Monday, December 10, 2012

Everyone an historian



Apparently, Oliver Stone has assumed the mantel of Howard Zinn in creating a series for Showtime in which he presents his version of historical events.  The Examiner offers an amusing review, which is about what you would expect from Stone.  After all, he has given us his version of JFK's assination, Nixon, Salvador and the Vietnam war, safely in the realm of re-creations, so we could choose to accept or not accept his view.  But, now he presents his views as documentary.  There is a companion volume to this series, weighing in at nearly 800 pages and I well imagine chock full of images.  In an age when just about everyone considers himself an historian, I guess Ollie is just as entitled to present his view of events as Baba O'Reilly or Moonbase Newt.

The first three episodes were available as screenings to critics before the series premiered on Showtime in early November.  There was much initial feedback to the screenings.  The contentious speculation that Truman knew in advance of Japan's surrender before dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshimo and Nagasaki is made in Episode Three, simply titled The Bomb.

57 comments:

  1. He's working with a historian from Columbia I think. My guess is it is just the other side of the story -- just because it isn't about presidents and wars doesn't make it less true!

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  2. I take it back -- his co-author Peter Kuznick is a historian at American University.

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  3. I'm afraid that with Stone, history is a means toward an end. This was especially so in his movies.

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  4. This is a good argument to have.

    I don't know Stone's work other than through his reputation, and certainly can't defend a book I haven't read, but all history has a point of view. Some writers like to pretend that it doesn't (or at least they don't), but "each age writes the history of the past anew with reference to the conditions uppermost in its own time." It's our job as readers to weigh the evidence they present. This is one place where the fox viewers/readers fall short.

    Now you have me curious about Stone ....

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  5. I think publishers and television networks have the responsibility to screen programming that purports to be history. I've seen a lot of crap on Nat'l Geo as of late as well, which offers a lot of crazy conspiracy theories, I imagine it boosts ratings, but quite frankly I find irresponsible. Stone feeds off conspiracy theories in all his works. He's not content to present history as history. He is determined to find some angle, no matter how contrived to increase dramatic effect. I don't think he approached this series for Showtime any differently.

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  6. I have cable and have tried to watch the history channel a couple times. I was shocked at what passes as "history." Or "learning" on the Learning Channel for that matter.

    I would watch the Stone' series if I could, though. Alas, I don't think i have Starz or whatever channel he did that for. I think you need a special subscription.

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    1. Something tells me you won't be thrilled by Spielberg's Lincoln.

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    2. I think you're right. It takes a lot to get me to a movie, particularly at one of the big multi-plexes. I don't think a dramatized version of Lincoln is going to do it for me.

      Chasing Ice, on the other hand, is in town and I think I might try to catch that one.

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    3. My wife and I saw Anna Karenina last Saturday. On screen it is the potboiler Tolstoy, after the fact, condemned it for being; it's also a first rate potboiler. But that guy had very high standards. After all, he didn't like Shakespeare.

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    1. Now Bill Murray as FDR might actually get me to the big screen, even though the reviews have been so-so:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UQaScjiWDyY

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  8. I kind of want to watch it but am having a hard time reconciling dear Keira Knightley (the seemingly go-to girl when it comes to Russian literature adaptations) as Anna Karenina. There hasn't been a good adaptation of the novel, including the 1967 Russian film. The best part about it was Shchedrin's film score,

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=csxO6-YcUM8

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    1. She's gorgeous, there's no question about that. But I didn't find her at all believable. And Tom Stoppard has done nothing to distinguish himself with the script. Beautiful movie to look at, but I was hoping for more than that.

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  9. Amanpour had Stone and Kuznick on her show last night promoting their series. Their great revelation last night was that the A-bomb didn't need to be dropped. Wow! To Christiana's credit she said this has already been said, but of course Ollie and Pete said it had been "forgotten." Maybe it should be called "The Forgotten History of the United States?"

