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  • The Making of "Untold History of the United States"

    Pt.1 The beginning of a multi-part interview with Peter Kuznick; in this segment he tells the story about how he teamed up with Oliver Stone to challenge a primary thesis of the cold war -   December 17, 2012
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    Peter Kuznick, Professor of History; Director, American University’s Nuclear Studies Institute; Co-writer (with Oliver Stone) "Untold History of the United States"


    The Making of PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay in Baltimore.

    This is the beginning of a long series of interviews over the course of a year, or perhaps even more, about the TV series and the book The Untold History of the United States. One of the coauthors of the script and the book, Peter Kuznick, is joining us.

    And this is a series where you are going to get to interact with us over the course of time. What this means is I'm going to start the interview off today, we're going to begin sort of a general discussion about the history, which more or less is from the beginnings and roots of World War II onwards, and you'll be able to ask your questions and argue and debate. And Peter's agreed to come back from time to time to continue the discussion, digging in further into the history, as well as respond to anything that you the viewer might be raising. And he says that Oliver Stone will join us once in a while.

    So now we will begin our conversation. Thanks very much for joining us, Peter.


    JAY: So Peter is a professor of history and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute in American University. He's a cowriter of the ten-part Showtime series called Untold History of the United States, as I just said, and the book.

    So I guess we'd better get clear for everybody, first of all. Not everybody watching this is going to be able to see the series right away, because you need to subscribe to Showtime. And I suppose maybe you should go watch the series, seeing as for one reason or another Showtime did this, and it's pretty good they did. So you might want to see it. Otherwise, the DVDs, I guess, will be out soon. But the book's available now.

    Let's start with how does this whole project begin. At some point you go to Oliver Stone and say, hey, let's do a mainstream TV series that says Stalin and the Soviet Union's not so bad.

    KUZNICK: How did you know that's how we did it? That's very prescient of you. It actually started back in 1996 when I was teaching a course. We decided we'd do a new course at American University called Oliver Stone's America. And I was going to use Oliver's movies and then contrast his interpretations of all the events in recent U.S. history with those by people that participated in those events and by the works of scholars who the students would read. It was a course on historical interpretation. I brought in people like Robert McNamara and Dan Ellsberg and Bob Woodward and John Dean and Ron Kovic and lots of other great, great guests. And it was a very successful course.

    But the first time I taught it in '96, Oliver heard that I was going to do it, and he said he'd be happy to come in. And after—so we had a great session with the class, and afterwards at dinner we went out and we were talking, and I told him, Oliver, I've got an idea for a movie you've got to make, and I laid out the story about Henry Wallace and how close Henry Wallace came to being president in 1945.

    JAY: Alright. Let me jump in quickly. For those of you who don't know anything about the story of Henry Wallace, we interviewed Henry Wallace's grandson—and maybe we'll put underneath this video a link to that. It will give you a sense of Henry Wallace, but nothing—the depth that you're going to get by watching this series. Go on.

    KUZNICK: Right. And I laid this out for Oliver and how that changed the course of history, and Oliver said, Peter, that's a brilliant idea; let's do it. And I thought, well, you know, we're having a good time at dinner and drinking and having—you know. So he goes back to L.A. the next day, and he calls me up, and he says he's serious, write me a treatment. I said, sure, I'd be happy to, except I didn't know what a treatment was. So I found out what a treatment was, and I got a high-powered person to represent me, and I ended up writing the script. So that was the beginning of our friendship and collaboration. We still haven't made that movie, though it's going to make a great movie when we do make it or somebody makes it.

    JAY: And just really quickly again, just so you get the significance of this if you don't know the story—and you'll find out more over the course of our interviews and if you watch this piece we did and the series. But Henry Wallace was as progressive a mainstream politician as this country ever saw, and becomes vice president at a critical period. We won't go more into that right now, but one can understand—

    KUZNICK: But he comes within a hair's breadth or, as we would say, five feet of becoming president in 1945. And we say that the course of history would have been fundamentally different had that happened.

    JAY: Yeah. And this is a guy who's—I don't know—you could almost call him to the left of Dennis Kucinich, and he becomes vice president. So it's a piece of history that not many people know anything about.

    KUZNICK: [crosstalk] people talk about, yeah, starting in '40.

    So that's how we began. And then we became—we stayed friends over the years, and Oliver would try to get into class every year when I taught it. It was the most popular class we offered in the history department at American University.

