Oliver Stone; Peter Kuznick, Part 1

The Oscar-winning filmmaker and noted historian explain their collaboration on the text and companion Showtime project, The Untold History of the United States, and bring some historical perspective to this year’s presidential race.

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: We are just hours away from polls opening on the East Coast and then everywhere else across the country. It could be a long night tomorrow night, given how close this race appears to be, and only time will tell how this race will in fact turn out in history.

But history it is, and tonight we wanted to bring you a conversation about a unique project from Oscar-winning filmmaker Oliver Stone and historian Peter Kuznick from American University. The two have teamed up for an unprecedented 10-part Showtime series called “The Untold History of the United States.”

The series kicks off next Monday night, November 12th, on Showtime, and also features this companion book. This is a big companion book, so a lot to get into tonight and hopefully tomorrow night. But first now a preview of “The Untold History of the United States.”


Tavis: Professor Kuznick, good to have you on this program.

Peter Kuznick: Thank you. Good to be here.

Tavis: Oliver, good to see you again.

Oliver Stone: Thank you for having us.

Tavis: Glad to have you both. Let me start with present-day politics. We’ll get into the untold history in a moment here tonight and tomorrow night, for that matter, so I’m glad we’ve got two shows to kind of work this out, because there’s a lot to talk about with regard to the text and the Showtime series.

Oliver, I thought I read somewhere you have gone on record saying that you hope Obama wins. He’s better than Romney. Clearly you’ve got some issues with Obama; we’ll get into that. But tell me what you expect tomorrow and why you hope that the president will pull this out.

Stone: Oh, I’m not – I’m thinking of the long sweep of this thing from 1940 to now, but just given the progressive, relatively progressive agenda of Obama versus the regressive agenda of Romney, the United States has to go forward or try to do something to reform itself, and he is our only hope.

There’s not much shift to the left, that’s for sure, but what we feel here is that there’s some hope. Otherwise, we’re going to have Bush redux for me.

Tavis: Why do you believe there’s hope when you and I both know that both parties are bought and bossed by big money, by big banks?

Stone: Yeah.

Tavis: So why do you believe there’s even hope?

Stone: Well, I believe, as we say in the book, that the second term changes, and I think that John F. Kennedy certainly ran on that and he knew that second term would give him oxygen, and he needed it. Unfortunately, he didn’t get there.

Obama needs that second term. I think he’ll have more confidence. He’ll take on the forces of reaction and I think he will be stronger against the Republicans, and I think he’ll speak up more for himself.

Kuznick: He’s actually shown a little bit of fight, a little bit of spunk, in the last year compared to the previous period. I think he got some wind and some energy from the Occupy movement, and I think he learned that trying to placate these right-wing Republicans and Tea Party folks is really not going to work.

It took him a long time to figure that out, unfortunately, but he seems to be having more of a backbone now and he is doing some of the things that we want him to do.

Tavis: So whoever wins tomorrow, Professor Kuznick, is not going to win with anything near a mandate. It’s a very close race, and again, whoever comes out on top won’t win overwhelmingly. So tell me why I should not, as an American, believe that things are going to be more divided in the next four years than they were in the past four years?

Kuznick: Well, maybe the best you could hope for at this point is something divided rather than what the Republicans would like to do.

As one “Washington Post” columnist said, the Republican Party’s agenda for the 21st century is to repeal the 20th century. We’re talking about some very, very reactionary policies if Romney gets in there. Not that we know which Romney’s actually going to be in there, but assuming that any of the Romneys are going to be worse than Obama, so Obama is going to be a force for relative sanity.

He’s going to put some curbs on what Israel does in Iran, we hope. He’s going to hopefully follow through on pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, and maybe he’s going to do some other initiatives that he’s set. We like very much his prog speech, where he calls for nuclear abolition. That’s a very important issue, and we want to see him push that agenda forward.

