Oliver Stone’s ‘Untold History’—A Review of the First Two Episodes
Film director Oliver Stone and American University history professor Peter Kuznick have a series airing on Showtime on Monday called “The Untold History of the United States.” The first two episodes have aired. Each contains a key revelation in American history that Stone and Kuznick consider to have been largely forgotten.
The second episode, “Roosevelt, Truman, Wallace,” centers on an event on July 19-21 of 1944 that Stone says in the episode would be a “key event in the future of the world”—the nomination of Harry S. Truman as vice president during the Democratic National Convention.
Henry Wallace served as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Secretary of Agriculture from 1933-1940. He served as his vice president during his third term. He was a popular figure, who delivered his “Common Man” speech in 1942, where he called for a “worldwide people’s revolution” and end to colonialism:
… The march of freedom of the past one hundred and fifty years has been a long-drawn-out people’s revolution. In this Great Revolution of the people, there were the American Revolution of 1775, The French Revolution of 1792, The Latin-American revolutions of the Bolivarian era, The German Revolution of 1848, and the Russian Revolution of 1917. Each spoke for the common man in terms of blood on the battlefield. Some went to excess. But the significant thing is that the people groped their way to the light. More of them learned to think and work together…
He condemned British Prime Minister Winston Churchill stating, “[The] notion of Anglo-Saxon superiority inherent in Churchill’s approach will be offensive to many. Churchill, who had quite a bit of whiskey, said, why be apologetic about Anglo-Saxon superiority, that we were superior, that we have the common heritage that had been worked out over the centuries of England and had been perfected by our Constitution.” It was well known that Wallace had a hatred for imperialism; in fact, Churchill had tasked secret agents with spying on Wallace.
Jesse H. Jones, Secretary of Commerce, allied with Edwin Pauley, Democratic Party National Committee treasurer and oil millionaire. They despised Wallace. South Carolina Senator James Byrnes, who was raised in the “hothouse politics of sultry South Carolina,” became their champion. He had come from an environment “where white superiority and segregation trumped all other issues.” He had blocked a federal anti-lynching law from passing in 1938. He was known as an assistant President. If someone wanted something to be done on Capitol Hill, they would meet with Byrnes.
Byrnes was called up to help orchestrate a scenario where Wallace would not be re-nominated vice president. Roosevelt, who had grown increasingly ill, could not be at the Democratic National Convention and/or was unwilling to fight for his vice presidential nominee. Party bosses Pauley, Robert Hannegan, DNC chairman, Ed Flynn, Bronx Boss, Ed Kelly, Mayor of Chicago, Frank Hague, Mayor of Jersey City, Frank Walker, Postmaster General and former Party Chairman and other opponents of Wallace needed “an eleventh hour substitute” and chose Missouri Senator Harry S. Truman.
Truman had “limited qualifications.” As Stone and Kuznick write in their book of the same title that is a companion to the documentary series:
…[The party bosses] picked Truman not because he had substantial qualifications for the position but because had had been sufficiently innocuous as a senator that he had made few enemies and he could be counted on not to rock the boat. They gave little, if any, thought to the attributes that would be necessary to lead the United States and the world in the challenging times ahead, when decisions would be made that would shape the course of history. Thus Truman’s ascent to the presidency, like much of his career, was a product of backroom deal making by corrupt party bosses…
Known as “Pauley’s coup” to insiders, the bosses were aware of the high support Wallace had among convention delegates. Only two percent, according to a poll, supported Truman while Wallace had sixty-five percent support among delegates.
Wallace’s speech to the convention was met with huge applause. He called for “equal wages for equal work” no matter one’s gender or race. The convention delegates cheered wildly. The loudspeaker system played Wallace’s campaign song: “Iowa, Iowa. That’s where the tall corn grows.”
Florida Senator Claude Pepper knew Wallace would win if the delegates voted on his nomination before adjourning on the opening day. So, too, did the party bosses. They had Samuel D. Jackson, session chair, adjourn the convention before a vote on Wallace’s nomination could be taken. Chaos erupted because the “yays” clearly had not had outnumbered the “nays.” Nonetheless, Jackson carried out “strict instructions” not to allow the nomination and the opening day was over.
Overnight, “Pauley and anti-Wallace forces united behind Harry Truman. Deals were cut. Positions offered. Ambassadorships, postmaster positions, cash payoffs—Bosses called every state chairman telling them Roosevelt wanted the Missouri senator as his running mate.”
The second day forces for Wallace were prepared to ensure he was nominated. They voted and Wallace one the first ballot. When the second ballot was called, police prevented thousands from entering the convention. Truman won.
In the episode, Stone cuts to a clip of James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington standing on the Senate floor speaking about “lost causes.” Having held the floor for hours in a filibuster, he passes out from exhaustion. The juxtaposition of Stewart’s character “Mr. Smith” and Henry Wallace fits the admiration for Wallace’s spirit that both Kuznick and Stone have in the series.
Wallace is presented as a figure, who would not have allowed opposition to the Soviets to ramp up belligerently, ideologically and in a fool-headed manner. He is posited as someone, who would likely have not dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There would have been no Cold War. So, to Stone and Kuznick, this is a central event in US history that has been overlooked inappropriately because it changed the course of history dramatically.
The forgotten history of the Soviet Union’s role in defeating Adolf Hitler and his German army in World War II is most of the focus of the first episode.
