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Cherry-Picking Our History

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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democratic republic of Jefferson, Lincoln, Whitman, and the youthful William Jennings Bryan “had ceased to exist,” and been replaced by an America whose “unique mixture of idealism, militarism, avarice, and realpolitik propelled [it] toward becoming a world power.”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 Soviet Union. The calamitous turning point came in 1944 and 1945, when Harry Truman (very bad) ascended to the vice-presidency and, after FDR’s death, to the presidency. Caricatured by Stone and Kuznick as a neurotic, corrupt, racist demagogue, Truman made all of the wrong decisions.

Stone and Kuznick’s greatest hero is FDR’s secretary of agriculture and third-term vice-president Henry Wallace (very good), who futilely opposed Truman’s policies. Their next hero, two decades later, is President John F. Kennedy. Startled by the Bay of Pigs fiasco two years earlier, Kennedy in 1963 was supposedly on the verge of rejecting cold war orthodoxy and leading “the United States and the world down a…path of peace and prosperity” along the lines that Wallace had prophetically laid out. But JFK, like Wallace before him, “had many enemies who deplored progressive change.” Stone and Kuznick stop just short of blaming Kennedy’s assassination on those hidden enemies, as Stone did in his conspiracy film JFK (1991). But they say his death handed the country back to those who “would systematically destroy the promise of the Kennedy years as they returned the country to war and repression.”

The United States, according to Stone and Kuznick, has remained in the malefic grip of the militarists and empire-builders to this day. Even well-intentioned leaders like Barack Obama have been brainwashed into sustaining the repressive national security state that oversees US domination of the world. It is a grim assessment, but Stone and Kuznick do not entirely lack hope. They detect in Obama’s performance since 2010 some dim signs that the president “might be undergoing a Kennedyesque road-to-Damascus conversion” about American militarism and imperialism. But like many left-leaning historians, Stone and Kuznick look for deliverance not to any elected officials but to an ill-defined social movement, one they envisage as “US citizens joining with the rebellious masses everywhere to deploy the lessons of history, their history, the people’s history, which is no longer untold,” perhaps inspired in part by The Untold History of the United States.

Although Stone and Kuznick’s claim that their efforts reflect the dominant view of American history inside the universities, the work of many highly distinguished and influential scholars ranging from the traditionalist John Lewis Gaddis to the revisionist-influenced Melvyn P. Leffler indicates otherwise.2 The soundness of Stone and Kuznick’s work, though, depends not on its intellectual pedigree but on how the authors render the historical record. An examination of their account of the pivotal events of the mid-1940s, the apex of their drama, is useful in arriving at an assessment of their intellectual rigor.

In 1940, Stone and Kuznick write, President Roosevelt named his brilliant secretary of agriculture, Henry Wallace, “a champion of freedom and democracy,” as his running mate, overruling reluctant party bosses and conservatives. Four years later, the hacks got their revenge. With Roosevelt’s health declining, the bosses knew that the nominee for vice-president might well soon become president, so they conspired to dump Wallace and replace him with the crude but malleable Missourian Harry Truman.

FDR, too enfeebled and politically dependent to put up a fight, still made it clear to Wallace and, in an open letter, to the Democratic convention delegates that he preferred to run with him again. “Rank-and-file Democrats” rose up against “the bosses’ stranglehold over the [convention] proceedings and strong-arm tactics,” mounted a raucous demonstration, and very nearly nominated Wallace, but were cut short when “the bosses forced adjournment against the will of the delegates.” The bosses’ puppet, Truman, prevailed, “the first major setback to hopes for a peaceful postwar world.”

Following FDR’s death in April 1945, with the “small man” Truman in the White House, disaster followed disaster. “To err is Truman,” as the Republicans put it at the time. The United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan even though, according to the authors, the Japanese themselves already knew they had been defeated. Truman, they believe, hoped this would scare Stalin and the Soviets into postwar submission. When the Soviets refused to be intimidated, an insecure Truman resolved to “stand up to Stalin and show him who was boss.” The Truman Doctrine, the Berlin airlift, and the Marshall Plan bullied Stalin into a cold war that he didn’t want, a conflict that soon escalated into a nuclear arms race that would imperil civilization itself. The great naysayer was again Henry Wallace, whom, before his death, FDR had salvaged from the bosses’ conspiracy and appointed secretary of commerce.

In making this case, Stone and Kuznick simply ignore the scholarship that contradicts their basic assumptions. It is hardly clear, for example, that the Japanese government was close to surrendering on the Allies’ terms in the summer of 1945. American analysts believed that, short of a bloody invasion of its shores, Japanese leaders would fight hard, holding out for a much milder negotiated settlement, which negates Stone and Kuznick’s contention that Truman was misleading about his motive for using atomic bombs: that they would spare the lives of untold thousands of American GIs. Nor did Truman shift away from FDR’s incomplete vision of a grand bargain with the Soviets until he fitfully became convinced that Stalin’s encroachments in Eastern and Central Europe posed a threat to Western security.3

When, in September 1946, Wallace publicly attacked Truman’s foreign policy and called for recognition of Soviet control in Eastern Europe, Truman forced him out of the cabinet. “With Wallace gone,” the authors write, “the United States plunged headlong into Cold War both at home and abroad.” An aroused Wallace challenged Truman and what he called “the bipartisan reactionary war policy” in the 1948 election. But Red-baiting, feints to the left by Truman, and Democratic voters’ fears of a Republican victory destroyed Wallace and his Progressive Party.