So it’s not going to be easy, because it is going to be a very divided government. The danger is that it’s not a divided government. That it’s Republicans controlling all three branches, appointing people to the Supreme Court. Then we’re going to really be in for it in this country.

Tavis: Before I go back to Oliver, you made the point a moment ago that it depends on if Romney were to win, it would depend on which Romney showed up.

Kuznick: Yes.

Tavis: The same could be said of President Obama. He’s given some great speeches over the last four years, has not followed through on a lot of what he said. So how do you know which Obama is going to show up, if he wins?

Kuznick: The trick to the Obama issue is what we, the progressive community, do.

As Obama said at one point, he’s going to have to be forced to do the right thing, and we’ve let him down in some ways. We as progressive, educated Americans, we haven’t really rallied behind him. The anti-war movement sputtered and hasn’t really reemerged. The Occupy movement gives a certain kind of hope, but we’ve got to do a lot more to put pressure into the left.

The right has done a very good job of putting pressure, the Tea Party and others, first on Bush, certainly, but even now on their people to move them in a more reactionary direction.

Tavis: What this book does, Oliver – again, we’re going to get into the book and the series as we move on here – but what this book does is tell some very hard truths, some hard truths. What kind of hard truths did you want to have come out in this campaign that neither Romney or Obama really got around to talking about?

Stone: I’m thinking about 1940s again and about the atomic bombing. This myth that America has this atomic bomb that makes us right, it makes us good, it makes us set the agenda for the world. Everywhere, we can go global, we determine.

If you see these debates, one man says this, one man says that – it’s all about America being strong, defending the American. It’s a very narrow point of view in the terms of history. When you look at the global situation, if America learned to be one of the many countries in the world and to find its way to cooperate with people and bring a global peace that could bring great prosperity to this globe, there is still a chance of that, and that’s a big lesson from history. We are not paying attention to that.

Tavis: One of the things that you talk about in the book, and you’re inching closer to it now, is this notion of American exceptionalism – that we’ve always been taught and that we heard again, Oliver Stone, from both sides in this campaign. Romney said it; Obama said it a variety of times in differing ways, but both continued to preach this notion of American exceptionalism.

Stone: Why, if we are a strong people, a united people, why do we always have to hear how great we are? What is this self-love? Where does this come from? That’s what we’re exploring in there. It got worse, because after the war we thought we’d won it. That’s the first myth.

Frankly, Russia won it. The Soviet Union sacrificed far greater form than anyone else to win that war. Secondly, we had the atomic bomb. We should not have dropped it on Japan. We did as an example to the Soviets, not to defeat Japan and to save American lives. These are myths that we explode with a lot of research early on.

But what results from it is this belief that we are always in the right, and it’s gotten worse generation to generation until you’ve got people like Romney and Bush walking around who really think they’re blessed, that they’re divine, that God’s intention is for the United States to rule the world.

Tavis: Professor Kuznick, if Oliver is right, though, that we engage in this sort of self-love, that we’re all that and then some, we’re the biggest and the baddest, what makes you think that a book, much less a 10-part series on Showtime, that they’re going to want to digest that?

Kuznick: You’ve got to start somewhere.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

Kuznick: You mean you don’t think this is going to change the world?

Tavis: Yeah, I’m just asking what makes you think –

Kuznick: (Unintelligible)

Tavis: Yeah.

Kuznick: We just want to start a conversation.

Tavis: Right.

Kuznick: We think that people in the United States have not studied their history. In fact, in the national report card that was issued in 2011, most Americans think that the United States is deficient in math and the sciences, but the national report card reported was that the American students, high school students, seniors, are weakest in U.S. history. They know less U.S. history than they do math or science, and the public in general knows very little U.S. history.

So unless people in this country know some of their own history, then they’re not going to be able to –

Tavis: But what makes you think, though, we’re ready for that conversation now?

Kuznick: Because the United States is in a transitional period.

Tavis: Right.

Kuznick: We’re not the force we once were. We can’t dictate all over the world. We’re just in the process of losing, basically, two major wars. These are terrible wars. Even Robert Gates, of all people, said if the United States gets involved in another major land war like this we should have our head examined.

