Oliver Stone, Peter Kuznick

History as “An act of faith” or as “Bunk,” Part I

VTR Date: August 17, 2013

GUESTS: Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick


GUEST: Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick
AIR DATE: 08/17/2013
VTR: 05/23/13

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And today 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, it’s been over twenty years since Oliver Stone last joined me at this table…when we talked about his brilliant and equally controversial film, JFK.

My guest was quite direct then about his intention – and his ability, as a filmmaker – to massage our minds in whatever directions he chooses.

“What’s interesting about the movie … JFK”, my guest then said, 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 would ask both Oliver Stone and historian Peter Kuznick if that’s what they want to do now with their Untold History of the United States … to seduce their viewers “into a new perception of…reality”? Maybe their book’s readers, as well? So, gentlemen …

STONE: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Who takes this one up? You want to be seductive?

STONE: Well, I’m going to admit guilty, I love to seduce the senses and the mind. But in this case, we set out to do a documentary. And we wrote a book which is heavily fact checked and I brought along a historian, companion … Peter … with me on this journey.

Peter has been doing this for his lifetime, this is his life’s work and this is solidly rooted in fact.

HEFFNER: Tell me what you mean by “rooted in fact”, I’ve watched … thanks to the web a great number of your interviews and this business of fact … “solidly rooted in fact” is the first thing you ever say. And it’s obviously the most important thing for you to say.

STONE: Why don’t you explain it …

KUZNICK: (Clears throat)

STONE: … from your point of view, Peter … because it’s his, his life …

HEFFNER: It’s your medium … go ahead.

STONE: But his … go ahead.

KUZNICK: I mean this is a work … we decided to do a work that would stand up to the highest historical and toughest historical scrutiny. This is not in any way fictionalized. This is all based upon … really, it’s based in part upon … there’s an interesting confluence between what I’ve been teaching my students for the last 25 years and what Oliver has been saying in his films.

And his films are fictional so he’s not held to that same standard. But this is a work that stands up to the, the standards of academic history.

We’re not making anything up … even in the documentary, we don’t have any fabrications or falsifications, we don’t even have any talking heads representing historical fact.

We’ve been fact checked over and over again by Showtime, by corporate, by our own fact checkers because we want to have people challenge us and think about what we’re saying and challenge our interpretations.

That’s what historians do. There’s a certain silliness that people refer to some historians as revisionists. All historians are revisionists, that’s what historians do, it’s the nature of what we do as historians.

And what we’re doing here is taking information over a broad period of time … we go back to the late 19th century because we want to show the patterns. What we’ve put together is a work that’s in a certain historical tradition.

There is a revisionist tradition, as you know, that comes out of the University of Wisconsin, the Madison School, that goes back to the William Appleman Williams, earlier to Charles Beard … and this is an important kind of interpretation, we’re building upon that and we’re bringing it up to the present.

HEFFNER: Well, it’s interesting you talk about Williams, you talk about Beard, at one point, and I watched all ten programs … absolutely fascinated by them … they’re brilliant as what Oliver does is always brilliant.

And I made a list of names … when you say “Untold History” … I, I don’t know how many I put down here, but they were … they include … Beard, Stampp, Matthew Josephson, Louis Hacker, Richard Hofstadter on and on and on … and they told … they’ve told over the years the story that you tell. The history that you tell … and I wondered why you call it “The Untold History …”

STONE: Well, perhaps we should have called it “The Unlearned History “…


STONE: Because when we’re … I think we’re fed up with this concept of the Cold War or the concept of World War II, the way we hear it in movies … popular movies … and we hear it in the street.

And I, I’m out there on the street … I’m dealing with people all the time and they still … they’re, they’re shocked by this information.

They’re surprised that the Russians are, are responsible for winning most of World War II. They’re surprised by the origins of the Cold War when you get into the details. They don’t understand the role of the British Empire with Winston Churchill … this is jus the beginning of the series.

When you take it all the way through Ronald Reagan and Obama and Bush, the father … it’s an … and Eisenhower … it seems to me it’s upside down history. It’s like we go it upside down.

HEFFNER: I … Oliver, you say the Russians … I don’t know exactly what words you used, but both in the book and in the films … in the Showtime films … you certainly indicate that the Russians, given their losses … you make much … as one should … of the millions upon millions of Russians who lost …

STONE: Not only given their losses, the fact that they tore the guts out of the German war machine. They, they killed five out of six German soldiers during that whole war.


