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Pt.5 Peter Kuznick (co-author with Oliver Stone of Showtime’s Untold History of the United States): Dealing with the role of the Soviet Union in WWII was the most sensitive and complicated issue faced by the series

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And we’re continuing our series of interviews with Peter Kuznick. He’s the coauthor of the book and the film The Untold History of the United States. Thanks for joining us again.

So we’ll just pick up the discussion. One of the things the series does which is pretty courageous, really, is deal with the role of the Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War, and then particularly in World War II, and really unpack and defy the basic Cold War narrative. And so talk a little bit about that history, and also a little about your discussions about how to deal with it, ’cause, I mean, in some ways politically it’s the most sensitive stuff in the series. You know, to talk about Wallace is—people are okay with that. But your version of the Soviet Union is—.

PETER KUZNICK, PROF. HISTORY, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY: They’re not so okay with the Wallace. They think that we’re—because in 1948, when Wallace runs for president again, the Communist Party is very much involved in that campaign. So we do get a lot of negative reaction from the right-wingers on the Wallace story. They’re very sensitive to that one.

But you’re right to say that the main attacks we’re getting from the right are about our treatment of the Soviet Union, because they want to portray the Soviet Union as the equivalent of the Nazis, and Hitler and Stalin are equally bad.

JAY: Yeah, I was—I said in my opening introduction, in every school in North America—I mean, I grew up in Canada, and it was no different—the chapter in the history book is communism, fascism, two forms of totalitarianism, and the whole history is that they are simply the equivalence.

KUZNICK: Yeah. And there’s some—not truth to that, but there is obviously a lot of truth to the critique of Stalinism and the ways in which Stalin hijacks and subverts the Russian Revolution, and from a left perspective, undermines the Russian Revolution. We on the left in the United States in the 20th century had that albatross around our necks for much of the 20th century, and people felt for some understandable reason that they had to defend certain features of the Soviet Union. And under Stalin there’s not very much that is defensible of what’s going on inside the Soviet Union—the massacres that took place, the millions and millions of victims of Stalinism. And the repression is real. And the left in the United States didn’t know that in the 1930s. We didn’t learn that till much later.

So we’re actually quite critical of Stalin, but we also understand the important role that the Soviet Union represents, the idea of the Soviet Union representing something as a socialist society in which there is socialized medicine and education and tremendous advances in the sciences in the 1930s. I mean, there are certain things that are positive about Soviet Society that you can recognize without saying that Stalin was a good guy.

JAY: And, one way or the other, had pretty massive popular support, Stalin. You don’t rally a country to make the kind of sacrifices the Soviet people made.

KUZNICK: But there’s still a lot of nostalgia for Stalin inside of Russia.

JAY: Still, even now, yeah. I mean, dictators can be popular too, so—.

KUZNICK: Yeah. Yeah. And he was as brutal a dictator as is imaginable in certain ways during this time. That doesn’t mean that everything that the Soviet Union did was bad. The Soviet Union was often on the right side of history on these things. The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War was the main support for the republican causes.

JAY: But the main problem in terms of the American historical narrative is he wasn’t our brutal dictator.


JAY: Like, it’s not like historically the United States has problems with brutal dictators.

KUZNICK: No, we love brutal dictators.

JAY: They’ve just got to be ours.

KUZNICK: Yes, and he was never ours. And he represented something that was very threatening to the people who liked our brutal dictators. He was—he believed that the world could be organized on principles very different than capitalist principles. And even though his works, like, philosophical material, whatever his big book in ’36 was on Marxism, it’s really pretty lousy Marxism. He was very crude and mechanistic, and his understanding was, I say, very shallow. But he still represented something that American capitalists hated.

And these same capitalists who didn’t hate fascism, because fascism was a form of capitalism, hated the Soviet communism because that was a threat to American capitalism and it said the world could be organized in a different way and that way could work.

And it did work in a lot of ways in the 1930s. And you have the tremendous economic boom. And there was a lot of literature in the United States in the early ’30s when the American was hitting the nadir of its depression, in late 1932, that the only country that was immune to depression was the Soviet Union. And that was not just in liberal papers and publications like The Nation and The New Republic; that was in The Christian Science Monitor, it was in Businessweek, it was in Barron’s. It was in very conservative places [crosstalk]

JAY: And also something interesting—and it’s too complicated to unpack all this right now, ’cause it’s not the history of the Soviet Union, but one of the facts that comes out in your series, which—I didn’t know the scale of it—was the extent of the millions of people that are moved—

KUZNICK: Yes, massive.

