Oliver Stone, three-time Academy Award-winning director, producer and screenwriter. A commemorative edition of JFK comes out next week ahead of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Most recently, Stone has co-written a 10-part Showtime series called Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States.
Peter Kuznick, professor of history and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University. He is co-author of the 10-part series, The Untold History of the United States.
Three-time Academy Award-winning director, producer and screenwriter Oliver Stone joins us for the hour to discuss the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, which was chronicled in his blockbuster film, "JFK." A Vietnam War veteran, Stone has made around two dozen acclaimed Hollywood films, including "Platoon," "Salvador," "Born on the Fourth of July," "Nixon," "South of the Border" and "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps." A commemorative edition of "JFK" comes out next week. Most recently, Stone has co-written the 10-part Showtime series, "Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States," and companion book with the same name, co-written by Peter Kuznick, professor of history and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This month marks the 50th anniversary of an assassination that continues to haunt the nation. On November 22nd, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was hardly past his first thousand days in office when he was fatally shot as his motorcade passed through Dallas, Texas. His death is marked by still unanswered questions. We’ll look back at Kennedy’s life and legacy with our guest for the hour, acclaimed film director Oliver Stone. His 1991 political thriller, JFK, examined the events leading to Kennedy’s assassination and the alleged subsequent cover-up through the eyes of former New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, played by Kevin Costner. This is the trailer of the film JFK.
NARRATOR: A shocking assassination of a president.
JIM GARRISON: [played by Kevin Costner] John F. Kennedy’s murder was probably one of the most terrible moments in the history of our country.
NARRATOR: The outrageous murder of a suspect.
JACK RUBY: [played by Brian Doyle-Murray] Oswald!
REPORTER: Oswald’s been shot!
NARRATOR: The total obsession of a district attorney.
JIM GARRISON: Who killed the president?
DAVID FERRIE: [played by Joe Pesci] Oh, man!
JACK MARTIN: [played by Jack Lemmon] Do I have to spell it out for you, Mr. Garrison?
NARRATOR: Who will risk everything.
LIZ GARRISON: [played by Sissy Spacek] I think you care more about John Kennedy than your own family.
NARRATOR: To find the truth.
X: [played by Donald Sutherland] Why was Kennedy killed?
DAVID FERRIE: There’s a death warrant out for me, you know?
X: Who benefited?
DEAN ANDREWS: [played by John Candy] The government’s going to jump all over your head, Jimbo.
X: Who has the power to cover it up?
NARRATOR: Who killed JFK?
JIM GARRISON: Now we’re through the looking glass here, people.
WILLIE O’KEEFE: [played by Kevin Bacon] People got to know.
JIM GARRISON: Y’all got to start thinking on a different level, like the CIA does.
WILLIE O’KEEFE: People got to know why he was killed.
JIM GARRISON: The truth is the most important value we have.
LIZ GARRISON: I just want to raise our children and live a normal life. I want my life back!
NARRATOR: Kevin Costner.
JIM GARRISON: Nothing is going to keep me from going ahead with my investigation of John Kennedy’s murder.
NARRATOR: In an Oliver Stone film.
JIM GARRISON: I say let justice be done or the heavens fall.
AMY GOODMAN: Part of the trailer to Oliver Stone’s 1991 film, JFK. When Kennedy was killed, the official narrative was immediately questioned. Nearly five decades later, a new poll has found a clear majority of Americans still suspect there was a conspiracy behind the assassination. However, according to the Associated Press JFK poll, the percentage of those who believe accused shooter Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone is at its highest level since the mid-’60s. The survey, conducted in mid-April, said 59 percent of Americans think multiple people were involved in a conspiracy to kill the president, while 24 percent think Oswald acted alone, 16 percent are still unsure. A 2003 Gallup poll found 75 percent of Americans felt there was a conspiracy.
We’re joined for the hour by three-time Academy Award-winning director, producer, screenwriter, Oliver Stone. A Vietnam War veteran, he’s made around two dozen acclaimed Hollywood films, including Platoon, Wall Street, Salvador, Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, Nixon, W., South of the Border and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. A commemorative edition of JFK comes out on Blu-ray next week as the 50th anniversary of his assassination approaches on November 22nd. Most recently, Stone has co-written a multi-part Showtime series called Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States, which is also available on Blu-ray and includes a companion book with the same name.
