An Interview with Oliver Stone
Oliver Stone, Hollywood’s cinematic scourge of the status quo, is back with what might well be his most ambitious work. The Oscar-winning writer/director of radical counter-narratives that focused on death squads in Central America with Salvador, the Vietnam War with Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, high finance with Wall Street and its sequel, the Kennedy assassination with JFK, and the presidencies of Tricky Dick and Bush Junior with Nixon and W., is now taking on the annals of empire through the nonfiction medium.
The truth be told, Stone’s documentary series and book The Untold History of the United States sets the record straight about the propagandistic myths surrounding the role America has played in global events with an unauthorized, alternative, independent vision. In the process, as he shouts, “The empire has no clothes!” Stone rethinks, recasts, and reframes imperial America.
Along with his 750-page companion book (Simon & Schuster) co-authored by historian Peter Kuznick, Stone’s ongoing 10-part series, airing on Showtime through January, is exposing the unexamined assumptions and main myths of 20th century and early 21st century U.S. history. Stone dares to investigate: Who really defeated Nazi Germany? Did Hiroshima and Nagasaki have to be nuked? Who started the Cold War? With the scope and sweep of a long view of America, The Untold History of the United States distills criticism of current Washington policy with its final chapter, Obama: Managing a Wounded Empire. Along the way, Stone rescues long lost unsung heroes -- including a vice president, a nuclear physicist, a Soviet political officer aboard a nuclear submarine who likely prevented World War III -- from obscurity and returns them to their proper places in this chronicle of our times.
I interviewed Stone in his Santa Monica offices, with volumes of annotated history texts and books by authors such as Chalmers Johnson, covering a tabletop and lined up against a wall. The wear and tear of creating the 10-hour The Untold History of the United States TV series was clearly taking its toll on the Vietnam veteran.
But Stone took time out from completing episodes nine and ten to talk with The Progressive Magazine about what might be his literary testament and film magnum opus. Like a filmic Indiana Jones, Stone relentlessly unearths what lies underneath, observing that it’s his “fortune and destiny” to be not only a storyteller, but more importantly, a truth-teller -- the powers-that-be and their ballyhooers be damned.
Q: Since this is for The Progressive Magazine, I thought it was appropriate to ask you about one of the main figures you’re rescuing from the obscurity of history in your documentary series, the man who ran for president on the Progressive Party’s ticket in 1948. Tell us about Henry Wallace, and why he plays such a prominent role in The Untold History of the United States?
Oliver Stone: Primarily we concentrated on the 1944 campaign, which is where Wallace really truly had enormous power. He was the popular favorite, overwhelmingly, for the Democratic vice presidency. He was bumped by the bosses from Roosevelt’s ticket. I think going into the convention he had 65% of Democratic electorate on his side. Harry Truman was a nobody at that point at 2%, and it was all reversed at the convention, with back office politics and last minute bargains. And that is what interests us, because the whole fate of the world would have been somewhat altered by that event.
The reason why I got involved in this History in the first place was because of the atomic bomb and because of the role it has played in our lives. And that was what brought to my attention by Peter Kuznick, who was teaching a course in my films at American University, but was also a founder of the department of nuclear studies at that university. In talking about the atomic bomb, Peter had told me the story of this Henry Wallace. Well, I never really knew much about him, except for the ’48 election, but briefly. I knew that that Norman Mailer had supported him and that a lot of the intellectuals and progressives had. But I didn’t know much.
But it was his link to the atomic bomb -- because Wallace was the [FDR] cabinet member who knew most of the scientific theory and was most in touch with the scientists. Peter had written a book about the 1930s and science, so he knew a lot about that subject; I guess he came upon Wallace that way. Wallace was also a geneticist, and actually built a Hi-Bred Corn Company that was one of the most successful capitalist ventures ever, and was sold by his heirs to du Pont for $8 billion in the 1990s. So, it’s an interesting, weird story.
Wallace was a compassionate visionary. And Roosevelt knew that -- Eleanor Roosevelt loved him, and that side of the party loved him. But he pissed off some people by his honest assessment of England, Great Britain and the British empire. But all evidence leads us to believe that Roosevelt had the same fears of being taken by the British empire once again. We quote that in the film: “We’re not fighting World War II as we did World War I for Britain to reabsorb its colonies and to continue exploiting people.” That was not Roosevelt’s vision. Roosevelt was going to work out a vision of the world peace under the guidance, the tutelage of the U.N.
