Oliver Stone’s Journey from Cold Warrior to America’s Untold History (1/2)
Watch part 2 on Tuesday
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.
The ten-part series The Untold History of the United States is a series that unpacks much of the conventional narrative of U.S. Cold War history. We’ve been doing a multipart series with Peter Kuznick on The Real News, coauthor of this series with Oliver Stone.
Oliver Stone, as most of you know, is one of the more celebrated filmmakers in Hollywood. Oliver is a three-time Academy Award winning director and screenwriter, a Vietnam War veteran. He’s made around two dozen acclaimed films, including Platoon, Wall Street, Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, Nixon, W., and Wall Street 2.
Oliver Stone, as I said, with Peter Kuznick has produced this ten-part series for Showtime, The Untold History of the United States. And Oliver joins us now in the studio.
Thanks for joining us.
OLIVER STONE, FILMMAKER: Thank you, Paul.
JAY: So, first of all, congratulations. You guys took on some of the taboo subjects of American history. We don’t have to repeat it, ’cause I discussed it with Peter. I’m still kind of amazed it got on Showtime.
But let’s start at the end of the series. And the last segment is about sort of the endings of the Bush government and the beginnings of Obama. And President Obama, when he was candidate Obama in 2008, someone asked him about the roots of his foreign-policy thinking, and he said they begin with Truman and end with Reagan. And it seems to me that’s actually the thesis of your film. The whole arc of the series is that President Obama is a continuum of that American foreign policy.
NARRATOR: Obama’s foreign policy seemed more reasonable than Bush’s, repudiating the unilateralism and preemption that had so outraged world opinion. But the goal, embracing U.S. global domination, differed little, and even the means were frustratingly similar.
JAY: So talk a bit about what those roots are and why you think President Obama is that kind of continuum.
STONE: Very much so. Do you know the word teleological, what it means?
JAY: I don’t, no.
STONE: It came to me when you were speaking about this, and I thought, the only way you can look at this is from the back to the front. You have to go to the end of the story to figure out the beginning. And that’s always what I thought it meant. It was a space term.
JAY: Which I’ve always thought is the way they should teach history. Like, start with what’s happening today and go backwards.
STONE: [crosstalk] now and then go back, yeah. That’s—we’re living through now, this is what we know, but we don’t see past what I call the tyranny of now. We’re buried in details every day, and the events and so forth, and we’re carried on this sail, on this wind.
And that’s the beauty of being able to stop and do something like this with Peter. This huge project starts in the 1940s. Actually, it starts in 1900, and we have two chapters coming out, the prologue. The chapters A and B will be released on DVD in September/October from Warner Brothers in a set, a 12-hour set.
But your question is haunting.
JAY: And this goes back to McKinley, doesn’t it?
STONE: Yeah, it goes back to McKinley and Bryan in the election of 1900, and then it works its way up to the wars. The First World War is huge. It’s the mother of all wars. It’s the mother of World War II. And World War II.
But, you know, I asked precisely the same question. When I decided to do this in 2008, I said, I’m 62 years old at that point, and I said, you know, I’m getting to the end of my little passage. I want to know: what was it all about, Oliver? You know, what was the meaning of this thing? ‘Cause it started for me with the atomic bomb. It was ’46, and the week I was born was the week that Wallace, Henry Wallace got fired. It’s kind of an irony, the whole thing at Madison Square Garden. I was born in New York.
But my parents were very much of that optimistic generation of World War II. My father was an officer. And the world was so big and bright. New York was the center of that world, and I was at it. And, ironically, I ended up in Vietnam. And my life, as you know somewhat of it—movies, because I suppose I wanted to escape further into illusion.
But all my generation, my cohorts at Yale University, the Hill School, did go on to become the power brokers of my time. Bill Clinton. George Bush was in my class at Yale of ’68, and he was typical of a generation that was entitled and privileged and assumed that America was at the center of the world and we had the right to do what we wanted.
JAY: A generation and a class.
STONE: Yeah, and that right was given to us by the bomb. And no one knows that today, you see. That’s what haunts me. I mean, we know it, but we don’t acknowledge it.
And what bothers me, ’cause I guess I was a dramatist—part of what I do is I go into the subconscious of the generation and subconscious of the race and I try to bring out those things that are more primal that are not talked about at cocktail parties. But I felt in my heart that everything in America changed with the atomic bomb. They gave us the right to do what we wanted to do. And because it was powerful and we had the might on our side, we had the right. We equated might with right, force with the ability to do good.
And we carried that forward to this place where we invented our own morality as we went along. We never apologized, we never thought about apologizing for dropping the atomic bombs on Japan. We never thought it was necessary, because we thought it was necessary to end the war.
And the whole story of the saga of my life begins with the climax to World War II is we won the war with the atomic bomb. Japan was defeated.
That’s a huge myth, and I think we go into it in elaborate detail. It’s a foundation myth of our society.
