From war hero to war crimes: Oliver Stone’s journey through US history
With his new series, Oliver Stone wants to revise the accepted version of American history. It’s controversial, unapologetic and, says the director, the culmination of a lifetime’s work
From left, Clement Attlee, Harry Truman and Joseph Stalin at the Potsdam Conference in July 1945
US director Oliver Stone. Photograph: Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images
In a hotel room in Soho, the American historian Peter Kuznick starts telling me about the origins of his and Oliver Stone’s television series, The Untold History of the United States . Stone himself, tired after a day of interviews, is pottering around the room, asking the PR questions about the previous journalists, ducking out to the bathroom. Later, he wanders over to his PA to request some chocolate.
“I was teaching a class called Oliver Stone’s America,” says Kuznick, which seems to be Stone’s cue to sit down.
“That’s me,” he booms. Over the course of the interview he controls the flow of conversation but regularly passes questions to his collaborator when he feels Kuznick has a better handle on the subject – “Peter, tell Patrick about . . . ” he’ll say.
“I’ve been using Oliver’s films to structure a history class since 1996,” continues Kuznick. “We’ve been talking about politics ever since. In 2007, we were sitting down for dinner and he said ‘Peter let’s do it. Let’s do an hour-long documentary about the origins of the cold war and [left-leaning US vice-president] Henry Wallace and the bomb.’ When I saw him two week later, it was a 10-hour series.”
Using Stone’s films to structure a history course makes sense, particularly if you come from the left. No matter what the subject, a more shadowy, manipulative US emerges from his work: war (Platoon ); foreign policy (Salvador ); media (Natural Born Killers ); economics (Wall Street ); politics (JFK, Nixon, W ); or the war on drugs (Savages ). Oliver Stone’s America is startlingly at odds with the nation’s heroic self-image.
“I would admit that that’s true,” says Stone and laughs. The Untold History of the United States argues, through narration by Stone, that the USSR rather than the US beat the Nazis – “Britain and America fought 10 German divisions combined in that war; the USSR fought 200 German divisions,” says Kuznick – that it was unnecessary to drop the atomic bombs on Japan, and that since the war, America has been a trouble-making busy-body.
Controversial as some of this might be to Americans, Stone agrees that these aren’t exactly “untold” views and they’re certainly not surprising for Europeans. “I grew up a little bit in Europe in the 1950s because my mother is French,” he says. “They always criticised America as a rich country. Then Vietnam was a huge issue in Europe, and during the Iraq war there was huge protest in Europe. In America, France and Germany were dismissed as old Europe. French fries had to be changed to ‘freedom fries’.
“The attitude was that old Europe was always cranky and always critical of the US and that we would have to act alone. That’s what gave Bush the sense of empowerment, that entitlement that we don’t need anybody, that we can do it by ourselves. Your prime minister unfortunately was Bush’s puppy dog,” he adds.
I point out that Tony Blair wasn’t my prime minister, but Stone doesn’t hear me.
“If Blair had held out and gone the other way with Bush it might have made more of a dent,” he says and shakes his head sadly. “And what’s going on now in Europe? Have you become deadened to the American use of force around the world? Have you in some way given up, tired of fighting this beast for years, just content they won’t start World War III? There’s this resignation that comes over the older person who says ‘well, the US, if it weren’t them it would be somebody worse’.”
Stone’s own politics have not been made gentle by age, but he didn’t start out as a radical. “I was born conservative, a Republican,” he says. “My father was a colonel in the war. I served in Vietnam and my French grandfather was in the French army. I believed in fighting communism. I wasn’t radicalised by the war. I came home numbed. It took another 10 years of evolution to get to a place where I went to Central America and saw that what was going on was wrong. American troops were there. It was Vietnam redux.
“That’s when I made Salvador [set during the Salvadorian civil war]. There’s a speech by Jimmy Woods to the military attaché saying, ‘Why are you going around the world making these Frankenstein monsters? You give us these dictators, these death squads, these mad men who in the name of capitalism and free markets destroy their fellow citizens.’ ”
So the scales fell off your eyes? “It started after Vietnam,” he says, “the scales coming off the eyes. Watergate was certainly powerful. As were the Church Committee hearings revealing the CIA black ops all over the world, those interventions we didn’t know about but always suspected. By Salvador , I was committed to making a more progressive kind of film.”
