooked in our series to some degree, but certainly he’s one of my heroes now. Carter in the beginning, certainly. Clinton in the beginning. Obama in the beginning… had tremendous hope. We had hopes for him. Gorbachev is a hero to me. Krushchev is a hero to me.
Untold… I think we could have called it Unlearned. Because you don’t know what was or wasn’t told. It certainly was in the headlines at some point. But so many things are forgotten about.
You mentioned Obama. I want to ask some questions about Obama and the events that have happened since the 10th chapter. If you were making an 11th chapter, what would it include?
This is the tyranny of now. You get stuck in all these little details like Syria every day. But Syria is another one of that…they’re variations on the notes he’s playing. Obama’s speech to the United Nations is essentially repeating in a more extreme form his American exceptionalism comments through the years. He’s really gone whole hog into the belief that we are an exceptional system; that since World War II we’ve created an architecture that works for the world, and that essentially we are a good people. We never invade other countries except for sacrifice. And he pitched it very well at the UN. I don’t think anybody believed it, necessarily, except for the American people.
Do you think Obama believes that America is exceptional?
Or does he have to say it as a politician?
No, he believes it. His comments to the Iraq War veterans bothered me deeply. His denial of the Vietnam War. I recently saw it in Asia that he said the Korean War was not a tie but a victory. I guess you can’t become president…Either that or the young woman who I recently met was right. She was convinced that Obama had been cloned since the election. And that’s possible. Certainly John Kerry looks like he has.
You had hopes for Obama when he was elected? You thought he was going to be different?
I did. I voted for him on the basis that he was on an anti-Bush ticket. The reason I didn’t support Hillary Clinton was because she had voted for the Iraq War, and didn’t back down on it. Obama was going to win, in my opinion. He had a strong base: young people, blacks… A new base.
Why hasn’t he been as progressive as you imagined he would be?
I think he may have gotten scared. The Big Politics of it. “I’m running in the big race now.” And somewhere along the line, as McCain got stronger on these national security issues, he felt like he had to take the money from Wall Street, and the pharmaceutical companies, and the computer companies…
That’s when he bypassed public financing.
Yeah. Which was a huge deal. Then somewhere in there…Remember, when you’re president, you’re subject to military brainwashing all day long. “There’s a security threat, your life is in danger, we need this, we have enemies here, we have enemies there.” You live in a mindset where you see nothing but enemies after a while.
Do you think any president could be effective and more progressive than Obama has been?
Because Obama’s people would make the case that, actually, he’s passed near-universal health care, he’s drawing down in Afghanistan, he’s withdrawing from Iraq. He’s doing the things that he said he was going to do that are fairly progressive.
Well, he expanded in Afghanistan first.
First. In order to draw down.
After it didn’t work.
But you know the argument I’m making, right? It’s that Obama is as progressive as he can be within the constraints of the American political system.
That’s not true. Roosevelt was facing a similar dilemma. Anything he did would be cursed. And he took huge risks. He didn’t go as far as perhaps he could have with the bankers, but he did make big changes. Obama had that mandate. But perhaps he felt he didn’t. Why would you go out and appoint Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State and carry over that old regime? Why would you appoint Robert Gates, who was one of the worst enablers of the CIA, to continue as your defense secretary? Why? Why would you put [Larry] Summers and [Tim] Geithner in on economics when they’re [Robert] Rubin acolytes? I don’t understand. What do you represent?
Have you been pleased with anything Obama has done? Or is it all disappointment for you?
Well, his use of soft…He uses rational words. Reasonable words. But if you look at his speeches, I don’t believe an intelligent man would say the things he has said. He said “the American empire is a propaganda myth.” He said that. When we have a thousand bases abroad, who is he kidding? If he really believes China is a danger, we’re in trouble, because he’s redefining the Cold War again. And the empire has continued on its course.
Above all, he’s enshrined the legislation that Bush illegally…
The Patriot Act?
Well, the Patriot Act was legal. But the eavesdropping was illegal. Totally illegal. And he’s enshrined it. And now he’s said they’re going to reexamine it. It’s bullshit. I mean, we have a lot going on. We are a global security state. Every ally is being spied on. Every enemy is being spied on. And we’re being spied on. Everything Bush did was wrong in terms of fighting these terrorists. He made it into a global war on terror. As opposed to, “Let’s go get the bad guys.” There was a group: a vile group, limited, a few thousand people. We could have gotten them through the normal channels.
But that’s the argument Obama’s people make: that he’s trying to draw back on this global war on terror and target the individual terrorists. And he’s been effective. Except that he’s doing it with drones.
But he hasn’t drawn back. We’re eavesdropping on the entire world. That’s not a drawback. On the contrary. Because of technology, he has advanced it. He’s cut back on infantry deployments, but not on lilypad bases or drones… He knows we can fight from a distance, by dropping bombs and so forth. And from space. He knows that that’s the way to go. That doesn’t make us any better, just because we cut infantry troops.
Let’s talk about some other events and figures you might include in Chapter 11 of TIhe Untold History. The election. Mitt Romney. Where does he fit into U.S. history? What kind of character was he? Does he echo anyone from the past?
I don’t really think about him much, frankly. There are a lot of details that come up in life…I guess I’m reaching the age where I try to stick to the big stories.
But isn’t a presidential election a pretty big story?