We’re also joined by Peter Kuznick, a professor of history and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University, co-author of The Untold History of the United States.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Oliver Stone, let’s begin with you. As we move into this 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, your thoughts?
OLIVER STONE: Thank you, Amy, for having me back. It’s nice to see you again. Hello, Peter.
PETER KUZNICK: Hi, Oliver.
OLIVER STONE: My thoughts. I saw the film inside these last few days, and I’ve been able to assess it again, and I’ve followed the cases more or less from the outside. I haven’t been inside. It’s amazing to me that people still deny it. As you know, I was in the infantry in Vietnam. I had a fair amount of combat experience. I saw people blown away in action. When you look once again at the basics of the film—the bullets, the autopsy, the forensics, the shooting path—and stay away from all the other stuff—Oswald’s background and Garrison, etc.—just follow the meat, the evidence, what you see with your own eyes in those six seconds, it’s an amazing—it’s all there. It doesn’t need to be elaborated upon. You can see it with your own eyes.
You see Kennedy make his—get a hit in the throat. Then you see Kennedy get a hit in the back. Then you see him essentially get a hit from the front. When he gets the hit from the front, which is the fourth or the fifth or the sixth shot, he goes back and to the left. That’s the basic evidence. You see a man fly back because he gets hit right here. Many witnesses at Parkland and at the autopsy in Bethesda saw a massive exit wound to the rear of his skull, to the right side. The people at Parkland, including the young doctor, McClelland, saw his cerebellum, his brain, go out the—almost falling out of the back of his skull. Later, when he gets taken—illegally—to the—to Bethesda, Maryland, the military—
AMY GOODMAN: Why illegal?
OLIVER STONE: Via what?
AMY GOODMAN: You said when he was taken illegally.
OLIVER STONE: He was taken immediately, I mean, within an hour or two, he start—but it takes four hours to fly there, plus the autopsy doesn’t go off until later that evening. And it’s manipulated. It’s—the doctors at the autopsy are not in charge of the autopsy. They’re naval—naval technicians, surgeons. The military is telling them what to do.
And when this whole thing emerges, what we have are weird shots of—the back of his head is patched up, basically. And the shot—they’re trying to justify the shot from the rear to the front. So they’re saying that the shot from the back came into his back and hit Connally. There’s—they talk about three bullets. One missed. The magic bullet, that was devised by Arlen Specter and others, devises a path that’s impossible. It’s seven wounds in two people, in Kennedy and in Connally. The bullet hits Kennedy—
AMY GOODMAN: This was John Connally.
OLIVER STONE: —in the back, goes out his throat, zigs to the right, hits Connally in the left, goes down to Connally’s right wrist. It bounces back into his left knee. It’s a farce. And they got away with it, because it’s a lot of mumbo-jumbo, and they used scientific evidence. But when people are in combat, they see things. They see people—they go with the bullet wound. It’s essential. And this was a—Kennedy was shot right before Connally in the back. Connally gets shot. Then Kennedy—
AMY GOODMAN: Governor Connally.
OLIVER STONE: —gets the head shot. So there’s at least five shots here. And this is what you have to go in—look at the Zapruder film over and over again, even if they altered it, which—
AMY GOODMAN: And for young people who don’t know who Zapruder was, and the film—
OLIVER STONE: Oh, Zapruder was a—was a local man who shot this film, that was taken by the CIA and the Secret Service, and it was altered a bit, I think. There’s a lot of evidence to that effect. You have to—you’re getting into scientific now. But the Zapruder film, even now, is the best signpost. It’s the timing of the—it’s the timing. It shows you the, how do you call, the time frame of the assassination.
