GUEST: Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick
AIR DATE: 08/24/2013
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And this week, as last, I’ve invited two guests who have just collaborated on what has already become a quite controversial ten-part Showtime television series and an equally massive Gallery Books companion volume…both titled The Untold History of the United States.
Peter Kuznick is a Professor of American History and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University in Washington, D.C. He has written extensively about science and politics as well as Cold War culture.
Multiple Academy Award Winner Oliver Stone is probably the most controversial film maker-re-interpreter of the American past since D.W. Griffith, whose classic Birth of A Nation even now – after nearly a century – still provokes anger and debate.
Of course, full disclosure requires noting that I, too, have some “skin in this game” – namely my paperback A Documentary History of the United States with Alexander Heffner, and my paperback edition of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.
Now last time, I asked Oliver Stone about what he had told me over twenty years ago at this table, when we had talked about his brilliant and equally controversial film, JFK.
At that time my guest had said, “What’s interesting about the movie … JFK … [is that] it’s one of the fastest movies…it’s like shhhhh, splinters to the brain. We have 2,500 cuts in there I would imagine. We had 2,000 camera setups. We’re assaulting the senses…in a sort of new-wave technique. We admire MTV’s editing technique and we make no bones about using it.
“We want…to get to the subconscious…and certainly seduce the viewer into a new perception of… reality.”
So I asked both my guests if that’s what they want to do now with their Untold History of the United States … seduce their viewers into a new perception of reality? Maybe their readers, too?
And we went on from there… as we shall now. And, Oliver, you really rejected the notion of seducing viewers now, in this book and in this grand series of documentaries. Are you suggesting that maybe you were doing it with JFK, but not now?
STONE: No, Richard, in both cases I truly believed that JFK was assassinated by more than one person and for, for a reason … there was a motive in his death. The country changed radically after his death under Lyndon Johnson. I really believed that. I still do. And all the research that I’ve done since then has convinced me … I mean we go into it in some depth in Chapter Six of our series … the JFK to the Brink … on this issue of the Untold History … this has been the hardest job of my life.
HEFFNER: What do you mean?
STONE: It’s been five years of back breaking labor to justify, to bring out every piece of film that we could … and to tell the story accurately. Now, obviously you … this is going to be room for debate. And that’s okay. But we have really worked very hard … Peter and I … to present the audience an alternative view of American history. That really questions the conventional history that my … I, I was taught in school and that my children are being taught … still to this day.
HEFFNER: Why did you use … why do you use so many feature films selections in the …
STONE: I was sent out to reach a younger generation. I find most documentaries … most documentaries tend to be boring. And they don’t have as wide a viewership. Often the one to one technique … a talking heads technique slows down the documentary and makes the point over and over again … one side versus the other side.
I had a story to tell of a hundred years in ten chapters … almost … let’s say an estimated decade pre 58 minutes. That’s … it’s a tight squeeze. We had to drop a lot of things, but we wanted to concentrate on the big picture, make it exciting. Give it to you as quickly as possible … you can always look at it again … if, if you miss something … and I think a lot of people will miss something, no question about it. That why I think it stands up for a second and third showing.
But the use of movie clips makes this thing … it becomes less tedious in the course of an hour. And sometimes the movie is very apropos … most of the time, that’s the reason we’re using it. It’s either going against the narrative or with the narrative. Sometimes we use it, for example, with Gregory Peck in Aces High to make the point of what Curtis LeMay means is, is means by “terror bombing”.
You know there’s always a … the beauty of the series, I find is that there’s more than one thing going on at the time. It’s not all, “This is the level at which you’re watching it. Not like a book, it operates … film operates to the subconscious.
HEFFNER: So we’re back to the subconscious.
STONE: Yeah, but I’m not. You make me sound like some advertising huckster … I’m not. I’m deeply dedicated as you might know from my other work … making speeches and writing and appearing where I do, that I, I strongly believe in this history of the United States.
HEFFNER: Now, let, let’s pick that up because I, I …
STONE: Really, I’m not working for a cigarette company or a tobacco company … I didn’t make any money … really … on this, on this, on this project. This has been for love.
HEFFNER: I remember asking you, in our previous connection in Hollywood, about a film you had made … what was the name of the film about the GI who comes back …
STONE: “Born on the 4th of July” …
KUZNICK: “Born on the 4th of July” …
STONE: “Born on the 4th of July”.
