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Untold History’: An Exchange

In response to:

Cherry-Picking Our History from the February 21, 2013 issue

To the Editors:

In his error-riddled review of our Untold History of the United States book and ten-part Showtime documentary film series [NYR, February 21], Sean Wilentz accuses us of “cherry-picking,” a pejorative term for selecting which facts to include and which to exclude from one’s narrative. This, at least, is a process with which Wilentz is quite familiar.

On January 28, Efraín Ríos Montt, the former dictator of Guatemala, was indicted on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity for his brutal 1980s massacres of Guatemalan peasants. In December 1982, in the village of Dos Erres, the Guatemalan army slaughtered 160 people, swinging sixty-five children by their feet and smashing their heads against the rocks. Just the previous day, Ronald Reagan had complained that Ríos Montt had gotten a “bum rap” and told reporters the general was “totally committed to democracy.” Reagan called him “a man of great personal integrity and commitment.” This story appears nowhere in Wilentz’s 2008 book The Age of Reagan, a book that Reagan admirer Ron Radosh lavished with praise. Wilentz, like all historians, chooses facts that support his theses, as he did in this review.

We state clearly our biases, writing in our introduction:

We don’t try to tell all of US history…. We don’t focus extensively on many of the things the United States has done right. There are libraries full of books dedicated to that purpose…. We are more concerned with focusing a spotlight on what the United States has done wrong—the ways in which we believe the country has betrayed its mission—with the faith that there is still time to correct those errors as we move forward into the twenty-first century.

Wilentz takes umbrage at our laudatory treatment of Henry Wallace, who, between 1944 and 1947, tried to avert the cold war and nuclear arms race. He provides a fanciful account of Wallace’s supporters trying to “stampede the [1944] convention,” which the party bosses thought they had tightly controlled. He dismisses our “thinly sourced” account of that history-changing night, though we have read dozens of contemporary accounts and memoirs while he relies on two questionable secondary works. He ignorantly trumpets the party bosses’ claim that Wallace was “a major political liability for FDR,” ignoring the Gallup Poll released on the convention’s opening day showing that 65 percent of Democratic voters wanted Wallace back on the ticket as vice-president and 2 percent supported Truman. Reading Wilentz one would never know that the bosses spent months trying to convince an ailing FDR to dump Wallace, an effort that corrupt party treasurer Edwin Pauley proudly labeled “Pauley’s coup” and one vigorously opposed by Eleanor and all the Roosevelt children.

As president, Wallace would almost certainly have prevented the atomic bombing of Japan and done everything he could to maintain the postwar alliance with the Soviet Union. Wilentz defends the atomic bombings, ignoring the fact that six of America’s five-star admirals and generals who earned their fifth star during the war said the bombings were militarily unnecessary, morally reprehensible, or both. Wilentz makes much of Wallace’s 1952 recantation of some of his post-1947 views in an atmosphere marked by withering attacks on Wallace’s patriotism, McCarthyism, the Korean War, Stalinist repression in Eastern Europe, and the complete collapse of the American left, a world far different than that of 1944 and one that a Wallace presidency may have been able to avert. He incorrectly accuses us of ignoring Wallace’s reversal despite the fact that we highlight this in Episode 3 of the documentary. He claims we are wrong to attribute Truman’s 1948 civil rights advocacy to Wallace’s Progressive Party campaign, even though The Wall Street Journal wrote:

Mr. Wallace succeeded in having his ideas adopted, except in the field of foreign affairs. From the time that Mr. Wallace announced he would run for President, Mr. Truman began to suck the wind from Mr. Wallace’s sails by coming out for more and more of the Wallace domestic program.

As a historian of Jacksonian America, Wilentz can be forgiven for getting so much wrong. However, his real bone of contention with our analysis is over our searing critique of the US empire and national security state. An avowed friend and supporter of Hillary Clinton, Wilentz infuriated liberals with his 2008 assault on Barack Obama, whom he dismissed as having “purposely polluted” the 2008 primary with “the most outrageous deployment of racial politics since the Willie Horton ad campaign in 1988.” There was little that he wasn’t willing to say or do to defend Hillary Clinton.

