For more than a generation, Charles and Mary Beard’s Rise of American Civilization was the one history book on the shelf of practically every educated American—including my staunch Republican parents.
Charles had been the most admired figure in U.S. history scholarship since the 1910s, and Mary Beard, whose work forecast the future rise of women’s history, was no slouch (and probably a better writer). The Cold War historians, most notably Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., dethroned them and their book as isolationist-minded and as unwilling to accept the leading U.S. role in the world as legitimate and if not permanent, at least lasting through the rest of the “American Century.”
Other sweeping history surveys have come and gone during the last sixty years or so. None have had the same popularity or influence on the popular mind. At least until now.
Co-authors Stone (a famed filmmaker) and Kuznick (a historian of science, the Cold War, and associated nuclear threats) do not have the cred of the Beards, because no one has or could. But it is interesting that they have much the same attackers, several generations on.
At the appearance of the Untold Story, yesterday’s Cold War crowd (hawkish liberal Sean Wilentz and less notable neoconservatives) declared jihad. A ridiculous book, a travesty, and worse. Subversives, the critics charge, had already told the same tale in 1950, when the Cold War was young—and look what happened to them. “Cuckoo” (Wilentz’s word), insane, unthinkable and worse than that. This literary mirror of the ten-part TV series that is being watched and evidently enjoyed by millions of viewers of the Showtime channel might even be dangerous!
To remind ourselves of how threatening a film or TV series and book might be, we need to go back in time again, but more recently, to the Vietnam Era that reshaped the anonymous soldier who became Oliver Stone. Madison’s own William Appleman Williams, a Naval Academy graduate, Christian socialist and veteran of the Pacific conflict, set forth in The Tragedy of American Diplomacy the notion that Empire was deep in the national DNA, and not at all benign. Meanwhile a former Air Force bombardier, Howard Zinn, became a major crusader for pacifism and opponent of the U.S. invasion of Vietnam.
Williams and Zinn spoke with an authority of a special kind, and they rattled the cages of the hawks with what became known as a hated “revisionism.” They revised Americans’ visions of themselves.
M*A*S*H, nominally about the Korean War but really about Vietnam, eventually became the most-viewed television series in history. Oliver Stone’s cinematic work has had more than a few admirers as well.
The Untold History of the United States owes much to the Beards, to Williams and to Zinn, for the scrupulous research, sweeping insight and dogged determination to get at the roots of the matter. Their audience is ready to listen because the disillusionment with war at large—the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan in particular—is by now equal to the disillusionment with war after the catastrophe of 1914-19 and then again, amid the Vietnam misadventure.
Authentic conservatives (now relabeled paleo-conservatives, to mark them off from war-hungry neoconservatives), liberals, radicals and others, including a considerable segment of Barack Obama’s voters (but not his current Secretary of State or the rest of the diplomatic corps, military or intelligence divisions at large) have shown themselves sick of the expense as well as the bloodshed. They may not know who or what, exactly, to blame for the mess, but they know pretty well why, for instance, they hated George W. Bush so much. And they are listening, learning more.
Woodrow Wilson and his propaganda machine, shutting out dissent when not sending dissenters to jail, offer the first strong dose of what the authors of the Untold History have in mind. The worshipful praise of Wilson as godfather of modern liberalism with nature-loving Teddy Roosevelt his inspiration, get tossed out the window. Bob La Follette, fighting against empire, is the real hero here, with Eugene Debs and others.
We proceed through the complications of FDR and the New Deal, with such outright isolationists as Senator Gerald Nye (he led Congressional hearings exposing the war profiteers of 1917) as the muckrakers. Franklin Roosevelt himself gets a mixed treatment and, as the book’s attackers charge, Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace, the very soul of the people’s programs at the heart of New Deal promise, wins the plaudit for visionary leadership. He had to be crushed by the Business Democrats, the Machine Democrats and the Dixie Democrats, denied the 1944 renomination as vice-president that would have made him a central player after 1945. And he was.
The book’s stories of visionary Wallace and of the bullying, power-hungry Harry Truman who did get the crucial VP nod, are not so much unfamiliar as almost never accepted by mainstream scholars and popularists.
Critics complain that even if granted a grain of truth, this version is told from the top down, and it’s a fair charge (Willliam A. Williams faced the same criticisms.) They insist that the book is full of conspiracy at the top, and that complaint is accurate, for reasons we now appreciate best thanks to the lessons of the Bush/Cheney years: There is conspiracy at the top. And has been for a very long time.
How else could the military-industrial complex have put across their schemes for vast riches and power, threatening the planet’s residents with annihilation and leaving the bill with the taxpayer?
Truman, by 1950 the most hated president since Herbert Hoover of the early Depression years, has long been given such a whitewash that the critics of the Untold History can insist Harry was actually popular (as he was, for a few months here and there, before descending so far downward that he could not be reelected in 1952, and knew it).
Stone and Kuznick go onward from Truman to Dwight Eisenhower, who has gotten better marks recently than he receives here, with his Cold War sins on display. The story grows ever darker as the sixties arrive, nuclear war is barely averted, LBJ rides into power and then loses himself in the Vietnam crusade.
One senses that Stone himself and his collaborator with him are feeling the heat of history quite personally. And for good reason. For those of us over sixty, these are our lives. One neo-imperial crusade after another, conducted with barely legal coverings or none at all, continue, the characters seemingly growing ever worse.
Bill Clinton, remembered with fondness by some, squanders the opportunity to make the end of the Cold War into a working global democracy. It was too simple, too tempting, to grasp for the chimera of permanent, total world control, with “human rights” now supplanting Christianity and Manifest Destiny as rationale. Then, still worse ahead.
Viewers of episodes on the Bush wars have had a good foretaste in Michael Moore’s work. The bitterness of military veterans and their families will probably be better on display here, because Stone needs to make the case of his own cohort and its successors sent on crazed, blood-dripping crusades. The Obama years, highlighting the defense of a wounded empire, will prove the most controversial, prompting liberals of some standing to tear out their hair and curse Stone along with Kuznick for something approaching treason, or at least an unwanted truths.
Actually, both of them supported Barack Obama, and winced or wept, along with the rest of us, at the foreign policy differences that the changeover in the presidency has not made, at least not so far.
The Untold History will not always be a fun series to watch, above all because of the opportunities for peace missed and missed again. But the series is itself history being made, and vital to see.
Paul Buhle, in collaboration with Dave Wagner and artist Mike Konopacki, adapted Howard Zinn’s People’s History into comic art form as A People’s History of American Empire.
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