And we have a scene in the movie where you see the man trying to do what Oswald did with a bolt-action Mannlicher-Carcano rifle from World War II, which is a very bad weapon, Italian weapon, infantryman rifle. And you have to fire the shot, through a tree, at a moving—at a target moving away from you. You can’t do it. Two teams of FBI experts tried to do it, plus CBS, I believe, and various other organizations have tried to simulate that shooting in less than six seconds. It’s not possible. So, this was a sophisticated ambush. There had to be a shot from the front, from that—from that front, that fence, and at least one shooter from the front. At least one.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to a clip from your film, JFK, when former New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison watches a TV news report about Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged killer. Then he makes a phone call to his associate and tells him to investigate Oswald’s connection to New Orleans a little bit further.
REPORTER: ... of Lee Harvey Oswald.
MATTIE: [played by Pat Perkins] A fine man.
REPORTER: After a stint in the Marines, he apparently became fascinated by communism.
BOB: He is still believed to be a dedicated Marxist and a fanatical supporter of Fidel Castro and ultra-left-wing causes. He spent last summer in New Orleans and was arrested there in a brawl with anti-Castro Cuban exiles.
REPORTER: And apparently, Bob, Oswald had been passing out pro-Castro pamphlets for an organization ...
JIM GARRISON: Hello, Lou? Yeah, sorry to disturb you this late.
LOU IVON: [played by Jay O. Sanders] That’s all right. I’m watching it, too.
JIM GARRISON: Yeah, a matter of routine, but we better get on this Oswald connection to New Orleans right away.
LOU IVON: Mm-hmm.
JIM GARRISON: All right, I want you to check out his record, find any friends or associates from last summer. Let’s meet with the senior assistants and investigators day after tomorrow, all right?
LOU IVON: That be on Sunday?
JIM GARRISON: Sunday, yeah, at 11:00.
LOU IVON: All right.
JIM GARRISON: All right, thanks, Lou.
LOU IVON: Mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Kevin Costner, who played Jim Garrison, who is actually the central figure in your film. Why Jim Garrison, the DA?
OLIVER STONE: Well, Jim Garrison was the only public official who brought charges in the case. He started this case. It was a very difficult thing to bring charges against the covert operations of a U.S. government, which he thought it was. You know, now that we’ve lived a little longer and we’re older, we know about how difficult that is. We know Snowden’s case. We know WikiLeaks’s case. We know Manning’s case. All these people have been—can’t get it out. I mean, they had trouble. People disbelieve it. When Garrison believed the story, as I did—I was younger—years go by, three years later Garrison—Garrison calls in David Ferrie. He—very suspicious things happened in New Orleans. But he was suspicious , but the FBI dismissed all—dismissed all the witnesses he called. Three years later, he got into the case because Senator Russell Long of Georgia told him that he didn’t believe this—this Warren—
AMY GOODMAN: Of Louisiana.
OLIVER STONE: So, Garrison started to read the whole Warren Commission, and he started to see all the inconsistencies of it, and he started to call in the witnesses. He got into some hot water. The CIA watched this thing very closely. We now know that they had files on Jim. They bugged his offices. They stole the files. They had informants on his staff. It was an impossible case. Three of his witnesses died. Others—others just were not called. They were—the subpoenas were denied, etc. He called Allen Dulles. He called several members of the CIA. That was not allowed.
AMY GOODMAN: Allen Dulles, the head of the CIA.
OLIVER STONE: Yeah, Allen Dulles had been the head of the CIA, had been fired by Kennedy and was the head of the Warren Commission and ran the commission, which is a very bizarre—
AMY GOODMAN: And the Warren Commission is the one that had investigated—
OLIVER STONE: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —done the so-called independent investigation.
OLIVER STONE: Yeah, you’re asking me to go through the whole case here. Yeah, the Warren Commission is the—is the Rosetta Stone of this country. It’s another one of these mists that covers up.
You know, look, this case is very similar, that scene you showed—when Snowden was first described as a lone, fame-seeking narcissist, you find very much the similarities to the Oswald case. Oswald was identified right away, on that Friday afternoon. They had the profile ready. This is a lone nut, Marxist sympathizer, who obviously was not only alienated, but disliked Kennedy—none of which is true, because he was none of these things. And we go—you can find that out by reading or looking at the movie. But the first label seems to stick, whether it was the WMD in Iraq, when you put that first story out there. And there’s something about that, whether it’s the Tonkin Gulf Resolution that kicks off the Vietnam War or the—for that matter, the blowing up of the Maine in the Spanish harbor. These stories spread, and that first impression stays. And that’s—it’s a shame. It’s like the Reichstag fire in Germany.
