Every now and again a book comes along that, after reading it, one wants to strongly recommend to the wider reading public. For me, such a book is The Untold History of the United States.
When commenting on this book The Guardian journalist, Ed Vulliamy, said “This is not history for history’s sake…, this is the history of our present and future; long beyond cold war, into war on terror, war on drugs.” When introducing his book, the co-author, Oliver Stone, stated that the contents of the book are what history students in the USA – and, by implication, history students everywhere – should be taught, rather than the re-cycled and homogenised versions for domestic consumption they are currently taught. The contents of the book justify this statement.
The Untold History of the United States is co-authored by the decorated Hollywood filmmaker Oliver Stone and the distinguished American University Professor of History Peter Kuznick. Both are North Americans writing about their own country. Daniel Ellsberg, the American economist, activist, and former USA military analyst, and author of the Pentagon Papers, says that the book is “a masterpiece”. Mikhail Gorbachev, the true force behind the ending of the Cold War, considers the book to be “indispensable reading.”
The history with which the book deals is the modern history of the USA. The period before the 20th Century receives no comment as the material commences with the period immediately before the First World War and the USA’s involvement in the Central American states. There is also a brief treatment of the Russian Revolution. This serves as a necessary foundation for the main content of the book’s overall material. The Untold History of the United States is the history of the period that the authors, Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, designate as “the rise and decline of the American empire.”
The book chronicles a “riveting landmark account of the rise and decline of this empire – the most powerful and dominant force the world as ever seen.” It is a broad narrative that traverses the landscape of a century that the American magazine magnate Henry Luce declared would be the “American Century”. Throughout the book, the authors parallel this concept with that attributed to President Roosevelt’s Vice President, Henry Wallace, that the 20th Century should be “the Century of the Common Man.” It is crystal clear that the authors of this important book on the history on the USA favour the view of Wallace over that of Luce.
The book is a lengthy and elaborate, highly detailed and incisive, investigation of USA history. It is impeccably sourced from the latest research and recently classified documents – personal accounts, government records, biographies and autobiographies, a comprehensive variety of historians and history books, with detailed chapter by chapter notes. The book’s pages are filled with pictures, and the occasional cartoon, of historical persons and events, declassified documents and records, and historical datelines.
The erudition of The Untold History of the United States is quite remarkable, as, beginning with the USA’s forays into Central and South America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it plots step-by-step the course of a self-destructive latter-day American history. The concluding section of the edition of the book under review, 2019, comments on Donald Trump’s “cavalier and precedent-defying approach” to presidency. It could be called “the truth on Trump”, and the antics and pronouncements, the follies, of this president could be viewed as an inevitable outcome of the preceding American century.
Reading the book is itself a massive undertaking, as it chock-full of information and deals with aspects of and opinions about USA history that, seemingly, have never been taught in the classrooms of America – or anywhere else for that matter!
As indicated in the above, there is also a documentary film series of the book. Having seen these documentaries, which originally appeared on the Public Service Broadcasting Channel (PBS) in the USA, and are now on DVD and Blu-ray, this writer, again, strongly recommends their viewing. In addition to the material in the book, the documentaries contain interviews with the authors and other prominent figures in the political world. The DVDs bring the full force of the book to the screen and impacts both the imagination and the conscience with the breadth and depth of its footage. It helps the enquirer to understand why this history has rarely seen the light of day in the educational establishments of the USA.
Oliver Stone asks a series of penetrating questions with both the written and filmed material: Do Americans really know and understand their shared and complicated history? How do the citizens of the USA recall the small details and forgotten players that influenced some of the biggest events from America’s past? Will American children, present and future, actually “get” the whole story from reading history books? And how will the foregoing (the events presented in the book) affect the future of the United States of America?
