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Why One Known Historian Is Disgusted by Oliver Stone & Peter Kuznick’s ‘Untold History’

The introduction of Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick’s book, The Untold History of the United States, declares before any history is recounted “we don’t try to tell all US history. That would be an impossible task.” It acknowledges there are things the United States has done right, but, “There are libraries full of books dedicated to that purpose and school curricula that trumpet US achievements.” The two 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.”

From this point forward, any reasonable person should know history is going to be chosen and selected on the basis that the dark side of American history at home and abroad will be thoroughly explored. Sean Wilentz, who is a history professor at Princeton University and author of The Rise of Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, had a critique of Untold History published by the New York Review of Books that purports to expose the book as a project that “cherry-picks” history.

It does “cherry-pick” and Stone and Kuznick do not dispute the fact that their book is going to omit history that others might want to see included in the book. Wilentz seeks to denigrate the history presented and argues the history in the book is not untold.

…Most if not all of the interpretations that they present in The Untold History of the United States—from the war in the Philippines to the one in Afghanistan—have appeared in revisionist histories of American foreign policy written over the last fifty years. Challenged by early reviewers, Stone and Kuznick have essentially conceded the point about their sources and claimed that what they call the “revisionist narrative” that informs their book has in truth become “the dominant narrative among university-based historians.”

The real problem, they say, is that this revisionism has yet to penetrate the public schools, the mainstream media, and “those parts of America that cling to the notion of American exceptionalism.” Their version of history may not be untold, but “it has been almost entirely ‘unlearned.’” And so what originally sounded like a startling account of a hidden history is in fact largely a recapitulation and popularization of a particular stream of academic work, in a book that would more properly be called The Unlearned History of the United States—if the scholarship and the authors’ reworking of it were thorough, factually accurate, and historically convincing… [emphasis added]

The criticism that it is really “unlearned” and not “untold” is one teeming with elitism. It does not appear Wilentz finds it to be a problem that “public schools, the mainstream media and ‘those parts of America that cling to the notion of American exceptionalism,'” do not know much of the history in the book because they were not taught this history. It seems perfectly acceptable to him that Americans only be exposed to it while attending college or university and not while in other sectors of society. One could even go a step further and suggest Wilentz’s problem essentially is that there was a buzz created around the project and, when he began to explore it to see what it was all about, it did not contain any history he did not already know and so he felt it was a waste of his time.

A person could conclude from reading about what key aspects of history Wilentz is bothered by in the project that he does not personally subscribe to certain notions adopted by both Stone and Kuznick. For one, Wilentz is a typical American historian, who loathes those who characterize America as an “empire.” Wilentz is a Truman Democrat and, after reading the book and watching the series, any Truman Democrat would likely feel obligated to point out what aspects of the history of President Harry S. Truman were “incorrect.” Wilentz also does not subscribe to the view that policy changes and developments in society are a result of social movements or the lack of opposition from social movements. [cont’d.]

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

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