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Video: Part 2 of Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick on The Untold History of the United States

Web ExclusiveNovember 26, 2012
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AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman with Juan González, with part two of our discussion about a remarkable series that’s begun on Showtime based on a book that has just come out, The Untold History of the United States. It’s by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Oliver Stone, who’s taken on three American presidents in JFK, his film, Nixon and W. Oliver Stone, himself a Vietnam War veteran decorated with a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, as a filmmaker tackled the most controversial aspects of the Vietnam War in his classics, Platoon and Born on the 4th of July. He revealed the greed of the financial industry in the Hollywood hits Wall Street and Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps. And he’s explored South America, Latin America, through his films Salvador, Comandante and South of the Border.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And now, of course, Oliver Stone and historian Peter Kuznick from American University have teamed up to produce this 10-part Showtime series and the book, as well. And Oliver, you were talking before, before we went for break, and you wanted to continue the—

OLIVER STONE: Just a thought, you know, because it’s about United States as the exceptional power, the—what’s the word that Obama used?

PETER KUZNICK: “Indispensible.”

OLIVER STONE: The indispensible—indispensible nation.


OLIVER STONE: Which was also a phrase used by—

PETER KUZNICK: Madeleine Albright.

OLIVER STONE: —Madeleine Albright, yeah. But what we are is really an outlier to the United Nations. And what—there was an interesting vote in 2006, because the United States has steadily been militarizing its space all-spectrum—full-spectrum dominance—air, land, sea and space.

PETER KUZNICK: And cyberspace.

OLIVER STONE: What? And cyberspace, too, because, as you saw, the cyberspace techniques used on Iran. But now, with space, you’re going to have a Triple Canopy shield up here with laser blasts coming in with nuclear and/or electronic—all kinds of nightmare, War of the Worlds weaponry is possible, very shortly, online, in about—and Obama is actively supervising this. We refuse to go along with any proposals to bring peace, which is what Kennedy wanted, to space. And in 2006, 166 nations—am I wrong?

PETER KUZNICK: A hundred sixty-six to one at the U.N.

OLIVER STONE: Voted—66 to one—166 to one. The one nation that would not go along with it was us. This makes us very—this is a very dangerous to the world. This is global. And we’ll blow up the—you go ahead with it. I mean, this is what Truman did when he dropped the bomb at Hiroshima. That’s the great link. I mean, it’s—the reason we’re good, the reason we hold ourselves higher and in higher regard, is because we have the bomb. And because we had it since 1945, we feel it’s a great privilege to have the bomb. If any country in the world had done what we did to Iraq and trashed it, there would have been repercussions. There have been no repercussions for us. We know it’s wrong, but because we have power and might, we forgive ourselves too easily.

PETER KUZNICK: But there have been other repercussions because we’re self-destructing. Osama bin Laden said that he’s going to get the United States to destroy itself with its insane defense spending. And he’s right. The estimates on the costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, really, $4 trillion, according Stiglitz and Bilmes. Four trillion dollars, that’s a lot of money that we’re spending, plus all the kids who are being killed here and over there, of course. We don’t even keep track of the number killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. And not just killed, but they’re coming back, not only amputees, but multiple amputees. And what we’re having in this war that we haven’t seen before, because the IEDs, is they’re getting their genitals blown off, these kids. They’re coming back in horrific shape.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Peter, I wanted to ask you to take us behind the scenes on the creative process. This is the historian working with the filmmaker to do a film, and the filmmaker working with the historian to do a history.

PETER KUZNICK: Yeah, it’s been a cross-fertilization of a very interesting sort.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What’s—talk to us about the creative process and the dynamic. Then, of course, it started from something centered around Henry Wallace to a 10-parter.

PETER KUZNICK: Well, when Oliver first proposed it, we were having dinner, and I was on sabbatical, so I thought I had time. And he said, “Let’s finally do this documentary.” Sixty minutes, 90 minutes, I thought we could do that this year. And then I met with him two weeks later to lay it out, and now he had the idea for a ten-part documentary film series. And I thought it was going to be a few months. It’s taken over the last four-and-a-half years of our lives. And I’ve written a couple other books. Oliver has made more movies. But this has really been the central focus for our lives these past years.