And I’m trying to address your Obama question, because I was going back to the roots to find out the end.
JAY: It’s the Democratic Party in power that builds the bomb and drops the bomb.
STONE: Yes. Yeah. The Democratic Party, with few exceptions, has basically done a duet with the Republican Party. And the Republican Party, which, by the way, in 1946 is a key year. It’s the first postwar election. The congressional elections of ’46 bring the Republicans steaming back into Washington. There’s an angry edge to this thing against Roosevelt.
And Roosevelt felt it. I think that’s the reason he probably dumped Wallace, or turned on him, ’cause I think he felt the edge of conservatism coming back in ’44, even. All the party bosses and the Democrats were working to get rid of Wallace and replace him with this hack, Harry Truman.
But the country was scared after the war, too. It was scared about going back into a depression. It was scared about the so-called nuclear—the atomic threats that we had. We’d dropped the bomb on Japan. But we felt—as Edward R. Murrow said, we’d felt a dread about it. There was a dread in the air, but we couldn’t quite place it. The Russians didn’t have the bomb for three more years, but still we were scared, and the Republicans took advantage of that in the elections. So Truman was in a sense also reacting to fear.
Fear has always been predominant in my life—the fear of the bomb, the fear of growing up, the fear of being attacked by the Russians. There was—my father used to speak of the worldwide Russian conspiracy to take over the world. That was Bible for me, as was God. I mean, you believed it, and they were the enemy. China was also allied with them, and the Korean War enhanced those fears. And by the time I went to Vietnam, you know, I was a spooked individual, as were many Americans.
But when you go to now, to today, to Mr. Obama, it’s sad because we don’t learn. And that’s why we wrote this book and made this series. We were hoping that people would say, no, this history is a myth that’s been handed to us; this is the real history, and this is what America did in these years. And if we were able to face that truthfully and honestly, like most people who were defeated in war face their truths—the Germans, citizens, faced their German truths; the Japanese citizens faced the Japanese truths. We need—frankly, we needed a huge defeat to learn from. We’ve never met a defeat.
JAY: When you’ve talked to people in Hollywood who are still enthusiastic about President Obama, who somehow rationalize these drone attacks, who can rationalize this NDAA legislation, which is—you know, allows the military to indefinitely intern people, they find ways to rationalize that they are still the good guys, we are still for democracy, we’re the civilizers, we’re the moral ones.
STONE: Everything is backward. Everything is backward. Everything. It’s upside down. And teleologically it’s upside down. It’s like you’re looking through a telescope. But you’re not seeing yourself. It’s like we should flip the image, as we do in film. You know, you should put it upside down, take the history, shake it, and put it upside down, to see everything. Take a history student, make him go through the whole thing, have a real debate about this, and take every one of these events from the atomic bomb on—and you have to start with the atomic bomb. In fact, you could start with the whole concept of World War II and who won World War II and what the U.S. role was in World War II.
NARRATOR: Its death toll was 405,000 compared to the Soviet Union’s 27 million.
Roosevelt’s a man who had suffered from polio in his life, had understood that the war had been won by Soviet sacrifice and that peace now depended on mutual respect.
STONE: And if you can have that debate with a student, at least we can be more humble and we can understand that we’re not all bad, but we’re not all good, and we’re not certainly blessed by divinity, and God is not on our side.
JAY: Well, you were saying you grew up believing a lot of this mythology. So when does the coin drop for you?
STONE: Yes, I did. That’s why I think I’m able to—. At the age of 40, when the coin dropped—. People think I went to Vietnam and got radicalized. That’s not the case. I did a movie about a man who did, Ron Kovic, who is a wonderful individual. He came back in a wheelchair. He was angry, and I understand why.
ACTOR, BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY (VOICEOVER): I wanted to be a good American. I wanted to serve my country. I couldn’t wait to fight my first war.
STONE: I was a little dumber, or number, call it, number. I think I was in the middle. It took me several years after returning to—. I was certainly on the fence. I didn’t feel good about Vietnam. But talking to people, educating myself—and I’m coming from a deeply conservative background now, you understand, Republican, Eisenhower, Castro’s the Devil, Kennedy was the Devil, Roosevelt is the arch Satan of all time.
JAY: This was your belief system.
STONE: That was my background. Around 1970s, with the Watergate hearings and the Church Committee, I started to have huge fights with my dad about all this stuff. He always called Vietnam a police action. He hurt my feelings, because I’d been in a lot of combat, and he hurt me when he said, you know, come on, this was nothing like World War II, it was just a police action, like he was trying to shuffle a mistake under the rug, as Korea was shuffled under the rug. You know.
But not to me. It was not a police action. It was a huge—and we know now from the casualties and the amount of Vietnamese killed that it was a massive, massive war, a dirty, dirty war.