HEFFNER: What a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful film. And when one of your violent films … which you and I always fought about …
STONE: “Natural Born Killers” …
HEFFNER: “Natural Born Killers”, of course.
STONE: Yeah, you were the head of the censor board. (Laughter)
HEFFNER: I was the head of the rating board …
HEFFNER: … Mr. Stone. I, I was so appalled by that and I remember asking you why don’t you make all your films like the “4th of July” … why this provocative violent stuff? And you gave me a very interesting and, I guess, honest answer.
You said, “Studios won’t … I have other films like that or I have other films like … that are too gentle … that may be too gentle … studios won’t be buying Oliver Stone.”
So, I appreciate that and I appreciate the work that you put into this. Question I want to ask now … we focused on the dropping of the bomb … focused on the decision that Harry Truman made … focused on the decision that, as you say, the Democrats made in axing Henry Wallace.
I don’t agree with you … I don’t agree that Henry Wallace was what you think he was … a fine, gentle, lovely man. Who I don’t think would have stood up as you think he would have.
But I want to know whether you think all of our history from the word “go” is a story as … I could use the word “venal” … but I won’t … as self-seeking, as selfish … as money grubbing … as power grubbing as you make the years since the dropping of the bomb … do you feel we were always … that that’s our history … the untold history of America is the counterpart of these years?
STONE: You’ve asked a very central question and we wrestled with it. And, I could offer … our history starts in 1900 with the beginning of the expansion of empire aboard with the Spanish American War and goes into the reasons World War I and World War II.
And, you know, Peter likes to frame it as a … says that our conventional history is a triumphfulist narrative … pro-American. America as the winner, as the good guy.
America comes out ahead. And I think that’s one of the reasons in history why American students don’t … are not particularly interested in American history in high school … because it’s sort of been a … it’s made like a Walt Disney film, where we take out all the horror parts.
Whereas the students want to see history juicy … they want to see it real … they want to see the grim side of history. And more like a Saw movie or like a … they want to see what happened … and what we’re giving them here is pretty horrifying … some of the stuff we’re talking about … pretty horrifying.
Starting with the atomic bomb, but it’s important to realize that we don’t … history is not written by us, that history is written by divine forces or other forces … and has a certain end, end run and what we see … if we look at other empires in history is that no empire lasts.
HEFFNER: Tell me more about these divine forces.
STONE: What are the ends of history? It’s an argument that we can have. Is it “Where are we going?” Where is our empire going, we are now in control of the world, we have full spectrum dominance of air, land, sea, space, cyberspace. We are the sole super-power. We are military, we do not want to share this. We want to dominate.
HEFFNER: Now, did we begin this with the beginning of imperialism in the Philippines?
STONE: Oh, our record in the Philippines is disastrous. Peter goes into some length about it.
KUZNICK: It goes back … you’re asking …
HEFFNER: That’s what I’m asking …
KUZNICK: … an important question …
HEFFNER: … yes …
KUZNICK: … because you want to trace it back to the founding of the country.
HEFFNER: I want to know whether you do.
KUZNICK: But I, I think it’s more complicated. I think what you were suggesting was too simple. It’s not as if the United States is an evil force from the beginning …
STONE: He said venal … not evil … he said venal …
KUZNICK: But, but … or, or even now … the United States is like other countries … is the point we’re trying to make.
What we’re trying to challenge is the notion of American exceptionalism. What students learn, what people grow up with in this country is the idea that the United States is God’s gift to humanity. The United States is different from all other countries. This notion of American exceptionalism. That other countries are motivated by power, by greed, by resources, by territory, and …
HEFFNER: Which you agree with.
KUZNICK: Yes, and I think the United States is, too.
HEFFNER: Is, too.
KUZNICK: And the United States we painted as Woodrow Wilson says, “Now America … now the world will see that America is the savior of the world.”
We have the same statements in similar forms by Madeline Albright, by Hilary Clinton, by Barack Obama and the, the Republican Party, and many Democrats, also.
This is … it’s in the air that people breath growing up and living in the United States.
That the United States is benign, benevolent, that we’re altruistic, that we’re generous, that we only want to spread freedom and democracy, that we have the interests of the world at heart.
This is the same country that has how many … wars that we’ve fought? How many countries have we invaded. How many governments have we overthrown?
I mean this is … so there, there are two sides. There is a good side to the Untied States. The American people want to do good in the world. Of course they do.
