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.