Oscar-winning director Oliver Stone (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, JFK) has spent the last five years creating a ground-breaking new series, The Untold History of the United States, which shows a side of America’s post-war foreign policy that the White House didn’t want you to see. We spoke to the celebrated film-maker and the series’ co-creator, noted US foreign policy academic Peter Kuznick, about the 10-part series which comes to Sky Atlantic this month..
This is an incredibly detailed series, does it cover everything up until the Obama administration?
Oliver: “Yes, it goes all the way from the start of the Second World War to the present day. Well a couple of months ago!”
Have you always had a burning desire to do a series like this?
Oliver: “Well it kind of came naturally after making all those movies. By 2008 I’d covered a number of subjects and figures from America’s post-war history and I wanted to look at the whole picture. What is the American story? I’d met Peter in 1996 in Washington when he was teaching a university course based on my films! It was called ‘Oliver Stone’s America’ and I’d been to the class and enjoyed it!
“He told me the real story of the A-Bomb, which hasn’t really been thought about. Nowadays everyone just accepts that we dropped the bomb and ended the war – the American people don’t question it. That becomes the founding myth of the global security state that we’ve created. He then told me the story of Henry Wallace – a man who tried to avert the arms race that followed the Second World War, but was smeared by the American right-wing – his story gives the opening chapters a human basis.”
We’re currently seeing a crisis in North Korea that is directly related to America’s actions in the aftermath of the Second World War. Do you think America has changed a lot since then?
Oliver: “I think Kim Jung-Il once said that the only mistake that Saddam Hussein made was not having Weapons of Mass Destruction. His son said something similar about Gaddafi as well, pointing out that he gave up his weapons programme under pressure from America. That’s a side question, but it gives you an idea of where North Korea is coming from at the moment.”
Peter: “The Korean question goes back to the war though, because the Korean War – which occurred over 60 years ago now – never ended. They have an armistice, but they never had a peace treaty. The US levelled every city in Korea during that conflict, so now when we’re doing these joint military exercises with South Korea, we’re scaring the hell out of the North Koreans. They take it very seriously that we’re threatening to overthrow their government. We’re flying B52s and B2 Stealth bombers over there, which are capable of deploying nuclear weapons! “
So have things changed in the last 60 years?
Peter: “Well, of course things change over the decades, but the broad thrust of it is that the US still wants to be the world’s policeman and the US is still militarising almost every conflict in the world. We don’t have colonies like the British did, but we’ve got an empire of bases – between 700 and 1,000 bases around the world – so our troops are everywhere. This is the kind of empire we’re developing. You can’t say that things don’t change, because Obama is somewhat different to Bush – for instance Bush might have sent troops into Syria. There are differences, but they’re subtle and not fundamental.”
Are there a lot of things in the series that many Americans won’t know?
Oliver: “Yes, I’d say so. To me the word ‘untold’ doesn’t mean that it wasn’t announced, we’re not claiming to uncover fresh history, but history that hasn’t been learned. In many cases it’s been deliberately airbrushed out because the triumphalist narrative that represents the interests of the United States is one of self-love. The A-bomb gave us the force and the right to do these things. The cliché I was taught when I was growing up was ‘might makes right!’
“Because we were stronger and because we were right, we felt good about ourselves and we created this ethos which runs through American history and which eventually took us into this debacle in Vietnam. I was 20 years old and I was in the middle of it – believing that communism is a worldwide conspiracy to destroy America. Even when the Soviet Union collapsed nothing changed and we continued our policies of militarism abroad, in fact we built up our power by expanding NATO to the boarders of Russia. We wanted air, sea, land, space and cyberspace – our march towards empire hasn’t stopped, in fact it’s now at over-reach.
“During this series we explain how every empire of the 20th Century has terminated, there have been six or seven of them. Britain, France, Holland, Russia – twice, The Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Chinese Empire. Empires don’t last so where are we going to go? Into the ash-heap of history at this rate.
What about the growth of China?
Oliver: “Will they surpass America economically over the next decade or so? I’m not sure. But what is interesting is the media propaganda about China’s aggressive instincts and how we’re being told they want to take over Asia. The media is presenting them as the new evil, just like the Soviet Union after the Second World War. We’ve created an enemy to justify our National Security plans.”
Peter: “Obama’s policy of putting more military force into Asia – we sold $12 billion worth of arms to Taiwan and have armed Japan to the teeth – is insulting to China. We’re even doing joint naval exercises with Vietnam of all countries!”
Do you see any similarities between Obama and JFK?
Peter: “Not at all. We haven’t seen the same kind of learning curve. Kennedy had a very steep learning curve – after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy got it! He realised that these crises couldn’t be controlled and he knew that we’d avoided nuclear war by luck. Maybe if Obama had been in Kennedy’s shoes he would have gone into Cuba, maybe Obama would have folded to the military. The fact that Kennedy had been a Naval Officer in WW2 made a big difference because he had guts. At the Bay of Pigs he was astounded by how stupid those running the military were. He referred to the Joint Chiefs as ‘sons of bitches’ and the CIA as ‘bastards’ and said he was going to teach them a lesson – and he did. Maybe he paid the price for that.”
Has Obama disappointed you?
Oliver: “Frankly, yes. I’m rooting for him still, I think he has good sense and good instincts, but we’re not seeing it in his policy.”
Do you think it’s possible to go up against the machine that Kennedy went up against and be victorious?
Peter: “Obama could have done, but you have to educate the public. Teddy Roosevelt said the presidency is a ‘bully pulpit’ and you have to be willing to use it. For me, Obama hasn’t shown that. He made some very good speeches at the beginning, but he didn’t follow them up with real actions. His instincts are good but his actions haven’t matched them.”
What do you think of the ‘Special Relationship’ that the UK and the US has?
Oliver: “Great question – you go Peter!”
Peter: “If you were a little more progressive I think it would be a good thing – Blair’s influence on Bush was not very positive!”
..and vice versa?
Oliver: “Well yes. The overall relationship is fascinating though. The Churchill-Roosevelt story is compelling. Roosevelt knew that Britain had to sacrifice its empire, but Churchill was unwilling to accept it.”
So are America and the UK partners in crime?
Oliver: “That would be an easy headline!”
Peter: “I would say yes, that’s a good way to put it. But we’re also partners in good things! So we’re partners in positive developments and crime.”
Oliver: “Sometimes I think the UK is happy to see the US as a stalking horse because of it’s empirical history. It benefits Britain if the US upholds the Western Christian system! Having said that, Britain has allowed more Muslims into the country than most other European nations and has a fine tradition of law. You guys wrote the Magna Carta, which was the basis for our fourth and fifth amendments.”
How do you think this series will be regarded by academics, critics and the political institutions it covers?
Peter: “I meet academics every day who say very positive things about the research we’ve done. Of course some of the mainstream media hates what we’re doing, they criticise us, but what we’re saying makes a lot of sense. It’s an interpretation, but it’s grounded in the facts – we’ve fact checked this over and over again. I think it’s going to make a lot more sense that the traditional narrative.
“The story they tell in schools doesn’t make sense and it hasn’t made sense for a long time. After seeing Iraq and how badly that went after all those promises, people are a little more open to being critical as well. Oliver and I didn’t question it when we were very young, but many young people are ready to accept a more critical point of view now. What they don’t have is a sense that the world can change in a positive way. We’re trying to show them that these things happened and the world can be a very different place – a place of more peaceful and progressive relationships!”
The Untold History of the United States begins on Friday, April 19 on Sky Atlantic