Oliver Stone; Peter Kuznick, Part 2

On election night, Tavis continues his conversation with the outspoken filmmaker and history professor as they help clarify U.S. history.

Oscar- and Emmy-winning filmmaker Oliver Stone is known for writing and directing powerful and often controversial films, with credits that include Scarface, Platoon, Natural Born Killers, Wall Street and its sequel and the documentary South of the Border. A history lover, he also produced biopics on Presidents Kennedy, Nixon and George W. Bush.

Peter Kuznick is a history professor, director of the award-winning Nuclear Studies Institute at American University and a distinguished lecturer with the Organization of American Historians. He's written extensively about science and politics, nuclear history and Cold War culture and teaches the course Oliver Stone’s America.

The two have collaborated on the text, The Untold History of the United States, and the companion Showtime 10-part documentary series, Oliver Stone's Untold History of the United States, which look at the dark side of American history.


Tavis: Back now with part two of our conversation with Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick. Before we jump back into things, a reminder that their 10-part series on Showtime kicks off next Monday night. Here now, another preview of “The Untold History of the United States.”


Tavis: A powerful line, Oliver Stone, “The tyranny of now.”

Oliver Stone: Thank you.

Tavis: “The tyranny of now.” Do you think that a 10-part series on Showtime, a companion book, can start a legitimate conversation about the truth of our history?

Stone: Sure, of course. You’ve got to start somewhere. I’m very proud of the fact that Showtime put this on, you know. This is not normally gets on American television. This doesn’t make it. But they are very proud of it and it’ll be seen. It’s repeated and repeated, and it does – we have foreign showings of it, and hopefully one day it’ll be a text in a school, because it deserves to be.

It’s a solid text, and I think it’s better than my daughter’s text, which is apparently the ninth edition.

Tavis: Yeah.

Peter Kuznick: And the book is getting very widely distributed. It’s being sold at Costco, Walmart, Sam’s, so it’s got a pretty big audience out there.

Tavis: I just take Texas as an example, Peter. With Texas as just one example of a state where they are – trying to find the right word here – getting tighter and tighter, clamping down more and more on what goes into textbooks, before we know it, slavery in Texas will have been a carnival of some sort, because they’re changing, they’re changing what really happened so much, and again, keeping stuff out.

So with that kind of push to clamp down on what does go into textbooks, what makes you think that we can at some point ever get this kind of truth in a textbook?

Kuznick: Well, we had made some progress for a while in the 1980s and 1990s. They did begin to introduce elements of multiculturalism. The kind of triumphalist history that used to be in the textbooks in the ’50s and ’60s is not there anymore. It’s a more complicated story.

They’re starting to get certain aspects right. Other things, like Oliver’s daughter’s history textbook, is so bad on the atomic bomb that it’s just unconscionable.

Stone: And the Cold War.

Kuznick: Yeah, and the Cold War. But some of them are better.

Tavis: I’m glad you said that, because there are three or four things – actually more than that – but a number of things I want to just slow down for a second and just have you guys kind of top-line for me what the reader of the book and the viewer of the series will get when it comes to these issues, because they’re major moments in history.

I want to jump back to last night, for starters. We started the show last night with a clip about Henry Wallace. I’ll let you tell the story, but why is that such a significant slice of history, and why ought we know more about who Henry Wallace was?

Kuznick: Why don’t we begin by knowing even the name Henry Wallace. Most of the viewers and most Americans have no idea who Henry Wallace was. He’s been totally wiped clean in the history books.

Henry Wallace was the secretary of Agriculture in the 1930s and then Roosevelt tapped him to be vice president in 1940 because we were about to fight a war against fascism and he wanted a progressive in there. He defied the party bosses for putting him on the ticket.

Then in 1944, Wallace had stood for a lot of progressive ideas. When Henry Luce in 1941 said the 20th century must be the American century, that the United States has got to dominate intellectually, economically, militarily, Wallace countered that as vice president and said the 20th century must be the century of the common man.

He called for a worldwide people’s revolution. He called for ending imperialism, ending colonialism, wiping out poverty, raising educational levels, raising the standards of living, and he said in the tradition of the American Revolution, French Revolution, Latin American revolutions and Russian revolution. This is a vision that he was actually promulgating during this time, and was the leading progressive and the second most popular man in America.