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  10. I don't think in this case you are being fair. It has only been within the last ten years or so that the documents have been uncovered showing that those around Truman knew that Japan would surrender eventually. And a friend mentioned recently that more have been released through the FIA.

    There was a large contingent who simply wanted to humiliate Japan's emperor, but most apparently wanted to demonstrate it to the Russians.

    Not a pretty picture of America, but one that I doubt most Americans would know if asked. I didn't until I took a graduate class in 20th c. American history a few years ago and read the arguments.

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  11. I've read about this particular view in several accounts, notably American Prometheus, so it has been well dessiminated. One of the several reasons given for the bombing was to put the Soviet Union on alert. This was Bird and Sherwin's view, as stated in AP.

    Robert James Maddox takes exception to this view, noting that this interpretation has been around since the 60s,

    http://www.americanthinker.com/2008/08/hiroshima_hoax_japans_wllingne.html

    It seems to me that Stone and Kuznick are no more than history hucksters looking for controversial interpretations of historic documents to peddle on their show.

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  12. Here we go. We can chew over the first episode,

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OaDI5LgQ0N8

    Nice footage of Oppenheimer at Alamogordo. Seems the base text is American Prometheus.

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    1. Thanks for that link. I think the problem with the show is that the title is a little misleading -- it appears to be more a history of the world since WWII.

      The "untold" part in this instance was the critical role the Russians played in defeating Germany and the terrible price they paid. I look forward to watching the second installment. GREAT footage -- although you have to have a strong stomach. War is horrific and he doesn't try to hide it.

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    2. Having followed the link to the Oliver Stone clip, which I watched and found mildly interesting, I couldn't help but notice a Fifty Shades of Grey clip on the righthand side of the screen. That led me to Amazon and reader reviews of the book. There are some very talented readers judging by those reviews. Check it out for a good laugh.

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    3. You are a brave man, Rick!

      I found that macro view of the war fascinating and well done, but I'm no WWII buff. I take his point that we tend to see the war from our own national involvement, and (my words) want to assume all the deaths in whatever war or occupation were worth it.

      I was in DC when they were just opening the new memorial and walked the entire mall that day. I still remember how struck I was by how we glorify war in this country. I'll be there next week. Maybe I'll try to do that again.

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    4. We are not alone in glorifying war. It seems to be a fairly standard way of dealing with senseless death. Dress it up in patriotism and have a parade once a year. Dulce et decorum est /Pro patria mori.

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    5. Agreed. As I just said to Gintaras, it is amazing the amount of death and destruction people will not only tolerate but will voluntarily participate in.

      I'm reading Governing the World at the moment. I hope there is some good news there. (I thought Stone's information on the original ideas of the UN was also fascinating -- I tend to lose track of some of the bigger picture).

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  13. This looks great! Just watched his intro and agree with him (although I could do without his doom and gloom style). I will watch the rest of the show later today.

    I disagree with the Maddox link. You don't have to be a 60s conspiracy theorist to think there was more going on with the bombs in Japan. Remember they chose to drop not one bomb, but two. Horrific and I believe needless acts of terror.

    ANONS where are you on this issue? I need some backup here!

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  14. I agree that the bombs were overkill. Japan was on the edge of surrender, and I think there is merit to Bird and Sherwin's theory that Truman was more likely making a statement to the Soviet Union, which would have dearly loved to have annexed all of Japan. But, whether Truman had known of a surrender before hand is pure speculation, and paints him as a far more ruthless Machiavellian than he was. Truman didn't want Japan falling into enemy hands, and the bombs brought about unconditional surrender to the United States.

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  15. When you look at the number of Chinese who were slaughtered by Japanese during WWII, the Nanking Massacre being one of the most attrocious examples,

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nanking_Massacre

    it is pretty hard to feel much sympathy for Japan at the time, but the bomb instantaneously made Japan into a "victim," and it seems persons like Stone and Kuznick have conveniently forgotten how utterly ruthless Hirohito was and that he no intention of stepping down even as the world closed in around him.

