Oliver Stone’s ‘Untold History’: The Birth of the Secret State
A documentary series from film director Oliver Stone and American University history professor Peter Kuznick called The Untold History of the United States has been airing on Showtime every Monday for the past weeks. The series challenges common perceptions of American history by highlighting key events or developments that have been largely forgotten.
The fourth episode, “The Cold War,” aired one week ago and could be best described as an episode that highlighted the birth of the national security state. In the episode, Stone, who narrates the series, describes how the hardline anti-Communist James Forrestal, the nation’s first Secretary of Defense, left behind a newborn Pentagon establishment, “which faced with those struggling for a different world, saw only Communist conspiracies.”
There is still today a fundamental misunderstanding that the United States entered the Cold War in response to Soviet aggression worldwide. There is no question Soviet leadership imposed repressive and, when challenged, brutal dictatorships on Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, East Germany, Albania and Czechoslovakia. But, it was equally clear that the Soviets were initially willing to accept governments friendly to them in these countries until the West began to make threatening moves both on their ideology and their security. During the post-war period, it was the United States with its atomic monopoly, not the Soviet Union, which bears the lion share of responsibility for starting the Cold War.
In March 1947, in an appeal for $400 million in funding for operations in Greece and Turkey to combat Soviet corruption of those countries, President Harry S. Truman declared:
The very existence of the Greek state is today threatened by the terrorist activities of several thousand armed men led by Communists. At the present moment in world history, nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life. I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressures.
This was the moment when the US was becoming the world’s policeman. It was the Truman Doctrine. As Stone explains in the episode, Truman failed to distinguish between “vital threats” and “peripheral ones” and, “by linking people all over the world to the security of the United States,” made a “momentous statement.” He uttered words that could “transposed” to conflicts that would later be fueled by the US in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
In July 1947, the National Security Act was signed into law. It created a “vast new bureaucracy” headed by Forrestal. It also created the Central Intelligence Agency, which was authorized to fulfill four functions. Three were the “collection, analysis and dissemination of intelligence.” The fourth was what would give it the power to conduct hundreds of covert operations. It was the passage of the law that allowed it to perform “other functions and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security”—and, as Stone says, however “the president saw fit.”
Capitalism’s Invisible Army, as it was sometimes called, engaged in more than eighty covert operations during Truman’s second term. One of the first was the subversion of Italy’s 1948 election.
George C. Marshall, who Truman had replace Jimmy Byrnes as his Secretary of State, adopted a plan for aid to Western Europe that could spur economic recovery. Known as the Marshall Plan, the US spent $13 billion between 1948 and 1952. But, the plan also provided a cover for CIA attempts to subvert governments through covert action. Truman approved the creation of a guerrilla army code-named “Nightingale” in Ukraine. Originally setup by the Nazis in 1941, it was made up of ultra-nationalists. They would, as Stone describes, wreak havoc on the “famine-wrecked region where Soviet control was loose, carrying out the murder of thousands of Jews, Soviets and Pols, who opposed a separate Ukrainian state.” The CIA would parachute “infiltrators” into the country as well to further “dislodge Soviet control.”
In Kuznick and Stone’s companion book of the same title as the series, the creation of a “guerrilla warfare corps” is further detailed:
…In late September 1947, [George] Kennan urged Forrestal to establish a “guerrilla warfare corps”—a suggestion Forrestal heartily endorsed—although the [Joing Chiefs of Staff] recommended against establishing a “separate guerrilla warfare and corps.” In December, Truman approved secret annex NSC 4-A, authorizing the CIA to conduct covert operations. He had dismantled the OSS’s covert parmilitary operations capabilities in September 1945, but now he brought them back in force. In the summer of 1948, he approved NSC 10/2, which called for “propaganda, economic warfare, preventive direct action, including sabotage, anti-sabotage, demolition and evacuation measures; subversion against hostile states, including assistance to underground movements, guerrillas and refugee liberation groups, and support of indigenous anti-Communist elements in threatened countries of the free world.” These activities were to be done in a way that would always afford the US government plausible deniability. In August 1948, Truman approved NSC 20, which authorized guerrilla operations in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe…
The CIA was active in Germany working with the Gehlen Organization, an organization headed by Reinhard Gehlen, a former Nazi who ran intelligence in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union for Adolf Hitler. His organization was a network of Nazis and war criminals, some of which came from the Gestapo and the SS. The organization painted a picture of Soviet actions and fed the US government what it wanted to hear about the Soviet Union. But, as one retired official put it, the intelligence was “hyped up Russian boogeyman junk.”
The episode highlights the Berlin Blockade and how the “Western media” painted the Soviet Union as a savage and cruel country trying starve a population of people into submission. But, the Soviet Union guaranteed West Berliners “access to food and coal from the Eastern zone.” US intelligence confirmed this.
The war at home is noted as well. Truman appeased the Republican right mandating “loyalty checks on all government employees to “root out subversives.” Those “with the wrong views on religion, sexual behavior, foreign policy or race could make one suspect.” Through 1942, More than 22,000 cases were reviewed by “loyalty review boards.” At least 4,000 employees resigned or were fired. And, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) investigated those in Hollywood and studio executives like Louis B. Mayer pledged not to hire those with “suspect affiliations.” Hollywood produced more than 40 films that had anti-Communist themes as their focus. And J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI conducted investigations into Communism and even formulated plans for mass detention of “Communists” if the Soviet Union attacked.
