USA: Untold History

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It has been said that when you’re defending you’re losing. Oliver Stone has become a media darling in the USA and spends his days defending his perception of reality. With heavyweight historian Prof Peter Kuznick on his side it might be best if Stone stops defending and allows this 10 part documentary series and 750 page tome speak for themselves. If that were to happen then ‘Untold History’ or, more accurately, ‘Overtold History’, citing over 2,000 ‘Told History’ sources in 14 Chapters might end up on the immaculate shelves of Democrats with voracious appetites for sinister reasons to despise Republicanism.

Historians agree that History must be challenged. Stone & Kuznick argue that the narrative of American history, devoted to liberty and justice, is only part of the story, “We must understand our history; it helps us to shape the here and now.”[1] The authors are recent arrivals in a line of revisionist historians presenting known facts in a skewed order leading to a skewed conclusion.  One wonders if the next revisionist historian to reinterpret this work may be a ‘post-revisionist’.

The inspiration for this journey through America’s ‘untold history’ may be the valiant Maj Gen Smedley Butler who won numerous medals for heroic escapades. He once wrote, “I helped make the world safe for American oil interests. I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.”[2] Stone & Kuznick use Butler’s words as a foundation stone for their flawed reconstructed interpretation, “War is a racket as US troop’s storm their way around the world to defend American capitalism.”

Once one is willing to accept this argument then the rest flows very naturally and the main players, presidents, politicians, soldiers, bankers and businessmen in the saga are either good (Democrats) or evil (Republicans). The book contends that the ongoing construction of the rapidly expanding ‘American Empire’ is leaving in its wake a trail of chaos preventing America from playing a role in advancing rather than retarding humanity. The USA, claim the writers, have remained in the grip of militarists and empire builders and presidents have been “brainwashed” into sustaining the repressive state that oversees US domination of the world.

The two main heroes here are Henry Wallace who urged the United States to usher in what he called “the century of the common man” and JFK who by 1963 was on the verge of rejecting Cold War thinking and leading the USA on the road to peace and prosperity. Wallace was vilified, by all but Kennedy, for suggesting the banning of colonialism and economic exploitation. Kennedy’s death handed back the country to dark ‘enemies’ who wanted war and repression.[3]

Stone & Kuznick suggest modern America has been created by these ‘enemies’, a minority of wealthy Americans exerting control over US domestic and foreign policy while the masses experience rapid diminution of power and living standards, “Americans are now victims of intrusive surveillance, government intrusion, abuse of civil liberties, and loss of privacy.”[4] In the United States those who are driven by personal greed and self-interest are empowered over those who extol kindness, generosity, compassion, sharing, empathy, and community building.

Such are some of the issues addressed in these pages which attempts to advance President John Quincy Adam’s condemnation of British colonialism and declaration that the USA, “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy”[5] Stone & Kuznick are left-leaning historians seeking deliverance from the evils of society and, it seems, liberation cannot come from politicians but some badly defined movement envisaged as US citizens learning the lessons of this ‘Untold History’.

The ‘revelation’ that America is ‘imperialist’ is timeworn. The US expansionist impulse exists since the earliest British colonies, an impulse later embodied in “Manifest Destiny” and reflected in the Monroe Doctrine; “since the first settlers America was an imperial nation”[6] The American Empire is exceptional; it is concerned with economic domination not controlling populations. The USA has resorted to force to protect those economic interests. Recent Pentagon figures indicate that the USA had military presence in 132 nations.[7]

The American Empire has evolved over a century. After fulfilling what journalist John L. O’Sullivan termed its “Manifest Destiny” by spreading across North America, the United States looked overseas. As the Europeans seized land in the late 19th century Henry Cabot Lodge observed, “the great nations are rapidly absorbing for their future expansion and their present defence all the waste places of the Earth”, he urged the USA to move quickly to make up for much lost time.[8]

The USA needed markets abroad to absorb its growing overproduction surplus. Capitalists endorsed the approach thereby ensuring to involve USA in world affairs. American industrialists prospered and demanded compliant foreign governments protecting their interests. Political instability afforded the USA a pretext to intervene militarily and reinstall governments.[9] In short, argue Stone & Kuznick, the globalisation of American democracy proceeded at gunpoint financed by capitalists. To trace the roots of this ‘modern evil’ one needs to return to President Woodrow Wilson.