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    1. It was massive slaughter on all sides. Unbelievable what people will do to one another.

      This was just the intro ... we'll see where he goes with it.

      But he does show the invasions of the Japanese as well, and how the U.S. stationed in Hawaii could potentially stand in their way.

      He does say that had the Germans aligned themselves with the Japanese they probably would have defeated Russia and won the war.

      You should watch it (with an open mind)! You might enjoy it. It's well done for t.v. history.

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  16. Sokurov made a fascinating film on Hirohito, entitled The Sun. Here is the scene where the Emperor meets MacArthur,

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3fEPz1bOqAo

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  17. Unfortunately, my browser is not letting me respond directly to a comment. There are all sorts of conspiracty theories when it comes to Germany and Japan allying to conquer the world, as well as interesting theories on how Hitler was trying to stir up trouble in Mexico to keep the US occupied and out of the war. If that was the case, Hitler must have been livid when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Obviously, these two countries were working at cross ends and I don't think there was little, if any communication between them.

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  18. I think that's his point -- Germany would never have cooperated with the Japanese because of its racial beliefs. I think you have already judged the series before he's had a chance to air it.

    Given that it's a t.v. series, I am enjoying it -- so far anyway. I would watch it on tv each week if I had stars or whatever the special channel is. But then I don't have any preconceived notions about Stone. I don't think I've ever seen one of his movies.

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  19. I watched the first episode, av. It is pretty hollow. Stone offers very little substance, even his footage is widely available, although he gives it kind of a three-dimensional effect, which is nice.

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  20. I had never seen most of it, and I'm a historian. So I think he's (so far) doing a good job reaching a general audience who might only know the "greatest generation" side of the story. I'm going to keep watching if they post the series on line.

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  21. As you said, WWII wasn't your focus. Most of what they are saying is readily available. They can refer to it as "forgotten" or "inconvenient" or "alternative" but it isn't "untold." You can go back and find movies like The Best of Years of Our Lives that already poked holes in the "Greatest Generation" myth back in 1946. Hitchcock got into all kinds of trouble for Lifeboat, if you can imagine that. Hobsbawm had been giving us the flip side of history for decades. Then along came Zinn and Chomsky. This is well trodden ground.

    The only value is that it offers a counter view to the prevailing view, for what it's worth.

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  22. Here's a review from the LA Times,

    http://articles.latimes.com/2012/nov/12/entertainment/la-et-st-untold-history-review20121112

    which seems a pretty fair assessment.

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    1. I think it's the attention-grabbing title that is the real issue here. In any event, as she says, history demands constant reevaluation and certainly it is important to be reminded that the actions of our government can be tragically flawed. TV seems a popular medium to do that.

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    2. (And maybe Stone's reputation perhaps?)

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  23. I totally agree, and noted that at the outset.

    But remember, the American public is not reading Zinn or Chomsky or even biographies of Oppeneimer et al. This is a t.v. series for generalists and history buffs. And, as he says in his intro, a counter to the American exceptionalism taught in schools. Historians such as Foner have been working for years trying to impact the history curriculum to bring it a little closer to the truth. Maybe Stone can make a difference.

    I think an alternative view of American history viewed through a wider lens is a good thing. His may not be perfect but because it's on t.v. maybe people will pay attention. Sure beats the soft focus and flute and fiddle music of Ken Burns. (And so far, haven't seen one conspiracy but then the series has just started ....)

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    1. It depends on who you qualify as the public. Zinn and Chomsky have sold millions of copies of books, so it isn't like they aren't well known. Chomsky's documentaries are also well distributed.

      Foner has impacted university curriculum. His book on Reconstruction is considered a key text on the subject.

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    2. I have long ago forgotten the details, but it seems like it was the AHA that established a committee to try to address the weaknesses of what was taught in American schools and how it was taught (similar to the concerns of what is taught as science). Several leading historians worked on it, including (I think) Foner.