So we believe that Wallace, if he had not been bumped, given Roosevelt’s health, would definitely have been president, instead of Harry Truman, who was a small man, small mind, equivalent to George W. Bush at the time, with very little experience, and very much given to be mentally aggressive against the Soviets and to cotton to the British empire. So instead of it being an equal, tripartite alliance, Truman, unlike Wallace, took us in the direction of being very anti-Soviet, very pro-Churchill. Churchill had always been very anti-Soviet. And this continued and he got away with it. So there was a collapse of power, there was a vacuum at the head of the American presidency at a very key moment.
The Wallace story is threaded through the first four chapters. Much to Wallace’s credit, he continued to play a role after he lost the nomination. He did serve Truman as commerce secretary, until ’46, when he was fired by Truman for giving a speech at Madison Square Garden the week before I was born in New York City about a few blocks away. [Laughs.] He was the main voice left for peace; the peace party, so to speak. He was the only Roosevelt visionary left. Truman went towards the direction of all the people that Roosevelt had ignored.
I just want to say one more thing about Wallace. When Henry Luce was talking about “this is the American century,” it was Henry Wallace who gave that speech that really shook it up in ’41 and said, “This is the century of the common man.” And he said that bluntly, so he made enemies from the get-go with all the people who were the pols, so to speak. He mentioned the French Revolution, the Latin American Revolution -- which few people ever do, Bolivar, amazing revolution -- he also mentioned the Russian Revolution and the American Revolution. “The march of the common peoples of the world.” And he was vice president, so saying that was like -- a major speech. He took on Churchill, and said things like, Churchill was overly fond of the British empire and so forth. He said this whole concept of Anglo-Saxon superiority bugged him. He was a man who was not a racist at all. He was a man who promoted George Washington Carver, he promoted the contribution of Blacks, as well as all races, to science.
He was not your ordinary politician. He believed everyone can contribute. He believed in equal rights for women, way early; civil rights, etc. This is a man who’s like 20 years ahead of his time and flying in the face of convention. There were many progressives in America -- we mustn’t forget that. He comes from a long line, Norman Thomas, Eugene Debs, the communists, many of the liberals who became communists and socialists in this country in the 1930s.
The whole concept of progress goes back to not just to our revolution, but go to the 1870s, during the industrial barons, the “Era of the 400, the Gilded Age.” We have progressive movements everywhere, all across the country, huge fights, union wars, in the 1870s, ’80s, ’90s, it’s in Colorado, it’s in that movie  Heaven’s Gate. You see it going all the way through World War I, all the resistance to Wilson going to war. Debs was thrown into jail for six years. So, it’s not like Wallace came out of nowhere. Unfortunately, we had to cut those early two chapters, which showed you the tradition from which Wallace came. But Wilson violated all that by throwing people into jail, prosecuting the Espionage Act. If you dissented against World War I you were a bad guy in America, all of a sudden.
Q: You indicate that had Wallace continued as FDR’s vice president, Japan may not have been A-bombed. Why?
Stone: Great story. Again, American history books in high school level -- not college levels, because lots of serious scholars get it right -- but they don’t at the high school level, and I know this because I’ve checked a few of them. I have a whole bunch of them here. [Laughs, pointing to texts lined on his office floor.] They don’t really reference the debate and what all the witnesses we put in the film were saying is that Japan was about to surrender. They’re economically prostrate, by the terror bombing that had gone on for months; Curtis LeMay was in charge of it. More people were killed in the Tokyo bombing than were killed in Hiroshima. For the Japanese it didn’t make a difference; they didn’t know it was an atomic bomb on Hiroshima; they didn’t know what hit them; they were numb. They would have fought, because they were a fighter -- to save the emperor.
But when the Russians declared war on August 9 -- which was a deal Stalin made with Roosevelt at Yalta, that he’d enter the [Pacific] war three months after the Nazi war was over, Stalin kept to his word. He moved his million men over to the east, and they demolished the Japanese Kwantung Army, which was an elite army in Manchuria, and they were moving on the island, towards Japan. They were already in the Kurils, I think they were going into Korea. The Japanese were horrified by this concept of the Soviets overrunning Japan and violating the homeland, including the Hokkaido Island. And they knew without a doubt, because of the reputation of the Soviets, having destroyed Germany and what they did to the German people -- I’m not saying it was for right or wrong, a good thing, but the Soviets hated the Germans, so they did horrible things in Germany. No question. Not so much to Eastern Europe, but they hated the Nazis, and they went after their women, and there were rapes… looting. The looting was because they were broke, They were demolished by this war. They had no food -- the soldiers were starving…The Japanese are horrified by that. They knew, because the Bolsheviks shot the czar in 1918, that the Russians would not put up with the emperor for one second. There’d be no issue of saving the emperor. They knew they could get better terms from the Americans. Truman knew this too. Truman sends a telegram talking about the “Jap emperor wants peace.” He knows U.S. troops can’t even get into the position to invade Japan for three more months until November. That was always the plan. If everything had just taken its course the Russians would have been in Japan way before November; they would have probably been there in September.