NARRATOR: When an ageing and wiser Robert McNamara returned to Vietnam in 1995, he conceded somewhat in shock that despite official U.S. estimates of 2 million Vietnamese dead, that 3.4 to 3.8 million Vietnamese had perished. In comparison, 58,000 Americans died in the fighting and 200,000 were wounded. The U.S. had destroyed 9,000 of South Vietnam’s 15,000 hamlets. In the North, all six industrial cities, 28 of 30 provincial towns, and 96 of 116 district towns. Unexploded ordinance still blankets the countryside. Nineteen million gallons of herbicide had poisoned the environment. Almost all of Vietnam’s ancient triple canopy forests are gone. The effects of chemical warfare alone lasted for generations and can be seen today in the hospitals in the South, where Agent Orange had been used, dead fetuses kept in jars, surviving children born with horrid birth defects and deformities, and cancer rates much higher than in the North.
STONE: But only about 1980s—I’m that slow. You have to bear with me. I mean, I’m on the fence. I believe all the Church thing. I’m horrified by the CIA, the coups.
Around 1980, Reagan gets elected. I’m still supporting Reagan, believe it or not, because Carter, my perception—I believed the media, I believed that he had made a mess, and I thought that Reagan could straighten it out. So I go down to 1984, to Central America with Richard Boyle to make Salvador,—
ACTOR, SALVADOR: Combat shots for [incompr.] I can make some money.
Whatever you do, okay, don’t get on the ground.
ACTOR, SALVADOR: They’re not just shooting the Indians. They’re shooting at us.
ACTOR, SALVADOR: Chaos has descended on tiny El Salvador in Central America.
STONE: —and all of a sudden I have this kind of strange flashbacks, ’cause I’m seeing American soldiers in the streets of Honduras in Tegucigalpa, men and women now in uniform, young, looked like me in Vietnam, and they’re telling me the same story about they’re here, you know, to—because the communists are next-door in Nicaragua and they’re going to come on—basically, Reagan is saying they’re going to cross the border, they’re going to—the Russians are supplying them, the Cubans are supplying them. And I know by now this is all horseshit. I go to Salvador, I go to Honduras, I go to Guatemala, which is a nightmare of death squads, and Reagan is—seems to me—all of a sudden I see him in a different light. I come back. I do Salvador movie, which I don’t know if you’ve seen, but it’s certainly—
STONE: —a progressive view of Salvador.
JAY: Very. I was about to say one wouldn’t have thought the filmmaker had come from those Cold War ideas.
STONE: Well, it was coming from the abuse of the peasantry, of the impoverished classes. It was in Vietnam, and Central America was the same thing to me. And I felt for those people, made that movie.
And from then on, at the age of 40—I mean, it’s late in my life—I started to really reexamine this thing, and slowly, because every one of those films—JFK, Nixon, the Vietnam movies—took me to another place of research. And I got front line research in Washington—Nixon, all that stuff, JFK.
ACTOR, JFK: You just talk to us on the record. We’ll protect you. I guarantee it.
ACTOR, JFK: I saw a flash of light in the bushes and that last shot.
VOICEOVER: An act that shocked the nation.
ACTOR, JFK: The smoke came from behind the hedge.
VOICEOVER: They tried to keep them from asking why.
ACTOR, JFK: That’s the real question, isn’t it, why.
ACTOR, JFK: The government’s going to jump all over your head, Jimbo.
ACTOR, JFK: Why was Kennedy killed?
ACTOR, JFK: [incompr.]
STONE: I was shocked on the JFK situation, ’cause we were trying to deal honestly with transparency in transparent government. I was shocked that the conservative movement in this country so attacked that movie, ’cause it seemed to me the conservatives would be lining up with us. Goldwater would have said, let’s have transparency, let’s find out what happened. There was no desire to find out.
And I saw the media all of a sudden became more of my enemy than ever, because they were attacking me on a broad front with JFK for having falsified history.
So I kept going in this direction. And by 2008, when I made W., which was my attempt to do the George Bush presidency on this vein of humor because it was so outrageous—satire, so to speak—that was what we were seeing.
ACTOR, W.: Working in the investment firm wasn’t for you either, or the oil rig job. You didn’t exactly finish up with flying colors in the Air National Guard, Junior.
ACTOR, W.: What are you cut out for? What do you think you are? A Kennedy? You’re a Bush. Act like one.
STONE: I had decided I have to go beyond that now and, for my children, do something bigger, more definitive, and try to deal with the whole thing I had seen from 1940s to now.
And Peter Kuznick’s story of Henry Wallace being kicked off the ticket in ’44 ties in very ironically to the atomic bomb. So if you want to talk about the atomic bomb, we thought that would be the entry point—go back to Wallace, takes us to the bomb story, takes us to the Truman candidacy. And that takes us into the Cold War.
JAY: Alright. Thanks very much for joining us.
STONE: Thank you, Paul.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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