We, on the other hand, sharply criticize the former first lady and secretary of state for being an unstinting defender of the American empire. Not only did she vote to authorize war in Iraq, she helped pressure a reluctant Obama into sending an extra 30,000 troops to Afghanistan in 2009. And more recently, in her November 2011 Foreign Policy magazine article titled “America’s Pacific Century,” she laid out the administration’s dangerous and wrongheaded plans for an Asia “pivot” to contain China militarily, politically, and economically. Perhaps it is here, over the question of empire, even more than over Henry Wallace, that the battle between our interpretations and Wilentz’s should be drawn.

Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick
Los Angeles, California
Bethesda, Maryland

Sean Wilentz replies:

Unfortunately, the reply to my review by Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick displays the same degree of intellectual integrity and historical accuracy as their disgraceful book and television show.

Stone and Kuznick try to evade criticism by sneering at nonexistent errors and then changing the subject. They charge that my book The Age of Reagan ignores brutal massacres in Guatemala in order to support its “theses” about the Reagan White House. My book’s actual thesis? “The Reagan Doctrine contributed to a bloodbath in Central America,” killing upward of 200,000 people in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala, “with no discernible impact on the outcome of the cold war.” The crimes and scandals of the Reagan administration were many and my book cites several specific atrocities. But the facts that Stone and Kuznick falsely accuse me of squelching actually support my book’s arguments.

Concerning other historical facts, I clearly stated that Democratic Party leaders conspired against Henry Wallace in 1944. But Stone and Kuznick’s portrayal of an enfeebled Franklin Roosevelt bending to the bosses’ will despite his own preference contradicts the primary evidence, including Wallace’s own personal diary, which I quoted. Unfazed—and citing not “dozens” of documents but a single self-serving memoir by a politician they describe as “corrupt”—they have concocted a fantasy about how Wallace was pushed aside. Nearly the only one of FDR’s closest advisers who supported Wallace at the time, Eleanor Roosevelt, changed her mind four years later and called him a tool of the Communists. Stone and Kuznick ignore that, too.

Far from highlighting Wallace’s repudiation in 1952 of his views dating back to 1944, they disregard it. Instead, in The Untold History of the United States, they cite his milder remarks of two years earlier supporting the Korean War, when he still clung to the idea that the Soviets were elsewhere helping oppressed people “get out from under their ancient aggressors.” Their discussion of what in their letter they euphemistically call Wallace’s “reversal” suppresses both his forthright condemnation of Soviet communism as “something utterly evil” and his painful admission that he had been duped.

The canard about high-ranking admirals and generals opposing the dropping of atomic bombs on moral or military grounds has been challenged for decades, in various ways, by scholars ranging from Barton Bernstein to Robert James Maddox. In support of the canard, Untold History offers postwar quotations, pulled out of context, from, among others, Admiral Chester Nimitz, General Carl Spaatz, and General Curtis LeMay. The authors conceal the fact that all three men at the time advocated dropping a third atomic weapon on Tokyo.

On Truman and civil rights: outraged by racist violence directed at black veterans, President Harry Truman moved decisively well before Henry Wallace challenged him for president, emphatically supporting federal action to halt lynching, end segregation, abolish poll taxes, and otherwise secure equal rights for all black Americans. Stone and Kuznick ignore this well-documented historical record and instead produce a single partisan editorial from The Wall Street Journal as if it confirmed their ugly caricature of Truman as a hopelessly crude and unreconstructed racist who feigned liberal views when pressed by Wallace.

Hillary Clinton is their final distraction. My review focuses on Stone and Kuznick’s mangled accounts of the 1940s. And so they attack me for supporting her during the Democratic presidential primaries—in 2008. As it happens, I then supported another Democrat they berate, Barack Obama—in 2008 and 2012. But it is indeed true that I initially supported Clinton. They denounce her as an imperialist; therefore, the hidden motive behind my criticism of their book and television show must be ipso facto to defend American imperialism. Warped logic aside, this ludicrous argument does nothing to salvage their distortions of history that my review pointed out.

Stone and Kuznick finally give themselves away when they say that “all historians” simply choose the facts that support their interpretations. Oliver Stone, an imaginative filmmaker, might be forgiven for taking this cynical view, but Peter Kuznick is supposed to be a professional historian. If—and only if—history is, as they contend, little more than propaganda does their work qualify as history. Their shifty reply, compounding their initial distortions, corroborates my review’s observation that, despite their scholarly pretensions, they have in fact presented “a skewed political document.” That they can’t bring themselves to admit the truth—that, for example, one of their principal characters, Henry Wallace, repudiated the views they ascribe to him and condemned communism as evil—reveals that they have chosen to produce not a work of history but an ideological tract.

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