So people are starting to rethink this idea of empire, this idea of the United States being this superpower, the hegemon, is not working, and we can’t afford it anymore. Although Obama says, in talking about his Asia pivot, he says, “Well, we’re not going to cut any defense spending when it comes to our interests in Asia.” They’re going to have to, and so are some of our allies in that region.

So part of it is necessity, and part of it is that we’re in a transitional moment.

Tavis: You made the point a moment ago that we don’t know our history, which the minute you said that, two thoughts ran through my head with lightning speed. In no particular order, number one, it depends on which history, whose history you’re talking about. In my community, the Black community, there is a phrase we use all the time that says you call it history, we call it his story – history versus his story.

So one, whose history are we talking about here that’s not been told accurately, and number two, so much what I take from reading the book is that we are never even taught anywhere near this level of history in the coursework in public education, or anywhere else for that matter.

So whose history are we talking about, number one, and what do you make of the fact that we don’t get taught anywhere near this kind of untold history in our civics classes, our history classes?

Kuznick: Well, history is a matter of interpretation, but you have to start with certain facts. We’re beginning by presenting facts that people don’t know, and presenting quotations, presenting evidence. Then we’re using that to build an interpretation.

It’s an interpretation not from the standpoint of the corporations, not from the standpoint of the slaveholders, not from the standpoint of the big capitalists, not from the standpoint of the imperialists, but from the standpoint much more of the victims of that.

We argue that there are a lot of books out there, libraries full of books and curricula full of stories that talk about how great the United States is, that master narrative, the American vision of dominance all over the world, and we’re trying to challenge that. We’re telling a different story.

We’re telling the story of empire from the standpoint of the victims. We’re telling the story of domestic policy from the standpoint of the people who are not the winners in this enterprise that’s gone on.

Stone: This is obviously at college level, but I think a high school student could understand it. I think junior year or senior year. My daughter is in a private school and she gets a great education, and I’ll tell you, her education in history, the books are wrong.

Not about everything; some things are well done, they’re beautifully done texts, but some of the basic information about, for example, why we had to drop the atomic bomb on Japan, is dead wrong. They don’t give the whole story.

Tavis: What do you say to people who haven’t even picked this book up yet and the Showtime series doesn’t premiere for another week, but they sense that this is anti-American rhetoric. That Oliver Stone, here goes Oliver Stone again, an anti-American.

Stone: Well, this has been fact-checked. This has been fact-checked by corporate fact-checkers, by our own fact-checkers, and a third set of fact-checkers from Showtime, so it’s been thoroughly vetted. This is a documentary. This is facts.

Our interpretation is different, perhaps, than orthodox, but this is definitely, it holds up.

Tavis: This book opens the – Professor Kuznick, I was flipping through it trying to find the page quickly while Oliver was talking, but it basically opens – there it is.

The first line of the introduction: “We write this book as the curtain slowly draws down on the American empire. We write this book as the curtain slowly draws down on the American empire.” That’s how you start the text.

Kuznick: Yes, and that’s our perspective on this, that –

Tavis: The curtain is going down on us?

Kuznick: Yeah. Yeah, the curtain is going down on us. That’s why Obama is shifting toward the Pacific, because he’s trying to combat the rise of China. Five years ago, China’s gross domestic product, or its gross per person, per capital income, was 4 percent of what the United States is. Now it’s 9 percent. That was over a five-year period.

China is clearly on the ascendency. The United States had been the biggest trading partner with very country in Asia. Now China is the biggest trading partner with every country in Asia. China is doing a lot of things right that the United States is doing wrong.

China is investing many, many times as much money in infrastructure as the United States. China has become banker to the world, replacing us in many cases. The Europeans asked China for a bailout, not the United States. The United States is dependent on China in that way.

China was raised in the debates, but in a very different way than we’re discussing, the challenge of China.