They were two empire men, fighting it out to see who could defend this beleaguered underdog nation. That’s what they were really arguing about. China being a threat and so forth. I don’t see anything noteworthy there.
What about Iran? The nuclear situation has been a big story of the last year. Now Obama is writing letters back and forth with their president.
I hope Obama can negotiate successfully. Seems like it could happen. But there are so many enemies of that peace negotiation, including Israel and Saudi Arabia and Qatar. It seems that Saudi Arabia and Israel have finally linked arms on this one. It’s a depressing situation considering how destructive [Benjamin] Netanyahu has been.
Do you see the government shutdown and the larger stalemate in Washington as being one of the big stories of the last year?
Yes, it is a big story.
Where does that fit into your Untold History?
Well, it’s a pattern of white supremacy. Sort of like South Africa at the end. I hope it’s the end, but maybe not. But you know in South Africa, with apartheid…I do feel that the Jim Crow laws are very important, coming back, by the Supreme Court gutting the Voting Rights Act. The gerrymandering that’s going on in the states. I do believe that we owe this Republican legislature to that gerrymandering. And part of that is that ballot security issue. Every time… you’ve got to have IDs for the poor and so forth. It’s cutting out the blacks.
They are really hanging on to…they don’t want the Hispanic, Asian, black mixture to take over. I think that’s what the Supreme Court thing is. I think that’s what the gun laws are about, too.
The states want states’ rights. They want to keep the rules white. That’s how I see this Tea Party.
Do you put the government shutdown and the opposition to Obamacare in the same category?
Yeah. The Tea Party talks about government intrusion as if it were a Holy Grail, and yet they ignore the NSA. I would think that if you’re a true conservative that there would be nothing that would bother you more. Maybe that makes me a true conservative.
That sounds like a libertarian view to me.
I don’t agree that the government has a right to listen in. And they do. Whatever they say…they say that they were not listening. But at the end of the day, when somebody else comes into power, they can go back and listen.
So what do you see as the big historical narrative of the last year?
Think about Bush as a revolution, as opposed to a conservative movement. A revolution coming in, changing the laws, breaking the laws. Allowing that massive eavesdropping. Think of Obama as enhancing that revolution. Now think about the counterrevolution trying to stop it.
The counterrevolution is what? Wikileaks?
It’s not the Tea Party.
Yes. Oh yes. Young people who are disturbed by this power structure. And they should be. It’s disgusting.
Do you think the “counterrevolution” will go anywhere? Do you think it can change that power structure?
I hope so. I don’t know. As I said in Chapter 10, “history has taught us that the curve of the ball can break differently.” When you think it’s all going to go the empire’s way, you may be in for a surprise.
When has the curve of the ball has broken differently in the past?
It happened most recently in my lifetime in 1985, ‘86, ‘87, and ‘88 with Gorbachev. Who ever thought—the CIA didn’t have a clue—that this guy would upset the whole apple cart and offer us a deal? We could have buried everything. Taken our nuclear weapons out of the equation. We could have. That was an amazing interregnum.
Reagan wanted to take that deal.
But of course, Bush’s father went back the other way. That was a big moment for me. Who could have thought that Martin Luther King would have shown up like that, or that Robert Kennedy would start reform like that, or John Kennedy? Who would have thought that Henry Wallace might have been president?
Do you put Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning and Julian Assange in the same category?
Yes. The could haves. It’s ongoing. Snowden certainly put everyone on notice that the U.S. government is not necessarily your best friend. I’m hoping that a consensus develops that the U.S. is truly a tyrant and a bully and must have its way.
So what happens if Edward Snowden and those who agree with him convince more Americans of this view that America is a tyrant? Do they elect different leaders? What would you want to change?
There are a lot of people working for change. Progressive change. As I said, you can never tell. I’m an older man. When I’ve thought things were predictable they never end up that way.
You could never have said that 9/11 would have happened, although it was a dangerous time, because the ‘90s breeded in the U.S. that superiority feeling that we were impregnable. But who would have ever thought the terrorists could blow up skyscrapers in the heart of Manhattan? That’s what I’m talking about.
What about the Boston Marathon bombing? You could argue that was the moment when this resentment that had been festering abroad finally hit home.
Or you could see the Boston bombing as military law. They went into every home they felt they needed to. They completely occupied Boston. It was the nightmare of martial takeover. It shows you the fragility of our sense of security, doesn’t it? This whole thing…this tradeoff of security for freedom is upsetting to me. It’s a wicked balance.
Ben Franklin pointed that out a long time ago. You don’t trade…you can never have security. You have to live with insecurity. You have to accept that as a grown adult. You have to live with this idea of fear. We’re always scared, the American people. Going back to what I said earlier: it’s the bully who’s scared in the end. That’s why he has to get the most weapons. That’s why he has to get guns. That’s why he’s got to walk around shooting people left and right. I’m more terrified of American citizens than I am of Arabs, frankly. It’s the nut in the street who’s gonna get you.
I think we’re unbalanced in some psychological way. As John-Paul Sartre said a long time ago—and King said it again—we’re a sick country. We have rabies. We need a vaccine.
That’s a depressing diagnosis.
It is! But people have to say it. Snowden said beautifully. Julian has been great. I think Manning did the right thing, whether he thinks so or not. We gotta keep repeating it. Because if you don’t, people forget. Young people need that. They need the sense that someone cares.