History With A Grain Of Salt (2016Dec03)


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Saturday, December 03, 2016                                           1:41 PM

I’ve just watched the first five episodes of Oliver Stone’s “The Untold History of the United States” on Netflix. The thrust of his re-telling of our modern history begins with an analysis of Russia’s virtually lone struggle against Germany, transforming what we think of as the main events of World War II into relatively minor clashes—in terms of land-area fought over, scale of destruction, length of time, and number of lives lost and persons wounded—and the stats certainly make that much plain. The Western Front was smaller, shorter, and less bloody in many respects—even with the Pacific War thrown in, ‘our’ War involved about a tenth of the size and horror of the struggle between Hitler and Stalin.

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As he continues to explore the question of Truman’s decision to use the bomb, he frames it as more a demonstration for the Soviets than a body-blow to Japan. Stone suggests that the end of the Nazis enabled Russia to turn and join the US, as agreed, in fighting Japan, months afterward—and that their announcement of their intent to do so—came at about the same time as the two nuclear blasts—and was a great shock to an already-battered Japan. Thus, he presents the possibility that Russia, and not our new A-bomb, was responsible for Japan’s surrender, as well as Germany’s.

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His revisionism also puts America squarely in the docket, to blame for nuclear proliferation, the military-industrial complex, and the entire Cold War that followed—and we must admit that the USA, being suddenly omnipotent (and not having their country reduced to rubble by the fighting, as was the case almost everywhere else) became the prime superpower—and had all the problems and corruptions that absolute power is known to herald.

Oliver Stone does have a habit of mentioning Stalin’s atrocities in asides, often, as if afraid someone will accuse him of glossing over them (which the asides almost accomplish, ironically). But while Stone presents a new perspective and a clarification of several old false assumptions—and highlights some overlooked or hidden aspects that radically change the context of certain events—he is still dealing with the problem of ‘history as general summary’.

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His review, for example, leaves out the details of China’s suffering and transformation, its revolution and great famine. The British role in the man-made starvation in India during World War II, resulting in a genocide greater than the Nazis’, was overlooked as well (see Howard Fast’s “The Pledge”). An historical review, by its nature, leaves out more than it puts in.

His view of the last seventy years may be clearer-eyed, less American-centric—but it is still an impossible task to pick and choose the stand-out events of world history over so large a span of time, without putting one’s own ‘centrism’ into the picking. Still, Stone’s gruesome view of modern American history is, unfortunately, solidly-grounded in facts and records, shorn of the ‘spin’ which events are often given in their own time, and which tend to continue to stand as fact, absent an Oliver Stone.

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The show, ultimately, is a flat statement to Americans that being ‘the world’s greatest superpower’ and being ‘the good guys’ are, almost by definition, mutually exclusive concepts. He almost makes us embarrassed that we don’t see something so obvious. Our laser focus on the high-points of American History, and our brushing aside of all the many sins: the original genocide of the natives, the kidnapping and slavery of the Africans, the dehumanization of ethnic and racial minorities, the industrialism that spawned sweat shops, child labor, tenements, and all the rapacity of Capitalism—we wave these things aside and point to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Emancipation Proclamation. Don’t look over there—look here—o, pretty!

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Most of history is a horror—and American history no exception. If you think about our greatest moments—the Bill of Rights, Women’s Suffrage, the Civil Rights Act, etc.—they are all merely points at which those in power finally conceded, for this specific case, for that specific group, that people should not be used and abused like farm animals. Points on the Timeline when those in authority declare, “Oh, did that hurt? I’ll stop now.” It’s almost funny that we have these tremendous struggles, usually over the question, “Why should I treat you like a human being?” It’s as if, when someone gets a little power, the rest of us have to turn as one and shout at them, “Hey, right and wrong still apply, douchebag!”

I suppose the great lesson of history is that victory is a sort of lobotomy—it convinces the victor that force is effective. And with force must come control. And with too much control comes the need for struggles anew, and a new victor, and on it goes.

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In sum, I was reluctant to watch another rehash of the last seventy years of world conflict—but I was not disappointed in my hope that Oliver Stone wouldn’t have bothered to make this series without some surprising and new information—and observations that really change the context for lay-historians like myself. I love this sort of thing, because you can’t really change the accepted view of history without adding in some new data—and this series exposes many overlooked, obscured, and newly-discovered bits of information, and makes connections that seem obvious once made—making one wonder why Oliver Stone had to do it, all this time later. But I’m glad he did.

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The subject guarantees that viewing will be somewhat daunting, and hardly inspiring—but looking ourselves straight in the mirror is ultimately a very healthy thing, if uncomfortable. I can’t help reflecting, however, that if Oliver Stone can take the old story and re-tell it as something almost unrecognizable—then I suppose someone else could do the same to his. When studying history, one must never neglect the grain of salt.

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