JAY: —east to get out of the way of the German army, and the complete rebuilding—

KUZNICK: Rebuilding of the economy.

JAY: —of Soviet economy. Yeah. Tell a bit about that story.

KUZNICK: Well, it’s, again, a remarkable mobilization of Soviet resources. The Soviets were fighting Germany. In fact, that’s part of the story about World War II that Americans don’t know but need to know, that we always think that it was the United States who won the war in Europe and that the bomb ended the war in the Pacific, two very, very big misconceptions that Americans have.

Throughout most of World War II, the United States and the British were fighting ten German divisions combined. The Soviets were fighting 200. The United States lost about 300,000 people in combat, 400,000 overall in World War II, which was terrible, but the Russians lost 27 million people in World War II. There’s good reason why Churchill says it was the Russians who tore the guts out of the German army. And Roosevelt recognized that, and Americans at the time recognized it, which is partly why the Soviets were considered—viewed so positively by the United States and by American people during World War II. It’s part of the reason why there was a possibility for post-war friendship and collaboration as Wallace and Roosevelt envisioned after the war and as Stalin desperately hoped for.

The whole Russian vision after the war was based upon this idea that the United States and the Soviets would remain allies. That was essential for Stalin’s political dreams, as well as for his economic vision of how you rebuild the Soviet economy, which was devastated. It was Kennedy who recognized that in his famous AU commencement address, when he says that the destruction of the Soviet Union was the equivalent of the entire United States east of Chicago being wiped out and destroyed. I mean, what they suffered was, you know, beyond imagination, really, what the Soviets suffered, which was why there was such an abhorrence of war afterwards inside the Soviet Union, but also why they were so defensive and why they wanted Eastern Europe. This wasn’t part of some grand imperial design that Stalin had; this was his defensiveness as a Russian nationalist who understood that the Soviet Union [incompr.] attacked by Germany through Eastern Europe twice within the past 25 years, and he was going to do anything he could, from the Russian nationalist standpoint, to make sure that never happened again.

JAY: I did a series of interviews with Ray McGovern, who was a CIA analyst for many years, and in the interviews he says that as they’re briefing Reagan and some of the other presidents, even at that time they’re saying that the fundamental posture of the Russians is defensive.


JAY: It’s not—you know, this idea that Russia’s going to invade Europe and march through Europe and all this is not real, that from an analyst division of CIA they were saying that, but nobody wanted to hear the argument. And your series, again, you’re contradicting the whole narrative that the Soviet threat is the fundamental character of post-World War II period.

KUZNICK: Which is why the United States doesn’t change, really, after the Cold War ends. Have we cut back our defense spending? Have we gotten rid of our bases overseas? Have we gotten rid of our nuclear weapons? Do we not have this massive defense apparatus that still is looking for enemies around the world? You know, we’re expanding, we’re shifting. We’re shifting now to the Pacific from our previous emphasis in the Middle East and in Europe. But we’re not changing our policy.

JAY: Now, one of the critical moments in terms of World War II—and it’s been a big debate—is Stalin makes a deal with Hitler and a nonaggression pact of some sort. And one version of this is Stalin did everything he could to have an alliance with United States and England and against Hitler, and the other version is Stalin really didn’t care who he made a deal with, and he was happy to have a deal with Hitler, and the only reason it broke is Hitler attacked him. What are your sources? How did you come to terms with what you thought was the correct version of this?

KUZNICK: Well, Stalin was not always a man of great principle. As we know, Stalin could be ruthless and bloody and tyrannical and could make a deal with Hitler. None of what we’re saying is a defense of Stalin. We’ve got a portrait of Stalin that portrays him to be quite brutal. We’re very, very critical of Stalin. However, from 1935 to 1939 he did everything he could to form an alliance with the United States and the Western capitalist nations because he knew that there were forces who wanted to push Hitler to attack the Soviet Union.

JAY: My uncle was a writer at the time, a journalist as well, and he was at one of the conferences that they allowed the media into, and he said the Soviet foreign minister was practically begging for an alliance with the West against Hitler, and they just weren’t interested.

KUZNICK: You know, they went so far that the Communist Party in the United States basically supported Roosevelt. That’s—the whole Popular Front period from ’35 to ’39 was about tamping down the revolutionary forces and having the communist parties throughout the world, the Western capitalist world, become allies of liberal and centrist democratic forces. The Communist Party was basically an adjunct of the Democratic Party between ’35 and ’39 at a time when its popularity became great.

