Movie Review: “Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the Unites States” – posted 4/26/2014
Before I viewed this 10 hour documentary, I wondered what it would be like. Having seen many of Stone’s movies (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, Nixon and W. come immediately to mind) I did not know if he would veer off into weird conspiratorialism.
I still remember the hazy, surreal scenes from JFK when it appeared like he was implicating LBJ in JFK’s assassination. While Americans seem fascinated by conspiracy theories, that was too strange and irrational. LBJ has enough bad karma without piling on JFK’s assassination.
I have to report that Stone plays it straight in this film. It is pretty conventional stylistically although the film has a progressive take on recent American history. To his credit, Stone does cover much history you never see in the mainstream media. The movie starts with World War II and in 10 hourly episodes it takes us up to Obama.
I liked the film and Stone’s perspective. In his retelling, he particularly exposes the history of U.S. imperialism and our many interventions around the world. His focus is much more on foreign than domestic policy. He also tells the story by focusing on big name leaders, especially Presidents.
It is a massive undertaking to explore American history for such an extended period and such a series necessitates choices. Although I have seen Stone’s movie compared to Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, what Stone attempts is quite different. He covers history from the top down. This series is not focused on people’s movements.
He does make clever use of Hollywood films to illustrate points. I loved his scenes from Dr. Strangelove, still probably the greatest comedy ever. Peter Sellers and George C. Scott were phenomenal in that movie.
Stone highlights some critical moments where history turned. I will mention a couple such moments where I learned things from the movie I never heard about before. The first of these moments occurred in 1944.
Henry Wallace, clearly a hero to Stone, was a candidate for Vice-President. He was the sitting Vice-President, elected in 1940 along with FDR. Stone tells what happened at the Democratic Convention held in Chicago in 1944. (When it comes to Democratic Conventions in Chicago, I always think of 1968). I knew nothing about the 1944 convention.
In what was a watershed moment, Wallace came extremely close to being the vice-presidential nominee. Congressman Claude Pepper was going to nominate Wallace on the convention floor. The hall was packed with Wallace supporters and the prevailing wisdom was that Wallace would be the nominee and the vote would be that night. He had strong support from labor and the progressive wing of the Democrats although he was widely disliked in the south and also by more conservative elements in the Democratic Party.
The Democratic Party bosses who did not want Wallace played dirty. They abruptly adjourned the convention that night when the floor was packed with Wallace supporters. They did it in spite of a voice vote that did not support adjournment. Stone says they wanted time to unite behind an anti-Wallace candidate. Congressman Pepper was a few feet from the microphone and his desired goal to put Wallace’s name into nomination. He never made it to the mic.
The extra time allowed by the adjournment gave the party bosses time to mobilize behind the candidacy of Harry Truman. The momentum for Wallace faded. After several ballots, support shifted to Truman who ended up getting the nomination, largely behind the party bosses organizing. Probably not helping things for Wallace was FDR’s equivocal support for his candidacy.
FDR died in 1945 and Truman ascended to the presidency. If Wallace had been the nominee rather than Truman, Wallace would have become president when FDR died.
Stone gets us to ponder this “what if” moment in history. Could the Cold War have been avoided? How about the nuclear arms race? And what about Sen. Joe McCarthy and his Red Scare?
Wallace espoused very different views than Truman. He did not have Truman’s hostility toward the Russians. He favored peaceful co-existence of the two social systems. Wallace had frequently been accused of being a communist. It is impossible to know but maybe things would have played out differently. Wallace was not as intent as Truman on using the nuclear monopoly to gain political advantage. Stone clearly thinks we might have avoided a very dark period if we had a leadership that was less bellicose.
In 1946, Truman fired Wallace from his position as Secretary of Commerce. FDR had appointed Wallace to that post after Wallace lost the vice-presidential nomination. Wallace had been speaking out questioning Truman’s foreign policy. He presciently said that the Truman Doctrine would mark the beginning of a century of fear.
Later Wallace ran for President in 1948 on the Progressive Party ticket. Wallace ran on a platform advocating friendlier relations with the Soviet Union, an end to colonialism, an end to segregation, full voting rights for African Americans and universal health insurance. During the campaign he was redbaited. Wallace had dabbled in the occult and a series of letters he had written became public. Wallace’s eccentric religious beliefs and the letters became a big distraction. Both major party candidates, Truman and Dewey, decimated Wallace in the 1948 election. Wallace got zero electoral votes and 2.4% of the popular vote.
A second critical moment that Stone highlights was an incident during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. I had never heard the story he told. It was an extremely scary time. I remember going to school and wondering if I would be coming home that night. I do not think there was any time when the world was so close to a nuclear war.
During the crisis, an American submarine, the USS Beale, dropped depth charges on the B-59, a nuclear-armed Soviet submarine. The Soviet sub had been trying to hide. Other U.S. destroyers also participated in dropping depth charges. The destroyers meant the depth charges as warning shots but the B-59 thought it was under attack. The destroyers wanted the Soviet sub to surface for identification.
The B-59 sub had not had any contact with Moscow for a number of days.The sub had been too deep to monitor radio traffic since it had been in hiding mode.Those on board did not know if war had broken out. Conditions on the B-59 had been terrible. It had been sweltering hot on the sub over 104 degrees F. Men were fainting from the heat.
The captain of the Soviet sub, Valentin Savitsky wanted to launch a 10 kiloton nuclear torpedo because he believed war might already have broken out. The target was the USS Randolf, a giant aircraft carrier leading the American taskforce. There were three officers on board the B-59. Along with Savitsky were the political officer Ivan Maslennikov and the second in command Vasili Arkhipov. The three were authorized to launch the torpedo if they had lost touch with the Soviet chain of command and they unanimously agreed to the launch. Savitsky initiated the nuclear weapons firing protocol. Maslennikov said “yes” to fire the torpedo. Arkhipov said “no”. Since they lacked unanimity, they did not fire. Under tremendous pressure, Arkhipov held out. Rather than launching the nuclear torpedo, the B-59 surfaced. They were not sure if surfacing meant their death.
As Stone makes clear, Vasili Arkhipov, a total unknown to this day, saved the world from the consequences of a nuclear launch. Arkhipov did not come home to a hero’s welcome. The Russian military saw his action as a surrender. When you step back from the story, it is remarkable that we are all not more aware of what happened. An unknown and unheralded nobody saved the entire world from what would no doubt have been utterly catastrophic harm.
The DVD has some bonus material including a wide-ranging taped conversation between Tariq Ali and Stone that is enjoyable. Stone likes to be a bad boy. He takes up any number of topics that have evaded wide discussion like the role of U.S. business interests including Ford Motor Co., IBM and banks who did business with the Nazis before and during the war. He notes the role of the CIA in handing over the names of suspected Indonesian Communist Party members to the Indonesian military in 1965 when the military crackdown turned into a mass murder. Stone says 1,000,000 Indonesian communists died in that atrocity.
It can be dense and it is long but students of history will get something out of it. It is nice to see a documentary on U.S. history that steps outside conventional wisdom.