And Oswald has been—what bothers me the most is that people who are intelligent, The New York Times, the Vanity Fair fellow, the guy in The New Yorker, they write these long pieces, and they just—and they say, essentially, in the article, "Well, we—history has sort of shown us that Oswald is the—the consensus is that Oswald did it alone." Well, but they don’t read the books by Bob Groden or Cyril Wecht or James Douglass’s JFK and the Unspeakable, or they don’t deal with the ballistics, which is very important because the argument—Bob Groden has done the best photographic analysis of the bullet wounds and the photography. And he can show, in his last book—his most recent book is called Absolute Proof. It’s coming out right now. Bob Groden has done—has been on this thing 30 years. He’s the best. Talk to the people who really have studied pathology, autopsies and photo evidence.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Oliver Stone, why does this matter 50 years later?
OLIVER STONE: Ah, good question. Good question. What was Kennedy doing? Peter and I address this in a larger text in our Untold History of the United States. A very important president. Keep in mind, this is 13 years after the national security state starts. We are massively armed. Between 1947, Truman, and Eisenhower in 1960, we go from 1,000 nuclear weapons to 30,000 nuclear weapons. By 1960, we are supreme. We are the sole superpower, truly. We have the ability at this point, after many crises with the Soviet Union, many nuclear threats made by Eisenhower—several, five, six—John Foster Dulles believed in brinksmanship—you remember that policy?—taking things to the brink. We called it a containment of communism, but really we were forcing back, rolling back. We were aggressive. We wanted a war, basically, because we knew that the Soviets would arm up after 1960, they would catch up with us eventually. We feared that. They never did, but we feared it. We knew in 1960 that in a first-strike situation we could win, and we could—we could sustain the retaliation. So we had a very hopped-up Pentagon.
We saw in Berlin there was an anger at Kennedy for what they called being soft on communism, which meant that he allowed the wall to be built. Remember when the Berlin Wall went up, Kennedy had a great quote. He said, "I’d rather have a wall than a war." And he was looked—he was looked on as a young man, not up to Eisenhower’s military status, not up to snuff. When Cuba came around, he failed to support the Bay of Pigs invasion. And then he failed to go into Laos, which was expected of him. And then, when the October crisis rolled around in ’62, he backed down. That was their viewpoint of it. He backed down, and he said no to invading Cuba, to going in and bombing the missile sites.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting, Oliver, when we put out yesterday that you were coming on, we were just inundated with questions and—
OLIVER STONE: It’s a very important issue.
AMY GOODMAN: On our Facebook page, Ronan Duggan posted this question to you: "Would you agree that much of the history of JFK has been romanticized and he has been transformed into a sort of liberal hero? The truth is he was a horrific warmonger," said this person on Facebook.