And they were saying—during the Popular Front, they were saying communism is 20th-century Americanism. That was their line. And they traced their lineage back to Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. This was not a very revolutionary force at that point, but that was the policy out of the Soviet Union, because they wanted alliances with the Western capitalist governments. They never did anything to form an alliance with Hitler during that time. And by 1939 they were desperate. They knew that Germans would be launching an invasion. But this was after the Western forces capitulated repeatedly to Hitler.

JAY: Well, this kind of goes back to the point I was making in one of the earlier segments, though: where is Roosevelt in all this? I mean, Roosevelt is in on not building an alliance. I mean, if he really wanted to stop Hitler, it was the obvious thing to do.

KUZNICK: Yeah, Roosevelt could have done that, but he would have had to buck American public opinion. As you said also, 95 percent of the American people were opposed to even getting involved in World War II when the war was going on and Britain and France were under the gun.

JAY: But what I’m getting back—we’re getting back into the Roosevelt argument again, but I don’t mean intervening militarily, but sanctions against American companies that help Hitler. I saw something—I mentioned it to you off-camera, but I saw something at the Holocost Museum in Washington. It said—my memory is it was something like 70, 75 percent of newspaper editors who were asked in 1936 whether to send the Olympic team, American Olympic team to the Nazi-held Olympics, said, don’t do it, and they did it anyway. So there was a fair amount of public opinion here against Hitler, even if there was public opinion against military intervention or getting involved in the war, getting into Europe’s war. But they were also anti-Hitler. So, like, Roosevelt would have had a platform for at least sanctions for doing various things.

KUZNICK: He would have and he should have. I’m not disagreeing with you. Of course I wish Roosevelt would have intervened against fascism and formed the alliance much earlier, and of course I believe that Roosevelt should have supported the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War. And we could have—’cause Hitler at that point was going to back down. Hitler did not have the strength to do the things he was doing. And of course [crosstalk]

JAY: And you have an interesting quote from Hitler about that, that he—when they first start moving into the Rhineland, is it, that he expects to get beaten.


NARRATOR: In March 1936, German troops occupied the demilitarized Rhineland. It was Hitler’s biggest gamble to date, and it worked. The 48 hours after the march were the most nervewracking in my life, he said. The military resources at our disposal would have been wholly inadequate for even a moderate resistance. If the French had marched into the Rhineland, we would have had to withdraw with our tails between our legs.

ADOLF HITLER (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): Sending our troops into the Rhineland was the hardest and most daring decision of my life.


KUZNICK: That is a bluff. But we never called his bluff on that, and that’s partly because you had a lot of forces in Europe who were sympathetic. They were either afraid of war or they were sympathetic.

JAY: Well, then, why is Stalin’s deal with Hitler unprincipled? I mean, if he’s facing the destruction of the Soviet Union, what else is he supposed to do?

KUZNICK: What’s unprincipled is the way it was defended. If you would say publicly that this was a desperation move done in order to prevent an attack or to preserve the Soviet Union, that would be one thing. But the left forces of the United States defended this on principle, and there was no principled way to defend an alliance with fascism. There was a pragmatic way that you could explain an alliance with fascism for that period of time, and Stalin wanted to buy time; however, by the time the Germans do invade in 1941, he was being warned that an invasion was imminent, and he didn’t believe it. Stalin, who doesn’t believe anybody and trust anybody, did not realize that this mobilization was—.

JAY: And how do we know that [crosstalk]

KUZNICK: [crosstalk] We know that his generals and others, intelligence people, were warning him, and he said that he didn’t—that they were not about to invade, that the German invasion was not going to come. The Russians were caught totally unprepared. The Germans blitzed right through them in the beginning. And many people, including in the United States, felt that the Russians were about to capitulate.

That’s part of why the British rushed in there so quickly, to try to keep them in the war. They wanted the Russians in the war against Hitler ’cause they knew it was—the key to the Europeans, the Western Europeans, the British actually surviving the war was keeping the Russians in, and they were afraid that the Russians were going to cut a deal with Hitler because they were so badly wounded in those early steps. But Stalin said no. Stalin said, give me some material aid so we can fight them, and we will fight, we will defeat them.

JAY: And 27 million lives—

KUZNICK: Twenty-seven million later, yeah.

JAY: —and some of the most horrific battles in the history of warfare, somehow they did it.

KUZNICK: Somehow they did it. And we show how they did it. And the Russian people were heroic in their resistance.

JAY: Okay. We’re going to pick this discussion up in another segment. Please join us for the continuation of our discussion with Peter Kuznick on the real history of the United States.


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Peter Kuznick is Professor of History and Director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University in Washington, DC. He and Oliver Stone co-authored The Untold History of the United States.