Stone & Kuznick claim Wilson had major weaknesses, “descended from Presbyterian ministers, moralistic and self-righteously inflexible. He believed he was carrying out God’s plan”.[10] Wilson disapproved of radicalism and expressed greater sympathy for business than for labour, “Wilson abhorred radical change. A true diehard imperialist he refused to recognise the Mexican government and sent thousands of American troops to the Mexican border.[11]

While the United States was busy policing its neighbours to the south, more ominous developments were occurring in Europe. Wilson was not to know that the predominantly European bloodletting – the Great War, World War I – would be only the start of an era of unending warfare and horrific violence, human and technological barbarism on an unimaginable scale, which would later come to be known as the American Century. Americans of all political persuasions feared getting dragged into Europe’s bloodletting. Antiwar sentiment held strong and despite overwhelming sympathy for the allies, the United States declared neutrality in the war; “we have to be neutral,” Wilson explained, “since otherwise our mixed populations would wage war on each other.” [12] American neutrality existed in principle but not in practice. Economic interests clearly placed the United States in the Allied camp.

After the sinking of the Lusitania Roosevelt called for war. Despite initial disclaimers, the ship was in fact carrying a large cargo of arms to Great Britain. Though Wilson had won re-election in 1916 under the slogan “He kept us out of war,” he was increasingly coming to believe that if the United States didn’t join the war, it would be denied a role in shaping the post-war world. [13] In April 1917, Wilson asked Congress for a declaration of war, saying, “The world must be made safe for democracy.” Opponents attacked Wilson as a tool of Wall Street. “We are about to put the dollar on the American flag,” charged Sen George Norris of Nebraska. [14] The American public were not enthusiastic to take part in the Great War but the propaganda machine quickly took control of public opinion and became a central element in all future war planning. “During the war period it came to be recognised that the mobilisation of men and means was not sufficient; there must be a mobilisation of opinion.” [15] Stone & Kuznick argue that the war years did, however, bring on unprecedented collusion between large corporations and government in an attempt to rationalise and stabilise the economy, control unfettered competition, and guarantee profits – something that top bankers and corporate executives had striven for decades to achieve. As a result, American banks and corporations thrived during the war, with munitions makers leading the pack.

In Paris on January 12, 1919 Wilson’s “fourteen points” proved a weak foundation on which to base negotiations. The Allies balked at Wilson’s terms. They had little interest in making the world safe for democracy, freedom of the seas, and “peace without victory.” They wanted revenge, new colonies, and naval dominance. Europe was crumbling, starvation was rampant, disease was spreading and displaced populations were seeking refuge. Few of Wilson’s 14 points remained in the final treaty.

Wilson’s verbal promises to spread democracy and end colonialism were broken with his actions. Bankers and munitions manufacturers brought America into WW1 and Wilson’s ineffectiveness about settlements and League of Nations created American scepticism about international involvement and hampered America’s response to the threat of advancing fascism in the 1930’s.

History would soon prove that Wilson had reason to be alarmed at the radical tide sweeping Europe and beyond. American workers also participated in the radical upsurge; steelworkers, miners and textile workers went on strike for higher wages but were soon to learn that police, courts, troops, and the entire apparatus of the state would be arrayed against them when they struggled for better conditions, higher pay and the right to join unions. Thousands of alleged radicals were arrested and many were incarcerated without charges for months. J Edgar Hoover headed up the campaign against the “un-Americanism” and by 1921 he had compiled a list of over half a million potentially subversive individuals, groups, and publications.

Historians have long since discredited the myth that revulsion caused by the war and European entanglements plunged the United States into isolationism in the 1920s. In fact, World War I marked the end of European dominance and the ascendancy of the United States and Japan, the wars two real victors. The 1920s saw a rapid expansion of American business and finance around the globe. New York replaced London as the centre of world finance. The era of US domination of the world economy had now begun. Among the leaders in this effort were the oil companies. The war proved that controlling oil companies was central to projecting and exercising power.

But some people nevertheless clung to the belief that the United States had engaged in a great crusade for freedom and democracy, but for many the phrase rang hollow. Some expressed anger at the war. Others just expressed profound sense of post-war malaise. Hollywood produced several successful anti-war movies including “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930). The war proved demoralising and now seemed to showcase barbarism and depravity, “Put simply, the faith in human capability and human decency had disappeared. Negative views of human nature were reflected in a loss of faith in essential human capabilities.”[16]

Thus the war would have consequences that went far beyond the horrors of the battlefield. The United States never joined the League of Nations, rendering that body impotent in the face of Fascist aggression in the 1930s. Revelations that the United States had entered the First World War on false pretences, while bankers and munitions manufacturers – later labelled “merchants of death” – had raked in huge profits, created widespread scepticism about foreign involvement at a time when the United States needed to contend with a real “axis of evil”: Germany, Italy, and Japan. By the time the United States acted, it was much too late. The necessity of finally combating fascism would, however, afford the United States an opportunity to reclaim some of that democratic, egalitarian heritage on which its earliest greatness and moral leadership had rested. And, though late in entering World War II, the United States provided crucial assistance in defeating Europe’s fascists and played the decisive role in defeating Japan’s militarists. But by setting up the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of the war, the United States, once again, proved itself unready to provide the kind of leadership a desperate world cried out for.