OLIVER STONE: No, no. Kennedy, on the contrary, he did—had to—you could not become president in 1960, I mean, by being soft on communism. You had to be a hardliner. It was the only way to get elected. Yeah, he went to the right of Nixon at that point, true, and—but he did not know the missile gap. He believed the missile gap existed, that was being talked about. When he got into office, within six weeks, he hired Bob McNamara, an outsider from Ford, to be his defense secretary. He had McNamara go into the Pentagon and find out where we were. And he found out that it was all a myth, that in fact we were way ahead of the Soviets, on every level—on every level—and that we could have, unfortunately, a first strike against the Soviet Union. He realized, in that atmosphere, that his generals were up to—were really gearing up for a war, because if they didn’t fight the Soviets in 1960, their thinking was that the Soviets are going to catch up, and we’re going to have these crises in Berlin, Vietnam, Laos for the rest—it will—there will be a war sometime in the near future, by 1970. So they’re thinking about let’s do it, let’s do it now. And you remember the Dr. Strangelove movie about the whole thing about the retaliation? You remember Jack Ripper, the Sterling Hayden character? That’s based on Curtis LeMay, who was the chief of staff of the Air Force, and Thomas Power also, who was later the chief of staff. He was an Air Force general. These people wanted war. Or Arleigh Burke of the Navy, Lemnitzer, who was the chief of the—the head of the whole thing, chief of staff at the beginning. This new book, Bob Dallek, who’s an establishment historian, doesn’t agree with our assassination concept, he goes into detail in Camelot’s Court, this new book, about how Kennedy was fighting, for those years, with the military on all fronts.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going break and then come back. Our guest is Oliver Stone, three-time Academy Award-winning director, producer, screenwriter. Among his films, JFK. This month is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy. When we come back, we’ll also be joined by Peter Kuznick, history professor at American University. Together, they did Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Our guests for the hour, Oliver Stone, many-time Academy Award-winning director, producer, screenwriter; Peter Kuznick, history professor at American University. They co-authored the many-part series, The Untold History of the United States. It’s in both book form as well as DVD. It’s a Showtime series. I want to go right now to this clip from Untold History of the United States, which recalls a close call that happened October 27, 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, when it was ultimately a Soviet colonel who averted nuclear war.
OLIVER STONE: On October 27th, an incident occurred that Schlesinger described as not only the most dangerous moment of the Cold War, it was "the most dangerous moment in human history." The Russian ships were heading toward the quarantine line. One of four Soviet submarines sent to protect the ships was being hunted all day by the carrier, USS Randolph. More than a hundred miles outside the blockade, the Randolph began dropping depth charges, unaware the sub was carrying nuclear weapons. The explosion rocked the submarine, which went dark except for emergency lights. The temperature rose sharply. The carbon dioxide in the air reached near-lethal levels, and people could barely breathe. Men began to faint and fall down. The suffering went on for four hours. Then, the Americans hit us with something stronger. We thought, "That’s it. The end." Panic ensued.
Commander Valentin Savitsky tried, without success, to reach the general staff. He assumed the war had already started, and they were going to die in disgrace for having done nothing. He ordered the nuclear torpedo to be prepared for firing. He turned to the other two officers aboard. Fortunately for mankind, the political officer, Vasili Arkhipov, was able to calm him down and convince him not to launch—probably single-handedly preventing nuclear war.
AMY GOODMAN: Oliver Stone narrating The Untold History of the United States, which was co-written by Oliver Stone and our guest, Peter Kuznick, as well, history professor at American University. Just continue on this 1962 moment and how—
OLIVER STONE: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —nuclear war was averted, Oliver.
OLIVER STONE: Well, it was during this crisis in October, it—Eisenhower told Kennedy, through an intermediary, to go, to bomb. But we had no concept of what the Russians—there was 40,000 Russian troops, hardened troops, under the command of the commander of the—of Stalingrad during World War II. There were a rough, tough unit. They would have gone the distance. They had a hundred nuclear—battlefield nuclear weapons. A hundred. We didn’t know that. McNamara admitted all this much later in his life. The Cubans were armed, like 200,000 Cubans, so that we would have faced far more significant casualties going in there than we thought. It would have evolved into a real nuclear confrontation in the Caribbean, and it probably would have spread, most likely spread quickly, because we had bombers armed to go over China, drop bombs on China, from Okinawa. We were ready to blow off the Soviet Union. That was Eisenhower’s plan, was essentially—because what Eisenhower did in his eight years of office was to make nuclear weapons a alternative to conventional weapons, because we didn’t have the size of the conventional weapons of the Soviets, so we were ready to use nuclear. We were ready to go, and Washington was in the sights. The whole world, I don’t—I think, would have gone up.