STONE: They were the ones marching on Berlin and they were taking Eastern Europe while we were still futzing around with D-Day.

HEFFNER: I … “futzing around with D-Day …”

STONE: … futzing around with D-Day … yeah …

HEFFNER: So, your historical conclusion …

STONE: Well, I don’t say that in the book … we …

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

STONE: … we make it very clear through the maps that when we landed in June of 1944 … the Soviets were on the, on the … about to enter into Germany …

HEFFNER: You really think and as a historian …


HEFFNER: … Oliver gets out of this, he says, “I’m the filmmaker …”. You’re the historian …

KUZNICK: (Laugh)

HEFFNER: … you feel that it was Soviets who won the Second World War …

KUZNICK: Oh, I don’t think there’s any debate about that.

HEFFNER: You don’t.

KUZNICK: It was clearly the Soviets who did most of the fighting. Throughout most of the war the US and the British were facing ten German divisions combined and the Soviets were facing 200. That’s why Churchill says that it was the Russians that tore the guts out of the German Army.

So I think … I don’t think there’s any real debate about that. What Oliver was saying was that in late May of 1942 when Molotov visited Washington … we made up … we issued a public statement … Roosevelt did saying that we were going to open up the Second Front in Europe before the end of 1942.

That’s what Marshall and Eisenhower told him was possible. They desperately wanted to. When Roosevelt gave in to Churchill and decided to go into Northern Africa instead of opening up the second front in, in France in 1942 … Eisenhower and Marshall were furious.

Marshall said, “Well, if they’re going to do that, we should change our whole policy and instead of focusing on Europe first we should change our policy and focus on Asia first” basically teaching the British a lesson for their … what he considered their cowardice.

But Eisenhower who led the invasion of North Africa said that when we invaded this was going to be the darkest day in American history.

So the American generals knew that because they knew that really winning the war meant taking on the Germans as quickly as possible and taking some of that pressure off the Soviet Union.

This was part of the mistrust that builds up during the war that leads to the Cold War. We think that a lot of the wartime diplomacy lays the basis for the break-up afterwards and a lot of that falls upon the United States and decisions we made.

HEFFNER: You feel that the Cold War found its origins there. I gather you also feel … I don’t gather, I read that you also feel that if … and I say “feel” while you say “fact” about what’s in the book and what’s in the television series … that had Henry Wallace not been pushed off the ticket by the Big City Bosses … Democratic bosses that there would be no Cold War.

STONE: You know there’s a fascinating story …

HEFFNER: That’s not a fact is it, it’s a conjecture.


STONE: It has to be a conjecture because he was not the President …


STONE: … in 1945 when Roosevelt died. But … and you … it’s also a conjecture that if Roosevelt had lived three more months … we would not have had the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan. If Roosevelt had not died on April 12th … everything changed in those two weeks … started to change … started to change in those two weeks after he death … with Truman in office.

HEFFNER: You think Henry Wallace would not have dropped the bomb?


STONE: Oh, I …

KUZNICK: Yes. We’re almost certain about that. In fact Wallace …

HEFFNER: “Almost certain”.

KUZNICK: Yeah. Wallace was very upset at that point … he said this … the next day he writes in his diary that this will make war … this attitude will make war almost impossible … inevitable but with the Soviet Union.

Wallace leads the campaign … you know, after he gets ousted from the ticket he stays on in the Cabinet as Secretary of Commerce. And for the next year plus he wages a battle against Truman’s policies from inside the Cabinet.

Now his biggest issue … two big issues … one was understanding how the world looks through Soviet eyes. Understanding the situation the Soviets in and how they’re perceiving American policies. And the second big issue is nuclear disarmament. He thinks there’s still a chance … in 1945 and early 1946 to avoid a nuclear arms race. To have all nuclear weapons abolished.

Which is not just some … a position that Wallace took … Acheson and Lilienthal say in the Acheson/Lilienthal Report … Dean Acheson is hardly a, a misty-eyed kind of optimist or naïve in any way. And he thought that this plan could actually abolish nuclear weapons.

