Thursday, April 16, 2015

Oliver Stone's Untold History of the United States: ***1/2

Oliver Stone's 2012 documentary for Showtime, The Untold History of the United States, features 10 episodes starting with the Second World War and ending with the Obama years.  Don't be fooled by the pretentious title, Stone's documentary offers a thought provoking investigation of modern history.

The film consists of Stone's narration, archival footage, and some animation. Thankfully, no talking heads.

Most of the documentary deals America's engagement with the world.  The story is one of hubris and misplaced goals, a dangerous need to bend the world to its will.

Unlike most overviews of WWII, the documentary focuses on the Soviet Union's sacrifice of 20 million people in defeating Germany.  And yet America, after the war, insisted on running the post-war world, and immediately treated the Soviets as an adversary.  

Stone also raises serious questions about the decision to use the bomb twice on Japan. Of course historians have debated the issue for years.  A general consensus arose, best summarized in the Paul Fussell essay "Thank God for the Atom Bomb", argued that using the bomb was awful, but necessary.  Others believe the Japanese were ready to accept peace terms, making the use of the bomb unnecessary.  As decades roll by, America's use of the bombs grows more problematic.

Much of the documentary follows the New Left critique of foreign policy, one based on expanding markets at all costs.  Leaders in the establishment, the "wise men", as they came to be known, implemented a policy of Containment against the Soviets, involving massive military budgets, costly wars in Korea and Vietnam, and a maddening arms race.  The conventional narrative saw the Soviet Union as bent on global domination with the United States as the sole defender of freedom - a myth perpetuated to this day.

The series improves as it moves along, especially into contemporary history.  A few conclusions can be made.  The 1980s looked like wild west in world affairs, with proxy wars and interventions at every corner. Neoconservatives in the Reagan administration, the intellectual nemesis of the New Left, believed in supporting authoritarian regimes and reactionary movements in the Third World.

The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, greeted by many as an American victory in the Cold War, proved yet another misleading "victory" narrative.  Instead of welcoming Russia as a partner at "the end of history", the United States during the Bush and Clinton administrations continued to antagonize the Russians by expanding NATO, proceeding with anti-missile programs, and weaponizing space.

The First Gulf War in 1991 dazzled TV viewers as the U.S. military demonstrated its superiority for television audiences.  Stone raises the right questions about the new wars and our culture's worshipful attitude towards technology. Drone warfare promises an all new and perhaps deadlier arms race.

Stone singles out a few individuals in American history such as Franklin Roosevelt, Henry Wallace, Martin Luther King, and John F. Kennedy.  All looked beyond the constraints of their time and envisioned a peaceful future with America setting the example - and not at the barrel of a gun, missile, or drone.

Although you might not agree with all of Stone's conclusions, the documentary offers a strong argument for truth and considering the roads not taken.

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