The only downside of coming to America for ten days is that I’ve had to leave behind Oliver Stone & Peter Kuznick’s book The Untold History of the United States. Not because they’d impound me on crossing the border, though that seems conceivable, but because it’s a mammoth doorstop of a thing, if mammoths can be said to have doorstops (paleontologists are divided on the subject).

I’m highly skeptical of Stone as a filmmaker. His screenwriting produced three films accused of racism — MIDNIGHT EXPRESS (Turks); YEAR OF THE DRAGON (Chinese-Americans); SCARFACE (Cubans); it’s possible CONAN THE BARBARIAN was picketed by a few outraged Cimmerians. Of course screenwriters can’t be accused of responsibility for anything in their movies because they have no authority about what goes in ’em. Robin Wood accused Paul Schrader of fascism based on his extensive writing output but I don’t think anything he’s directed really supports that, though Wood made a case for AMERICAN GIGOLO’s homophobic tendencies.)

Shadowplayer David WIngrove is an admirer of SEIZURE, but I’ve only seen the preposterous THE HAND from this period (come to think of it, the Michael Caine character who is so outraged that his barbarian cartoons are being rewritten after his hand is implausibly knocked off by a truck [true!] must be channeling Stone’s rage at getting rewritten by John Milius on CONAN — though he managed to get his response into cinemas a year ahead of Milius’s stimulus).

Then I thought SALVADOR was terrific and highly relevant, but was underwhelmed by PLATOON and since then have only sort-of liked anything from Stone. NATURAL BORN KILLERS has a compelling audio-visual style but is one of the more morally repellent films I’ve seen: though John Grisham’s attempted lawsuit against it was moronic, Stone’s film seems to invite such a reaction.

But I got stuck into Stone’s new book on the recommendation of (clunk of name-drop) Richard Lester, who had seen the TV series and pronounced it “brilliant” a word he does not use lightly (well, he never applied it to me). “I don’t know how he hasn’t been arrested for it.” The good news for non-Stone fans is that probably co-author Kuznick can be credited with the blinding insights, with Stone in charge of presenting them clearly in a way that works for an audience who may know only a little, or else quite a lot of misinformation, about the subject.

I’ve still to check out the TV show — only way seems to be to buy it so I’m waiting for payday — but I’m now fascinated to see what Stone does with it visually. The basic gist of the thing, chapter by chapter, is to present a contrary view to how large chunks of modern US history are understood. This is less the case in (skipping ahead) chapters about the last two presidents, but it’s certainly the case where the authors revisit world war two and the start of the cold war, a part of the book which presents Henry A. Wallace, a largely forgotten vice president, as the hero who could have changed the course of history for the better if democracy had been allowed to triumph over vested interests.

The book is at times heart-breaking, because we’re told that Hiroshima & Nagasaki, and then the cold war, were not in fact necessary. To give you just a small sense of the book, I want to talk about the bomb — because this chapter has haunted me since I read it.

I’d always swallowed the terms of the argument, if not the argument itself, you see. There’s something very compelling about the moral conundrum we’re told faced Truman: invade Japan and face severe casualties from US troops, or drop the bomb and cause many civilian casualties. The obscenity of war means a commander-in-chief is forced to weigh up the lives of friendly combatants versus enemy civilians, and how are you supposed to calculate that.

But this whole argument is academic and irrelevant here because that’s not what happened. George W.H. Bush once credited the atomic bombings with saving “millions of lives.” But the figure Truman claimed was “just” a quarter of a million. And he was lying too — he was provided with all sorts of contradictory figures (how can you be sure anyway?) but the highest was nowhere near that and the lowest was just three thousand.

But playing that game is still assuming that the choice came down to nuking or invasion. In fact, Japan was ready to surrender: they had been putting out feelers to the USSR, in hopes that Stalin could broker a more favourable peace. They were terrified that the “unconditional surrender” Roosevelt had spoken of meant they could lose their emperor. A lot of advisers were telling Truman that a clarification of the terms of surrender could have provoked an immediate favorable response.

Hiroshima did not prompt a surrender because the situation with Emperor Hirohito remained unclear. The Japanese already knew we could bombs cities out of existence since we’d done that to Tokyo, What probably prompted them to down arms was the USSR launching an invasion against them — this caught them between two super-powers, and meant they could abandon all hope of help from that direction. But before they could even respond to this attack, Nagasaki was bombed.

The argument is made, and it convinces, that America wanted to avoid the USSR making territorial gains in the East, and earning economic aid that had been promised for its participation in the war on Japan. Furthermore, General Groves, who oversaw the Manhattan project, was quite clear in his own mind that the goal of the bomb drops was not to affect Japan, but to affect the Soviet Union. The impact of using the atomic bomb would obviously far greater than the impact of merely possessing it — Japan was the USA’s last opportunity to show itself willing to annihilate a whole city with a single weapon.

If you have any more doubts about this, a direct quote from Truman may help allay them: he said that his announcement of the dropping of the bomb was the “happiest” he ever made.

Highly recommended stuff. I’ll be checking out the series.

7 Responses to “Untold/Unheard”

  1. As for yours truly and Stone, “Google” my name and Stone’s “JFK”

    On a happier note IT’S TUSDAY WELD’S BIRTHDAY!

    The immortal Goddess is 70, so rush out and buy her a cashmere sweater

  2. I like that her birthday falls on a Tuesday this year.Somebody planned that well.

    Thanks, Flav, I was hoping to read some critique. It’s clear that Stone and Kuznick are selective, because historians have to be, but I was curious as to what their grounds for selection were. I get the impression that Kuznick is the brains of the outfit — Stone has his sharp moments but also seems a little chaotic in interviews… I’ll read the piece with interest.

  3. The thing about the bombs is that America had to drop it and come out looking like heroes, if only to have a higher moral ground in the eyes of their constituency and supporters. For me the dilemma of trading one pile of corpses for another has never struck me as particularly compelling. That said, a lot of smart people did buy this justification, including Samuel Fuller(in his autobiography) though he does qualify it a bit.

    To me, it strikes me as opportunism. Truman and his advisers found a legal(if not moral) window to make use of nuclear weapons with a fairly decent PR spin and they used it, setting a precedent for offensive nuclear weapons. After all what’s to stop other people using this justification, of comparatively smaller loss of lives over prolonged more deadly war.

  4. A lot of American generals — I think the majority of them — were against the use of the bomb, which suggests the purpose was political more than military.

    Ilentz’s critique is… sort of fair… but he doesn’t really score any major points or identify any inaccuracies, and he does accuse Stone of undersourcing a claim, which he then offers a counterclaim for… without offering ANY relevant sources.

  5. david wingrove Says:

    And people say that SEIZURE is an over-the-top horror fantasy?

    While the Nazis attempted to hide their mass murder from the eyes of the world, the Americans (led by Truman) carried theirs out in full view for maximum PR potential. If the majority of generals were opposed to using the bomb (something I didn’t know) that only shows that – for all the innate violence of their profession – most soldiers are far more decent and humane than most politicians. Bush and Blair are the latest loathsome example. Soon to be followed, perhaps, by Cameron and Obama…

  6. Soldiers at least see the consequences of their decisions first-hand, something politicians can easily avoid.
    Oppenheimer: Mr President, I feel I have blood on my hands!
    Truman: No, it’s on MY hands.
    Truman to aid: I don’t want to see that man again.

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