On the eve of the Democratic convention, July 20th, 1944, Gallup did a poll asking people who they wanted back on the ticket as vice president. Sixty-five percent of the Americans said they wanted Henry Wallace as vice president. Two percent said they wanted Harry Truman. But the people who wanted Harry Truman were the conservative party bosses who knew that Roosevelt’s life expectancy was limited and they wanted to make sure that Wallace didn’t become president.

Had Wallace become president – and it gets so close at the ’44 convention that after Wallace makes an important speech, there’s a great demonstration in favor of him. Claude Pepper knows if he can get to the microphone and get Wallace’s name and nomination that evening, then Wallace will sweep the convention and be back on the ticket as vice president.

Pepper got five feet from the microphone before the party bosses shut down the convention that night. Five more feet. We argue that had Pepper gotten there and Wallace become vice president and then become president on April 12th, 1945, when Roosevelt died, instead of Truman, that there would have been no atomic bombing and there very possibly would have been no Cold War.

Had there been no Cold War, the whole history would have been so fundamentally different. History can be different, and it was the people who were pushing Wallace against the bosses.

Tavis: Speaking of Cold War, issue number two, and there are so many, you all changed the storyline or tried to get to more truth about the story line of who was actually promulgating the Cold War. All the movies that we see, Mr. Stone, tell it one way, and you tell it another way.

Stone: That’s right.

Tavis: Yeah.

Stone: Yeah. No, World War II is a very interesting war. In reality, it’s a three-empire money game between the British Empire, which nobody seems to know about in America, and about the American nation empire and the Russian, the Soviet empire.

The British play a huge role in this. We go into that in detail. Churchill is a confirmed anti-Soviet thinker, and he very much influences Truman, and one thing leads to another. We detail it month-by-month, day-by-day, practically. There’s this change in the atmosphere when Roosevelt goes, and it’s a shame, because it’s a huge difference in the world.

It’s progressive. Wallace is a progressive American. He’s like Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” We cut to the movie clips of that to try to make our point. I think it’s also a fun movie to watch. It flows.

Kuznick: Truman becomes president on April 12th, 1945. Truman was in way over his head when the Boss Pendergast – Truman was part of the Pendergast machine in Kansas City, and Boss Pendergast was asked why they chose Truman to run for the Senate, and Pendergast says, “I wanted to show the world that I could take an office boy and get – that a well-oiled machine could take an office boy and get him elected to the Senate.”

Truman was shunned by the other senators because they called him the senator from Pendergast. Truman is in so far over his head when he becomes vice president and then president, he had this recurring nightmare that the Secret Service would knock at his door in the middle of the night and tell him that Roosevelt was dead.

That was because he knew that he was just not up to it. So he becomes president on April 12th, 1945, at a time when you’re going to have to make the most monumental decisions in history at that point, and he is clearly not capable of doing that. He tells everybody he meets with for the first two weeks that this is a terrible mistake, that he’s not big enough, that he’s not smart enough, that somebody else should really become president.

They told him he had to buck up and at least make believe he could be president, or everybody’s going to lose faith. So he gets in there and he’s got the opportunity to make a series of decisions, and unfortunately he makes the wrong one in almost every case, and he falls in line with the British thinking and falls in line with those anti-Soviet hardliners who say that the Soviet Union is breaking all of its agreements.

Many of the key people in his administration all were disagreeing with Truman during this time, as were many others in the top administrative positions, but Truman took this hard line that the Soviets were cheating and breaking their agreements, and it took us steadily down the path toward confrontation, which Roosevelt knew was not necessary.

Tavis: Another issue – we mentioned this last night on this program and we’ll get a chance to unpack it a little bit now – Japan, the bomb. You guys take that issue on and try to, again, set the record straight about that as well.

Kuznick: Most Americans don’t realize that six of the seven five-star officers who earned their fifth star during the war were opposed to the atomic – were critical of the atomic bombing, either on moral grounds – people like Admiral Leahy said it was reprehensible, barbaric, what we did – or on military grounds, because they all said it was unnecessary.

In fact, Douglas MacArthur, who’s hardly known as a pacifist, not only was opposed to the atomic bombing, he said that if the United States had told the Japanese they could keep the emperor, that the Japanese would have surrendered in May. Even we don’t make that kind of claim. I think that’s a little bit too early.

But we have the same attitude from Eisenhower. Eisenhower says that he learned when he was at Potsdam from Stimpson that we were going to drop the bomb on the Japanese, and Eisenhower said he got depressed. Stimpson asked him why, and Eisenhower said we don’t need to do it.