Unfortunately Truman made a blunder and he put it in the hands of Bernard Baruch to present it to the United Nations and Baruch does it in such a way as to try to get an advantage over the Soviet Union.

HEFFNER: Why, why are you two … I’m fascinated by this … we’ve heard this phrase used in terms of “I knew Jack Kennedy” … I didn’t … but I knew Henry Wallace. And I’ve wondered in reading and watching why he has become the centerpiece for The Untold History?

STONE: I don’t know that I would say he’s a centerpiece, he’s certainly the most unknown statesman of that period. And he’s come out to the light again.

HEFFNER: But, Oliver, you don’t make him unknown … you make him as a viewer …

STONE: Well …

HEFFNER: … I have to say … you make him sort of known that to you, you know that if Wallace had not been thrown off the ticket and had become President …

STONE: Do we, do we know that? No. We always present it as conjecture.

HEFFNER: May I say, it’s a little like … it’s a little like JFK. You often say “I never say anything, I never present anything here, push anything upon anyone” … but your cuts … the … shhhhhhhh … the way you edit …

KUZNICK: No. Well, if you look at it …

HEFFNER: … makes me think as a viewer that you’re saying … I remember my wife and I watching this … thinking “Where does he get this about Wallace?”.

KUZNICK: But, but, but we do get that …


KUZNICK: … we get it from Wallace’s policies. For example, Roosevelt fought to get Wallace on the ticket …


KUZNICK: … in 1940. He even turned down the Presidential nomination if it looked … when it looked like the Convention was not going to put Wallace on the ticket as Vice President because he felt so strongly that he wanted a leading anti-Fascist and a leading internationalist and a progressive which is why he chose Henry Wallace.

When Henry Luce makes his speech … his editorial in the later comments in ’41 … saying “The 20th century must be the American century”, Wallace issues … makes a speech and he refutes that … he says, “No, the 20th century must be the century of the common man”.

He calls for a world wide peoples revolution. He says … we’ve got to end poverty, we’ve got to end colonialism and Imperialism … if you look at how he go ousted and the people who hated him … it was the Wall Street people because Wallace said, “America’s Fascists are those who think that Wall Street comes first and the American people second.”

It was the racist, it was the anti-Labor people, it was the pro-Imperial people … these were the ones who got together to get rid of Wallace.

We knew what Wallace’s record was … we knew what he stood for and his positions … if you go through his diary … day after day after day between 1944 and ‘46, he’s on the Right side of every issue during that time. And he really gets it. He really gets the way the world looks and what’s possible. And he has an understanding of the Soviet Union that nobody else close to power had, except for Roosevelt … to some extent. And Roosevelt also thought that the Cold War could be avoided. His last statement is that these issues pop up every day, but they’re not big issues and they get resolved and we have to think about this friendship and sharing power after the War.

HEFFNER: You make the connection … oh, I’m sorry Oliver … go ahead …

STONE: I am not as old as you, Richard, so you, you knew Wallace in another way …

HEFFNER: Good for you … (laugh)

STONE: I was born on the cusp of the Atomic Age. I was born in ’46. Henry Wallace was fired the week I was born (laugh) from office. It’s … I never knew of Wallace until I talked to Peter in the late 1990’s, I didn’t know much about him.

What concerned me was the atomic bomb and you’re making the issue about Henry Wallace, and I don’t think that is the issue. The issue is why did we use the atomic bomb on Japan?

And that signals to me the beginning of the Cold War, if we re-examine that issue. That is a big point. And I think …

HEFFNER: How do you …

STONE: … that’s what you’re ignoring. Because it’s not about Wallace or if Roosevelt had lived another three months … the question is why did the United States drop the bomb on Japan?

HEFFNER: Well, you totally reject the answers that have been offered historically … I don’t mean …

STONE: Yeah … they totally …

HEFFNER: … factually, historically …

STONE: … well actually Peter’s been studying this issue for a long time … because he, he … he wrote a wonderful book about the 1930 scientists.

HEFFNER: Yes, but when you study something, you come to one conclusion or the other. And I have to say … after ….

STONE: Let’s talk about the atomic bomb … let’s just talk …

HEFFNER: Yes, I mean the atomic bomb.