So, everyone knew that. But it becomes very clear if you take all the evidence that Truman wants to make a poker game point with the Russians, “I got the bomb. This is meant for you.” This is a symbol to Russia, telling them not to get any big ideas after World War II is over.
There was no need to drop the bomb. But there was no consideration of the Japanese, because they were pictured in American media and culturally as fanatics, as cockroaches. We showed a series of cartoons. I think he would have hesitated to drop this on the German people. But because the Japanese were considered -- and we know Truman’s record on race, he had a very low opinion of Asians. He didn’t have any qualms. In the Edward Murrow interview that you see, he says, “I didn’t lose a night’s sleep.” But by playing that card, and announcing to the world that we could be as barbaric as the Germans and the Japanese, he lowered the moral discourse. If we’d lost the war he would have been indictable for war crimes. What we did to civilian populations -- and what the Germans did too, and the Japanese too, and the British -- in Europe, bombing the cities, and especially bombing Japan, was horrible.
Q: The firebombing of Dresden, Tokyo and elsewhere, the A-bombing of Japan and the internment of people of Japanese ancestry in America, the majority of them citizens, is what we did when we were the good guys.
Stone: …The internment, I think there were other ways to do it. Dresden -- Churchill himself said, “Are we beasts? Have we gone too far.” Dresden was mostly filled with refugees running from the Red Army. Economically, it didn’t make sense, or militarily. We didn’t hurt the Germans to the degree we thought we did. The Red Army is what was killing them. It was chewing ’em up, and they were coming towards Germany. It was the Red Army that destroyed the German military machine -- not the bombing.
Q: Untold History makes a strong case that it was the Soviets -- not the British, Americans, Canadians, at D-Day or in North Africa – that turned the tide of the war.
Stone: It’s a huge point. You have to argue World War II again. On film you can do things that sometimes you can’t see in a book. For example, in our chapter two, you’ll see very clearly on film the Red Army is moving after Stalingrad -- which is the climactic battle of World War II, not D-Day. Stephen Ambrose, in his triumphalist narrative, says, “D-Day, the climactic battle of World War II.” I love it. But the truth is, by 1944, the Soviets are well into Eastern Europe and moving towards Germany, and clearly winning. They won at Stalingrad -- they beat them back, for the first time, really a major upset for the Germans. Then at Kursk, the tank battle, they again triumphed. By this time, the Soviets were producing their own airplanes, which were superior to the German Luftwaffe, and they were producing better tanks. The Russians themselves -- they took lend-lease, the U.S. helped them -- but they also rebuilt behind the Ural Mountains. So they had reconstituted themselves and were sweeping -- so by June ’44, we cut from the Russians moving east, and we show on the maps where they are, to this D-Day invasion, which is finally, finally, the promised second front. It should have been June 6, ’43, to make a real difference. It was a well-done invasion; the armada was amazing. The casualties were not extensive compared to the amount of casualties the Russians were taking on the Eastern front. They lost far too many men.
The Soviets were putting all their weight beyond destroying Germany; that was what was required. They had been saved by the Japanese going south to take the colonies -- if the Japanese had attacked the Soviets at the same time it would have been over for the Soviets. But apparently, Hitler and Japan never could see eye to eye, never could communicate. And apparently, Hitler had a bad attitude about -- also was a racist. That’s an interesting side story -- it’s a big story.
Q: Untold History makes the point that while the Soviets fought 200 German divisions, the Americans and British combined fought 10.
Stone: Up until ’44, after D-Day that changed. After ’44, the battle was going to be bloody but it was over. The Soviets lost 80,000 troops taking Berlin… Earlier in the war Churchill had been a proponent of not going into an early second front and convinced the Americans to, what [Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C.] Marshall called “periphery peck” along North Africa… then go into Italy, the southern belly of the German fortress. And the Italian campaign was not a success -- more American troops were lost than ever punished the Germans. It was a slow, grinding, cruel diversion. And of course, Churchill got back into Greece in ’44, and dive-bombed the Communist resistance to the Nazis. It was an ugly story, Greece. Churchill also wanted to go to the Balkans, basically he wanted to make his way over to Greece, past the Mediterranean, into the Persian Gulf area, ’cause that was very important to oil, the needs of Britain, as well as India, the crown jewel of the British empire. And Singapore -- don’t forget, he got Singapore back. Churchill said himself in a famous quote: “I have not become prime minister to preside over the dismemberment of the British empire.” That was his motive.