Oliver Stone also narrates the filming contained on the DVDs and his voice is accompanied by suitably serious, sometimes ominous, music as the commentary presses on to summations, insights, and conclusions that are important for the world, as well as the USA. In the process, the material features such well-known Americans as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George Bush senior and junior, Barack Obama and, of course, Donald J. Trump. Many not so well-known, but important figures in USA history, are also covered, e.g. Woodrow Wilson and Henry Wallace, and many others.
The book builds “a meticulously documented and shocking picture of the American empire.” Further, it is the view of the book’s authors that this empire has “determined the course of world events for the interests of the few across the 20th Century and beyond.” The motivation and emotion behind the book can be seen in the concluding paragraph. “At the start of this journey, when we began the documentary film and book project, we dedicated it to our six children – biological, adopted, and step, of Asian, African, and European ancestry – and ‘the better world that they and all children deserve’. We end on the same note, affirming our faith in our often misguided, sometimes destructive, and occasionally exalted species, to someday achieve that goal.”
As a former teacher of secondary school history, but never one who has formally studied or taught American history to any great extent, I found this book, published by Penguin at a very competitive price, and the documentary series, to be a most valuable source of information and recollection. I can recommend both the book, The Untold History of the United States, and the DVD series of the same name, without equivocation.
To conclude, Oliver Stone offers his personal testimony: “From the outset I’ve looked at this project as a legacy to my children and a way to understand the times I’ve lived through. I hope it can contribute to a more global, broader insight into our (American) history.”
Read, view, and understand.
After a Spring and Summer when the British, if not the worldwide, conversation has been dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the arrival of Autumn finds that Brexit is back on the scene. The major topic within the Britain and Brexit conversation is the thorny subject of Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom.
Those familiar with this writer will know that I have often argued for the rightful status within the UK of Northern Ireland – otherwise known as Ulster. This argument has included comment on the perplexing nature of Northern Ireland’s British identity. This can be seen in the ongoing Brexit negotiations, where the British government has suggested that there be a UK border with the Irish Republic down the middle of the Irish Sea. Such a suggestion means that there would be no recognisable land border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.
So too, the occlusion of Northern Ireland from being an intrinsic part of the UK, can be most brazenly seen when, in recent years, British sporting teams have been called “Great Britain”, or “Team GB”!
Realistically, as well as technically, Great Britain is an island containing the UK countries of Wales, Scotland, and England – but not Northern Ireland. However, Northern Ireland, though not a part of the island of Great Britain, is a constituent country of the United Kingdom. So Northern Ireland must take its rightful place when teams represent the UK. These teams should not be called “Team GB”! What is wrong with “Team UK”?
This matter reintroduced itself to my consciousness recently when I came across an article, written several years ago, that spoke of the reaction within the UK to the Scottish independence referendum of September 2014. Most of the fall-out from this event had focused on the umbrage that England, the largest partner in the union of the British states, had taken with the promise of more devolved powers for the Scottish parliament. As usual, Northern Ireland opinion, as with the Welsh perspective, had tended towards being ignored, or at least, not heard very loudly.
Northern Ireland has always had close links with Scotland. Many immigrants went to Ulster from Scotland. Scottish west coast seaports are a favoured way for Ulster people to enter the Great Britain mainland. My maternal grandparents left Northern Ireland for Glasgow, Scotland, just before my mother was born. Not surprisingly, my late mother considered herself to be Irish. So, a significant part of my ancestry is Irish.
If, in 2014, Scotland had said “Yes” to independence, then Northern Ireland would have been squeezed between an independent Eurozone state to the south, the Irish Republic (Eire), and an independent and likely Eurozone state a few miles across the sea to the east. The British national flags, conspicuously seen around Ulster, would have been drained of some colour, and the Orange Order on both sides of the Irish Sea may have had cause to question some loyalties.
So, as one newspaper put it, “We had people who believe in the political unity of the island of Ireland supporting the political partition of the island of Great Britain; whilst people who supported the continuing partition of Ireland tramped the streets in support of the unity of Britain”.