Stalingrad, one of the single greatest battles in the war, is briefly recounted. In the battle, the Soviets lost more men than the British and Americans in one war: one half million. Two hundred thousand Germans were killed. The city was destroyed by Germany could not take it.
The Soviets responded with an offensive at Kursk that forced Germany into a retreat from the eastern front of the war. The Soviets had been regularly confronted with twenty German divisions while the Americans and British had been faced with ten divisions.
It is estimated that six million Germans were killed in Soviet battles and one million Germans were killed in battles with the American or British forces.
The Soviet Union requested support and aid from the United States and that a second front in Europe be opened because the Soviets were sustaining heavy losses from Germany. Roosevelt acknowledged the role of the Soviets in May 1941, “Russian armies are killing more Axis personnel and discharging more Axis material than all the other twenty-five united nations put together.” But, Churchill dissuaded Roosevelt from opening a second front in 1942 after the British lost to a German force half the size of theirs in Tobruk. He convinced Roosevelt to send forces to invade from North Africa.
This move led General Dwight D. Eisenhower to suggest that this would go down as the blackest day in history in the war. The US needed to keep eight million Russians in the war.
It was about this time that St. Petersburg or Leningrad was experiencing a siege from German forces that would last nearly 900 days. Over a million Soviets would die. Most deaths would result from starvation. Several ate rats, glue with wallpaper or other human beings to survive. Many would not evacuate because of pride.
Josef Stalin remade society into one that could defeat Germany. In two years during the war, he transformed the Soviet Union into an industrial power. Two hundred factories were built. Women and children worked eighteen hour shifts. This was all to prevent extermination by Hitler’s forces.
As Stone and Kuznick point out in their companion book, at the end of the war in 1945, there was acknowledgment from Americans that the Soviets had suffered and made a great sacrifice:
…In June, C.L Sulzberger wrote in the New York Times that their losses strained the imagination: “In terms of misery and suffering, of malady and disaster, of wasted man hours in a land where work is glorified, the loss is incalculable. It cannot be gauged by the scarcely touched peoples of America. It cannot be measured by the sadly battered people of England. It perhaps cannot be fully realized by the masses of Russian people themselves.”…
There were Russian war relief efforts. For example, the Washington Post encouraged Americans to “remember Russian children as they celebrated their holiday and ‘send them a tithe of our good fortune’ commemorating the sense of community we have come to feel toward the Russian people.”
When the Red Army liberated the concentration camps, including Majdanek, Sobibor, Treblinka and Auschwitz, and made their way to Germany from the east, they committed “havoc, devastation and humiliation” against German soldiers. It was revenge for what they had experienced. They also raped many women; “one hundred thousand sought medical care for rape.”
This was cast as a “barbarian invasion” and perhaps may be part of what made it so easy to overlook the sacrifice and suffering once individuals in the US government began to become much more aggressive toward the Soviet Union. However, Stone and Kuznick place the atrocities committed by Soviets into context noting the stories of terror, humiliation and deportation, the destroyed cities, the mass graves of Russia prisoners who had been murdered or starved and how it must have been to be confronted by the result of such sadism.
Without the strength of the Soviet Union, there is no telling how much longer World War II would have been. Nonetheless, most Americans are only familiar with the stories of battles from the western front the US opened against Germany in Europe.
The third episode airs tonight on Showtime and is called “The Bomb.” I have seen it already and that is mostly why I am waiting to share a deeper reflection on some of the conclusions Stone and Kuznick draw when presenting the history of Truman and Wallace.
Yesterday, the New York Times ran a feature on Oliver Stone and the “Untold History” project. In the article, he writes, “‘Untold History’ wants to present itself as the whole truth and nothing but. Yet Stone has always fared best as a provocateur.” One only needs to read that sentence to know Goldman did not understand the series, failed to comprehend what Stone said in the opening of the first episode of the series and, perhaps, never intended to publish a story that appropriately acknowledged the legitimacy of the history presented in this project. (After reading the feature, it also seems like he was more interested in presenting Stone as a pariah filmmaker with quirky sensibilities than someone with the intent to make a project that could have a lasting impact on the consciousness of Americans.)
Assuming a producer sent him the companion book (along with the first three episodes of the series) like I was sent, Stone and Kuznick clearly spell out in the introduction of the book:
…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…
Despite this pronouncement, despite the fact that Stone clearly states in the opening of the first episode that the series aims to look at the “good we have lost” and where America has erred terribly and magnificently, a section of the review gives the impression that Stone and Kuznick were selective in their telling of history because of purely ideological reasons—like they merely wished to further leftist causes.
Some historians might dislike this project because it goes back and grabs moments and events in history which a lineage of historians in America have consciously or unconsciously omitted or written out of definitive accounts of history. These are instances that do not show up in school children’s textbooks. Stone and Kuznick believe Americans should know of forgotten events in history like the Soviets being mostly responsible for the defeat of Germany and Wallace losing the nomination as a result of a “coup” by Democratic Party bosses. It also acts as critique of the past American century, something historians likely despise because it removes balance and adopts a point of view.
Moreover, it seems if historians loathe it and feel threatened, it may be because they are defensive of the accepted truths that are incorrect or incomplete in the history which they subscribe—a collective history that so many US leaders and others in government and society repeat and invoke to further their agendas.