Q: You use film feature film clips in your documentary.
Stone: We have no talking heads, so there’s not that boredom. We’re trying to persuade through the flow of imagery with music, hopefully a narration that doesn’t hector, that allows you to think for yourself. But also lays in ideas as we go. The facts are indisputable, I think; but the interpretation, we’re gentle about it. It comes on as we go, that interpretation of those facts. Obviously, because we’re going against this mythos that has been created. It’s a tough one; we’re making radical points, as you know.
And we cut to D-Day from the Russians. Then we cut one month later to the [Democratic] convention in Chicago, which nobody knows about. So that to me is what the movies can do with history -- it can show an audience in succession: the Russians sweeping Eastern Europe, the D-Day invasion and the Wallace convention, which is actually going to contribute to changing history far more than D-Day ever will. But because we’ve done 100 movies about D-Day, and 50 books, and Tom Brokaw and Steve Ambrose and Spielberg and all these people have made a fortune out of glorifying that invasion, it’s completely a tilted history. It gives American school kids a skewed sense of what really happened.
Q: You provide a counter-narrative, like JFK.
Stone: Yeah. It is. A counter-narrative [laughs]. My fortune and my destiny. We use movie clips where we think appropriate to break the tedium of perhaps always looking at archival footage, but I find that fascinating. You’ll note the pace of the archival footage is pretty fast; we’re cutting at a more contemporary pace to keep the interest of younger people, hopefully.
Q: One of the clips you use is from [1939’s] Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Stone: Oh yeah, many clips we use. ’Cause that was embodiment to me of the spirit of that time. Frank Capra, who I thought in the 1930s represented very much the egalitarian point of view in his thinking.
Q: If I had to compare you to a Hollywood great from the Golden Age, it would be Capra. Not only because your stick up for the common man, like Capra did, but also because he made documentaries. He directed the Why We Fight series, a wonderful WWII agitprop series, riling up the home front, why we had to fight for democracy against fascism.
Stone: Yes, we used a clip [from 1943’s The Battle of Russia] of that on the Russian front, around the Battle of Stalingrad. It showed you the resistance of the Russian people. You see good Jewish actors from Hollywood in it, too. But there were other clips, too. [Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 Alexander] Nevsky we use because of the historic German-Russian conflict going back to the medieval ages, to imply that Hitler had this mystic belief in the Teutonic crusade. And the old Russian spirit of Nevsky, which of course fought against the invaders. So that seemed to be so apropos. And it was a chance of course to pay homage to my own profession. A lot of the film clips we use are sometimes in counterpoint, like we use Black Legion on chapter four, which is an Archie Mayo  relic but with Humphrey Bogart playing the pro-American guy. And we use [1956’s] Invasion of the Body Snatchers to suggest the state of mind of [Defense Secretary James] Forrestal, before he committed suicide. “They’re coming to get -- they’re here, they’re here!” In the movie, the guy really does know that extraterrestrials are on Earth, but we imply to people who are not so paranoid [laughs], Forrestal seemed like he was overdoing it in his extremism.
Q: Sidney Buchman, the screenwriter of Mr. Smith, was a member of the Communist Party and eventually cited for contempt of Congress.
Stone: Oh god, so many of the people were targeted who were the most humanistic. There are so many good people that were graylisted as a result of -- graylisted is you don’t even know you’re off the list. The way the Hollywood bosses behaved was disgusting. Even Capra was accused. The time was tough after World War II. For example, Henry Wallace, the ’48 campaign -- I don’t doubt for one second that he was above it all. But the smears on him, as a Communist-influenced dupe of Moscow. Here was a man who had his own ideas, and he always said, “We should have a peaceful competition with Moscow. They are going to come more towards some of the freedoms we enjoy, and we are going to go more towards the social justice they enjoy.” And I thought that was brilliant -- but he was completely smeared by Truman, Forrestal, the FBI.
Of course, he had some Communists in there. But what people don’t realize is that Wallace had a visceral hatred of redbaiting. And that was the beauty of the man. “Okay, we’re not going to play that game.” Redbaiting becomes one of the ugliest things that ever goes on -- it still goes on in our country. It went on with Bush; it still goes on with people who dissent.