First of all, the Japanese are defeated and ready to surrender, and second of all, he said, “I’d hate to see our country be the first to use such a weapon.” So we’ve got Nimitz, we’ve got all these leading generals and admirals who are against it. And why were they against it? Because the Japanese were defeated and were looking to surrender.

In fact, Truman himself refers to the intercepted July 18th cable as a telegram from the Jap emperor asking for peace. Truman knew this well. The bomb was dropped on Japan in a literal sense, but in a symbolic sense it was dropped upon the Soviet Union, because it was giving a warning – because the Soviets knew better than anybody that the atomic bomb was absolutely unnecessary, because the Japanese were trying to get the Soviets to intervene on their behalf to get better surrender terms.

So by dropping it we were sending a message to the Soviet Union – you mess with us and you’re going to really be getting it.

Tavis: There are a couple of other things that I saw going through the text that I want to get to now. Depending on where you’re watching this program tonight, right about now we may or may not know who the next president is, so if we have a new president, congratulations, I think.

Kuznick: Uh-huh.

Tavis: I hope.

Kuznick: We hope.

Tavis: (Laughter) I just don’t know what time you’re seeing this program on this special election night. But one thing we do know is that in the four debates leading up to tonight’s election, today’s election, there was not a single question about poverty. In the last election between Obama and McCain, three debates, the word “poor” or “poverty” didn’t come up one time.

Stone: Yeah.

Kuznick: No. Middle class, middle class, middle class.

Tavis: Middle class, exactly.

Kuznick: It’s sickening.

Tavis: This book, you can’t read this book without understanding how history has played itself out with this divide, this growing divide between the have-gots and the have-nots. Tell me more.

Stone: Well, much of the World War II story that I never got when I was growing up was about colonialism, because the British Empire had such – and the French and the Dutch, but essentially the British Empire is the richest in the world, and these colonies want to go free, including India, which is the biggest deal of all.

But the war in Greece, the civil war in Greece, Turkey, all these issues come up right away and hit Truman in the face. He takes the British point of view and we become a colonial supporter in Vietnam. In China it’s a very strange policy that we take.

We don’t act for the Arab world. We move in a direction that’s essentially against the poor of the world, and that gets worse and worse in the 1950s, when Douglas and Eisenhower come into power and intervene repeatedly in these countries.

Kuznick: Tavis is making the point, though, that even in the United States, we’ve got this class divide. The gap between rich and poor in the United States is enormous.

Tavis: And growing.

Kuznick: And growing. The top 1 percent of Americans, the top, richest 1 percent, have more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. The six heirs to the Walmart fortune, their $90 billion, is equivalent to the wealth of the lowest 30 percent of Americans, and this is getting worse. That’s part of the reason why we were critical of Obama, because his initial bailout policy for Wall Street could have been much more progressive.

As Paul Volcker, the former head of the Federal Reserve, said, those Wall Street bankers were there with their chests bared, and Obama needed to stab the spear in there and finish this kind of predatory policy off once and for all. It’s what Chris Hedges refers to as the corporate rape of America, and that has not gotten better under Obama. In many ways, it has gotten worse.

They had their biggest profits on Wall Street, the hedge funds, in 2010 and 2011, ever.

Tavis: But just on that one point, though, Peter, what does history, the untold history, tell us about how to slay that dragon? Because without a different law, without Congress writing something different, the Supreme Court has already spoken, so now it basically gets kicked back to Congress.

If they don’t write a new law here, I don’t know how you ever address that particular issue of money controlling our politics.

Stone: As long as the finance corporations are, especially banks, are allowed to make money for themselves over the client, it skewers the system. Because people want to make money, and there’s need for profit in all corporations. But where the corporation has become too big and too insensitive, then there has to be a regulation, a balance.

This is what we’ve lost since the Roosevelt days, and there’s been attempts to undo the New Deal since the beginning, and there’s a fear, there’s a fear behind all this too. I go back to that word because I used it in last night’s show, but the concept of imprisonment of an entire population, two and a half million Americans in prison per capita, is higher than any other country in the world.

A lot of it is underclass, and the drug war has been built up into a monster, again driving home to the American voter, the fear of crime, which came from Nixon, essentially, in 1968. It was a key platform. He drove home the fear, and that’s been resurrected.

