Hollywood director lays into Uncle Sam

Out of America: Oliver Stone's new 10-part TV series is blasting apart the sacred myth of American exceptionalism. It's not perfect, but it's a start

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits  

So who, really, is David Cameron, our re-elected ‘one nation’ Prime Minister?

Andrew Grice
Time travel: Thomas Cook has been trading since 1841  

A horror show from Thomas Cook that tells you all you need to know about ethical consumerism

Janet Street-Porter
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?