Stone: But it’s not us versus them, which is that’s that Romney-Obama concept. You don’t have to fight. It’s not one or two. It’s a global community. There’s regional powers. There’s Brazil, there’s Venezuela, there’s Turkey, there’s Russia. Don’t discount Russia.

There’s a lot of resources in all of these countries, and especially in Africa. So what needs to happen is more of a global understanding, and I believe the United States can work as a global partner and not be the hegemon, as he says.

Trying to say well, who cares if we’re number one anymore? Because if you’re not number one, you’re not – in quality of life, we’re not number one. We’re number 27. So what does number one mean?

Tavis: You’re leading me down a path, Oliver Stone, I’m going to follow you and ask this question: How much of this, because you get into it in the text, how much of this is really ultimately, fundamentally, about American imperialism, or the notion of?

Stone: It’s a mind-set – yes, I think it’s got the most to do with that. I think it has a sense – before the bomb was Woodrow Wilson after World War I saying the concept about we are the savior of the world. So there has always been this Puritanism in our thinking, this concept that America is exceptional and a unique place, a model, a city on the hill, whatever Reagan called it.

But it’s not so, because we’re not. We’re human beings, everyone, and if anything, it’s a global world, we can interact. We must get over this complex of superiority.

Tavis: Professor?

Kuznick: You’re right. A big part of the story is American imperialism, and the flip side of that is the building up of the national security state here at home. We had a choice in the 1890s and dealing with the depression of 1893. Were we going to get out of the depression, because it was a depression of overproduction at that point. Well, there are two ways to deal with that.

One is you raise standard of living at home so that people can consume more. The other is you go overseas to find markets. The United States began going overseas at that point and we began to build our empire. We built our empire in the Philippines; we built our empire especially in the Spanish-American War with our intervention at that point.

And what did we do in the Philippines there? We slaughtered people. We slaughtered tens of thousands of people in conquering the Filipino insurrection. So that’s a crucial turning point, because that’s where the United States goes from being a progressive force in the world, is looked to by countries that are looking to change, to the United States being a counterrevolutionary force.

It goes against our traditions, it goes against our Republic, and from that point we see a gradual diminution of liberties and we also see the expansion of this militaristic mind-set, which is the flip side of empire.

Tavis: I’m glad you said that, because to my mind, and we’re going to get to one of them now; I’m looking at the clock, we won’t get to the other two maybe until tomorrow night, but let’s start with this one.

Because to my mind, there are at least three – and the book isn’t laid out this way; this is Tavis saying there are three overarching themes as I go through this text. One of them clearly is militarism, and I want to start with that, because Dr. King in his life, of course, talked about those three evils.

One of his three evils that we were up against, of course, was militarism, and during his lifetime in the Vietnam War, he called the U.S. the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.

Those are Dr. King’s words. So let’s start with this notion of militarism. I want to go back, though, to this last debate between Romney and Obama. The last debate, of course, was about foreign policy. I don’t want to talk, for starters here, about the differences between Obama and Romney on foreign policy. There are some.

But I was struck and others were struck – I wasn’t really struck, I expected it. But I read so much commentary from people who were struck by how many times Mr. Romney said, “Well, I agree with the president on this. Well, I agree with the president on this. Well, I agree with the president on this.”

And we know, because we follow these issues every day, that Republicans have had a problem with President Obama for four years on domestic policy, but on foreign policy they do agree with a lot of what he’s done because he’s continued a lot of the Bush policies.

But what does it say to the American voter? We’re going to the polls tomorrow. What does it say to the American voter that in a debate about foreign policy, you had two people who on a whole lot of stuff agreed?

Stone: Yeah. Well, as one commentator pointed out, they were talking, they mentioned Afghanistan 40-some times and they never mentioned Europe. There’s a lack of global comprehension, and it’s about power. Are we still strong? No. He’s saying to the voters vote for me, I can keep us strong. You are secure. I can provide security. I didn’t ask them for my security. This fear factor since 2001 is enhanced.

