Daniel Ellsberg, the “Watergate” commentator, said that the book is “a masterpiece”. Mikhail Gorbachev, the true force behind the ending of the Cold War, considered the book to be “indispensable” reading. I speak, of course, of the Peter Kuznick and Oliver Stone book The Untold History of the United States.
Peter Kuznick is a professor of history and the director of the award-winning Nuclear Studies Institute at American University. Oliver Stone is a Hollywood movie director who has won numerous Academy Awards for his work on such iconic films as Wall Street, JFK and Born on the Fourth of July. Stone further directed a DVD series of the same name from the book. The documentary series is compulsive viewing.
The book is a valuable insight for any student or chronicler of the history of the United States of America. Perhaps this statement should be qualified with the further statement that the American history with which the book deals is the relatively modern history of the USA. The material commences near the beginning of the 20th century with the period immediately before the First World War and the USA’s involvement in the Central American states. This is also the period of the Russian Revolution. This serves as a necessary foundation for the main content of the overall narrative. The period before the 20th. Century receives sparse comment, except in passing
So, the focus of the book is the history of the period that the authors, Peter Kuznick and Oliver Stone, name as the century which saw “the rise and decline of the American empire”. Using the “latest research and recently declassified documents” the book builds a meticulously documented and shocking picture of the American empire – “the most powerful and dominant force the world has ever seen”. 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 twentieth century and beyond.” According to Oliver Stone, these events and the interests behind them, are little understood by the citizens of the USA.
In his DVD commentary, Oliver Stone has stated that a primary reason for co-writing the book and making the documentary series is to make Americans, and particularly young Americans, more generally aware of an American history that is rarely mentioned in the nation’s classrooms.
The latest edition of the book, published in 2019, has a section on “The Truth on Trump”. The latest Blu-Ray, four disc version of Oliver Stone’s documentary series includes two Prologues (I) “Chapter A: “WW1 and the Russian Revolution”, and (2) “Chapter B: 1920-40”, as well as “A Conversation with History: Tariq Ali and Oliver Stone.” Reading the actual book is itself a massive undertaking, as it chock-full of information on the relevant 20th Century events, contains a most impressive catalogue of notes and references, and deals with aspects of and opinions about USA history that are rarely part of contemporary awareness or discussion.
The DVD documentaries 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.
Particularly of interest to this reader was the sections of the book that mentioned the figure of Henry Wallace. Wallace was the Minister of Agriculture in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Democratic administration in the USA prior to and during WW2. Wallace was pastoralist and a passivist. He was expected to be named as Roosevelt’s Vice-Presidential candidate at the 1944 USA national elections. Wallace had made a distinct impression in his role in the Roosevelt government and was known for his anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist views and his deep concern for human rights. He was more popular amongst the American electorate than all other vice-presidential candidates combined.
However, at the 11th hour before the 1944 elections, Roosevelt was persuaded by conservative power brokers in the Democratic Party to replace Wallace with Harry S. Truman. Truman was a little known and undistinguished Senator from mid-west America. He had made few enemies and he was considered unlikely to rock the boat. Kuznick and Stone point out that, as well as his apparent racism and antisemitism, little thought was apparently given to the attributes that would be necessary for Truman to lead the USA and the world in the challenging times ahead.
It was as USA President that Harry Truman authorized the dropping of the atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. It is open to speculation as to what world history since 1944 would have been had Henry Wallace become President of the USA. Perhaps a matter of “altered states”?
Oliver Stone asks a series of penetrating questions with 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, get the whole story from reading their history books? How will the foregoing affect the ongoing history of the United States of America?
Oliver Stone narrates the DVD filming. His quiet and sombre voice is accompanied by suitably serious, sometimes ominous, music as the commentary presses on to important, for the world as well as the USA, summations, insights and conclusions. In the process, the material features such well-known Americans as Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Nixon, Reagan, Bush senior and junior, Obama and, of course, Trump. Many not so well-known, but important figures in USA history are also covered, e.g., Woodrow Wilson and General Smedley Butler, James F. Byrnes and Henry Wallace, as well as many of those in-between. Figures are combined with facts, characters with consequences, in a narrative that is never less than compelling.
As a former teacher of secondary school history, but never one who had studied or taught American history to any great extent, I found this book and documentary series a valuable source of information and recollection – urging a desire to forego retirement and take up the history books again with, of course, a focus on American history. Without equivocation, I can recommend both the book and the DVD series to the widest readership.
In this book 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 history”. He dedicates the book to his own children as well as “the better world that they and all children deserve”. As well, he affirms his faith in the “often misguided, sometimes destructive and occasionally exalted species to someday achieve that goal”.