Reviewing “Untold History of the United States”
This weekend brought the conclusion of the Showtime series, “Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States.” A series I encourage anyone who has the opportunity to watch. I would also encourage anyone who does watch the series to maintain a healthy skepticism while viewing.
The series focuses on the darker side of presidential politics starting at the end of FDR’s term in office as the U.S. was avoiding involvement in WWII up to the modern day policies of Barack Obama. While touching on some domestic issues, the majority of the time is spent focused on U.S. foreign policy. Each episodes title confirms this fact.
Episode 1: World War II
Episode 2: Roosevelt, Truman & Wallace
Episode 3: The Bomb
Episode 4: The Cold War: 1945-1950
Episode 5: The 50’s Eisenhower, the Bomb & the Third World
Episode 6: JFK: To the Brink
Episode 7: Johnson, Nixon & Vietnam: Reversal of Fortune
Episode 8: Reagan, Gorbachev & Third World: Revival of Fortune
Episode 9: Bush & Clinton: Squandered Peace – New World Order
Episode 10: Bush & Obama: Age of Terror
Oliver Stone succeeds in telling an alternative view of American history that challenges the conventional view Americans perceive as our history. Where the series fails is by showing clear biases towards a progressive agenda, while implying it’s exposing the whole truth. Also disturbing is Stone’s need to portray Heroes and Villains while the show is criticizing presidents and the media of doing the very same thing. Far too often I felt when contrary evidence was presented, it was whitewashed and incomplete. However, there is a fairness in that party affiliation doesn’t protect anyone against Stone’s microscope. Despite his obvious dislike for President Reagan and President G.W. Bush, there is a balanced contempt for President Truman and President Johnson.
The first area I felt this bias conflict was in painting Henry Wallace as a progressive visionary who’s ideas were ahead of his time. A man who’s integrity didn’t allow himself to waver from his ideals. And Wallace was a forward thinking individual in the areas of agriculture and civil rights. But repeatedly Stone refers to Wallace’s stance on trusting and peacefully coexisting with the Soviet Union, communism and Joseph Stalin. Implying that if Wallace hadn’t been replaced by Truman as Vice President on Roosevelt’s final election, the Truman Doctrine to stop communism before it spreads further would have been avoided. Thus erasing Korea, Vietnam and the Cold War from our history. Stone hides behind narration claiming we can’t know what the world would look like today had Wallace took over the Presidency when Roosevelt died, but the message is clear that he feels the alternative couldn’t have been any worse.
Stone completely glosses over the fact that Wallace published a book in 1952 titled “Where I Was Wrong” in which Wallace recants this very position regarding the Soviet Union. Claiming his previous position was made from inadequate information regarding Stalin and the threat he represented. Maybe the series writers feel Wallace only published this book as a means to protect himself from the McCarthy witch hunt taking place at the time against those sympathetic to communism. The fact is Truman shoulders little responsibility for spreading the fear of communism. For that fear was already spreading throughout all levels of government. Wallace may have had a softer approach than Truman, but if Wallace had pursued what Stone feels would have been the “correct” course of action, Wallace likely would have been facing impeachment charges.
Repeatedly I felt Stone was cherry picking facts, which he claims are true and vetted by several groups, to point out what presidents did know and in hindsight made the wrong decision. It’s easy to look back and pick out the intelligence that happened to be correct. Not so easy when you’re faced with several conflicting reports being forced to make a decision.
Stone also offers little room for presidential politics, unfairly criticizing presidents over them. Pulling presidential soundbites to support Stone’s position. What would Mr. Stone expect President Obama to say to troops returning from the Iraq conflict? “Sorry you went over there under false pretenses and watched several of your friends killed for nothing?” Also entirely unfair was the soundbite of President G.W. Bush saying “you’ve covered your ass” claiming the context was about Arabs training to fly planes into buildings prior to 9-11. Was supplying the actual context to which Bush was responding to too difficult for us to hear for ourselves Mr. Stone?
Despite these and many other flaws in logic and hypocrisy, the series does a good job of presenting evidence on how much of what we felt was aggression from the USSR was often simply a response to an action we already took, for they feared we would strike first. How often from the rest of the world, it is the United States that’s viewed as the aggressor. That we now know many of the numbers on USSR arms during the cold war turned out to be far fewer in reality. Once again I was left disappointed in Mr. Stone for not following up with why our numbers on USSR armaments were so far off.
Whether intentional or not, the series masterfully shows how often candidates running for the presidency end up involved in the very activities they ran against. That it is impossible to make a clear choice on who one should vote for. The promises spoken on the campaign trail doesn’t correspond to the actions taken in office. How even the best of intentions are warped and corrupted by outside influences once seated in the oval office. Then the series trips over itself implying the likes of Wallace or Gore would have been better presidents, based on their campaign platform. As if somehow they would have been immune from these pressures.
“Untold History of the United States” made me think and reexamine what I thought I knew about our history. For that reason alone I think the series was worthwhile and applaud Mr. Stone’s effort. However, in hindsight, the series would have had a much more powerful message highlighting what is wrong with America had Mr. Stone restrained his progressive bias, stopped trying to flip the tables claiming America is the evil empire, and just presented the facts fairly highlighting the sympathies and faults on all sides. Then let the viewer decide for themselves.
The world we live in is gray Mr. Stone. If you want others to recognize past mistakes to avoid making them in the future, it doesn’t help if you are still painting the past in black and white.