He talks about Richard Boyle, the photojournalist, cowriter and subject of Salvador , “a fiery Irish man who took the scales off my eyes about Central America. He’d been to Cambodia and Vietnam. He was as crazy as they come, always looking for trouble spots. Jimmy Woods caught only about three quarters of how crazy he was – the kind of madness that drives the world, willing to sacrifice his life again and again. He had a crazy Irish attitude.”
Stone looks at me apologetically (he now realises I’m Irish). “Maybe I’m being clichéd, but I saw him take on men three times his size in a knuckle fight. He’d make big men cry.”
Henry Wallace’s America
Stone likes heroic outliers. The hero in early episodes of the Untold History is Henry Wallace, the left leaning vice-president who wanted the 20th century to be “the century of the common man”.
Wallace would have succeeded Roosevelt had he not been ousted in favour of Truman as vice-president towards the end of the war. Stone and Kuznick maintain that this is a key moment. Wallace’s America, they suggest, would have been more egalitarian and less militarised. It would not have dropped the bomb on Japan, and would have adopted a more conciliatory attitude towards the USSR.
“I’d like to have lived in Wallace’s America,” says Stone. “Most people wanted Wallace back as vice-president. The coup happened among the Democratic party bosses. It’s an instance where mass movements didn’t work. The atomic bomb is another instance. People did not vote on the atomic bomb. On the other hand, the New Deal is something people voted on.”
Kuznick and Stone are fans of popular, democratic, ground-up movements and hope that in some small way their series might inspire some new ones. “I want to make history come alive for our young people,” says Stone. “History is fascinating but they get bored with it. And the reason I think they get bored with it, in America anyway, is they hear the same narrative over and over and don’t believe it. It’s a Disney world kind of bullshit. If you let more of a horror story come out, it’s juicier and I think the kids go ‘Yeah, I believe we did that’. I think we have to admit to the horror and terror we bring to the rest of the world, to the peasants of Central America or to the peasants of Indonesia. ”
“When people do admit it, it’s as an isolated incident, an aberration,” says Kuznick, tapping the table gently. “Not a recurrent pattern.”
“The atomic bomb is a crucial founding myth in the US,” says Stone. “Once you have that muscle, you never give it up. Unfortunately, it gave us a great sense of self-love. Might became right so everything we did was judged as right and good. We enacted a morality code for ourselves that made us exempt from criminal behaviour. The Iraq war was universally trashed as an illegal, useless war, but even US liberals just see it as a mistake. ‘Bush lied to us.’ Well I think we really did something evil there. We took a whole society and rendered it. Americans don’t know the effects of what they do. [Former secretary of defence] Robert McNamara was stunned in the 1990s to hear that 3.8 million had died in Vietnam; he always thought it was a lesser figure. Peter asks his classes how many Vietnamese died in Vietnam.”
“Some of them guess as low as 10,0000,” says Kuznick.
“People don’t know,” says Stone. “There’s a walking away from things that only the atomic bomb allows you to do. Because you have the might, you don’t have to feel bad or pay for your sins.”
In this regard, Untold History is an important corrective. Sometimes, however, it seems to suggest that nefarious US foreign policy might be equivalent to Soviet repression and mass murder (they stress extenuating circumstances for some Soviet atrocities). They respond to this allegation wearily.
“We portray Stalin as a tyrant,” says Kuznick. “We don’t pull our punches that Stalin was a tyrant. But he’s the tyrant who saved Britain. We’d be speaking German here today if not for the Soviet Union. ”
“Stalin was the bogeyman that allowed the US to arm itself and militarise the globe,” says Stone, before turning to his PA. “We’re getting locked into the Soviet issue because the journalists have only been sent the first two chapters.” (For the record, I’d watched the first six chapters.) “Earlier someone called it 1950s propaganda.”
Stone is a little annoyed, perhaps understandably. He has spent five years making this series but further years thinking about it. “For me this is a lifetime’s work,” says Stone. “It’s the culmination of all the films. Go back and watch them and you’ll see.”
The Untold History of the United States starts on Sky Atlantic on Friday