The first thing Hollywood director Oliver Stone says to me is, “Eat,” gesturing to a coffee table heaving with brownies, tiny pastries and the sort of exotic fruit you’d expect to find in a trendy Soho hotel. The next thing he says is, “We’ve checked you out.” I arch my eyebrows in mock horror and laugh nervously. “Did I pass?” He nods, smiles lazily and makes a reference to the fact that I was once a BBC correspondent in Eastern Europe in the wake of the revolutions of 1989. I guess this means he thinks I’m a serious journalist rather than a showbiz one. Mr Stone is very serious about his latest project.
Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States is a ten-part TV series (12 parts in the DVD box set) with an accompanying 700-page book, which examines the dark side of US foreign policy through the 20th century right up until the present. It’s been called Oliver Stone’s Untold History... because he is the narrator as well as the director. But the writing was shared (as reflected on the book’s cover) with American historian Peter Kuznick who is also present at our interview.
I’ve only seen the first three episodes, which cover America’s involvement in the Second World War and culminate with the dropping of the atom bomb on Japan. It reminded me of watching the ITV series The World at War with my parents back in the 1970s. When I say this to Stone, he looks thrilled. “I watched that several times in the run-up to making my show,” he says enthusiastically. “It was a model for me.” He later adds that the producer Jeremy Isaacs took a very anti-Soviet point of view, which he doesn’t share.
Stone says the trigger for making Untold History of the United States was eight years of George W Bush as President. “It was a nightmare and I felt very strongly that my films were not enough.” He was making W at the time, the third film in a trilogy about the Presidency, starting with JFK and then with Nixon. “I wanted to do something for my children.”
Kuznick chips in at this point to say that Bush’s America “was a nightmarish revisiting of the Vietnam War, an era we believed was behind us. We felt that all the lessons of Oliver’s films, of my books and my teaching were forgotten.” In other words Americans must be reminded of their history otherwise they’re doomed to repeat their mistakes. “We wanted to show that Bush was not an aberration,” adds Stone, “but a culmination of US policy dating back to the Second World War.”
Oliver Stone’s own father was a conservative Republican. Like a lot of Americans, the young Oliver grew up being told Americans were the good guys, a morally superior nation who would lead the rest of the world by example. A spell as an infantry soldier fighting in Vietnam followed by the Watergate scandal soon changed his mind. “Up until the mid 70s, I was sleepwalking. I never questioned America, I never questioned the Bomb.” He says he educated himself by making movies such as Salvador, JFK and his Oscar-winning Born on the Fourth of July.
Stone and Kuznick first met in the mid-1990s when the history professor was teaching a course on historical interpretation entitled “Oliver Stone’s America”. The idea was to contrast Stone’s movies and his version of events with historical works the students would be reading. Stone came to talk to Kuznick’s class and at dinner afterwards the professor suggested that his next film should be about Henry Wallace, a left-wing Democrat who very nearly became President in 1945 instead of Harry Truman.
The Wallace biopic never got made; instead, the idea evolved into the TV series in which Wallace’s story is a central narrative. In Untold History, Stone and Kuznick argue that, had Wallace become President instead of Truman, it would have changed the course of post-war history; there would have been no atom bombs dropped on Japan, no nuclear arms race and no Cold War.
The argument runs like this: Truman didn’t need to drop the bomb on Japan because, by August 1945, Japan was all but defeated. He did it because he wanted to intimidate Stalin. Wallace, on the other hand, would not have dropped the bomb. Instead, he advocated sharing the know-how with the Soviet Union in order to avoid an arms race.
For Oliver Stone, the moment America dropped the atom bomb was the moment it crossed the Rubicon. At that point the United States lost its moral authority and stopped being “the good guy”. Instead – to quote Stone and Kuznick’s book – it became a huge military, industrial power, “an empire with bases in every region of the globe... spending as much on defence as the rest of the world combined.”
Stone claims that most Americans don’t know that Russia bore the brunt of the Second World War. “We overlook the fact that the Soviet Union lost 27 million people.” His critics accuse him of being soft on Stalin but he looks weary when I bring this up. “Look, Stalin was horrible, he was a tyrant. We don’t downplay his atrocities, but Americans like to forget that the Russians defeated Nazi Germany on the battlefield, not the United States.” He tails off before Kuznick jumps in to finish the argument: “Stalin was looking forward to a peaceful collaboration with the US after the war. Had Roosevelt lived or Wallace become President, he would have got that.”
They’re keen to stress that the series has been “fact-checked” three times over, first by Kuznick’s PhD students, then by cable network Showtime who commissioned it and then CBS who own Showtime. “There are a lot of people out there who want to catch us out,” says Kuznick. He tells me that they had to make some small cuts to the British edition because of our strict libel laws. Apparently, they can say things about Henry Kissinger in America that you can’t say here.
I thought Stone would find facts constraining after a career making feature films, but not a bit of it. He says the process of making a ten-part documentary series was liberating because he could put everything into a broader geo-political context instead of being hemmed in by one specific narrative.
He says another reason why he made the series is to escape what he calls “the Tyranny of Now”, by which he means the deluge of information delivered by 24-hour news. “Turn on the BBC and there’s a load of detail about people being killed in Syria but there is no context, there’s no history and so we don’t understand why it’s happening.”
Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States goes right up to the present day, ending with Obama’s re-election. I ask them what they think of Hilary Clinton running for President next. Stone laughs dismissively: “I dread Hilary Clinton running as much as I dread the return of smallpox.” When I look a little stunned, Kuznick explains that she backed the invasion of Iraq and has been a hawkish presence in the Obama administration.
As the PR motions to us to wind up, Stone once again asks her to make sure I get the other episodes in the series. “I want you to take the whole box set, go to a country cottage with your husband, watch all of them in one go and then make passionate love.”
I look up from my notebook to see if he’s joking. He’s not.
Oliver Stone's Untold History of the United States starts on Friday 19 April at 9:00pm on Sky Atlantic