By 1920 the world was on the mend from the Great War but by 1930, problems seemed insurmountable. The United States was in the worst depression in its history, the banking system had collapsed, bread lines formed in every town and city, homeless walked the streets, and misery was ubiquitous, despair pervasive. [17] The rest of the world was also in bad shape and had not experienced the relative prosperity in the 1920s that had  that cushioned America. In Europe the trouble was looming Mussolini was in power in Italy, Adolf Hitler had come to power in Germany and in 1931 Japanese forces had seized Manchuria. Roosevelt had attacked Pres Hoover for spending too aggressively and unbalancing the budget. He acknowledged the suffering of the people and called for a “new deal.” He had to solve some very real and very practical problems. Thus after his election the first issue he was to deal with was that of the banking system. “But Roosevelt connected with a deeper reality: Americans’ desperate need for renewed hope and confidence. And that he set out to restore”.[18]

In 1940, Stone & Kuznick write, Roosevelt first named his brilliant secretary of agriculture, Henry Wallace, as his running mate thus overruling reluctant party bosses. Four years later, with Roosevelt’s health declining the party bosses knew that the nominee for vice president might well soon become president so they conspired to dump Wallace and replace him with Harry Truman. Too enfeebled to put up any fight Roosevelt still made it clear in an open letter to the Democratic convention that he wanted Wallace. Rank-and-file Democrats rose up against “the bosses” stranglehold over the convention and mounted a demonstration and very nearly nominated Wallace, but were caught short when the bosses forced adjournment against the wishes of the delegates. Truman prevailed and thus came about the first major setback to hopes for a peaceful post-war world. Stone & Kuznick contend that History might have turned out more happily if only this virtual conspiracy to undermine Wallace never took place. In fact Wallace was a major source of concern for party bosses primarily because of his esoteric interests. He once said of himself, “I am a searcher for methods of bringing the ‘inner light’ to outward manifestation”. This search put him under the influence of some oddball prophets. These abstruse interests along with political incapacity gave Wallace notoriety in Washington and his critics deemed him unfit for presidency. Wallace himself was very aware of the fact that Roosevelt had little or no confidence in him as presidential material, “I am certain that the president wanted to ditch me as noiselessly as possible.”

By the time Roosevelt was inaugurated, banking had been halted completely or sharply limited everywhere. Conditions were ripe for dramatic changes in the banking system public anger against bankers had been building since the stock market crash. The media of the day exposed fraud and wrong doing on the part of the nation’s top bankers, including obscene salaries, unpaid taxes, hidden bonuses, unethical loans, and more. Magazines began calling bankers “banksters.”

In this climate, Roosevelt had pretty much a free hand to do what he wanted. He declared a four-day national bank holiday, conferred with the nation’s top bankers on his first full day in office, called a special session of Congress to pass emergency legislation, and calmed citizens fears with the first of his famous fireside chats. Congress passed and Roosevelt signed the emergency banking act, written largely by the bankers themselves. The banking system had been restored without radical change.

Roosevelt’s solution to the banking crisis would serve as a template for how he would handle most issues and his instincts were fundamentally conservative. He would save capitalism from the capitalists. He would face allegations that his “new Deal” was fascistic. In fact, in 1976 Ronald Reagan claimed that “fascism was really the basis of the new Deal.” [19] There was great uncertainty about where Roosevelt was taking the country, leading some observers to compare the United States with Fascist Italy. Some News magazines were unabashed supporters of Mussolini and extolled Italian fascism which they claimed embodied ancient virtues of the race including discipline, duty, courage, glory and sacrifice. [20]

Roosevelt focused from the outset on jumpstarting the US economy and getting Americans back to work. Solving international problems would take a back seat. Roosevelt’s inward looking approach was apparent across the board. He repudiated his earlier support for joining the League of Nations and willingly sacrificed foreign trade in order to stimulate domestic recovery. He even took steps to reduce the countries 140,000 man army which prompted a visit by secretary of war George Dern. Dern brought along Gen Douglas MacArthur, who told the President that he was endangering the country’s safety.