      Here's something he wrote about Texas textbooks, which is where a good portion of schools get their textbooks right now (also a concern for scientists), although that might change with electronic textbooks in the future:

      http://www.ericfoner.com/articles/040510nation.html

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    3. High school curriculum is a different story. Each state sets its own curriculum and it varies widely from one state to another. Texas has become a gaping black hole as far as history is concerned with guys like David Barton sitting on the review committee. So, yes, there is a major problem here. One only hopes that there are committed teachers who add material to counter the state mandates.

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    4. The problem with Texas is that because they order so many books, they become the standard for publishers (ditto in science).

      Here's a nice overview of what I was thinking about, when they tried to create national standards just as they were working on national standards for science. Gary Nash took the lead on this program (but look at who opposed ... surprise, surprise!):

      http://www-personal.umich.edu/~mlassite/discussions261/section2A.html

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  24. It's more than the title, as Moynihan writes in this review,

    http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/11/19/oliver-stone-s-junk-history-of-the-united-states-debunked.html

    which apparently stung Kuznick, who offers this response,

    http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/11/21/oliver-stone-defends-his-the-untold-history-of-the-united-states.html

    Interesting that Kuznick came to know Stone by teaching a "path-breaking course," Oliver Stone's America, which I guess focused on his movies. Also, interesting that Moynihan appears to be principally a musicologist, with an interest in Norwegian Black Metal music. So, I guess you can take both with a grain of salt.

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  25. Yeah, I saw that earlier (before I saw the first show). Don't agree with him.

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  26. I suppose I would get a little surly after reading a musicologist's review, but Kuznick doesn't do much to credit himself, flinging one ad hominem after another back at Moynihan, largely because Moynihan dismissed his book as "junk" history. It takes me back to the days of Point Counterpoint,

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cESACuuh6kM

    It's fun if you like these rhetorical battles, but it has little to do with history, or contemporary events for that matter. It is all about "winning" an argument.

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  27. What is interesting is how Stone and Kuznick seize on Wallace, seeming to imagine an alternate reality where Wallace had been VP in FDR's last term and nobly steered America toward a greater destiny upon FDR's death, rather than plunge us into a nasty Cold War as Truman did. This is fun stuff, as our dear Robert liked to say. We all enjoy speculating on the might have beens.

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  28. Sorry, I didn't read the follow-up. Just the initial review.

    There is, though, a lot at stake in how history is taught. It helps shape us as a nation, and lays the groundwork for citizenship and how we are manipulated into all sorts of entanglements abroad (in spite of Washington and Jefferson's cautions).

    But I assume a lot of this current controversy, if it can be called that, revolves around Stone, not the t.v. series.

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  29. I don't know that much about Wallace, and any back room dealings to get him on (covered in the first show) and then off the FDR ticket. I look forward to that. Sounds like a Caro story!

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  30. Whew .. just read the responses on Daily Beast. Quite a spirited exchange to say the least.

    I think this rings true:

    But whether the history has been “untold” or not, the problem is that it has been almost entirely “unlearned.”

    Maybe he should have called it the unlearned history of the United States.

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  31. Kuznick is assuming his is the "right" history, even though he makes some rather wild speculations that would be pretty hard to prove. But, here he is using the exact same tactics of the conservative revisionists by making readers prove him wrong by going through his footnotes. How many persons are going to do that?

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  32. Well, I don't see that, but we'll just have to disagree on this one.

    On the issue of footnotes, however, the point of his critic (as I remember it) was that there was nothing new here -- and they had relied on secondary sources (i.e., other books). The counter was they had used archival sources and employed research assistants as many historians do.

    But groundbreaking histories -- I'm not saying this is one -- can be written only relying on secondary sources. Patty Limerick brags she doesn't do archival research, but her book Legacy of Conquest changed the study of the history of the American West completely. You don't have to build a history on newspaper accounts and personal correspondence to write good history. If you did, a lot of popular historians would be put out of business.