Tavis: Hold up, Oliver. You may not have asked for it, but isn’t – every president says that his number one priority is to keep the American public safe.

Stone: Yeah, but you didn’t hear that rhetoric quite the same way, as it’s gotten heightened since 2001.

Tavis: Right.

Kuznick: But keeping the public safe is very different than what we’re doing. We’re not in Afghanistan to keep the American people safe. We said we were going there to stop al Qaeda after 9/11, but right now there are somewhere between 50 and 100 al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan, probably closer to 50.

We’re spending $100 billion a year. So that means that every year we’re spending $2 billion for every al Qaeda person in Afghanistan. What kind of craziness is that about our policy? Is that keeping the United States safe? No. Which is the point that we’re trying to make about Romney and Obama right now.

Before Obama took office he met with presidential historians. I think it was nine top presidential historians, and they went around the room to give advice. What they all said was don’t get involved in Afghanistan. He knew this. He’s a smart man. He knew what a mistake this was. He knows about Vietnam. He did it anyway.

So the point you’re making, Tavis, which I think is very important, is that foreign policy has been largely bipartisan going back to the post-World War II period. Whether Democrats or Republicans, both parties have pursued this notion of an American empire. Then when you’ve got exceptions to that, as in Kennedy in the last year of his life, then Kennedy was derailed. He was assassinated. He wasn’t able to carry this out.

But it’s possible, which is why we have some hope for Obama, that he could have that kind of Damascus Road conversion experience like Kennedy did after the Cuban missile crisis.

Tavis: What role, though, does the demos have in pushing him in that direction? Because it is foreign policy, typically, that the American voter I think feels least empowered to engage. Does that make sense?

Kuznick: Yes.

Tavis: We can say stuff about domestic issues, but it’s foreign policy that either we don’t feel expert enough, we don’t feel that we have enough data in front of this, we don’t feel that there’s agency there to advance –

Stone: I’m not so sure, because in 2003 there were more protestors in the streets of the United States than there had ever been. Not since the nuclear freeze movement in the 1980s. So don’t underestimate the power of people to demonstrate when they’re upset. They would be very upset right now if some silly war was declared. I believe you could not get away with Iran perhaps as – hopefully nothing will happen there.

But foreign policy notoriously, it’s always – Nixon used to say it comes down to jobs. It’s always jobs, and that’s what they were talking about the other night, jobs, security, and nobody cares about the environment is what they’re both saying to us, because my job is at stake.

I’m a coal miner, I’m a this, I’m a that, and if you cut back on it, you get too much government regulation, I’m going to lose my job. That’s the fear that they always play to. They play to fear of your security, of your job, of the dollar, and it works every time to get votes.

Kuznick: And fear of terrorism.

Stone: And fear of terrorism.

Kuznick: But as we know, there are times when the public has mobilized and mobilized very strongly on foreign policy, and the Vietnam War was one of those times.

Stone: And nuclear protests during Reagan.

Kuznick: And we know from Nixon’s comments he was obsessed with the anti-war protest. We can create that again. It’s more difficult with an Obama in office than it would be if Bush were in office doing the same things. Then there would be much more protest.

Tavis: I feel like I’m just getting started and I’m glad I have another night to discuss this. I mentioned a moment ago that there are a least three overarching things in this book that I saw, and we’ve just talked tonight about militarism, but tomorrow night I want to get to the second one, which is this divide between the rich and the poor in this country.

Then the third one, the issue of civil liberties, and all these issues are approached in a variety of ways in this new book. It’s called “The Untold History of the United States,” the companion to the Showtime documentary series starting next week with Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick.

Good to have you both on. I will see you back on this couch in 24 hours for part two of this conversation.

Stone: With a new president, right?

Tavis: Yeah, with a new president, perhaps, by the time we get there. Thanks for tuning in tonight; we’ll see you tomorrow night. Until then, keep the faith.


“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 7, 2012 at 4:43 pm