Post WWII Blues: A brief history of the modern world with Oliver Stone

“America did it,” my wife said as she entered the room and found me walking on the treadmill, watching TV.

Not just any TV – Oliver Stone TV.

She knew that I was watching Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States, the provocative film director’s history series on Showtime because, for about six weeks in a row, it was the main starting point of our lunch conversations.

“Did you know that …

  • Democratic Party bosses stole the VP nomination in 1944 from Henry Wallace?
  • The first U.S. Secretary of Defense killed himself by jumping from a building?
  • Screen legend James Cagney had incredibly strong feelings about the Czech leader thrown out of his building?”

And so on. But more on these topics later. Back to my wife’s comment.

When watching real-life murder mystery stories featured on Dateline, 20/20 and 48 Hours Mysteries, we have a routine that involves saying “He/She did it” whenever they first show the main suspect in the case. It’s usually a relative, business partner or former spouse with something to gain from the victim’s demise.

Whether totally engaged with the show or giving it a passing, second-screening glance, the catch-all comment serves to acknowledge the power of the genre and why we keep watching: We know she/he did it, but we need to know the details, especially how and why they did it. (Plus, don’t they ever watch these shows to avoid these mistakes/previous histories?)

The shows are masterfully edited to feature the twists and turns of criminal investigations, but the only suspense revolves around whether there’s enough material to fill one or two hours of prime-time TV. While there are always titillating hints of a surprise witness, mistaken identity involving identical twins or “how to commit the perfect murder” search-engine computer record, odds are good that the attractive woman “forced” to have sex with her captor kidnapped herself; the squeaky-clean pastor had killed before; and the panty-stealing Air Force commander’s cross-dressing double life led to murder.

In other words: He/she did it. They’re all guilty.

Now back to OSTV.

Recent history is fascinating because it’s no longer journalism and it’s not in classroom books yet. And even if it is in the books, semesters only last so long – in high school in the 1980s, we only made it to the start of the Korean War.

In a series preview, Stone said the dearth of coverage in U.S. history books of post-WWII America motivated him to undertake the project. (Note to history teachers at middle schools and high schools across America: While fascinating, this series is not for students below college age. Graphic images of dead bodies are strewn across the screen, from Auschwitz to Saigon. And remember the blurred-out images of the depravity at Abu Ghraib prison? They’re not blurred out in the final episode, which ends with the first Obama Administration.)

There’s a lot to admire about the series, and some fascinating glimpses of what was and might have been, including incredible archival footage and photos of historical figures in unlikely places – Eisenhower and Stalin in 1945, watching a parade from the grandstand in Red Square; Nixon with Castro at the White House in 1959; a gum-chewing President Kennedy, watching a missile test and fighting the Cold War with his Wayfarer coolness.

Speaking of Kennedy, you would’ve thought the director of JFK would have gone to town on the topic of his assassination – especially since he served as the series narrator and head writer. Instead, he shows incredible restraint by not showing the Zapruder images and stating an opinion about Kennedy that everyone can pretty much agree with: “Like Roosevelt, he embodied a grace that forgave much in the new era of television reality.”

Unsung heroes get some attention, including the aforementioned Henry Wallace and Vasili Arkhipov.

Vasili Arkhipov

Vasili Arkhipov

Arkhipov prevented World War III in 1962 by not agreeing with two colleagues to fire nuclear missiles while being depth-charged by U.S. warships off the coast of Cuba during the Missile Crisis. (You’d think Hollywood would make a movie about him, and they did – only not for this incident but about one the year before: K-19: The Widowmakerstarring Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson, and directed by Kathryn Bigelow.)

Wallace was a New Deal idealist and vice president to FDR who was in line to become president. If he had become president, according to Stone, the U.S. would not have dropped atomic bombs on Japan, we wouldn’t have gotten as paranoid and afraid of “the Reds” as quickly as we did after WWII and the military-industrial complex wouldn’t have gotten its hooks into the country like it did.

And this is the part where we get to James Cagney. While weaving his elaborate tapestry of assassinations, coups and paranoia that marked the 20th century, Stone makes two massive missteps that threaten to drain the entire production of credibility.

Jan Masaryk

Why would an American actor be so obsessed by the mysterious death of a Czech leader?

The first involves Cagney, who appears via impassioned voiceover discussing … the mysterious death of Czech leader Jan Masaryk:

Famous actor James Cagney voiced the following explanation of the Western view: “Subversion is of course, an important technique of Communist conquest. Czechoslovakia in 1948 is an established democracy in Eastern Europe. Suddenly a rash of strikes, Conservative elements resign from the capital. But Jan Masaryk, son of the country’s greatest hero, will not go along and remains in the foreign office. Two weeks later, his dead body is discovered. Whether he was murdered or killed himself is not known to this day.”

MLK meets J. Edgar Hoover

One suspects that the word “honky” might have been used in this film.

The second involves a meeting between Martin Luther King and J. Edgar Hoover … as told from a very black-exploitation point of view. (Words fail me, so please see image at right.)

All in all, however, the series made you think, which is what history should do. 

So Stone, ultimately, should be applauded for his courage in producing this entertaining romp through the warfare and pogroms that defined the 20th century. He slams Carter as ineffective; praises the first George Bush, a WWII hero derided as a “wimp” – have you seen Congress lately?; and points out that Obama isn’t as far removed from Reagan as you might think.

I actually looked forward to my weekend dates with the treadmill, so I could hear about all the “hidden history” and conspiracies I didn’t know about from recent times.  To hear the pan flutes (indicating pastoral bliss); to learn that Americans are not as nice as we think we are or have been;  to realize the idealized American Dream from the 1950s has always been just that – a dream. 

To be comforted by the fact that all Stalin ever wanted was peace.

In other words: We did it.

With this, let’s throw it to Mr. James Joyce to close out this post: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

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