Shining city on a hill? A gloomy urban sprawl in the netherworld more like, if Oliver Stone is to be believed. Stone, you will remember, brought us the movies JFK, Nixon, Wall Street and Platoon. He served and was decorated in Vietnam. He's an iconoclast, an avid student of history and probably the nearest thing there is to a socialist director in Hollywood. Now he's set about demolishing that enduring American trope, the vision of national exceptionalism set out in 1630 by John Winthrop, Puritan settler and first governor of the Colony of Massachusetts, and made legend in our times by Ronald Reagan.
Oliver Stone's The Untold History of the United States, a 10-part television series that has just started here, is not so much an untold history as a counter-history of the "American Century", of the America that emerged from the Second World War as the most powerful nation on the planet. It's not the re-assuring fare that usually passes for history on US TV. Systematically, Stone is unpicking America's image of itself as a unique force for good, different from and somehow better than other countries.
The series promises to be fascinating, but far from perfect. It's easy to make fun of Stone, as a conspiracy theorist with a tendency to the bombastic and a disregard for inconvenient facts. Nor are his theories and stories exactly new. Stone, for instance, follows every modern historian when he contends that the Soviet Union, not the US, played the biggest part in the defeat of Hitler. He is far from the first to argue that Harry Truman dropped the atom bomb on Japan not so much to shorten the war as to serve notice to the Russians and others that you didn't mess with the US.
As others, he claims that, driven by its determination to destroy communism, America was mainly responsible for the Cold War. But he ignores Stalin's appalling behaviour. Stone also asserts that Reagan gets too much credit for ending the Cold War, and Mikhail Gorbachev too little. Really? As for his castigation of George W Bush's Mesopotamian adventure, what else is new?
But, for me, Untold History is redeemed on two grounds, one particular, one general. First, the particular – a terrific historical What-if, as in "What if Henry Wallace had become president?" Wallace was Franklin Roosevelt's second vice-president, until the sickly FDR ran in 1944 for a fourth term that everyone knew he would never complete. For that reason, Democrat bosses insisted that Wallace, idealist and dove, was dropped from the ticket. But if he, not Truman, had been elevated to the White House, would Hiroshima have happened? Might there never have been a Cold War?
In 1948, Wallace did run for president, urging a "Century of the Common Man". He was, someone said, "the closest the Soviet Union ever came to actually choosing a president of the United States". But he didn't win a single electoral college vote and, as Untold History has it, under Truman, America went from bad to worse.
Which brings me to the second virtue of Untold History. America's less glorious moments may have been chronicled. Rarely, though, have they been presented as a seamless alternate vision that debunks the notion of American exceptionalism: that the US has a quasi-divine mission to bring its values to the entire world. Stone instead takes a leftist scythe to the American Century.
From this concept of exceptionalism, much else flows: the patriotism that can astonish the foreign visitor, the veneration for the military and a reflexive belief that the US can do no wrong. "Why are we so aggressive," Stone asks. "Why are we in so many wars?" Part of the answer is that if America embarks on war, by definition, it is a just cause.
All of this is augmented by vast public ignorance. A 2011 survey found that two out of three Americans between 18 and 24 did not know where Iraq is, while four out of five couldn't find Afghanistan on the map. Barely half can define the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution that are the basic guarantee of a citizen's freedoms. Historical ignorance is not an American monopoly. But it is especially unpardonable in the country that aspires to make so much of the stuff.
Nonetheless, things may improve. A century ago, Britain was top nation, and the aura lingered long. When I was at prep school in the 1950s, the Empire was an unqualified boon for humanity, it was assumed, and it had defeated Hitler single-handed. But, as our decline became impossible to deny, reality intruded. We weren't especially bad, but we weren't perfect either. Now, amid the talk of US decline, perhaps something similar will happen. Oliver Stone's opus may prove less of a left-wing rant than harbinger of a belated national understanding: that history, like most of those who make it, is not black and white but infinite shades of grey.Reuse content