Misremembrance of Things Past
Stone’s Untold History in neither untold nor a history.

Director Oliver Stone


Charles C. W. Cooke

This is a good strategy for a startup but hardly a recipe for growth. Because “inside knowledge” is necessary for its cachet, the proctors of “untold” history are forced to hand out new Believe It Or Not! facts in order to continue their posturing. And, scraping the barrel as he is, Stone fails in this spectacularly. Essentially, An Untold History . . . is a reworking of existing historical revisionism that is punctuated by some silly new twists. For example, in an interview conducted while promoting his series, Stone told the Associated Press:

Very few people know about how strong the English empire was going into World War II. Roosevelt had a suspicion of the English empire and he was trying to balance the Soviet interests with American interests as well as British interests. He didn’t want to be taken for a ride and save England to have England re-colonize the world, which is what they did.

Neither of these things is true. Anyone in 1939 who was able simultaneously to read a map and to determine which of its colors was pink was keenly aware that the British Empire was at its historical zenith. And, providing that the war didn’t cost them this pair of skills, they were also able to see that its size and influence declined extremely quickly after the conflict concluded. England “re-colonizing the world” after 1945 was, alas, reserved to the British imagination. (More pedantically, no one serious has called it the “English Empire” since 1707.)


When Stone is not being silly, he is being simplistic. He expects us to see evil American hands behind every Bad Thing in history, including the crimes of others. Michael Moynihan’s masterful takedown of An Untold History on the Daily Beast shows just how childish — and depraved — Stone’s conclusions are. Why, say, did the Soviet Union invade Afghanistan in 1979? Because Jimmy Carter and his national-security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, “set the trap for the Russians in Afghanistan.” Why did the Americans contrive the Marshall Plan? To provoke the Soviets, whose obnoxious behavior, incidentally, can be easily explained by legitimate “fears of both a rearmed Germany and capitalist encirclement.” The Soviet blockade of Berlin, you see, was contrived by the United States, and the Soviet Union’s gross abuse of its own people was merely the product of necessary “breakneck industrialization” undertaken in the pursuit of the “greatest human experiment undertaken.” Another: Why did Stalin form an alliance with Nazi Germany, and brutally occupy much of Eastern Europe? Because America refused to help the Soviet Union in the face of the Nazi threat in the late 1930s. As Moynihan catalogs, An Untold History of the United States goes on and on like this until we can answer every posed question with, “Let me guess, is it America’s fault again?”

The historian Eric Foner once wrote that Zinn’s “account tended toward the Manichean” and to “an oversimplified narrative of the battle between the forces of light and dark.” Stone’s account is guilty of the same charge, although he throws in his trademark conspiracy theories for good measure. For Zinn, America was explained by an “American system that . . . serves the interests of a wealthy elite, but also does enough for small-property owners, for middle-income mechanics and farmers, to build a broad base of support.” For Stone, America’s modern history can be explained by consulting the minutes of the Bilderberg group. Ultimately, for both Zinn and Stone, the world’s problems are an issue for the human-resources department to resolve. Find a new set of managers, they seem to be saying, and everything will start working out nicely.

This simplistic tendency will undoubtedly raise conservative hackles. The foundational premise of the conservative worldview is that we cannot achieve a perfect world. Why? Well, partly because we do not possess the capacity to perfect it — however great our leaders — and partly because, as Yogi Berra observed, “if the world was perfect, it wouldn’t be.” Most of us on the right of the spectrum are dismissive of Zinnism less because we dislike the stories that they tell and more because we are loath to believe either that American history could realistically have been made perfect or that the government can act flawlessly behind the scenes when it is so obviously incompetent in public. Are we to buy, say, the theory that the Cold War as we know it was one big, flawless American behind-the-scenes project when we know that a president couldn’t even break into a hotel room and get away with it? I think not.

Stone, likewise, expects his viewers to look at his account of the 20th century and conclude that their previous understanding of History is the product of a false consciousness into which shadow puppeteers have lulled them. Here, again, he runs into trouble. In A Brief History, Zinn argued that “the memory of oppressed people is one thing that cannot be taken away,” and that there is “a profound conflict of interest between the people and the government of the United States.” But he then went on to complain that the people are “passive acceptors of the official doctrine that’s handed down to them” via “pledges of allegiance, national anthems, flags waving and rhetoric blowing.” This philosophy, which Stone appears to share, might be condensed as “The People are idiots. Long live the People!”

To watch Stone’s documentary series is to watch a man convinced that he has somehow stumbled upon a historical truth that has eluded everybody else — a historical truth that, amazingly enough, fits with his worldview and with his hopes for future change. Howard Zinn was famous for his total lack of pretense at impartiality. “Why should we cherish objectivity?” he once asked, adding that History was not about “understanding the past,” but rather about “changing the future.” With his series, Oliver Stone has proven himself the rightful heir to Zinn’s approach. Television viewers should elect to change their present — by watching something else.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This article has been amended since its initial publication. I mistakenly neglected to attribute the excerpts in the eleventh paragraph to Michael Moynihan, who collected them in his November 19 Daily Beast piece on Stone. I apologize to Michael Moynihan.