Jobs, fear, your security, the war on terror. The constant – these ghosts are put into our imagination, and once they’re there, they stay.

Tavis: It’s a great segue, Oliver, because the third issue that I raise that I kind of see throughout the text is connected to this notion of fear. If you can make people afraid enough –

Stone: Yes.

Tavis: – then they will surrender their civil liberties –

Kuznick: Yes.

Tavis: – vis-à-vis legislation that they are told has to be passed.

Stone: The PATRIOT Act.

Tavis: Exactly.

Stone: But it goes back to 1947, the loyalty acts that Truman got involved in, and national security acts. The concept of we have to be scared of communists around the corner, that they’re in your schools, they’re in your books, they’re in your home. Watch your neighbor. That goes back to the ’40s, and Truman, unfortunately, had a lot to do with that, because he didn’t believe it himself but he created a climate because of political reasons, to get elected.

Kuznick: Right, political opportunism. In 1946, the Republican national chairman said the choice in this election is between Republicanism and communism. So they started to attack Truman from the right for not being tough enough on the communists in the same way that they attack Obama from the right for not being tough enough on the Muslims.

So what does Truman do? He falls into the trap and he sets up the loyalty/security hearings. Then we begin this – so then the communist threat becomes something real in the mind of the American people, because you can play on that fear, and they always play on that fear.

Initially there were 300 sites that were put on the terrorist watch list. Then it goes to 20,000, then to 400,000. You keep looking, you’re going to find, just like the witch hunters in the Middle Ages. Everyplace they looked, they’re able to fine more witches.

Stone: That’s the problem. So what we essentially need is, I think, just to cut to the end of this horror story, is (laughter) we need a strong man, and I mean a strong man like a Martin Luther King. You quoted a very courageous speech he gave. He probably sacrificed his life because of that speech.

But a man to stand up who has moral rectitude to say to the public we must walk out of this shadow, this valley of fear that we’re living in, and you can’t believe all this nonsense. We need somebody, and I believe the next generation, if they see our book or they see our movie, something in this would inspire someone in this next generation who’s going to come up.

Tavis: But it raises the question for me of whether or not the public has become so cynical about our politics, so afraid, to use your word, about the world that we live in, that it would be impossible – that’s the question. Would it be impossible –

Stone: It’s not impossible.

Tavis: – for a King to ascend today?

Stone: Kennedy did it and he was doing it. People will fight you on that, but –

Tavis: But that’s my point, though, Oliver, it was in the ’60s.

Kuznick: Yeah.

Stone: So? (Crosstalk)

Tavis: My question is, is the ground still fertile enough –

Kuznick: We have to create that.

Tavis: – for someone of that sort of moral rectitude to rise?

Stone: Kennedy was one of the bad guys in the ’50s for what he did, but by ’68 he was a great hero to many people because he was speaking a sanity that they needed to hear. And people know the truth. The truth has a mind of its own when people hear it, and it takes guts to say it, because you are risking it. There will be somebody. There will be somebody.

Kuznick: The first blurb we got on the book was from Mikhail Gorbachev.

We hold him up as a kind of model.

Tavis: Oh, yeah.

Kuznick: He’s very critical of Obama, and he says Obama’s got to take a strong stand and provide leadership in the world. That’s what we’re saying also – that Obama has got to do like Gorbachev did. He’s got to take some risks. He’s got to stand up on principle. He can’t cave in repeatedly to the generals and to the hawks and to the Wall Street interests.

There’s that possibility, because on some level, I think that Obama understands that and would aspire to do that and to be that kind of leader as Kennedy was, as Wallace was, as Roosevelt was at times, as somebody like William Jenning Bryan often was.

There are a lot of those people, but what I think is necessary, though, is to build a movement that’s going to force people to do the right thing. I don’t want to just rely – I mean, King was fabulous, and especially as Vinnie (unintelligible) is going to show in his new book, King was out there talking about the opposition to nuclear issues before almost anybody.

Tavis: Absolutely.

Kuznick: Back in the ’40s and ’50s, King was committed to this kind of issue.

Tavis: He was a prophet. He wasn’t just – yeah.

Stone: Don’t give up hope.

Kuznick: Right.

Stone: There’s always people.

Kuznick: But we need a movement.

Stone: People are good. I think most people are good, and I think the machines and the organizations and the systems drive them down. But the people rise up again, as Wallace said.