But … as do the Afghani … Afghan people, as do the Iraqis … the United States is not different in that way, what makes the United States different is that we have resources, that we have more … geographically isolated … that we’ve been fortunate to be the victor … that we have a certain kind of abundance and that we have played a different kind of role.
But, but … so … the Americans … you know, sort of like the idea of George Bush growing up on third base and thinking he hit a triple. You know …
KUZNICK: … it’s, it’s a … the United States … Americans are very, very lucky … the American people are lucky to have all the … had all these benefits and advantages.
But the role the United States played in the world is much more complicated, so it’s why Americans can’t understand why people around the world don’t like us.
Why, when … in the last year of the Bush Administration … 19% of Pakistanis had a favorable view of the United States … now 12% of Pakistanis have a favorable view. Why do Pakistanis hate us? Why did they hate Bush more than they hated Osama bin Laden? Why is that view a universal view of the United States? This kind of American arrogance.
HEFFNER: Understood. Understood. Where do you want us to go?
HEFFNER: You, you say …
STONE: Us to go?
HEFFNER: Yeah. You say what you want to do is understand who you are, who we are as a country.
STONE: Yeah, that’s where I started … yeah, to bear witness to our history.
HEFFNER: Now …
STONE: … knowing what I do know now after these five years of labor … I feel strongly that we have move away from the empire. I feel very strongly that some one like Ron Paul is saying about foreign policy. I feel strongly that we have to stop the global dominance game.
Now, it’s harder to do all the things we’re doing but we cannot keep supporting this military budget that we have … which …
HEFFNER: That’s why you changed your mind about Brzezinski I gather. Cause he, he’s a heel when he’s with Carter and then he understands a little better …
KUZNICK: Well, what’s happened is that this country …
STONE: Yeah, and Brzezinski changed his mind. He saw where his policies were leading in, in … with the policies on terror.
KUZNICK: But he hasn’t apologized for his policies …
KUZNICK: … toward the Soviet Union and Afghanistan, which really created this Islamic fundamentalism that we’re fighting now around the world.
HEFFNER: What he says is, “We don’t have the power to do this”. And I …
KUZNICK: He also says that, that war against … he says that terrorism is a tactic and a war against a tactic makes no sense at all.
And he thinks we’ve gone so far overboard in this war against terror …
HEFFNER: You know I have the feeling, Oliver, you put your finger right on the important point when you said that you were brought up, you were educated in an inadequate way … a little like …
HEFFNER: … Henry Adams saying in his Education …
STONE: Good point. (Laughter) Yes.
HEFFNER: … that it was so inadequate at Harvard in the middle of the nineteenth century. Maybe you would be a little happier if you had absorbed earlier on Beard and Hofstadter and … all these others … Stampp … and learned that our historians have not been all that rosy-posy about our past. When, with, with Beard, with Charles Beard … when he wrote his “An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution”…
KUZNICK: MmmHmm … and he got … he was roundly attacked for that.
HEFFNER: Well, not only that … somebody asked Nicholas Murray Butler, the President of the University … “Have you read Professor Beard’s last book?” And he said, “I certainly hope so.”
HEFFNER: Because we hadn’t done that before. I found you devoting your great, great, great dramatic talents to a discovery that I think most of us made a long, long time before this.
STONE: Very few of you. I mean the select group of educated historians, but most people don’t know this …
STONE: … and, you know, most Presidents don’t know this. Obviously Harry Truman didn’t care much for history, he didn’t seem to have a sense of what the Russians had been through. And our Presidents have ignored this. So, you talk about an “elite” … I’m talking about a mass and that’s why I make films.
STONE: I’m trying to get it out to a mass. This is a “how do I undo what we’ve done? How do we undo it?”
KUZNICK: But you look at Oliver’s Vietnam films … how passionately anti-war they are and this latest survey of 18 to 29 year olds found 51% of American 18 to 29 year olds think that the Vietnam War was worth fighting. 51% which is just appalling at this point.
HEFFNER: You know I can’t help but wish that I had given a course on Oliver Stone’s films.
HEFFNER: And that you had come into my course and that I had convinced you to be somewhat more moderate and to devote those great dramatic talents to a less one-sided picture …
KUZNICK: This is not a one-sided picture. Wait, I take objection to that (laugh) …
STONE: I object.
KUZNICK: … because, I mean, we have a very …
KUZNICK: … positive, a very positive view of certain American Presidents and, and American policies. We have a very positive view …
HEFFNER: But, it would be hard to …
KUZNICK: … of Roosevelt …
HEFFNER: … note that …
KUZNICK: … no, it would …
HEFFNER: … beyond Roosevelt?