To put it another way, Northern Ireland wanted Scotland to stay within the UK, but itself wants no part of the Irish Republic. On the other hand, Scotland had a referendum on withdrawing from the UK, yet wished Ulster to remain as part of the UK and not join with the Irish Republic.
To emphasise the ironical, it seems that a pub on the (Roman Catholic and pro-Irish union) Falls Road in Belfast, paid for a pro-independence (for Scotland) “Yes” billboard. So too, on the eve of the referendum, poll graffiti artists climbed halfway up Black Mountain – a hill on the outskirts of Belfast and visible from almost everywhere in that city – and painted a “Yes Scotland” message. Meanwhile, in support of the campaign of “No” to independence for Scotland, the pro-UK Union, anti-Irish unification, Loyal Orange Order held street marches in the Scottish capital, Edinburgh, during the week before the referendum vote.
The British Isles certainly have their fair share of irony. Ironies do, indeed, abound! Yet, one further irony sits quietly in the background, that is, we were told, even if the people of Scotland had voted in their referendum to leave the UK, Elizabeth Windsor, the Head of the UK State, would have remained, at least for the foreseeable future, as Head of State for Scotland!
In the event of Scotland becoming independent of the UK, the remaining union of British countries might well have complained about such things as the continuing use of sterling in the Scottish banking system, the matter of Scotland retaining Scottish oil, border controls and passport requirements, but it seems that there would have been no argument about a British monarch remaining as the Head of State for the independent nation of Scotland! As a republican, and a Scot by birth, I find that to be the biggest irony of all.
Strange people, us Brits!
When I worked in community organising with World Vision UK (WVUK), my office tried to appropriately respond to the volatile sectarian situation in Belfast, the capital city of Northern Ireland, by having two concurrent community organising projects – one in the Roman Catholic Falls Road and another at the top of the Protestant Shankill Road. The arrangement seemed to work satisfactorily.
Notwithstanding, I always sought to go the extra mile. So, when I went to Belfast on WVUK business, I was accommodated in the Roman Catholic Cathedral. The cathedral was located on the Falls Road, Furthermore, I had the privilege of staying in the same apartment as the most senior Roman Catholic in the whole of the Irish island – the All-Ireland Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church – when he visited Belfast.
The situation was that of a Protestant minister of religion (as I was at the time), and a republican (as I still am), having a room, not at a neutral, non-sectarian “inn”, but high up in the tower of the Roman Catholic Cathedral in a predominantly Protestant and pro-UK union city! Rather ironic really, but it does indicate that you do not have to be a royalist in Northern Ireland, nor a Roman Catholic, to be respected for being a concerned human being!
The music of Aram Khachaturian is an acquired taste. This is especially so where his symphonies are concerned. Those persons coming to his symphonic output expecting a typical “European” sound of music will be surprised, disappointed, delighted or rendered speechless. It has been said that this composer’s style is a blend of traditional Russian and “Transcaucasian” elements – central Asian or oriental. This can be explained in terms of his personal background and music education.
Aram Khachaturian was born in 1903 in the multicultural city of Tiflis, the capital of Georgia. His family background was Armenia and he is generally regarded as a Soviet “Armenian” composer. He died in 1978 and is buried in Yerevan, Armenia – a country probably best known as the location of Mount Ararat, upon which, according to the biblical story of the flood, Noah’s Ark came to rest. So too, Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity. An understanding of Khachaturian’s personal and music philosophy can be approached through an examination of his three symphonies, as well as his attractive concertos for violin and piano.
This article will focus on Khachaturian’s symphonic output.
Aram Khachaturian’s rather unconventional symphonies require an approach that is independent of a western European understanding and appreciation of the genre and, therefore, the listener’s musical mind should be open to a more aggressive and dynamic sound – a musical sound quite different to that of most of the well-known composers in the development of classical music. However, Khachaturian’s symphonies do contain echoes of his European counterparts, e.g. Gustav Mahler, as well as the more traditional Russian composers (Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev, and one of his teachers at the Moscow Conservatoire, Miaskovsky). Whatever the case, the effervescent and emotionally arousing music of this composer provides enjoyable and satisfying listening – appreciation of which grows with repeated playing.