Kuznick: Yeah, and as people understood, as (unintelligible) organizers said in the ’60s, the movement made Martin Luther King. Martin Luther King didn’t make the movement.

Tavis: Didn’t make the movement, exactly.

Kuznick: And we need to do the same again with Obama.

Tavis: Again, if Obama has won tonight, if Romney has won – either way, we still have a Supreme Court to contend with.

Kuznick: Yes.

Tavis: One of the reasons why this election has been so important is because the next president is going to get two, maybe even three shots at appointments in this next term. What does “The Untold History of the United States” say to us in a contemporary moment about the importance of the Supreme Court?

Stone: You take that.

Kuznick: Well, we –

Tavis: You take that. (Laughter)

Kuznick: We certainly talk about the Citizens United case.

Tavis: Absolutely.

Kuznick: Which is an essential case. We like to pride ourselves that we’re the world’s leading democracy. That’s a joke, and people around the world know it’s a joke. In fact, the United States Constitution used to be the model that almost every aspiring country would use. Now, nobody uses the U.S. Constitution as a model for new constitutions in other parts of the world, and the Citizens United case has really done more to turn this country into a plutocracy as opposed to a democracy than any other single decision in memory.

So the fact that people can buy elections, can buy politicians, can spend all this money getting people elected just makes a joke, a cruel joke, a cynical joke, out of our democracy, and it’s another area why it’s essential that we have a much more progressive Supreme Court. This is a reactionary court.

Tavis: When you’re putting a book together like this, Oliver and Peter, where you know, again, that you’re going to have to tell some hard truths to the American public, I’m just curious whether or not there was – is there any one thing that stands out in your mind when you came across it or when you saw the research confirm it you said this is going to be hard to sell to the American people? They’re not going to buy this; they’re not going to believe this. This is going to be hard to swallow. Anything that fits that bill?

Stone: You’ve got to start somewhere, and I’m sure Martin Luther King said the same thing to himself at a certain point – this is crazy. Why am I opening my mouth about Vietnam when I’ve got enough problems with the civil rights movement? So what is courage?

Kuznick: And he got attacked for it.

Stone: You’ve got to – everyone wakes up in their life. We’re hypnotized in our education system, and I was certainly hypnotized. He was on the other side of the fence. He was protesting Vietnam; I was in Vietnam. It took me many years to wake up. But when you wake up, you’ve got to speak what you learned. Otherwise, you’re not telling the truth to anyone. You’re not helping anyone. We’ve got to make a contribution, every single one of us. We can’t just sit there and watch football games and be consumers and go shopping and have 800 bases around the world and intervene and troops everywhere, and worship the army and the military as if it can do no harm. We’ve got to wake up.

Kuznick: Oliver’s got a great line in his movie, “JFK,” where Garrison says, “People are suckers for the truth.”

That was Garrison, right? (Unintelligible) but –

Stone: I forgot. Okay. (Laughter)

Kuznick: But it’s a great line, and people are. People want to know the truth. My students want to know the truth. The audiences we speak to want the truth.

Stone: (Unintelligible) and it comes around. Whether it’s Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King or actually that wonderful Gorbachev or Khrushchev, actually Khrushchev too, but it comes around again in Kennedy, and that’s what we emphasize.

You said he’s anti-American? No, it’s pro-American. It’s progressive.

Kuznick: Yeah, pro-American is right.

Tavis: We will close on that note. By the way, I think that Kevin Costner, the character, the speech to the jury at the end –

Stone: Oh, I loved that.

Tavis: – is still the best thing you’ve ever done. You’ve done a lot of good stuff, but it’s hard –

Stone: It’s up to you.

Tavis: – it’s hard to – exactly. It’s hard to top that closing speech to the jury.

Stone: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: That was a powerful scene, Oliver. Powerful. The new book from Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick is called “The Untold History of the United States.” The book is a companion to the Showtime documentary series which starts next week on Showtime. Oliver, Peter, congratulations in advance on the success of the series.

Kuznick: Thank you.

Tavis: And the book. Good to have you both on the program.

Stone: Thank you so much.

Kuznick: Thank you.

Tavis: Thank you so much. Good to have you here.

Kuznick: It’s great.

Tavis: Peter, good luck to you. That’s our show for tonight. Congratulations to the new president, if we know who that is as you’re seeing this show tonight. Until tomorrow night, thanks for watching.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: November 8, 2012 at 2:31 pm