Khrushchev and Kennedy, at the last second, through their—through Dobrynin and his brother Robert, said no, basically, to their hardliners. And it cost both men dearly. The generals were furious with Kennedy. LeMay was raging at the meeting that was described by McNamara and others. They thought—LeMay said, "We lost. We lost. This was our moment." And Khrushchev was criticized by his own people, but the Soviets were inferior in strength. And they—but they built up after that crisis. They built up significantly, so by the late 1970s they were almost achieving parity. So, in other words, Kennedy and Khrushchev saved—what we’re saying is Kennedy and Khrushchev saved the world at a very key moment. We owe him a lot.
AMY GOODMAN: Peter Kuznick, this is also the beginning of the Cuban embargo that exists to this day, 1962. Can you explain how that happened?
PETER KUZNICK: Well, the United States policy was really to overthrow the Castro government, to do everything it could to sabotage, undermine, overthrow the Castro government. The fear was that you were going to have similar kinds of revolutionary movements throughout Latin America, that they would stand as an example. The United States policy since that time has been not only to isolate the Cuban government, but to attempt to prevent similar kind of left-wing uprisings from occurring elsewhere.
We do overthrow other governments down there. For example, the way we treat Vietnam in our Vietnam episode, episode seven, is we put it in a different context. We want to show that Vietnam is not an aberration, so we begin with the overthrow of the government in Brazil in 1964. We then go to the overthrow in the Dominican Republic in 1965. We show the U.S. role in the bloodbath in Indonesia in 1965. We talk about the escalation of Vietnam. And we also talk about U.S. overthrow of the Allende government in Chile.
The big concern for the United States was not Cuba itself; it was the possibility throughout Latin America, in our own backyard, for a series of communist revolutions and for radical movements down there. We work, under Kissinger, with the right-wing governments in Latin America in something called Operation Condor, which was basically an operation to set up death squads throughout Latin America to kill not only revolutionaries, but reformers and dissidents. We see this policy continue through the 1980s under the Reagan administration throughout Central America, the U.S. working with the right-wing government in El Salvador, the U.S. role in Guatemala, the U.S. support for the Contras in Nicaragua. So Cuba is only a small piece in it.
But as Oliver is saying, the Cuban missile crisis is a crucial turning point, and it’s a crucial turning point in Kennedy’s mind and in Khrushchev’s mind. Khrushchev, afterwards, writes a letter to Kennedy in which he says, "Evil has done some good. Our people have felt the flames of thermonuclear war. Let’s take an advantage of this." He said, "Let’s remove every possible area of conflict between us that can lead to another crisis. Let’s stop all nuclear testing. Let’s remove all the problems between us." So, Khrushchev then says, "Let’s get rid of the military blocks. Let’s get rid of NATO. Let’s get rid of the Warsaw Pact." He reaches out to Kennedy. This is actually a moment, as he says that, evil can bring some good, because what Kennedy and Khrushchev both understood from the Cuban missile crisis was that despite all of their efforts to prevent a nuclear war, when a crisis like this occurs, they actually lose control. They both—we came very close to nuclear war despite the fact that both of them were doing everything they could to avert it at that point. So Khrushchev says, "Let’s get rid of anything that could cause another conflict."
And what happens over the next year, until Kennedy’s assassination, is they do begin to cooperate on a number of issues. As Oliver was saying before, Kennedy had a lot of enemies. And the reason why he had so many enemies is because he stood up to the generals, to the joint chiefs, to the intelligence community, to the establishment, time after time after time. And then, in this period, we reach out. We conclude the Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty. The joint chiefs were furious about the Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty. It was the first nuclear arms control treaty we had. He begins to reach out to Cuba for rapprochement with Cuba at the end of his life. Castro was very, very disappointed when Kennedy was assassinated. He talks about pulling the U.S. forces out of Vietnam. In NSAM 263, he wants to pull a thousand troops out by the end of the year, get all the troops out by 1965. His signature initiative, in many people’s mind, is the space race. Kennedy says, "Why should we be competing with the Soviet Union for who’s going to be first to get into space? We should work together jointly for a joint mission of space exploration and putting a man jointly on the moon." And in his American University commencement address, he basically calls for an end to the Cold War.