The Symphony No.1 (1934) is dedicated to the 15th Anniversary of Soviet Armenia. The music contains traditional Russian elements but with a style that has been described as “Transcaucasian” (see above). The musicologist, Deryck Cooke, has described the first symphony as “impressionistic and quiet, barbaric and noisy, but absolutely fascinating”. The opening of the first movement indicates the direction the music will take.
The large symphony orchestra provides an energetic platform upon which to construct the movement, before what seems to be a delightful, and recognisably Russian, main theme is heard. There is also a suggestion of jaunty jazz music. The whole is built into a massive climax (one of many in this symphony). The slow movement is marked “Adagio Sostenuto”, but there is not a great deal of that which is “slow and sustained” in the music. Notwithstanding, the movement concludes with due dignity. The third movement contains elements of dance music, with themes initially heard in the first movement now combined with oriental strains. This is an attractive mix and carries the symphony to a bright and energetic conclusion.
By the time of the Symphony No.2, sub-titled “The Bell”, Khachaturian’s fame as a composer had become widespread – chiefly through the popularity of his concertos for piano (1936) and violin (1940), as well as his ballet music. The 2nd Symphony was a product of the Russian experience of WW2, commonly remembered in that country as the “Great Patriotic War”. It was certainly seen as such by Aram Khachaturian and the 2nd Symphony is probably his most profound, and best known, symphonic work. Its composition began as the Nazis invaded western Russia in 1940, and the symphony was premiered in 1943. In between those years, the agony of the Russian people evolved.
The Symphony No.2 has a higher level of dramatic expression and this is immediately evident in the symphony’s first movement. The “colourful instrumentation, passionate melodies, balletic rhythms, and instrumental virtuosity” of the second movement reflects the Asiatic elements in the composer’s background. The elegiac third movement contains echoes of the 13th century “Dies irae” chant, showing the religious flavouring of some aspects of Russian music. This movement contains massive musical climaxes and “The Bell”, the sub-title of this symphony, can be distinctively heard – the sound of alarm for the Russian people. The fourth and final movement of the 2nd Symphony is pregnant with optimism as it conveys the people’s triumph over oppression. The characteristic brass contribution to Khachaturian’s music is very much to the fore in this movement and, after a mountainous cascade of sound, the symphony ends in a sea of tranquillity.
Khachaturian’s Symphony No.3 (1947) was composed for the 30th Anniversary of the October Revolution. It is a symphonic cavalcade of triumph and rejoicing. Somewhat unique in the symphonic repertoire, it is a one movement composition that again uses a large orchestra, with an organ and a prominent part for an extra quota of trumpets. Despite an almost unrecognisable pedigree, the music has an irresistible energy and awesome power.
The work commences with a quiet organ solo and is gradually joined by the orchestra. The violins are prominent before the trumpets echo the main thematic material. All these elements are gradually combined until the force of their energies moulds a climax of strength and brilliance before offering a more tranquil conclusion. A mesmerising piece that one critic described as “an astounding creation, a vision of almost unstoppable energy and fierce muscular strength descending from afar, borne on a high wind, bursting upon us with shattering force.” Wow!
The music of Khachaturian is limited in its profusion of recordings and it has not enjoyed productions by the more popular recording studios. However, the ASV label has been faithful to this composer, as has the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra and its conductor, Loris Tjeknavorian. However, there are few composers who express their loyalty and passion to the people and modern history of Russia (or Soviet Union when this nomenclature was appropriate) than Aram Khachaturian. Wearing its passion on its sleeve, the music of the composer – often noisy and violent, sometimes serene, but always reflective and loaded with expression and meaning – searches the soul of his nation.