OLIVER STONE: Because of our children, and I want to go back to that briefly. It’s really important to get this story out to—this is a simply—I think it’s simply—it’s a long book, but it’s simple to read. It’s easy to read. It could be a primer of a history, like what Howard Zinn wrote, for young people. This was written to the age of 17, 18, I believe.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s the difference between what Howard Zinn wrote, A People’s History of the United States, and The Untold History of The United States?

OLIVER STONE: Great, great, great book, and it’s really influenced me. But I would say he concentrated more on the social movements from the bottom up, and we are concentrating on the top down, from leadership angle. But I think they complement each other, both of them.

AMY GOODMAN: So what part of it is untold?

OLIVER STONE: I would say ignored. Nothing is untold; it’s been heard. But it was disappeared, or “forgotten” would be good word, or ignored history.

PETER KUZNICK: Unlearned history. And it’s really—

OLIVER STONE: Unlearned history.

PETER KUZNICK: Some of it’s been told on the front page of the New York Times. A lot of it’s been told on this show. So it’s not that it—we put it together in a different way. We’re looking—we’re starting with the late 19th century, bringing it all the way up to today, literally today.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But the letter, the Roosevelt letter—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —condemning the Democratic Party, that was virtually unknown, wasn’t it?

PETER KUZNICK: But in that same sense that everything here is virtually unknown. Not that it hasn’t—not that people haven’t known it, that those things weren’t out there. But if you ask people, Americans don’t know history. They’ve got two problems. One is they don’t know history. The second is, the history they do know is mostly wrong. And the America’s Report Card that was issued in 2011 said that 12 percent of Americans are—high school seniors—are proficient in history, 12 percent. Americans do worse in history than they do in math and science—in U.S. history. They don’t know their own—

OLIVER STONE: You know why? One of the reasons is the kids are bored by it, because it’s taught—they know the ending. That’s why history is not popular, because they know that we end up always like in the TV serial every week: We’re the good guys, there’s a good ending, and we come out OK. And that—they want the juicy stuff and the horrible stuff. And when Lynne Cheney, for example, was Endowment—National Endowment for the Arts, I think—

PETER KUZNICK: Of the Humanities. Yeah, of the Humanities.

OLIVER STONE: In those years, she was very active in suppressing and changing the history books. And this Texas Board of Education has also been very active in changing and keeping the history—the horror part of history, what the bad—what our leadership does badly, they keep it out of the books, which is what the kids really want to hear. And that’s [inaudible].

PETER KUZNICK: And that sets the standard for the textbooks all over the country, the Texas standard.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to that moment we’ve talked about in the first part of this conversation, when Henry Wallace is defeated by the Democratic Party leadership to be the vice-presidential running mate, as he had been the time before, for—for FDR. And Juan had raised this question, as well. Why did FDR give in? He had been so powerful. He had bucked the system before. He had been a very different president when he first came into office. You could say he was a little more like Obama today. But circumstances changed him. So why in ’44, this critical moment?

OLIVER STONE: Yeah, I totally—I asked the same question.

PETER KUZNICK: Well, what changed him—what changed him was the uprising on the left, of ’34, the mass strike movement, the rise of other movements, Upton Sinclair. There was a left—

AMY GOODMAN: The Jungle exposing this.

PETER KUZNICK: Well, that was earlier. But his epic movement in running for governor of California. I mean, there was a mass upsurge of the left in the mid-1930s. The Republican right was almost voted out of Congress by 1936. It was a very sharp move to the left, and that made it possible for Roosevelt to propose more progressive policies in his second term, the second hundred days. The same thing is missing under Obama. That’s why we held out some glimmer of hope for Obama, if we could have an upsurge politically and socially in the United States. The Occupy movement seemed to have the seeds of that, but it’s pretty much died down now. Now, when Obama first took office, he demobilized that mass movement that was supporting him in 2008. And he said at one point, “If you want me to do the right thing, you’re going to have to force me to do it.” And we haven’t forced him to do it.