History might have turned out much more happily, if only… “Few people remember,” Stone and Kuznick observe, “how close Wallace came to getting the vice presidential nomination on that steamy Chicago night in July 1944.” In a book full of auspicious turning points, none looms larger than this one. Yet the thinly sourced account of that night in 1944 by Stone and Kuznick and of the events that surrounded it distorts, to put it mildly, what actually occurred.

“A virtual conspiracy” of party leaders did, indeed, work to dump Wallace from the ticket, as the historian Robert H. Ferrell has shown, but they were moved by more than Wallace’s liberal politics.4 Henry Wallace was a brilliant agronomist, probably the greatest secretary of agriculture the nation has ever had. His efforts to help down-and-out farmers during the Great Depression revolutionized rural America. But as vice-president and presiding officer of the Senate, Wallace—“aloof, even ethereal,” in Ferrell’s words—had antagonized nearly every member of the upper chamber, which made him a major political liability for FDR.

Wallace was also, as he described himself, “a searcher for methods of bringing the ‘inner light’ to outward manifestation,” and his searches led him to fall under the influence of some oddball prophets. These included, for a time, a Russian émigré, theosophist, and confidence man named Nicholas Roerich, whom—before he turned against him—Wallace addressed as “Dear Guru.”5 Wallace’s esoteric interests, notorious in Washington, as well as his political incapacities rendered him, to his critics, unfit for the presidency. Opposition to his renomination was virtually universal among FDR’s closest advisers.

Months before the Democratic con- vention, in consultation with the determined party leaders, Roosevelt, aware of the damage Wallace could do to the ticket, decided to jettison him. A week before the convention, at a White House meeting, Roosevelt and the party chieftains considered several possible options but settled on Truman. Although the president barely knew the Missourian, he was comforted by his support of the New Deal and his leadership in the Senate in rooting out waste and profiteering in the war production industries. Truman, coming from a border state, also would do the most of any possible choice to help the ticket, in what was shaping up as a tough campaign against the young New York Republican Thomas E. Dewey.

But the wily Roosevelt—as ever eager to dominate but reluctant to offend, and willing to tell people what he knew they wanted to hear—withheld his decisions from Wallace and the other aspirants for the nomination, including the powerful former senator James F. Byrnes of South Carolina. FDR even told Wallace airily that he hoped to run with him again, a message that any canny politician would have understood was the kiss of death; and, once the convention had commenced, Roosevelt released the highly ambiguous message that Stone and Kuznick describe simply as pro-Wallace.

  1. 1

    “Oliver Stone Defends His ‘The Untold History of the United States,’” The Daily Beast, November 21, 2012. The title is not as misleading as Stone and Kuznick’s original, The Secret History of the United States, which seemed to promise an exposé full of hitherto suppressed evidence. The authors apparently changed the wording at the last minute. See John Horn, “‘Savages’ Oliver Stone Finishes Long-Delayed ‘Secret History’ Doc,” Los Angeles Times, June 25, 2012. 

  2. 2

    Stone and Kuznick selectively draw upon and cite these and other historians’ works, which might appear to disarm criticism that their book presents only one scholarly perspective. But Stone and Kuznick do not seriously engage with the contrary evidence and arguments presented in the works they cite, including Leffler’s nuanced study, For the Soul of Mankind: The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War ( Hill and Wang, 2007). 

  3. 3

    On Japan, Truman and the atomic bomb decision, see Max Hastings, Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944–45 (Knopf, 2008), and the review essay by Michael Kort, “The Historiography of Hiroshima: The Rise and Fall of Revisionism,” New England Journal of History, Vol. 64, No. 1 (Fall 2007). On Truman and Stalin, see, for example, Leffler, For the Soul of Mankind, pp. 11–83. For a recent overview of the Soviet repressive record in Eastern Europe, which allows for American exaggerations of Stalin’s aggressive intentions, see Anne Applebaum, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1945–1956 (Doubleday, 2012). 

  4. 4

    Robert H. Ferrell, Choosing Truman: The Democratic Convention of 1944 (University of Missouri Press, 1994), p. 3. Ferrell’s is the most detailed account, although it should be supplemented with James MacGregor Burns, Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970), pp. 503–507.

  5. John C. Culver and John Hyde, American Dreamer: The Life and Times of Henry A. Wallace (Norton, 2000), pp. 130–146 (quotation on p. 82).
  6. The Price of Vision: The Diary of Henry A. Wallace, 1942–1946, edited by John Morton Blum (Houghton Mifflin, 1973), p. 371.
  7. Burns, Roosevelt, p. 506.
  8. “Wallace Blames US in Prague Coup,” The New York Times, February 28, 1948.
  9. I.F. Stone and Eleanor Roosevelt quoted in Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., A Life in the Twentieth Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917–1950 (Houghton Mifflin, 2000), pp. 456–457; see also Schlesinger’s article “Who Was Henry Wallace?” Los Angeles Times, March 12, 2000.
  10. Manfred Berg, “Black Civil Rights and Liberal Anticommunism: The NAACP in the Early Cold War,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 94, No. 1 (June 2007), p. 86.
  11. Henry Wallace, “Where I Was Wrong,” This Week Magazine, September 7, 1952. This was not an obscure journal but was published as part of the widely respected New York Herald Tribune and other newspapers. Wallace’s article is cited in the entry on him in Wikipedia.
  12. Dwight Macdonald, Henry Wallace: The Man and the Myth (Vanguard, 1948), p. 24.

  14. 5

    John C. Culver and John Hyde, American Dreamer: The Life and Times of Henry A. Wallace (Norton, 2000), pp. 130–146 (quotation on p. 82). 

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