Following FDR’s death and Truman’s arrival as president in the Oval Office came ‘disaster’. The United States dropped atomic bombs even though, according to the authors, the Japanese already knew they were defeated. Truman dropped the bombs to intimidate Stalin into post-war submission and a combination of the Truman Doctrine, the Berlin airlift and the Marshall Plan led the Soviets into the Cold War and a conflict which escalated into a nuclear arms race that imperilled civilisation with the only objector being Wallace whom FDR appointed secretary of commerce. This all sounds logical in theory but the reality is far different. The authors offer no real evidence to back their claim that the Japanese was close to surrender prior to events at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Historians generally accept the Japanese were not close to ‘unconditional surrender’ and would fight hard for a ‘mild’ negotiated settlement to protect their adored Emperor. This being true then Stone & Kuznick’s basic contention that Truman was less than honest about his motive for dropping the bomb, namely, to spare American GI lives, and the chain of events that followed including the Cold War, Soviet paranoia,  McCarthyism and the Cuban Missile crisis would never have occurred. There are ample grounds to condemn some of Truman’s actions, not least the loyalty oath program in 1947 but by glorifying Wallace by stating what could have happened the authors merely indulge in serious conjecture. In its most basic form the Cold War was about Liberalism versus Communism and the reality is that each side could learn from the other. The Cold War was the driving force of the American Empire.

Stone & Kuznick’s book and TV series presented as new has a misleading title. Most of the interpretations they present from the war in the Philippines to Afghanistan have appeared in revisionist histories of American foreign policy written over the last 50 years. The authors have conceded this point in their sources and claimed that what they call their “revisionist narrative” that informs their book has become “the dominant narrative among university-based historians.”

The authors devote themselves almost entirely to America’s role in world affairs since 1900 and particularly since 1939. Their aim is to describe America’s seizure of global supremacy during and after World War II, and its imperial exploits up to the present day. It is a tale of good and bad men but mostly bad. By the 1920s the Democratic Republic all but disappeared to make way for an America whose unique mixture of idealism, militarism, avarice, and realpolitik propelled it toward becoming a world power. The book is not so much a work of history than a slanted political document restating and updating a particular view of the world that leaves plenty of space for further historical revisionism. No doubt that too shall come.

[1]Stone, O. & Kuznick, P., 2013. The Untold History of the United States. 2013 ed. New York: Simon and Schuster.

[2]Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove, Voices of a People’s History of the United States, 2nd. ed. (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2009), pp251-252

[3]Stone, O. & Kuznick, P., 2013. The Untold History of the United States. 2013 ed. New York: Simon and Schuster.

[4]Stone, O. & Kuznick, P., 2013. The Untold History of the United States. 2013 ed. New York: Simon and Schuster.

[5]Gardner, L. C., LaFeber, W. F. & McCormick, T. J., 1976. Creation of the American Empire (United States Diplomatic History to 1901). Chicago: Rand McNally College Publishing.

[6]Kennedy, P., 2002. The Eagle Has Landed. Financial Times, 22 February.

[7]Freedland, J., 2002. Is America the New Rome?. Guardian, 18th September.

[8]Shoultz, L., 1998. Beneath the United States: A History of US Policy Toward Latin America. 1998 ed. Cambridge, Massachusetts.: Harvard University Press.

[9]Stone, O. & Kuznick, P., 2013. The Untold History of the United States. 2013 ed. New York: Simon and Schuster.

[10]Stone, O. & Kuznick, P., 2013. The Untold History of the United States. 2013 ed. New York: Simon and Schuster.

[11]Hofstadter, R., 1949. The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

[12]Herring, G. C., 2008. From Colony to Superpower: US Foreign Relations since 1776. New York: Oxford University Press.

[13]Herring, G. C., 2008. From Colony to Superpower: US Foreign Relations since 1776. New York: Oxford University Press.

[14]Knock, T. J., 1992. To End All Wars: Woodrow Wilson and the Quest for a New World Order. New York: Oxford University Press.

[15]Lasswell, H. D., 1927. Propaganda Technique in the World War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

[16]Stone, O. & Kuznick, P., 2013. The Untold History of the United States. 2013 ed. New York: Simon and Schuster.

[17]Kennedy, P., 2002. The Eagle Has Landed. Financial Times, 22 February.

[18]Stone, O. & Kuznick, P., 2013. The Untold History of the United States. 2013 ed. New York: Simon and Schuster.

[19]Reagan, R., 1976. The Nation: I’ve Had a Bum Rap. Time, 17th May, p. 19.

[20]Michael Augspurger, “Henry Luce, Fortune, and the Attraction of Italian Fascism,” American Studies 41 (Spring 2000), p115

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About Gerard Hannan

Media Student at MIC/UL in Limerick, Ireland. Worked as a Broadcaster/Journalist in Limerick for over 25 Years and has also published four local interest books.

Posted on April 25, 2014, in American History.. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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