KUZNICK: … Kennedy … we say that Kennedy underwent a fundamental change after the Cuban missile crisis. That the Kennedy who was assassinated was not the same Kennedy who got elected. That Kennedy who gave the American University Commencement speech in June of 1963 …
KUZNICK: … one of the great speeches of the 20th century … basically calling for peace and calling for ending the Cold War and he wanted to end the arms race, he wanted to end nuclear testing, and he wanted to pull US troops out of Vietnam. We’ve got a very positive view of him. We’ve got a positive view of early Carter.
KUZNICK: We have a positive view of early Obama. You know we had a lot of faith … hope in Obama. We were very disappointed that it never turned out …
STONE: … At the beginning … Clinton.
HEFFNER: What hope do you have now?
STONE: As I said at the Chapter 10 … I said, “History has shown us that the curve of the ball can break differently.”
STONE: We’ve seen repeatedly in our history from Wallace, Stalin’s death, Eisenhower’s reception to his death, what happened at that point. The fig leaf offered by the Soviet leaders. We saw it in Carter’s Presidency. We saw it in Kennedy’s moment in ‘62/’63 … we see it when, when Bush … when Reagan meets with Gorbachev … that was an amazing moment. Possibility that could have … the whole nuclear arms race could have been terminated in that, in that moment.
HEFFNER: Was Gorbachev your Russian Henry Wallace?
STONE: Yes. Yes, I’d say so. I think he was an amazing man. So was … and by the way we credit Nikita Khrushchev … for having had the guts, like with Kennedy to pull back when both hardliners on both sides were pushing them for nuclear war in Cuba. Khrushchev paid the price …
STONE: … he, he was removed from office. Kennedy was removed from office. It’s an interesting parallel there.
Also, we, we … Obama gave us great hopes … great hopes in 2008. We thought it would be different.
HEFFNER: What …
STONE: And by the way 2000 election is fascinating to me because I was … I really think there would a huge difference between Al Gore and George Bush. So, the curve of the ball, it will come again. It will come again. And there will be other people out there who maybe would have known some of this history who might be able to take advantage of that curve …and hit it out of the park.
HEFFNER: So that’s your hope and that’s why …
STONE: Well, education is my hope.
HEFFNER: … the films.
STONE: Yes. Education and bearing witness to the past. When Mr. Obama said, “We must not look to the past, we must look to the future.” I abhorred that statement because it, it was an ignorant statement. And it’s exactly what we’re not doing.
HEFFNER: Tell me why. Tell me why it is an ignorant statement. You know what he meant, he wasn’t asking us to derive …
STONE: Said “Let us put the horrors behind us” which is of the war on terror … what Bush had done. And instead he only did his transparent … in softer language he continued that policy …
STONE: … and expanded them. Reagan said the same thing about Vietnam … “Let us forget about Vietnam, it was … the Vietnam syndrome is behind us, etc. because the war was not disgraceful and he gave … he rewrote history.
And Bush the father did the same thing about Vietnam, when he said, after he went in to Kuwait, that the sands … the, the Vietnam syndrome is buried under the sands of Arabia.
These are … this is disastrous history, by the way
It repeated, people who don’t even know about the Vietnam War are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Young soldiers … they don’t care.
HEFFNER: Peter, let me ask you to forgive me …
HEFFNER: If I ask our friend Oliver what he’s going to do now?
STONE: (Laugh) About history?
HEFFNER: Well, I’m going to let you answer the question.
STONE: I don’t know, Richard, I’m … I killed myself on this … I mean with … metaphorically. I feel really … I reached a place of where I’m proud of what I did. I think I achieved everything I wanted to do in film. If I make another film, it would be because I really wanted to … I really wanted to. After you do something like this, it’s very hard to go back to sometimes a smaller subject matter to film. And it’s quite conceivable that shortly I will do something, you know. I don’t want to give up film, I like it. It’s a good way to, to … I like to tell stories and I like to dramatize. And I’ll probably find the right subject.
HEFFNER: I thought in, in, in watching your ten films, I thought that many times you drew upon Mr. Smith Goes to Washington … Mr. Deeds Goes to Town … whatever, whatever you did … that you were surely going to pick up and do more like that. That you wished very much that you had been around at that time and had done those.