OLIVER STONE: But to answer your—


OLIVER STONE: To answer her question—


OLIVER STONE: —your question, both of you, I—it’s only theory, but Roosevelt was exhausted. He had just—he was—

AMY GOODMAN: This is at the Democratic convention of ’44.

OLIVER STONE: He traveled to Tehran, and he was about to go to Yalta. But he was exhausted. He didn’t even go to the convention. He was in San Diego, when he said, “If I was voting personally, I would vote for Wallace.” He backed Wallace, but he never backed him—

PETER KUZNICK: Didn’t fight.

OLIVER STONE: —and fought the bosses. Eleanor Roosevelt’s heart was—heartbroken about this, and so were many people on the left. They wanted him. I think he thought, in some way, because I think Roosevelt was a powerful man and a determined man—I was up in Hyde Park yesterday visiting his home—it’s beautiful—he always thought that he’d make it a few more years. It’s hard to believe you’re going to die. You can’t accept that sometimes. And I think he was going to fight for the peace. That was his idea. “I’m going to fight for—I’m going to deliver a peace, a United Nations, and I’m going to handle Stalin.” He told—a month before he died, he told Churchill, “Stop worrying about the Soviets. Stop with all this stuff.”

PETER KUZNICK: “These things are going to work out. These little issues come up every day.”

OLIVER STONE: “Things are going—always work themselves out.” He was a very paternal theory. He had a great relationship with Stalin, and so did Wallace.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And—but the result was, obviously, Truman, the Cold War—

PETER KUZNICK: And who is Harry Truman?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —the CIA. And in the film, you deal with that.

PETER KUZNICK: Now Harry Truman—Harry Truman is now thought of as a near-great president, not at the time, and not when he left office. You know, Harry Truman was a party hack. He was part of the Pendergast machine. And when Pendergast was asked why they chose Harry Truman—

AMY GOODMAN: Pendergast was?

PETER KUZNICK: The party boss in Kansas City. And they—before he goes to federal prison. But they asked Pendergast why they chose Harry Truman, of all people, to run for the Senate in '34, and Pendergast said, “I wanted to show the world that a well-oiled machine could take an office boy and get him elected to the Senate.” They ignored him the first term. All the other senators called him the senator from Pendergast. They thought he was a corrupt hack. He does better in his second term. But Roosevelt didn't support him for re-election in 1940. He was coming in third. That’s when Pendergast was in prison. Then he cuts the deal with Hannegan, who runs the St. Louis machine, and they get him squeak—he squeaks in in 1940 to get re-elected, and then they elevate him, not because he was qualified to be president, as he himself admitted over and over again, but because he didn’t have a lot of enemies and because he was very pliable.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And Truman’s role in—with the development of the Cold War?

AMY GOODMAN: And the dropping of the bomb.

PETER KUZNICK: Truman was a key person.


PETER KUZNICK: And had Wallace—we’re arguing that if Wallace had been in there, there would have been no atomic bomb in 1945—

OLIVER STONE: You think. You think.

PETER KUZNICK: —no nuclear arms race—that’s what we’re arguing—and very possibly no Cold War. It would have been very, very different, because Wallace could see the world through the eyes of our adversaries. He understood the Soviets. He understood the Chinese. He was empathetic in a very important way.

OLIVER STONE: And he was an Anglophobe, too. You know, Roosevelt was an Anglophobe. So was Wallace. They—Roosevelt repeatedly told his son and many people that we were not going to be played as a Good Time Charlie by the British Empire, as we had in World War I. We were not going to go over there, finance them, end the war, and win it with them, and end up leaving Europe.

AMY GOODMAN: As he campaigned, he also traveled with African Americans, with black Americans.

OLIVER STONE: That’s right.


OLIVER STONE: And he went to Africa, too.

AMY GOODMAN: At a time of Jim Crow.


AMY GOODMAN: And went to Africa.

OLIVER STONE: Yeah, he went to Africa.

PETER KUZNICK: Wallace was very outspoken on those issues.