So, the Kennedy of 1963, in response to that person who posted on Facebook, Kennedy of 1963 was really very much of a visionary. And Oliver and I believe that this was the last time we had an American president who was really willing to—wanted to change the direction of the country, stand up to the militarists, stand up to the intelligence community, and take the United States in a very different direction. So, the tragedy of Kennedy’s assassination is not just that we lost this one man, but it’s that the United States and the Soviet Union were both looking to take the world in a very, very different direction. And Kennedy is assassinated. Khrushchev is ousted the next year. And as we say—Kennedy, in his inauguration, says we’re going to pass the torch forward to a new generation, and we say that now the torch has been passed back to the old generation, the generation of Johnson, Nixon, Eisenhower, and the world goes back very heavily into Cold War.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go back—
PETER KUZNICK: Johnson wastes little time.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a clip from The Untold History of the United States, where you look at the transition from JFK to LBJ.
OLIVER STONE: With the ascension of Vice President Lyndon Johnson, there would be important changes in many of Kennedy’s policies, particularly towards the Soviet Union and Vietnam.
PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: I will do my best. That is all I can do.
OLIVER STONE: In his inaugural address in the morning of that decade in January 1961—
PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: Let the word go forth, from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.
OLIVER STONE: But with his murder, the torch was passed back to an old generation, the generation of Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Reagan, leaders who would systematically destroy the promise of Kennedy’s last year, as they returned the country to war and repression. Though the vision Khrushchev and Kennedy had expressed would fall with them, it would not die. The seeds they had planted would germinate and sprout again long after their deaths.
AMY GOODMAN: Oliver Stone narrating The Untold History of the United States.
OLIVER STONE: Yes, yeah. It’s five years of my life. It’s perhaps my most ambitious project.
AMY GOODMAN: Why is this so important to you? It begins actually in what, 1898? The year after my grandmother was born.
OLIVER STONE: It begins with—it begins with the Spanish-American War and the first, really, effort overseas by America to expand. We take the Philippines, and we basically take Cuba. This whole series, from 1898 to 2013 is—in a sense, it’s a mourning. It’s a mourning for a country that could, after World War II, have taken another direction. And if Roosevelt had lived a little longer, it may well have, or if Henry Wallace had been the—had been the real vice president. And when I think—what we’re doing, Peter and I, is we’re really—after George Bush had been in office two terms in 2008, we said, "What is—is he an aberration, or is he a continuation of a pattern?" So we went back to our early lives in the 1940s and studied this whole pattern. And we see a pattern. If you look at all chapters together quickly, in 12 hours, you feel the dream, the fever dream, the aggression, the militarism, the racism towards the Third World—it doesn’t end—the exploitation.
AMY GOODMAN: In fact—
OLIVER STONE: There’s good things, too. I’m not saying only bad things. We try to point out the hopes.
AMY GOODMAN: In fact, didn’t this project start around you wanting to tell the story of Henry Wallace? Most people who are watching right now don’t even know who Henry Wallace was.
OLIVER STONE: Henry Wallace is a wonderful character, but not the only character in this thing. No, the—what for me was the important thing—I was born right after it—was the atomic bomb. I always had accepted, like I accepted the story of Kennedy’s assassination, I accepted that we needed to drop the bomb to win World War II, because the Japanese were fanatics. Well, we’ve got to go back to that myth, and we explore it in depth. And we have it—I think we show that our use of the bomb was criminal and immoral. And we proved to the Soviet Union, as well as to the world, that we could be as barbaric as the Nazis were.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain why you think the world would be a very different place if this vice president in the 1940s—
OLIVER STONE: Right, right.
AMY GOODMAN: —Henry Wallace, had actually continued to be the vice president under FDR?
OLIVER STONE: Yeah. Well, because he was a—he was a peace seeker. He was a man of international vision. He spoke of the century of the common man in—it was a counter to Henry Luce of Time magazine that made a speech about this is the American century. Luce talks a lot like Hillary Clinton these days. So, Wallace countered with, "No, America should stand for the common man throughout the world." He was very much an internationalist—women’s rights, labor rights, believed in—hated colonialism, hated the British Empire and all of what Winston Churchill was fighting for in World War II. They were enemies. Roosevelt agreed with a lot of them, but Roosevelt was sickening and weakening, and the country was becoming more fearful of postwar issues. Wallace hung in there, although he had been robbed of the vice presidency by a fixed convention in ’44. He hung in there as secretary of commerce under Truman for as long as he could, fighting for peace after the war. Of course, he was called a communist and all that stuff, but he was really a liberal. And—
AMY GOODMAN: He ran for president in 1948.
