Oliver Stone's Untold History of the United States

History is a fascinating topic and here's why:

  1. It is the over-arching story of all of us.
  2. It is a highly interpretative and subjective art (it's not a science).
  3. It is hopelessly intertwined with the cultures that produce it.
  4. It serves as the larger context for every other type of information our society produces (be it science, religion etc.)
  5. It often involves people and events we know, or think we know.

Oliver Stone and Showtime have teamed up to produce what can best be described as an alternative course in 20th Century American history called Oliver Stone's Untold History of the United States. The truth is that Director Stone began this project 30 years ago through films like Salvador, Born on the 4th of July and JFK. But now it has moved from specific stories to an all-encompassing historical perspective.
Maverick Producer / Director Oliver Stone
The core premise of the show is that there are a lot of misconceptions in the traditional or common textbook versions of what happened in the US over the past century or so. Stone attacks what he sees as that bias and adds some very interesting spin of his own. The show is still early in its run and is just about to tackle the Cold War in its next episode. This week Stone explored myths surrounding the use of the Atomic bomb in Japan at the end of WWII. So far the most interesting part of the series has been the focus on Franklin Roosevelt's first Vice President, Henry Wallace. Most Americans don't even know that Roosevelt had another Vice President (other than Truman). Wallace's story proves both fascinating and tragic; but for one late night vote at the 1944 Democratic Convention Wallace would have become President and presided over post-war America. 

Henry Wallace - FDR's 1st Vice President 
In the following episode, "The Bomb"  Stone more or less eviscerates Truman on every possible level; from political skill, to personality flaws and even morality. Stone does correctly point out a number of key facts regarding use of the bomb though:
  1. The estimate about how many Americans might be lost in an invasion of Japan were vastly inflated later to help justify the bomb's use.
  2. Stalin's invasion of Japan (per agreement with the Allies) in August 1945 is what led to Japan's surrender much more so than the dropping of the two atom bombs (at Hiroshima and Nagasaki).
  3. Japan would have surrendered months earlier if the US had made guarantees about about retention of the Emperor (something we ended up doing anyway after Japan surrendered unconditionally).
  4. Probably the main reason why Truman and his political allies wanted to use the bomb was to warn or threaten the Soviets. This directly led to tensions which kicked off the Cold War. 

There had been strong opposition in the War Department including by the Secretary of War, Eisenhower and others to use of the bomb, yet all those objections were ignored. Truman took responsibility for the decision and the specific directives to use the bombs in populated areas as opposed to somewhere less populated (which could have demonstrated their destructive power without killing hundreds of thousands of people).

The series tackles lots of tough questions like this and that's a good thing. While all the points Stone makes are true, though, he also seems to paint Stalin in a more flattering light than the crazed Soviet dictator deserved (Stalin killed more of his people before WWII than Hitler killed across Europe during WWII). One has to wonder what might have happened if we hadn't taken a hard line with the Soviets or if the bomb hadn't been used. Certainly the using the bomb had little to do with stopping the war, but it did make an impression that was never forgotten and in doing so may have somewhat deterred use of the bomb in future combat (it still has not been used since 1945). We'll never know of course what might have happened if different choices were made - whether using the bomb made us safer or instead brought us to the very brink of self-destruction. These are questions worth asking and we're looking forward to seeing more of Oliver Stone's spin on American History.


Series preview for Oliver Stone's Untold History of America



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