STONE: Let’s talk about …

HEFFNER: I mean that the dropping of it …

STONE: I think that Peter …

HEFFNER: … as in told history, rather than untold history, has been a function of what it would have cost us in men …

STONE: Yes, that’s correct.

HEFFNER: … had we not dropped the bomb.

KUZNICK: That’s the traditional narrative.


KUZNICK: Which Stimson articulates in early 1947 …

HEFFNER: And you reject that totally?

KUZNICK: Yeah, and even Stimson knew that what he was saying was not true. And McGeorge Bundy says that Stimson had tremendous doubts. McGeorge Bundy helped him write his memoir … is that Stimson had tremendous doubts about what he wrote at that time.

Because the traditional narrative is that … had the United States drop the bomb in order to avoid an invasion that would have cost, Truman later says, a half million American men. In an invasion.

Once we tested the bomb, there was really no chance the United States was going to invade. We dropped the bomb on August 6th, we dropped it on August 6th to avoid an invasion that was scheduled to begin on November 1st.

We knew what the main obstacle to Japanese surrender was … and that was the question of the Emperor. The Emperor to them was a God. And as, as McArthur’s command says, “Getting rid of the Emperor to them and executing the Emperor would be like the crucifixion of Christ to us … all would fight to die like ants.”

We knew that that was a stumbling block because we had broken the Japanese codes. We were intercepting their cables and the cables were clear … the obstacles to surrender is this demand for unconditional surrender.

Truman himself refers to the July 18th telegram as the telegram from the Jap Emperor asking for peace. Those are Truman’s words.

We knew the Japanese were defeated, that they knew they were defeated … we knew that they wanted to end the war and we knew that they wanted to have terms that were somewhat honorable.

But the United States did not want to change our surrender terms … even though almost all of Truman’s advisors urged him to change the surrender terms … Truman didn’t want to. The one person who really pushed him not to was Jimmy Burns. And Burns was a hard-line anti-Soviet … the scientists went to see Burns in late May. And Szilard says “Well, don’t … we can’t use this bomb. No matter what happens.”

And Burns says, “Well, you’re Hungarian aren’t you? Don’t you want to get the Russians out of Hungary?” And Szilard … Leo Szilard says “What are you talking about? We’re not talking about getting the Russians out of Hungary, we’re talking about a weapon that can open the door to ending life on the planet”.

And Truman understood that. On three separate occasions Truman talks about a bomb great enough to destroy the whole world. When he gets the report from Alamogordo, how successful the bomb test was … on July 25th he writes in his diary … “This may be the fire destruction prophesied in the Euphrates Valley era after Noah and his fabulous Ark”.

HEFFNER: Let me, let me ask you a question.


HEFFNER: Given what Truman expressed. Given what we all fear from the bomb. Given what the Cold War has meant to us. Do you think the American people would, today, reject the use … if we could put ourselves back in history … give the choice … have a referendum … would we drop the bomb or not? Seems to me we would have and that the argument about saving a half a million or a million lives and that figure has been used also …

STONE: The information wasn’t presented correctly to them. The invasion was due on November 1 … we dropped the bomb on August 6 … there was almost three months to go.

The Rus .. you’re not taking into account and the American people are not taking into account that there was a huge Soviet invasion of Japan that started on August 9 … which was in Manchuria and on …

HEFFNER: In Manchuria?


STONE: They wiped out, in no time at all, the one million man Kwantung Army which was the most significant army left to the Japanese.

HEFFNER: So that …

STONE: I mean the Soviets were a worthy … look what they had done to Germany. The Japanese knew and were frightened of what the Soviets would do to Japan.

HEFFNER: So that the Untold History of the United States stems from that decision … to drop the bomb?

STONE: The atomic … dropping of the atomic bomb is the, is the founders myth of our American supremacy in this century. We’re carried through with that policy.

We started to become not only the sole superpower after the Soviets fell apart. But we, we, we maintained a sort of moral code that has been, we think, highly immoral, because we’ve had the “gun”, the biggest gun. We’ve held that gun to other people’s heads … other countries heads like a … like a … what do you call it … a ransom …


STONE: Look, the issue is … if, if on August 9th the Soviets entered that war … August 9 … November 1 is how much apart? It’s like two and a half months. During that period don’t you think the Soviets could have easily … have finished off the Japanese?

