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

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist / Physio / Osteopath

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for o...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager / Sales Executive - Contract Hire

£35000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leader provides c...

Recruitment Genius: Project Coordinator

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Coordinator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - Midlands

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Don’t pity me for eating alone, just give me a better table

Rosie Millard
Aerial view of planned third runway at Heathrow  

Heathrow expansion: This final 'conclusion' has simply fanned the airport flames

Chris Blackhurst
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most