Apr 18, 2013 - Issue 513

BlackCommentator.com: Watching Oliver Stone’s “The Untold History of the United States” - The African World - By Bill Fletcher, Jr. - BC Editorial Board

Showtime is re-running Oliver Stone’s ten part documentary, The Untold History of the United States. Truth be told, I stumbled across this when it was originally aired a few months ago. I am not exaggerating in saying that I sat there at times with my mouth open, turning to my wife and asking rhetorically: “Am I hallucinating? Is this actually on mainstream television?”

Oliver Stone and American University Professor, Peter Kuznick, put together a magnificent re-examination of US history from the years of Franklin Roosevelt to the present. Focusing largely on US foreign policy, this documentary calls into question everything from the myths associated with World War II, e.g., that the USA and Britain, rather than the USSR, were responsible for the defeat of Nazi Germany; to who actually started the Cold War; and moving all the way to the present and the challenges under Obama.

Not only does Stone raise significant questions, thereby challenging both the distortions and misrepresentations that have been passed down to us as “history”, but he encourages the viewer to ask whether events might have played out differently, and under what conditions. An early example of this approach can be found in his discussion of the evolution of Henry Wallace, FDR’s Vice President, who was forced off the ticket in 1944, replaced by the not-very-popular Harry S. Truman. Wallace had a very different view of foreign policy, including an anti-colonial orientation and a desire for peace with the USSR rather than military confrontation. Yet the right-wing within the Democratic Party frustrated the mass, pro-Wallace sentiment and ensured the advance of a less-than-competent and non-descript, yet compliant, person in the form of Truman.

Stone’s documentary is, in many respects, like a film version of Howard Zinn’s A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present. In that sense it is actually quite shocking. The information provided by Stone is certainly available, though not always accessible, to the larger public. Instead in the United States we are subject to the “propaganda of history,” to borrow from the title of the final chapter of W. E. B. Dubois’s Black Reconstruction in America. For that reason it is surprising to see anything like this on mainstream television.

The Untold History of the United States has an accompanying book. Seven hundred fifty pages in length, I thought that it might be a quick read, particularly after watching the documentary. It is not a quick read; it is a fascinating read. It explores, in depth, the issues that are raised in the series and provides documentation for the assertions that are advanced.

A series such as this cannot unfold without challenges from those who still cling to the “American Century” and Cold War mythologies of days gone by. And, indeed, such challenges have appeared. Yet the scholarship involved in this documentary stands in the face of such skeptics.

As with all history, events are a matter of interpretation. Yet, without sufficient facts, one cannot credibly interpret the reasons for or implications of events. Stone and Kuznick have, therefore, done a great service by encouraging the viewer (and reader) to question myths, assertions and traditional arguments. Instead, they introduce the viewer and reader to a combination of information - new to many people - and questions, in order to provoke the interest and curiosity of the reader/viewer. One does not have to agree with each and every bit of analysis offered by Stone and Kuznick to appreciate the importance of the appearance of The Untold History of the United States.

Take a peek.

BlackCommentator.com Editorial Board member and Columnist, Bill Fletcher, Jr., is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfricaForum, and the author of They’re Bankrupting Us” - And Twenty Other Myths about Unions. He is also the co-author of Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice, which examines the crisis of organized labor in the USA. Click here to contact Mr. Fletcher.