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Oliver Stone’s ‘Untold History of the United States’ Challenges Americans’ Ignorance of History

Film director Oliver Stone and American University history professor Peter Kuznick have produced a project called “The Untold History of the United States.” The project consists of a book released on October 30 and a documentary series that is scheduled to begin airing on Showtime on November 12.

The series begins with a kind of artist’s statement from Stone. To-camera, he reflects:

When I was a young boy growing up in New York City, I thought I received a good education. I studied history extensively, especially American history. It made sense. We were the center of the world. There was a manifest destiny. We were the good guys.

Well, I’ve traveled the world now. I continued my education as an infantrymen in Vietnam, made a lot of movies (some of them about history) and, when I heard from my children what they were learning in school, I was perturbed to hear that they were not really getting a more honest view of the world than I did…

As he explains, he produced this series so his children would have access to “something that looks beyond” what he calls “the tyranny of now.”

The book’s foreword and introduction builds off this statement that opens the first episode of the series, which is on World War II. The foreword prepares readers for a compendium of history that conflicts with the “basic narrative” most Americans are taught in school—what Stone and Kuznick describe as “that popular and somewhat mythic view” of history, “carefully filtered through the prism of American altruism, benevolence, magnanimity, exceptionalism and devotion to liberty and justice,” which is introduced in “early childhood, reinforced throughout primary and secondary education and retold so often that it becomes part of the air that Americans breathe.”

Both Stone and Kurznick are upfront about what their project is and is not:

…We don’t try to tell all US history. That would be an impossible task. We don’t focus extensively on many of the things the United States has done right. There are libraries full of books dedicated to that purpose and school curricula that trumpet US achievements. We are more concerned with focusing a spotlight on what the United States has done wrong—the ways in which we believe the country has betrayed its mission, with the faith that there is still time to correct those errors as we move forward into the twenty-first century…

The book covers the past one hundred years of American history and appropriately treats America as an empire, something textbooks school children are required to read do not do. The “roots of empire” are highlighted in the first chapter. The final chapter on President Barack Obama’s first term details the actions of a president tasked with managing a “wounded empire.”

The project invites comparisons with Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Unmistakably, the two are similar in the sense that both Stone and Kuznick appear to have put it together because they are committed to truth, justice and understanding. Zinn and Stone and Kuznick wanted something they could share that was different from what was being taught in schools. Zinn wanted a “new kind of history” he could teach to his students. Stone wants something he can pass on to his children and young generations of Americans, who know little about their country. But, while Zinn’s history aimed to empower the voices of those at the grassroots who had been written out of history, Untold History appears to be more interested in exposing the misunderstandings and myths that dominate what Americans know about each president, especially their role in building or maintaining US hegemony.

Stone and Kuznick’s project examines World War I, the New Deal, who really defeated Germany in World War II, President Harry Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, who started the Cold War, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s policies toward the Soviet Union, President John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Lyndon B. Johnson and the Vietnam War, President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (the “Madman” and the “Psychopath”), President Jimmy Carter and the collapse of détente, President Ronald Reagan and his use of death squads, “squandered opportunities” after the end of the Cold War, President George W. Bush and the Iraq War and the first term of President Obama.

Astutely posed in the beginning of the book is a set of questions. They are questions that indicate the most troubling concerns Stone and Kuznick have with American politics, society and government today. Some examples:

—Why does our country have military bases in every region of the globe totaling more than a thousand by some counts?

—Why does it still possess thousands of nuclear weapons, many on hair-trigger alert, even though no nation poses an imminent threat?

—Why are a tiny minority of wealthy Americans allowed to exert so much control over US domestic politics, foreign policy and media while the great masses see a diminution of their real power and standards of living?

—Why have Americans submitted to levels of surveillance, government intrusion, abuse of civil liberties and loss of privacy that would have appalled the Founding Fathers and earlier generations?

It appears Stone and Kuznick would ascribe much of how America has erred to US citizens’ general ignorance of American history. They cite the Nation’s Report Card on what young Americans know in fourth, eighth and twelfth grade, which found American students were “less proficient in their nation’s history than in any other subject.” The results showed “only 2 percent of 12th graders correctly answered a question concerning Brown v. Board of Education.

This ignorance has been typical of young Americans. NPR highlighted previous reports of students doing poorly on history from 2002, 1995, 1985, 1976 and 1955. Each of those years, students were proven to lack proficient knowledge of their country’s history.

All of this serves the powerful well, as they are able to routinely suggest to Americans that America is some kind of “city upon a hill.” A recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute showed 70% of white working class citizens believe “God has granted America a special place in human history.” Many Americans, who read the post-Versailles declaration of President Woodrow Wilson where he said, “At least the world knows America as the savior of the world,” would consider that statement from around a century ago to be sensible today. After all, both President Barack Obama and GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney were able to trumpet American exceptionalism in the presidential debates, with Obama calling America an “indispensable nation” and Romney calling America “the last best hope of Earth” like Abraham Lincoln did.

Without knowledge of history, it is easy for Americans to go about their daily business with the belief that the country should be “unbound” by its history. Few are willing to accept that America should take responsibility for its acts. Republicans are always decrying those who they say like to “blame America first.”

Rarely do Americans ever find those challenging America’s projection of its power to be righteous or justified. They laud and celebrate US violence perpetrated abroad while soundly and, of course, understandably condemning violence against US citizens overseas or at home. But, it is not often that citizens admit America is the aggressor, the one inspiring people to challenge America’s hegemony because they themselves have been victims of US-sponsored repression or hostility.

The project is put forward with the hope that some Americans will pick it up and learn some truth about their country. Without knowledge, the world can expect Americans to do exactly what one would expect an empire of hundreds of millions of people, who find themselves to be entitled to whatever the world has to offer, to do. They can expect Americans to continue to display a complete disregard for the effect that their country’s policies and the nation’s collective sense of entitlement has on other populations in the world.

As Stone says in his opening statement, he believes “history does have a meaning” and a “purpose.” Ideally, it is impossible for America to right its course if Americans are not aware of “patterns” of conduct in history or how America’s conduct has become steadily more repugnant in the past century. In effort to convince more Americans to reflect on their country’s history and America’s role in the world, Stone and Kuznick present this project.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."