As the episode concludes, Stone offers a stinging indictment of Truman:
…Beginning with Truman’s first day in office, his receptiveness to the views of hard-line anti-Communists, his denial of Roosevelt’s understanding with Staling, the provocative and unnecessary dropping of the atomic bombs, his spreading a network of military bases around the world, Churchill’s speech at Fulton, Truman’s call for fighting Communism in greece, the division and remilitarization of Germany, the continued testing of bigger and bigger atomic and hydrogen bombs which he used to threaten the Soviet Union, Truman’s deliberate exaggerations of the Communist threat both overseas and at home and his persecution and silencing of those who challenged these distortions. In all these matters, with few exceptions, the United states, after successfully liberating Western Europe, was now signaling fear and aggression…
For Stone and Kuznick, this is when many of the ideals of American exceptionalism, which dominates much of society and government today, began to take root. It is when a nation of immigrant people that escaped “persecution, poverty and fear” succumbed to fear and uncertainty and began to resign itself to being a nation that would let xenophobia dictate policy. It is when the country escalated its production of bombs and became a “full-fledged unique kind of empire—economically supreme, massively armed, policing the world while professing liberty and democracy.” It is when the US committed itself to locating and arresting “enemies” and began a pattern that would repeat through the next sixty years where covert activities would be launched, more and more regional wars fought and control would be imposed on populations in countries of the world over and over again.”
In the previous week, Stone and Kuznick examined the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima (August 6) and Nagasaki (August 9) in Japan in . Most Americans would accept that as what was necessary to end the war with Japan.
General Dwight Eisenhower told Newsweek he informed Secretary of War Henry Stimson he was against dropping the atomic bomb and said, “First, the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing. Second, I hated to see our country be the first to use such a weapon.”
The American public was overwhelmingly convinced that the bombs needed to be used. Kuznick and Stone write in their book:
…Unknown to most of the public, many US top military leaders considered the bombings either militarily unnecessary or morally reprehensible. Truman’s chief of staff, Admiral William Leahy, who chaired the meetings of the Joint Chiefs, was the most impassioned, classifying the bomb with chemical and bacteriological weapons as violations of “every Christian ethic I have ever heard of and all of the known laws of war.” He proclaimed that the “Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender….The use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. In being the first to use it we adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the dark ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children…
The episode also points out the role the Red Army invasion by the Soviets played on August 9. That army’s ability to fight forces in Manchuria, Korea, Sakhalin and the Kurils. The Japanese saw little difference between the devastation caused by the atomic bombs and the fact that the US had been wiping out cities with hundreds of planes during the war. However, they did fear the offensive by the Soviets and that ultimately played a key role in the emperor deciding to surrender.
One of the more revealing parts of the documentary is when a clip is played of Truman saying the bombs were dropped on the theory that “our troops were expecting to invade Japan in a very short time.” He thought it would take a million and a half men to make the invasion and at least 250,000 would be killed. He explained, “I had no qualms about using it because a weapon of war is a destructive weapon. That’s the reason none of us want war and all of us are against war. But when we have the weapon that will win the war, you’d be will if you didn’t use it.”
Stone shows how this piece of propaganda evolved and flourished over the years. In August 1945, Truman said “thousands of lives” were saved. In December 1945, he said a “quarter of a million of the flower of our young manhood was worth a couple of Japanese cities.” In November 1949, “500,000 [American] casualties” was what the bombs prevented. In January 1953, “As much as a million [American and Japanese] casualties” was the figure. In April 1959, “The bomb stopped the war and saved millions of lives.” It continued to live and in 1991 President George H.W. Bush said Truman’s decision had saved millions of lives.
Truman did not like hearing individuals confront him with their moral trepidation over the dropping of the bombs. Robert Oppenheimer, who thought he bore some responsibility, told Truman he felt he had blood on his hands. Truman told Dean Acheson, “I don’t want to see that son-of-a-bitch in this office ever again,” and later called him a “cry-baby scientist.”
Stone and Kuznick end this episode by outlining what could have been different if Henry Wallace, who served as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s vice president, had been renominated and had been vice president when FDR died. They present their view that the man maligned as a “Communist sympathizer” during his Progressive Party run for president would have been demonstrably better than Truman and much more moral.
Would there have been no atomic bombs dropped? Would the Would civil rights and women’s rights movements triumphed in the immediate post-war years? Is it possible that colonialism would have ended and the “fruits of science and industry” would have been spread equitably around the world? These are the questions.
The two do not claim he would have been better, but by posing the questions it is clearly they want to believe much of what they are suggesting. It seems likely he might have been reluctant to drop the bombs. He might have been able to control the military. He, perhaps, would not have been as belligerent or confrontational toward the Soviet Union. But, domestically, it is doubtful that he could have had the effect on civil rights or women’s rights movements that Stone and Kuznick suggest. It also is unlikely that he would have brought an end to colonialism even if he was president because globally there were still forces fighting to maintain their reach and control of populations.
Certainly, Stone and Kuznick are reasonable to suggest an alternative reality would have been much more utopian had Wallace been president. The war crimes that were the droppings of the atomic bombs and the “terror bombings” of Japanese both make it easy for one to believe that hypothetically there could’ve been a different chain of events in history. However, if one understands change comes from movements, from the bottom up, it is unlikely Wallace would have been as profound of a savior as they suggest, even if he could have taken the US down a different path in terms of foreign policy.
*Tonight, the episode “Ike, JFK, The Bomb: To the Brink” premiered. I will review that episode in the coming weeks.