KUZNICK: They had almost finished them off … that the point that Oliver started to make is so important. What ends the war is not the dropping of the atomic bomb … that’s one of the fundamental myths in this country.

What ends the war is the Soviet invasion. And Truman knew in advance. Truman says “I went to Potsdam to make sure that Stalin was coming in the Jap war.”

Stalin gives assurance. Truman writes in his diary on July 17th … he says, “Stalin will be in the Jap war by August 15th … finis Japs when that occurs.” That’s what Truman says.

We know this from the intelligence. American intelligence was saying the Japanese … the Soviet invasion of Japan will convince all Japanese that utter defeat is inevitable. Our reports say that over and over again.

HEFFNER: And you believe then … your thesis that now told story of our history is that with that factor of the dropping of the bomb came everything further. That the Cold War … there were two parts to the Cold War. The Soviet attitudes … our attitudes.

KUZNICK: And how did the Soviets interpret the dropping of the atomic bomb? The Soviet knew better than anybody that Japan was defeated and trying to surrender. Because Japan had made a stupid decision, as it turned out … to try to get the Soviets to intervene on their behalf to get better surrender terms.

The Soviets … diplomats were saying “The Japanese are desperate to end the war.” The United … when, when the United States dropped the bomb … Stalin and his, and his advisors all interpreted that as being dropped against the Soviet Union because they knew it was absolutely unnecessary in ending the war against Japan.

And what they saw that was … the statement that the Americans were so ruthless that they would wipe out cities, kill a hundred fifty million … a hundred thousand people for no reason … just to make the point. They understood that as a sign of unlimited American ruthlessness at that point, if the Soviets didn’t go along with American policy. So Stalin decides “We’d better speed up our own bomb project, as much as, as fast as possible”.

The scientists knew that. People were warning … the Franck Report in June of 1945 … there was a strong sense that this was how the Soviets were going to interpret it. Which is why many of the scientists were so adamant about preventing the bomb from being used.

HEFFNER: Oliver, what attracted you so much … strange word …

STONE: (Cough)

HEFFNER: … to this notion?

STONE: Well, I wanted to find out what happened with my … in my lifetime. That’s really why. I’d reached an age … it was 2008 we started the project … five years … it took five years of work.

It was during the Bush … second Bush Administration. It was such a nightmare that I decided … that this thing is going to repeat itself, because I’d been through Vietnam, I’d seen the war in Afghanistan … I mean the war in, in Kuwait, then the war in Afghanistan, and now the war in Iraq. I felt like we had to … I had to understand.

I feel strongly … as you know from our previous talk that I had been sleep walking through the first half of my life … until I was about 40 years old. Sleep-walking. I had bought all this history that you … what you call conventional history. I was fed it in school. My kids … I have three kids are being fed the same thing.

And I said “enough of this. This is … what can I contribute with the rest of my life. I’ve made movies … historical, dramas … but now is the time to leave something behind that’s concrete.” I wanted them to know the way I was this history.

I had run into Peter because he was teaching a class in my, in my films in 1996 … he told me then the story of Wallace and the atomic bomb. Fascinating. But I decided then to do something about it. And I devoted the next five years … basically, you know, we’re pro bono, but it’s been the work of my life. It’s a culmination of all my work … in this documentary.

HEFFNER: How does it relate?

STONE: Well, for me … it, it bears witness to our real history. The United States has been the aggressor, has been the … in the name of a national security state … has declared itself above the moral codes of international relations.

It has also pursued … after the fall of the Soviet Union … a sole super-power policy that’s it … I, I believe increasingly dangerous. We’ve become a global policeman. And frankly a global security state. We, we’re at war with … an endless war, a forever war with whatever we deem to be a terrorist faction.

HEFFNER: I gather you feel that this didn’t begin in the summer of 1945.

STONE: I think that was a … I think in April ’45 when Roosevelt … if he could only have lived three more months … I think would have been a hell of a different picture. But, given that, I think the attitude that we had to run the world and take over from the British emanates from ’45 on.

HEFFNER: Oliver, Peter, you’ve promised to sit where you are … we’ll do another program because there’s so much more depth to plumb here. Oliver Stone, Peter Kuznick, thank you for joining me today.

STONE: Thank you, Richard.

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 1,500 or so other Open Mind and related programs. That’s thirteen.org/open mind.