OLIVER STONE: In fact, he was shocked in Gabon or something. He was in Gabon. He saw—he said the British Empire has set these people back a hundred years. I mean, that’s a fact [inaudible].

PETER KUZNICK: He said the same thing about the French Empire.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to get to Vietnam, because you’re a Vietnam veteran.


AMY GOODMAN: You made 4th of July, Born on the 4th of July. You made Platoon.

PETER KUZNICK: And Heaven and Earth.

OLIVER STONE: Yeah, you’d like that, I think. It’s a beautiful movie.

AMY GOODMAN: All three, and now have written The Untold History of United States and done the Showtime series. What is most important, do you feel, that hasn’t been told in the past, and maybe even in your films?

OLIVER STONE: Well, that’s—I mean, we have—there’s 10 myths, starting with the bomb. You can work your way through the Eisenhower years. My father loved him. I was—he was a grandfather. But it’s—it’s a benign face, but it’s—and he was a—people loved him, but John Foster Dulles is the Mr. Hyde in the closet with Dr. Jekyll here. And their foreign policy, it starts a parade of interventions in third world that is absolutely staggering and criminal. And he gets away with it, and he builds up our arsenal. I think 30,000 nuclear warheads are the result.

PETER KUZNICK: One thousand when Eisenhower takes office, 30,000 when he leaves. He has one finger on the button when he takes office; there are dozens of fingers on the button by the time he leaves. Our PSYOP culture killing 650 million people.

OLIVER STONE: And threatening nuclear weapons. And then, you know, Vietnam is what? Ten years later? He puts us in Vietnam, actually. He financed 80 percent of the—he was definitely what the—a colonialist, as was—in other words, after World War II, to be an Anglophobe at that point is very important, because the British do go back into all these places. And, of course, Truman is influenced and seduced, or influenced or pressured, whatever. He goes right with the British position, everything that Roosevelt warned not to do. And we get back into Indochina. We go back into Korea. We go back all into supporting the colonial position—a tragedy for us in the third world. Eisenhower continues that. Kennedy continued it in his early part, and our big argument is that Kennedy had definitely planned in the second—in ’64 to withdraw from Vietnam. And so forth and so on. And we go on—

AMY GOODMAN: And you fought in Vietnam.


AMY GOODMAN: And you fought.

OLIVER STONE: I did go over there, and I always believed in what we were doing at that time. I was 20 years old when I returned. It was my second trip, and I went back, and I served. And I—and frankly, it wasn’t like a St. Paul Damascus moment where I woke up, and like Ron Kovic, who I did a movie with, and changed. But I did come back terribly bothered, and it took me many years to work out, by talking to people like Peter. And you meet people along the way. I learned, and I grew. And my experience over the last 40 years of my life—30 years of my life is completely contrary to the first 40 years—first 35 years of my life. So, I think, coming from the other side to where I am, I’ve learned a certain dimension of experience. That’s why I’m doing this.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, what lessons could President Obama learn from your TV series on Showtime and your book, The Untold History of the United States?

OLIVER STONE: Well, I hope—it would be great if he watched it. It’s just a—I think it flows. One of the best lesson is compassion, as Peter said, seeing the—and I do think he has it. I think his early speeches to the Muslims, and he’s—he grew up in Indonesia, partly. He has a sense of the world, seeing through history, seeing the world through other people’s eyes, and having empathy for others. Roosevelt had it. Kennedy certainly had it. Kennedy was the first president since World War II to acknowledge the debt, the suffering of the Soviet people, made that very clear at the American University speech. And Obama, when he has—he takes those steps. I wish—get in touch with the heart. You can be, I would say, “soft” is a good word, or compassionate, and you can make friends around the world. Henry Wallace taught that. We can be a partner with the entire world—there’s 180 nations out there—instead of the one who’s saying, “I’m the bully. I’m in charge. I’m global policeman. It’s our way or the highway.”

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both very much for being with us, three-time Oscar-winning filmmaker Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, historian based at American University. Their book and Showtime TV series is called The Untold History of the United States. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. Thanks for joining us.

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