OLIVER STONE: Yeah, as a third party.
AMY GOODMAN: But in ’44, he was knocked out, and Truman was the vice-presidential candidate of FDR.
OLIVER STONE: Yeah, and Wallace was the most popular man in the—at the Democratic convention. He had 65 percent of the Democratic voters liked him. And he almost won that first night, but he was blocked. The convention was closed down. Fire exits were closed, or something like that. Truman had 2 percent of the vote. Truman was a nonentity who overnight became—and didn’t know much about what Roosevelt’s plans were. But the—the Grand Alliance—
AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of the ascension of Truman after FDR died in office?
OLIVER STONE: Yes. And he—
AMY GOODMAN: He is the one who dropped the bomb.
OLIVER STONE: Truman, within two weeks of becoming president after Roosevelt’s death, insulted the Soviet foreign minister. I mean, it was—within 11 days, our policy towards the Soviet Union shifted and stayed that way. And, you know, if you read all the revisionist historians who have written about this in depth, the United States took a hostile—Roosevelt had a vision, and it was a Grand Alliance between the Soviets and the British. Perhaps that was very hard to maintain. It takes a big man. Roosevelt was that kind of thinker. Wallace was. And we’re saying Kennedy was. And I urge you to rethink your—the fellow who said he was a warmonger, please, rethink Kennedy and look at everything here we’re talking about. This is a big issue. But we’ve lost that Grand Alliance. We’ve lost that—we’ve lost that leadership that’s bigger than simply ideological economic factions, is what we have in the United States. We’ve given in to what Peter called militarism, as you know very well.
AMY GOODMAN: When we come back from break, I want to ask you about this next chapter of American history, about surveillance and drones, about President Obama and where you think he stands, and also about this next project that you’ll be working on around Dr. King.
OLIVER STONE: Sure.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! We’re with Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest for the hour, three-time Academy Award-winning director, producer, screenwriter, Oliver Stone, did Born on the Fourth of July and Platoon and Wall Street and Salvador and JFK, as well as a 10-part series for Showtime called The Untold History of the United States, now out in DVD form with two extra chapters. Our guest also, Peter Kuznick, who co-wrote the book and worked—co-authored the series, a history professor at American University. Peter Kuznick, what this next chapter looks like today, what we are experiencing today in the United States?
PETER KUZNICK: It’s a continuation of the trends that Oliver and I were talking about from the 1890s up to the present. We had a lot of hope for Obama when he was elected in 2008. I guess we were somewhat naive, because Obama, rather than breaking with the patterns of American empire and American militarism, has continued most of them. Ari Fleischer, Bush’s press secretary, said that this is actually George W. Bush’s fourth term that we’re experiencing now. And in some ways that’s true, and disappointingly so. Obama, from the beginning, surrounded himself with very, very conservative advisers. His economic team was considered — The New York Times called them a constellation of Rubinites, followers of Robert Rubin. His military team, his defense policy, foreign policy, were mostly hawks—people like Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, General Jones—and his policies have reflected that.
Oliver and I see him as simply a more efficient manager of the American empire, not somebody who’s breaking with the empire. He doesn’t even think in different terms. For example, he recently called for a 13-year commemoration of the Vietnam War, in which we’re going to reposition our understanding of the Vietnam War. And that’s very, very dangerous. A recent poll showed that 51 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds now think that the Vietnam War was worth fighting, see the Vietnam War as an American interest. Those people our age, about 70 percent say the Vietnam War was a mistake or even worse. But the fact that younger people are not learning history and are seeing the Vietnam War in more positive light is symptomatic of what Oliver and are concerned about, that people’s understanding of history is distorted in such a way as to perpetuate the trends that we find very, very objectionable.
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