STONE: Oh, yeah, yeah. No, I think those were great … the 1930’s was one of the best times for Hollywood in terms of liberal screen writers. Many of them got branded in the black-list and the gray list … and they were … the man who wrote Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was … Sidney Buchman was a Communist. Some of the best writers were Communists. (Laugh) Unfortunately, they were run out of town.
There has been much … many Liberal films in the US since the war … there was about 30 or 40 anti-Communist films that were virulent, made in the forties, late forties and early fifties. And that attitude continued through … even Patton … films like this … are very pro-American, pro-war … most of the political films are that way.
Even the … All The President’s Men is lauded by our press, but it’s basically lauding ourselves for, for running Nixon out of office, you know. And, but … as a result of that film we find … self-satisfying and the press went to sleep. And, after that the press goes more and more conservative. Now we have a press that isn’t really doing it’s job.
HEFFNER: In the Presidents since Kennedy, including Kennedy … where do you want to pin your medals?
STONE: I’m sorry.
HEFFNER: Among the Presidents …
HEFFNER: … including Kennedy …
HEFFNER: … since that time … where do you want to put the medals that say, “Well done”, “Job well done”.
STONE: Oh, I think Roosevelt and Kennedy certainly deserve it. Unfortunately, I don’t think Obama does yet.
HEFFNER: Yet. Why yet?
STONE: One hopes … he has two, three years left … three years left. You wish him well, I mean he’s not a man to dislike … it’s just …
HEFFNER: Peter …
STONE: … he hasn’t turned it around.
HEFFNER: … what do you think?
KUZNICK: I …
HEFFNER: Or are they all to be …
KUZNICK: They’re all to be criticized … in the same sense …
STONE: The system.
KUZNICK: Yeah, I mean Obama has some wonderful notions, he called for nuclear abolition in his Prague speech, we applauded him for that. But he doesn’t critique the empire …
HEFFNER: Well ….
KUZNICK: He has little sense of that. We still have 700 to 1,000 bases around the world …
HEFFNER: But, but Oliver says to you … it’s the system. Are you suggesting you can’t get out of the system.
STONE: That’s what I’m suggesting. I am.
KUZNICK: And I’m suggesting we can. And, and one of the things we try to show throughout this, we try to give a sense of hope. We try to show how close history has come time after time to being fundamentally different. Fundamentally different.
STONE: That’s …
KUZNICK: How we could have taken different roads and that there was an opportunity to take different roads, and people in power made bad decisions and the public wasn’t mobilized enough to force them to behave differently. That’s why we’re trying to reach the people. We believe … we have a certain faith in people, we think that if people learn a different kind of history then they will act upon that understanding. We work on assumption that people’s actions are based on a view of history … as Charles Beard and Carl Becker and others understood. That every person is his or her own historian. Every person has a certain view of history. And if people think that hist … the way things turned out is the only way it could have been, then they can’t imagine …
STONE: That’s true.
KUZNICK: … a different future. And we want people to be able to dream, we want them to imagine. We want them to understand that the world could be fundamentally different and it could be fundamentally better. And that’s what we think is missing now.
STONE: Well, said. Hegel would be … also, he’s not a historian, Hegel the philosopher, might well come in useful at this point to remember the synthesis, antithesis, thesis idea of history … that one thing sets up it’s opposite. Here we are … we’re … I said the system is suffocating us.
The President is surrounded by a bureaucracy that’s heavily entrenched. He has a media that basically is conservative and moves against him whenever he tries to change too much. He’s got Wall Street, which sells bonds, which sells the idea of American supremacy. And he’s got … the hugest second country in the world is the Pentagon, which is enormous. The budget is almost the size of most other countries combined. How do you … how do you … you’re stuck in this box … what happens. This is where Hegel comes in. ‘Cause we may reach a sufficiency of force of being who we are that we get sick of ourselves. We spend too much, we eat too much, we get so arrogant … that we miss, we mis-understand the Iraq or the Afghani situations … we stumble and the fourth rate power like in Vietnam defeats us.
HEFFNER: And that’s …
STONE: These things happen in history. And they have happened. The Roman Empire was stuffed when it fell.
HEFFNER: When it fell. We’re falling now. I’ve gotten the signal to say good-bye …
STONE: Oh, okay … we’re falling …
HEFFNER: Peter and Oliver, thank you both for joining me again today.
STONE: Thank you, Richard.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
And do visit the Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/openmind to reprise this program online right now or to draw upon our archive of 1500 or so other Open Mind and related programs. That’s thirteen.org/openmind.