Cherry-Picking Our History

AP Images
President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace during a broadcast from the White House in 1940, the year Roosevelt named Wallace as his vice-presidential running mate

Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick’s new book and accompanying ten-part televised documentary have a misleading title. Most if not all of the interpretations that they present in The Untold History of the United States—from the war in the Philippines to the one in Afghanistan—have appeared in revisionist histories of American foreign policy written over the last fifty years. Challenged by early reviewers, Stone and Kuznick have essentially conceded the point about their sources and claimed that what they call the “revisionist narrative” that informs their book has in truth become “the dominant narrative among university-based historians.”

The real problem, they say, is that this revisionism has yet to penetrate the public schools, the mainstream media, and “those parts of America that cling to the notion of American exceptionalism.” Their version of history may not be untold, but “it has been almost entirely ‘unlearned.’” And so what originally sounded like a startling account of a hidden history is in fact largely a recapitulation and popularization of a particular stream of academic work, in a book that would more properly be called The Unlearned History of the United States—if the scholarship and the authors’ reworking of it were thorough, factually accurate, and historically convincing.1

Stone and Kuznick devote themselves almost entirely to America’s role in world affairs since 1900 and particularly since 1939. Their basic aim is to describe the nation’s malevolent seizure of global supremacy during and after World War II, and its imperial exploits through the first term of Barack Obama’s presidency. It is largely a tale of great men—good and bad. By the 1920s, the democratic republic of Jefferson, Lincoln, Whitman, and the youthful William Jennings Bryan “had ceased to exist,” and been replaced by an America whose “unique mixture of idealism, militarism, avarice, and realpolitik propelled [it] toward becoming a world power.”

The paradoxical but bad Woodrow Wilson promised to spread democracy and end colonialism, but his policies undermined the first and advanced the second. He spouted high-minded rhetoric while bankers and munitions manufacturers dragged the country under false pretenses into World War I. Wilson’s subsequent ineptness about the World War I settlement and the League of Nations fostered an abiding skepticism about international involvement that disastrously slowed America’s response to the threat of Germany, Italy, and Japan in the 1930s.

Led by the good Franklin D. Roosevelt, the United States eventually enlisted against fascism and gained what Stone and Kuznick call “an opportunity to reclaim some of that democratic, egalitarian heritage on which its earlier greatness and moral leadership had rested.” But the nation squandered the opportunity by needlessly dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and instigating a vicious cold war with the…

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