At first blush, the idea that film maker Oliver Stone could produce a credible documentary series on U.S. history might raise an eyebrow or two. After all, his 1991 JFK was then, and now, widely dismissed as being wildly manipulative and damned for keeping conspiracy fires burning long after such speculative embers should have cooled. Since then, however, Stone has earned credibility, if not universal support, for his documentaries on Latin America and his views on south of the border Socialism. Politically, he has publicly supported both Ron Paul and Barack Obama.
So should viewers be suspicious of Stone’s agenda while viewing the 10 hour chapters of The Untold History of the United States? Of course. After all, Stone’s 2012 Showtime series, now available on Blu-ray, overtly challenges us to question our own long-held beliefs about U.S. history since World War II. However, all Americans should see the 801 minutes now on four discs, and then dig deeper if Stone’s claims make us uncomfortable. Critical thinking is what this series is all about.
To be fair, accuracy isn’t the issue. Critics of the series correctly note nothing presented is actually “untold” in the sense that most historians, or observant newspaper readers, weren’t already aware of all these twists and turns in Presidential politics, cultural tides, or power brokering by economic and ideological forces. However, as Stone states in his opening comments, much he offers wasn’t presented to his children in school. Many of the myths we assume as accepted knowledge are being taught, not because the truth isn’t known, but rather that unpleasant history is simply glossed over, under-reported, or simply ignored. Beyond what is unquestionably on the historical record, Stone goes even further to point out the what-ifs of history. In particular, at many pivotal moments, Stone claims, history could have taken a radically different course if not for the many missed opportunities.
Stone co-wrote, directed, produced, and narrated the ambitious series, having worked on it since 2008 with historian Peter J. Kuznick and British screenwriter Matt Graham. The original 10 chapters are largely Stone’s narration spoken over archival footage with occasional inserts from actual speeches or dramatizations of key official comments along with sporadic Hollywood film clips. For most viewers, the most vivid surprises will most likely be seen in the eras they didn’t witness themselves. Even then, members of the “Greatest Generation” might not realize that if the liberal Henry Wallace had continued as the vice presidential nominee for a second term in 1944, he would have become president when Roosevelt died in 1945. Harry S. Truman, supremely unqualified for the post, would never have had been in a position to drop the atomic bomb and significantly light up the fires of the Cold War. Odds are, a Wallace presidency would have turned out much differently while pushing forward the cause of Civil Rights much earlier as well. At least, that’s Stone’s interpretation.
Throughout the years of the Cold War, Stone is convinced tensions could have been eased between the U.S. and the Soviet Union multiple times if hard-liners in the White House and Congress had not blown a series of opportunities. For example, he posits JFK might have negotiated an end to the Cold War with Nikita Khrushchev had the president lived. While Ronald Reagan is widely credited for ending the Cold War, Stone convincingly shows it was really Mikhail Gorbachev who deserves the accolades. One poignant moment, well known at the time, was when the Russian leader begged Reagan to sign a new arms treaty, but Reagan refused in order to maintain his fantasy SDI initiative. But other presidents from Johnson to Nixon to Carter and Ford also share in mixed records. In other words, no viewer can accuse Stone of any partisan bias. Since World War II, nearly every administration has meddled in international affairs for less than altruistic reasons, and our global legacy isn’t seen by many for being the benign white knights of Western civilization.
So The Untold History of the United States presents verifiable history emphasizing perspectives usually ignored or downplayed in most other accounts along with the “what ifs.” Stone supports each of his conclusions with mountains of compelling, sometimes intense, evidence. At times, in fact, his recitations of details sound like he’s reading his footnotes aloud. As a result, it will take some commitment from viewers to sit back and absorb what amounts to a 10 hour lecture supported by archival visuals and occasional sound-clips from other voices.
But, wait, there’s more! Disc four has over 3-1/2 hours of Unaired Material Including Two New Chapters and an Interview with Oliver Stone and Author/Political Philosopher Tariq Ali. Using archival footage not used in the series, the new chapters go back to the beginning of the Twentieth Century and move forward into World War II to show how the American empire began to take root. A case can be made for viewing the series beginning with these new chapters to experience “The American Century” chronologically from 1900 through the Obama presidency as seen in the final chapter in the broadcast series. In addition, The Untold History of the United Statesis also the title of a supplementary companion book (750 pages long) written by Stone and Kuznick. To digest all this information, there are likely readers who’ prefer this hefty tome over the discs to peruse at their leisure.
I hesitate to say The Untold History of the United States is indispensable viewing even though I’m certain that the more who watch it, the more many intellectual cobwebs will be blown away. It’s not for those who prefer to wear metaphorical blindfolds emblazoned with fatuous bumper-sticker slogans and platitudes. From this point forward, however, it will be difficult to describe yourself as a student of American history without having experienced Stone’s achievement.