    In any event, I haven't read the book and have only seen one in a series of shows, so I don't feel like I can argue his interpretation any more than this. But as you know, history is more than just a listing of facts. It is how you see those facts in a bigger context. I didn't see anything in the first show that would suggest they are relying on their own facts as many conservatives do (which is why you need to run to the endnotes to figure where in the world they found them).

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  33. It seems much of Kuznicks' theory that Truman knew of Japan's surrender before dropping the bomb stems from this primary source,

    http://www.trumanlibrary.org/whistlestop/study_collections/bomb/large/documents/fulltext.php?fulltextid=15

    "asking for peace" and ready to surrender unconditionally as the US demanded are two very different things. Hirohito was perfectly willing to end the war as long as he remained emperor, the US wasn't willing to accept that condition. Interpret it how you will ; )

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  34. On other subjects in the first installment, Stone and Kuznick would have done better to quote Orwell and Borkneau rather than Hemingway in regard to the Spanish Civil War. Orwell's Homage to Catalonia and Borkneau's The Spanish Cockpit provided eye witness accounts of the two fronts during the Spanish Civil War. Orwell was as contemptuous of the Soviet Union as he was the UK and US for offering little support to the two governments in Spain. Stalin refused to recognize the Anarchists and provided only feeble support to the Socialists in Madrid.

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  35. Yet another mistake is saying that Germany exerted control over the Baltic states, as though they were still independent. The Soviets had already annexed the Baltics and begun deportations. Germany broke with the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and invaded the Baltics. Hitler then created puppet states, which organized their own SS units to imprison and ultimately exterminate the Jewish population, so that Germany wouldn't have this blood on its hands.

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  36. In reading American Prometheus, I don't recall Bird and Sherwin ever saying Oppenheimer admitted to being a part of "every communist front organization on the West Coast." In fact, they wrote that although he was sympathetic to these causes he never joined any one organization.

    Oppenheimer initially believed that a limited nuclear war was do-able and actually advocated it. It was only later that he came to regret this view and took an opposite stance.

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  37. Stone and Kuznick really should read more Soviet history. Painting Stalin as heroic in getting people out of Leningrad and Nazi occupied territories borders on farce. Most of these persons fled on their own. Stalin's focus was mostly on those he deemed to be important to the Soviet state, leaving many more to suffer in Leningrad.

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  38. I think most historians would agree that the Soviets were crucial in winning WWII. I suppose Stone is correct in that many Americans believe the war was one on the beaches of Normandy and don't take into account the significance of Stalingrad. But, I don't think either side would have won without the other. Germany had put itself in a very vulnerable position of having to fight a war on two major fronts, and having greatly overextended its forces into the Soviet Union, much like Napoleon had done the previous century in Russia.

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  39. Interesting that the Bomb doesn't come into play until the third episode, although Stone hints at it in the first two episodes. Episode Two revolves around Wallace v. Truman, with Stone demonstrating a clear contempt for the diminutive Truman. Not that I'm a big fan of Truman. In fact, I don't like him much at all from what I've read, but the portrayal of Truman is very one sided and I thought very unfair.

    It is true that Truman was out of his league at that stage of his political career, but I'm not sure what Wallace would have done in this very bad situation to make it any better. Stalin was clearly taking advantage of the Yalta agreement, as he re-annexed the Baltics and created puppet states in Eastern Europe. Yet, Stone portrays Stalin as a man of his word and that it had been Roosevelt's fault for making Yalta too flexible. Of course, this is highly debatable.

    Truman aligned himself with Churchill, and took a strong stance against the Soviet Union. Not that it really deterred the USSR, but it certainly created the adverse relationship that would plague the Cold War.

    Would Wallace have done better is anyone's guess. It struck me that Stalin took full advantage of Roosevelt and probably would have done so with Wallace as well.

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  40. Here's an interesting review of Lincoln from several historians' perspectives:

    http://lareviewofbooks.org/article.php?type=&id=1251&fulltext=1&media=#article-text-cutpoint

    The point made by Hobsbawm that “we swim in the past as fish do in water, and cannot escape from it,” is an interesting one.

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