Q: You got slammed because of your counter-narrative in JFK. Is Untold History getting attacked by similar media hacks?
Stone: Yes, yes, for sure. We got slammed by the usual suspects. I mean, I don’t think they even see the series. Whether it’s New York Post editorials, or the Ronald Radosh, the Weekly Standard types. The pro-empire liberals, the Hillary Clinton branch, Sean Willentz.
I think anti-empire liberals are always having this issue. We’re always being attacked by pro-empire liberals. ’Cause pro-empire liberals are the ones who voted for Iraq in 200. The Left has betrayed itself; in the old days they called them “Cold War liberals.” And John Kennedy was one of them, but he changed. So there’s always the ability to change. A lot of these liberals who voted for the war, including The New York Times and The New Yorker, those types, they have said it was a “mistake.” But they never quite get it, they never -- yeah, it’s a luxurious mistake. We have the right to trash Iraq, but we can say, “It was a mistake.” We can say, “We should have known better, we were lied to.” All those things. But that doesn’t change the crime.
It all goes back to the atomic bomb, in my thinking, which gave us the “right.” Once you take that right and you say, “I am god, and I have that right to do that,” you start thinking like an empire. I just don’t get it, I don’t get why liberals who are so smart can be so stupid at the same time.
Q: Is “American exceptionalism” the U.S. equivalent of the “master race” theory?
Stone: Yes, it is, because you don’t think about it. You don’t think about it. I lived 35 years of my life, maybe more, not questioning our rights. [In a mock nasty tone:] “Okay, we did it, we did that, we did this, we did that, but they’re worse. What would they have done? What would China do now? What would Russia do now?” [Returns to normal voice:] And you live on this fucking diet of blaming others.
The reason I do think in 1946, the year I was born, we made such a huge deal out of Stalin, and made much more out of his existence, we made him a threat, the big enemy of the week, the enemy of the next 40 years, was because communism was a convenient distraction for the upper class, the elite, to suppress the labor unions. And the labor unions would always be associated with communism or socialism or the right to a better life, because that was the basis of the revolution. Anti-communism has been used as a bogeyman for our anti-labor policies in this country.
Everyone who hated communism basically supported Hitler because he wanted Hitler to fucking win in Russia and wipe out the communists. Hitler was loved by many for having destroyed the Communist Party in Germany.
Q: What’s your next project?
Stone: Oh, I don’t know. Ed, I’m in the middle of it. I hope you realize this has sapped me. This is almost five years; January is the fifth year. So, I want to finish; I’m very proud of it. It’s an accumulation of the themes of my films. I mean, I’ve learned a lot. I didn’t know as much as I did before I started this. To me it’s like going to a college graduate course in history, so it’s been very good for me. At the same time it’s exhausting and documentaries have a limited viewability. I’m very proud of it; we did well, so far. We’re in our fourth week, and the ratings are far higher than what Showtime expected. A million people we know are watching this series every week; they show a few times a week. A million people is quite good; but that’s without knowing all the DVR numbers.
Q: Is the American empire sustainable?
Stone: It is, in a sense, militarily, with this electronic barrier, or space shield, which we’ll have by 2020. You can keep going with pure military might. Sustainable in a longer term moral sense -- I doubt it. I don’t know that you can have a tyranny over the rest of mankind for very long.
Q: How about economically?
Stone: Well, that one’s up to the Chinese. They have much more economic say in that than we do.
Q: Is the U.S. on a collision course with China?
Stone: No, no -- only if we make it so. They don’t have a history of foreign aggression. They really don’t. They stayed for centuries now -- they have a much longer history than we do… They have one foreign base -- we have 800-plus. Every society is turbulent now; I’m not going to say for one second it’s an ideal state -- it isn’t. They don’t have the concepts of law -- I’m not sure that we do either anymore. Because certainly the law has reached a place where… we have not set a standard of law in our country, when we have illegal detention.
Q: The U.S. empire’s economy apparently generates climate change. We see that coming back with Hurricane Sandy. It almost seems like karmic retribution.
Stone: I’d simply say Al Gore knew about this. We really started to know about this in the 1990s. Rachel Carson, beautiful story, in the 1960s, and we’ve done nothing about it, because it’s not convenient. It’s easier to get elected on the idea of jobs and job security. Money, money, money. Money has ruined many an empire. Perhaps it will be the bane of this empire -- the love of money.
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