    And then Oliver was in town in 2007 to scout locations for his movie Pinkville about the My Lai Massacre, and he was in for a day only, and he invited me to join him for dinner. And over dinner we're talking about history and politics as we always did, and Oliver says, Peter, let's do it, let's do a documentary together; we can do a documentary about Henry Wallace and the atom bomb and the [incompr.] of Cold War. And I was on sabbatical. I said, that'll be fun, let's do that, a 60-minute or a 90-minute documentary. And he asked if I could meet him in two weeks in New York. When I got up to New York to talk about the details, he had this idea for a ten-part documentary film series.

    So it started to grow, as Oliver's projects do. And then two and a half years into this project, we decided we were going to add a companion book. So at that point we had written the first drafts of the script [incompr.] the fifth drafts of the scripts, and Oliver was working on turning those into the documentary, and I turned a lot of my attention to the book.

    JAY: Right. Now, you must have discussed how are you going to get this seen, how on earth are you going to get mainstream television exposure, or even cinema exposure. I mean, Oliver has a big name and some clout, but one of the things you do in this series, in this book, is you do go—you kind of unpack or attack the central core of the post-World War II Cold War narrative, which is the Soviet Union was an equal devil to Hitler. And, you know, every school in North America teaches history which is called two totalitarianisms, communism and fascism, and they're supposed to be the same thing, and the role of the Soviet Union is all, you know, horrific. And you unpack that. You must have discussed how do you get that seen in the United States.

    KUZNICK: Well, as you say, Oliver's got a lot more clout than most people I work with or collaborate with as a historian. And we didn't know initially who we were going to be able to sell this to, the book or the documentary. And Showtime stepped up. Showtime—and they've gone through two administrations, totally different leaders there, and they both have stuck by this project, and they've really been very, very supportive, and they've shown great courage. And we were never 100 percent certain it was going to get shown. We knew somebody would end up showing it, but Showtime's got a very big viewership.

    JAY: Now, Showtime's owned by CBS, which is owned by Viacom. If I understand who's running Viacom now, it's not Sumner Redstone, who used to be and who was a big George Bush supporter. But they've left you alone, in the sense that they did their own verification of facts.

    KUZNICK: Well, we've gone through two rounds of fact check. They wanted this to be accurate. They were going to let us say whatever we wanted in terms of our interpretation of history, but they really wanted to make sure that it was impeccable in terms of being accurate. So we've gone through two rounds of fact checks on this. And they fact-checked every word—literally, 'cause it drives me crazy, 'cause I've got to—. And the things that they can't find, I've got to go back and find proof to them that everything is completely accurate in terms of what we're saying, which we can do, but it's very, very tedious and time-consuming, as you can imagine, 'cause they give us dozens and dozens of things. But they're not things that they're questioning the accuracy; it's things—they're questioning the sources, 'cause they haven't been able to find them on their own. But this is—it took us—.

    JAY: But what's your take on this? I mean, this is one of the major media monopolies in the country, Viacom, and the history you give is completely at odds with the official narrative.

    KUZNICK: Yes, completely.

    JAY: So why do they allow such a thing?

    KUZNICK: I think the people we've dealt with at Showtime have really appreciated the history. They've loved the history that we're telling. So that's the only level I've dealt with was the people at Showtime. They're very, very principled, and most of them are actually quite progressive in their views. I don't know about the layers above that. I haven't dealt with them.

    JAY: I mean, I had a somewhat similar experience. We did a series—I did a series, a documentary series about ten years ago called Machine Gun, and we followed the rise of, essentially, U.S. empire building by just following the machine gun. And it wound up on Discovery Channel. It was kind of the same thing. It was—like, I was amazed they took it, 'cause it was also pretty at odds with the official narrative. But these things happen, you know?

    KUZNICK: Sometimes we get asked, you know, don't you have anything good to say about the United States? And we say, yes, they tolerate us, you know, the fact that we have a voice in this world. And we're getting onto the mainstream. We just did Mike Huckabee's radio show a few days ago.

    JAY: Yeah, the right is very unhappy with Mike Huckabee, 'cause apparently he didn't roast you.

    KUZNICK: Right. Not only did he not roast us; he was very, very friendly toward us. So yeah. So they wrote—people wrote things attacking him for not being—. We've tried to get onto O'Reilly. We've offered. But he hasn't taken us, unfortunately. But we've done a lot of very mainstream kinds of things, network television, and the response has generally been overwhelmingly positive. We've had a few right-wingers come after us, but not very many. And the rest of the reviews have been quite good.

    JAY: Well, we'll see how this all unfolds as more and more people see the series. So, as I said, this is just the beginnings. So we're going to stop here and go to another segment, but this is just the beginning of the contextualization of the series and the book. So please join us for the next part of this interview on The Real News Network.


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