The Untold History of the United States (Book Review)

Cover photo of The Untold History of the United States, young readers editionLast week I wrote about free speech in a democracy and  how Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War may have been a revisionist attempt aimed at changing the dominant historical interpretation at the time.  Just now I finished reading another exercise of free political speech, Oliver Stone’s and Peter Kuznick’s The Untold History of the United States, which also attacks a dominant historical narrative.  The authors tell a story in which 20th century  United States followed a relentless course towards imperialism, dominated by right leaning plutocrats, as opposed to the “history in the textbooks” which frames the US as the heroes, struggling against Nazis, Communists, Islamic terrorists, and other evil bogey-men.

Before proceeding, I should disclose that I read the “young readers” edition of the book, mainly because the original edition was checked out when I went to the library.  While I obviously wasn’t able to compare, it seems that the total page count is about the same, but the young readers version is broken into two volumes and does away with footnotes in favor of additional illustrations.

The book is just as biased as one might expect, given the nature of the project and who the identities of the authors.  Oliver Stone is well known both in and out of Hollywood for his leftist tendencies and fondness for conspiracy theories.  Kuznick is a history professor whose main areas of study are the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and the Cold War.  He is so heavily involved in anti-nuclear activism that it must be hard for him to remain objective when he publishes on these matters.  Still, wishing to avoid succumbing to an intentional fallacy, I tried to clear my mind and judge the book on its own merits, even though it was clearly written to support the authors’ previously developed platforms, rather than in a spirit of true scholarly inquiry.

Oliver Stone at the 2014 International Students for Liberty Conference [photo by Flickr user Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0]

Oliver Stone at the 2014 International Students for Liberty Conference [photo by Flickr user Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0]

Untold History is actually a fairly interesting read.  Other reviewers have pointed out a lack of academic rigor and over-reliance on secondary sources.  I was unable to find any major misstatements of fact, however.  I also think that it is appropriate for a book of such broad scope to draw from secondary sources, especially if it is intended as some sort of “anti-textbook”.  No one does archive research to write a history textbook.  Rather, they synthesize each chapter from several well regarded books by previous authors.

Still, there is no question that the authors picked out the facts that happened to justify their positions.  They also repeatedly ascribe thoughts and motivations to various people which they could not possibly know for certain, one of the classic “tells” of the revisionist.  And they were rather more blatant about it all than Thucydides, for example.  Then again, some of the facts are rather telling, even when picked out in isolation.  Did you know that Henry Ford published an antisemitic newspaper and used to have antisemitic literature translated and shipped to Germany, that most of the army trucks used in the Blitzkrieg were supplied by Ford and GM, or that Hitler kept a picture of Ford in his office?  Did you know that the Japanese were ready to surrender before the US dropped the bomb, provided only that they were given a guarantee of the emperor’s personal safety?  Things to think about, to be sure.

The book was exactly as advertised, and is rather entertaining.    For us writers, it stands as a good example of how not to write history if we want to be taken seriously in the scholarly community.  If, on the other hand, our goal is the sell a documentary series to Showtime, along with a companion book and other merchandising tie-ins, then this is apparently precisely how to do it.  It worked for Stone and Kuznick, anyway.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *